Five Insights from a Change of Place

Five Insights from a Change of Place

SUMMARY: Sometimes, you don’t really see what you could be doing differently unless you can see yourself from another point of view. You can either ask someone (and most likely take their advice under advisement), or you can GET AWAY FROM HOME and see how life is different when doing what you normally do.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my recent trip to California would do just that. I learned five things about myself that will help me tune my work-life balance.

[makers]: I recently flew out to visit my cousin’s family near San Jose, California. The reason? I had an expiring flight coupon, and not having the money to spend on a proper visit to a new destination city, I figured I could at least hang out in a place that was “not here.” I wasn’t sure why, but I wanted to do it. Plus, perhaps I’d finally get around to visiting San Francisco; while I’d been in the area at least 12 times in the prior 16 months for the Big Museum Project, I hadn’t had the time to really go explore.

I never did make it all the way to San Francisco this trip, but I had several insights relating to productivity and direction.

The first full day in California was one of wondering what to do. I’d been here many times before and knew the family routine, where to go shopping, and where to walk around. The options were limited: learn how to take the train to destinations unknown, read books, or do some work. I decided that I wanted to do some work, and I spent the next couple of days reading and researching Actionscript 3 and HTML in preparation for making a new website for my buddy Sid. This was surprisingly satisfying, and I realized Insight Number One:

I am over-scheduled with my socializing. I need enough alone time to actually create.

Socializing is a kind of drain on my productivity, and yet socializing is the motivation for me to want to do the work at all. In this case, I wanted to make a clean and functional website for Sid’s photography business, so he could continue to grow his markets. However, the time I was spending maintaining the network of friends and collaborators took away from my ability to focus. In hindsight, it is pretty obvious; I had even written about this in my post on [Making and Managing][makers], inspired by Paul Graham’s original article about the salient differences between them. In this case, being several thousand miles away from home didn’t give me the choice to even arrange to socialize, and this complete lack of scheduling gave me the mental headspace to focus on working. The act of scheduling itself is a distraction. So my goal having returned home is to de-schedule as much as possible, and give myself alone time. I made socializing a big priority last year, and now that the network is in place, I can scale back a bit.

As I was doing my research on the proper way to establish my HTML/CSS design workflow, I came across many great resources from the web designers and developers around the world. Some sources were familiar; Eric Meyer and A List Apart, for example, are names I know I can trust implicitly when it comes to matters of the Web. A few sources were newer but impressed me with their quality; Smashing Magazine, for example, is a resource I can spend hours browsing for design inspiration and resources. And then there were the dozens of web pages written by everyday developers, describing how they solved a particular problem and citing their sources. In a matter of hours I was able to pull together a simple understanding for making simple websites behaved. I was tremendously grateful, and felt the desire to participate in kind, which led to Insight Number Two:

While being connected locally is great, don’t forget to participate on the world stage as well.

This is an important insight to regain. About five years ago, I started blogging and gaining an audience for my own writing for the first time. Every year, I’ve gotten a little better at producing content, have met incredible people virtually and in-person, and have continued to grow the site. Then came the Big Museum Project, and my participation online dropped off considerably. Since that project ended, I’ve been making headway on various local projects, but I’d forgotten that I used to be more connected with the world through regular posting, commenting, and participation in online communities.

My cousin’s family has a large wooden dining table that is probably my favorite work surface in the world. It’s located near two french doors that open into an walled outdoor patio framed with trees, and the entire dining room is bathed with indirect sunlight. The table itself is very sturdy, anchored firmly on the ground and flanked by equally-sturdy wooden chairs that do not give of threaten to buckle under my weight. Free of distraction and tethered wirelessly to Silicon Valley broadband at 802.11N speeds, I set up my laptop and spread out with books. And then I realized Insight Number Three:

I lack a large work surface in a pleasant environment at home. Therefore, it is difficult to work at home.

I have a number of smaller workable surfaces at home. The dining room has a small wooden table with a glass top protecting it, but it is slightly wobbly and the glass kind of sucks. The chairs are not much better. The light isn’t bad, actually, and I have all my books next to it. However, access to the table is constrained by the living room furniture. Downstairs, I have a largish desk, 3 feet deep and 6 feet wide, that I used for my giant 20″ CRT monitor; I needed the extra depth (a typical computer desk is only 2 and a half feet deep) for the CRT monitor’s bulk and still allow for a place to write. This table is playing host to my backup workstation and 20″ flat LCD screen. Behind the chair is a cheap white folding table on which I sometimes arrange things. The whole setup, however, is not well lit and cramped. I hate working down there. And so, I spend a lot of time at coffee shops on my laptop (which has terrible color fidelity). I need to get at least one great working surface in the house to be more productive here.

Although I didn’t get all the way to San Francisco, I did make it to Palo Alto to visit my friend Senia, who is among other things the editor of Positive Psychology News Daily. It’s been several years since we’ve hung out in-person to review what we have going on in our lives, and one of the important ideas to arise from it was this one:

When a door closes, close it for good. Apply your energy to opening new doors.

The door is a metaphor for a past opportunity that didn’t play out, but didn’t die. There are dozens of such doors in my life: the idea of being a game developer, an interactive designer, a company builder, an online consultant, and so on. Initially, I resisted this idea of closing doors for good, because I think I like the idea of doors flying open unexpectedly, and to deny possibility seemed counter-intuitive. On the other hand, I realized that I was expending a lot of energy monitoring these doors, and realized that if I close a door for good, I don’t have to think about it. That’s energy that can go into opening newer doors with just as much possibility as the closed one. In a way, this is a kind of optimized search strategy; the payoff from opening a new door is probably greater than an old door that had already been investigated. I suppose one reason I keep old doors around in the first place is that I keep thinking that I’ve “missed” something that I didn’t see before (I like finding stuff like that), but the unanticipated side-effect is that I revisit old ground more than searching the new. This is a mentality that inhibits growth. That said, if an old door were to kick itself open, that’s intriguing enough that I would go investigate.

Because I was conserving money and eating with my cousin’s family, I ate conservatively but well. Home cooked meals on some nights, smallish portions of Indian food, coffee, and pastries on other nights. With a Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods within walking distance, I didn’t lack for fresh high-quality food. I didn’t even notice that I was benefiting from this diet until I stopped by the supermarket on the way home from the airport. Since it was late and I was starving, I bought a rotisserie chicken, some pre-mashed potatoes, some pre-cooked meatloaf, and a lot of gravy. After I ate a good chunk of it, I fell asleep. The next day, I felt fuzzy-headed and bloated, and just awful. I hadn’t felt like that since…well, since before I had gone to California. Wow. And thus Insight Number Five is this:

I’m eating way too much terrible food at home.

Too much. Not good. I was eating considerably less per meal in California, and less frequently too. I actually remember feeling hungry, and waiting until dinner time to get out of the house and go walk for lunch or dinner. So now I’m actually waiting for legitimate hunger pangs once a day to help me monitor the eating. Before, I’d snack when I was bored, or eat too much at dinner.

So that’s what I learned from my trip to California. It was an unexpectedly productive trip.


  1. Lynn O'Connor 13 years ago

    We’re driving down route 5, headed to Southern CA, to attend H.H. the Dalai Lama’s teaching in Long Beach, then to Pacific Palisades to see my 96 year old mother, then to Pasadena with my younger son and his wife, and back to SF. I am reading your blog post to my husband, an archivist who develops web sites among other things. His ears picked up, as he listened to your musings. I think he’s going to start reading your blog, after hearing about it for years. We identify so thoroughly, even down to portion control and how to get better at it. The door metaphor is almost painful. I’m trapped in one of those that I should have shut tight years ago, but couldn’t and can’t, simply because of money. It would be OK if it didn’t capture so much of my time, or brain-space. As usual, your prose hits the nail on the head. We’re smiling, at the pleasure of recognition. Next time you’re out here, lets make a plan that will drag you all the way up the peninsula to SF. We can angst and have a healthy dinner together.


  2. These are some great insights. I also am finding it harder and harder to work from the small desk area I have. To be able to spread out is really important for me as well; I can concentrate on what I’m doing rather than looking for things. Glad you had a good trip and were able to get some perspective!

  3. Gary 13 years ago

    Sounds like a productive trip Dave!  But wow just 5 insights from being in CA??… :-)

    No doubt from just visiting CA, most folks from here in the northeast would quickly realize that we’re not eating right, not exercising nearly enough, and not taking the right balance of vitamin supplements just to be able to sustain our various pursuits of happiness.  If we could all just first focus on the pursuit of wellbeing as a primary focus that would put us all way ahead.

    There is no question that efficient and ample workplaces are key, but so is efficiently surrounding yourself with everything you might need and at your very fingertips at a moments notice.  This is absolutely essential if we’re able to get into a sustainable groove during our peak productive hours, and its that zen like groove we are all really striving for, we’ve all been there at some point or another and there is nothing like being in that groove.  So we must be vigilant in ensuring that we set ourselves up in such a way to get there. 

    So everything else around you that isn’t truly adding value (or adding clutter and distractions) needs to be thrown out, or boxed up and stored somewhere else if you believe it might be needed someday (which is my only exception to your 4th insight, whereas I’d be closing a few boxes for now and not the necesarily the door in all cases). 

    Also, in regards to your prior blog insights with the “pursuit of happiness”, I believe we’re all on overload from all the quips and quotes out there, insightful or as clever as they might be, I’d take them mostly with a grain of salt, more like good bathroom reading material. 

    However I’d say you really nailed what this pursuit thing is all about with your 4 bullet points on “doing things which…”.  I believe its just important to recognize how (and balancing how much) of doing each of those 4 bullets plays into our individual life plans (pursuits of happiness).

    Not everything we do daily or weekly, or even monthly etc will lead to immediate term gratification/happiness. But I believe its essential that we at least acknowledge that what we’re doing is adding value daily, even the mundane tactical tasks we must undertake.  Its when we’re able to recognize these tasks actually have meaning, thats when we begin to realize an overall sense of purpose.

    To me anyways thats what life/happingess is all about anyways, just knowing that what we’re doing everyday is ever so slightly (but with increasing intention) bringing us ever closer to a deepening sense of purpose and fulfillment.

    Food for thought anyways…

  4. Regan 13 years ago

    You work from home and you need a really fabulous place that you love to do it. You spend the greater part of your day working and your work space should probably be the nicest, most pleasant place in your home.

    If you like the dining room space, then strip out all the wobbly, uncomfortable furniture and move the office out of the basement. Seriously, how often do you use the dining room as a formal dining room anyway? You can find another space in your house for this. Put it in the living room, and make the living room part-time dining, part-time conference room. Put the living room in the basement. How much time do most of us spend in our living rooms during daylight hours anyway? Or leave the dining room alone and just swap the living room and office.

    Strip the labels off the rooms, choose the space you like best and make it the place where you spend the most time! Give yourself some important natural light while you’re at it.

    One of the benefits of working at home is not having to work in a cube farm and suffer all the irritations that go with it: No sunlight, lack of space, ugly furniture and being forced to adapt the limited space you have to your work style. Don’t recreate these problems if you don’t have to.

    Sit, draw, imagine, buy some paint and visit a second hand furniture shop or Goodwill for good sturdy tables and chairs. Hang a couple favorite pieces of art on the walls. You can probably make a place you love to be that works the way you work without spending much, if any money.

  5. Gary C 13 years ago

    I’ll have to both agree with some of Regan’s comments and respectfully disagree as well.  I completely agree that a fabulous workspace is the ideal, but in reality so few of us can actually have that luxury, practically devoid of how much money we might make/have, there are reasons why this is even if we bought/leased the right space.

    Since I also work at home, some of you will have to trust me here to some degree.  First its not really in your best interest to blend your home environment so that it can also serve as your workspace, regardless of how nice the space is, or how well lighted, with nice views/vistas, close to the kitchen, etc etc.  On the surface those are nice/convenient excuses, but in reality they are distractions that lead to considerable disruption, plus its not healthy to surround yourself with work 24/7, we need personal/professional boundaries in order to reset ourselves and balance both stress and duress. 

    If you are in business for yourself, or work at home for a business, its important to be able to leave work at work, away from your personal/social life, its the only way to rebalance and reset yourself in doing your best work.  Its bad enough most of us are connected to our blackberries and cell phones 24/7, so we need to be vigilant in protecting how much or how little actual personal time and space we have left.

    The other “trust me” part is that you instead want to set yourself up in a well organized, well lighted, and temp comfortable environment, devoid of clutter, in a space that keeps you alert but also partially uncomfortable too.  You don’t need alot of space to accomplish this, and you don’t need to waste time painting walls in soothing colors or adding in the latest furniture.  You really want your space to enable you to focus on the task at hand, so you can eventually get into a focused groove.  Its no different than when you went to college, as there was a time you could study at home, or in the cafeteria with others, but we all knew when it was time to head to a blocked off desk in the quiet little corner of the library, which is usually where we did our best work, and got into our groove.

    The point is, we have to be smart about what workspaces are for what tasks, and which work spaces are apt to produce a more proficient or higher quality outcome.  In taking a page out of Dave’s approach in some ways, if for some reason some folks have a hard time partitioning where they reside to do what, I’d say schedule your time in your planner to be in very specific places that will be enable you to reach a certain goal or target completion date time.  Carve them up into A,B,C etc spaces.  Each space should enable you to achieve a certain result, and you should know that each time you are headed into that space to address a certain task.

    Its all about continuous improvement really, not about having the exact space or organization system at hand, it has to be worked at and upgraded constantly, sort of akin to “life is managed, its never cured”.

  6. CricketB 13 years ago

    Re-reading, it looks like I’m bossy. Read it as enthusiasm and recommendations rather than bossy, please?

    I agree with Regan—toss the wobbly furniture that your guests don’t feel comfortable in, and replace it with stuff that does the job well. I used to use doors put over filing cabinets for desks. Cheap, functional and sturdy, but about two inches too high for me.

    Even though a door is closed for good, you still know about the room behind it. Don’t be surprised if you go through another door and find a room you recognize from a new direction, or some furniture from an old room. Just like with your workspace, you can take furniture from an old room into a new room.

    Don’t wait for hunger pains.

    It takes 20 minutes for the brain to notice blood sugar rising, then we eat for the entire 20 minutes. Processed whited sugar is faster. Protein, fat and complex carbs are slower. Fat (potato chips and factory baking) also slows down the absorption of glucose (so don’t give chocolate bars to a diabetic in insulin shock). When I need a blood-sugar hit, I eat a small amount of fast sugar, and combine it with a slow-sugar. The phrase to research is “glycemic index”.

    With your weight, you should be on a blood-sugar controlling diet—which covers both food type and timing. Type II diabetes is no joke. I don’t have a weight problem, but still find a proper diet makes a huge difference.

    Read labels. Sodium and fat hide. Yogurt can vary from 100 to 500 calories per 125mL serving. Imagine eating the 500cal/125mL yogurt for the 20 minutes it takes for your blood sugar to rise.

    Avoid the “low sugar / fat / calories / …” stuff, or at least read the labels. They usually replace one thing with another. Also, baked chips can still be high fat—it’s brushed on or mixed with the dough. Again, read the labels.

    (Canadian Law requires that the labels show nutrient info. If the US doesn’t require the same, it’s worth the internet time. Brands vary widely.)

    Ignore how your stomach feels. A small human stomach holds 1L, or 2000 calories with the 500cal/125mL yogurt—an entire day’s worth of calories. If it’s regularly over-filled, it can grow to 2 or 3 L. You do the math.

    Look up how many calories you should eat during the day and spread them out. That way, you can eat before you’re too hungry to work or to think straight about food, and know you’ll not go over. It’s not rocket science.

    Keep a food diary, with columns for calories, fat, sodium, carbs of different types, and your mood, just like you did for time use. It sounds like a lot of work, but most of us eat the same things over and over, so it doesn’t take much research to get the numbers. It’s useful even without the numbers.

    I only buy groceries once a week. It’s easy to see the big picture that way, and it forces me to plan. You may want to plan for a week but only shop a few days at a time. Once veggies get past a certain age, they rot rather than get eaten. (Don’t ask how I know.)

    Try one of the “meals for a week” sites to see menu planning at its best. SavingDinner is good, and just started a “small household” version. You don’t have to follow it slavishly, but their tricks are worth a subscription or two.

    Meals in 30 minutes books are good. I also love my oven timer—put the lid on the roasting pan and supper can sit warm for half an hour. Put it in at 3, set to turn on at 4, and dinner is ready when we arrive home after daughter’s dance. It’s amazing how many things can cook like this—rice, squash, any root veggie.

    It also saves money. $3 for 3-lb of carrots is 12 snacks—cheaper than chips! It takes 5 minutes to prep a day’s worth of veggies. If the oven’s on, bake extra potatoes, they’re great cold, or pan-fried, or sliced and coated with olive oil and put under the broiler. Good tomato juice (some brands are nasty) is fast. It takes just as much time to cook one meal of awesome spaghetti sauce as 4, and cooked noodles refrigerate well if you toss them with olive oil before packing. (Or slice the lump and fry it like polenta.)

    That roast chicken? Good start, but how large was it? A 3lb bird has 1.5lb bones. At 1/4lb meat a serving, that’s 6 servings. (I usually eat double meat one day and very little the next, because fresh chicken is so good.) The left overs are great on sandwiches or in spaghetti sauce. How much butter / cream / oil did they put in the mashed potatoes? You have no control over that.

    You could have boiled spaghetti and added a can of chopped mushrooms, a pack of frozen spinach, and a dollop of cream cheese in the time it took you to go shopping. The chicken meal cost about $15. Noodles and mushrooms is $3.

  7. Ellen Kozub 13 years ago

    Found your blog, and while I’m not a web developer, found your insights amazingly wonderful & helpful for my own work at home issues.

    All if what you’ve shared points to self-care and self-kindness.  Something we humans seem to struggle with.  Whether environment, food, time, support… giving ourselves what we really need is so important if we are going to share our gifts w/the world and our clients.

    Thank you for the reminder & inspiration!

  8. Roger 13 years ago

    A desk trick I tried for a while:  Try using your big 6×3 desk the other way—3 feet wide and 6 feet deep.  It might work for you, it might not; I think it’s just an interesting exercise in changing your perspective on these sorts of things.