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Weekly review: Week ending October 3, 2014

We’ve been decluttering and fixing things up at home. It feels great! I swapped out my bedside bookcase for a low table, which I disassembled, varnished, and reassembled. We’re currently varnishing some pine shelves that we’ve routed to be IKEA-compatible. I enjoy helping W- with this sort of stuff, and I’m looking forward to learning more about making boxes and other containers.

Blog posts

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (37.8h – 22%)
    • Earn (31.7h – 83% of Business)
      • Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
      • Earn: E1: Help with milestone
    • Build (1.7h – 4% of Business)
      • Drawing (0.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.0h)
    • Connect (4.5h – 11% of Business)
      • Chat with other QS Toronto organizers
  • Relationships (10.3h – 6%)
    • Connect Ernest with Pulat
    • Get rid of more stuff, clean up spaces
    • Make shelves for cabinet
    • Pick up extra shelf pins from IKEA
    • Varnish bedside table
    • Get more kitchen things
    • Repackage spices in mason jars
    • Start working on kitchen organizer
  • Discretionary – Productive (6.7h – 4%)
    • Emacs (0.0h – 0% of all)
    • Deposit cheque
    • Look into tablet improvements
    • Transfer some more into TFSA
    • Writing (3.9h)
  • Discretionary – Play (13.9h – 8%)
  • Personal routines (19.1h – 11%)
  • Unpaid work (26.2h – 15%)
  • Sleep (54.0h – 32% – average of 7.7 per day)

Avoiding spoilage with bulk cooking

We’d been letting some vegetables and cooked food go to waste, so I’ve been tinkering with how we prepare our meals in order to reduce spoilage. Here’s how we now cook in bulk.

During the weekend, we review the past week’s leftovers and freeze them as individual meals. We packaging food in individual lunch-sized containers (~500g, including rice) until the freezer is full or the fridge leftovers are done. I label the containers using painter’s tape and a marker, writing down the initials of the recipe and a number for the month. For example, chicken curry prepared in July is labeled CC7.

I prepare one or two types of dinners. I usually pick bulk recipes based on what’s on sale at the supermarket. If there are unused groceries from the previous week (sometimes I end up not cooking things), I prepare a recipe that can use those up: curry, soup, etc. I start a large pot of rice, too, since I’m likely to use that up when packing individual meals and we go through a lot of rice during the week. We’re more likely to enjoy the variety if it’s spread out over the coming weeks. Freezing the leftovers means we can avoid spoiling food out of procrastination.

After the food is cooked, I put portions into our large glass containers. That way, we have a little room to cook fresh dinners during the week (which W- likes to do), but we also have some backups in case things get busy. We alternate the prepared dinners for variety. For some meals that are inefficient to portion out, I just keep the entire pot in the fridge. If there’s more, I’ll freeze the rest as individual portions. If the freezer is full, I’ll keep the extras in the fridge.

When it comes to the freezer, individual portions are much more convenient than larger portions. You can take one to work and microwave it for lunch. Sometimes I pack larger portions (ex: pizza, pasta sauce), so we need to plan for that when defrosting them. If a dinner portion is thawed in the fridge, it has to get eaten since it can’t be refrozen (unless we re-cook it, which we rarely do).

Our costs tend to be between $1.50 and $3 per portion. For example, the Thai curry I made last time resulted in 20 portions out of $22.39 of groceries. Even if you account for the spices and rice in our pantry, it still comes to a pretty frugal (and yummy!) meal. Sure, there’s labour and electricity, but I enjoy cooking and we schedule it for the lower electricity rates of the weekend. Well worth it for us, and we’re working on getting even better at it.

Aside from reducing spoilage, I’m also working on increasing variety, maybe cooking smaller batches and cooking more often during the week. I’d still like to use the freezer to spread out meals over an even longer period of time so that we can enjoy different tastes. Getting the hang of spices, ingredient combinations, and cooking techniques will help me with variety, too. So much to learn! =)

Planning for possibilities

I like making contingency plans. It’s like peeking up a manifold of possibilities, imagining a sure-footed Sacha capably dealing with whatever comes down the pipe.

In preparation for a recent event, I made a list of different things that could go wrong, highlighting specific scenarios I needed to worry about and listing a few catch-all scenarios as well. Amusingly enough, the actual challenges that came up (Windows updates, network/hardware latency, a network configuration reset, Powerpoint crashes, last-minute changes) weren’t on my list as specific scenarios, but they were addressed by our general back-up plans. I like the blend of specific and general. Specific scenarios help you flush out questions to ask and things to prepare, while general scenarios identify characteristics to prepare for and help you come up with flexible strategies. Both types help you minimize stress when things do happen. Knowing that you have a backup plan, what the trade-offs are, and a probable deadline for committing to that plan helps you worry less about catastrophic failure and lets you focus on coming up with a better ad-hoc option.

One of the things that I gained a better appreciation of was the trade-off between preparing in advance and waiting until you can test your hypotheses. For example, I wasn’t sure if the server would be able to accept incoming connections once at the venue. I could adapt the code to run on my public webserver, but that would take a little time. However, since we were likely to be able to get things to work on the event network, I could postpone worrying about it to Sunday, which meant that I could spend Saturday doing non-work things instead.

Outside work, I also have a lot of scenarios and contingency plans. It’s been interesting slowly moving through time, watching the different uncertainties resolve themselves. Doors close and new possibilities open up. Because I’ve scanned my personal notes and I’ve blogged about many of my projections, I can recall a little bit of what past-Sacha was thinking, standing on the threshold of the unknown. I tend to overestimate risks and costs, but I’m good at coming up with small tests and approaches. I’m good at tracking my progress and keeping an eye out for “trip lines,” little reminders to myself to re-evaluate the situation. I want to get better at generating more general scenarios and alternative approaches, and properly evaluating risk/reward (maybe calibrating these with other people’s experiences). It’s fun treating life as a Choose Your Own Adventure where you might be able to peek ahead a little! =)

Brock Health and setting up my own health plan

I still get a kick out of walking into and out of a clinic without paying anything, just providing my Ontario health card at the appropriate moments. Canada’s public health system covers a lot of stuff. Not everything, though! W-‘s extended health plan from work covers a large portion of many expenses, like dental care and massages.

For the expenses that W-‘s health plan doesn’t cover, I looked into setting up a private health services plan (PHSP) so that I can pay for the remainder through my business. After some quick research, I found Brock Health was a popular choice for small corporations in Canada. The way that it works is that you send them the paperwork for the claim, and your corporation pays them the amount of the claim plus an administration fee. They then send you (as the employee or corporation owner) a reimbursement of the expenses without the admin fee. This is tax-free on your personal income, and is paid with before-tax business dollars. So you pay a little more because of the admin fee, but it works out.

I set up an account last fiscal year. Based on my calculations, claiming expenses on our tax forms first made more sense last year, so I didn’t have any transactions. This year, my calculations showed that the PHSP might be a better way to do things. I sent in my first claim with a couple of void cheques in order to It turned out that one of the expenses was partially refunded. I called Brock Health to update the claim, and they updated it before processing the cheques.

I’m looking forward to seeing how it all works out in this year’s business tax return. If it’s as simple as I think it might be, my personal health plan might include more massages… =)

Thinking about rewards and recognition since I’m on my own

One of the things a good manager does is to recognize and reward people’s achievements, especially if people exceeded expectations. A large corporation might have some standard ways to reward good work: a team lunch, movie tickets, gift certificates, days off, reward points, events, and so on. Startups and small businesses might be able to come up with even more creative ways of celebrating success.

In tech, I think good managers take extra care to recognize when people have gone beyond the normal call of duty. It makes sense. Many people earn salaries without overtime pay, might not get a bonus even if they’ve sacrificed time with family or other discretionary activities, and might not be able to take vacation time easily.

It got me thinking: Now that I’m on my own, how do I want to celebrate achievements–especially when they are a result of tilting the balance towards work?

When I’m freelancing, extra time is paid for, so some reward is there already. I like carving out part of those earnings for my opportunity fund, rewarding my decision-making by giving myself more room to explore.

During a sprint, the extra focus time sometimes comes from reducing my housework. When things relax, then, I like celebrating by cooking good meals, investing in our workflows at home, and picking up the slack.

I also like taking notes so that I can build on those successes. I might not be able to include a lot of details, but having a few memory-hooks is better than not having any.

Sometimes people are really happy with the team’s performance, so there’s extra good karma. Of the different non-monetary ways that people can show their appreciation within a corporate framework, which ones would I lean towards?

I definitely appreciate slowing down the pace after big deliverables. Sustained concentration is difficult, so it helps to be able to push back if there are too many things on the go.

At work, I like taking time to document lessons learned in more detail. I’d get even more of a kick out of it if other people picked up those notes and did something even cooler with the ideas. That ranks high on my warm-and-fuzzy feeling scale. It can take time for people to have the opportunity to do something similar, but that’s okay. Sometimes I hear from people years later, and that’s even awesomer.

A testimonial could come in handy, especially if it’s on an attributed site like LinkedIn.

But really, it’s more about long-term relationships and helping out good people, good teams, and good causes. Since I can choose how much to work and I know that my non-work activities are also valuable, the main reasons I would choose to work more instead of exploring those other interests are:

  • I like the people I work with and what they’re working on, and I want to support them,
  • I’ll learn interesting things along the way, and
  • It’s good to honour commitments and not disrupt plans unnecessarily.

So, theoretically, if we plunged right back into the thick of another project, I didn’t get the time to write about stuff, I didn’t feel right keeping personal notes (and thus I’ll end up forgetting the important parts of the previous project), and no one’s allowed to write testimonials, I’d still be okay with good karma – not the quid-pro-quo of transactional favour-swapping, but a general good feeling that might come in handy thirty years from now.

Hmm, this is somewhat related to my reflection on Fit for You – which I thought I’d updated within the last three years, but I guess I hadn’t posted that to my blog. Should reflect on that again sometime… Anyway, it’s good to put together a “care and feeding” guide for yourself! =)

Thinking about how to make the most of the new Hacklab

The new Hacklab (1266 Queen Street West) will have wood-working tools, a skylight, and more space to set things up (maybe the sewing machine and serger?). There’s a big fabric store nearby, too. In addition to those new capabilities, all the usual tools will probably be easier to use: the laser cutter, the 3D printer, the CNC mill, the electronics equipment…

With that in mind, what would I like to learn more about so that I can make the most of Hacklab? I’ve mostly been treating Hacklab as a place to meet people, with the vegetarian cooking practice and social link building as bonuses. There’s a lot more I could do with it, though, and it might be good to explore.

I’d love to become proficient in making things that fit our life. I like how Norm made custom workbenches and corner tables from lumber. I like how people 3D-print handles and adapters for various things, and how they laser-cut cases, stencils, and jigs. I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to handle transporting lumber and finished goods (bicycle? cab? asking W- for a ride?), but maybe I can learn how to draw up plans, verify those plans with people who have more experience, and work on things at home (since we have many of the tools anyway). So maybe I won’t be making as much use of the tools, but I can practise asking for help.

Although it would be pretty nice to make a better case for my Samsung Galaxy S3 with the Hyperion extended battery I have…

It might be good to use the skylight to start some plants during the winter, too. I’ll need to order seeds for that one, I think.

I could also work on web or Android stuff while I’m there, since those are the sorts of things that other people work on. I could work on writing too, but that’s a little harder because of the background conversations.

So a weekly or bi-weekly trip to Hacklab could be a commitment device for making regular progress on a physical project (wood, sewing, or electronic), a programming project, and vegan cooking adventures. Would that be worth the ~$6 transit fare (+ about 1.5 hours of travel) to get there in winter? Hmm. Probably. If I pre-commit the transit fare so that I don’t have to make lots of little decisions, carving out a part for it from my budget for the year… It makes sense to push myself to go there, since if I stay home, I’m less likely to work on those kinds of things.

We’ll see how this works out!