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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!

Plans for summer: Relationships, work, gardening, biking, drawing and photography, making, and finances

Cate Huston asks for inspiration: What are you focusing on in June? Work is straightforward: Drupal web development until September, at least, and probably similar work after that. Summer also makes it easy to decide what to do. Biking and gardening, yes. Baking and sewing, not so much. Social events, yes. But it’s a good idea to go beyond these vague categories and figure out what I’d like to explore.

This blog post is not really about focus. It’s more of a list of things I’m thinking about, but at least it’s a shorter, more concrete list than just "stuff". =) Focus comes when I go through the different categories and focus on making one item for each category happen.

Short-term thoughts for summer

Relationships: I should take advantage of summer’s long days and warm weather by meeting up with people. It might be awkward in the beginning, but I’m sure it will get easier. I should nudge my friends to organize things more often. Maybe I just happen to be the most get-folks-together-and-feed-them sort of person in the different groups I’m in. This is okay, although I’m curious about what it might be like to get a regular potluck going. Or a regular cookathon going. Hmm… Possible improvements:

  • Shift us to salads and other yummy things to eat during summer.
  • Think through upcoming decisions and scenarios, and write about them.
  • Meet at least one person each week, possibly around events I’m interested in.
  • Think about cool things to offer during get-togethers. Fruits and lemonade, mmm.
  • Set aside social time and proactively reach out to people through the Internet.
  • Set aside driving practice time, too.
  • Schedule Latin-learning dates with W-, so we stop cramming our Latin homework on Saturday evenings.

Work: Development is the way to go for me, I think. I like it more than consulting. I like making things happen, and I like the way it continuously sharpens my skills. Yes, it’s a global marketplace, and the work may be tougher than consulting because it’s more easily virtualized. But that’s good, too – less travel. I can keep growing in this by learning more about Drupal and Rails, and improving my front-end skills. I would like to work on a Drupal 7 project and another Ruby on Rails project this year. I want to be the awesome backend developer or technical lead people like working with in order to make websites happen. Possible improvements:

  • Get even better at automated testing (Selenium for web-facing tests?)
  • Develop more patience for manual testing; yes, coding is fun, but testing prevents embarrassment and increases learning
  • Figure out continuous integration, perhaps with Hudson
  • Make sure I’ve got interactive debugging set up for both frameworks I like working with
  • Learn more about working with other developers: managing projects, workflow, etc.

Gardening: I think it’s incredible. You put seeds in soil, you give them some water, and sunlight and nature do the rest. I want to take advantage of the sunlight to learn a little more about growing our own food. I love how the strawberries are starting to bear fruit, and how the peas race up the string-trellis I made. I want to grow more and more fruits and vegetables so that someday, we can grow most of the produce we eat. Possible improvements:

  • Increase my trial rate (and perhaps success rate!) by planting new things weekly
  • Implement drip irrigation again, or find other ways of keeping seedlings well-watered
  • Keeping a garden journal so that I can track my progress and plan ahead

Biking: I enjoy biking. It’s a great way to get to places. I would like to bike more as casual exercise and a way to get myself outdoors. I tend to bike as a way of getting from one place to another, instead of just taking a joyride. One way to bike more would be to just come to work more often, particularly when it’s sunny. Another way to bike more often would be to plan more events that get me outside the house, because I’d rather bike than take public transit if the destination isn’t too far. Hmm… Possible improvements:

  • Plan more excuses to go biking.
  • Consider getting a lighter second-hand 21-speed bike? Not essential.

Drawing and photography: I’m slowly getting the hang of drawing, and now that W- has a tablet PC, we can make it a relationship-building thing too. Summer is a great time to sketch or shoot the outdoors, use bright colours, and have fun with drawing and photography. Possible improvements:

  • Get into the habit of shooting and reviewing pictures. Shooting doesn’t count if I don’t look at the pictures again!
  • Take pictures of the garden. It’s convenient, personally fascinating, and I can leave the macro lens on the camera all the time.
  • Upgrade my hard disk. Then I might use my tablet PC as my main photo processing device.
  • Practise sketching those cubes! Maybe draw one thing a day, too.

Making: My wardrobe has settled, so sewing is lower-priority, although I like making gifts and accessories. We might make some shelves for the living room and for upstairs, but that’s also not urgent.

Finances: Nothing special here, just saving up. We’re shifting our grocery patterns (lighter summer meals, organic and local produce), so I’m going to do some more price-checking to see if the community-supported agriculture box is a better deal than, say, shopping at the Sweet Potato (a local health food store) or checking out farmers’ markets. I’ve been thinking about experimenting with dividend-focused stocks after I reach one of my savings milestones, but I’m not completely sold on it yet, and I’m fine just putting money into low-MER index funds for now.

Plenty of good things to grow into.

Decision review: calendars, development, standing desks, toe shoes, Kindle, bike, CSA, Autodesk Sketchbook, blogging

Calendar reminders on my Android: Working so far. I see the calendar reminders on my lock screen and on my home screen, so there are plenty of reminders. I’ve also started adding more events to my calendar, to increase the reward of checking it.

Test cases: Yes, for code’s sake, yes! I’m returning to a Drupal project after several months’ hiatus, and one of the first changes we’re making is extensive: changing a field to a taxonomy, changing lots of logic along the way, making sure all the forms work again… I am so glad I wrote a lot of tests covering the parts I wrote, and I only wish that I got all the other developers to do the same.

Laptop battery replacement: Replacing the battery on my tablet was a good idea. I’ve been getting tons of use out of it, particularly now that I’m back in development. Although W’s new tablet does look pretty tempting, I’m going to hold off buying new gadgets for a while.

Developer setup template: I added “Getting started notes” to our developer guide. Slowly getting there! And I’m glad to see that virtual-machine-based development is much easier now, too.

Standing desks: The kitchen counter is now my default standing desk. It’s well-lit, there are plenty of outlets near by, and I can easily refill my water glass or grab a snack.

Vibram toe shoes: Comfortable as anything, and then some. I prefer to wear these instead of my flats when I’m walking around the neighbourhood. W- still thinks they look funny, but that’s okay, he loves me anyway.

Kindle 3G: Awesome for looking up things on the go, and for occupying myself during subway rides. I’d still rather ride my bicycle than take the subway, but reading classic literature makes up for the fare and the missed opportunity for great exercise.

Folding bike/push scooter: Still haven’t taken the plunge. No local need to do so – I don’t mind saddling up my bike for short trips to the library or supermarket. No travel plans ahead, either.

Community-supported agriculture: We tried a bi-weekly spring share from Plan B Organic Farms, and that’s been working out well. I’ve been having salads I finished the last of the kale and the lettuce

Autodesk Sketchbook Pro: While using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for presentations doesn’t give me the overview, the infinite canvas, or the clean lines of Inkscape, it’s a smoother workflow, and I rather like it. I’ve been sketching more, too. W- has just gotten his own tablet, and Autodesk Sketchbook Pro (trial version) was one of the first things he installed. I’m looking forward to practising drawing with him.

Writing more about life: I like it. I think of it as writing for my future self.

Blog limits: I sometimes schedule my posts, and I sometimes post more than once a day. Fine with you so far? If you find the e-mail frequency a bit too much, it might be a good idea to check out Google Reader or another feed reader. You can subscribe to my blog using that, too!

Learning from Mr. Collins: Practice, conversation, and what to do when someone says something mean

"You judge very properly," said Mr. Bennet, "and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?"

"They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible," [said Mr. Collins.]

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins thinks up compliments and practises them until they flow smoothly. He comes off smarmy and supercilious, but the idea is generally useful.

imageI have a confession to make: I practise responses. After I find myself tongue-tied or I respond to something with less grace than I want to, I rehearse it and similar situations in my mind so that I can figure out a better way to respond. I think about translations that help me get to what people might really mean, phrases to use, tones of voice to adopt, ways to bring the conversation back on track. It’s a little like the way a witty retort might come to you hours after an argument (there’s even a name for this: l’ esprit de l’escalier, staircase wit), but done deliberately, and for good and self-improvement instead of for scoring points or getting back at someone. Deliberate practice makes perfect, after all.

For example, if someone says something sexist, I know my response won’t be silence, it will be something like "That’s sexist!" in as joking a way as I can manage – and I’ve practised not taking it personally, so it bounces off me. (Kapoing!)

I’m still figuring out what to do when someone says something mean. It happens to the best of us. I struggle to avoid saying mean things, too. I’m glad my first instinct isn’t to fight fire with fire, because that just makes things worse. I can recognize when something may be mean and stick up for myself: "That’s mean!" – not "That’s not fair!" or "That’s not nice!", which are a bit soft. I can separate what someone says in the heat of a moment from who they are and from what I think about myself, and I’m working on getting faster and more instinctive at doing so.

The Internet suggests several ways to deal with hurtful words:

  • Ignore it. It’s a gift, like praise is, and you don’t have to take it. (There’s a Zen story about that…)
  • Translate it. You can pick out the useful parts of hurtful words, work with them, and throw the rest away. People are human. We’re not perfect communicators. Somewhere in there, there might be something you can work with – or at the very least, an opportunity to step back, look at the person as a whole, and appreciate what you can about that person. Everything teaches you something.
  • Ask for clarification. Sometimes this is enough to slow things down and raise the conversation to a reasonable level.
  • Respond positively or surprisingly. "I love you too" is a popular come-back, even when responding to strangers’ insults.
  • Call a time-out or walk away, particularly if things are turning into a vicious circle. You don’t want to be drawn into a fight that throws you off your balance. This doesn’t mean ignoring the issue entirely. Hit the pause button, untangle the issues, and discuss them when you’ve got some distance.

I want to get to the point of being able to respond with loving-kindness to whatever life throws at me.

How do you deal with the occasional hiccup in people’s niceness?

2011-05-31 Tue 12:18

Notes from the airport: Missed my flight; not the end of the world after all

For the first time in my life, I missed my flight. I was in tears. I called American Express, and was on hold with them while they rerouted my itinerary through Vancouver. It will be an overnight flight and I’ll arrive Sunday morning instead of Saturday night, but I’ll arrive.

Then I called W-, who told me things were going to be okay and helped me remember that I was strong. I don’t feel very strong at the moment – my fingers shake – but I can feel the storm of panic and frustration and self-pity pass. Denver International Airport has free wireless, but I can’t seem to connect to it. I used my Kindle to send him a Twitter direct message with the flight details the travel agent gave me. I may be frazzled, but I still turn to frugal workarounds for roaming charges.

There’s a lesson in here about timezones, public transit, and triple-checking my departure time against my printed ticket instead of my copied itinerary. Better to learn the lesson this time than at a more crucial moment – that’s what I always tell myself when I make a mistake large enough to throw me off-kilter. Better now than later. Better a small situation than a life-or-death one. Going home, with Monday a day off, on a US-Canada flight, a missed flight has much smaller ripples than an inbound flight on a critical business trip or an expensive personal trip halfway across the world–and I still get to distill from it whatever it can teach me about life and myself.

That’s the second thing I tell myself during these hiccups: It all becomes part of the story, the rough watersas well as the smooth. I’m learning that after that initial flood of panic, I feel this preternatural calm sets in. I can’t change the past, so I don’t fret about it. No amount of worrying is going to change my short-term future. This nervous energy can be channelled into writing. Not too long from now, there’ll be a day when everything will be back to normal. Why stress out about things I can’t change and that won’t be permanent? Everything is going to be okay.

The situation is not that much different from a hypothetical world where I’m sitting in the airport patiently waiting for my intentionally-booked flight to Vancouver with a connection to Toronto. I’ve done that before. After setting the wheels in motion, it is an easy thing to shift to that track, like rail lines that start at different stations and converge. I learn what I can from stress, then call up that feeling of purposeful waiting.

Missing a flight, surprisingly enough, isn’t the end of the world. (Even if you miss said flight on May 21, the supposed day of the apocalypse.) Even though this is my first missed flight, the travel agencies and airlines have handled innumerable cases like mine before, and they know what to do. The American Express agent found another route to get me to Toronto. although it takes much longer than my original flight does, and arranges it for the change fee $150 plus the fare difference. Better than losing the full value of the flight, for sure! I don’t know if IBM will allow me to expense the increase in my fare, but if not, I can charge it to my experience fund – and thank goodness I have one, so that unexpected expenses don’t plunge me into more lasting troubles. I already know the process for paying part of my American Express card in case IBM policy doesn’t cover the itinerary change. Even though the flight lands early in the morning, W- will be there to meet me. Boy, will I be ever so glad to see him! Everything’s going to work out okay. Worst-case scenario, I pay for the fare difference myself, and it takes me a little longer to save up for my next goals. No big deal.

W- is right. I’m strong. I bounce back almost involuntarily. Maybe this hiccup will help me become even more resilient, if I remember to take the right lessons from it, if a future crisis makes me think, “Aha, I know how to deal with this, I’ve survived something similar before” instead of “I’m such an idiot, I can’t do anything right, like that time I missed my flight.”

Things I am glad about:

  • Amazon Kindle 3G connection. I’ve been talking about this so much on my blog and on Twitter, I know! But in areas without free, reliable WiFi networks, it’s been really really useful to be able to search for information and post updates.
  • Travel agencies, airline personnel, and lots of other travellers. I’m glad I booked this work trip through American Express, because they knew how to work the system in order to get me home. For our personal trips, I’m going to make sure I write down the toll-free numbers for the airlines so that I can get to them quickly if I need to reroute. I’m glad that airline personnel have handled many other missed flights before, and I’m a tiny bit glad that other people have run into and solved these problems. Can you imagine being the first person to miss a flight in the
  • Chocolate stroopwafels. As I headed out the door of our house, W- gave me two chocolate stroopwafels from our trip to the Netherlands. “For emergencies,” he said. I ate the first stroopwafel on the way out, cheering myself up after facing the prospect of a week-long trip. I saved the second stroopwafel. This counts as an emergency worthy of a stroopwafel, I believe, and I will have it shortly. The thought itself is comforting already.
  • Air travel and computers. Isn’t it amazing that we can fly through the air? And that computers can link together different routes, different cities, different companies? Can you imagine what it might’ve been like to miss a steamship that runs only once a month?
  • Writing. If you had told me in school that writing could be a comfort and a joy, I might’ve fallen in love with it then instead of getting bored by all the book reports and critical essays we wrote for teachers and never for ourselves. Writing will be my last and longest love, I think, even after time strips away friends and family, and hands and eyes fail.

There are more thoughts for this list, but I’m at the gate waiting for the flight to Vancouver. Everything will work out.

2011-05-21 Sat 17:00

Tweaking married life for everyday happiness

One of the things that works really well for W- and me in marriage is that we invest time and effort into making everyday life enjoyable. It’s not about big vacations or escaping from life; it’s about making regular life awesome. Let’s take a closer look at that.

Sleep takes up a third of our life. We make sure we get enough sleep, as sleep deprivation leads to general tetchiness and negative productivity. There’s no sense in doing more if you end up being unhappy, so we keep our schedule light and flexible.

Work takes up another third of our life, so we also make sure work is good. I love learning, working on open source, and helping clients and coworkers make things happen, so I work with my manager to make sure I’ve got plenty of opportunities to do so. W- also puts the time into improving his processes and getting better at what he does.

We invest in making chores enjoyable. A lot of this is mindset. For example, memories of the great washing machine adventure turn laundry into something that makes me smile. It helps that our washer and dryer sound so cheerful. (Really! Listen to someone else’s recording.)

“Right, Sacha, but that took a lot of work.” you might be thinking. But it’s surprising how a story can add more enjoyment to a routine task. For example: doing the dishes. I feel warm and fuzzy about the yummy food we just made, and I enjoy remembering W-‘s story about this Fisher&Paykel dishwasher. You see, when I moved in, W- had a regular dishwasher. He explained that he’d replaced his preferred dishwasher with a standard one because he had been thinking about selling the house. He kept telling me about how awesome this dishwasher was, and we joked that it was the kind of dishwasher that was accompanied by choirs. When we decided we were going to stay, we took a trip up to his parents to retrieve the dishwasher. After I saw how it was cleverly divided into two independent drawers and it had time-delay features, I became a convert. (It seems it really does go “Aaaah!”)

I’ve shown W- some clever ways to use the dishwasher, too, like using the top rack as a temporary holding space when the handwashed items need more space than the dish drying rack. Tiny improvements make life more awesome.

Sharing a task makes it fun, too. W- and I both enjoy cooking, and the L-shaped kitchen layout means that we don’t get in each other’s way. Cleaning up together makes that more enjoyable, too. Turn chores into social events to make the time fly.

What about other routines, like eating or getting ready for work? Again, this is something that can benefit from continuous improvement. For example, we switched to batch-cooking lunches and freezing individual portions. This not only simplifies mornings and saves us money, it also makes me smile whenever I have lunch. We tweaked our entrance workflow, and now it’s easier to take off our coats and put down our bags. Little things.

So that takes care of sleep, work, chores, and routines. What’s left? Mostly discretionary time – time that we can spend developing interests, enjoying hobbies, learning, relaxing, and so on. We spend a fair bit of this time together: hosting study groups, learning Latin, playing games. Sometimes we spend it on individual pursuits, like my tea parties or his calculator. We use this time not just to rest and recharge, but also to grow, and we deliberately invest in capabilities that can make future everyday life even better.

Is this kind of happiness a finite honeymoon-ish sort of period? Maybe. Who knows? But it makes perfect sense to invest that energy into strengthening the foundation and building good routines, and to enjoy the compounding benefits. It isn’t about big changes, just small and simple everyday happinesses

2011-04-23 Sat 11:32