Category Archives: balance

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.


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):


Here’s my coding on Quantified Awesome:


Other coding:




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


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


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

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.


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.


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.

Book: Making Work Work


Making Work Work: New Strategies for Surviving and Thriving at the Office
Julie Morgenstern, 2004

Making Work Work

In every industry I consult in, I’ve noticed that the top-tier performers are deeply committed to their work/life balance. They may be working long hours, but they are very thoughtful about their leisure, so that they make excellent use of time away from the office. This is a critical skill—especially if you’re working long hours, because you have fewer hours to play with in the first place.

The most successful workers create a balance that ensures they are energized, refreshed, and renewed every day. Their balancing act isn’t perfect, and it requires constant attention — but they are vigilant about maintaining that balance, because they appreciate the continuity between home and rest, work and productivity.

p21, Julie Morgenstern, Leading Out Loud

p136 to 139 have a great table of tips on how to make meetings more effective, whether you’re the chair or a participant.

The book also contains an excellent chapter on mastering delegation. The suggested tasks focus on face-to-face assistance, but there are many great tips that you can apply to virtual assistance as well.

Lots of great advice. Well worth re-reading as you apply tips.

Balancing the day

I’ve set aside Wednesdays for catching my breath just in case my
weekends are too full, as they tend to be. I don’t particularly feel
the need to meditate, though. I spent all day doing quiet work:
reading books, writing about Social Tech Brewing, and sharing my book
notes. I want to balance that with lively social interaction and lots
of laughter. So I’m off to cruise downtown for interesting
conversations. If I can get in touch with Shane, maybe we can do
random acts of kindness and connection…

It’s all about balance and variety. When I have a packed, hectic day,
all I want is to relax quietly. When I have a peaceful day, I like
jazzing it up with excitement.

I wonder how I can make the most of this energy…

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