Categories: time

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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.

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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…

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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?

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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

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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. =)

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Copious free time? Carefully protected!

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

While we were chatting about hobbies, one of my mentors joked about my copious free time.

“My carefully protected free time,” I said, and I realized it was true.

“Free” time is valuable. Limiting my work time forces me to work more effectively and efficiently, while giving me the space to explore things that often turn out to be surprisingly useful.

So much depends on how you approach life. Some people tell me I do a lot. Some people say I have too much time on my hands. I think I’m okay. It’s the same life, the same 24 hours.

I try to be intentional about how I spend time. Life is short. There’s so much to learn and share. I think a lot about time. I care about work-life balance. I limit the overtime I work. I plan what to do with blocks of free time. I think about what I do well and how I can do things even better, which helps me free time and smoothen routines.

I play. I relax. That’s important as well. 

There are more things I’d like to do than I have time to do, but I’m happy because I can spend time on what matters to me. In order to do the rest, I help other people learn as much as they can so that they can help make things happen. That’s the superpower I’m working on.

Consciously choose how you spend time and arrange your life to do so, and you’ll probably be happier with the time you have. We all have different priorities and commitments. Some people have fewer responsibilities, and others have more. It doesn’t matter how much or how little other people do. All that matters is what you do, whether you’re happy with it, and how you can be even happier.

I think that’s the difference between feeling overworked and feeling that you have enough time to breathe.

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Unstructured time

Posted: - Modified: | life, time

The first thread: Paul Graham described the difference between makers’ schedules and managers’ schedules as the difference between needing long chunks of time to focus versus switching tasks frequently, such as every hour. Makers such as programmers and writers do their best when “in the zone”, when they reach the flow state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Interruptions break concentration.

The second thread: W- and I were talking about plans for our upcoming vacation. He’s planning to take two weeks off so that he can spend them with J-, who’ll be with us for two weeks and who had decided that she would rather not attend any summer camps this year. As he’s taking his vacation during the week of my birthday and the week after that, I thought I’d take part of my saved overtime as well so that I can share more memories. Due to my paperwork situation (I can’t leave Canada at the moment), they ruled out a trip to New York even though I urged them to take the first circus. Because of our cats, we probaby won’t wander far from Toronto. So a staycation it is.

Tying the threads together: For us, staycations aren’t about sleeping in. They’re unstructured time, maker time, when we can use large chunks of focus to develop skills that are difficult to work on during evenings or weekends. W- and J- are particularly looking forward to developing their photography skills through deliberate practice.

I could work from home and just join W- and J- in the evenings (or work in the evenings and take some breaks during the day). Taking the time as a proper vacation, though, means that I can use that maker time to improve my skills to the point where I can make even better use of evenings and weekends in the future. For example, if I can get much better at photography, then our casual photography trips will be more rewarding. If I can get much better at sewing, then my occasional sewing weekend will be more fruitful. If I can get much better at presentations and storytelling, then my occasional talk will be even more effective. Up-front investment yields continuing returns. Yes, my billable utilization is lower, but the concentrated skill development will make me a better person and a better employee.

I spent some time reflecting on what I would do with unstructured time. I started by thinking about what I would do with a life of unstructured time–if I achieve financial independence. Then I thought about what I’d do with a year, as I might have if I take a sabbatical (which is a very good practice, I’ve heard). Then I reflected on progressively smaller increments: a month, two weeks, a week, an evening, an hour, five minutes. Starting with a wide-open field and narrowing it down made it easier to see how I felt about different activities.

What would I do with a life of unstructured time?
Start businesses
Make and deliver presentations for fun
Write blog posts and e-books
Visit friends and family
Get really good at delegating and working with a network
Get really good at drawing and photography
Replace my entire wardrobe with things I’ve sewn myself
Take lessons on how to play the piano, and get to the point where I can easily read and play music
Host lots of get-togethers
Build systems to make my life and other people’s lives better
Pick up lots of skills and interests

What would I do with a year or two of unstructured time?
Start a business
Take courses or make up my own
Cook lots of recipes
Host a number of get-togethers
Make and deliver presentations for fun
Learn how to play a few piano pieces well
Build a system to make my life and other people’s lives better
Replace most of my wardrobe with things I’ve sewn myself
Make a couple of photo collections
Write a couple of short e-books

What would I do with a month of unstructured time?
Get started on a new skill
Make an e-book
Learn a piano piece
Sew a few outfits
Make a photo collection
Polish my presentations and draft new ones
Bike every day
Revamp my site
Cook a number of new recipes

What would I do with two weeks of unstructured time?
Polish my existing presentations
Gather and organize material for new presentations
Organize the house
Bike every day
Learn a new sewing skill (maybe making tops)
Get started on a new piano piece
Try a new recipe or two
Host a get-together

What would I do with one week of unstructured time?
Gather and organize material for new presentations
Organize the house
Braindump, read, and explore
Cook a new recipe
Sew an item
Explore one kind of photography

What would I do with a weekend of unstructured time?
Go for a bike ride
Tidy up the house
Organize a room
Work on an outfit
Practice a piano piece
Cook something new
Organize a get-together
Explore one kind of photography
Process my photos
Do some long-term brainstorming

What would I do with a day of unstructured time?
Write a few blog posts
Brainstorm and reflect
Mindmap/draw a presentation
Tidy up the house
Play a bit of piano
Take a few pictures

What would I do with an evening of unstructured time?
Brainstorm, reflect, and blog
Tidy up
Practice a piano segment
Prepare a presentation
Process photos
Sew a little bit

What would I do with an hour of unstructured time?
Practice a piano segment
Mindmap a presentation

What would I do with five minutes of unstructured time?
Brainstorm and reflect
Share a laugh

This list is sure to change, but it’s a useful start. =)

Creative work can be squeezed into five minutes here and there. It’s nice having a block of time where you can focus, though, and I think it’ll definitely be worth taking a vacation. Not only will I develop skills, but I’ll also get better at making the most of unstructured time.

What would you do with unstructured time?

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