Categories: planning

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Thinking about the next mini-experiment

| life, planning

The consulting engagement I’m working on is great. It takes advantage of a hard-to-find combination of different skills and experiences, and I’m having lots of fun. I’m glad I can help make a difference.

What do I want to do when it wraps up in around three months? I’m leaning towards experimenting with concentrating on some projects, which means not committing to any large, regular chunks of outside work. The Quantified Self conference in September will give me lots of reasons to work on Quantified Awesome. I’ll probably harvest enough ideas from it to be busy for quite a while afterwards.

I keep thinking about writing a book, too. If I clear the space for it, dedicate the time to it, then I’ll have some clear answers. Either I’ll emerge with a book (the first book is often the hardest, they say; after that, you know you can write), or I’ll know that I’m not yet in the right space for writing a book, and maybe I’ll have an idea of what I need to work on before I am.

I haven’t had such a large chunk of time to myself in a while, structured and directed mostly by me. The closest I can think of was the time after I returned from my technical internship in Japan and before I left for my master’s degree in Canada. Fortunately, I blogged back then too, so I can try to remember what I did and what it felt like.

March 2005: Spoke at a conference, worked on open source, practised poi April: Worked on open source, spent lots of time with family May: Worked on open source, wrote flash fiction, wrote about hipster PDAs (index cards) June: Took driving lessons, worked on open source, wrote flash fiction, moved to Canada

Right! Open source, that was what I was focusing on – that, and spending time with family, and exploring productivity tips. I’ve been working on far less open source than I thought I would be, but that’s because I’ve been focusing on non-programming things like writing and drawing. It was fun working on open source. I was maintaining Planner Mode (another organizer for Emacs) at the time, and I had a lot of fun working with the community. Time to re-subscribe to mailing lists and see if I can stay sharp by helping out.

That should be a good balance, eh? Writing and drawing to exercise creativity and share what I know, Quantified Awesome and open source software so that I can make better tools. Should be fun. For the business side of things, I might explore e-books and icon design as a way to use the writing and drawing skills I’ll be developing. Quantified Awesome and open source software might be more of a stretch for business, but let’s see where that takes me.

By that point, I’ll have been consulting for six months. I’ll probably give this self-directed learning and working a try for six months as well, and we’ll see how other factors influence our scheduling.

Looking forward to it!

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Planning my life

| life, planning

I often think about what I want in life. What do I want to learn? What do I want to be able to share? What do I want to try? What do I want to do?

I think about life a lot because:

  • I want to make better decisions: Planning my life allows me to deliberately try things instead of being limited to chance or what other people want
  • Looking back makes it easier to go forward: Reviewing my life helps me decide what I want to continue doing, what I want to stop doing, and what I want to start doing
  • Planning ahead helps: You can’t plan for everything, but a little foresight can make things a lot easier

Gaps are great for thinking about these things: biking to work, waiting in line, getting ready for bed, relaxing during a long weekend. I review my key priorities and brainstorm ideas for the next steps. I make lists in my notebook, tap ideas into my phone, type thoughts into my laptop, or think out loud (good for bike rides!).

Most of my notes are in scattered places, and that’s okay. I don’t need a perfect record of everything. I don’t need a well-organized outline. I don’t mind covering the same ground again. Every time I make a list, I learn from what I add, change, forget, or remove.

I revisit my plans regularly. Every week, I review the things I’ve accomplished, plan what I want to do the next week, and check how I feel about how I’m doing. Once in a while, I flip through my old mindmaps and notes, crossing out things I’m no longer interested in and adding new ideas.

Every so often, I sit down and flesh out the plans further, sharing them on my blog or adding them to my private notes. I think about what I want to learn, and I plan my curriculum for getting there. I think about the experiments I want to try, and I take the first step. I think about what I want, and I dig deeper to find out if I really want it or it’s something I think that I want. These plans change, and that’s good. The changes tell me more about myself.

I don’t have a firm plan for my life. I don’t have goals like “I want to be ____ by ____” or “I want to _____ by ______.” Many people have these bucket lists – things they want to do before they die. It’s easy to get carried away by these goals, though. Many people plan themselves into unhappiness by saying, “I’ll be happy when I…”. I try to not give in to the temptation to think that happiness is something external, something caused by events or reached when you get to a threshold.

I like to think that I plan out of curiosity. I’m curious about certain things, and I can make certain decisions that get me closer to understanding. For example, I’m curious about entrepreneurship and parenting. With a little planning, we can give ourselves as good a foundation as any. I can’t dictate the cards that are dealt, but I can stack the deck.

How would I like to get better at planning my life?

I’d love to learn more from other people’s lives. I read voraciously to learn about other people’s patterns, and I also ask people about their lives and their decisions. The more I learn about the different paths people have taken, the more I can explore and prepare for possible futures, and the more ideas I can pick up and play with.

I’m working on getting better at documenting and reviewing my decisions. I read a lot about decision science and decision management. I like the way that the practice of thinking through my decisions helps me understand future ones. I’m looking forward to writing about more decisions.

I’m looking forward to testing more of these plans. Many things take time. The wait is fun because I can periodically tweak my plans to try new ideas, understand things better, and get closer to what I want. Besides, there’s always the chance I’ll be surprised, and that helps me learn to think on my feet. (Many of these surprises are awesome!) Life is good.

Thanks to Soha for the nudge to write about this!

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Learning more about what I want to learn

Posted: - Modified: | learning, planning

It’s hard to get better without knowing what better is.

I want to draw better. What does better mean? For me, “better” means having a wider visual vocabulary for both individual concepts (icons? shapes?) as well as layout (graphic organizers? metaphors?). “Better” means cleaner lettering and more font or design choices. “Better” means being able to draw more things more recognizably, and to design pages so that they’re visually appealing as well as informative. “Better” means becoming more comfortable with colour and shade, and using them to emphasize what’s important. Someday, “better” might even include working with animation.

How can I learn how to draw better? Practice is a big part of it, of course. I can revise my previous sketches, and I can make new ones. I can also look at sites like Sketchnote Army for inspiration. I can collect graphic organizers and visual metaphors. For deliberate practice, I can draw lines, circles, and other shapes, and I can work on lettering.

I want to write better. “Better” means adding more vividness to my writing: picking just the right verb, noticing little details and fleshing them out, adding more specifics and more data. “Better” means pushing beyond clich├ęs. “Better” means writing so that other people can learn more effectively – digging deeper to find things people might be curious about, organizing my notes so that other people can learn more from them.

How can I learn how to write better? Again, practice and inspiration. I can revise my posts and organize them into a coherent e-book or blog series. I can challenge myself to research and share a topic I’m curious about. I can read other people’s work and play around with their styles.

I want to connect better. “Better” means knowing more about people’s lives – it’s easy to know about mine, but I think it would be interesting to know more about people too. It boggles my mind wonderfully that I now have old friends here in Canada (by golly!). I’d like to cultivate more friends and build deeper friendships both in person and online.

What does your “better” look like?

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From maker time to learner time

Posted: - Modified: | business, learning, life, planning, time

It turns out that when I have more control over my schedule, I don’t fill it with development. I haven’t been working on open source or personal projects, much less client websites or applications. This is a surprise to my 2010 self, who figured she would spend the whole day coding if she could.

I spend most of my discretionary time learning instead: drawing, writing, Latin, business, life. Maybe it’s because I’m in the fledgling stage of business and there’s so much to learn. Maybe it’s because 3-4 days of consulting a week takes up a large chunk of brainspace. Maybe it’s because development won’t get me where I want to go in this short-term search for a business that can survive unpredictable schedules and the primary care of young children.

Learning time. Yeah, that seems like the focus that fits me. If I imagine days and weeks stretching ahead of me – maybe in half a year, after this consulting engagement – I can easily see myself spending time exploring ideas and sharing my notes. I’d want to plumb this, deepen my understanding of this, before I focus on something like development.

Self-structured learning time is intimidating, but I want to see if I can get past the initial anxieties and figure out things that work. Writers have been able to do so for millennia. Things will be okay.

I’ll still build things, of course. Code is a powerful way to crystallize learning and make it easier for people to do better. It also helps me ask questions that would be hard to answer manually.

Okay. I give myself permission to focus on learning after this. I know I’ll probably feel that itch to do something that creates immediate or measurable value for people. That’s okay. I might feel insecure at some point. That’s normal. But there’s so much I want to learn, and I think I’ll be able to stay motivated even without outside drivers. Worth trying it out and sticking with it through at least the initial bumps.

This will be fun!

(Thanks to Mel Chua for the nudge!)

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Why I’m temporarily unhireable

Posted: - Modified: | business, planning

The consulting work I’m doing now is a wonderful fit for who I am at this moment. In the past two months, I’ve been able to do a lot. They’d like to keep me, and I can see how I could make a good difference here. But I didn’t leave one wonderful job just to start another wonderful job, did I?

My primary reason for experimenting with entrepreneurship is to build something more flexible and more scalable than employment. By flexibility, I mean that it should be able to accommodate the unpredictable schedules and irregular demands of raising young children if W- and I have more kids. By scalability, I don’t mean the mind-boggling aspirations of venture-backed startups. I mean the ability to create more value with less time, and possibly by involving other people.

My secondary reason for experimenting is to learn what I can learn so that I can share those lessons with as many as people as possible. Thanks to frugality and other factors, I enjoy the privilege of being able to learn about entrepreneurship without immediate financial pressure. Thanks to a great network, I can learn from people’s experiences instead of struggling in isolation. Thanks to a keen interest in both technology and business, I can try things out instead of waiting for the missing piece. With all these advantages, maybe I can make things easier for other people.

With these reasons in mind, it becomes easier to say no, even though I also really want to say yes. Full-time work doing what I’m doing now? It would probably be awesome, but it doesn’t follow my reasons, so I’d prefer to help people learn how to do what I do. If I could be in more than one place, I would be in so many. Since I can be in only one place at a time, I’ll focus on training people, and I’ll work on the questions that I most want to ask.

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Learning how to manage time

Posted: - Modified: | business, life, planning, time

One of the things I really like about this business experiment is my new time flexibility. I work on a consulting engagement for three to four days a week. I spend the rest of the time on other things: meeting people, learning stuff, practising skills.

I’m still getting the hang of managing that time. It’s been a while since I’ve had large chunks of solo discretionary time to work with. It’s so different from weekend time. During weekends, we usually spend one day handling all the chores and getting the house sorted out, and the other day relaxing and hanging out with each other or with family and friends. These weekdays are different

The weeks will be even more different when I wrap up with this consulting engagement. I’ll probably refer consulting or freelancing gigs to other people for the next little while. I think that by August, I’ll be ready to make the most of full weeks, and I’ll have some ideas to focus on building.

It’s almost as if I’d set things up so that I can learn gradually, although I don’t think I could’ve engineered having such great clients right out of the gate. Instead of going from full-time employment to full-time experimentation, this transition period helps me learn how to manage my time and energy when there’s no one calling the shots but me. The consulting engagement gives me some structure, regular interaction, and a clear task list, and my discretionary days let me practise moving towards my own goals.

Looking at it on a day-by-day basis works well, but not amazingly. I feel energized and engaged throughout the day. When I make my decisions day by day, though, I find that some things keep drifting to the the bottom of my list. Between the habits I’m working on building (ex: study Latin for at least half an hour, draw for at least an hour) and the appointments I make, I sometimes don’t shift into the mood to work on some things, such as responding to mail or working on book summaries. It’s a little more embarrassing because I know time isn’t the limiting factor. It’s more about interest and energy.

If I plan my day more, I can probably shift into the right mindset easily. For example, I might make a short list of current projects using Org Mode, the Emacs-based organizer that I use. I can set aside small chunks of time to make steady progress on the kinds of projects that benefit from that, such as languages. For projects that benefit from larger chunks, I might dedicate a 4-hour slot for concentrated work, and choose different projects to work on each time. Planning will also help me make progress and track it even if I’m working with small steps, such as with habits.

Here are the current projects I’m working on, how far I want to take them, and why:

Ongoing habits:

  • Write: If I don’t take notes, I can’t review them. Writing helps me understand, remember, and revisit ideas. Time commitment: At least 30 minutes a day. Chunks of 1-3 hours, the occasional quick note.
  • Practise drawing: I want to communicate more effectively. Drawing is both fun and useful. This also includes learning how to use different tools. Time commitment: at least 30min each day, often chunks of 1-2 hours.
  • Finish the exercises in this beginner’s Latin textbook: I want to learn Latin because it hacks my brain. Besides, schoolboys before managed to do it, so why shouldn’t I? Time commitment: 30min each day
  • Garden: Water and weed the garden as needed; plant new seeds occasionally. Time commitment: 15 minutes a day
  • Cook: Prepare bulk meals. Time commitment: 3-4 hour sprint.

Special projects:

  • Quantified Awesome: Make this even better so that I use it to track and analyze more data.
  • Miscellaneous work: Supporting a Rails site, etc.
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Unstructured time update, now that I have my own business

Posted: - Modified: | life, planning, reflection, time

I like making lists of things I can do to make the most of chunks of time. Lists make it easier for me to answer the question: “What do I want to do now?” That’s because it’s easier to pick something from a list than to come up with an idea from scratch. I’m still open to spontaneity, but I’m never at a loss for things to do, and I can match my discretionary activities more closely to my preferences and priorities. By starting with a long view and zooming all the way in to things I can do in a few minutes, I can align these snippets of time with my long-term goals.

I posted one such list three years ago, and periodically post updated lists as my circumstances change. Now that I have my own business and I’m focusing on other interests, how would I like to spend my unstructured, discretionary time? What do I care about and want to develop long-term, and how can I translate that into on-the-ground actions?

This list is long, so I’ll keep it out of the excerpt. If you don’t see the list, click on the link to read more.

Building wonderful relationships

My first priority is building wonderful relationships. I tend to be happy by default and I enjoy making opportunities at work, so I can take care of those aspects on my own. On the other hand, relationships can take more work and effort because other people are involved. It makes sense to put the hard stuff first.

I want to have a long and happy marriage, the kind where we enjoy each other’s company even more throughout the years. Our age gap is probably going to create a few challenges, but those shouldn’t be insurmountable. If we build a strong foundation now, we can deal with the tough parts. For various reasons, we would also like to raise children, and we want to be personally involved in helping them learn.

I also want to build wonderful relationships with my parents, my sisters and their families, and my in-laws. This means keeping up to date with frequent Skype chats and social network updates, sharing experiences and thoughts, and occasionally travelling to see them.

If I choose to spend a month or more focusing on building wonderful relationships, what would that look like? I might:

  • Cook a large variety of good recipes
  • Tidy, streamline, and organize the house
  • Plant and tend a productive fruit and vegetable garden
  • Raise kids, possibly with interesting educational experiments: Algorithmic thinking introduced early? Latin? Math and science as fun?
  • Spend the time hanging out in the Philippines or travelling with my family
  • Help work on a collection of family stories and photographs

If I have a week or two to focus on building wonderful relationships, I might:

  • Take a cooking class or learn a few new recipes
  • Tidy and organize the house
  • Plan and plant the garden
  • Take a short vacation with family
  • Take and organize pictures and stories

If I have a day or two, I might:

  • Try a new recipe
  • Cook for a week
  • Plant a few more seeds in the garden

If I have a chunk of time (3-4 hours, which is an afternoon or an evening), I might:

  • Cook a nice meal
  • Water the garden
  • Visit my in-laws
  • Clean the house

If I have an hour, I might:

  • Go for a walk with W-
  • Chat with my parents or sisters over Skype
  • Tidy up
  • Clear my inbox

If I have 5-15 minutes, I might:

  • Give W- a hug or a kiss
  • Quickly check social networks for updates
  • Respond to some mail
  • Tidy a room

Learn and share as much as I can

Learning is tons of fun. I read quickly and I like asking people questions, so I learn a lot from other people’s experiences. I love sharing what I know through blog posts, drawings, and presentations. I care about making it easier for other people to learn something. If I can accelerate learning, then people who follow afterwards can learn even more, and they can share that with me!

This is where my interests in writing and drawing fit in. I want to write really well and draw really well so that I can share what I’m learning about life.

If I have a month or more to focus on learning and sharing, I might:

  • Write and illustrate books, blog posts, presentations, etc.
  • Learn or practise a language (on my list: Latin, Cantonese, Japanese)
  • Learn or develop a skill (drawing, writing, photography, woodworking, …)
  • Pick a subject, learn it, and share it
  • Build a visual library of summaries and sketches so that I can easily remember and share ideas, books, presentations, and more

If I have a week or more, I might:

  • Draw lots of summaries
  • Do a deep dive into research on a topic

If I have a day or two, I might:

  • Map what I’m learning
  • Practise drawing
  • Braindump lots of thoughts
  • Explore life by learning and writing about it

If I have 3-4 hours, I might:

  • Read and take notes on a book, then summarize it visually
  • Organize my notes
  • Prepare a presentation
  • Draw something detailed

If I have an hour, I might:

  • Read and take notes on a book
  • Practise drawing
  • Write about what I’m learning

If I have 5-15 minutes, I might:

  • Read a few blog posts
  • Take quick notes on what I’m learning
  • Reuse something I’ve already written by publishing it on my blog
  • Review my notes

Cultivate friends whom I like spending time with

I like bringing friends together. I learn a lot from their conversations, and I love how people help each other out. I’m tickled pink that I now have old friends in Canada, people who’ve seen me change over time and whom I’ve also seen grow. I want to get even better at spending time with friends and learning more about their lives.

This can be a challenge for me because I’m both introverted and shy. I don’t like going to crowded, noisy places, which I find tiring and overstimulating. I feel awkward calling people up and asking them how they’ve been, or setting up lunch or coffee so that we can chat. I prefer small-group interacts – they not only let me see more aspects of my friends than I can bring out myself, they also relieve the pressure to carry the conversation. So I organize tea parties and other get-togethers, and it would be great to either make a regular habit of doing so or nudge friends into holding them too.

If I have a month or more to focus on cultivating friends, I might:

  • Set up lunch or coffee with different people every day, and get over that hump of talking to people one-on-one
  • Build my database of people’s interests and stories by looking at Facebook updates or taking notes (this will probably make it easier for me to think up appropriate gifts)

If I have a week or two, I might:

  • Take an intensive class with a friend
  • Write lots of e-mail or paper letters

If I have a day or two, I might:

  • Host or organize a more complex get-together (new recipes? more food?)
  • Prepare lots of jams, jellies, or other kitchen gifts

If I have 3-4 hours or so, I might:

  • Host, organize, or attend a get-together
  • Take a class with a friend

If I have an hour or so, I might:

  • Clear my inbox
  • Respond to social network updates
  • Pick someone’s brain about how friendship works for other people
  • Write about what’s going on in my life

If I have 5-15 minutes, I might:

  • Respond to e-mail
  • Respond to social network updates

Make the world better

I love looking for ways to make the world work a little bit better. There are many different ways I can help: developing websites, offering consulting, drawing, writing, automating, coaching…

If I have a month or more to focus on making the world better, I might:

  • Focus on open source development and contribute a lot of patches or new functionality
  • Build a website or web application using Ruby on Rails, Drupal, WordPress, or another framework
  • Experiment with behavioural change and add the capabilities to Quantified Awesome
  • Help a startup make stuff happen
  • Pick a skill and get better at it

If I have a week or two, I might:

  • Pick an open source project and work on some bugs
  • Learn or improve my understanding of a new skill, tool, or framework

If I have a day or two, I might:

  • Review the documentation or source code for a tool that I’m using
  • Learn about tools that are out there so that I can help other people save time
  • Pick a small change needed in an open source project and make it happen

If I have 3-4 hours, I might:

  • Work on a regular-sized task
  • Browse through the documentation for a tool that I’m using and use it better
  • Invest time into improving my processes
  • Practise a skill
  • Write about what I’m learning
  • Coach someone for an afternoon

If I have an hour or so, I might:

  • Work on a small task
  • Give someone advice or ask someone for advice
  • Clear my inbox

If I have 5-15 minutes, I might:

  • Read a skill-building blog post

Live a simple and healthy life

This is another part that deserves deliberate attention because it can easily slip through the cracks. I want to feel great about life, and it’s easier to do that when you have good health and a lifestyle that doesn’t add to your stress.

If I have a month or more to focus on simplicity and health, I might:

  • Tidy, organize, and streamline the house
  • Bike or walk long distances frequently
  • Learn how to do proper push-ups and get myself across the monkey bars
  • Plant and tend a productive fruit and vegetable garden
  • Try lots of healthy recipes and collect new favourites
  • Replace bad habits with good habits

If I have a week or two, I might:

  • Go through each room of the house looking for things to donate
  • Bike or walk long distances frequently
  • Try a few new recipes and collect new favourites
  • Have a mini-retreat to think about the long term and check that I’m on track
  • Sew my own clothes so that I can wear simple things and avoid the frustration of shopping

If I have a day or two, I might:

  • Go for a long bike ride just because
  • Cook a week of meals

If I have 3-4 hours or so, I might:

  • Write introspective reflections like this so that I can understand life better
  • Clean house
  • Take sewing lessons
  • Plan and plant the garden
  • Try a new recipe
  • Bike (possibly with W- or with friends)
  • Go for a long walk

If I have an hour or so, I might:

  • Tend the garden
  • Go for a walk with W-
  • Do yoga

If I have 5-15 minutes, I might:

  • Check the garden
  • Do some stretches or jumping jacks
  • Do a little yoga
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