Don’t React

The “productivity literature” (for lack of a better blanket term) is clear:

  • Don’t read email first thing in the morning
  • Don’t do social media in the morning
  • Some even say: avoid news in the morning

The more I think about this, the more I try to increase my daily effectiveness, the more I realize that it all boils down to one principle:

Act, don’t react. Put off reaction for as long as possible.

And oh… my… gosh… this is so hard. The temptation to look for something to react to is practically overwhelming: an email I can reply to. A social media posting I can laugh at or be outraged by. A buzzfeed article I can develop an opinion about.

Anything to switch over from action to reaction.

I’m the sort of person (maybe everyone is this sort of person?) who has a reaction to everything. The food I eat, the things my kids do, the music I listen to, every scrap of media I consume… if I gave myself free reign, I’d have commentary on all of it.

I’m writing this right this moment because it’s a way to distract myself from the urge to react. In a sense, it’s a reaction to reaction.

Often very prominent creative types say things which turn out to be ill-considered, and garner an angry backlash. And people ask “how could they have not seen this coming?” I wonder if, sometimes, it’s simply because as part of being creative, they are people who have internalized the value of action-over-reaction to an extreme degree?

With my high-speed internet connection and lively social networks, I live in a world where I have limitless opportunities for public reaction every waking second. I’m finding that cranking this particular door of temptation closed is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Email: Still not perfect.

I am a fan of email. Email does not interrupt me[1]. Email is fast when it needs to be, and slow the rest of the time. Email has no character limits. Email is private by default, preventing it from becoming performance art.

I’ve been using Google Inbox for my email since the beta period. I like Inbox. Inbox understands that when I am done reading my Social Media folder for the day, I am done. I do not want to see that folder pop up again until tomorrow. Inbox understands that every email is an action item, even if the action is “decide if I care about this”. And that it should be possible to be done with action items for the day.

I have split out the majority of my business-related[2] emails to Front, where I can share them with my assistant and where I do not see them unless I specifically go looking for them. This is good. I do not need to be tempted to address customer service issues on a Saturday.

I receive nearly all of my news, both of the larger world and of my industry, in the form of email newsletters. This is good. When I’m done reading a newsletter, I’m done. There is no refresh button on a newsletter. I click through to a few particularly notable items, queue them up in Pocket, and move on.

And yet. All is still not well in email-land.

Like many humans, I am fond of reading news with my coffee in the morning. This may not be the best idea in the world, but it’s not overly deleterious to my productivity. Most news is not actionable beyond “hmm, I would like to read more about this later”.

But if I go into my inbox looking for newsletters, I run the very real risk of seeing other emails, like:

  • Letters from friends and associates which deserve thought and response.
  • Notifications of Bad Things that have happened and which I must address (“Your daily backup job has failed!”)
  • Social media notifications. Oh my gosh, what are people saying to me?? I must know, right now!

This isn’t good. I’m susceptible to distraction. And being distracted by email first thing in the morning is very, very bad for getting things done.

Similarly, if I go into my mailbox with the intent only to send a message, I run the risk of being distracted by notions unrelated to sending an email. I’ve been considering going back to a native email client on my computers, just to make it easier to write an email without accidentally seeing my inbox.

If I open my inbox during my 1-hour “upkeep” period, intending to deal with assorted notifications, I run the risk of spending the whole hour distracted by community forums, newsletters, or thought-provoking personal emails.

The truth I’m realizing is that, even with my “business” mail split out, the items in my inbox represent very different categories and modes of work. Categories like:

  • Personal and group correspondence
  • Requests for my time/energy/thought.
  • Administrative notifications (you have been invited to an event; your package has shipped)
  • News
  • Social networks and community forums. I don’t have to read/participate in these, but I like to when I can.
  • Promotions (I have unsubscribed to most of these, but there are a few I care about, like upcoming events at nearby parks and venues)

Some of these items are things I want to see in the morning. Some of them I very much do not need to see in the morning. Some of them I need to see when I’m doing upkeep near the end of the day, when creative work is already done. Some of them I guess need some sort of “correspondence time”, separate from upkeep. And some of them really ought to be relegated to discretionary periods of time, separate and apart from work hours.

Like I said, I’m not immune to temptation. Seeing the wrong items at the wrong time is one of the the things that hurts my daily output. Even if I manage to avoid the urge to deal with everything in my inbox at once, research has shown that simply being aware of unread/un-dealt-with items in your inbox can reduce your mental effectiveness.

I’m not sure what to do about all this. Anyone have any ideas?

[1] I mean, it could if I enabled notifications for it on my phone, PC, watch, refrigerator, and cat. But good god, why would I want to do a silly thing like that?

[2] This is a fuzzy line. I get a lot of emails from people who want to talk about programming-related topics, and whom I only know because my business involves interacting with programmers. Does this make the email business-related? Or personal?

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 Lynda.com 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.

Learning to think in evolution, not revolution

I just recently finished The Now Habit, by Neil Fiore. Partly inspired by that book, I’ve made a bunch of changes to my organization, prioritization, and habits.

These changes are working out pretty well so far. I’m at the “revolutionary point” right now. The point in implementing a new system where there is a strong temptation to tell people about all the changes I’ve made, and how great they are.

Realistically though, these new practices won’t last. Not in their present form, anyway. This is what I learn from observing myself in the past. I’ll shirk one habit, and abbreviate another, and eventually the whole system will unravel, at least for a while.

The dark side of the “revolutionary point” is the ensuing “… then everything fell apart” narrative. For instance, years ago I read, and embraced, Getting Things Done by David Allen. For a while I practiced the tenets of his system religiously. But my systems don’t reflect orthodox GTD so much anymore. Looking back, I could easily tell myself “yeah, you thought it was revolutionary, but then everything fell apart”.

The trouble with this narrative is that it’s untrue, and unfair to myself. The reality is that reading GTD moved the “base competency level” of my personal management upwards.

These days, when I “hit bottom”—frazzled, stressed, my TODO list neglected, my email overflowing, my nights late—I have a shortcut to recovery. I don’t first survey the literature for a workable system to reorganize my life by, or sit and agonize for hours on how to do it “right”.

Instead, I revert to what David Allen taught me. I consolidate my inboxes. I write down every thought buzzing around in my head somewhere I will later review or act on it, so I don’t have to keep juggling those thoughts in my mind. I process my email and TODO-up anything that will take me more than 2 minutes to deal with. And so on.

My point is not that GTD is the best. My point is that it’s a system, and it has stuck with me. The truth is, I’ve taken lasting lessons from GTD and other personal improvement books, lessons that have lasted past the initial “revolutionary point”.

I’m making a concerted effort not to think in terms of revolutions anymore. No, the present state of affairs won’t remain static. I will “backslide”, or simply discard practices that don’t seem to be working anymore. But that doesn’t mean that “then everything fell apart”. It doesn’t mean I failed.

It just means that I practiced the skills and mental models long enough to add them to my permanent repertoire. There they’ll stay, ready to hand when I need them. The revolution was just a stage in my evolution.

Downswing interrupted

So I’m depressed, and this is not new, or surprising. I was due.

I’m angry too, though. I’m angry because it wouldn’t be that bad, really, if I just had space for it. I know how to relax into depression. I know how to prioritize family and self and let the other stuff fall away for a time.

But I don’t have space. I should by now, but I don’t.

Imagine you’re swinging, and you’re high and weightless on the upswing, and then there’s the downswing, and that’s OK, because it’s rhythm and rhythm is life. But then you discover someone has moved a wall in behind you while you were in the air. And smack, you’re on the ground.

I’ve worked so hard to give my life flexibility. And yet it still can’t bend inwards long enough to permit me a period of drawing-in. What I have is still too precarious. To much depends on uninterrupted attention.

And so depression becomes panic, becomes breakdown. Or something right on the brink of it, held back with gritted teeth and harnessed anger. At least the anger is good for something.

[As always, writing because it really does help, and because it would be harmful to project the false impression that constant output comes without cost.]

Haunted by megrims

There’s a scene in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou that has always resonated with me. I can’t find a clip of it online, and I’m too lazy to make one. Here’s the script, though:

It is night.

George Nelson, now strangely quiet, holds a coffee cup and stares gloomily into the fire.

After a long beat, Delmar, also staring into the fire, slaps one knee and ejaculates:

DELMAR
Damn but that was some fun though, won it George?!

George responds, barely audible and without brightening:

GEORGE
…yeah…

Everett and Pete exchange significant looks. Delmar, however, is less sensitive to the Babyface’s mood.

DELMAR
Almost makes me wish I hadn’t been saved! Jackin’ up banks – I can see how a fella could derive a lot a pleasure and satisfaction out of it!

GEORGE
…it’s okay…

DELMAR
Whoa doggies!

At length George swishes the coffee around his cup, shrugs, tosses the coffee and rises.

GEORGE
…Well, I’m takin’ off.

He digs into a pocket and tosses his car keys to a dumbfounded Delmar.

GEORGE
You boys can have the automobile.

Glassy-eyed, he continues to dig in his pockets and lets his money fall to the ground.

GEORGE
‘N might as well take my share a the riches.

DELMAR
What the – where you goin’, George?

George has turned woodenly and walks away, leaving the campfire’s flickering circle of light.

GEORGE
…I dunno… who cares…

Delmar stares at Everett, who looks appraisingly at George’s retreating back. Pete scrambles to pick up the loose money.

DELMAR
Now wuddya suppose is eatin’ George?

EVERETT
Well ya know, Delmar, they say that with a thrill-seekin’ personality,
what goes up must come down. Top of the world one minute, haunted by megrims the next. Yep, it’s like our friend George is a alley cat and his own  damn humors’re swingin’ him by the tail. But don’t worry, Delmar; he’ll be back on top again. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of George Nelson.

I wouldn’t say I’m “thrill-seeking”, but sometimes I strongly identify with George’s defeated listlessness in this scene. There’s always a price to be paid.