Categories: time

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Trusting myself with making time

Posted: - Modified: | business, time

Before I started my business, I wasn’t sure if I trusted myself with large swaths of discretionary time. Not free time – all time has a cost – but discretionary time, time that I can direct towards my own purposes. I thought I’d be able to use the time well, but I didn’t know for certain.

I’m starting to be more confident in how I use that time. Sure, I spend some of it hanging out with W- and J-, or exploring the constructed world of LEGO Batman 2… but I also use it to experiment with writing e-books or learning how to build mobile applications.

It’s incredible, picking your own goals and making steady progress towards them. I carved out a decent amount of carefully-protected discretionary time even when I was working for a large company and we made good use of our staycations, but even that doesn’t compare to being able to block off large chunks of time on your own. Vacations and weekends are social, and evenings often are as well. It’s great to have time to still your mind and follow your own questions. A room of one’s own, to learn and write and create.

There’s always the temptation to schedule things over it so that I don’t confront the blank canvas of a day. I meet people occasionally. It’s good for me to talk to people – and, more useful, to listen; not everyone writes. It’s also good to do this in moderation. It’s easy to talk about doing business and being in business and what to learn about business, but I shouldn’t stop there.

So there are days when I sit down and focus on the tasks I set myself. I’m becoming more accustomed to managing this time. I make lists — things I can do, topics I want to learn about, an endless supply of self-directed adventures. There’s always more to learn.

I’ll be consulting on-site four days a week for the next few weeks, but I’ll be playing around with other time arrangements soon. I’m setting aside all of September for discretionary time, and then returning for two days a week of consulting throughout October and November. We’ll see how that goes. I think it’ll go well. Adjusting the training wheels as I learn more about managing my time, energy, and attention!

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How I track my time, and how I’d like to

Posted: - Modified: | quantified, time

I track my time so that I can find out if I’m spending enough time on the things that matter. For example, I find it easy to get sucked into work because I enjoy programming, but if I spend too much time at work, then I might not spend enough time developing other interests or sleeping. I’m also curious about how much time it takes me to do things so that I can estimate tasks better. Since much of my work involves consulting, being able to bill time accurately helps as well.

Off-the-shelf apps like TimeRecording helped me get started quickly, and it was easy to use the CSV export to analyze my data. When I had developed the habit of tracking my time and decided that it was worth investing in further, I began building my own system. is a Rails application that lets me track time, clothes, library books, and a bunch of other things that I’m curious about. The offline mode doesn’t work right now, but the web-based interface makes tracking easy.

I’ve set up a hierarchy of categories that somewhat follow the OECD leisure time study so that I can compare my individual metrics with international ones. For example, I count writing as Discretionary – Writing and cleaning up as Unpaid Work – Tidy.

To track, I type a substring into a text field of my dashboard. For example, if I want to say that I’m starting to tidy up now, I type in tidy and press Enter. I can also update it from my phone. Autocomplete will suggest categories if I type in text and wait a little.

I can backdate entries, which comes in handy when I start doing something while away from my computer or phone. For example, if I want to say that I spent the last 40 minutes gardening, I can type in -40m garden. It also understands things like -2h social, or 5/31 7:30 routines.

If I spent the entire day away from the Internet or if I have quite a few timestamps to enter, I can use the batch mode. The batch mode lets me specify a date and entries of the form:

7:00 category1
8:00 category2
13:30 14:00 category3

Sometimes I need to make the system recalculate the ending timestamps and durations. I can do that by expanding the options for the records list and choosing Recalculate durations.

My system makes it easy to see weekly or monthly summaries, and I can review the records by category or by time as well.

So that’s how I’m currently tracking my time. I’d like to get the mobile interface working again so that I can quickly update it while on the go, or rig up import/export from apps like Time Recording or Tap Log Records so that I can use those instead. I also want to build more reports that can help me answer questions like:

  • What do I spend my time on?
  • How does that time fluctuate?
  • Are there any gaps or oddities that might indicate that I’m missing an entry or I’ve encoded things incorrectly?

I also want to import my old data so that I can analyze it. When that settles down, perhaps I’ll add another layer of granularity too!

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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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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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Thinking about the time/money swap

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

I thought that once I went into business for myself, I’d do the same kinds of money vs time vs enjoyment calculations that other people have done, and I’d probably end up making similar decisions such as signing up for a housekeeping service, eating out more often, or having either meals or groceries delivered.

It turns out that even though I know that:

  • my time is worth $X-Y/hour
  • my earnings are flexible (I can work more hours and earn more money)
  • it’s possible to hire people to do some of the things I do for much less than X an hour

… I’m still pretty comfortable with doing many things myself. I think it’s because I enjoy those chores more than other people do.

For example, W- and I spent the Good Friday holiday doing our spring-cleaning. I moved my warm-weather clothes into my drawers and chose a few for donation. W- and I emptied the fridge and scrubbed the shelves. He made the glass doors all sparkly-clean.

Cleaning was social bonding time. We chatted, laughed, planned. It’s cheaper than therapy. I suppose we could hire someone to do it, but we would want to spend time together anyway, so it made sense to spend that time doing something useful.

Chores become fun when we do them together. Same with cooking. During our cooking sprints, the two of us chop and laugh and stir and joke. Picking up groceries is a good excuse to go for a walk together.

Because I get a lot of intangible value from doing these activities with W-, I’m not particularly drawn to the idea of outsourcing them so that I could spend more time on the business. I like the break from work, the space to breathe and play around with different ideas. I like the time we spend building relationships.

So yeah, it didn’t turn out to be a straight “I can earn $X/hour so I should outsource anything I can have done for much less than that amount” sort of decision. I’m happy to outsource accounting at least for this first year, and probably for later years as well – it can be complex, and I’m buying peace of mind as well as time. I’m investing more in tools that I like and webapps that I use. But I’m still looking for areas where I can practise delegation and management skills, and I haven’t quite found a good fit yet. No worries – maybe someday!

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Optimizing for weather and other thoughts about self-employed time

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

Over a leisurely mentoring lunch, @height8 shared this interesting self-employment tip with me: optimize your schedule for weather. Warm and sunny weather is relatively rare in Toronto, so try to arrange your time to make the most of it. Depending on the kind of work you do, you can work in the evenings or during winter.

It makes sense to me. Although W- and I have set up a small office in the basement for me, I’m much happier working in a sunlit space, with the occasional break of a bike ride or a walk around the block.

I’m writing this blog post while sitting in the airy Bloor-Gladstone building. Earlier, I’d flipped through some of the children’s books for inspiration. Across the street, my bright blue bicycle is locked to a post, red-and-white panniers easy to pick out against the grays of the sidewalk and the brown brick of the Tim Hortons cafe. In a short while, I’ll bike to the supermarket to pick up ground beef and other burrito ingredients, sit down to a quick supper with W- and J-, then head out on my bicycle again to a tech get-together.

I have these days penciled in for business development, but that’s probably closer to self-development than specific business opportunities. I’m not talking to potential clients so that I can line up the next contract. I’m talking to mentors so that I can make sense of what I’m learning from business. I’m teaching myself new tools so that I can imagine and explore more ideas. I’m writing reflections so that I can take notes along the way and make it easier for other people who are trying things out. I go where my interests take me.

On some days, I don’t feel particularly productive. I’m not checking things off my list at a rapid rate, although I do manage to get one or two important tasks done. Well, that’s not quite true. I do feel somewhat productive, even when I’m trying to write my way around a thought like this in order to understand it. This is work; not client work, but life-work. This general feeling of openness in my day – that’s intriguing, potentially useful. It’s qualitatively different from vacations or staycations or weekends, and there are things that I can learn from it that I might never have learned in decades following the well-established paths.

It reminds me of what that other speaker was talking about. You don’t get that external validation of progress. You don’t get that gold star, that performance review, that thumbs-up from a manager or a client. I’m oddly okay with that. Maybe it’s because writing has gotten me used to asking myself questions and figuring out my own plans.

So, weather optimization, following interests. For me, I think that means going on bike rides or walks, and trying out different places to think and work. I already know that I work well at home and at the client’s office downtown. Does sitting in a library encourage me to think different things? There’s that cliché about writers and cafés, but maybe the ambient social atmosphere might be interesting. I haven’t done a lot of people-watching, but maybe with a sketchbook in hand, I’ll find inspiration for practice. What about just getting on a bicycle and cycling around, no particular destination in mind? (Okay, maybe some destination, and GPS. I still have to work on being more comfortable with spontaneity. ;) )

This is a different sort of life, and I’m curious about where it goes.

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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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