Essay


Playing Around With Experimentation and Challenges

13th March 2021

Setting yourself goals can be an excellent way to push yourself towards a target and keep yourself heading in the right direction. But something I've discovered recently is that breaking a goal down into actions and turning them into challenges can be very beneficial.

The first question that comes to your mind is probably, what's the difference between a goal and a challenge?

My answer to that would be that your perspective changes when you have a challenge rather than just a goal. Because goals usually don't come with any information on reaching them. They're only a target that you would like to achieve, and the journey is yours to figure out.

Something I've discovered relatively recently is the benefits of setting yourself challenges and using experimentation to improve skills, make informed decisions, and ensure that you stay on track.

What Makes a Good Experiment?

In my opinion, a good experiment has a clear goal in mind and a way that you can track progress. I also think it helps if there is a planning stage before a challenge is set or before any experimentation is started.

From a goal, you should be able to extract actionable tasks to help achieve that end goal.

For example, I had the goal a while ago to sort my email out and build a system that worked for me. As a goal, I would probably write it as "I want to have a better email system". But instead, I broke it down and examined what exactly it was that I was looking for.

Turns out, I didn't want a whole new email system. I just wanted to deal with the one address/account instead of the three I had previously. And to have an automated mechanism that filtered junk, sorted some valuable but not urgent emails, and kept my inbox for anything that I either had to deal with relatively soon or manually organise.

Once I did that, I set myself a fixed duration of 1 week and got on with my experiments. I also found that keeping a log of my decisions and opinions helped keep me on track too.

So What Are the Benefits?

I'm sure there are countless benefits to setting yourself challenges, and experimenting, rather than just introducing a goal. But at least from my perspective, here's what I've found:

It's easy to track progress. Especially when you keep records throughout the process as you make decisions.

It keeps yourself honest throughout the experimentation as you have a clear goal in mind and actions that should get you there.

Making informed decisions become more straightforward. If you perform an early analysis and identify your requirements early on, the decisions you make during and at the end of the process are more informed and more likely to be based on logic than your current thoughts or emotions in a particular moment.

Challenges I Have Set for Myself

Since really thinking about this idea of using challenges, I've set myself two of them. First, to find an email system that suited me, and more recently, to explore the market of writing apps to see if they fit my needs.

The email challenge was rather strict. I had a clear goal of fixing my email system and requirements that I wanted to meet at the end. And I also set myself a week to complete the challenge. I think I benefitted thoroughly from developing the initial requirements, as I found myself veering off the path a few times, but I was pulled back after re-reading my original plan.

I think that keeping a log of my decisions throughout the week also helped. Because although there were benefits of being honest to myself, I was left with a record of my thoughts and decisions at the end of the week as I tried new things. Which meant I could do better analysis at the end and make a better final decision.

The challenge to find a new writing app has been a more flexible one. Mainly since it was more exploratory, I wasn't aware of each app's intricacies, or in fact, what apps were available. So I went in with an open mind and precise requirements (which were refined over time) and decided to test a few apps until I thought there wasn't any more left to try out.

In retrospect, I think I would have benefitted from some more limitations. For example, coming up with an early list of apps and doing a basic research level. Because that would have filtered a few choices out early on.

This kind of reflection is another aspect of experimentation that is also important since it can only improve future challenges' efficiency and success rate.

Final Thoughts

By breaking down goals into steps and setting yourself challenges, I think you're more likely to take action and actually achieve them. And by doing controlled experiments with fixed criteria, you're more likely to finish with usable information that can help you make more informed decisions.

I want to explore challenges more, and I think I'll be doing some more myself. Maybe less around technology choices and more to do with life in general.

I'm interested to see if anyone else has used challenges and how useful they've been. So if you have any past experience, I'd love to hear it.

What Is Your Perspective?

6th March 2021

I wrote last month about showing your perspective and owning your biases. It’s something I’ve continually thought more about since transitioning this blog to become more personal, rather than try to attempt to write generalised reviews or present this site as a source for news.

Before I may have written about an interesting app in a general sense, explained its features, and analyses the pros and cons. But now I tend to write more about my own experiences with an app, good or bad.

I used to think that this type of review wasn’t worth writing, since if I’m writing about myself then it probably won’t apply to a massive audience. But I realised that when I was reading other people’s writing, while I was usually interested in the topic itself, I found the most value when the author made it personal and provided their own perspective. And that’s what I’m trying to do with my own writing.

Now when writing about a topic, I remind myself that if anyone reads my blog, they’re probably not coming here as their primary source of news. So I may as well make it personal because what else have I got? I’ve only got access to one perspective. My own.

Taking The Chance

2nd March 2021

A lot of the good things in life seem to only happen by chance. Which can be good if it happens to you, but can make you feel a bit jealous if it happens to someone else.

I’ve had my fair share of luck during my life. But I think I also had a part to play in getting that luck.

Because in my opinion, even if you get a chance at something, you still need to be ready for it.

For example, if you get a chance switching to your ideal career, you need to be ready and willing to make that change. Otherwise that chance may just pass you by.

Other times you need to earn your luck.

We've all heard of a few "overnight successes", but deep down we know that no success actually happens overnight. Or at least, it doesn’t happen overnight, without the countless hours of work that went into it beforehand.

So while luck may seem to be spontaneous, you need to put yourself in a position where you can better receive luck, and be ready to take the chance when it arrives.

Why I Don’t Want To Go Back To Work

15th February 2021

I wrote in the first issue of my newsletter, about what I think life will look like after the pandemic, and I also touched on my personal situation. But I thought I’d go deeper on that today. Specifically on the main reasons why I don’t want to go back to the office.

Firstly, the time spent commuting is too high. Or at least I’ve come to get used to not having a commute, and I don’t particularly want to go back to losing three hours of my day, five days a week. There’s so much more stuff I could be doing with my time.

The next big reason is because I can. I'm a software engineer, and can do my job fairly easily, anywhere in the world. I just need a computer and an internet connection. The past year has proven that I am capable of working from home. Although, I'd obviously prefer to do it in a better scenario, where I'm actually able to make use of my extra free time more.

Then there’s the benefits of having just that extra bit of friction between other people and myself. We have the typical communication tools which we use, so we can talk to each other, and we have regular video calls within teams, but it’s not as instant as physically talking to someone. Some people may find this to be a negative, but I find that it lets me get on with my work. Rather than someone interrupting me when I'm in the middle of something, I can get back to them on my ow schedule.

Adding to that, there’s a whole host of reasons why I find my house more comfortable to work in than an office environment. I’m lucky to have a dedicated room for an office, so I can go there and focus on a task, I can sit downstairs on the sofa and do something less intensive, and just generally move around and still work. I can listen to music as loud as I want (very loud), which is something that is happening a lot more recently. I can talk to my partner throughout the day if she’s not working, and I just feel like I’m more present. Because lets face it, no-one works at 100% for the whole working day. Because sometimes the work is simply menial and doesn’t require deep concentration, other times you’re in a presentation and can relax a bit, or maybe you’ve just finished a big task and you’re having a small coffee break. Whatever the situation, I’d much rather do any of that in my own home.

The final reason is my cat. He’s grown pretty attached to me over the past year, spending quite a lot of time in my office with me, and even getting involved in video calls. I’m not sure how he’d cope if I was suddenly away for 12 hours a day.


This post is part of the warmup week for the March Blogging Challenge, the theme today is Top 5.


Photo: (Anna Dziubinska / Unsplash)

Life After the Pandemic

13th February 2021

The pandemic has been with most of us for around a year now, and with the number of cases going back down, and the rapid vaccine rollout, there actually seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Some say COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, others say forever. I suspect that it will live on as a seasonal virus, similar to the flu, and other types of coronavirus. However, I’m not an expert, so I’ll leave the thinking on that one to them.

Instead, what I have been thinking about is mainly what is life going to be like after the pandemic. Once the various lockdowns are ended, and we’re set free again. Free to go “back to normal”.

Except, I don’t expect anyone truly expects we will go back to life as it was before the pandemic. Instead, I think instead of going back to normal, we will be going forward. Forward to a life where we apply the lessons that we have all learned over the last year.

The Lockdowns

I can only speak from my own perspective, and with the context of the UK’s experience of the virus and various lockdown measures, but I think I can say one thing for everyone - It’s been one hell of a rollercoaster ride. We’ve had different levels of restrictions here in the UK, some stricter or more localised than others. They all felt different.

When we first had a lockdown, the entire nation seemed to get together and had a real sense of community spirit to try and pull through the lockdown. It was a novel thing, being locked inside our houses. And if you weren’t someone that was immediately affected by losing your job, your business not being able to operate, or worrying about family members who were more vulnerable to get the virus, there was a sense of “fun”.

I don’t mean to say that not everyone took it seriously, or that they didn’t care about the health of others. But there was a little sprinkle of excitement on everything. Everything was different, so we were all experiences new things at the same time. Whether it was working remotely, gathering online with friends and family, spending more time with our family members, and just generally exploring our new world.

After the lockdown ended, and the first wave was over, it was just about summertime. “Non-essential” shops were reopening, we were told to go out and eat at restaurants, and everyone was making use of their free time and exploring nature. A few people had holidays, but at least the people I know, kept within the UK. It wasn’t normal, but it was a sense of freedom.

Then later in the year, around October, we started to get new restrictions seemingly every week. Some were applied nationally, others based on tiered systems. Because the restrictions weren’t always as strict as the first time around, there was a more relaxed feel. And to be honest, I would say that around this time, not everyone was paying attention to the rules.

While there was a short national lockdown in the latter stages of the year, there was Christmas to look forward to. So it wasn’t all negative. Until, of course, the rules were tightened just before Christmas.

Then in January, it was announced that we would be entering a third national lockdown. This time until February. This was obviously driven by more strains of the virus, the expected seasonal increase, and also a few people that did mix over the Christmas period. In relative terms to the first lockdown, it’s not that long at all. But I think this time around, it’s hit people the hardest.

But now we have the new vaccines being rolled out, and the UK seems to be doing a pretty good job at it. At the same time, talks are beginning to happen regarding easing the lockdown measures. It’s starting to feel slightly positive again. We’re beginning to think about life after lockdown. Not life returning to normal, but instead taking everything we’ve learned over the many highs and lows, and looking at our lives with a fresh perspective.

What Happens Next?

I think the big thing that we’re all contemplating now, are our priorities. Maybe we valued work too highly, we didn’t see our friends and family often, we didn’t make full use of our opportunities, or maybe we just got too comfortable and forgot what was important.

Work

The biggest change will no doubt be related to how we work after the pandemic. Some have people have continued like normal, some like myself have been lucky enough to be able to continue working from home, but others might not have been able to. And since for some it’s not guaranteed that work will be the same after the pandemic, there’s obviously going to be some major shifts.

For the people that have continued working like usual, they might now be asking if that job is still right for them. Maybe during this period, they’ve learned that it’s not for them?

And even if while working from home, your job is essentially the same, it might have unearthed some thoughts about how you want to work in the future. Is remote work something you like? Are the benefits of your job still worth it? Do you really want to go back to commuting for hours a day? Or after this experience, are you simply ready for something else?

As for everyone that hasn’t been so lucky, where they’ve either lost their jobs or just not been able to work, I think there will be a big chunk of them that have used this period to analyse where they want to go in the future. Because if you’re someone that has been on the edge of a career switch, this may have been the unfortunate but possible helpful nudge in a better direction.

I’ve certainly seen a lot of small businesses starting recently. Mainly from young people who aren’t working, and want to fill their time, and also see if they can make some money. I can’t say they’re innovative businesses, most of them are either small-scale handcrafted goods, personalised hampers, or just plainly reselling goods in various selections with a branded logo. At least from what I’ve seen, I don’t imagine most of them will last that long, but I bet some of them will.

And if you have been building a small business recently, or have had a “side hustle” going for a while, this might be the time to really try to make it a main source of income?

Work-Life Balance

Even if you don’t want to switch to a new career path, or make changes to the way you work. The balance between work and personal life will certainly have been tested for a lot of people. I think a lot of people will have realised that seeing their family is important, and simply enjoying life can be more important than working as much as possible.

Because what is the point of work if you’re not able to enjoy your life? In my mind, work is meant to enable your life, not become your life. Some people are happy with their life becoming their work, but I personally don't get it.

Travel

Similar to the work-life balance question. Now we’ve all had a period of not being able to travel, as soon as we all can get back to travelling around the world, I think a lot of people will be doing so. Like most things, there will be an initial surge, but after a year of little to no travelling for most people, I bet a lot of people are just itching to get on a plane.

Community

Although I think it hasn’t been as strong recently, over the whole pandemic, there has been a bigger sense of community spirit. Whether it’s by following the new restrictions, supporting friends, choosing smaller local businesses, it does feel like smaller communities are pulling together.

I think this is great. Because I think when we think of ourselves as simply being part of the UK, it’s hard to feel as connected to one another because the scale is just too high to comprehend. (It’s also why I think large social networks have issues, but that’s for another day)

But by being part of your local community, you can feel like you’re actually part of something. And it’s a lot easier to make a difference. For example, buying from local bookstores instead of Amazon, going to local events, and maybe even providing something back to the community yourself?

Myself

As for myself, I’ve been lucky enough to still be able to work remotely. It’s not totally new to me, since I used to work at home every now and then anyway. But those experiences always feel like one-offs. The company wasn’t ready for full-time remote work, everything was about being present in meetings, gathering near a whiteboard, or physically pairing with someone. So when the company decided to make everyone work from home (which was weeks before the UK actually went into lockdown), it was a big change for a lot of people.

Admittedly, as a developer, I can do the essential parts of my job with just a laptop and an internet connection. But there were some early teething problems with meetings, working closely with people, and also some technical issues due to our internal network and having all of our servers accessible over the VPN. Most of that was resolved in the first month or so though.

Since then, I think that while I wouldn’t say we’ve gone full-time remote working since there is still the mindset of going back to the office eventually, I would say that we are working very efficiently. And when I talk to other colleagues about this, we really struggle to come up with major reasons why we need to go back. I assume some executives in the company will be thinking similar things too since we rent multiple floors in an expensive building in central London, there are the added costs for facilities management and all of the little extras, and also I think a lot of us are simply more happy being at home.

There are a few things that I like about being in an office environment, I like physically being able to turn around and talk to the rest of my team, I like physically being in meetings, and I really enjoy being in London every day. But I don’t think those benefits outweigh the money or time spent on my commute. On average it takes me 1:30 to get to/from work. So if I want to be back home by a relatively normal time, I need to leave my house at 6:30 to start work at 7:30, I’d finish at 16:30, and be back home at 18:00. 12 hours of my day for 8 hours of work. I’m just not sure it’s worth it anymore.

As for my personal life, there are some things that I want to start changing. I haven’t exactly been seeing my family that much, I don’t have a history of supporting small/local businesses, I’ve not taken any interest in my local community/town, and I think I’ve generally placed work above everything else.

But since work has been taking up a significantly less amount of my time, I’ve been seeing what it’s like to be able to actually do things every day. Because if work takes up 12 hours of your day, and you sleep for 8, then that only leaves 4 hours every day. So in a sense, this lockdown has actually been less restrictive for me. I’ve gained more time in my day, and I’ve been slowly getting used to it.

I’ve not quite come up with the answers yet, but here are the questions I’ve been asking myself recently:

  • Do I really want to travel to a city every day?
  • Is being in the office worth the time and money spent on the commute?
  • What local businesses can I support by using them instead of big corporations like Amazon?
  • If I am to work remotely permanently, what other changes am I able to make to my life?
  • Should I try to work for a more remote company?

I’m interested to see how the pandemic has affected other peoples lives, and if you also feel like there are some changes you want to make when “normality” comes back around.


Photo: (Miguel Sousa / Unsplash)

What Games Are to Technology

10th February 2021

A weird thing popped into my head earlier. That I think games are now, what war used to be for technology.

We all know that a lot of science and technological advancements of the past were driven by war. To create weapons, to break communications encryption, achieve space flight, and loads more.

But what drives technology now, or at least consumer technology, are games.

Sure, not all improvements are because of games. But why do we have powerful computers? Mainly, the power is to play games. And a lot of extra stuff gets achieved along the way.

The most common marketing example of the power of smartphones is showing a game demo. Because games constantly sit on the edge of whats possible. They encourage technology companies to push boundaries.

Right now, the next step is Virtual Reality. But that's just a stepping stone to the real destination, Artificial Reality. That's where I think we will see the next major technological breakthrough. But what's pushing VR? Games.

It doesn't exactly mean much. But it's interesting to see that games are a fundamental part of pushing technological advancements. Both as a reason for advancements as with more power can come better games, and as a marketing tool that can be used to help push the development of a product, as in VR and AR.

Showing Your Own Perspective

9th February 2021

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is perspectives and the benefit of owning your perspective.

Myself and many others, regularly fall into the trap of generalising an opinion before making it public. Not only because of the risk of not havingareelcomed opinion, but because you want to be relatable.

I fall for this a lot myself, and it’s something I’m trying to actively combat going forward, but it’s the lack of an honest perspective in my writing. Sometimes instead of saying my opinion or discussing a topic purely from my own perspective, I generalise.

Maybe it’s because we want to try and overcome our biases because that way you won’t seem better or worse off than other people. But I personally believe that personal biases form part of our perspective, and hiding from them is dishonest. We should always try to be aware of our own biases, as it can help us understand the world from other perspectives. But we shouldn’t try to hide them.

I write this not to put people down for trying to make their content relatable, but instead to encourage people to show their true selves more. Truly lean into your perspective, because that’s where the value is.

When I read someone’s writing, I find it much more enjoyable if they make it their own and put their honest perspective into it. Because, although I might not relate totally to an opinion, it’s fascinating to see how other people view certain topics.

That’s probably where I think it becomes more than just showing your perspective to readers because it may interest them. It enables much more than that. By sharing your outlook, you’re opening yourself up to others. Which helps everyone keep a bit more of an open mind, and reinforces the fact that not everyone thinks the same.

There might be the risk of offending people, but that shouldn’t necessarily be a sole reason to stop doing something. Because by taking that risk, you’re expressing yourself. You might not necessarily be right about something, and you might not even agree with yourself in the future. But that’s fine, because opinions evolve, and perspectives shift.

However, to enable that, we need more open dialogue, and for that, I think we need to be honest with ourselves and our audiences.

Being Late on the Internet

28th January 2021

The internet can sometimes seem everlasting. Until it's not. And you notice that more when you're late to something.

That happens to me quite a lot.

This time, I've noticed a story involving GameStop, Reddit, and hedge funds. Apparently the Redditors did something together, which made rich people lose money. Or something.

Either way, I was late to the party.

I seemed to find the conversation after everything had happened, it had been picked up in the press, and everyone was offering their hot takes on it.

Maybe it's my personality, but when something gets to that stage, I just ignore it. Sure, I'll most likely see things mentioned on Twitter, so I'll possibly grasp a basic understanding. But I tend to just actively ignore things that I've missed out on, especially when it feels like a lot of effort to go back and understand a situation, that I just don't think will provide me any benefit.

What I need is for someone to say something like "Something interesting happened, X did Y, to do Z, but then A, did B, because of C". Then I'd say "Oh! That's interesting.", and move on with my life.

That might sound a tad drastic. But it's honestly how I treat news and events nowadays.

A while ago, I would treat every event and piece of knowledge as something I needed to understand. But recently I've realised that sometimes I'm just not that interested.

Thoughts on Adaptive Background Environments

29th November 2020

I wrote previously about something called ASMR rooms. Which I found to be a rather interesting idea, and possible solution to help keep me focussed on a task, by providing my brain some background sounds and visuals to keep any distractions away.

Since writing that post and experimenting with various videos, I'm starting to think of these videos as background environments. In that the idea is to immerse yourself in these scenes, in order to remove distractions from the physical environment in which you are actually located. But I've become fascinated in how the experience could be improved.

My current thinking is that the videos should match the real-world environment and to an extent, local time. Because, I don't think a warm room with a crackling fireplace would be as effective on a sunny afternoon, or icy morning, as it would be later in the day when the sun has set. Because in that case, the video changes from being separate to your physical environment, to an extension of your real-world surroundings. But with some added visuals and background noise.

I can't see it being feasable for a product to be created to automate this, but it would be pretty cool to have something where you'd have a constant stream of ASMR room videos, but they'd also adapt to the time of day, seasons, and possibly local weather. For example, a winters day could feature a snowy courtyard in the morning, followed by a library in the early afternoon, then you could watch the sun set over a vista, and relax by a fire in the evening.

One idea that may work is a livestream to rotate through videos, but maybe localised to a timezone/country to align itself with sunrise/sunset times and seasons. I don't know how interested other people would be with that, but I'd certainly watch it.

This may all seem a bit weird, or just me taking something simple, way too far. But this is the kind of stuff that goes through my head.

ASMR Rooms and Immersive Single Tasking

29th November 2020

Cal Newport, writing about ASMR and something called ASMR rooms:

The reason I know about ASMR is that as these “tingle videos” grew in popularity, they spawned a sub-genre called ASMR rooms. The goal in these videos was no longer to trigger the classical tingling response, but instead to invoke a sense of meditative calm and focus.

One such video, for example, is a mostly static shot of Charles Dickens’s victorian-style writing room, with animated flames crackling in the fireplace and a storm raging outside the windows. The scene runs for close to two hours. The only thing that changes is the intensity of the rain:

This is the first time I've ever heard about ASMR rooms, but I find them rather intriguing. ASMR isn't something I'm particularly interested in, but the idea of having a video used for background noise and visuals seems like it would be useful to me.

He writes about how one of his readers makes use of ASMR rooms to immerse themselves into a single task. They do this by playing one of the videos full screen, with the audio playing through noise-cancelling headphones, and then having a word processor in front of it. I'm sure the bigger the screen the better the effect this would have since it would allow you to immerse yourself even more in the environment.

When I'm home by myself, I find that when I try to try to focus on a single task, I get easily distracted. When my girlfriend is home, or even when I lived with my parents, the television is usually on in the background, and people are moving around me. But when I'm on my own, I have the lights turned down to a minimum, usually, the room I'm in has a very dim light, no other light is turned on, and I'm usually sat in silence.

Sometimes I find myself playing a podcast to keep my brain occupied, but if I'm reading or writing, a podcast can also be a distraction. I have the same issue with music.

One tool I have found to help calm the mind is ambient sounds. Not to aid focus, or remove distractions from an environment, but to help to fall asleep. I have one of the small Alexa devices in my bedroom so I use that for this purpose. As it has various skills where you can say "Alexa play something sounds", and it plays an audio track for one hour. I find that I enjoy rainforest sounds, and my girlfriend prefers rain sounds.

When I'm trying to focus on a task I think I need the background sound and also something visual. That's probably why I've found that background noise with apps like Dark Noise doesn't work that well with me. But the idea of an ASMR room certainly sounds like it could work.

The ones that seem most interesting to me are the ones that relate to Harry Potter. For some reason, the scenes seem rather relaxing. I'm not sure if it's solely because of the scenes that the creators have chosen, or the connection I have to the books/films, but they seem to be the ones that attract me the most.

As I'm writing this post, I've been playing various videos on an external monitor which is located behind and to the side of my laptop that I'm writing this from. I have the audio routed to a HomePod Mini which is also on my desk, and I became a bit extra and I changed the smart bulb in my office to a dim orange to set the mood. It does seem to have helped my focus, but obviously, I'll keep trying this idea and hopefully, it helps me stick to a single task and minimise distractions.

If you want to check these out for yourself, here are a few that I've found: