Like so many men he had found that he had only one or two ideas—that his little collection of pamphlets [...] contained the germ of all he would ever think or know.
Tender Is The Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Like so many men he had found that he had only one or two ideas—that his little collection of pamphlets [...] contained the germ of all he would ever think or know.
Tender Is The Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
At the start of March this year, I dropped off social media.
I stopped posting on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; blocked the sites on my browsers, deleted the apps from my phone. I didn't go as far as deleting the actual accounts, but I haven't been back since.
The main reason for leaving was the sheer volume of politics being shared by my social graph. As a left-leaning liberal SJW, my stream was a non-stop shit-show of Trump and Brexit outrage, and the constant reminder of how awful some segments of society can be to each other was causing me so much stress and anxiety that I decided my head would be better off buried in the sand for a few months.
Around the same time, I came to a decision that I would stop writing fiction. Although I've managed to write two novels and multiple short stories over the last five years, I've slowly come to the realisation that the future I thought I wanted was actually diametrically opposed to what makes me happy. So, I quit (and instead spent a pleasant few months doing little apart from playing video games and watching TV).
However, just recently I have realised that I miss having an outlet - somewhere to share random thoughts, opinions, and over-processed photos - so I am resurrecting Twitter and Instagram (not Facebook, which I now only use for messages) plus this blog, which has also been sorely neglected for more than a few years. While I don't intend to write any more fiction, I do pine for those early days of personal blogging, when I felt comfortable sharing a mere couple of sentences or a newly-discovered shortcut, and I'd love to recapture that feeling. We'll see.
One thing I will definitely be doing is ruthlessly culling my following list, in an attempt to avoid as many of those triggering political posts as possible. In fact, I'm half tempted to just delete everyone and start again...
Over the years, I've experimented with many different techniques for time- and task-management; I've read several books and far too many articles, experimented with virtually every app on the market, and at one stage even embarked on a project to build my own web application to manage my projects. (Sadly, like so many other side projects, it currently languishes in mockup hell, never to be seen again.)
Nowadays, I'm happily using Wunderlist, which does almost everything I need. In conjunction with a few regular routines and practices, right now I'm feeling more productive and organised than ever before. Here's how I do it, 2018 edition.
The core of my task-management process is taken from David Allen's canonical Getting Things Done book. In it, he advocates maintaining many folders, in which you store the things that need dealing with, including several 'special' folders for particular contexts. I use this same approach within Wunderlist. The special lists include:
In addition to these special groups, I also have a few repeating tasks that I keep separately in appropriately named groups:
Everything that doesn't fall into one of the categories above goes into its own task list. These tend to be divided into either work projects or personal projects, plus 'life topics' such as Fitness/Health, Finances, Car, Things To Learn and so on.
Another key technique I've taken from David Allen's book is to capture everything, no matter how insignificant, as soon as it occurs to you. Get it out of your head, and into a list! I do this for virtually everything, even the most mundane and boring tasks—for example, if I notice my nails are getting a little long, I'll add "Cut nails" to the @home list, since it means I can immediately forget about it, safe in the knowledge it is now on my to-do list! Relieving the mental pressure of remembering everything I want to do means I can free up brain cycles for the important stuff.
One aspect of 'classic GTD' I don't do is the idea of an 'Inbox' where all tasks are captured, and which you then "process" at regular intervals. Instead, I prefer to categorise the task at the moment I create it, since it's usually obvious where a task belongs.
However, I do try to stick to Allen's "Two minute rule": anything that will take you less than two minutes to complete should just be done there and then, rather than adding it to a list for the future.
I mentioned above that one of the daily tasks I perform is to create an agenda. Every day (weekdays and weekends), from the outstanding tasks that I have, I select those that I intend to deal with today, and schedule blocks of time for them in my calendar. Some are fixed (meetings, appointments, going for a run before it gets dark); others can be slotted in around them.
The amount of time allocated to each topic can vary depending on what type of work it involves. Project reviews or brainstorm sessions can be completed in an hour; a decent coding session may occupy four hours or more. I try to leave time for breaks, including a walk at lunch to get some exercise and fresh air away from my desk.
Speaking of brainstorms, I'll frequently book myself a small meeting room for an hour or two (luckily my office has enough rooms that I don't feel as if I'm blocking other teams) to think through the next steps in a project or work through a UX issue. I find that in an open-plan office, it can be the only way to avoid interruptions or distractions.
I often start these sessions in a text document like TextEdit, where I'll list out the key bullet points; then I'll branch out from those into multiple levels of sub-list to form a kind of text-only mind-map. It's a technique that the Workflowy app has formalised; I tried using it at one point, but nowadays I prefer to just create dozens of plain text documents on my desktop.
The most important part of any brainstorm session is to come out of it with some actual next steps, so I always try to finish by identifying the next actions that I need to take ... and, of course, capturing them in the appropriate to-do list.
(It's worth mentioning that I work remotely from my colleagues, otherwise I would certainly recommend a more traditional team brainstorm process.)
Of course, I can't spend all my time in meeting rooms. Those times when I need to get my head down and concentrate for an extended period on work, I rely on a decent pair of headphones, and Spotify. For true isolation, I also recommend switching off phone notifications (I have Workplace chat and Slack on my phone) as well as turning off email and/or Slack on your computer.
For maximum concentration I find that I can't listen to music with understandable lyrics, so I favour playlists like Spotify's Deep Focus, electronic music, or occasionally something in a foreign language (like my favourite album from last year, Juana Molina's Halo).
Returning to the GTD side of things, I now combine the Weekly Review ritual (going through all of my lists to check if there is anything missing, or tasks that are no longer needed and can be removed) with a weekly personal OKRs check. This means that every Monday I spend some time going through both my outstanding tasks and my main areas of focus, and ensuring that the two are aligned.
This particular combination of habits, tools, and routines has served me well for a few years now. Knowing that everything I need or want to do is securely captured in a list somewhere helps me to focus on just the task at hand, and being able to access my task lists from anywhere (desktop, laptop, phone, or web) means I can rely on it completely.
For anyone who struggles with juggling multiple competing projects, I definitely recommend looking into GTD; it's a great way to introduce some structure into a busy life.
Welp, here we are again.
I'm not 100% sure how many years I've been doing this—I nuked my old blog a couple of years ago—but archive.org seems to suggest that since at least 2007 (with a few omissions) I have been posting a set of New Year resolutions on this site, along with a look back at what last year was like. So, in the spirit of change, let's do exactly the same thing this year...
My 2017 followed the same pattern as most years: lots of work, with a conference to provide a bit of a break and a holiday in the summer when the kids are not at school. This year, both the conference (UX Cambridge, a short walk from where I work) and the holiday (Edinburgh, for a rainy week in July) were at a smaller scale than previous years; this was somewhat balanced by working on larger scale projects at work, where I moved to a new area of the business where significant changes are afoot. It's challenging and pushing me outside my comfort zone, which everyone will tell you is a good thing yet somehow never feels like it when it's happening to you.
Fitness-wise, I gave up on daily exercise since it seemed to make zero difference to my health. Instead, I doubled down on running, going out twice a week (Sunday and Wednesday) throughout the year, barring illness or injury, with the result that I feel fitter than I have in a while.
When I look back at last year's resolutions, though, it's hard not to feel that I could have done much, much better:
So, in summary, a complete failure. There was a popular Twitter thread doing the rounds a while back that discussed the difficulty of producing creative work while the world spirals the drain, and I can certainly attest to the depressing effects of encountering the latest terrible Trump/Brexit/terrorist outrage every time I open Twitter or Facebook. It does tend to make whatever you might be doing seem terribly pointless.
With that said, it's pretty hard to pin down a handful of resolutions for the coming year. At work, I'm noodling with an idea for a conference talk, although I'm still not sure of the direction to take. And, in my spare time, I find myself open again to the idea of writing as well as coding side projects, but I don't particularly want to commit to any specific outcome or regime.
I think the one thing I definitely want to try to do this year is:
I tend to check Twitter first thing in the morning and in the evening, when it's generally an unmitigated stream of bad news (either from the overnight US, or the daytime UK). While I value being informed, it's a mostly passive consumption of events that I have zero power to influence, with the result that it's sometimes hard to stay positive.
Of course, I'll need to replace those periods of consumption with something else—perhaps more deliberate use of Medium or Blinkist, or some other source of uplifting or informative content. If you have any suggestions, leave a comment below.
Along with a round-up of what I was reading last year, I also spent today rummaging through Last.fm's handy-dandy charts to prepare a run-down of my favourite music of the last twelve months.
Every artist on this list apart from Andrew Lloyd Webber are there because they released a new album this year, with almost all of them making the next list too. I also managed to see two of the top three (Afghan Whigs and The New Pornographers) live in 2017 as well, both in Amsterdam.
My tastes seem to swing between genres year by year. Last year was all indie, the year before was more hip-hop; in 2017 I discovered a preference for experimental ambient electronica, with albums like Forest Swords' Compassion and Juana Molina's Halo (and others, such as Iglooghost's Neo Wax Bloom) getting a lot of play while I worked. I found that the lyric-free (or, in the case of Halo, entirely Spanish lyrics) allowed for easier concentration and better focus.
The new Afghan Whigs album, In Spades, was head-and-shoulders above its predecessor (2014's underwhelming Do To The Beast), and nearly as good as their original 90s releases. Another 90s throwback, Slowdive, were not even on my radar during their initial stint in the spotlight, but their reunion album was excellent.
I've compiled a playlist of selected tracks from these (plus a few other) albums on Spotify—you can listen to it here.
It doesn't feature on any of my top 10 lists, probably because I've mostly listened to it via YouTube rather than Spotify, but one track I came back to again and again was Gift of Gab's Freedom Form Flowing, mainly for A-F-R-O's guest spot. He's been consistently incredible since he burst onto the scene as a teenager just a few years ago; here's hoping for an album from him in the new year:
Every December 31st, I sit down to write out and look back over the books that I read during the last twelve months. In 2016 I only managed a risible twenty-five books in total, and was then also called-out by a friend over the lack of women and non-white writers in my end-of-year list. I set out to address both these shortcomings in 2017.
Out of a total of thirty novels that I read this year, 43% were written by women, while six (20%) were written by non-white authors. Not too bad (and would have been higher if I hadn't re-read a few old favourites towards the end of the year), but I can definitely do better.
I also revisited the first two of Lev Grossman's The Magicians series because watching the TV adaptation had made me forget what actually happened in the books; and finally finished Don DeLillo's Underworld on about my fifth attempt.
A couple of work-related books for once—I don't generally read much about UX these days, a habit I should probably change—some political philosophy, and a bit of Lemmy made for a nice mix. It never feels like I have been reading that much non-fiction during the year, so it's always a nice surprise to reach this point and realise that I actually managed to read a fair bit of it.
I never buy comic books for myself, so these are usually Christmas presents. Albion was pretty bad, and that's speaking as a huge Alan Moore fan.
Looking back over these lists, it strikes me that I actually read quite a few putative 'classics' that I really didn't enjoy very much. Roth, Auster, Calvino, DeLillo, Morrison, Keillor, McEwan; all celebrated award-winning works that left me feeling that I must have missed something. Either that or my expectations were too high, perhaps.
The best books I read this year were the first two of Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series; The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and its sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit. Short, straightforward sci-fi with a conscience. I'm looking forward to whatever she produces next.
When I look back over the last year, one area in particular stands out as needing improvement. Both at work, where I'd let a wide range of extra-curricular activity slowly drift away until I was doing little beyond my immediate team's scope; and at home, when after six months of intense work on a first draft my output slowed to nearly nothing in the latter half of the year.
Towards the end of the year, I resolved to address this petering out of productivity. And, as part of my research into effective ways to improve my personal output, I came across Chris Bailey.
At the age of 24, after completing business school, Bailey took a year-long break during which he experimented with every productivity technique, new and old, that he could find -- from living in isolation for ten days, to switching off his phone for three months -- and documented his findings on a blog entitled A Year of Productivity. He later parlayed the popularity of the site into a bestselling book, The Productivity Project: Proven Ways to Become More Awesome, and continues to consult and write on productivity via his website.
At the end of his year's work, Bailey posted a giant summary post, 100 time, energy, and attention hacks to be more productive, detailing the top 100 most effective 'hacks' to better manage your time, your energy, and your attention (the three categories into which he believes almost all productivity improvements can be found). And I, after dismissing those that seemed irrelevant or unachievable, assembled my own slightly smaller list of things to try. After more than a month, it's time to take stock.
There were a couple of email-related applications -- The Email Game (gamify your inbox!) and Unroll.me (automatic unsubscription from marketing emails) -- that I found I couldn't work with, and with three kids it's hard to find any time to meditate, but for the most part the other tips have worked out pretty well.
At work, I've started to use a Pomodoro timer during the day, timing alternating focus periods and short breaks. I also now drink caffeine more strategically; caffeine-free green tea for most of the day, with a single espresso in the early afternoon for a post-lunch boost in focus. I've installed f.lux on all my computers, and started listening to more podcasts on the daily commute to work, as well as designating an Errands Day.
Every morning, I schedule my time using Google Calendar (weekends as well), and the Block site extension ensures that I don't waste so much time on the internet, both at home and at work. I've cut out drinking caffeine right before bed, and instead started drinking more water, including when I wake up.
Of course, not every habit can be so easily altered. Of the hacks that I'm still working on how to integrate into my daily process, make a list of things to do while procrastinating is at the top of my list of things to do while I, uh, procrastinate; and I know that I need to get better at planning each task before starting. And as for trying to smile more or make more friends at the office -- maybe I'll give those email apps another go instead...
Naysayers may scoff all they like, or pontificate about arbitrary and meaningless dates, but, for me, January 1st will always be a perfect day for reviewing the events of the preceding year and planning what will happen over the next twelve months.
Leaving aside the litany of terribleness that stained the broader world canvas of 2016, my personal year went reasonably well. At work, I joined a different, brand new team, which is always fun to play a part in moulding, and attended the Design It; Build It conference in Edinburgh (it was also my first time in the Scottish capital, and I wrote a short piece on my first impressions). In May, our team travelled to Reykjavik in Iceland as part of a 'dogfooding' initiative within Booking.com; as well as gathering notes to help improve our product and sampling the occasionally odd cuisine on offer, it was also a perfect opportunity to visit the EVE Monument and pass by the offices of EVE creators, CCP Games.
Following the DIBI Conference, I became involved in the nascent UX For Change project with my old Digital Web compatriot, Nick Finck. As Technical Lead, it's been an opportunity to stretch my backend development muscles while also picking up some new technologies (Vagrant, Vue.js and JWT, in this case). Hopefully you'll hear more about the project early in the new year.
On the personal front, I completed work on the first draft of a novel on the last day of June. A daily writing regimen of 1,000 words on almost every day of those first six months of the year saw me also complete over twenty short stories (and publish one on Medium) as well as seventeen posts on this blog, including one that went on to garner over 65,000 views when it was reposted to Medium.
Sadly, without the end goal of a novel's final lines, and after two weeks in the Italian sun, my productivity slipped pretty dramatically in the latter half of the year. I've been slowly working on editing the book, but I miss the satisfaction of daily creativity. Looking back at last year's resolutions, the writing was the only thing that really suffered:
And so onto this year. Given the above, it should come as no surprise that I'm resurrecting last year's main ambition, which is to:
I know it's possible now, I just need to master the combination of determination and prioritisation. Writing daily is the only way I'll ever get better, though.
Semi-related, if not a little in opposition to my vow to lay off social media, is to:
There was a story floating around a few weeks ago about how simply consuming social media, rather than actively contributing to it, could lead to lower self-esteem and depression (actually I forget the exact claim, and I can't seem to hit on the right combination of keywords to dredge up the article again). Anyway, too often I succumb to the "why would anyone care what I think?" brand of internal propaganda, which combined with a preference for Twitter and its 140-character roadblock over Facebook, means I self-censor far more than I perhaps should. I think I'd be happier if I put more of myself out there, so to speak, and not just for the validating Likes. So, I'm going to experiment with more social engagement. You're welcome to unfollow me if it gets too much.
Finally, a work-related resolution:
My internet friend, Meri Williams, published an article on Preparing to Be Badass Next Year on the 24ways advent site, and it chimed with a general feeling that I'd been allowing my personal development to slip as we moved into the closing months of the year. It's vague, and needs more thought, but I've always believed that most problems can be solved by thinking about them hard enough.
So, that's a year of being engagingly creative and awesome. Sounds easy.
Part two of my regular annual look back at the art that I consumed in the past twelvemonth, here are the books that I managed to read in 2016. Sadly my reviews blog has been sorely neglected over the last couple of years, a situation I hope to remedy in 2017, but for now all you get is a pair of lists.
My overall reading velocity this year has been greatly tempered by a series of colossal doorstop novels I undertook. Starting with Body & Soul, Frank Conroy's only novel and a hefty hardback found on eBay, I also ploughed through Bolaño's 2666 (900 pages) and ended the year reading Alan Moore's Jerusalem (1,266 pages, and one of the ten longest novels written in the English language) - were it not for a few graphic novels and a single novella (Heidi James's The Mesmerist's Daughter, a free gift with a subscription to the literary magazine, Neon) my overall count could have been far lower.
As usual, the non-fiction I picked up is dwarfed by the fiction list. Pressfield's book on creativity was recommended by Wil Wheaton, but I found it preachy and uninspiring. Empires of EVE, on the other hand, which could easily have been a dull retelling of nerdy computer game history, was a fascinating page-turner detailing the complex machinations of players that shaped the universe of EVE Online during its early years.
Radical Focus, Wodtke's book about OKRs (Objectives and Key Results, a target-setting technique), was the strangest business book I've ever read, giving over more than half of the pages to a fictionalised parable rather than the more straightforward explanations you might expect. I'm still not sure if it made understanding the concepts any easier than a 'proper' book would have done.
Aside from Alan Moore's Jerusalem, which is a topic so big it really deserves its own post, the best book I read this year was probably Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, an account of the Depression-era racehorse's career, injury and comeback. The story of the unlikely winner and the three men whose lives he changes, told with economy by the housebound Hillenbrand, justly deserves all of its praise.
Another trip around the sun, another set of end-of-year lists to be assembled. I remain committed to exploring new music across (almost) all genres, yet despite that there are still several familiar names at the top of the yearly charts for 2016.
Nine out of ten of the performers in this list released new albums this year (Neil Diamond probably did too, but I don't think I've listened to anything he's done since 1982), although I didn't really listen to Green Day's latest and the Die Antwoord album was a big disappointment after the killer singles. Tegan and Sara's new one wasn't really that great either; I suspect they secured the top spot with their older, more indie-oriented material. There's also no traditional hip-hop on this list, despite listening to quite a lot of both new and old rap - I guess my taste is diverse enough to not push any one rapper or group into the top ten.
All of the top six came out this year, and the top four were definitely my favourite albums released in 2016. Bon Iver's 22, A Million is a brilliantly electronic twist on his usual pared-down guitar folk; A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead's best album since OK Computer; and Beyoncé's Lemonade skips around genres while never losing sight of it's central theme (to wit, Jay Z is a bit of a dick).
Despite never really listening to Bloc Party in the past, their fifth album HYMNS captivated me from the first listen, with its electronica-meets-indie-guitar sound and quasi-religious lyrical themes. It didn't make very many critics' annual "Best of" lists, but I've been playing it almost all year.
According to my last.fm charts, no one track really dominated the last year, but I think if I had to choose it would be this, the lead track from Bloc Party's HYMNS that got me listening to the album in the first place: