Andreas Happe: Work/Life Balance, pt. 1: Prelude and Experiments

October 27, 2023 in Life

Last winter I was lucky to enroll in the so-far best lecture of my PhD studies: From Surviving to Thriving: Crafting your good personal Life by the great Geraldine Fitzpatrick. The course was about stress, mindfullnes, crafting, productivity.. nothing mind-blowing nor rocket science but comprehensive, accessible, and charmingly presented. Recently I read Do Nothing which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Maybe it’s time to experiment with my time (or rather life) management..

My Background

Just to give a bit of context: I am 41 and by now am back in Academia doing a PhD about the intersection of computer security and machine learning while I freelance as pen-tester and doing commercial security training workshops/talks, mostly about secure development and/or web security.

I am one of the lucky few that enjoy their work. I love hacking. I love coding and creating things. This has an dark under tide though: it is very hard for me to “turn off” and not do hacking- or coding-related stuff in my free time. And as I am sued to abuse and break into systems, catastrophizing (“what could go wrong?”) comes easy to me. That’s one area where a better separation between work and leisure might be beneficial.

Compared to my twenties, I am “better” or more consistent when it comes to doing sporty stuff as a hobby. Which is easy, as I did none during my twenties. I do bouldering and/or running semi-regularly, averaging once or twice a week over the year. I am doing yoga or biking less frequently and oftentimes meditate for a quarter hour or so using DownDog. One thing: I often feel that I “measure” my hobbies too much, treating them more like achievements than leisure.

To relax, I enjoy reading (mostly Trash sci-fi and fantasy bought on Humble Bundle) on my Kindle and playing computer games. The latter way less when compared to my thirties. Also Europa Universalis 4 tends to take up lots of time so I somewhat try to avoid going down that rabbit hole even further. So mostly I play multiplayer games with friends, almost as part of my socializing. There I try to be less competitive than I used to be.

Sidenote: The Means of Production

One theme of Do Nothing was, surprisingly, the means of production. They were used to differentiate between an artisan creating an end-product where they invest themselves into the product, with mass mass-production where the individual worker is used to drive machines, i.e., humans are standardized and become replaceable. They earn according to hours clocked, not according to the quality of their creation.

In the context of the book, this was given as the turning point where humans started to work round the clock as more clocked hours equals more output. And if humans die due to atrocious working conditions, that’s not problematic — see, they are standardized and replaceable. As the factories (the means of production) are not owned “by the workers”, they cannot move or switch. Compare this to an artisanal worker that creates a product (not clocks in hours) and owns their own tools (thus can easily switch locations while keeping working).

I never was made that aware that I am lucky to be in the artisanal camp. While I get paid by the hour, my delivered product is typically a report which quality I care very much about. Most of the tools I use are open-source except BURP and semgrep, both of which I have licenses for. That might be the main reason why switching being employed and being a freelancer was not very big for me, I always lived in the artisanal world even when being employed (which I only was for four or five of my twenty-ish working years TBH).

I never would have thought to get that insight while reading a book named “do nothing”. But now for the initial experiment..

It’s okay to not have gmail (and others) open all the time..

When I open a new firefox windows, my default tabs are:

  1. gmail
  2. outlook354
  3. google calendar
  4. slack
  5. tt-rss for news reading
  6. microsoft teams

In addition, I typically open Signal and Evolution (IMAP client) as soon as I power up the computer.

Needless to say, I (subconsciously) spent a lot of time and mental resources checking those tabs. When a new mail/news/message arrives, I tend to stop my current work and answer them immediately. You might claim that this is wrong, because by checking those tabs I had already stopped my current work before.

My first experiment was to remove all those tabs and start with an empty firefox browser window instead. All those web sites and applications are already also running on my mobile Android phone so the chances that I miss anything important are actually neglectable. In theory, I might even enable the do-not-disturb mode on my phone during working but I am not there yet.

This change felt uncomfortable in the beginning but I was able to power through. Amazingly, the reduction of multi-tasking improved my productivity. A lot. This is an experiment that I will try to keep on doing, maybe even making it a habit of mine. Still, often I see an outlook365 tab and consciously decide to close it while saying “it’s okay to not monitor those things all the time” to myself as this is very ingrained to me.

I did another sub-experiment: as new I was not checking my news reader (tt-rss) continuously, when I opened the newsreader I spent considerable time browsing through the news. Some of them are work-related, soem of them are leisure. Of the latter, there are some gadget blogs that spam news and are not really that relevant to me. They mostly make me buy things that I typically do not really need. I enjoy reading them sometimes though. To make their consumption more mindful, I moved those feeds into a separate news reader (NewsFlash that I only open on-demand. As this is a separate application, I have to consciously decide to open it and will not be bombarded with gadget posts during my “normal” news consumption. This also seems to work fine and reduces time spent staring at news on my computer. As the reader is only installed on my desktop, this also reduces my “standing outside reading news” while I could be talking to people instead.

I’ve been experimenting with this for a month or so.. so far results are great and I will try in incorporate and cement those changes into my daily life. Feels like mad productivity gains too.

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