Weekly Head Voices #126: Fleur-de-lis.

Betty’s Bay’s Crepuscular Rays. An apostrophe in time saves rhyme.
  • Happy new year everyone, and welcome to the first Weekly (truly?! will this be the year?) Head Voices of 2018!
  • I ended 2017 with a longish (by my standards) run in the morning, followed by a laid-back mini-party and finally by struggling really hard to stay awake until midnight.
  • In contrast, returning to the office on January 2 was a pretty good way to ease gradually into work in 2018. Many colleagues were still on vacation, so the week felt a bit like work with training wheels.
  • Pro-tip #1 for the new year: In the last few weeks of 2017 I started (again…) explicitly making quiet time at the start of the day to think about what I want to take care of. These take the form of a small number of Org mode- [ ] Do this thing” checklist items that are usually related to but separate from my main tasks. I find it amazing to which extent these few minutes are able to shape my day. (In my org mode monthly journal, I also usually start by listing out manually the tasks I want to complete during that month, as well as the ideas / thoughts / principles I want to keep in my sights.)
  • Pro-tip #2 for the new year: After years of resisting these types of software tools due to my belief that I should simply apply more grit and will power to squeeze out more focus hours, I finally broke down and purchased the macOS app called Focus. You click its pretty icon, and then your computer goes into focus mode: The Mail application and a bunch of other non-focus-related apps all get killed, and a bunch of websites (reddit, youtube, work chat, etc) are blocked for a user-configurable block of time. I rationalised this purchase with the following reasoning: It usually takes a single moment of weakness for a distraction to terminate a valuable block of focus. It takes a single moment of strength for this tool to start a valuable block of focus.
  • Although I’m having fun, I really don’t think I’m supposed to use bullets like this.
  • Thank you very much for spending time here with me. I wish you a week of value and focus, followed by a visit to the next WHV!
The Huguenot Monument in Franschhoek, where we found ourselves an hour or two ago. Immediacy FTW.

P.S. This post was finished during a 30 minute FocusApp block. Background music: Balance 014 by Joris Voorn, one of my favourite music creations ever.

Weekly Head Voices #69: No sugar added.

This time, the head voices are echoing the span of time ending strictly on Sunday, April 27 at 23:59.

I have to break my rule and reach through past the start of that week however. On Wednesday April 16 I had quite a heavy sugar crash. After about 12 cups of coffee, each with a spoon of sugar (as per usual), some chocolates from the Stone Three sweetie jar during lunch ,and two giant coconut crunches at about TU Delft sugar fix time (yes children, I do my best to commemorate the sugar fix, even at 11000 km distance from you), my energy levels dropped through the floor and no amount of coffee could get them close to normal again.

That’s when I decided to stop taking sugar.

On Thursday April 17 I went cold turkey. I’m not taking any table sugar at all, no cookies or sweets (ARGH), and I’m even steering clear of breakfast cereals. Pretty boring, I know. After more than a week of completely unscientific N=1 case “study” experience, I can report that:

  • It took some getting used to my coffee without any sugar.
  • NO MORE  COOKIES. ARGH ARGH ARGH. COME CLOSER SO I CAN BITE YOU.
  • My perceived energy levels seem significantly more stable, and I remain all energetic until late at night. Sometimes I don’t sleep, because I run around in the neighbourhood making growling noises. Sometimes I wake up, miles away from home, with all kinds of gunk under my finger nails. Oh well.

On the topic of quitting, let’s talk about all of those lists we love so much. You should really go read Noeska’s presentation on Productivity, Project Management and Other Important Stuff in her latest status update blog post. Besides all of the Getting Things Done and Pull Yourself Together tools and systems she presents, I was happy to see her talk about the dangers of productivity tools on slide 23, and especially the “doing the right things vs doing things right” dilemma.

You see, I’ve been thinking much about this lately. Usually when I’m doing the most valuable and important things (designing and building new products, learning new programming languages, coming up with brand new ideas for artefacts to build) my email inbox starts overflowing and my todo system (currently todoist, which I do like) stagnates (my todoist karma is currently ZERO. I’m at KARMA ZERO damnit!!). Conversely, when I’m almost at inbox zero and my todoist is under control, it feels great, but I’m tired because I’ve spent all of that time taking care of a bunch of emails and mostly urgent but almost no important tasks.

Some people I’ve chatted with are hardcore enough to make the classification between important and urgent in their lists. However, when I see that list of tasks, my OCDs take over and I go into 100% reactive mode. NO ROOM FOR CREATIVITY.

I’m still thinking about how to solve this problem. I do think that the lists and the systems are really important, because some things do really need doing at certain points in time. For now, I’m still picking the three (or two, or one) most important things to do per day (see Noeska’s presentation, also see pro tip #2 in this 2011 post of mine). Also, what does work remarkably well for me, is maintaining a daily “done” or “I did it” list. Go read this, you can thank me later.

After all of that, the weekend took us to Vaalvlei, a picturesque wine farm just outside of Stanford:

Vaalvlei wine farm, just outside of Stanford.
Vaalvlei wine farm, just outside of Stanford.

Here we were treated to a super-exclusive wine tasting of the Vaalvlei Sauvignon Blanc, 2012 Shiraz Reserve, 2011 Shiraz, Shiraz port, and the top TOP secret Shiraz cognac right from the cask (don’t tell anyone, ok?):

Vaalvlei wine and cognac tasting
Vaalvlei wine and cognac tasting

I can report that these hand-crafted wines and the cognac were all beautiful, but I trust that my friend De Wijnrecensent (aka the Tall Philisophical Neighbour! all secrets are revealed on this blog.) will have more to say about this in a few months time.

Enjoy the rest of the week kids!

Three rules of stress-free email productivity

Hey kids, this would have been the Weekly Head Voices #10, but since the past week can be really compactly summarised (4 hours of lecturing, 8 hours of lab supervision, 1 M.Sc. defense, 15 hours of meetings, 1 brilliant going-away party), I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s post to something completely different, something that one or two of you might even find useful!

Image copyright Grant Neufeld.
Image copyright Grant Neufeld.

I get to process quite an amount of email every day, and the amount seems to be increasing year after year.  Experience has taught me one or two hard lessons with regard to the efficient handling of said email.  Because I like you, I now give you my not-so-secret-anymore rules for stress-free email productivity!

1. Only check email when you actually have the time to take action.

This is the most important rule, and also the one I forget the most often.  The bottom-line is that you should only check your email if you have the time and inclination at that moment to take action on all of your inbox.  Taking action includes the GTD-style delete, delegate, defer and do possibilities, so for example chopping an email up into its constituent actions and sticking those in your todo-system (deferring) counts as taking action.  Under any other circumstances, don’t even check, as this will only serve to stress you out.  Conversely, following this rule will lead to having longer blocks of contiguous time to spend on tasks that you select, and not the crazy reactive work processing style endemic in the modern work place.

This rule is in practice nicely satisfied by the advice to make time for two or three distinct email processing moments per day.

2. Don’t use email as your main todo system.

Conversely put, have a good todo system that’s separate from your email.  This forces you to analyse emails during email processing moments and to break them up into the atomic GTD-style tasks that they represent.  You can always link the original email to the task, but the task description should be your main unit of work.  Seeing the same emails over and over increases stress and leads to unnecessary effort as you analyse them again and again every time that you see them.  Tasks, in general being more concisely described, are easier to start with and also increase the resolution of your accountable productivity.

3. Have separate work and non-work accounts.

Accidentally seeing one work email during your well-deserved holiday can spoil your mood. Maintain a separate email account for non-work (social) matters and make sure correspondents are aware of the difference.  This way, you can continue using email during rest periods without the risk of that one misplaced email putting you back in work-mode for the rest of the day.  This measure helps to maximise the value of your relaxation time.

Following the three rules above will also help a great deal in attaining and maintaining the nirvana that is inbox-zero.

Weekly Head Voices #8: Uninterruptible Fun Supply

Dear readers,

Due to a small accident with a friend’s quantum entanglement device, I briefly got stuck in a high pressure reality vortex. The headaches have subsided, but I do still seem to be suffering from slight time compression artifacts. In any case, that’s why there’s only this one edition of the Weekly Head Voices to cover weeks 43 to 45. As is always the case, please make use of the bolded phrases to guide you through this post. In other words, the fat words tell you what you you might find interesting so that you can skip the rest.

Week 43 was for a large part about re-learning a lesson that I’ve learned and forgotten more times than I care to count, but it was mostly about joining Superbly Cool Extraordinarily Lovely People (hi there y’all!) and going here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9sOxfcWlGr0 HEAD ASPLODE!

Now how about that lesson? Let’s go:

On the Importance of Not Getting Interrupted.

During these past weeks I’ve been hard at work completing a mini-thesis (some call it a teaching portfolio) documenting my teaching activities, meaning that I had to spend a significant amount of Contiguous Time(tm) producing a significant body of text. In order to supplement the scarce supply of said Contiguous Time, I spent two mornings working at home. Furthermore, I for some or other vague reason decided not to check email before I started early in the morning and of course also not to keep my e-mail client running whilst working.

My word, what a difference!

Who woulda thunk it, it turns out that that habitual and reflexive email checking really breaks one’s speed and, in my case, causes unnecessary stress as each time the inbox piles up with even more remotely injected work. Bottom line: I’m going back (for the umpteenth time) to 3 fixed email checks and inbox emptying sessions per day: one before the early morning daily review, one just after lunch when my brain is too busy coping with digestion anyway and one in the late afternoon.

Operating Systems all-you-can-eat Buffet

During wind-down time in these past three weeks, I installed and tried out the following operating systems:

  • Moblin 2.1 preview on my netbook: Oh my it boots really fast and is very pretty. It would take some getting used to, my experience was too much mobile internet device and too little computer.
  • OSX 10.5.7 on my Q9450 quad-core: First: No, I have no idea how that got there! Second: Meh. Looks nice, not my thing though. Third: Eventually I’m going to port DeVIDE to OSX, when either wxCocoa or pySide is ready. I’m only doing this for my goateed, turtle-necked and beret-wearing apologist friends and definitely not for the OS or the company behind it.
  • Ubuntu 9.10 Netbook Remix on my, err, netbook: My jotted down thoughts at the time: Very slick, clutter interface (including maximus) is great for netbooks. It seems the ath9k wlan adapter still has minor problems connecting / staying connected at full speed.
  • Windows 7 on my netbook: Yes, the TU does in fact give us all licenses for this type of stuff, it’s a cool perk. Wow, it went on there quite easily, I simply ran “setup.exe” from the unpacked ISO and installed it to an extra 70G partition. After installing the usual suspects (truecrypt, 7zip, avira, vim, asus stuff [Super Hybrid Engine, Hotkey, Asus Update, Touchpad driver], fastcopy, chrome), I was up and running. Looooong battery life seems to be intact.

The End, My Friend

In week 44 a number of us went to defend the whole TU Delft Computer Science research programme at an international research evaluation. Besides leading to my recent PowerPoint post, this occasion surprisingly turned out to be great fun (probably thanks to the 5-star evaluation committee and their interviewing style) and we seem to have done quite well in the evaluation.

Preparing for the evaluation and finishing my teaching portfolio took up much of my time, so much so that I have not been giving the people around me all the time and attention that they deserve. People around me, I am acutely aware of this and I will make it up to you!