Spinning Plates

I mentioned the other day that I’m feeling a little bit discouraged with how January was going. While I started the year looking forward to taking on a list of goals, here we are, almost halfway into February, and I’m not really feeling like I’ve made real progress against any of them.

I took some time to think about why this is the case, and a couple of things stand out.

First, the reality is that January’s been a bit of a short month. I spent a good portion of it feeling under the weather, and there’s been a lot going on, so I really didn’t have much time and energy to put into anything beyond work.

The bigger issue, however, is that I’ve not felt quite sure where to focus my efforts. I’ve started on several projects, but there are only so many things that I can move forward at once, because it requires a lot of context-switching and results in a level of progress that’s nowhere near what focused attention would generate.

That’s in contrast to how I wrote my first iOS app. By working a little bit of overtime during the week, I was able to take Friday afternoons off over the summer, and I dedicated that time to learning and building HoneyJar. That’s all I did with those afternoons, too — get home, launch Xcode, and work on the app, without distraction. In the sum total of maybe five or six full workdays, I learned enough about Objective-C, Xcode, iOS, CocoaPods, and iTunes Connect to ship my first app.

Maybe because I’m looking forward to diving into a bunch of these projects, I haven’t really been great about getting into that focused state of flow — my attention is pulled in several different directions. So, of course, as I try to move things forward, I’m only able to make very small pushes in the general direction of progress.

As it turns out, if you give somebody two things to work on, you should be grateful if they “starve” one task and only work on one, because they’re going to get more stuff done and finish the average task sooner. In fact, the real lesson from all this is that you should never let people work on more than one thing at once.

→ Joel On Software, “Human Task Switches Considered Harmful”

It’s like those circus acts where someone’s running from pole to pole, trying to keep the plates atop them spinning fast enough to maintain their balance, and that person unable to ever really focus on one thing because they’re too busy keeping things going in circles. I’m fighting the urge to tackle all of my projects at the same time, but apparently not well enough. So it’s time to define what specific projects to work on, and when they’re done, move on to the next. It’s a little bit hard for me to starve one project to feed another, but it’s something I can learn to be okay with.

And it’s still possible to work on a couple of (carefully-chosen) goals in parallel, so long as there’s a limited overlap of domain. Maybe I only want to take on one code project at a time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t tackle a fitness project simultaneously — these are mutually exclusive in terms of their demands on my time and focus, and are probably even symbiotic (healthy mind in a healthy body, and all that jazz).

More (but only a little bit more) to come.


Twelve for 2018

Okay, so I’m a bit late to the party, but: rather than try to create a bunch of resolutions, I’ve decided that I’d prefer to take on twelve projects this year. Why twelve? Well, largely because it breaks down to one project per month (not that I intend these to be month-long projects, it just works out that way).

In no particular order of importance, they are:

  1. Learn a new language: My wife and I have been talking about doing this together. We don’t expect to develop fluency in a language by year end, but at the very least some conversational level where, if we were in some country, we’d be able to chat with local folks in their own language. Right now, we’re trying to decide on the language.
  2. Ship Per 2.0: The last update to Per was in September of 2015. The app generally works fine, and we use it all the time when out shopping for groceries, but I have ideas for features (and am aware that the UI could really use an overhaul).
  3. Run five kilometres: In a row. In one session. I’ve never been an active person, and that’s going to bite me in my later years. So I’m going to tackle a couch-to-5k program and aim to be able to run a solid 5km by year end.
  4. Read one book a month: I really stink at getting through my reading list. I aim to read one book a month to try to ramp that back up (and take advantage of the cool Books on Micro.blog collection implementation to discuss them). 📚
  5. Build one Manuscript integration: Basing myself on this article, I’m going to build a (relatively simple) Manuscript integration that pulls App Store reviews into Manuscript.
  6. Build a micro.blog sample app in Glitch: I think that there’s a lot of value in micro.blog, but right now the barrier to entry (compared to signing up for a free Twitter account) is high enough that it won’t appeal beyond the folks who already blog (or who are able to pay US$5 per month for a hosted microblog) — a diminishingly small portion of the potential member base. Creating a free, remixable sample app in Glitch might help with accessibility.
  7. Pay off my credit card debt: I used to be really bad with my spending. I’m significantly better now, but I’ve got some lingering credit-card debt that really needs to go.
  8. De-clutter my belongings: I have a lot of stuff. A good chunk of that stuff is stuff that I don’t need and never use. It’s time to let go of a lot of that.
  9. Write more often: I mean, I can’t really do much worse than my one-post-per-year low from last year. Technically, this is my second post for 2018, so I’m already winning this one. I aim to write about my progress on this list of projects over the course of the year, so at least I already have some topics lined up.
  10. Rework my personal website and blogs: My stuff is scattered across this blog, the (new) microblog, my mostly-ignored Tumblr, and my personal site. Time to think about how to bring all that together.
  11. Back-squat 225 lbs: Similar to the 5K goal, I aim to focus on some strength training at the gym. I’d started on a 5×5 lifting program last year and, despite some fits and starts, went from squatting just the bar to 155lbs in six months — a 240% improvement. Those are the easy percents, though, and I’m hoping to be able to get up to two plates by the end of the year, despite starting from (nearly) scratch after a 6-month hiatus.
  12. Start playing piano again: I haven’t seriously played piano in over 20 years. I’ve set up a keyboard in my home office to inspire me to do that again, but I’ve yet to actually start tickling the ivories, as they say. But, I mean, I did make this web-audio synthesizer in Glitch to learn some JavaScript, so that kinda counts. Right?

So, here’s to 2018. I hope you make great progress on your projects and goals this year, too.


Hello, 2018

The last thing I wrote here was a retrospective on 2016, written one year and one day ago.

That’s… quite a while ago. You’d think I’d have written more, given how much happened this year. Off the top of my head:

  • I changed jobs, and am now working with the thoughtful geniuses at Fog Creek.
  • I got pretty serious about personal fitness, making great progress, right up until…
  • …I severed a tendon in my left pinky, which left me in a splint for most of the summer after surgery to reattach it (occupational and physical therapy are still ongoing, six months later)
  • we lost our wonderful fluffy companion of 15 years

Aside from the fitness bit, none of these were events that I expected or planned for. One thing I didn’t expect, however, is how much all of this upheaval would leave me wanting to withdraw from, well, everything. I guess it’s easiest to drop the stuff that doesn’t pay the rent, and once you start doing that, you risk kicking off a downward spiral — one that catches you by surprise one day, when you wake up and realize you’re fed up of not feeling like you’re doing anything that you used to enjoy anymore.

So, I’m going to work on getting back into a rhythm of Getting Things Done. I’m starting by setting aside protected time this week to read, to think, and to make some progress on projects (first up: I’d really like to update Per).

More tk.


Twenty-sixteen, reviewed

At the beginning of the year, I wrote down some goals for 2016. The year has come and gone, so it’s not a bad idea to have a bit of a look at how things went.


Review

1. Post something here every Friday

I did pretty well at this for a while, up until late August. But as the year wore on it felt more and more that I was writing just for the sake of checking off a repeating to-do item, rather than writing a goal in and of itself.

Not only did I feel that in the quality of what I was writing, I think this started injecting stress into my life. That, of course, is bad.

I also found that trying to get some words up on screen every week took time away from working on some of the projects (writing or otherwise) that I really wanted to work on.

I’m going to continue with a less-frequent schedule, putting up a minimum of one article a month. I’m also going to try posting to Break Before Make more often—it’s been sorely neglected.

2. Post to a journal at least once every day

I discussed this six months ago. Maybe I’ll try a written journal, just because I like working on my penmanship, but honestly, it felt like something taken on because someone said it was a good idea, rather than because I found that it worked for me.

3. Make real progress towards my Mac app

Right.

I founded a company five years ago with the intention of releasing this.

While I’ve made no real inroads in the actual coding, I have made a pretty important decision regarding the focus of the app. I think this pivot will help more people, so I’ve fleshed out a bit of a roadmap for it.

I’m making 2017 the year it finally sees the light of day.

4. Contribute to open-source projects

Not much here. I did help update a library for Swift 3 but that wasn’t really much of a contribution, I don’t think—it was mainly more of a “fix what the Xcode migration assistant broke” kind of fix.

I also open-sourced my first iOS app, but haven’t really done much with that, either. It’s still more-or-less in burning-dumpster-fire state, which is to say, it really looks like a first iOS app.

5. Get in better shape

I did pretty well at running at least a couple of times a week between end of March and mid-October. Once the snow—or worse, freezing rain—started coming down, however, that trend kind of tapered off.

I miss it, so I’ve registered at a gym with an indoor track and a pool.


Onwards and upwards

Any day is a good day to make changes, because we live in a state of flux. So, despite missing marks and/or changing course over the last year, I’m still going to set some goals for the next year:

Goal: Health

As I said, I’m registering at a gym down the street from where I live, where I can do both strength and cardiovascular training. I’m not getting any younger, and holy crap am I feeling it.

Typically, when I start getting more physically active, everything else falls into place: sleeping longer, eating better, making better decisions.

Citius, Altius, Fortius.

Goal: Wealth

My iOS apps, despite their neglected state, are about helping people make smarter decisions about their money. My Mac app has the same goal, albeit a bit more involved.

By the way: as they haven’t been updated in a while, I’ve made the iOS apps free. Give them a try.

Goal: Self-mastery

In a good chunk of my writing, I tend to explore themes related to getting better. Generally, if I’m writing about it, it’s because it’s something that I struggle with, or that I’m trying to improve.

Rather than forcing that with weekly posts, I intend on posting longer-form, better-cited articles, at least once a month.


Here’s to the next 365 days. I truly hope they’re full of love, laughter, and health for you.


One decision

As I write this, I’m sitting at a Starbucks in a mall, two days before Christmas. I’m sipping a large black coffee distractedly, watching folks noodle on by, caught up in whatever last few errands they may need to run before hosting or visiting friends and family for the holidays.

The mall’s background music is calm, barely-audible, and shoppers don’t seem particularly stressed out, or rushed, or frustrated.

It’s possible that I’m projecting my mood on this scene, too. I don’t know.

This has been, for me, one of the least-stressful run-ups to the holidays ever. Part of that comes from the fact that our trips to see family are nicely spaced out this year, and part of it comes from the fact that I’ve been preparing for this since Christmas of last year.

Our flat has been perfumed with the scent of Fraser fir for weeks.

I’ve purchased all of my gifts, which I’ll be wrapping this evening.

My Christmas budget still has plenty of padding for any unexpected, last-minute purchases.

Nice.

Knowing all your affairs are in order casts a lovely, warm glow on what can otherwise become a very hectic and chaotic time of year. Yeah, we missed the deadline for sending out Christmas cards—something we keep saying we want to do, but aren’t great about getting done—but otherwise, everything’s done.

Everything’s done because I made one decision during the holidays last year: make Christmas this year better.

Wishful thinking considered harmful

I used to feel that, hey, whatever, the Universe no doubt unfolds as it’s supposed to, and hopefully that means tomorrow will work out better than today did. I mean, I understood that my actions played some role in how that would play out, but, that said, there was always this feeling that things would work themselves out, because, well, they’d always somehow worked themselves out.

That is, until they didn’t.

Wishful thinking isn’t just optimism. It’s closing your eyes and hoping something works when you have no reasonable basis for thinking it will. Wishful thinking at the beginning of a project leads to big blowups at the end of a project. It undermines meaningful planning and may be at the root of more software problems than all other causes combined.

Steve McConnell, “Classic Mistakes Enumerated”

Mr McConnell wrote this with software development projects in mind, but it’s pretty broadly applicable to almost anything. Like post-secondary education. I did extremely well with little effort in high school, so I just expected that to continue through college.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, I got pretty well acquainted with a concept called “Academic Probation”, a set of policies and procedures designed around the concept of Getting Your Shit Together.

Instead of actually recognizing that each week was going worse than the last, and taking some kind of corrective action, I kept shrugging it off and convincing myself that it’d all work out. I figured I’d ace the final, or do great on the term project, or whatever. Procrastination, anxiety, burnout, whatever the reason, I didn’t do anything to stop the downward spiral—I just fantasized about having degrees conferred and being offered great jobs.

I think life-improvement gurus call this technique “goal visualization”, but it turns out that it’s not super effective without effort.

Judge, jury, and executor

Making a decision means consciously choosing what takes priority in your life, and this also means choosing what doesn’t take priority in your life. This has, historically, been the hard part for me; your time-management system can’t manage to tack an extra couple of hours onto your day, so if you decide that project A lives, then you’re by necessity deciding that projects B, C, and maybe even D must die. If you decide that you need to buy a new car, you’re by necessity deciding that you don’t get to retire for at least another year or two.

It’s only when I realized this that I started becoming the (relatively-more-) effective and productive person I am today.

Much like the KonMari method of tidying, you need a very specific mindset when you’re going through your tasks, or your budget, or your goals, or whatever. Except the decision to keep or drop a thing isn’t going to be based on whether it brings you joy; it’s going to be based on the fact that it requires sacrificing something. Something that you once sacrificed another thing for.

Which, in turn, you sacrificed something else for.

And so on.

Looking out the top of the windshield

Generally, as people, we’re not particularly good at forethought. Mired in the day-to-day, we neglect the future until it becomes a mistake-ridden past.

Luckily, fixing this isn’t especially hard—it just takes a certain amount of mindfulness.

When I was learning how to drive, one of the best pieces of advice that I got was to pick a point about three-quarters up the windshield in front of me, and try to look above that point at least as often as I look below it. The point of this exercise was to train yourself to look as far down the road as possible, as often as possible, without ignoring what’s going on right in front of you. In doing so, you see hazards and congestions and what-have-you long before they became an unavoidable problem. You can then make small, gentle course corrections right away, smoothly merging into another lane to avoid a pothole two blocks away.

Man, I wish I’d been able to grok the life lesson in that right away.

Long-term goals influence short-term goals. The farther out you plan, the easier it is to make decisions in the near-term about what gets to stay in your life, and what has to go.

In the end, you’re really only answering a single question: does this make [tomorrow / next week / next month / next year] better?

All the to-do lists and GTD methodologies in the world aren’t going to help you, until you can make that one decision.

"Omnifocus Quick-Entry window"

And yeah, we’ll be sending out Christmas cards next year.