Evolving the public todo list

Last year I make a commitment that I was going to make my personal todo list publicly visible,  it got quite a bit of press coverage, which was good for the ego,.

At the time I used a fairly hacky php solution to make the thing work (and to stop other people’s private information, like phone numbers, from being public).

There were a few problems with the setup – and I’ve been able to streamline it a lot recently.  It’s now pretty easy for anyone to use.

  • First thing I did was move to using a gist.  That gave me the public part, and some nice tick boxes that I could make use of my my mobile device.  (I was inspired by this lifehacker post, although they are using a private one).
  • Second thing was use Private In Public, the chrome extension I developed, to make sure that I could still protect very small sections of the list (mostly people’s name’s or contact details)

You can view the gist here.  It’s real and it’s active. You can access it right now and see it change over the course of the day. It remains the most useful thing I’ve done for years and I’m very happy with it.


My to-do list is now public, and it’s the most useful thing I’ve done in years.

As part of a commitment to personal transparency I’m making my personal to-do list publicly and permanently accessible here.

It’s real and it’s active. You can access it right now and see it change over the course of the day.

I intended it to be a small next step in terms of transparency (there are some other steps here) – I was wrong. Following a test run I did in May ago I can honestly say that it’s been the most effective change in my productivity in at least two, possibly five years.

priorityLongThis the six month version of my ‘stress chart’, you can see that May marked a significant turning point.

Why has it been such a big change?

Because when you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen, but when you write it for yourself, you leave yourself a cryptic note.

I thought I kept my task list tidy. Since early 2014 alone, I have marked off around 20,000 tasks. Each task gave the next physical thing I had to do. Many of them came from careful planning of a project. I was answering questions on stackexchange about the best way to keep a task list under control.

Turns out I was missing something important. When it was a list for me, it looked great; when I decided to make it public, it instantly looked very poor.

I suddenly saw:

  • several copies of the same task,
  • tasks that were questions rather that statements
  • tasks that were badly written
  • repeating tasks that had gradually changed meaning in my head.

So I started rewriting. Of course, to write out a task properly, you first have to think properly about the task.

  • “the azulejoe javascript could do with refactoring” becomes “Spend 40 minutes refactoring the azulejoe javascript”
  • “do the search of ISAAC twitter” becomes “Define ISAAC twitter as a project”
  • “properly work out how much staff costs you’ve applied” becomes both “Update the bids applies for file” and “Change structure of the ‘bids applied for”

Suddenly each of these took less thinking when I cast my eye down the list. That makes them easier to start, and that makes them easier to finish.

When I started making my list fit for public view, there were about 95 action points on it. After about an hour of work there are 40, and they are all much easier to do. Lots of little tasks were actually quicker to do than rewrite, but I wouldn’t have known that unless I committed to getting it right.

So my task list is public, and honestly I think it the number of people looking at it makes very little difference – all that I need to know is that someone might and that’s enough for me.

Technical details

I’ll share the code in another post: it’s a simple PHP script that reads a CSV file in this format. The script does some basic anonmising; phone numbers, email addresses, and URLs are removed automatically because those things are often part of someone else’s privacy. In addition I have some privacy tags. So “Buy a present for [mum]” comes out as “Buy a present for XXXX”.

Why you should ignore the scientific evidence on willpower

Willpower is a limited resource.


Lots of pop science books talk about the reasons why willpower is a limited resource, and why you are more likely to be able to stop taking caffeine if you aren’t already trying to go to the gym a lot. Or why stopping yourself from checking Facebook all day means that there is more chance of eating too much that night.

The problem was that after when I understood that I had only so much willpower to spend, my willpower fell apart. Suddenly I had an extra reason to self-sabotage:

  • ‘well you’ve got a stressful day of meetings ahead so I think I’ll want to conserve a bit of willpower for that – chocolate for breakfast then’
  • ‘I must have used up a lot of willpower focusing on work for so long, I’ll treat myself with an hour of TV-Tropes’

Before long lots of habits that had built up over years had fallen down. Why? Because I’d been given an excuse.

It was hard to work out what was the right thing to do. I hate the idea of ‘lying to keep people safe’ and I believe that empirical evidence is the thing that will drag humans closer and closer to civilization, but in this case, being given the science makes the situation much worse.

In the end the place I came to was this.


Yes, willpower is limited on any given day/week/ect. But we don’t know what our willpower is in advance, or even at the time. In fact, the only way that anyone can measure willpower is retrospectively “Wow, I didn’t know I had it in me to run all that way” or equally “it was like I just fell into that pile of chocolate, I have no idea what happened”, our minds are just too complex to be able to judge correctly.

So if we don’t know anything about our (massively random amounts of) willpower until after the event, then budgeting it is silly.  If you were given a magic credit card, that was paid off in full every night, and had the limit set to a random value every morning – how would you spend it? The only rational solution is to spend like to have all the money in the world, right up until the point where you don’t. And so the only rational approach to dealing with the idea that your willpower is maybe being depleted by a random amount is to act like you have all the willpower in the world, right up until you find out otherwise.

Because the though that says ‘well you’ve got a stressful day of meetings ahead so I think I’ll want to conserve a bit of willpower for that – chocolate for breakfast then’ is that same one that said ‘nothing wrong with a little bit of chocolate’ last week and ‘oh but it’s only a little bit’ the week before. It’s just a small part of your brain is always dedicated to finding excuses and you’ve got to make it stop.

Unhelpful Annotations: Never eat alone…

Hello everyone,


I’ve just read through this:


Which was interesting in places, easy to read, and fun. Unfortunately, I felt there was a lot of things in it that could do with a well placed footnote or two.


I wanted to share some of them with you. All are unhelpful, most are trivial, and I hope they are taken in the spirit intended.


 “Today, I have over 5,000 people on my Palm who will answer the phone when I call.”

In the 2014 edition this is 10,000 people in his phone. To set out our pedantic stall early – if you want to be sure how 10,000 people will react, you have to check with a 1,000 of them… (link) I really want to know if he did. I’m pretty sure that if I called 10 people in my family a big number wouldn’t answer… 


Chapter 2

Don’t keep score

Unless you are counting contacts in your phone…


How was a guy like me from a working-class family, with a liberal arts degree and a couple years at a traditional manufacturing company, going to compete…

The fact that the undergrad degree was at Yale might factor in…


On Goals

Your goals must be believable. If you don’t believe you can reach them, you won’t.

Okay, sounds good.


Your goals must be challenging and demanding. Step out of your comfort zone; set goals that require risk and uncertainty.

You want goals that are uncertain, that you definitely believe in then…  (On the same page!)

Dropping Names


Be a Name-Dropper Connecting your story with a known entity— be it a politician, celebrity, or famous businessperson—acts as a de facto slant.

A few pages later Keiths most embarrassing story is because of over relying on name dropping…


I don’t have a Shakespearean bone in my body, you say. Well, no one has had that bone for 500 years.


Apart from Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago…


Long meaningful conversations

Most people haven’t figured out that it’s better to spend more time with fewer people at a one-hour get-together, and have one or two meaningful dialogues, than engage in the wandering-eye routine and lose the respect of most of the people you meet.

True.  We should have fewer longer meaningful conversations…


 I probably gave my card and e-mail address out to at least a hundred people that night.

Or very short and fast ones…  


THE CARD DISPENSER/ AMASSER: This guy passes his card out like it had the cure for cancer written on its back. Frankly, cards are overrated.

That guy sucks. We know the hard and fast “only 100 cards given out at an event” rule. Otherwise we’d look like a looser.


THE CELEBRITY HOUND: This type of person funnels every bit of their energy into trying to meet the most important person at the event.

That guy sucks to.  By the way, you may like Chapter 28, which is called “Getting Close to Power”, which will tell you how to funnel your energy into meeting the most important people at an event – including how to stalk politicians over four events to get a conversation. 


On Politics


As a Yale undergrad, I thought I wanted to become a politician, a future governor of Pennsylvania. (I really was that specific, and that naïve.) But I learned that the more concrete my goal, the more I could accomplish toward it. In my sophomore year, I became chairman of Yale’s political union, where so many alumni had cut their teeth before going on to careers in politics.

Sounds like he really knew he wanted to be in politics as a kid.

Joel was emboldened by his ideas, and his passion galvanized voters. I, on the other hand, just thought it would be cool to run for an elected office. After all, I was recruited. I didn’t seek the office, and I told the party up front that my studies and other leadership responsibilities had to come first.

Whoops! he was practically forced into it, my bad.



Although I once ran for office as a Republican, I no longer openly discuss my political affiliation. Why? First, because I now vote the person and the issues, not the party. Also so I have access to those who are making a difference in both parties.

It’s NOT important what people stand for, it’s what they can do for me personally.



It’s a management book, so it’s legally required to talk about Bill Clinton’s amazing charisma.


I never once heard Clinton ask for a vote or talk about himself when engaged in these quick, casual encounters.

80 pages earlier, there’s a story about a young Clinton doing exactly that…




Sounds hokey, but you have to take care of yourself— your body, mind, and spirit—best. As hectic as my schedule can get, I never miss a workout (five times a week). I try to take a five-day vacation every other month (I do check e-mails and catch up on reading). I go on a spirituality retreat once a month, even if it’s a one-day local meditation retreat. And I do something spiritual each week— usually church. That gives me energy to allow me to keep my otherwise twenty-four-hour schedule.

Balance is important…


The kind of false idea of balance as some sort of an equation, that you could take this many hours from one side of your life and give it to this other side, flew out the window. And with it went all the stress of trying to achieve that perfect state of equilibrium we read and hear so much about.

This is in the Chapter literally called “Balance is bullshit”



He was implying I was demoted!

Let’s look at the story

In that climate, it’s hard to tell what’s a demotion any more. A year ago, Keith Ferrazzi was national director of re-engineering and change management for Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group. Then, he was asked to take on a study of the company’s marketing and communications processes. He has no title and no one reports to him. No one at the company is obligated to accept his recommendations. He doesn’t even appear in the organizational chart. Moreover, when the project ends, he has no assurances about future employment.


That’s all we have time for

The book is full of this sort of thing – these are just the highlights that I pulled off my Kindle. There are good things in the book… but there’s a lot of rubbish.

Productivity: Columns Graph

A few months ago I wroteWhy it’s a good thing to be slaved to your email,
it’s now time for a  embarrassing confession – that was intended to be a two-part process, with this post standing in stark contrast. Unfortunately, higher priority things intervened and it took  a long time before I made time to write this one.

This is a post  about how being slaved to your email is slowing you down. Let me clear – I stand by everything in the ‘Why it’s a good thing to be slaved to your emailarticle.
That article was about pulling myself up by my bootstraps to take control over my life and about how using my inbox as a dumping ground helped me develop sensible habits, think more long term and service my responsibilities.

However I’ve now moved on.

This graph shows the times (in red) I’ve had my email open for the last week (generated automatically from this code I’ve posted previously)

Screenshot 2015-09-29 16.05.29

I open my email about four times a week (ideally three, but it depends on
some other factors- there are weeks where I have to be online most of
the working day). That’s all.

It took a while to get here, but it’s been  worth it.

When I open my inbox. I process every email, reply to everything I need to, delete  or archive the rest. Normally I’ll have a set of new emails to send out  and they go to. Then I’m out. Normally takes about an hour and I tend to do it around noon (Update – now it’s generally after one).

Let‘s talk about how I ended up here, and why it’s a good idea.

Your inbox gets interesting again
If you check your inbox ever five minutes, you spend most of your time  being disappointed and then occasionally getting a important message.

When you process them in bulk you get all of the interesting and cool things in one go – it’s Christmas morning!

Lack of dread
You know that email that you should have replied to. The one that sank to the bottom of your inbox gradually? The one that would have been easy to deal with the first time you saw it, but has now become more and more embarrassing to deal with because it’s been there a week? That stops – when you are processing everything in bulk, there is  little time to dread something – you see if for the first time, deal with it, and then
never think of it again.

Creative time
Oh, the creative time! I get up in the morning and I do code, good code. Or I write documents I’ve needed to write, or sort out funding proposals. I’m far from being an uber-worker, but I’m vastly better than I was.

It’s only when you’ve been used to avoiding your emails you realise what a great joy it is to procrastinate with them.
Verbs are important – ‘checking’ is different to ‘doing something about’

Think about it:  ‘checking’ your email is a strange thing to do. There are three things you usefully do to your email: read it, reply to it, and file it. People who are ‘checking’ their email are doing none of those things – they are scared that there is something important that they are missing. I used to be like this. You’d log in, find two messages, read them in case it was vital that you respond to a linkedin, notification or a newsletter about dogs, and do the same thing 30 minutes later.

I’ve stopped ‘checking’ my  email. Anyone with something vital to tell me can ring me. If they haven’t got my number – it’s less than vital (I’m free about giving out my number). It turns out there isn’t anything vital.  I’ve missed nothing (I originally wrote “I’ve missed nothing important” but I fail to think of anything unimportant that I’ve missed at all). What has happened is that several times people have had important things to tell me
about. They ring me. I pick up the phone, we deal with it. About an hour ago one of the volunteers on the White Water Writers project rang me because, inevitably, I screwed something up. We dealt with it.

(Edit, October 25th I missed free tickets to a Dr Strange screening)

No more checking of email. I process email. You should try it – it’s like checking, but when you are done  your inbox is empty.

Last bits
To tie up some loose ends from the previous post – I’ve moved my todo list over to a CSV that lives on a server somewhere. It still is used to generate the stress graphs on this page, albeit in a slightly different (and better) way. I also sometimes search my email (to pull
out information I got some time ago) without looking at the inbox, for which I have a special shortcut.
There are some more things I’d like to write about this process, how there is a much more complex and interesting version of that visualisation, how when you back process
emails you can do some interesting stuff with filters, and a range of other things, but I’d like to keep this post short enough that I actually post it!

The top 100 productivity blogs!

Today marks a big day for one of the site’s smaller projects. I’m bringing my ranking of productivity sites out of beta and into the mainspace.
As of right now http://joereddington.com/rankingPro/  gives an always-up-to-date ranking (by readership) of the top 120 productivity blogs.
Every 24 hours the code looks at the Alexa readership of each site and reorders the list appropriately. When sites stop posting, their readership drops off and they drop down the ranking.
We’re inclusive – the top sites include shortdistance hacks (lifehacker), mindfull working (zen habits) and fittness, along with sites that focus on a massive range of other content.

I’d like to thank some of the entrants for the support they showed, and the kind messages:

  • “I’m so pleased to see my blog on this list, with some of the biggest blogs of my niche.” Timo Kiander a.k.a. Productive Superdad
  • “Thanks, Joe, for a great idea and I’m now watching the list daily to see where my blog is ranked. I shall have to come out of retirement and start writing some more blog posts to get a higher ranking. There’s nothing like a bit of competition to encourage productivity!” Mark Foster
  • “Honored and humbled to be part of this awesome community of bloggers and personal productivity ninjas. With some of these blogs I actually “grew” in the blogosphere, while others are new and fresh, bringing in a lot of insightful perspective. This is an absolutely amazing resource.” Dragos Roua
The code running behind the scenes is at github as usual. It’s actually substantially different (and more efficient) than the code I use for the disability ranking.


I halved my incoming email when I stopped fearing the unsubscribe button.

This week  (written 17th June 2015) last year I received 808 emails and replied to 87 of them.  This week I got 484 emails and replied to 78.  I’m using ‘replied to’ as a reasonable proxy for ‘number of emails that required action’, and I think that’s a fair thing to do.
I’ll tell you how I did it shortly, but first I want to talk a little bit about how even that relatively modest drop (I’d already done a lot of pruning over the years) made a big difference.
You are letting your spam validate you
A massive proportion of the emails you receive have NO use. That’s the small part of the the problem. The big part of the problem is that you give them a use. You use them to justify checking you inbox on a ten-minute-basis, or worse, leaving it open.
When you open your email and have three emails to process your reaction is: ‘I’d better deal with those emails, it’s a good job I stopped the productive work I was doing to check my email’.  The thing is, of those three emails, one was from Dominos, one was an newsletter from a club you left years ago and one was a message from Linkedin cajoling you into logging in.
When you have eliminated those things, you are in a different place. You open your email and you have NO new emails, and your reaction becomes ‘that was a waste of time, I should focus more on the things that are important’. So you check in less, break your focus less and do more important real work.
Gmail didn’t work that well
Gmail has an interesting feature that let’s you report things as your own personal spam – personally I found it worked right up until the point where it thought the invitation to interview for a life-changing fellowship was spam.  I’m unsure what else it might have eaten in the past, but maybe it’s worth being slightly less aggressive with the ‘report spam’ button.
A short history… 
For years, nerds, have been howling dire warnings about ‘unsubscribing’.  Don’t do it! We cry, because then the evil spammer puts you on another list, marked ‘active accounts that read their email’ – and then you get even more spam.
A screenshot of a webpage telling you NOT to respond to spam
A screenshot of a webpage telling you NOT to respond to spam
The problem is that this is based on a late 90s view of the world.  I get very little actual spam.  Gmail is pretty good at stopping that at the source.  Sometimes I’ll get a message or two, and then another message the next day, but Google traces the offender and deals with them effectively. Actual Spam is something I see maybe once a month.
What I get instead, is companies, organisations, politicians, and causes.  Some of them I remember giving my email to for some reason, some of them I have never heard of. But, and it’s a big but – these people respect the ‘unsubscribe’ button.
It was a revelation. After years of blankly archiving half my mail I discovered that if you clicked the link (sometimes, it’s tiny, sometimes it’s in a color that matches the background – you know who you are!) then they stop sending you mail.
If you do it for a week, you’ll do it maybe a 100 times, but suddenly you have all this freedom to keep track of the things that are actually important. (we do note, some organisations have a problem with this)

Review: The London Quantified Self Meetup Group

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 11.28.48
I’ve been going to quite a few technology events in London recently. It’s partly to generally explore and find things out but the major reason is more visceral: Since leaving academia over a year ago I’ve been missing the company of geeks and It’s nice to be somewhere were you can make jokes about babel fishes, and rely on people to know the difference between 2D4s and R2D2s.
Quantified Self (QS) is a community of people, broadly, devoted to tracking various things about themselves (such as weight, sleeping patterns, how they spend their time, blood pressure, happiness, number of dream) in order to make some improvement.  It’s difficult to think of a community that would more welcome some data on how their event went.
(It’s strikes me that if there is a social group for fans of peer-review, then that last sentence was null and void)
Of my many faults, is a slight tendency to enjoy the wrong things about these occasions.  As one of the first arrivals I asked an organiser how many people were expected: “Well about 80 signed up on the meetup page so I’m expecting about 35-40”.  This immediately struck me as odd – one would expect that members of a quantified self community would very much be in control of their calendars and social engagements.  I, of course, then spend an entertaining few minutes considering the social groups likely to have the best acceptance to attendance ratio.
As it happens, around 34-39 other people duly turned up and we started up.
The event was refreshingly few of procedure – there was no ‘leave your email here on this sheet’, no ‘no flash photography’ and the presenters were left to get on with life.
Both presentations I saw were very solid. The first one presented a setup that I am honour bound to say was the philosophical opposite from my views on QS (although both are valid), but was engaging and he was comfortable with the material. It was very much a show and tell exercise.
I’d have been disappointed if I’d been looking for an explanation of how it fitted into a wider framework, but I wasn’t and it was an excellent way to gauge the sort of topics that crop up at the meetup.
The second speaker gave a nice evaluation of the different capabilities of activity tracker wristbands, which managed to stoke my completely media driven desire for an iWatch. The talk started off a nice little debate on the potential for, and likelihood of, the opening up of the hardware to hobbyists.  If there was a fault with the presenters it was the lack of structured narrative, I’d quite like to have seen a ‘So I tracked this, and found out this surprising fact and made this change in my life’ rather than ‘I tracked this’.
The audience interaction was some of the best parts of the evening. There were all representatives of the standard techie pantheon: the microsoft haters, the inarticulate-but-extremely-bright developers, the hungry freelancers and the slightly more wide-eyed open-data zealots (in which group I cheerfully sit), and the discussion was at some points fierce but generally good humoured. If there was a fault with the attendees it was their tendency to look for the technology before looking for the science – a fault I’m frequently guilty of.
One recommendation might be to more clearly demarcate the boundaries between sessions. The structure of the evening was Talk 1, Talk 2, open discussion.  In practice the transition from the Talk 2 Q&A to the open discussion was seamless, leaving the presenter up on stage and largely keeping the open discussion to the topics raised in the second talk – some way of separating out the two would be nice.
In general it was a pleasant evening: the atmosphere was of engineers figuring out hacks from new technology as opposed to, say, designers who are looking at the motivations, principles (and problems) surrounding the change.  I’d recommend to a friend.


Screenshot 2015-10-18 02.34.32
A little while ago I was searching though my inbox for something and found an email I’d written to a friend who’d asked for feedback on a presentation.  Reading it though I think a lot of it applies more generally.  It’s really my take on both presenting and getting better at presenting.
I’m posting it here almost unaltered, apart from rewriting some identifiable material to protect the privacy of everybody involved (and fixing more typos than I care to admit).  I hope it might be interesting to some of the early-stage researchers I know who keep an eye on the blog.
First of all it must be said that it is extremely hard to judge your own presentation performance – nobody is a unbiased judge of their own performance.  The ways that count are:
1) Will the people who saw you present this year, come back and see you present next year?
2) There is no 2)
…and you can’t know that yet.  People talk about the number of emails you get, the number of people who ‘tweeted’ your talk and such, but most of that is about how high you are in the pecking order of the community, not how well you presented.
To give you an example, I felt that the presentation I did this year was pretty average. The presentation you saw me give last year was good.
There are a bunch of reasons why I wasn’t as good this year, but the thing that is important is that almost everyone who came to the first presentation this year was in the presentation last year. Given that there is a choice of 8 presentations at any given time (and a lot of people wouldn’t have been back this year) I’m counting that as a win (I certainly don’t expect the same level of retention this year…)
The next thing to say is that as far as I’m concerned the *only* feedback worth getting is a videotape of yourself giving the presentation (or at least an audio recording).  It’s a horrific thing to watch, but it’s also very beneficial. You watch it once though, then once with only the sound, then once without the sound (because you are looking at body language) then you watch it again. And you’ll get more out of that experience than you ever will having people tell you if they liked it or not. (Don’t get me wrong, I love people telling me how awesome I am – the problem is that it’s not scientific, and I don’t think it’s the best way to either sustain or improve the level of awesome)
Having said all that, we can now do some specifics. 
On the topic of worrying about audience questions.  One should never feel inferior.  Intimidated… possibly. Certainly the audience can always ask questions that are designed to make themselves look good at the expense of the presenter (and it’s generally obvious to the rest of the audience that this is happening).  But you should bear in mind you have friends in the audience too. Part of the responsibility of the chair is to avoid someone getting metaphorically beaten up and they should help in. And you can always call for help if you need it (If I’m in an audience I can (and have) give a spirited defence of just about anything on short notice…). 
If you are not willing to rely on yourself you can rely on your friends. You are alone at the front, but you’re not as vulnerable as you think – I’ve had friends in the audience busking for me for 15 minutes while I frantically rebuilt some software we were showing…   So if you are nervous take some people with you.  

Making your own runway.

2308371224_60e0cda6e8_zWhen I started working on social projects full time I, as you would expect, made a wide range of mistakes.  One of the more serious was in failing to have a proper exit strategy.

I had enough savings to last a year, and my general idea was “Look where you are after a year, if it’s paying you a wage, then keep doing it”

This was very naive for a few reasons. I’m going to tell you why, and then I’m going to show you a better approach.


  • It’s ignores that things grow.  If I earned nothing for four months, then a third of a wage for four months, then two thirds of a wage for four months, then after a year I’d be earning less than a wage, but I’d also be clearly onto something that might be worth extending a little bit….
  • It leaves far too much room for wishful thinking. If I’d earned a little bit, or saved a lot on expenses, then I’d be tempted to keep going for a few more months, especially if I enjoyed it. With that attitude, I can imagine that it takes another year before you realise you are really flogging a dead horse.
  • It’s  inexact – it doesn’t specify what ‘wage’ amount I’d be satisfied with, or any other detail.


So here’s what I did instead. I stopped thinking of the money as ‘savings for a year’ and instead called it ‘a year’s salary sacrifice’.  Suddenly you are in a really different position, and you can start putting things together.


In fact, this is the table I put together.


Starting position
Previous or desired salary $26,695.00
Date started business Tue, September 1, 2015
Size of Runway $8,000.00
Where you would be
Days since start 21
Daily rate (pre tax) $73.14
Earnings left behind $1,535.88
College course delivered $500.00
August takings at shop $250.00
Total $750.00
Where you are
Days that income covers 10
Date paid up to. 09/11/15
Today 22/09/2015
Days short 11
Income behind $785.88
End of runway Tue, December 29, 2015

Once it’s all written out, it’s straightforward (In this example, I used a wage of $26,695.00 because it’s the median average wage in the US).  If you know how much savings you have (and you do) and what income you need to keep your living standard up (you do), then you know the date that you run out of money.

But if you make a little bit of money, then that date moves.   It might only move by a day or so, but it does move. And maybe you have a lucky break and make a bit more. Suddenly your date is another month away.  If you keep growing the end date is going to stop getting closer, and start getting further away. And when it gets further away than when you started, then you’ve paid back all your savings.

When I left academia I was due to finish 31st August 2015.   It’s now up to 18th June 2016.   If I hustle a little more, I’m hoping it could be looking a bit better by Christmas.


If you’ve enjoyed this post – you can download the runway spreadsheet with all the formulas here: Runway example.

Screenshot 2015-03-17 17.29.25

Jugglers are dangerous people

Juggling metaphor

Jugglers are extremely dangerous people. Not because of the deadly nature of the art: the MMA octagon is going to remain free of their kind regardless of how many knives and flaming clubs get tossed around.
No, jugglers are dangerous people because of their minds.
You see the secret of learning to juggle is that it consists of failure.  Complete failure.  Not ‘oh we’re getting the hang of it now’ failure or ‘gradual improvement’ failure. But complete and abject failure.  Failure so complete that the feedback is that you should give up forever. The first thing that you find out when you try to learn to juggle is that it’s clear you have no talent for this, admittedly, relatively pointless skill. Your failure will show without doubt that even the attempt was unwise.
…and this lasts for hours.
and hours! 
After an amount of time that defies measurement you make, perhaps by fluke, four catches in a row. This is just long enough to for you to realise “I’m juggling!” and drop everything. Inspired, you pick your balls up and then proceed to fail just as hard for another two hours until finally you can consistently juggle.
The important thing to take from this, is that jugglers are people who can stare the most abject failure in the face for hours and hours and keep going. 
It is superb life training.  If you are yet to learn to juggle – give it a go. Fail utterly until it starts going your way. And when you do, burn it into your mind.  Because then, whenever, and wherever you suffer a setback, you’ll remember that the signals you are getting now are nothing compared with how abject your juggling failures were.  When you realise that, you are much more likely to pick up your metaphorical balls, and keep trying.

Cargo Cults… and why Novelists are people who finish books

Quick note for readers. I think it’s important that I consider my back catalogue of posts to be part of the site and that they get maintained, looked after and followed up on. So each Friday I’ll be picking a post I did from that week last year, and see if my opinions have changed, or find out how the story develops.  This post was originally published 17th September 2014.





Time to Get Angry, Plate 2
This man is not, necessarily, a brilliant scientist.

Would you like to know what the most chilling aspect of working in a computer science department is?

Computer science departments have a tendency to forgive their great figures certain oddities of behaviour. Sometimes this is because they genuinely have missed the cues and I have no problem with that. Some of them just enjoy being unpleasant, and I can understand that even while I deplore it. 

The chilling problem is that people around these figures have a terrible tendency to assume that the more unpleasant a person is to deal with – the greater the intellectual calibre must be.

When I was an undergraduate we had lecturers who were astonishingly bad at teaching; instead of demanding that we be given the basic respect of the department, we thought to ourselves “wow he must be a really brilliant man”.  We were working on  the reasonable grounds that if he wasn’t employed for his teaching he must have been employed for his research.  (In all cases it turns out that there is no such correlation – I have literally never seen a case where quality of teaching had ever had anything to do with a position being filled). 

The bit that upsets me is when I see the cargo culting. I see bright research students arrive: they are polite and friendly, nice and social.  Indeed, the ones that work with decent supervisors stay that way. 

However, the ones that work with other supervisors clearly have the thought “this person a brilliant scientist and also an awful human being. I want to be like them!”.  Except that brilliant is hard to emulate and awful is easy, so you end up with with research students turning feral; picking up all the nasty habits for none of the good ones.  Unfortunately for them, dickishness does not actually confer intellectual greatness except in their own minds.


So that’s upsetting. And avoiding this sort of thing is one of the key goals of TooManyCooks.

The TooManyCooks adventure (particularly in its school form:  White Water Writers) fairly regularly attracts people who have talent but who have let their idea of ‘an author’ get in their way.  They’ve been convinced that an author must be angry, angsty even. That writing is about ritually cursing your own work and ripping it up again.  Inevitably they find themselves tending towards this strange cultural identity of ‘tortured writer’.

One of the things I find I say a lot when I’m running a writing camp is this:

“Novelists are people who finish books” (with full credit to Chris Watkins, from whom I first heard the phrase)

Not people who had an great idea, not people who really wanted to be a writer, but people who finish books.  Not curse books. Not talk about books, but who finish them.

…and to their credit, one of the things that happens around day three of a writing project is that the crew start to see the words mount up and they let go of the other things they thought mattered. They lose all of the pretensions and they write better because of it.  I think that is one of the best things that the TooManyCooks project teaches people.

'Daily Rituals' book cover

‘Daily Rituals’ book cover

For those that can’t get to a TooManyCooks or White Water Writers camp I recommend having a read through Daily Rituals. It’s a lovely little book that chronicles the working habits of a massive range of creative people. And the major theme running through it is how little pretension there is: we have such wonderful examples as Anthony Trollope: 

If he completed a novel before his three hours were up, Trollope would take out a fresh sheet of paper and immediately begin the next one.

…which is the most refreshing change from ‘angst writing’ that I’ve seen.    Beethoven is another excellent example: 

Beethoven rose at dawn and wasted little time getting down to work. His breakfast was coffee, which he prepared himself with great care—he determined that there should be sixty beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose. Then he sat at his desk and worked until 2:00 or 3:00, taking the occasional break to walk

W.H Auden: 

Auden rose shortly after 6:00 A.M., made himself coffee, and settled down to work quickly, perhaps after taking a first pass at the crossword. His mind was sharpest from 7:00 until 11:30 A.M., and he rarely failed to take advantage of these hours. (He was dismissive of night owls: “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does.”

It’s quite clear from reading the book that everyone we think of as a ‘great author’ had the sensible approach to writing of ‘sit down, stop complaining, and write’.  

There are, of course, exceptions: 

Toulouse-Lautrec did his best creative work at night, sketching at cabarets or setting up his easel in brothels.  

…and we shall also draw a bit of a veil over the number of the great artists who were clearly serious alcoholics or addicted to drugs. 

I particularly like Mozart – 

My hair is always done by six o’clock in the morning and by seven I am fully dressed. I then compose until nine.

I love firstly that it’s such a good example of someone carving out a slice of their day to do what they love, but also that it sets one to wonder what was he wearing that he took an hour to get dressed every day?

Organisational Debt

Messy Desk

Organisation Debt is a term that we need to start using.
We understand financial debt. Sometimes you need more money than you have available to you so you go into debt; you eventually have to pay back that money along with some extra money called interest.
Programmers have to deal with technical debt. Technical debt is when making something work well will take more time/energy than you have available – so you make it work ‘kind of okay’ with the resources you have.  The problem is every time you go near that part of the code again you have to spent more time/energy dealing with the downstream problems it causes.
Organisational debt is the debt you set up in your own life.  You’d like a clean kitchen with everything in the right place, all knives sharpened, all broken things repaired, and everything in place.  You haven’t got time to sort all that you (it would take a day).  You’ll eventually spend that day organising, but until you do you pay back 30 seconds interest whenever you are trying to find a particular spice, you pay interest in energy every time you can’t have nice hot chocolate because you’ve failed to put a battery in the frother and you pay interest in a 100 other ways every time you use the kitchen.
This is organisational debt and it’s a very worthwhile thing to think about.
I did some filming recently for a little bit of an AAC video, and I should apologise for the shakiness of the filming.  It’s not like the filming should have been shaky, I have a stand that I bought especially to avoid this some time ago.  The problem was that when I opened my cupboard to get the stand out I was confronted by such an enormous amount of a random objects piled on top of each other and tided together with a bewildering array of wires that it was clear that looking for the stand would take much longer than it was worth.
So my disorganised cupboard makes life slightly less nice and easy, and it does get worse, because I’m falling deeper into organisational debt.  And it gets worse still: because I can’t find something then I’m late for an appointment and so whatever I was working on before just gets thrown haphazardly into the cupboard.

It’s getting nasty in there.

So why is this in any way interesting? Because there are some very sensible things said about technical debt that you should bear in mind when you think about organisation debt.  For starters, software engineers are aware that the proper way of doing things is not just tidying up, it’s refactoring.

Refactoring is (ideally) when you take some code that works, and then to rearrange it so that it is simpler, or easier for other people to understand, or uses more secure approaches, or just so it looks nicer to deal with.  Paying down technical debt is done mostly by refactoring things that currently work, but could work a lot better.

And it’s applicable in your own life.  Paying down your organisational debt is not simply tidying up, it’s thinking about exactly how you ended up in this position and working out how your needs have changed since last time you looked at it.

So my climbing gear is normally stored in various places in the cupboard.  By comparison, since I was at university I’d always had a packed and ready-to-go Judo bag easily accessible from the front door.  Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to judo for various mild injury reasons for the last year. So while the tidying up would be
get my climbing stuff together and make sure it's clean,
the refactoring would be
my climbing pack is packed and stored by the front door.
In the kitchen- the tidying up is
I wash up and put the pans properly away in the drawer
whereas the refactoring should be that
put the sharpener closer to the knives.