In search of normality: A status report

We have normality. I repeat, we have normality. Anything you still can’t cope with is therefore your own problem.

— Trillian, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Recently, a business trip threw a wrench into my schedule. I had to spend a week frantically playing catch-up before returning to normality.

That might not seem like a particularly remarkable statement. But the truth is, it marks a major achievement in my life. “Returning to normal” implies that there is a recognizable normal to return to.

A year ago, life as I had known it came to an end, and something new began. And for a good six months or so, I went into a kind of pseudo-vacation mode. I woke up when I felt like it, children permitting. I paced around my deck for hours, just thinking. I got started on RubyTapas when the inspiration struck, and not before.

Occasionally I got depressed and did a bare minimum of work while filling the rest of my time with Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns.

I think I needed this period of structurelessness. Fifteen years of monomaniacal focus calls for some decompression.

The trouble was, I wasn’t actually on vacation. I still had commitments. Two episodes of video to deliver every week. Participating in the program committee for a major tech conference. Numerous national and international trips scheduled. And all the responsibilities that come with moving a family and a business to a new state.

So I settled into an irregular routine that was 50% aimless lollygagging, and 50% panicked activity. While an improvement on the 90% panic that had characterized my life up until this point, this was still neither healthy nor sustainable.

The worst part was that the price I paid for starting my days out lazy and relaxed was unpredictably late nights and weekends of catch-up. Both of which meant time stolen from my wife and kids.

I had actually sort of planned for this scenario. In the lead-up to our move, I had been deeply concerned about the possibility that I might be unable to shed the sense of urgency that was the defining feature of the preceding decade and a half. So I had declared a specific date to be Normality Day, after which I would make a concerted effort to reject any state of emergency, and instead embrace a steady state.

Then I totally blew past this date and decided it was “too soon” to declare normality. This was a mistake.

Somewhat later, I realized my error, and set out to correct it. Remarkably, I’ve actually managed to follow through on this intention. To the point that recently, when that business trip pushed me into frantic catch-up mode, I was able to return to normal after a week. Meaning that normality was such a tangible concept that I could identify its absence, yearn for its return, and consciously reinstate it.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned about achieving normality over the past few months.

Normality is about consistent routines. For all that I’m a free spirit and crave limitless flexibility, gaining a sense of normalcy required that I set some bounds for myself.

Normality is the result of constant and deliberate effort. Like figure skating, normality is one of those things that only looks effortless because of all the work you’re putting into it. It’s not something you can just “fall into”. Routines take effort to invent, and persistence to maintain.

Habits are more important than goals. This isn’t just about achieving a sense of normalcy. It’s is one of the most important lesson I’ve learned about personal improvement in general lately. There’s a lot I could write about this observation. But the bottom line is that you can achieve goals through good habits, but you can’t build good habits by setting goals. And habits make a great way to ground yourself in a sense of normality.

Schedule the life you intend to lead. The trouble with near-total flexibility, something I spent years working towards, is that there were no limits on how much time I spent working on “priorities”. Which inevitably meant that the urgent stuff is all I ever worked on. After all, non-urgent stuff could always be pushed back… and back… and back…

But since I felt like my schedule had effectively infinite “space” to push back into, what really wound up happening a lot of the time is that I spent a lot of time on low-value time-wasters like social media. I couldn’t let myself do the “low priority” stuff like studying or hiking, because I had too many “high priority” things to do. But I had so much anxiety going on that I dealt with it by procrastinating. It was the worst of all worlds: I wasn’t getting stuff done effectively, but I wasn’t really enjoying goofing off either.

Based on ideas in the book The Now Habit, I threw away my old calendar (or lack thereof), and built a new one that started with the things which characterize the lifestyle I imagine myself leading. So I started by blocking out things like:

  • Family time
  • Daily play time: video games, TV, reading for fun.
  • Daily inspiration and reflection
  • Running and lifting
  • A half-day hike once a week
  • Users-group meet-ups

Only after this was done did I add time slots for “work”. This exercise really impressed upon me how little time I really have for work… and thus, how vital it is to use that time effectively.

Separate different types of work. Once I had blocked out a realistic, constrained period for work every day, I didn’t stop there.

In the past I had always embraced flexibility in working—after all, isn’t it what I was working towards all those years? I had given myself free rein to obsess over one kind of work for a few days or weeks, to the exclusion of all others.

The problem was, this inevitably led to other tasks getting hopelessly, depressingly backed-up. For instance, I’d focus on my creative output for a couple of weeks, and then have to spend whole days or even an entire week catching up on my physical and email inboxes. What was really bad when I’d ignore some task for a week, leaving it in a barely-recoverable state—and then be hit with some unexpected illness or emergency that put me behind by another week, sending me into full-on panic.

This brings me to one of the hallmarks of normalcy: it means not just sustainability, but living in a state of resilience. Rather than constantly teetering on the edge of bankruptcy on some project or other.

Total flexibility also meant that lower-urgency projects—such as learning a new technology, or improving my tools—got pushed back indefinitely.

This was not conducive to a sense of normality. So I decided to go against my natural inclinations, and impose some structure on my work time. I divided my 8-hour work days into blocks of time:

  • Time for creative work
  • Time for research and study
  • Time for improvements to my skills or tools
  • Time for upkeep – email, customer service, accounting, etc. And yes, this means I typically don’t check my email until the end of the work day.

This also meant moving beyond my default David Allen-style “Getting Things Done” (GTD) workflow. GTD emphasizes picking any TODO that’s compatible with your current location, energy level, and time constraints. But I’ve started to also limit my “context” by types of work: e.g., absolutely no customer service email gets read during time set aside for creative work.

Simply requiring myself to work on upkeep daily, instead of batching it up, has been a revelation in controlling my overall level of anxiety.

Use it or lose it. The preceding exercises would have been all for nothing if I had given myself the escape hatch of letting my schedule slip. I made a very strict pact with myself: with very, very few exceptions, if I “lose” time, I don’t get to “push back” my schedule in order to make it up.

So if I find myself at the end of my creative work period without a finished RubyTapas episode to show for it: oh well! Set it aside for tomorrow, and move on to study. If I get to the end of my “upkeep” period and there are still a dozen emails waiting for my attention: oh well! It’s time to knock off, have a drink, and spend some time with my family.

This was difficult at the beginning, as you might imagine. There were weeks I didn’t get my quota of episodes done, and had to find a way to make up for it the next week, without going overtime.

But by (mostly) sticking to the discipline over a period of months, I’ve been able to steadily increase my capacity for focused, creative work “on demand”. This is consistent with the advice I’ve read from many of the professional writers and other creatives whom I admire: despite the stereotype of the “creative muse” striking unpredictably, they all talk about having a consistent habit of writing (or whatever) during set times every day. Whether they are “feeling it” or not.

It seems that creativity on demand is a muscle that can be exercised and improved just like any other. The key was to stop giving myself the “out” of thinking “I can always make up for this later”.

Media considered harmful. With a tightly structured schedule, one of the chief dangers I now face is any distracting activity that can easily expand to fill time without limit. The worst offender in this department: media consumption.

As a result, I’ve become very deliberate with my media consumption over the past several months. I’ve established a kind of mental hierarchy of media, which goes something like this, in descending order of priority:

  • Courses: When I’m seriously trying to learn about a topic, these days I try to find a reputable course on or some similar site.
  • Books, including audiobooks. Books are almost always more stable, more complete, and more information-dense than any other medium.
  • Videos, e.g. conference talks and screencasts. These are a little more difficult to prioritize, since both their quality and my need for instruction on a particular topic can vary widely. At their best, videos can convey information with unparalleled richness.
  • Email newsletters – good ones carefully curate what they link to, they often contain sufficient summaries to avoid clicking through to links, and when you’re done reading a newsletter you’re done for the day.
  • Blog and magazine articles. I usually find these from newsletters (above) or my feeds (below). I queue these up in Pocket and read them when I get a chance.
  • Blog feeds – using Inoreader, I’ve rehabilitated my habit of reading RSS feeds. When I get the urge to go to Twitter, I redirect myself to Inoreader. I’ve curated a lengthy list of feeds which consist mostly of peronal blogs, and few “news” type sites. What I find in my RSS reader is less “sugary”, which makes it both harder to get endlessly distracted by it, and makes the time I do spend on it more valuable.
  • Podcasts. I used to spend more time on these, but they are relatively info-sparse compared to some of the other sources on this list. They were more important to me back when I felt a need for company on my long commute. I still subscribe to a long list of podcasts, but now I only listen to a few random episodes here and there. Usually I turn them on when for some reason I don’t feel like I have sufficient attention available for an audiobook. E.g. when I’m doing the dishes.
  • Social media – very low priority.
  • Everything else: News sites, Reddit, Digg, Hacker News, etc.; anything that can be endlessly reloaded for new distractions. I’ve completely eliminated these sites from my diet.

Normality isn’t static. It kinda seems like it should be, doesn’t it? But structure with no bend to it eventually falls apart.

I’ve been striving more for bounded periods of self-imposed rigidity. The most important interval has been the week. I’ve reinstated a long-dormant habit of doing weekly reviews on Sunday. This gives me a chance to take a step back, look at what I did and didn’t accomplish, what worked and what didn’t, and adjust accordingly.

For instance, one thing that hasn’t been working so well is doing all my workouts in the morning, before my usual work-start time of 10AM. Often, a particularly long and strenuous run leaves me late and lacking energy, and as a result I wind up not getting started on work in earnest until 11AM or later. So this past Sunday I moved my workouts to the early afternoon. I’ll evaluate next Sunday whether this worked out better.

Normality includes emergencies. I think this has been the hardest part to really put into practice and internalize. Whenever something unexpected comes up, my first reflex is to shift to “emergency mode”, throw everything I’ve built up under the bus, and start oscillating between frantic action and self-medicating my anxiety with social media distractions.

And that’s kind of what I did the week after my business trip, but at least I set a hard date for when it would stop, and I’m counting that as a win.

Realistically, some eventualities are going to require deviating from my schedule. But usually less so than I first imagine.

Do I have to handle this scary collections notice that I opened five minutes before quitting time right now? Or can I knock off on time, drink an extra shot of bourbon, and pick it up tomorrow?

Do I need to work very late for a couple of nights because I lost a two days to illness? Or can I amortize it across the next few weeks without major disruptions?

The most difficult aspect of normality is losing the habit of looking for excuses to ditch it.  If it doesn’t include the ability to take unexpected circumstances in stride, it’s not true normality—it’s just an accidental grace period.

This whole process has been one of those rare experiences of setting out to “get my shit together”, and actually accomplishing it. I have bad days, and bad weeks, but I’ve had enough good days and weeks at this point that I have a taste for normality. I know what it feels like, and when I fail or choose to set my rules aside, I know what I’m deviating from.

My normal now is not what my normal will be six months from now. I’m sure if you ping me in six months I’ll say that some of this stuff turned out to be a bad idea, or incomplete. It’s an evolution, not a revolution.

But this is where I’m at right now. If you’ve read this far, I hope something here helps you out.

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  1. What you have accomplished and are evolving toward are so impressive. I can’t imagine the level of responsibility and urgency you’ve struggled to take on, contain, and organize into a workable work-in-progress, and the self-discipline and sacrifice it took.

    What I CAN guess at are some of the inherent, inherited “handicaps” or challenges that you’ve had to work hard to resist and overcome to achieve effective habits, healthy priorities, and flexible structure, in your quest to find a normalcy that works for you and your goals–and your family. Lesser people would have crashed and burned. I’ve seen it happen. Most people would have just lapsed by now into some kind of compromising, mindless routine that just barely stays ahead of the urgent things, and never really accomplishes the important goals, if they even had any.

    But (in my impartial, unbiased opinion!) you are no ordinary, average person! You are an inspiration. For what it’s worth, you inspire me every day. I know I’m not alone. Your process challenges me to keep living and self-improving, even in my small, insignificant ways. Keep being the good role model you are, I suspect, for many people.

    1. Thanks mom!!!

  2. [ This is consistent with the advice I’ve read from many of the professional writers and other creatives whom I admire: despite the stereotype of the “creative muse” striking unpredictably, they all talk about having a consistent habit of writing (or whatever) during set times every day. Whether they are “feeling it” or not. ]

    This has been by far the biggest advantage to me of having children — getting a lot of practice in achieving focus and flow quickly, because there’s no alternative. It’s a hard skill to learn, but once learned it’s useful for everything.

    I haven’t managed to keep a really consistent schedule, which seems to help even more. But just knowing “you have only two hours, *go*” is already really useful, even if I can’t schedule it at the same time every day/week.

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