Waking Insights

At the coffee shop for the 4th morning in a row, I was a bit tired but otherwise alert. I sat facing a large window so the sunlight would hit me in the face and imbue me with some additional energy.

I’ve been keeping a “morning notebook” in which I plan the day, and as I settled into day 4 of this new morning ritual I had the following observations.

Taking Control of the Day

By waking up at the same time every day and performing a ritual, I am in fact taking control of my day. Before, when I was waking up at a late hour, I had the feeling that I was playing “catch up” with work. The solution to that would be to schedule a marathon work session and burn for a long period of time, which would lead to me waking up even later. I’d characterize the difference as follows: waking up early at the same time is me conforming to a scheduling framework that aligns my activity levels with the sun and by extension, everyone else. Waking up later, whenever I wasn’t tired anymore, was me conforming the day around my natural impulses. This can work also, and on the surface seemed rather clever, but in hindsight it was my IMPULSES that were in control, NOT my MIND.

Sleepiness versus Fatigue

It seems that my energy levels are still fluctuating, but I’ve come up with two ways to help balance that out over the day. First, I can always take a nap as several readers have suggested, when the ability of focus is eluding me. Secondly, I am starting to be able to tell the difference between sleepiness and fatigue. When I’m sleepy, it’s easy to restore energy through a nap. 15 minutes seems to be good for about 4 hours, and at night when I go to bed I can sleep maybe 6 hours and be OK. When I’m fatigued, however, I’ve pushed myself beyond what can easily be restored with normal sleep, and additional hours are needed. This might explain why on Monday with 6 hours of sleep, I felt OK, but on Thursday with the same 6 hours of sleep I felt groggy. The difference perhaps was that I had worked past the point I was merely sleepy on Wednesday night, until my eyes hurt. Food for thought.

I am reminded of the farm simulation video game Harvest Moon, which implements a dual-level “energy” meter for your character to encourage pacing of the work. You get 100 units of stamina and 100 units of fatigue, and during the normal course of the day you use up stamina until you reach 0. At which point you fall down, and are now fatigued. You can continue to work past the fatigue point; if you use up all 100 points you actually pass out and lose half your money, not to mention waking up at noon which gives you less time to get the daily farm work done. What’s interesting about their energy meter is that while all 100 points of regular stamina come back with a night of sleep, only a fraction–25 points in the DS version of the game–of fatigue is restored per night. And when you have significant points of fatigue, you use up stamina faster. It’s an interesting way of modeling the (apparently controversial) idea of sleep deficit.

Changes in Level of Productivity…or not?

I’m not sure if I’m more productive or less productive. While it seems that I’m not getting the long burns of time on projects, I am nevertheless knocking things off my list in a measured manner. The morning planning does seem to be helping.

I am getting about 70% of my morning plan done, which consists usually of 3-4 main chunks and 1-2 minor “would be nice” things. Some tasks have gotten bumped to to the next day for 4 days in a row.

The missing 30% is coming from unexpected calls and client requests. So long as it moves their project forward, or pays a fair rate, I am willing to do it. This probably is not ideal, as it means I lose focus on my “main project” of the day, and it therefore finishes later. Which means I go to sleep later, or one of the “would be nice” things don’t get done. I’ve also found that I have to consider when I schedule tasks, because certain ones leave a “wake of unproductivity” after they complete because it takes a while for my brain to reset. Either I have to commit to a nap (which takes time) or I have to do a task that doesn’t require the particular type of thinking that has been exhausted. For example, in the past I have typically scheduled face-2-face meetings in the morning, because this used to be a good strategy for making sure I was up early. However, face-2-face meetings also tend to run longer than planned, and the interaction itself both energizes and drains me. Therefore, I am thinking of scheduling meetings later in the day, AFTER I have gotten some main chunk of work done.

Another difference is that I am doing a lot less impulsive blogging, and am being more methodical about having something to post for every morning. I have mixed feelings about this, because I’m feeling like this week’s writing has been confined to this single topic instead of ranging more broadly.

I’m also doing less impulsive design. There is a laundry list of projects I want to address, like updates to the Calendar pages, the ETT Online, an algorithm update for the Procrastinator’s Clock, and that resource planning form, and I’ve kept myself focused on the Morning Plan. Figuring out when to schedule these in is a topic I’ll tackle next week.

So in one way, it feels like I’m getting less done because I’m tackling projects in smaller chunks to pace myself over several days. However, I am getting started on those chunks more quickly, and that feels pretty good. If I was writing down everything that happened throughout the day—I’m not using any of my forms for the moment, relying on the notebook to see how it evolves through use—then I might see a lot more work than I feel. I do annotate the morning plan with descriptive sidenotes, but so far I have just used them to get a sense of how quickly time is flowing.

Matching Task to Particular Hour of the Day by Energy Level

I’ve noticed that the early morning planning is a good way to focus my energy, particularly if I am writing in my notebook. In the morning, I don’t bring a laptop computer, so I’m forced to be at the table with just pen and paper. There is something nice about this.

I have found that I need to force myself to write slowly and clearly. This makes the words more deliberate, which feels good, but most importantly it means I can read the notes the next morning when I might have forgotten what I meant. When I’m taking notes quickly with a pen, I sometimes write down different words than I was actually thinking, and my penmanship tends to degrade into expressive-but-illegible scribblings. Today was the first day that I really slowed myself down, and in fact this blog post is being partially transcribed from my morning notes.

After the morning planning, I have been tending to settle into an email answering / comment answering cycle; this is an important aspect of my day, because the blog represents a kind of contract between myself and the world. It’s not an entirely rational thing; I believe that so long as I keep posting new things, the world will give back to me. The email and commenting aspect of blogging is part of this.

My most productive “work” times seem to be between 10AM and 3PM, after which I tend to get a little tired in the neck and sides of the head. Eyestrain starts to set in too. A power nap clears that up, or I can choose to do tasks that I find come more easily to me: researching, maintenance web work, finding things for the next day, client update emails, and so forth. It’s the tasks that require more focus for me—writing code modules that implement a system, architecture, some forms of technical documentation, and any sort of visual design—that I have to save up for the peak hours.

After 5PM I’ve been pretty tired, and I’m trying to do my blog posting in this time. However, I’m also finding it a good time to just watch TV…there is so much good TV out there right now that it’s a problem keeping up with it.

How Food Affects My Clarity of Thinking

I am sensitive to complex carbohydrates, so I have to be careful about scheduling tasks that require a lot of focus (e.g.: programming) after eating. I can control this to some extent by eating only protein, vegetables, and avoiding rice, bread, and sugar. Sometimes, though, you really do want that piece of chocolate cake. I have to strongly consider what that impact will have on the next two hours. Too much sugar will make me sleepy, and I will tend to nod off. This can be counteracted with a cup of coffee, but I try not to do this regularly because I will pay for it with later jitteryness. The ritual of making the cup of coffee, however, is a fun break since I got one of those Senseo pod coffee makers for $15. The design of the system is very pleasing.

I’m also much more aware of my hydration levels too. When I wake up, I drink a big glass of water, and when I start to feel myself losing my mental edge I try to remember to drink more water. In the cold weather I have a tendency to not drink much liquid, and there is a particularly kind of headache (a sort of sharp-edged weariness in the head) that I think is the sign of this.

On the ritualistic side of things, I’ve been trying to figure out the perfect morning drink for me at the coffee shop. The usual coffee drinks are too sweet and cloying, so I’ve been trying Chai. It’s a drink I don’t like to like for some reason, being more of a “pour the hot water over the leaves” tea purist, but I’m finding the Chair actually quite comforting while not being overly sweet…damn it.

Social Synchronization

I have been pretty hermit-like this week, with the exception of meeting a friend for coffee. Tomorrow I’ll be finishing up a prototype so my day will be full. However, in the evening I’ll be hanging out with another friend I haven’t seen in a while.

In a general sense, I’ve felt a weird kind of peace from being in synch with the world. It’s probably just the novelty of doing this…will I feel the same 4 weeks from now? For the moment, however, I’m enjoying it.