Categories: time

RSS - Atom - Subscribe via email

Figuring out how to deal with sub-optimal times

Posted: - Modified: | productivity, time

There are days when I’m at the top of my game. It’s easy to think, learn, write, draw, code, be present. Somehow, time stretches to accommodate the different things I want to do. Those are good days. I have them frequently enough so that my optimistic brain considers this the default, although there are also Really Good days when things totally rock.

Then there are times when I feel fuzzy or blah or frazzled or stressed. I guess you could call them sub-optimal, although sub-optimal is a funny word because there’s so much space below “optimal” that you’d spend practically all of your time in sub-optimal zone. Anyway.

I was thinking about the different variants of fuzziness, frazzledness, and such things. When you’re feeling out of it, sometimes you don’t have the ability (or inclination) to pin down exactly why you feel out of it and what you can do about that – either to help you recharge, or to at least mitigate the downsides of being down. It makes sense to come up with some ways to recognize and work around your brain state.

2014-09-04 Suboptimal Sacha

2014-09-04 Suboptimal Sacha

Here’s a quick list of sub-optimal states I sometimes find myself in:

  • Sleepy: Pretty straightforward. Tends to happen if I get less than 8 hours of sleep (probably even anything less than 8.3), or if my sleep is messed up by interruptions, buzzing brains, etc. Manifests itself as slowness, tiredness, yawns. The fix is easy: take it easy, nap, or go to sleep earlier.
  • Sick: The occasional cold makes me feel all blah and fuzzy. Hard to think creatively during these times. Good time to sleep or play video games.
  • Stretched: This happens when I’m trying to pay attention to too many projects or open loops. I feel a little frazzled around the edges. I can generally deal with this by writing down all the tasks into Org Mode and scheduling them appropriately, but sometimes I still get stressed around calendar events or multiple places to check.
  • Buzzy: When my mind skitters to and fro, usually because it’s been overstimulated by computers or video games. Hard to focus. Can be addressed by walks or sleeping. Can be minimized by not using computers late at night, and not trying to multitask important things during meetings.
  • Fuzzy: Hard to focus, but in a different way from buzziness. When I feel fuzzy, my thoughts feel slow and it’s hard to grab onto something. It’s a good time to do straightforward tasks that don’t require much thinking, like accounting. I can also break down creative tasks into smaller less-creative pieces, so I can still get small chunks of writing or drawing done even when my brain is tired.
  • Speeding: Sometimes I overlook details or things I need to do. When we catch that, it’s a good time to slow down and ask people to doublecheck my work. Related to buzziness and feeling stretched. Checklists, processes, and automation help a lot.
  • Absent-minded: Sometimes I’ll blank out when it comes to where I’ve put something or what I was about to do because I wasn’t paying enough attention. Related to fuzziness. Habits, reminders, and lists help; also, W- helps me remember or find things.
  • Anxious: Generally around being late, messing up, or forgetting important things. When I’m awake and reasonable, I know that the world tends to keep on going and that people adjust, but early meetings still disproportionately interfere with sleep. I can calm down my lizard brain when I’m awake enough to do it. Sleeping is easier with backup alarms and wake-up reminders.
  • Annoyed/frustrated: When things are more limited than I hoped they’d be, or I have to figure out complicated workarounds. Can handle this by dissociating emotion from dealing with things like Internet Explorer. Also, taking plenty of notes helps, since I can avoid having to re-solve the problem in the future. If I can share my notes, all the better.
  • Embarrassed: Sometimes I mess up, and sometimes programming/automation helps me mess up on a grand scale. Whoops. Somewhat mitigated if I focus on moving forward and fixing multiple gaps. Having team members provide air cover helps a lot too.

I’d been feeling a little bit stretched lately. When I recognized that, I made lots of lists of ongoing tasks and open loops. That helped a lot. =) I feel a little bit fuzzy in the evenings, but certain kinds of drawing and writing actually help with that instead of making it worse. Hmm…

View or add comments

Thinking about what I want to do with my time

Posted: - Modified: | decision, experiment, planning, time

Every so often, I spend time thinking about what I want to focus on. I’m interested in many things. I like following my interests. Guiding them to focus on two or three key areas helps me avoid feeling split apart or frazzled.

I balance this thinking with the time I spend actually doing things. It’s easy to spend so much time thinking about what you want to do that you don’t end up doing it. It’s easy to spend so much time doing things that you don’t end up asking if you’re doing the right things. I probably spend slightly more time on the thinking side than I could, but that will work itself out over time.

I balance thinking with moving forward. It doesn’t matter if I might be going in the wrong direction, because movement itself teaches you something. You discover your preferences: more of this, less of that. You get feedback from the world. For me, moving forward involves learning more about technology, trying experiments, making things, and so on. Taking small steps helps me avoid spending lots of time going in the wrong direction.

(And are there really wrong directions, or just vectors that don’t line up as well?)

What do I want to do with my time?

Fitness: The weather’s warming up, so: more biking, more raking, more compost-turning, more carrying water to the garden. It would be good to be fitter and to feel fitter. I like the focus on fitness rather than exercise – not exertion for its own sake, but practical application.

Coding: I like coding. Coding might be a perfectly acceptable answer to the question “What do I want to do with my life?”, at least currently. I’ve been doing a lot more Emacs coding, and I’m digging into other technologies as well. I like it because I can build stuff – and more importantly, learning helps me imagine useful stuff to build.

I think I want to get better at making web tools that are useful and that look good, but I’m not sure. Lots of other people can do this, and I haven’t come up with strong ideas that need this. (Back to the need for a well-trained imagination!) I can wait to develop this skill until I have a stronger idea, or I can learn these skills to lay the foundation for coming up with ideas. I’ve been thinking about getting better at working with APIs, but that’s even more like digital sharecropping than creating content on other people’s platform is. APIs, pricing models, and all sorts of other things change a lot. I’m wary of investing lots of time in things that I have very little control over.

What would a few possible futures look like? I could be a toolmaker, building lots of little tools for niche audiences. technomancy and johnw are great role models for this. I could be a contributor or maintainer, building up part of something like Org or Emacs, or perhaps one of the modern Web stacks. If I need to keep a path back into the workforce, maybe back-end development would be a good way to do that. I like talking to fellow geeks anyway, so it’s okay if I don’t focus on front end–that way I won’t have to deal with fiddly browser differences or client tweaks.

Writing: Writing helps me learn more and understand things better. It saves other people time and tickles their brains. It’s also a great use of my time, although sometimes I feel like coding has more straightforward value.

Lots of people write. I want to write about things things that are not already thoroughly covered elsewhere. I want to be myself, not some generic blogger – to write (and draw!) things that are geeky and approachable. I like writing about Emacs (goodness knows how we need more documentation!), self-tracking, experiments, technology, and learning.

What’s on the backburner for now, then?

  • Sketchnoting other people’s content: Useful and easy to appreciate, but potentially distracting from the other stuff I want to do. I may make an exception for books, since I like reading anyway.
  • Spreading sketchnoting: I can leave this in the capable hands of Mike Rohde, Sunni Brown, and Dan Roam. I’ll still use sketchnoting to think through things, though, and I’ll share them on my blog and on Flickr.
  • Spreading alternative lifestyles (semi-retirement, portfolio careers, etc.): Jeff Goins, Pamela Slim, and Mr. Money Mustache are doing fine with this. I tend to stay away from giving advice, and I don’t want to inadvertently feed wantrepreneurship as a substitute for actually taking action. I’ll still write about my experiments and decisions, though.
  • Spreading blogging in general: I’ll answer people’s questions and encourage people along, but I won’t dig into this as much as I could. I might make an exception for tech blogging, because I have a vested interest in getting more geeks to blog – more search results to come across and more posts to learn from! ;)
  • Drawing better: I draw well enough for my purposes, and I want to keep things approachable.

What does this reflection teach me about what drives me?

  • I like the feeling of figuring things out and of contributing to something that will build over time.
  • I like positive feedback, but I can move away from it if I want. For example, people always ask me about sketchnotes, but I like Emacs stuff more even though it’s hard to explain in regular conversation.
  • If I don’t have a particularly strong idea for something I want to build, I can spend the time learning more about the capabilities of the tools I use. Along the way, I’m sure to run into lots of small gaps. I can fill those in to demonstrate my learning.
  • I tend to build things for my own convenience. I open it up if I think a web interface will be handy, and if other people find it helpful, that’s icing on the cake.

For amusement, you can check out my list of back-burner things from October 2013. Back then, I wanted to focus more on drawing and writing. This time, I’m geeking out. Yay! =)

View or add comments

Rethinking my time categories: the blurring of business and discretionary activities

Posted: - Modified: | business, experiment, quantified, time

I track my time with medium-level categories (not detailed enough that I’m tracking individual tasks, but not so high level that it’s hard to make sense of the data). From time to time, I notice categories drift, or they stop fitting. Consulting is definitely business, but does working on Emacs really belong there? Why is coding classified under business but writing is classified as discretionary time? Most of my categories still make sense a year or two later, but some of them could use more thinking about.

What is business, anyway? I suppose it can include anything related to the earning of money, including support such as paperwork or delegation. Packaging (by which I mean creating e-books and other resources) is part of business, since I earn a small income from that (and pay taxes on it, too!). So is responding to e-mail. Technically, Emacs is related to money, because people have actually booked and paid me for help sessions online (http://sachachua.com/help). I consider programming-related activities to be part of maintaining my technical skills and network. In that sense, coding, web development, system administration, and other geek things are business-related. I distinguish between sketchnoting for client engagements and drawing on my own. Many of my drawings are more along the lines of personal or business planning. Perhaps I should track more under those categories now that I’ve established drawing as a way of thinking, and shift to using “Business – Drawing” when I’m specifically working on illustrations or improving skills.

Discretionary time includes the stuff I do just for fun and the things I learn about just because (Latin and Morse, for example). Probably the only weird thing in here is that I classify writing as discretionary time. It’s fun. Coding is fun too. Coding is more obviously valued, though, so I guess that’s why I consider it business time. And also, if I classify writing as coding time, I’ll tip over way too often into the “working too many hours a week” zone, when I’m not really doing so.

Maybe a better approach is to classify coding, drawing, and other fun things as discretionary time instead, even if they occasionally result in money. Benefit: I get to celebrate having more discretionary time and a lighter workload. (Yeah, it’s all mental anyway…)

Or maybe I need to take a step back and ask myself what kinds of questions I want to be able to answer with my categorical data.

In general, I want to make sure I don’t spend too much time working, because I want to force myself to work on my own projects. That’s why I track the time spent consulting, doing paperwork, and connecting with people (including responding to e-mail). I usually keep a close eye on my Business – Earn subcategory, since that’s the one that can creep up on me unawares. That’s fine with my current categories.

I also want to look for patterns in time use. How does spending more time on one activity (and less time on other activities) influence what I do and how I feel? How bursty am I when it comes to different discretionary projects? As long as I’m tracking at the subcategory level, it doesn’t really matter what the root category is.

Hmm. Since I’m not actually using the distinction between discretionary and business for reports or visualizations that nudge my behaviour, I can probably leave my categories alone if I remind myself that those ones have fuzzy boundaries. It would matter more if I wanted to set goals for investing X hours a week on business things (or, conversely, spending Y hours on discretionary non-business related things, which is oddly harder). Since I don’t care about that at the moment, I’m fine. Also, it’s easy enough to reassign the parent categories, so I still leave the door open for analyses at a later date.

As long as I can keep things clear enough in my head so that I feel confident that I can explain to any auditors that yes, my  business expenses make sense, I should be fine. I feel a little weird about not having a proper business plan for lots of things I’m working on. I mean, I can write them (or draw business model canvasses, more likely), but I prefer this pay-what-you-want model. Oh, hey, there’s an assumption there that I can dig into. People can (and do!) build metrics around freemium or pay-what-you-want models. Maybe I can figure out how to approach this in a business-like-but-still-generous way.

What would a more business-y way look like? I would float an idea to see if it’s useful. Then I would make stuff (and sometimes I’d make it anyway, just because). I might actually track conversions, and try things out, and reach out to people and communities. I’d publish little guides and videos, and maybe add a tip jar for smaller pieces of content so that people can “vote” for things they like more.

All things to do in due course. In the meantime, knowing that the path is there means I can leave all of this stuff still filed under the Business category, because it is. Even if it’s fun. Writing still feels more discretionary than business-y (even posts like this, for example), so I’ll leave that where it is. So no change, but I understand things better.

Do you track your time and have fuzzy boundaries between categories? How do you deal with it?

 

 

View or add comments

Goal factoring, reflecting on what I can do with my time, and enjoying a buffet of goals

Posted: - Modified: | planning, time

Lucas Baker came across my Less Wrong meetup notes while looking for more information about goal factoring, a technique for analyzing your actions and goals in order to come up with better alternatives. I hadn’t dug into it in much detail before, but since he was curious, I spent some time trying out goal factoring so that I could share more thoughts. Here are the resources I found useful:

I started by drawing different goals and their connections with each other. For example, I like learning more about tools and programming languages because that helps me build more tools and cool stuff, and that tickles my brain. It also gives me useful things to share, and that helps me make technical topics friendlier. Sharing also helps me connect with other people, which makes it easier for me to learn from different perspectives, which enables me to make better decisions. Many of my actions and goals support more than one goal, so I get a lot of value out of the time I spend.

2014-03-10 Trying out goal factoring #goals #factoring #rationality

2014-03-10 Trying out goal factoring #goals #factoring #rationality

I picked a set of goals and listed the actions that I frequently take towards those goals. I also brainstormed different actions that I could take or delegate. This was great because it helped me come up with more ideas for mini-projects or delegatable tasks. For example, a weekly Emacs tutorial might be fun and useful (and maybe I can even commission some of those). I can look into asking my assistants to interview me as a way of fleshing out particular post ideas, too.

2014-03-10 Trying out goal factoring part 2 #goals #factoring #rationality #delegation

2014-03-10 Trying out goal factoring part 2 #goals #factoring #rationality #delegation

One of the advantages of making a list of productive activities is that it’s easy for me to switch from one good thing to another depending on my interest or energy. Since “Tickle my brain” turns out to be a totally acceptable goal (at least for me), I can give myself permission to spend one or two hours a day on tech learning. That had been neglected because of my focus on other activities. It’s good to get back into tweaking my Emacs or learning more about NodeJS, though. I can get a little carried away doing this (flow can be dangerous!), so I limit my time. After about two hours each time (or maybe four, if I’m pushing it), I should resurface and check on the other activities I may need or want to do.

It’s good to decide how much time I want to spend on other activities, too. For example, I want to work on delegation daily so that my assistants get prompt feedback and so that I keep filling the pipeline with more task ideas. I want to work on consulting enough so that projects and tasks keep moving, but I don’t want it to take over peak creativity/attention time, so I move it off-peak whenever possible. Packaging (making PDFs and e-books, organizing and revising posts, recording and processing podcasts) takes time and isn’t as engaging as the other activities, but it helps me connect with people, so I should do that weekly. I’ll also see if I can delegate more packaging so that it gets done.

2014-03-11 Deciding how to spend time #time

2014-03-11 Deciding how to spend time #time

To make it easier to brainstorm delegation-related tasks, I pulled some out into a separate drawing. There’s a lot of room for growth. =) I’m slowly getting used to having assistants do web research, and it turns out to be surprisingly useful. I probably read much faster than they do, but I benefit from the different perspectives and search words they use, and it’s nice to ignore the fluff.

2014-03-10 Making more use of delegation #delegation

2014-03-10 Making more use of delegation #delegation

One of the templates for goal factoring encouraged you to analyze your current actions instead of getting lost in goals you think you should have. For my third attempt, I picked a few frequent actions and traced the connections to the goals they support. I brainstormed alternatives and compared the costs. The goals looked pretty similar to the first set, but a different perspective helped me identify other alternatives I can explore. For example, it might be a good idea for me to create a Trello board or update my public Org file with the things I’m curious about so that people can help me out.

2014-03-11 Trying out goal factoring #goals #factoring #rationality

2014-03-11 Trying out goal factoring #goals #factoring #rationality

What am I learning from this goal factoring exercise? It’s a good excuse to brainstorm and examine alternative approaches for reaching my goals, especially in terms of identifying low-hanging fruit. I’m already used to explaining how my actions contribute to multiple goals and how my goals are related to each other. I occasionally talk to people about my big picture (or as I like to call them, my Evil Plans). The way I define my goals seems to be a little different from the way most people define theirs. Instead of having big goals and strong commitments, I have a lot of small goals with hardly any commitment aside from curiosity. This approach seems to fit me better, although I’m probably missing out on extra productivity. I like making lists of lots of little goals or possible actions, because that makes the low-hanging fruit easier to pick.

2014-03-11 Reflecting on goal factoring #goals #factoring #rationality

2014-03-11 Reflecting on goal factoring #goals #factoring #rationality

Reflecting on this led to exploring this metaphor of a buffet of goals. Influenced by Jim Collins’ Good to Great, I set myself Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals (BHAGs) in 2005. “S.M.A.R.T.” was an even more common acronym for goal setting, and I tried those too. The meaning of S.M.A.R.T. varied. My mom’s version was that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Ardently-desired, Realistic, and Timebound. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timebound makes sense too.)

Time-boundedness was something that never quite caught fire with me, though. I think it’s because I’d demonstrated “potential” at an early age (of the computer-whiz-kid sort), grown up with praise along the lines of “Wow, she can do all of this stuff and she’s only ___ years old,” and nearly got caught up in the insecurities of looking over my shoulder or ahead of me at people who were doing even more awesome things at even younger ages.  I remember consciously deciding, sometime in my teens, that I didn’t want age or speed to be special. People made a lot of fuss over precocity — but at the same time, it seemed that age became an excuse for them to not learn or try. I pushed back at that. I preferred looking up to late bloomers like Grandma Moses rather than the “30 under 30” lists.

Self-imposed time-based deadlines–“I will do ____ before I turn 35”–echoed that old conflict for me. If a goal was intrinsically valuable, I would do it already motivated by the knowledge that life is short (memento mori!); and if I wasn’t motivated enough to do it, I didn’t want to set myself up to feel like a failure just because I accomplished it at an older age instead of the goal I’d optimistically set.

So I’ve been moving away from goals with deadlines. I wrote a blog post about that in 2012, but I’ve been thinking that way for a while now, and I’m coming to a clearer understanding. I want to embrace my goals and move towards them as a whole, motivated person, not split myself into taskmaster versus slave. I want to move towards my goals out of interest and curiosity and wonder. Dates might work for other people, but not quite for me.

What do I replace that metaphor with, then? I think of having a buffet of goals stretching infinitely before me. I can choose the portions I want. I can enjoy a variety of tastes, textures, and cuisines. I don’t have to overload my plate or stuff my stomach. I can graze. I can go back for more. As I nibble, I can think about what else I want to try, or how I want to tweak things, or if I want to rearrange the dishes for greater convenience. I like it. It’s a fun metaphor. =)

2014-03-12 A buffet of goals #metaphor #goals

2014-03-12 A buffet of goals #metaphor #goals

So, coming back to goal factoring… What’s next? More goal analysis! As it turns out, it’s easy to combine Emacs Org Mode and GraphViz. I’ve started documenting my actions and goals in Org Mode. I hope org-babel will make it easy to slice the goals into different sets and produce intelligible graphs. You can check out the first attempt. It’s very rough, but it will get better over time. =)

View or add comments

Making the most of Standard Time as the days grow shorter

Posted: - Modified: | life, productivity, time

The transition from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time is always a little shocking. Suddenly the sunlight’s gone by 5 PM. It always used to make me feel a little colder, a little odder. This year, I’m playing around with some mindset shifts that might do for Standard Time what renaming “winter” to “baking season” did in terms of my happiness. =)

(Click on the images for a larger version.)

2013-11-05 Standard Time - Winter Time

Since my consulting engagement has flexible hours, I can arrange my schedule so that I commute during off-peak hours, and I work from home three days of the week anyway. Sunlight is important to me, so I go for a quick walk at lunch. This means that on the days that I work on-site, I’m not too tired when I get home in the evenings, and on the days I work at home, I have time to go to the library or run other small errands.

That frees up the evening for writing, drawing, learning, coding, and all the other things that fill my discretionary time. Having a long evening means I can break it into several chunks of useful, focused work, while still taking care of chores. It feels pretty relaxed – almost freeing! Maybe this will become something that will help me look forward to shorter days.

2013-11-04 Revising my mornings

Mornings are worth playing around with, too. I thought about shifting more of my waking hours to the morning because it often comes up in productivity advice, but I like being able to sleep in a little. That said, I also like lining things up so that I can gain momentum in the morning, and the bright sunshine is nice to enjoy.

This mindset shift looks promising. It breaks down yet another one of those barriers to making the most of life year-round. How do you deal with shorter days? Any tips?

View or add comments

What do I want to do right now? Understanding my algorithm for discretionary time

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

Noorul asked, "How do you generally begin your day and how does it span? Do you plan for each hour or do you plan a task across many days/weeks?"

I have three kinds of days:

  • Weekends are reserved for spending time with W- or friends, helping out around the house, cooking, and getting ready for the next week. I take an hour for my weekly review, and I often have more time to write or read, but I don’t count on it – people get first dibs.
  • Consulting days – Tuesdays and Thursdays, usually, although I’m planning to take all of August off. I wake up, have breakfast, get ready, bike, work from about 10 to 5 (earlier or later, depending on attention and need), bike back, and then go to a meetup or spend the rest of the day at home.
  • Discretionary days – Wide-open and wonderful, these are the days when I follow my interests freely: writing, coding, drawing, learning… Sometimes I punctuate them with meetings—I’m practising talking to people. 

I briefly experimented with planning my life in detail before, assigning tasks to specific days or even blocking off hours in my calendar. I wanted to make sure that important tasks didn’t fall off my radar and that I didn’t overcommit my day. It didn’t really work for me – I kept moving things around depending on how I felt.

What works for me now? Minimizing commitments, thinking in terms of weeks, making decisions moment by moment, and always having good things to choose from (it helps to keep track of good ideas). Not wasting energy in beating myself up about what I haven’t done; instead, I celebrate the things I do.

Here’s what my decision process looks like when I ask myself, "What do I want to do right now?" It’s roughly in terms of priorities, although I might pick something lower on the list if that’s what I really want, and I save chores for downtime.

  1. Does W- need my help with any projects?
  2. Have I promised anything urgent to anyone?
  3. Are there chores to be done?
    1. Is the kitchen clean?
    2. Is there laundry to be done?
    3. Does the garden need watering?
    4. Do the litter boxes need to be cleared?
    5. Do things need to be tidied a little?
    6. Have I gotten a bit of exercise?
  4. Do I want to work on my computer?
    1. Do I have something to write about? What am I curious about?
    2. Do I feel like coding?
    3. Do I feel like drawing?
      1. Do I want to draw my own things? 
      2. Do I want to work on a book review?
  5. Are there books I want to read?
  6. Do I have Japanese flashcards to review?
  7. Is there e-mail I need to reply to?
  8. Are there stories I want to read?
  9. Do I want to reach out to anyone and brighten their day?
  10. What else do I want to do?

I prioritize things based on happiness, relationships, energy, what I’ve been doing recently (momentum!), what I haven’t done recently, whatever else comes to mind…

E-mail and social networks are pretty far down my list. Sometimes I trawl my inbox for blog post ideas, and once in a while, I go through my inbox to reply to as much as I can. (I try to do this every week, although sometimes it stretches.) TV and movies are background activities, to be saved for sessions of laundry-folding or coding – almost always DVDs checked out of the library, so that we can watch with subtitles and rewinds. In the interstitial time between activities, I do flashcards or read blog posts on my phone.

Commitments go on my planner (Org Mode in Emacs, for flexibility); all the rest are unscheduled tasks that I can review by context or look up by project depending on what I’m interested in or drawn to. There are things that I plan to do that I don’t end up doing, but that’s because they get preempted by things that are more important to me.

So that’s the discretionary stuff. What about our routines?

I wake up at 8 or 9, snoozing if I feel sleepy. I use the bathroom, wash my mouth guard, let the cats drink from the faucet. Downstairs, I have our "standard breakfast": one fried egg with brown rice, sometimes even two eggs as a weekend luxury. I head upstairs to brush my teeth and dress up. Then I pack my lunch and whatever I need (if I’m going outside) or settle into working on my own projects on our kitchen table or at our standing desk. W- leaves for work, J- leaves for school. If I’m at home, I have a simple lunch (salad? home-made frozen food?), and then I move on to whatever I want to do next. J- comes home, W- comes home. We have dinner, and then it’s time for chores or exercise or a little more writing. I tidy up, shower, brush my teeth, and go to bed at roughly midnight, although sometimes I stay up later.

I’m lucky. We keep our lives simple so that we have time.

How do you decide what to do?

See also: How I use Emacs Org Mode for my weekly reviews

View or add comments

Unstructured time, shaping your wants, and giving yourself permission

Posted: - Modified: | life, productivity, time

I was talking to a couple of other Quantified Self Toronto members about the management of unstructured time, since one of them was taking a gap year from school and the other one had just wrapped up regular employment. “How do I make sure I don’t waste my time?” they asked.

Here’s what I’ve been learning from semi-retirement: it can be easy to make good use of your discretionary time. (And to feel like you’re making good use of it!)

When I was planning for this experiment, I worried that I would end up frittering away the time on frivolities that people frown on: vegetating on the couch, playing games, getting sucked into the blackholes of social media and random Internet browsing.

It turns out that when you fill your life with so many more interesting possibilities, it’s easy to choose those instead. It reminds me of something I’ve learned about finances, too. Many activities make me just as happy as other activities do, so I might as well pick activities that are free or inexpensive and that align with my values. Likewise, I might as well pick activities that give me multiple benefits or that align with how I want to spend my time. A movie is diverting and it’s also good for learning about emotions and storytelling, but watching a movie while folding laundry is more useful than watching a movie in the theatre. I enjoy cooking more than I enjoy eating out. I enjoy writing, drawing, or spending time with W- more than I enjoy playing games.

So I don’t fill my days with plans or box myself in with calendared intentions. I look at the week ahead and list tasks that I need to remember, promises and appointments I’ve made, and maybe make space for one or two personal projects or ideas that I don’t want to forget about. I have a regular client engagement on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which I do because I like the client and what I get to help them with. Sometimes I take a week or an entire month off, to re-set my sense of time. Even during my regular weeks, I try to leave plenty of space.

It’s important to have space to follow where your interests and energy take you. I try to minimize the number of things I’ve promised to other people so that I have the flexibility to follow opportunities when they come up. That way, if I don’t feel like writing, I don’t. Maybe I’ll draw. Maybe I’ll code. Maybe I’ll work in the garden. Maybe I’ll tidy the house. Maybe I’ll read. Maybe I’ll plan.

I make exceptions for conversations. It’s hard to not schedule those if I want to make sure they happen at some point. Left to my own devices, I might never get around to talking to people. So I pay someone to handle my scheduling, and I ask her to space some of the optional ones apart (maybe one a week?) so that I have room for focusing on my things. It’s a little weird scheduling three or more weeks in advance, but space is important.

The rest of the time goes to whatever I feel like doing the most at that moment. It helps that I feel good about the things that I want to do, like writing, coding, and drawing, and that many of the things I do are also valued by others. I remember coming across in some book (was it Early Retirement Extreme? I should dig that up again) the idea that you can raise your skill in some activities or hobbies to the point that people are willing to pay you for it (now or in the future). Other things like exercise or cleaning the kitchen have their own rewards.

Did I luck into wanting these things by nature, or did I shape my wants to fit what I wanted to do? It’s hard to say. Most of it feels natural, but I do consciously tweak my motivations. Here’s an example of where I’m deliberately working on hacking my wants: exercise. W-‘s been helping me build a strength training habit through lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement. I also remind myself that the time I spend exercising will pay off both short-term and long-term, and that helps me get better at picking it over other alternatives (ex: bike to work and get some exercise versus work from home). It’s like what Mel wrote about digging out a path of least resistance so that it goes where you want to go. The other day, I was on my bike for almost 4 hours: 6 short trips, back and forth, covering mostly the same ground. I might not add as much to my “Done” list, but it’s good for me.

One of the benefits of choosing to spend my time this way is that it’s easy to say no to the common time-wasters that people often beat themselves up about. You don’t feel that need to escape because you haven’t been trying to keep yourself disciplined all day long. This also means that you aren’t wasting the emotional energy you’d otherwise use to beat yourself up about bad decisions. =) There are tasks that I postpone or don’t get around to, but it’s not because I suck. it’s just that I wanted to do other things instead, and I may get around to those tasks someday.

Even leisurely activities become experiments. I spent one Monday watching animé practically the whole day. I’m studying Japanese, so I watched the episodes with the original soundtrack and English subtitles. It was fun hearing the sounds start resolving themselves into intelligible words… and it was interesting feeling that barrier of “Oh, I should be doing productive things because it’s a weekday morning!” start to erode as I learned more about giving myself permission to follow my interests. (It turned out that watching those animé episodes was great for helping me follow along with the audio and the script. I often listen to just the audio as a way to immerse myself in the language and enjoy commuting or working… Bonus!)

Maybe the trick to managing an unstructured schedule isn’t to get better at discipline, but to get better at wanting good things, to get better at seeing the value in different activities. Then you can trust in yourself, with a little review and feedback so that you can tweak your course and make better decisions. At least that’s what seems to be working for me, and it might be something that would work for you too. =)

View or add comments