Friday, May 16, 2014

Weekend Reading: The Stepping Off a Cliff Edition

Today was my last day at work. In fact, depending on how things go, it might have been my last day as a salaried employee, period. However, I consider myself to have twenty-five years or so of career still in front of me. I am not so naive (or arrogant!) to think that I know what the rest of my career will be.

Still, today feels like the start of a very interesting new experiment, if nothing else.

@SarcasticCarrie may have put it best on Twitter:

My articles of incorporation also became valid this week, and my new corporation now legally exists. I still have some set up to do, but I am sitting next to a big stack of documents about my new corporation, which arrived in the mail today.

Exciting times!

My celebratory mood is dampened by the fires raging in the north of my county, though. I live far from the fires, so the personal impact has been limited to trouble with my asthma and burning eyes from the degraded air quality, and an unexpected day off yesterday, when all San Diego schools were closed. I have many friends and colleagues who live in the areas affected by the fires. Colleagues and friends have had children evacuated from schools. One colleague had the fire burn to within meters of her house. She and her family were evacuated and tracking the course of the fire as it advanced towards their home. Their house was saved because firefighters made a stand to save the subdivision.

People at work who are new to the area are a bit shocked by the images on their TV news, and are asking lots of questions trying to understand the risks associated with their new homes. I remember that feeling. The first wildfire I remember is the 1996 Harmony Grove fire, and I was struck by the speed and unpredictability of the fire. I wrote my first emergency plan that year. People who have lived here longer are a bit surprised by how few houses have been lost, to say nothing of the fact that so far there seems to be only one fatality from the nine (nine!) fires that have been burning in our area in the last few days. We have strong memories of prior firestorms that took much larger tolls, in both lives and property, and are on edge, worried that we may yet see a repeat of those earlier events. I think we as a region are better prepared (reverse 911 systems, better regional coordination, better laws about brush clearance, and better awareness about the importance of creating defensible space around your house if you live near open space are all things that come to mind).  I'm sure we've also gotten lucky.

So I'm not feeling like celebrating. Still, I've taken a big leap into the unknown this week, and I do feel like acknowledging that. I've told a few people that it was a leap of equal parts faith and frustration, and it really does feel in some ways like I've stepped off a cliff. The image in my mind is from the third Indiana Jones movie, when Indiana has to step off a cliff into what seems to be thin air.

So far, my bridge has materialized as I need it.

Here are some recent links that I've found inspiring and/or instructive in my big leap:

Amy Hoy has a site with lots of information about bootstrapping a new business. I really liked this week's post about what she calls oxygen mask entrepreneurship, and keeping a firm focus on what really matters in life.

Cal Newport wrote about the importance of intensity in work, which is something I think about a lot. Would I rather work intensely for four hours and then do whatever I want for four hours, or work at a less intense level for eight hours? I suspect the answer for me is different on different days, and different for different types of work- and I think that is OK. I also think that different people will have different preferences in this regard, and I think that is OK, too. I do not think there is one "right" way to work.

Laura Vanderkam had an interesting post about her work hours, and how they are longer than those of many of the women whose time logs she's analyzing for her mosaic project. One of the aspects of the experiment I'm starting that I'm most curious about is how this change in my work structure will play out in my time usage. I'll be tracking time to bill customers, and I've decided to go ahead and track all work hours, partly to help me see what things I do have the best return on time invested, but also because I am just so curious about how my time usage will change.  The hardest part of this may turn out to be deciding what is work in my new arrangement. Is Tungsten Hippo work? What about this blog? I have several projects in mind that may or may not pan out as something that I can sell. Are those work? I think I will probably just track both work and work-like projects, and sort it all out later.

I may or may not blog about what my time logs show me. I am very interested in the subject of time usage, but I find it increasingly frustrating to discuss. One of the things I've noticed when I (or anyone) write about time usage and/or work hours is that some people seem genuinely convinced that the details of their work and/or home life are so different from the details of the work or home life being discussed that any insights or ideas discussed will be impossible to apply to their situation. Sure, I can keep my career on track in a 40 hour work week, but they never could I used to argue with those people, but I've decided it is a fool's errand. Nothing but an exact match to their circumstances will convince them, and who knows? Maybe they are right. But because they won't engage in the possibility that they could change their lives, they don't make good people with whom to explore the limits of my ideas. The discussion becomes a waste of everyone's time. We seem, as a culture, to have a strong need to believe in the 80 hour work week, and my little blog isn't going to change that. I'd rather focus on my own life, and figuring out how I can make sure I use my time on all of the things that matter to me. I find that reading about other peoples approach to work and time usage often gives me new ideas I can adapt to my own situation, though, so I'll certainly keep reading on the subject, whether or not I write about it.

I don't have any funny things to end with, but I have two quotes I came across this week and really liked:

"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen." - John Steinbeck (found in cute form on Pinterest, of course)

"When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life." - John Lennon (found on Tumblr, you can track the history for yourself)

Happy weekend, everyone!

Late breaking addition- I do have something funny for you after all. I give you Cats Considering Capital.


  1. Anonymous6:44 AM

    I do think that there's a lot going into optimal productive hours for people. Different people have different abilities and breaking points and different tasks really do require different amounts of time. When I'm doing slow-to-compile coding, I can do that for a lot longer than I can do quickly compiling coding because with the quickly compiling stuff there's more intensity, just like the Newport article is saying. I can't really speed up the compile time (though the compile time has been speeding up over time on its own).

    I also tend to trust that many people, through their own trial and error, have already found their optimal working points, so changing wouldn't make much sense for them. It's only the people who are unhappy with where they're at, or who are undergoing external changes (new job, etc.), who could probably use a change. And yes, bosses who force work rules on their employees might need to think about these issues more.

    1. I think of time management as a skill, like any other, so for me, there's always room for improvement. Certainly, anytime I choose to focus on it, I improve. I understand that some people are happy with where they are at, and so don't want to focus on it- those aren't the people I'm talking about, though, since they in general wouldn't even bother reading a post about time management, much less commenting on it.

      From my years as a project manager, I'd say that a lot of people are pretty far from their optimal working points, though. A lot of people I've worked with are showing up for the hours but not really getting much done. They don't advance as fast as they'd like, so they think they need more hours- but really, what they need is to use the hours they are at work better. As a PM, I'd adjust my schedule around them. When I'm someone's line manager, I might work with them on the issue. Usually, it is a prioritization problem. But I also try to be sensitive to the fact that some people just prefer a slower pace at work, and are happy to work slightly longer hours to get that pace. That's fine, too. There's only a management problem if the work isn't getting done or if a direct report asks for advice on how to trim hours (and yes, I've had direct reports ask me about that- they know I don't expect long hours, and see that I am more productive in fewer hours than they are putting in, and ask for tips).

    2. Do you think it will ever be possible to move away from an hours-based thinking about productivity to a results-based thinking about productivity? I can see in some jobs how looking at the hours are absolutely necessary, but I'm always surprised by how little thinking about how much or worrying about how little I've worked in a given week has to do with achieving my goals. Does that make sense?

    3. I think it is possible, but it requires managers to learn how to manage based on the work, and also how to figure out the amount of work that is reasonable to expect in a given amount of time. Those are both a lot harder than just counting the time people are at work, and a lot of managers don't get much help in learning how to do that. It is certainly a part of management I learned on the job- it has never been included in any management training I've had.

      In terms of my own productivity, I do try to judge myself against my goals and not against the clock. I'll be tracking time to help me make the transition to the new arrangement, and learn what sorts of goals are reasonable to set for myself for a week. (And also because I'm really curious how I'll end up arranging my days!)

    4. Yeah, I was thinking it would probably require completely rethinking our (society's) approach to work - not a simple task. But it suddenly struck me how not-obvious it is to think of work-productivity in terms of hours. Not original, but it hadn't really occurred to me before.

  2. Zenmoo12:44 PM

    Unrelated to anything except cute, multiplying rabbits - have you seen the picture book 'The Rabbit Problem' by Emily Gravett? She uses rabbits to illustrate the Fibonacci sequence, very cute and a little geeky.

    1. That sounds like a great book! I'll have to look for it.

  3. Remember, the penitent man doesn't just kneel. He also ducks and rolls.

  4. Alexicographer7:31 PM

    Good luck!

    I heard about the fires and thought of you -- hope this round will be "mild," in terms of damage caused, though clearly these are a familiar and recurring problem in your area.

  5. Thanks for the link! And congrats on your last day on the job -- I was just pondering what a lack of closure that would be if the SD schools closed on your *last* day, not second to last...

    On the work hours thing, I think the soloist life does feature differences from working in a "normal" office. I can work as I work best -- which involves quiet and not talking to people -- and so it's easier to work longer. I'm also generally choosing my projects, which is often one of the goals of the free agent life. If it's mostly stuff you like, then it's also easier to work longer hours.

    Because of that, I do think my productivity is correlated with hours. Yes, a big win may come from one email that took 2 minutes to write. But opportunities generally come from seeds planted long before, and that just takes time.

  6. Congrats on your big leap!

    And yes, I work at different intensities at different times, depending on my mood and schedule. A few weeks ago I had a big project with a short deadline and worked very intensely to get it done. A week later, the client wanted me to look over some revisions/queries. If I'd really buckled down, this follow-up work would have taken about 1.5 hours. But I knew I had all day, I was still burned out from the other week, so I did the revisions at a much more low-key pace, in between laundry and lunch and other things. It took ~ 3 hours instead of 1.5 hours, but it still got done, and both client and I were happy. On that particular day, getting it done in the minimum amount of time just wasn't a priority for me.

    Although I really should try systematic time-tracking. . .

  7. Congratulations on moving into the next phase of your life! I'm really happy for you!

    I am so sad to hear about all the fires. I hope there is little to no more damage.

    At my previous company, we used to say: If we had a week to get a proposal response done, it would be done in a week; If we had a month to get one done, it would be done in a month. I often see work expand to fill the time given for it. And I personally do much better buckling down right before something is due.

    Although I know what works for me, I always read your posts on time management because I know I have a lot of room for improvement in that area. Yet, I find it hard to change my ways... I'll keep trying, though. Speaking of which, my lunch break is over...


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