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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.

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

Work, extracurriculars, and measuring time: an epiphany

Posted: - Modified: | decision, quantified, reflection, time, work

I remember now why I had stopped tracking time before. Breaking things down at the project level made me feel weird about my extracurricular interests at IBM, like the community toolkit and now the IBM comics. On one hand, I wanted to support our utilization goals and claim time as accurately as possible. On the other hand, I didn’t want to give up personal time, especially as I could use it to build more functionality into Quantified Awesome. I felt conflicted. I found myself slipping from the feeling of an abundance of time to the feeling of a scarcity of it, to be carefully portioned out among too many demands.

Today, brainstorming how to address my worst-case scenario considerations, I realized something: I’d been thinking about it the wrong way. It’s not extra time I’m donating or a hobby I might outgrow. It’s a live opportunity to test ideas with a massive, built-in internal market.

Comics on the intranet homepage? A fledgling artist couldn’t buy that kind of space. A community analysis tool that other people have come to rely on? Good practice in supporting disparate users and scaling up value.

No money might change hands, but a steady stream of thank-you notes helps my manager argue for a top rating, which often translates into a bonus.

So now I’ve got a couple of ways to rethink how this fits into my life.

I can promote these extracurriculars from the category “Work – Other” to “Discretionary – Other” or something similar, and budget myself four or five hours a week. It’s not work, it’s learning.

Alternatively, I can keep it under “Work – Other” and add an effective 10% overhead to my billable work. Many people have told me that I’m a fast developer, anyway, so scaling my output down to that of a somewhat above average developer will still mean that we do good stuff. The cognitive surplus goes into process improvement, self-development, and happiness, which is definitely worthwhile. I get stressed when I feel like I’m letting my other priorities slip, so spending time on them is important too.

These extracurricular interests can create a lot of value. I should adjust my measurements accordingly so that my measurements don’t lead to conflicting feelings.

How you measure affects how you manage.

Learning plans and time budgets: packing things into 2012

Posted: - Modified: | analysis, learning, planning, quantified, time

Nudged by @catehstn‘s recommendation of my blog to @Tending2Entropy as an example of goal planning in personal life, I updated my learning plan with the things I’m planning to learn next year.

It was easy to come up with a quick outline. There are so many interesting things I want to learn. The tough part, however, was thinking about what I might actually get to do.

What does my cognitive surplus look like? I wanted to get a sense of how much discretionary time I actually had on a regular basis. I have about 20 weeks of data since I resumed time-tracking near the end of July. So that my numbers wouldn’t be thrown off by the vacation we took, I focused on the last eight weeks (graph: 2011-10-16 to 2011-12-11).

Over the eight-week period, I got an average of 3.5 hours of discretionary time per weekday and 7 hours of discretionary time per weekend day. I can simplify that to an average of 4.5 hours per day, which comes out to 1642 hours for 2012 (not including vacations, which include more discretionary time).

Around 40% of discretionary time was used for social activities. Let’s say that another 30% is a buffer for breaks and other things that come up, leaving 30% for focused learning. That gives me a time budget of around 500 hours. I want to do more than 1,000. Hmm.

Prioritization is important. I can focus on the things I want the most, then see how the rest of the year shakes out. Plans will change anyway, and estimates are flexible. My first few priorities for personal learning:

  • Android development, so that I can save time syncing and get more of the data I want
  • Goal tracking (handy for keeping the rest of my time in line)
  • Behavioural change (trying small experiments)

Another way to deal with the gap is to shift more time. Over those eight weeks, tidying took about 0.7 hours / day, and cooking took about that much time too. Let’s say half of future tidying and all of future cooking is outsourceable at $20/hour. That’s an additional 384 hours for a trade-off of $7,680 after tax, which is a large chunk of money. I’d rather save the money and let it compound for later use, especially if I time chores so that they take advantage of low energy. Besides, cooking and other chores are partly social time too.

I can shift time in other ways. For example, I can use commuting time to learn more about Emacs, Org, and Rails, so that will help too. I can also use walking time to record life stories if I can figure out a workflow for dealing with audio or short notes.

Good to know what the size of the box is, and how much I want to pack into it! Let’s see how it all works out…

Making better use of travel time

Posted: - Modified: | kaizen, life, time, travel

I’m going to be in the office a lot more as I help with proposals or coach new hours. Time to think about how I can make the most of the time!

As it turns out, I’m not a particularly audio kind of person. I’ve carried podcasts and audiobooks before, but I rarely listen to them unless I’m listening with another person. I might listen to instrumental music while writing, avoiding songs due to the verbal interference.

If I’m going to the downtown office, I take my bike whenever I can. It’s good exercise, and takes about as much time as the walk and subway trip would’ve taken. With the subway’s occasional delays, biking is faster and more reliable.

If I need to take transit, how can I make the most of that time?

I like writing and mindmapping. I do a lot of both when I manage to find a seat on the subway. I almost always use my Android, as a full laptop feels out of place in the subway. The smartphone works well for one- and two-hand use, maybe even better than a tablet might. The small display forces me to be more concise – good! The 1.5 hour commute up to 3600 Steeles is enough time to flesh out a mind map and draft a few blog posts. Writing is my favourite travel activity. I think I get the most value from it.  

I nap sometimes, but this isn’t particularly restful. Maybe if I try using the nap timer so that I don’t get anxious about missing my stop….  

Reading is fun. I can go through two, three books a day, especially if I get a seat. Carrying books is less fun, though. I’ve read books on my Android and on my tablet, but if I’m going to be using either, I’d rather spend the time writing instead of reading. So I tend to save reading for when I’m eating, walking around the house, or going to bed.  

Sometimes I draw. This is a bit harder, and definitely requires a seat. I don’t want to stare at people on the subway, so I tend to draw from imagination or memory. Index cards and small notebooks are useful here.  

I think it would be interesting to track the specific results of my commuting time. Seeing X hours of travel in my weekly time analysis is one thing. Tallying up Y posts or Z books is another. It’ll be fun!  

How do you use your commuting time?

More thoughts on time analysis: correlations and revealed preferences

Posted: - Modified: | analysis, geek, quantified, time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2011-03-29 Tue 21:54

Unstructured time update

Posted: - Modified: | life, time

I’m going to find out if all that cooking we did last weekend will get us through this week and next week. If so, then that will free up a valuable block of unstructured time.

My weekdays have mostly settled into a good routine. Thanks to cooking ahead, I have 2-3 hours each evening of unstructured time. Batch-cooking takes a day out of my weekend, which means I have to plan around having one day of unstructured time instead of two, but the convenience and variety of meals during the week is worth it.

So, what are the things I can do with that unstructured time?


  • Write 3-4 blog posts
  • Organize things at home and improve our processes (kitchen kaizen!)
  • Work on code
  • Start seeds or improve the garden
  • Sew pre-cut or small pieces
  • Prepare presentation
  • Read

Weekend: Evening +

  • Pick up books and groceries
  • Do laundry + cooking + major cleaning
  • Cut pieces for sewing
  • Review blog and revise
  • Host tea party

So I should prioritize sewing over writing or coding during weekends, because I can write and code during evenings, but cutting pieces and patterns is harder to squeeze into an evening. =)