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

More thoughts on time analysis: correlations and revealed preferences

People often ask about the time analyses I do as part of my weekly review. My weekly time tracking reports go back to about December 11, 2010, when I started tracking my time using the free Time Recording app on the Android. I do it because of the following reasons:

  • I need to track my project-level time for work anyway,
  • I want to see where I spend my time and if that’s in line with my priorities,
  • I want to know how much time it takes me to do certain things, in order to improve my estimates and get better at planning,
  • I want to avoid burning myself out
  • I want to make sure I allocate enough time to important activities instead of, say, getting carried away with lots of fun work and flow experiences, and
  • I want to cultivate other deep interests and relationships.

Fatigue and burnout are particularly big concerns for developers. There’s always the temptation to be unrealistic about one’s schedule, either through over-optimistic estimates or through business pressures. However, sustained crunch mode decreases productivity and may even result in negative productivity. Sleep deprivation severely cuts into cognitive ability and increases the chance of catastrophic error. I like what I do too much to waste time burning out.

Development is so engaging for me. I could keep writing code and building systems late into the night, at the expense of other things I could do. Tracking time helps me keep a careful eye on how much time I spend programming. Like the way a good budgeting system helps me make the most of my expenses and gives me the freedom to take advantage of opportunities, a good time budgeting system helps me make the most of my focused work time and allows me to also focus on other things that matter (the care and feeding of relationships, the development of new skills, and so on).

So here are some new things I’ve learned from time tracking:

  • I sleep a median of 59 hours a week, which is about eight and a half hours a day. This is more than I expected, but I manage to get a lot done anyway, so it’s okay.
  • I work a little over 40 hours each week, except for the occasional week of crunch time or travel. I don’t make a habit of 50-hour weeks, and I get a little twitchy when I work too intensely several weeks in a row (46 hours or so). This means that when I estimate timelines or project my utilization, I should assume 38 or 40-hour weeks instead of 44 hours.
  • I spend most of my time sleeping (44%), working (31%), or connecting with people (11%). Regular routines take up 9% of my time, while my favourite hobby (writing) takes only 5%. I enjoy my work and I sleep well at night, so this time allocation is fine.

In economics, there’s the idea of a revealed preference, which is basically what your actions show compared to what you might say or think you prefer. I may think I’d like to sew or learn languages or do the piano, but if I spend time playing LEGO Star Wars III instead, then that tells me that sewing, Latin, and Schumann are lower on my priority list. (Rationalization: LEGO Star Wars is awesome and it counts as bonding time with W- and J-, so it’s not all that bad.)

So, how do I really trade my time? Which activities are positively or negatively correlated with other activities? I made a correlation matrix to see how I spent my time. I used conditional formatting to make high correlations jump out at me. I found some interesting patterns in how I shift time from one category to another.

Activity 1 Activity 2 Linear correlation coefficient (r) Notes
Prep Personal 0.87 Getting things in order means I can give myself permission to learn something new
Cooking Prep 0.86 Makes perfect sense. Big chore days.
Break Drawing 0.75 More relaxing time = more drawing time
Travel Work 0.69 When I commute to work, I probably tend to work longer. Also, I needed to go to the office for some of the crunchy projects.
Sleep Break 0.67 Relaxed days
Sleep Writing 0.60 Nice to know writing isn’t conflicting with sleep
Social Drawing -0.50 The Saturday afternoons or weekday evenings I spend with people instead of sketching
Routines Drawing -0.65 Lots of chores = less drawing time
Personal Drawing -0.55 Learning other things = less time spent on drawing
Travel Cooking -0.60 Lots of travel = live off home-made frozen lunches
Sleep Cooking -0.62 Late weekend mornings = less cooking?
Sleep Prep -0.58 Likewise
Sleep Personal -0.57 More sleep = less time spent learning other things

I can guess at the causality of some of these relationships, but the others are up in the air. =) Still, I’m learning quite a lot from this exercise. For example, I thought I was giving up sleep in order to write more or draw more. It turns out that sleep cuts into cooking, prep, and other personal interests (sewing, piano, etc.), and doesn’t have much effect on work, writing, or drawing. I do sleep quite well, though, so it may be interesting to experiment with that.

I’m also happy to see I don’t give up too much because of travel – a median of 3.4 hours / week, much of which is spent reading, brainstorming, or listening to audiobooks with W-. Travel time reduces cooking time, but that’s okay because we batch-cook in order to minimize weekday cooking. It’s good to see that it doesn’t affect my other activities a lot.

The same dataset lets me analyze my sleeping patterns, report project-level breakdowns at work, and review quick notes on my day. I’m in consulting, so I need to track and bill my time per project. Time Recording makes it easy to do that, and I’m thinking of tweaking my workflow further so that I can use task-level times to improve my estimates.

So that’s where I am, tracking-wise. It takes me a few seconds to clock into a new category, and the habit is handy for making sure I know where my phone is. Tracking my time also helps me stay more focused on what I’m doing. If you’re curious about the idea and you have a smartphone or other mobile device, find a time-tracking application and give it a try. Have fun!

2011-03-29 Tue 21:54