Category Archives: time

What makes my week satisfying?

It makes sense to reflect on time in week-long chunks instead of day by day. A span of 24 hours is dominated by sleep and childcare, but over the 168 hours of a week, I might have enough discretionary time to feel more balanced.

What makes a week satisfying? How can I prepare so that I can enjoy satisfying weeks more often?

Enough rest to engage A- with energy and responsiveness
Mostly this is about being in tune with myself and understanding my energy levels, so I can make better decisions about staying up late or being on my phone while A- nurses. It’s also good to not be distracted by other needs or desires, so I can be more present.
A couple of walks and baby activities
I prefer to stay home when it’s cold and windy, which is okay. When the weather is mild, we usually go to neighbourhood centres so that A- can play with different toys and be around other people. As the weather warms up and A- grows, we’ll expand our range.
Little stories to share with W-, especially involving close observation
Helped by energy and rest. Can encourage this by planning activities as well as following A-‘s interests. This will get even better as A- grows, of course.
Contributions to household maintenance
Sometimes cooking, if I can pull it off while W- is around. Might be better to focus on cleaning and groceries, though, since those fit better into our current routines.
Relaxed conversations with W- during evening playtime with A-
Helped by stories and finished chores.
An updated journal and weekly review
Caught up every couple of days, if needed. Helped by text notes and by doing interesting things.
Emacs News posted
Monday or Tuesday discretionary time. Pretty straightforward, but I need to spend about 45 minutes of computer time on it.
Yummy food, no mealtime scrambling
Could use a little work here. We’ll probably make this smoother as we figure out a new rhythm, especially with batch cooking.
A little consulting that helps my clients a lot
Helped by having well-defined, useful, tiny chunks. Best done late at night, maybe sleeping in a bit the next day.
Thinking through stuff using my phone, not just reading social media updates
The payoff for reading social media is mostly chatting with W- about tidbits, occasionally interacting, and sometimes hearing about interesting things. Not that much, so I don’t have to scroll down the feeds looking for more. Writing is better for me, although I sometimes get stuck if I haven’t balanced it with some discretionary time for doing things. There’s always more to write and plan, though.
Maybe even a couple of blog posts, a bit of code, or a small improvement
Helped by thinking on my phone and by having clear, motivating questions.
Stretching
Helped by doing the routine together with W-.

Last week was a satisfying week. If I put some thought into it, I might be able to have even more of them. :) Some things are outside my control, but I can probably stack the deck. Hmm…

More thoughts on the timing of discretionary time

W- is thinking of shifting his discretionary time for side projects to early morning, before he heads out to work. That way, he can tackle it with more energy and enjoy making steady progress. I’ve been planning for my discretionary time in the evening, after A- goes to bed. It might be nice to experiment with setting an early alarm and staying in sync with W-. I’ve tried one-offs here and there and A- generally ended up waking along with me, so I didn’t get time for other things. If I do it consistently, though, she’ll probably shift her bedtime earlier.

The main thing that gets shifted around on my end is the journal, since that’s natural to do at the end of the day. The quick notes I take on my phone will probably be enough, though. Alternatively, I could split it up: sleep after my journal, and then wake up and so other things.

So, how can I ease into this? If I prioritize sleeping during her naps for a couple of days, that should make it easier to wake up early. A- will adjust her own naps based on her energy. This is a good time to try it, anyway – no major appointments coming up, so we can adjust as needed. I think W- wanted to start being up by 5 or even earlier. Bonus: electricity is cheaper.

We’ll see if A-‘s okay with my slipping away early in the morning. If not, maybe I’ll find my discretionary time somewhere else in the day. No worries! I’d like at least enough time for my journal and for Emacs News, so that’s about half an hour to an hour. Interruptible and can be deferred a day or two, so the time is pretty easy to find. Most of the other things can wait if need. The next big chunk is probably filing our personal taxes some time in March or April, but I should be able to find enough focused time in that period. Who knows, maybe A-‘s sleep patterns will have changed by then. We’ll see!

A reflection on leisure and discretionary time

I’m coming up to the 4-year mark of this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement. The start of the final year might even neatly coincide with the next substantial change I’ve been planning. I’ve been very lucky to have had this opportunity to explore, and it’s a good opportunity to reflect on self-direction and leisure.

This past year has been a little like the openness of my final year of university, when my habit of taking summer courses freed up half the typical academic load for the schoolyear and I had plenty of time to explore open source development. This time, I had even more autonomy. No exams to study for, no projects to submit; just choices.

I’m learning that my physical state strongly influences my mental state, which then strongly influences how I use my time and how I feel about that use. If I’m tired or fuzzy-brained, I won’t get a lot done. I’ve learned to make better use of fuzzy-brained times by keeping a list of small tasks I can do, like housework. I invest some of my alert time in building the systems and processes to help me when I’m fuzzy-brained, too. Long-term, I’m probably well-served by investing more time in health. I’ll rest when I need to. Beyond that, if my mind’s not as active or as energetic as I’d like, there’s always working on my energy.

I feel particularly good when I use my discretionary time to:

  • contribute to the Emacs community by organizing resources, writing code or posts, answering questions, and experimenting with ideas
  • build tools for myself (interfaces, scripts, etc.), especially if I can learn more about libraries or frameworks
  • dig deeper into thoughts through a combination of drawing and writing
  • sew something, especially if I end up using it a lot
  • research, plan, and take notes
  • work on other skills
  • watch or read something informative/interesting/useful, particularly if it’s practical or skill-related

I feel good when I:

  • declutter, organize, document, and/or improve our routines, files, and other resources
  • cook something yummy (mostly focusing on familiar recipes at the moment, but I’m looking forward to exploring more)
  • play video games with W-, especially when we pick up new in-jokes or when we pull off neat tricks when beating the enemies
  • keep the household running
  • go for a long walk, especially with a useful destination and an interesting podcast to listen to or a question to think about
  • stretch a little or do whatever exercises I can
  • watch a good movie with W-, especially when it results in more in-jokes or an appreciation of how the movie is put together

On the other hand, I feel like time’s just passing when I:

  • write, but not end up posting my notes (although it’s a little bit better if I organize them for later review)
  • read casually, without a particular application or goal: books, e-books, the Internet
  • play games, especially if there’s not much sense of progress

I’ve come to enjoy a lot of different kinds of discretionary time. I think I don’t need a lot of pure leisure, at least not the vegging-out kind. I definitely like having a lot of discretionary time – to be able to choose what to do when – but even the things we do for day-to-day living can be enjoyable.

I will probably have less absolute time for leisure and less control of my time in general, but I think I’ll be okay. Because of this experiment, I’ve been learning that time probably isn’t my limiting factor when it comes to things like writing or learning or making things. It’s probably more about curiosity, observation, motivation, and experience, and those are things that I can develop through the years.

Related:

Thoughts about time

A friend sent me a link to “Your Life in Weeks”, which got me thinking about my changing attitude towards time and ambition. Here were the key points I picked up from the blog post:

  • It’s good to be aware of the passage of time and how limited it is.
  • Measuring your life against famous people’s accomplishments or lifetimes can be eye-opening.
  • You should ideally spend your time doing things that improve your future or the lives of others and that you enjoy. Utility without pleasure or pleasure without utility is okay but not great. Don’t waste your time doing things that are neither useful nor pleasant.
  • Every week can be a fresh start.

I agree with some aspects of these points. I can remember being the sort of person who agreed more, and that’s interesting for me – tracking the changes in my attitude towards time.

2015-07-27a Thinking about time and role models -- index card #time

2015-07-27a Thinking about time and role models – index card #time

I can remember a time when I kept an eye out for the milestones by which other people had achieved a lot: the youngest people who did X/Y/Z, the lists of thirty under thirty, the stats in math and physics of early achievement and momentum.

I moved on from that in my late teens or so, when I realized people used stories like that to beat themselves up, give up, or push themselves to an unhealthy pace. I wanted to find something to tell people who told me, “Wow, you’re so young and you’re already good at computers! I could never do something like that.” For myself, I saw the kinds of lives people sketched out for people who had “high potential,” and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted them. Instead of those stories of young CEOs and world-changers, I resonated more with attention to those who continued achieving later in life, or even started late, like Grandma Moses taking up painting at 78. I liked the stories those lives could help me tell to people who felt they missed the boat. I liked the stories of deep interest, like Isaac Asimov’s decades of writing, and how those stories illuminated the possibilities. I liked examples of older people continuing to engage, like Benjamin Zander.

The books and magazines and newspapers I read were filled with stories of mainstream success, but I found myself more curious about people who had thoughtfully explored alternatives. I liked discussions of frugality and deliberate consumption more than luxury and excess. I liked communities around lifelong learning, experimentation, and early retirement.

2015-07-24a How do I want to feel about time -- index card #time #pace

2015-07-24a How do I want to feel about time – index card #time #pace

One of the things I picked up from looking at other people’s lives was the possibility that you could feel time as abundant instead of scarce – not so plentiful as to be wasted, but enough for the important things in life. Life didn’t have to be a rat race or a hurried rush from one thing or another. I didn’t have to do everything. I didn’t have to have it all. I could do what I can and enjoy where I was.

Still, I was curious about acceleration. I periodically experimented with the productivity techniques that other people liked: making lists of goals, plotting out timelines, looking for ways to accelerate. I found that committing to an artificial deadline or target date to a goal didn’t really resonate with me. I decided not to be my own taskmaster, trusting instead in my shifting evaluations and priorities. I’m nowhere near where my far-past self might have guessed I’d be, but I like where I am. I’m somewhere my far-past self couldn’t even have imagined.

I hadn’t come across Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life until a few years ago, but when I did, I found it in things that I had come to believe about my own life. “It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.”

What does it mean to invest it well, though? I remember occasionally measuring my life against the estimate of my remaining days, tallying up what I had done and what I wanted to do. I felt the passing of time in the days and the months. I remember observing the differences in familiar people and in the world around me: my parents’ graying hair, my friends’ lifestages, the shifts in technologies. Back to the tick-tock. I think one of the reasons I’ve found it so easy to keep a weekly/monthly/yearly review (and now a daily journal) is that I don’t want to wake up one day and wonder where all those years went, as people often do.

Something has shifted in my perspective, though. I’m not sure what caused it. Maybe philosophy has helped me let go of the worry about making sure I live a life of great significance. I don’t need to be in history books. I can focus on living life well, and other people can decide how much they want to take from it. Maybe this equanimity had something to do with the day-to-day focus of my current phase. These days, I’m mostly focused on being when I am – not trying to fast-forward or rewind, but rather seeing and making the most of now.

I still want to make something of my life. I want to leave behind notes, tools, and ideas that will make it easier for other people to go a little farther or a little faster. I’ve felt that way for as long as I can remember. It feels a little different now, though. Instead of worrying that I’ll fail or that I’ll choose the wrong path, I know I can keep building and exploring, and that the benefits will grow and grow.

Experimenting with spending more time at Hacklab

This week I experimented with making Hacklab my default location. I biked there on Monday and Tuesday because the weather was good, and I took the subway on Friday because I wasn’t sure about the forecast for rain.

On Monday, I laser-cut pieces for the simple tops that I’ve been sewing. I’ve been skipping the pleat, since it doesn’t make any difference to the fit of the garment and skipping it makes the top easier and faster to sew. The pattern fits the laser cutter if I cut it on a fold, and I can cut registration marks on a sheet of paper to make aligning that fold easier. I cut the pieces for one top out of the peach broadcloth that I’d salvaged from my box cushion prototype. (Waste not, want not!) I cut the pieces for another top from a black gingham check that I wanted to experiment with, since it’s supposed to be one of this season’s trendy patterns. I was delighted to find that the laser-cut pieces actually matched up – not just in terms of the notches (which I can take credit for), but even in terms of the pattern. (Probably more coincidence than skill.)

I didn’t pay attention to the direction of the gingham check because I assumed the stripes were the same visual weight. It turns out one direction is a bit heavier than the other, so now my shirt has horizontal stripes when it looks like most of the commercial gingham shirts I’ve seen had dominant stripes (if any) running vertically… Ah well! I cut bias strips and wrappers for another experiment out of my excess yardage, so I don’t think I have quite enough left to make a new shirt. I’ll finish and wear what I have. If I decide it’s worth doing another gingham thing, I might be able to get half a yard and do another one.

On Tuesday, I came early so that I could get some bread dough rising while I went for a massage. (Knead and be kneaded?) That worked out well, and we had some lovely crusty bread for the open house dinner. Eric and I also checked out this community garden in the neighbourhood. Our chances of getting a plot are probably pretty low (long waiting lists), but apparently they have a small herb area that could use more volunteers, so we might give that a try. Alternatively, Alex says it’s okay for us to set out planters in the back, and he even has an automated watering system. It would be great to grow lots of basil and other herbs for cooking.

Today I went to Hacklab to talk to a friend. Since I was in the area anyway, I also took the opportunity to pick up some bamboo fabric from Designer Fabrics so that I can look into making a pair of yoga pants.

I wanted to laser-cut the bias strips for the gingham check. I thought about using the 10″ square continuous method, but I settled for making long bias strips instead so that I could fit an extra square in there for another project I’m working on. While I was sorting that out, Alex came in with a MIDI keyboard, a laptop, and a projector. He proceeded to set it up to project the keyboard training program onto the keyboard itself, which was really nifty. We had fun playing around with different pieces.

Mmm. I like this. Going to Hacklab nudges me a little more towards making stuff and talking to people, I think. Let me see what next week is like. On the flipside, it means less time at home and less time preparing meals, but if I leave Hacklab earlier and I plan what to cook, I can probably still have that in place by the time everyone’s ready for dinner.

On another note, Designer Fabrics didn’t have any polyurethane laminate (PUL – waterproof, breathable, washable in hot water; often used for diapers, but good for general waterproofing and even making food-safe lunch bags and other containers). Fabricland has some, but it’s a bit pricy at $33/m. It seems people tend to order that online, so I might give online shopping a try.

When you feel like you’re spending a lot of time on low-impact activities

Alan Lin asked:

One issue I have is prioritization. I sometimes find myself spending a lot of time on low-impact activities. How do you tackle this in your life? What’s the most important thing you’re working on right now?

It’s easy to feel that most of your time is taken up with trivial things. There’s taking care of yourself and the household. There are endless tasks to check off to-do lists. There’s paperwork and overhead. Sometimes it feels like you’re making very little progress.

Here are some things I’ve learned that help me with that feeling:

  1. Understand and embrace your constraints.
  2. Lay the groundwork for action by understanding yourself.
  3. Act in tune with yourself.
  4. Accumulate gradual progress.

1. UNDERSTAND AND EMBRACE YOUR CONSTRAINTS

Many productivity and time management books seem to have the mindset where your Real Work is what matters and the rest of your life is what gets in the way. Sometimes it feels like the goal is to be able to work a clear, focused 60-hour or 120-hour week, to squeeze out every last bit of productivity from every last moment.

For me, the unproductive time that I spend snuggling with W- or the cats – that’s Real Life right there, for me, and I’m often all too aware of how short life is. The low-impact stuff is what grounds me and makes me human. As Richard Styrman points out in this comment, if other people can focus for longer, it’s because the rest of their lives don’t pull on them as much. I like the things that pull on me.

Instead of fighting your constraints, understand and embrace them. You can tweak them later, but when you make plans or evaluate yourself, do so with a realistic acceptance of the different things that pull on you. Know where you’re starting from. Then you can review commitments, get rid of ones that you’ve been keeping by default, and reaffirm the ones that you do care about. You might even find creative ways to meet your commitments with less time or effort. In any case, knowing your constraints and connecting them to the commitments behind them will make it it easier to remember and appreciate the reason why you spend time on these things.

One of my favourite ways of understanding constraints is to actually track them. Let’s look at time, for example. I know I spend a lot of my time on the general running of things. A quick summary from my time-tracking gives me this breakdown of the 744 hours in Oct 2014, a fairly typical month:

Hours Activity
255.0 sleep
126.3 consulting, because it helps me make a difference and build skills
91.9 doing other business-related things
80.5 chores and other unpaid work
86.2 taking care of myself
38.3 playing, relaxing
30.4 family-related stuff
12.6 socializing
10.3 writing, because it helps me learn and connect with great people
7.4 working on Emacs, because it helps me learn and connect with great people
1.5 gardening
1.0 reading
0.5 tracking
1.7 woodworking

Assuming that my consulting, writing, and working on Emacs are the activities that have some impact on the wider world, that’s 144 hours out of 744, or about 19% of all the time I have. This is roughly 4.5 hours a day. (And that’s a generous assumption – many of the things I write are personal reflections of uncertain value to other people.)

Even with tons of control over my schedule, I also spend lots of time on low-impact activities. And this is okay. I’m fine with that. I don’t need to turn into a value-creating machine entirely devoted to the pursuit of one clear goal. I don’t think I even can. It works for other people, but not for me. I like the time I spend cooking and helping out around the house. I like the time I spend playing with interesting ideas. I like the pace I keep.

So I’m going to start with the assumption that this is the time that I can work with instead of being frustrated with the other things that fill my life.

An average of 4.5 hours a day is a lot, even if it’s broken up into bits and pieces. It’s enough time for me to write a deep reflection, sketch one or two books, work on some code… And day after day, if I add those hours up, that can become something interesting. Of course, it would probably add up to something more impressive if I picked one thing and focused on that. But I tend to enjoy a variety of interests, so I might as well work with that instead of against it, and sometimes the combinations can be fascinating.

Accepting your constraints doesn’t mean being locked into them. You can still tweak things. For example, I experiment with time-saving techniques like bulk-cooking. But starting from the perspective of accepting your limits lets you plan more realistically and minimize frustration, which means you don’t have to waste energy on beating yourself up for not being superhuman. Know what you can work with, and work with that.

You might consider tracking your time for a week to see where your time really goes. You can track your time with pen and paper, a spreadsheet, or freely-available tools for smartphones. The important part is to track your time as you use it instead of relying on memory or perception. Our minds lie to us about constraints, often exaggerating what we’re dealing with. Collect data and find out.

2. LAY THE GROUNDWORK FOR ACTION BY UNDERSTANDING YOURSELF

When I review my constraints and commitments, I often ask myself: “Why did I commit to this? Why is this my choice?” This understanding helps me appreciate those constraints and come up with good ways to work within them.

My ideal is to almost always work on whatever I feel like working on. This sounds like a recipe for procrastination, an easy way for near-term pleasurable tasks to crowd out important but tedious ones. That’s where preparing my mind can make a big difference. If I can prepare a list of good things to do that’s in tune with my values, then I can easily choose from that list.

Here are some questions that help me prepare:

  • Why do I feel like doing various things? Is there an underlying cause or unmet need that I can address? Am I avoiding something because I don’t understand it or myself well enough? Do I only think that I want something, or do I really want it? I do a lot of this thinking and planning throughout my life, so that when those awesome hours come when everything’s lined up and I’m ready to make something, I can just go and do it.
  • Can I deliberately direct my awareness in order to change how I feel about things by emphasizing positive aspects or de-emphasizing negative ones? What can I enjoy about the things that are good for me? What can I dislike about the things that are bad for me?
  • What can I do now to make things better later? How can I take advantage of those moments when I’m focused and everything comes together? How can I make better use of normal moments? How can I make better use of the gray times too, when I’m feeling bleah?
  • How can I slowly accumulate value? How can I scale up by making things available?

I think a lot about why I want to do something, because there are often many different paths that can lead to the same results. If I catch myself procrastinating a task again and again, I ask myself if I can get rid of the task or if I can get someone else to do it. If I really need to do it myself, maybe I can transform the task into something more enjoyable. If I find myself drawn to some other task instead, I ask myself why, and I learn a little more about myself in the process.

I plan for small steps, not big leaps. Small steps sneak under my threshold for intimidation – it’s easier to find time and energy for a 15-minute task than for a 5-day slog.

I don’t worry about whether I’m working on Important things. Instead, I try to keep a list full of small, good things that take me a little bit forward. Even if I proceed at my current pace–for example, accumulating a blog post a day–in twenty years, I’ll probably be somewhere interesting.

In addition to the mental work of understanding yourself and shifting your perceptions by paying deliberate attention, it’s also good to prepare other things that can help you make the most of high-energy, high-concentration times. For example, even when I don’t feel very creative, I can still read books and outline ideas in preparation for writing. I sketch screens and plan features when I don’t feel like programming. You can probably find lots of ways you can prepare so that you can work more effectively when you want to.

2014-12-03 Motivation and understanding 3. ACT IN TUNE WITH YOURSELF

For many people, motivation seems to be about forcing yourself to do something that you had previously decided was important.

If you’ve laid the groundwork from step 2, however, you probably have a list of many good things that you can work on, so you can work on whatever you feel like working on now.

Encountering resistance? Have a little conversation with yourself. Find out what the core of it is, and see if you can find a creative way around that or work on some other small thing that moves you forward.

4. ACCUMULATE GRADUAL PROGRESS.

So now you’re doing what you want to be doing, after having prepared so that you want to do good things. But there’s still that shadow of doubt in you: “Is this going to be enough?”

It might not seem like you’re making a lot of progress, especially if you’re taking small steps on many different trails. This is where keeping track of your progress becomes really important. Celebrate those small accomplishments. Take notes. Your memory is fuzzy and will lie to you. It’s hard to see growth when you look at it day by day. If you could use your notes (or a journal, or a blog) to look back over six months or a year, though, chances are you’ll see that you’ve come a long way. And if you haven’t, don’t get frustrated; again, embrace your constraints, deepen your understanding, and keep nibbling away at what you want to do.

For me, I usually use my time to learn something, writing and drawing along the way. I’ve been blogging for the past twelve years or so. It’s incredible how those notes have helped me remember things, and how even the little things I learn can turn out to be surprisingly useful. Step by step.

So, if you’re feeling frustrated because you don’t seem to be making any progress and yet you can’t force yourself to work on the things that you’ve decided are important, try a different approach:

  1. Understand and embrace your constraints. Don’t stress out about not being 100% productive or dedicated. Accept that there will be times when you’re distracted or sick, and there will be times when you’re focused and you can do lots of good stuff. Accepting this still lets you tweak your limits, but you can do that with a spirit of loving kindness instead of frustration.
  2. Lay the groundwork for action. Mentally prepare so that it’s easier for you to want what’s good for you, and prepare other things so that when you want to work on something, you can work more effectively.
  3. Act in tune with yourself. Don’t waste energy forcing yourself through resistance. Use your preparation time to find creative ways around your blocks and come up with lots of ways you can move forward. That way, you can always choose something that’s in line with how you feel.
  4. Accumulate gradual progress. Sometimes you only feel like you’re not making any progress because you don’t see how far you’ve come. Take notes. Better yet, share those notes. Then you can see how your journey of a thousand miles is made up of all those little steps you’ve been taking – and you might even be able to help out or connect with other people along the way.

Alan has a much better summary of it, though. =)

To paraphrase, you start by examining your desires because that’s the only way to know if they’re worthwhile pursuits. This thinking prepares you and gives you with a set of things to spend time on immediately whenever you have time, and because you understand your goals & desires and the value they add to your life, you are usually satisfied with the time you do spend.

Hope that helps!

Related posts:

Thanks to Alan for nudging me to write and revise this post!