Pomodoro Productivity

A week and a half ago I read series of blog posts by Mac Deutsch in his Month2Master  series about how he mastered the New York Times Saturday crossword in just 23 days. I solve (or try to solve) the NYT crossword every day, and while I’ve seen some really marked improvement in my solving abilities since I started (about four months ago), I certainly haven’t mastered Saturday puzzles yet. I can get through a Wednesday on my own, but generally need some help for anything after that. (Quick backstory for those of you unfamiliar with NYT crosswords: The difficulty increases every day with Monday-Wednesday having themes, Thursday having a bit of a gimmick, then Friday and Saturday are themeless and hard. Saturday NYT Crosswords are generally regarded as the most difficult crosswords available.)

So, I was pretty interested to see someone learn how to do really difficult crosswords so quickly. As a brief summary, he built a couple ‘trainer’ tools and essentially studied large quantities of clue-answer data and next-letter data. It was an impressive case study in learning a skill very quickly, and, while I enjoyed reading about it, it’s certainly not something I would want to do. I enjoy the mental exercise of doing the crossword every day, and while I’m sure I could improve my solving skills rapidly if I tried, I think I’d miss the struggle of it all.

My biggest takeaway from M2M wasn’t how to learn to solve Saturday crosswords. It was something called Parkinson’s Law which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. What an idea, I thought. And it’s obvious, right? Taken to an extreme, if you give yourself forever to do something, you’ll probably never do it because you still have time and it doesn’t matter if it’s done today or tomorrow.

I’m no stranger to deadlines or getting a lot done for all the various things I do. But, over the past weeks, I’d been identifying some issues with the way I accomplish things. Here they are, for the world to see:

  1. Most of what I do relates to immediate needs: Gotta get my roster printed for the game this weekend, gotta get this piece edited so it can go up today/tomorrow, gotta get the meet up in a few days posted on reddit, gotta make sure my house is clean enough for the people coming over tomorrow, etc. etc.
  2. I have a billion things floating through my head constantly. I’m pretty good about keeping my tasks organized in my head and not forgetting to do things. Somehow I’ve managed to do that for a long time over a lot of different projects/responsibilities. It’s a neat thing to be able to do, but it has some obvious downsides. When I’m constantly thinking “Oh gosh, I can’t forget to do X thing later”, it’s distracting from the task I’m currently trying to accomplish.
  3. Worse, I got into a mindset of “I should do things whenever I think of them, that way I’ll never forget.” This also worked in that I wasn’t forgetting things, but I was constantly interrupting a task to go do another task. Things got done, but it was confusing and definitely suboptimal.
  4. On top of that, I’m a generally distraction-prone multi-tasker. Back in my eSports days I got into the habit of being hyper-responsive to anyone at any time. I’m sure the people who needed things from me appreciated that, and in fairness, a lot of my job was making sure people had necessary information so it probably wasn’t the worst habit to have at the time. However, it doesn’t suit itself towards real focus, and probably hasn’t served me well since then.

For a long time, these issues were just downsides to a functioning system, but I’ve been increasingly unsatisfied with my suboptimal task/life organization. At this point in my life, I think it’s important to try a lot of things and leave myself open in that way. I’ll have time to specialize and start saying no once I have a broader experience of the world. My best friend used to constantly be telling me not to take on any new things. She had to, because I have a nasty(?) habit of wanting to do everything and never saying no to new opportunities and she could tell it was getting to be too much for me. She wasn’t wrong, and I even put it in the song: “I try to be too much at once.”

But, I couldn’t keep saying ‘no’ to things for long. A little over a month ago, I said ‘yes’ to becoming the Managing Editor of Stumptown Footy, and that’s when my task-management started to fall apart. 

I wasn’t accomplishing as much as I wanted to. I was constantly dissatisfied with my productivity. A couple little things slipped through the cracks (which absolutely does not happen to me).  Reading M2M was the push I needed to actively do something to get these things sorted out. I decided my first step was a good to-do list app. I’d used project management tools in the past, but this time I wanted something more designed for personal use. I did some research and ended up installing a combination of Todoist (a ‘Getting Things Done’ app) and Toggl (a time tracking app).

I separated all of my different things into ‘projects’ (which function as separate lists in Todoist) and started adding things. Since then, every time I think of something I have to do, I add it to Todoist. Not having the weight of trying to remember my to-do list is incredible. It’s game-changing. I signed up for Todoist ten days ago, and it says I’ve accomplished 130ish tasks so far. If you add in the ~30 open tasks I have right now, then we’re at about 16 tasks per day. Sure, some of these things are minor and easily done, but remembering to do the thing takes the same amount of brain power regardless of the size of the task.

Not having to actively remember everything I have to do is so remarkably good I cannot say enough about it. I feel dumb for not doing this sooner.

Toggl didn’t have quite as profound of an immediate benefit, although I’ve definitely felt it helping.  I went into it thinking that it would be good to quantify the amount of time I actually spent working. While cool, that only had secondary affects on my productivity as a sort of integrity-based ‘I don’t want to be doing non-productive things while the timer is running’ incentive. Then yesterday, I discovered Pomodoro.

Pomodoro (just the Italian word for tomato) is a very simple time-management technique that works like this: Set a timer for 25 minutes. Work on a task for that 25 minutes, staying single-task focused, ignoring all distractions. When the timer rings, take a short break. After four pomodoros, take a longer break. That’s it. Just focus for 25 minutes at a time, then reward yourself for that focus.

Toggl has a Pomodoro feature, so I turned it on and gave it a shot. I loved it instantly. It is hard to ignore all distractions for even 25 minutes. It’s just hard to do. But, in a way, it’s extremely liberating, because when you think about it, there’s not much in the world (and certainly almost nothing in my average day) that can’t wait 25 minutes for a response. And that’s the maximum amount of time my Pomodoro timer will keep me from replying to a text. When you really think about it, the average pomodoro-caused wait time is 12.5 minutes, which is actually still a pretty good response time.

Not only does Pomodoro force you to single-task for 25 minutes, it trains your brain to think in a more focused way for longer periods of time. Even after just a couple days of Pomodoroing, I can feel it getting easier.

So let’s recap and collect my findings so far with my initial list of problems.

Todoist immediately solved issues 2 and 3. Having somewhere to keep my task list simultaneously let me not have to try and remember everything and thus not feel like I had to do everything as soon as I thought of it. Toggl (largely through Pomodoro) solved issue 4 by forcing me to stay single-task focused.

This still leaves issue 1 to be solved, but I think this will come as I get better at using my chosen tools. I still whiff deadlines on Todoist sometimes, which I think is partly because I’m still learning to be more productive in my work time (do more with less), and because I’m still learning how to assign the appropriate load (and maybe combination?) of tasks to each day.  That said, solving issue 1 (having more time for and getting more done on bigger, longer-term projects) is key and essentially the main goal of this whole thing. Issues 2-4 were obstacles in that path.

Now let’s talk about what I think can work better.

Firstly, Pomodoro is great, but I’m not sure how to apply it to smaller tasks that only take a couple minutes to complete, and are also dissimilar to them. The whole point of single-task focus is that you’re not changing around what you’re doing all the time because it’s disruptive. But when I have five or six totally different things to do, the disruption comes no matter how well I focus on those tasks individually. I suppose the most obvious improvement would be to group those tasks better, but that’s not always possible.

Second, as mentioned, I’m still occasionally blowing deadlines on lower-priority items. I already said that I think this will improve as my tool-fluency increases, but I don’t want to dismiss the possibility that there’s a discipline element here as well. It’s something to keep an eye on.

Third, I think part of the point of Time Tracking is to figure out how you’re losing time, not just how you’re spending it. I was reading a time-management article on Copy Hackers, and Joanna Wiebe mentioned a tool that keeps track of whatever apps and windows you’re focused on and displays it to you in graph form (she also mentions Pomodoro). While this probably won’t work for my Work stuff (because sometimes I have to talk to people and I also work on two different computers), I think it’s probably worthwhile looking into installing on my personal computer and running while I’m working on non-work things.

Overall, though, I feel better about things. I feel like I’m having more productive days, and while, like any process of change, there are still moments of panic and anxiety, I definitely feel a general improvement not just in what I’m getting done, but my overall satisfaction with it.

Sugar Pill

If you’ve heard me talk about music in the last couple weeks or so, you’ve probably heard me rave about bizarre British singer-songwriter Amber Bain, AKA The Japanese House. As with any new musical discovery, I had early favourites (Still, Swim Against The Tide, 3/3 (when it released)), and predictably pointed most of my attention at those tracks.

Well, today, I officially have a new favourite The Japanese House song. Sugar Pill is just as weird as anything in her catalogue, with a few gorgeous production decisions that have me saying “wow” pretty much every time, most of which revolve around the re-intro and second verse.  It’s an incredible, moving track on its own, and I was already ready to talk about it to anyone who would listen, but then I found this live version:

If this is your first time ever seeing The Japanese House live (and, of course it is, because who even knows about this band, let alone hunts down youtube videos of them), you’ll notice a few things right away. First, Amber’s stage presence is just as weird as you’d imagine. She stands so close to the microphone and keeps her face so un-moving you can barely even tell she’s singing. She essentially showed more emotion while introducing the song than while actually playing it. She plays her guitar upside-down. She’s wearing an oversized ‘USA Sport’ jumper. I’ll remind you she’s definitely British.

I’ve watched a few (read: all) of the pro-shot live videos of this band on youtube, and this performance is easily the most striking. Let’s return to the middle of the song (The re-intro starts at about 1:44, if you’re following along at home). Watching Amber sing that second verse (specifically the mid-verse six-word, “I feel flimsy when I grin”) with such a blank face is devastating in an other-worldy sort of sense. It’s a performance unlike any other, and at this point, I’m pretty confident saying Ms. Bain has replaced Imogen Heap as my celebrity crush. (One odd British songwriter to the next, I guess).

What’s Next? or, “Change in the House of Leaves”

Just in case you didn’t get the joke in the title.

My Netflixing over the past few months has been a watch-through of Aaron Sorkin’s classic political drama, The West Wing. Those familiar with the show will know one of President Jed Bartlet’s catch-phrases is ‘What’s Next?’ It’s established early on that when he says ‘What’s Next?’ he’s ready to move on; the current discussion is over. As time goes on, his staff really internalize the phrase and some (notably CJ Cregg) even take it up themselves.

I’ve been having a lot of ‘What’s Next?’ moments lately. Mike and I are all-but finished writing our upcoming EP (I’ll talk more about this below). My soccer team played our last game of the season yesterday, and are now on break until September. I’ll be moving into a new indeterminate apartment next month without my roommate of two years. One of my closest friendships ended unceremoniously a few weeks ago. While not all of these things are really loss (finishing an EP is an obvious gain), they are all change, and I find that when combined with some significant loss, any change gets bundled up in that feeling.

I don’t even really dislike change. I love the feeling of a new challenge, a new mountain to climb, a new problem to solve. I’m looking forward to moving into a new place, and I’m immeasurably excited about releasing our music and putting an actual band together to play shows. Furthermore, I would describe myself as a driven person; I have the energy, motivation, and discipline to really tackle head-on one or two big life shifts in a (generally) positive manner. Things (well, things), however, have a tendency to happen to me all at once (did I mention my laptop that’s been the life-blood of my computing over the past 5+ years hasn’t been booting properly lately?).

This isn’t going to turn into one of those, ‘5 Ways To Manage Change Successfully’, or ‘How I Got Through My Life Turning Upside-Down and Came Out On Top Because Vertical-Surface Based Idioms Are The Only Way I Know How To Communicate Achievement Over Adversity’ posts. Really when I started writing this I just wanted to talk about the creative effects of finishing writing an (albeit loose) concept album, and how I now have to adjust my thinking about new songs. But then, in true Johnny Truant style, the whole thing took a turn into more exploratory (excavatory?) territory. 

I guess the whole thing’s really about adjusting thinking. 

Let’s get back to songwriting.

Early on in the life of our band (well before we had an actual band name), we decided our first release would be a loose concept album based around an archetypal character thing I’ve been doing with my life for years. As such, each song focuses on one character (The _____), discussing how way they interact with the world, and sometimes the speaker.

I’m a person who’s always had a strong appreciation for facts, accuracy, and fairness. In the last few years, I picked up refereeing, and that only further internalized my love of objectivity. The concept of Mythology is by nature a contrast to stiff objectivity. Mythology is fantastical storytelling used to interpret the world around us. It is by nature extremely subjective, more allegorical than straightforward, and perhaps most importantly, it’s somewhere I don’t have to be fair.

I use the phrase ‘Personal Mythology’ a lot, and this project has really been an exploration of that.  Last summer I was hurting over something, and I distinctly remember talking to The Narrator (dots connecting, casual readers?) about how I wasn’t being fair about it in my songwriting, but I thought that was okay because it’s probably the one place that I really get to just tell my side of things and not have to worry about objectivity. She assured me that’s true, and also said something lovely like, “And you don’t have to be fair with me, either. I’ll allways be on your side.”

And so, that’s what this project became to me. It’s about personal mythology; saying things I would never say in actual conversation with someone. There are actually a couple lines on this EP that I feel almost guilty about because of how they’re not necessarily selfish, but how they refuse the other person’s perspective.  One, in particular, I almost cut several times, but always ended up deciding to leave it in because it’s accurate to how I was feeling.

But now that paradigm is done. The next song I write won’t be titled, “The _____”. It won’t be a conscious portrait. It won’t be grouped with these other songs. So that brings us back to ‘What’s Next?’ and the real reason I started writing this post. I don’t know if our next album is going to have any sort of particular theme. I’m a firm believer in the album as a cohesive unit, but I also don’t think that means there has to be an obvious concept tying it together, so it’s not like MinThe is going to be an exclusively-concept-albums kind of band.

I’ve been thinking about Justin Vernon’s songwriting a lot lately. Bon Iver’s last couple albums have definitely been conceptual. ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ was full of place-names, and obviously ’22, A Million’ had its own numerology thing going on. Trevor Hagen speaks beautifully about the shift in concept from BI,BI to 22AM in Bon Iver’s official bio (which is for some reason posted as a screenshot of a Claris Works document instead of actual text), and the way he explains Justin’s songwriting coupled with my own interpretations have been percolating into some new things I’d like to incorporate in my storytelling.

JV has a knack for making his obscure, unexplained fragments of memory infinitely relatable to a wide and foreign audience. I’m not as good at that (obviously). I struggle a lot with finding a balance between obscurity and obviousness in my lyrics, and I think sometimes I can probably trust myself more to be able to find a nice phrase about something that isn’t necessarily explicit. I feel like the concepts on this EP of ours are all pretty straightforward and accessible, which isn’t necessarily bad, but maybe interesting coming from someone who likes things that resist interpretation as much as I do.

Death of a Weekend

Sometimes I start writing in my head, and then later on will try to find what I started only to realize I never actually wrote it. Which makes it, I suppose, just thinking.

This weekend was essentially a study in how many things you can fit into a single weekend. I mean, my weekends are typically pretty busy (especially the last 3 or 4 before this one), but this was an entirely new brand of hurry hurry rush rush it’s time for the next thing. However, the whole thing was very fulfilling and I got a ton of great stories, so let’s dive in.

Timbers

Scarfing

I got to Prov Park around 5:45, which was forty-five minutes before gate 2 opened, and a couple hours before kickoff. I promptly got into line, with maybe four people ahead of me. A middle-aged married couple get into line behind me, and she says to me, “Oh hey, same scarf!” Sure enough, we’re both wearing Refugees Welcome. I tell her I put it on this morning because I thought it was appropriate after what happened last Friday. She agreed, they both fist-bumped me. She said something about wondering if there’s anything new in the van, and I told her about the new Street Roots scarf (Spread The Love / Housing Is A Human Right) I was planning on picking up after the game.

The conversation shifted to general Timbers and Football subjects, but after a while she glanced over at the van and said she was going to go check it out, asking if I wanted her to grab anything for me. I didn’t have any cash on me, so I declined, and said I was gonna swing by after the match anyway. The conversation went on, and by now the people in front of me in line (who ended up sitting in front of me for the actual match, too) had joined in. A few minutes pass, and she returns with two of the new scarves, and hands me one. Apparently they were almost out, and she wanted to make sure I got one. “Just pay it forward sometime” was her response to my gratitude.

I’m gonna wear that scarf proudly for a long time, I’m sure. And what better scarf to have this story than one which so plainly and boldly says “Spread the love.” There never seems to be enough going around.

The Chant

I knew in advance this match wasn’t going to be like any other night at Providence Park. For one, the Timbers had a really hot start to the season, but we’ve been slumping lately and the fans were hungry for a change in form. More importantly, we as a city are/were still a bit reeling from the horrible crime you’ve all read about by now. Sure enough, the army was already singing in line by the time I showed up to the stadium. I’ve never seen the army sing outside the stadium before. We were in for something special.

You could feel it during the game. The army was louder than I’ve heard it in a good while. There was palpable tension in the crowd. San Jose came out fouling our guys hard, and we weren’t having it. Ryan lost his voice after about 16 minutes. The kids in front of us were ruined after about 30.

But, to get to the point of this section, after 35 minutes of hard fouls and no cards, Kevin Stott showed Darwin Ceren two yellow cards in under 60 seconds. While the army was still just generally yelling and “wooing”, I instinctively went for my favourite red card related chant, and started yelling “Get that shit / off the pitch!” A second later, I hear Chris take it up on my left, followed by Chase on my right. But then, before I really realize what’s happening, it was the whole army. I just went back to check the VOD, and sure enough, it was audible on national television.

Easily my proudest moment as a Timber’s Fan.

The Match Ball

This one’s short, but sweet. After the match, Vytas punted the match ball up into the stands, and it landed over in 101. We were in 102, and soon enough it worked its way over to us. Chris and I had a fleeting moment with it during tetris, which she was clever enough to capture.

The Meetup

In an unfortunate scheduling conflict (which was, coincidentally, entirely my fault), this week’s meetup was scheduled for the same time as the Timbers match. I wanted to swing by, because I haven’t seen a lot of my friends in a decent while, but I also knew that I had to get up early to drive to Seattle the next day, so I was waffling on it. But, Ryan offered me a ride over after the match, so swing by I did.

Of course, ‘swing by’ quickly deteriorated to ‘stay until the end’ (I got caught up in some pretty impressive back-on-page-117 close-reading), but it was really great to see some regulars, as well as some whisps, or whiffs, maybe, of older, farther departed faces.

Saturday

The Drive

So Saturday, as previously mentioned, I was driving up to Seattle to attend The Narrator’s graduation. I’ve been pretty hype about this for a good while now, so I was happy to get up early and hit the road. It was a pleasant drive, until there was a section of I5 North that was having some construction work, so everything was getting trafficy. Then, what do I hear, but google telling me it’s “found an alternate route for [me], saving 15 minute.” I was hecka down for that, and apparently so was literally everybody else on the road who had apparently just gotten the same instructions. I watched the freeway essentially empty as everyone took exits to maneuver back roads.

Sure enough, there was some traffic along Military Drive (the back road I’d been assigned to), but it wasn’t bad, and soon enough I was waiting in a very long line to go through an intersection immediately before the I5 on-ramp I was heading for. But, there was just one issue: When I got to the ramp, I found it was closed. Google, I thought, how could you betray me like this? Ye all-knowing, all-seeing entity, how did you not know this ramp was closed? I can only imagine all the cars around me having the same moment of desperation and confusion. Were Ben Kenobi in the solar system, surely he would have felt this disturbance in the force.

No matter, I saw a sign for I5 Detour, and followed it onto another highway, heading North. Google had re-routed me by now, and after sticking on that highway for a while, I turned right, presumably towards another onramp. I saw too-late another I5 detour sign directing me straight, but I figured it was probably just to the same onramp and google was taking me a different way.

How wrong I was, though. That entrance was closed too, and now I had no idea where to actually go. When I passed the on-ramp, google just re-routed me back to it, so I was driving aimlessly in what I assumed was north. Eventually I found another I5 detour sign, and by following it, I somehow got to SEA-TAC, and made my way over to Redmond from there. The alternate route that was supposed to save me 15 minutes ended up costing me 45. Worse, I had been betrayed by Google after an entire adult-life of putting my trust into it.

The Grad Ceremony

God, so boring, have you ever sat through one of these? It was like 3 hours long, and there was fifteen seconds of relevant excitement. I shouted “Boat Emoji” at our star. She didn’t hear me, but loved it when I told her later.

The Afterwards

I’m not sure what really is the best way to communicate this experience. We went out with Alex’s friend group, had dinner and drinks. It was fun, not just because it was a pleasant evening, but more rewardingly because I’ve been hearing about these people every day for years, and his was my first time actually meeting any of them. Unsurprisingly, The Narrator lived up to her name, and all of them were essentially exactly as described. I felt like I knew them all relatively intimately already, knowing the major events in their life, etc.

Overall, it was a lovely trip, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Bad Lads

Sunday I woke up early (again) to drive back down to Portland because my soccer team (Bad Lads FC) had a match at 1PM. At this point in the season, we were in 5th place, and if we managed to win our last 2 matches, there was a chance we’d finish in 2nd place and make it to the championship game. Now, by the time the match rolled around, I was tired, dehydrated, and malnourished from how my weekend had been going. Luckily, we had plenty of guys and I wasn’t going to have to play a lot of minutes.

We were playing a good team that had trounced us the last time we played them, although we were missing a bunch of guys for that game. We knew we had to win this one to keep our championship hopes alive, and we came out strong, having the ball for basically the entire first five minutes of the match. We continued to dominate possession for the first half, but all of our shots on frame were straight into the keeper. I played a bit, but wasn’t feeling good physically, and didn’t really have a meaningful contribution one way or another.

Second half rolled around, and we still have the majority of possession, although the other guys were starting to look better. And yet, we still couldn’t find the back of the net. We were rotating around up top, giving everyone a shot to try and get one on goal, and we got close so many times. With about 10 minutes left, Jubba went off hurting, so I stepped back on at right wing. Somehow (although this often happens with me), my second half play was totally different from my first half play and almost all of my touches were crisp one-touch passes that found their mark. Notably, one time down the field Harrison had the ball near the corner of the box, I overlapped him and he laid it off to me saying, “Send it in.” So, I did, and somehow the cross came off my foot perfectly (I’m normally not good at crossing) and just missed Mike’s head, but found Brian who volleyed it on target- straight into the keeper.

The match ended 0-0, and it was hard not to feel like we should have scored at least two or three, but sometimes those are the breaks and everyone walks off the pitch feeling existentially unfulfilled. We’ve got one more match in the season, and I’m hoping for a whole bucket of goals. I still haven’t scored one yet this season, and I’m hoping to get mine in as well.

MAX Death

Then, to round it all out (maybe?), Monday morning the train I was on hit and killed a pedestrian. I didn’t see it, or know what happened. Our train slammed the breaks going through an intersection, stopped on the other side, and the audibly-shaken operator came over the intercom to tell us the train had just been involved in an accident and we all had to stay on board while waiting for a supervisor, etc. I thought it was a car. I thought of all the times I’ve been delayed on the MAX because some idiot driver turned in front of train, or drove on the tracks. I put my head back down in House of Leaves.

Later, someone came in to tell us it was a pedestrian that had been hit, and if anyone saw anything, please come talk to them, even though he realized it was unlikely any of us had because we were in the back carriage. I thought, “How do you walk into a MAX train at a street crossing?” I thought the person must be drugged out, or mentally ill to be that unaware.

More time passed, and finally they let us out because a shuttle bus was coming to take us to Willow Creek (the next stop on the line). I glanced to my left as I got off the train and saw some tarps on the sidewalk near the crossing. I didn’t know, but I knew. My mom texted me to make sure I was okay, because she saw my facebook post about my train being involved in an accident. I got into the office over an hour later than I would have. I said hello to my coworkers, and then found the news article. The pedestrian died.

My first thought was how bad I feel for the train operator. Knowing you just hit and killed someone must be the worst feeling in the world, even though anyone you ask will tell you there was literally nothing that could have been done. Nobody expects a train to be able to avoid someone stepping in front of it. Since then, though, I’ve progressively felt weirder and weirder about my (non)involvement. Obviously, rationally, I was little more than a bystander; but, nonetheless, I was there. A vehicle I was in just killed somebody. There’s a proximity thing there, and I’m not really sure how to explain its effect.