Certainty, Discovered 15 Minutes at a Time (GHD054-056)

Chunks of Time I’ve been continuing to experiment with Livestreaming video on YouTube as a way to increase my motivation. The combination of talking-as-I-think, operating video cameras, and talking about process out-loud really seems to help my focus. Combined with the insight that limiting my time commitment to each project lowers my resistance to starting, I have had a couple good days of work.

Feeling Under Scrutiny

Since I have been working by myself at home for years, I’m finding that being “live” is not a bad surrogate for being social. Even when there is no one watching, the possibility that someone might is just enough of an incentive to keep me focused on work. Since I feel the need to explain what I’m doing for the benefit of people who might be watching, it also helps keep my mind from wandering. This is such a new approach for me that I can’t be sure if it’s a solution with staying power, as it generally takes me 2-3 weeks for the initial excitement from the sheer novelty of an experiment to wear off. That said, however, I decided to try to big experiments on Monday and Tuesday: Doing 15-minute pushes on six separate projects LIVE, and then Anti-procastinating by working LIVE on an actual client project. The initial results, from a process perspective anyway, are encouraging. The resulting 3.5-hour videos are maybe less interesting, but I have some thoughts on what works about them.

Doing the Six Projects in 15 Minute Chunks

I’ve been discovering that even the most trivial of certainties are helpful when starting a big hairy project. Such projects are often daunting because of the sheer number of unknowns demanding unknown quantities of precious time, and I dislike starting any task under these conditions. Does anyone like committing to anything that promises to take all your time and energy for the next two weeks without a hard promise of reward? It’s like working on spec, or doing work free “for the exposure and experience”. That said, it is ONLY by taking on these types of uncertain projects that anything of rare value can be achieved; if it was easy to begin with, everyone would be doing it and driving its value down to commodity pricing levels.

So the big trick I’ve been using? It’s to create trivial certainty by deciding only to work 15 minutes at a time and call it a day. This is by no means a novel or original approach, but this is a new framing for me. A 15 minute chunk of time is well-bounded and inexpensive-seeming resource that I don’t mind spending. It also happens to be just about the right amount of time for me to get started and moving. I find that once I get over the threshold of just getting off my ass to start, the momentum can carry me for several more hours.

On Monday I decided to test my limits for project starting. Normally, I think of myself as being able to start at most two new projects a day due to the difficulty of “context switching” between different task models. I might be writing Javascript in the morning, then switching to graphic design in the evening, and then still have to do the blog writing for the day. Add to this a mix of tedious chores that further sap my energy, plus all the natural distracted web surfing I seem to do, and it feels like I’m lucky if I get even one major task done during the day. On Monday, however, I decided to try making progress on every 2024 project goal in addition to doing some weekly work planning in the morning, broadcasting live from my desk and talking through what I was doing within the 15-minute time limit. In practice the time limit was a bit loose, but the sense of urgency was not.

After the video was processed, I went back and annotated it with links so it’s easier to jump around to the least-boring parts:

I started each project with a simple gathering task, not putting a lot of expectation on myself to get very much done:

  • Planned my work week activities for developing new features on the Javascript project (paying work)
  • Looked at my Javascript game project and spent 15 minutes setting up a new shell to add bullets
  • Spent 15 minutes trying to draw cats for the Illustration goal
  • Got keyboard and software connected for the Music Composition goal
  • Selected a library to try using for the Thinking Software goal
  • Dug up an old woodworking project for the Making Physical Things goal

So how did it feel? It was exhausting and also great to see how easy it was to start projects by just throwing 15 minutes at each one. I did wonder if it might have been the novelty of trying a new process that kept me focused, but it was still one of the better production days I’ve had. Sure, I made some dumb mistakes and went down a few unproductive rabbit holes, but my overall takeaway was (1) I didn’t care and (2) it was good to feel like I was doing something out where I could be seen doing it. There is something about the live environment, which perhaps corresponds to working at a company location, that promotes focus. Working live reminded me of working in an open plan office, but I got to talk my butt off about what I was doing and I am finding it a lot of fun. Also, I have been having a good time tweaking my live broadcasting setup to have multiple cameras, fancy graphics signs, better audio, and even tethered photography to augment the desktop broadcasting experience. It’s good training I think overall. I will certainly do it again.

Don’t Wanna Work-a-Thon

I had to wait overnight for YouTube to finish processing the video before I could start adding annotations to it. Tuesday morning was sunny, which immediately invoked a strong desire not to work. Here in New England, the first few sunny days after the winter are special events, and the last thing I wanted to do was stay inside in front of the computer. However, since I did need to keep moving on my big Javascript project for delivery in late April, I didn’t really want to play hooky. So I did the next best thing by livestreaming my work day (or rather 4 hours of it) as I talked my way through the work I needed to do.

As I mentioned earlier, the livestreaming of my work tends to encourage me to stay focused. I’m talking about the work, explaining what I’m doing, and generally trying to keep moving so anyone who might be watching might not get too bored. There’s a limit, though, to how well I can do that when I’m stuck solving a problem. Not many people watched, and they didn’t stay too long, but it was just enough interaction to keep me moving. I otherwise might have taken a nap, letting my brain trick me into thinking I was sleepier than I actually was.

Conclusions

I like livestreaming as I work. I don’t always keep the stream itself as an archived video, but I find just the possibility that someone might watch and ask a question sufficiently motivating. It’s a chance to share something I know, and to try living up to my own ideals of creativity and following-through with mindful proces. That I am also learning presentation skills as I learn how to operate the technology makes the experience more fun. I feel less isolated and disconnected too, which is important for a work-at-home freelancer like myself.

Thinking of project responsibilities as only a 15-minute daily responsibility also strangely triggers productive runs of work. It doesn’t seem like a huge commitment, but can easily be scaled into one.

I’m planning on doing at least one live workstream every day, schedule permitting. We’ll see how that goes!


About this Article Series

For my 2016 Groundhog Day Resolutions, I'm challenging myself to make something goal-related every day from February 2nd through December 12. All the related posts (and more!) are gathered on the Challenge Page.