Category Archives: balance

Adjusting to less focused time

It feels like I’ve had much less focused time over the past two months. Weaning, sickness, and A-‘s bigger emotions all needed more patience and energy. I’ve been prioritizing sleep and household maintenance over things like staying up to consult or write. On the plus side, we’ve gotten back into the rhythm of preparing meals for the week, and cleaning the house is a little easier now.

How can I adapt if this is my new normal?

I’ve been setting more firm boundaries (myself, bedtime routines, etc.), and that’s been working reasonably well. I’ve also adjusted my plans and made sure not to commit to more consulting than I could do.

I’m not keen on making videos a regular part of her day, since we don’t want to add another cause for conflict. I considered creating space by having a babysitter come over for 3-4 hours. A- is still not keen on the idea, though, and I can see how we both benefit from the time we spend with each other.

So the main thing to do, I think, is to rejig my plans in order to make the most of the constraints. What do I want to learn even without lots of focused sit-down time? How do I want to grow?

  • Equanimity: This lets me turn A-‘s tantrums into learning opportunities. I can practise appreciating her and this life, especially when we’re in the thick of things. Taking care of our basic needs gives me the space to be patient and kind when A- needs me to be, and it’s good practice in anticipating and heading off challenges. I tend to be firmer than W- is, so I can work on noticing when a little kindness or flexibility might help a lot when A- and I are on our own.
  • Household maintenance: I want to take on more chores, help A- get involved, and become more effective. This is also a good opportunity to practise noticing things. I can learn things from W- and from the Internet.
  • Thinking, learning, and improving in short bursts: I want to get better at using little pockets of time. Drawing and dictating might be good techniques to explore further.
  • Mindfulness and being present: I want to get better at being there for A- instead of letting myself be distracted. I want to get better at enjoying now. I also want to balance that with thinking about and doing my own things. I can start with a few magic moments a day, and then expand from there.
  • Playfulness and creativity: I like the way W- interacts with A-. It might be interesting to practise playfulness and creativity, especially since A- can be my play partner and guide. I can pick up ideas at the drop-in centres, and sometimes reading helps.

These things are less obviously rewarding than, say, figuring out a clever solution for a client problem or coming up with a neat Emacs hack and blogging about it. But they’re worthwhile things to learn anyway.

How can I make my learning more intentional? It might be interesting to make myself a list of things to focus on or try out, and then try one at time while keeping an eye out for other things that are relevant to the situation. For example, I could have a day of involving A-‘s toys in tasks, then see how that resonates with A-.

How can I make my learning more visible? I think journal entries will help a little. Sometimes A- insists that I stay close while she’s sleeping, so that might be a good time to write. I can draw thoughts while waiting for A-, too, which is a good way to model writing and drawing. Paper seems to work a little better than drawing on my phone, although maybe that’s a matter of practice. I don’t have a good workflow for dealing with notes yet, but I can archive pictures for now and deal with them as mostly transitory thinking aids.

I’ll probably have lots of focused time later on. Crunch time isn’t forever. Even if I may need to start over, I’m not too worried. I think I’ll be able to get the hang of things again.

In the meantime, we’re mostly set up for playing and doing chores at home. Once we recover from this cold and cough, I think our daily rhythm will involve drop-in centres as well as home time. I’ve got things to learn and ways to grow. I can do this, even though it’s a bit different from what I’m used to.

Life changes. It’s good to adapt.

Checking the balance of my time

I like working. It tickles my brain, and I enjoy helping people through code. Sometimes I get stuck on stuff, but I can generally solve problems and make stuff easier. It’s also good for long-term stuff.

I also like spending time with A- and learning from her. I’d pick A- over consulting because tasks generally keep and kiddos don’t. I like snuggling with A-, and I like playing with her.

If I work late at night, I can generally do 1 to 2 hours of work between interruptions, so there’s a bit of task switching. I can usually pick my stopping point for the night if I stay up a little later. My brain buzzes a bit afterwards, so it’s hard to sleep. That sometimes affects my time with A- the next day.

If I get a babysitter and work in the afternoon, I can talk to people and focus better. I can generally do 2 hours of focused work, and sometimes more if A- is having fun. She strongly prefers playing with me, though.

If I wake up early, A- often insists on snuggling in bed. When she wakes up, I end up stopping work abruptly, so it’s good to take notes along the way.

If I’m careful about the tasks I commit to, I give people a chance to develop their own skills while being able to squeeze in the occasional low effort, high reward thing. I can also get better at making my prototypes easier to turn over with comments and notes.

2-4 hours is a nice chunk of focused time that I can use to make decent progress. How can I arrange my life so that I can do that regularly? Monday night or Tuesday night might be a good time to stay up late working. Monday night is particularly good, since I can take A- to the drop-in centre on Tuesday for social interaction.

It’s also good to use some focused time for personal projects: journaling, Emacs News, kaizen. As A- becomes more independent, I might start modeling 15 minutes of independent reading and taking notes.

So maybe a rhythm like this:

  • S: W-
  • Su: Emacs News
  • M: Consulting
  • T: Free choice
  • W: Sleep
  • Th: Kaizen
  • F: Journal, review

On the flipside, more sleep makes everything even better. When I’m well-rested, it’s easy to be playful and creative. So I won’t push myself too hard, I’ll keep commitments light and manageable, and I’ll code with an eye to turning things over to other people who can run with stuff.

It might be good to experiment with babysitting monthly, to monitor her readiness for it.

I like learning the things that life with A- can teach me, even though they’re harder and less externally validated than coding is. The important thing is to be where I am.

Eventually A- will be in school, or independent enough to want to go play by herself or with other people, or okay with playing with sitters or in daycare. That time will come quickly enough. No need to rush it.

Finding the right balance between thinking, learning, doing, and reviewing

Do you overthink things? Do you read a lot about productivity instead of actually doing things? Do you get so caught up in doing things that you don’t know where the time went? Do you focus too much on the past instead of moving on? It can be tricky to find the balance among all these things – to plan and learn and do and review just enough so that you can get to the next stage, and to keep going through that cycle instead of getting stuck. It’s all about staying focused on action.

I struggle with this sometimes too. It’s so easy, so tempting to keep learning abstract ideas. But the real learning happens when you act on it.

2013-11-01 How can I keep my learning focused on action

You can also think of this in terms of a pipeline. If you’re thinking about too much but your plans aren’t making it to the next stage, you’ve got lots of floating ideas. If you’re learning a lot from other people but you’re not putting what you learn into practice, it stays abstract. If you’re doing a lot but you don’t have time to review or adjust your plans, you might end up doing the wrong things. And if you’re reviewing a lot without thinking about how to move forward, you get stuck.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about this balance. I haven’t figured it out yet. I want to find just the right mix so that I’m not overloading my memory or my capacity to learn from things.

How can I find the right balance of thinking, learning, doing, and reviewing

Thinking and planning: If I rush in, I waste time backtracking. If I spend too much time thinking without doing things, I go around in circles. If I do this just right, then I would think about something just enough to let me identify some resources to learn from and experiments to try. Right now, I tend to spend more effort thinking than I probably should. I can tell because I find myself writing down the same TODOs in my sketches. One of the reasons why I’m focusing on thinking so much is because I’m sorting out this new workflow, so once it settles down, I’ll move forward faster. Current: Too much

Learning from other people: If I do too little of this, I waste time figuring things out myself. If I spend too much time doing this, I read and listen without actually trying things. If I do this just right, then I would learn enough to get me to the point of trying things out. I used to spend way more time learning from other people compared to thinking on my own, so I’ve been pulling back. I might have pulled back excessively, though. I’ll get to this after I get into the swing of doing things, or as part of my efforts to learn how to ask better questions. Current: Not enough

Doing things: Coding, building, trying things out… If I do too little of this, my notes stay abstract. If I do too much of this, it’s usually at the expense of good notes, and that makes it difficult to review what I’ve done or reuse my solutions. If I do this just right, then I’ll be working in tight, time-limited, focused chunks that make it easy to review and re-plan along the way. (Although since I’m focusing on learning at the moment, does my thinking and planning count as doing? Hmm…) Current: Not enough

Reviewing: This involves writing about what I’ve learned and figuring out the next steps. If I do too little of this, the days blur together. If I do too much of this… Can I do too much of this? Maybe if I write more than what I and other people would find valuable (well, the cost-benefit equation considering number of people and value). For example, it doesn’t make sense to spend days thinking about a meal (Proust notwithstanding), although spending half an hour to write up a technical solution is probably worth it. Current: All right

So my plan for the next few months is to settle into these new “habits of mind” for thinking, gradually check off more tasks, and then work on getting better at learning from other people. I’m also curious about efficiency improvements for reviewing, such as dictating my blog posts or building up Flickr as a quick way for people to follow or comment on my notes.

How about you? What’s your balance like, and how would you like to tweak it?

Balancing writing with other things

From August 11: I’ve written myself into the next month already. Good thing the Share a Draft plugin lets me send people links to upcoming blog posts so that they don’t have to wait for answers. I leave Saturdays for weekly reviews and Sundays for other stories that come up, and all the rest have one blog post a day. I don’t know when I’m going to schedule this post. Maybe I’ll shuffle things around so that some posts are in September. Let’s see if I can fill September up.

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There’s more to write. There always is. Ideas from my outline. Answers to comments and e-mailed questions. Things I’m learning.

The main trick is to remember which posts are time-related and which ones aren’t. Or, I suppose, to write things so that they aren’t time-sensitive: to refer to recent events as “recently” instead of “last Wednesday”.

I haven’t been coding as much. You can see it. Here’s my writing activity (yay Quantified Awesome):

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Here’s my coding on Quantified Awesome:

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Other coding:

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Emacs:

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At least I’ve been drawing (a little bit, not much):

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Writing is just so much more squeezable into the spaces of my life. I can write anywhere. I just need a question, and off I go. Sometimes I write throughout the process of finding that question in the first place. And more people could possibly benefit from writing, while only a few people use my code. Although lots of people like my drawings (and I do too), so I should make more of those.

Writing is less frustrating than coding because I feel like I make immediate progress, and I don’t get error messages. Not that coding is frustrating. Coding is fun. But I’m picking writing more than I’m picking code, and that tells me that I should tweak the rewards so that I pick code more. Besides, there are a gazillion blogs out there, but not as many people working on Emacs, Org Mode, WordPress, Rails, or the other awesome tools that I use. I could make more of a difference with code.

Maybe I need to put a time limit on my writing so that I get forced to do something different. Except it doesn’t really take all that much time to write.

If I’m a month ahead, maybe I should hold off writing and focus on outlining instead. Except writing is fun and it clears my head… Maybe writing one blog post, maybe a maximum two blog posts every time I sit down to write, and checking off some other non-writing task (code, drawing, learning Latin) before I allow myself a writing session again? I’m allowed to write if I’m blogging in the process of learning something.

People think flow is awesome (as in Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s research). It is, but it’s dangerous. Too much flow could mean neglecting other parts of life. So, time to revisit other interests…

August 13: Hmm. Writing really has a strong pull. I’ve learned that it’s easier (and often much better!) if I don’t fight my interest, so maybe I should just give myself permission to write and outline (and draw, on occasion) whenever I feel like it.

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Limiting flow

Sunday:

My head was buzzing from a good weekend of learning how to program on a new platform, so I set aside some time to reflect and clear it. This is what I had started to write:

Programming is addictive. It distracts me in a way that few other
pursuits do. I dream about code. I doodle ideas. I get lost in
development. Every free hour is a choice between spending it
programming or doing something else, and it’s hard to resist that urge
for flow – that immersive, transcendental experience of engagement and
success.

Flow messes me up. In the flow of programming, I forget the joy and
ease of other activities. I feel myself resisting the need to surface
from flow in order to take care of household chores or work on other
projects. Just another test, just another function, just another
little success. When I reluctantly slip away, the ghost of it hovers
there, a background process that takes up memory and processing time,
interrupts me with ideas and invitations, and makes it hard for me be
mindful and focused on other things.

I know I’m lucky to be passionate about something like this, so it
seems wasteful to think of setting bounds. But my thinking feels
disjointed, hyperlinked, broken down into small functions – a little
the kind of unraveling I feel when I haven’t had the chance to
properly write and reflect—

Then W- said, “How would you like to help clean up the yard?”

So I did. While W- changed his tires and J- raked the leaves, I tidied up what remained of this year’s garden. Then I came back to the kitchen and roasted four turkey drumsticks, helped pack 11 lunch portions, made turkey pot pie filling, and prepared onigiri for next week’s snacks. It was productive, social, and good. I remembered that weekends are good for preparing for the future, and I felt even better.

There’s something interesting about that thought, and I want to explore it further. Maybe if I experiment with setting aside blocks of time, I’ll get a better balance instead of mostly going by what I feel most like doing. There is an inertia to enjoyment. The more I focus on one thing, the harder it is to return to others. While a life focused on programming – and perhaps writing as well – is probably going to be just as awesome, I’d like to pick up a few other interests as well: cooking, drawing, sewing… Even speaking and making presentations tend to go on the backburner when I have a program in mind, which results in stress down the road.

For those other interests, I need to invest time doing things that are less fun than programming in order to get to the point where I might have as much fun doing that as I have writing code.

Improving my ability to switch is likely to pay off in terms of better quality of life, lower stress, and richer combinations of complementary skills.

Here are some ways I’m thinking of experimenting with that:

Limit programming to 4-hour blocks at a time, with rest breaks throughout. Do something non-computer-related for at least an hour between programming sessions. By getting better at resuming where I left off, I’ll be able to let go with more confidence.

Schedule a block of recreational programming time on my calendar. That way, I know I’m going to be able to try things out at least once during the week, so it’ll be easier for me to resist the urge to swap chores for programming. I can keep a TODO list of things to work on, which will help me use that time more effectively.

Schedule other interests/tasks on my calendar as needed. It’s just like homework. If I’ve got a presentation or an idea planned for a certain date, I might do better by setting aside specific times to work on it. I might also use sprints or the Pomodoro technique to make it easier to focus.

Beef up my weekly review, and ruthlessly trim my task list. I’ve been postponing items that weren’t particularly important. I’d like to move each of my open projects forward at least a little each week, and the weekly review is a good time to catch that. If I do my weekly review on Friday or Saturday, I can use Sunday for focused, planned work, or target things for mornings as well. If I run into something I still don’t want to do, time to think about whether I want to scratch that off my list.

Hmm…

Week beginnings

What day does your week start on? It’s the same seven days, but where you start can influence how you look at things. Today I realized that my week doesn’t actually start with Mondays, as I thought before. Or maybe it shifted.

W- and I treat our weekends as week beginnings: the perfect time to lay the groundwork for a smooth-running and productive week. We do the laundry, shop for groceries, prepare food, drop off and pick up library books, tidy up, finish assorted tasks, reset our sleep schedules, and tweak our household routines.

Preparing is fun. W- and I enjoy cooking, so it hardly counts as a chore. This weekend, we made chicken adobo, leftover stirfry, and these incredibly moist and airy brownies. I also experimented with making onigiri, which would be great for afternoon snacking throughout the week. I may have gotten a little carried away.

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Other chores are relaxing, too. Washing dishes, folding laundry, and putting things away are meditations in action.

If we finish early, or we want to take breaks along the way, then we spend time on other interests. I set aside blocks of time for reading, writing, coding, drawing, or sewing, depending on what I feel like. I also make time for social interaction – not so much that I’ll feel worn out, but enough to get to know other people better.

Some weekends are busy, such as our once-a-month lunch-packing extravaganza. Then we’re doubly glad when Monday comes around: proud of the accomplishment, and looking forward to the relative relaxation of the work-week!

I love the way this has been working for us. Most weeks run smoothly. When crunch time comes, we’ve got healthy food in the fridge, routines we can rely on, and relationships that carry us through.

Using part of our weekend to make the rest of the week better also helps keep our stress and energy levels on an even keel. Instead of swinging wildly from “Oh no, it’s Monday” to “Thank goodness it’s Friday!”, or treating the work as something that gets in the way of life, we treat all of the days as part of life, and we invest time into making those days more wonderful. We also make sure we don’t end up thinking of the weekend as something that gets in the way of work.

Try turning your weekend into the beginning of your week, and use that time to make your week better.