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Monday, October 21, 2013

Self-Employment Woes: The Battle of Productivity (and a brief trip to Mordor)

As some of you may know, I spend a lot of time attached to my computer.

Not physically, of course, though that might be an option to look into someday, but the bulk of my professional, creative and time-wasting endeavors revolve around this sexy white piece of plastic known as my Vaio.

My main lucrative activity, sometimes referred to as my 'day job' is only possible via computer and internet. My side gigs, mostly copy-editing and translation projects, also utilize the computer 100%. On top of that, my creative brain decided long ago that it was going to forsake the pen and paper and now functions best (and exclusively) in Microsoft Word.

My only non-computer yet crucial activities, outside of things like Having Friends, Regular Meals and Using the Bathroom, include the following: journaling and yoga.

Great. So I stare at a screen for the majority of my days, taking plenty of breaks for movement, exercise, eating and whatnot, but still, the fact remains -- I spend a lot of freakin' time with this computer. And do you know what happens when I'm in front of this computer, readers?

Do you?

Just look at this sun-drenched corner of Mild Productivity!

I waste time.

Anyone who primarily writes or uses their computer from home for a living can attest to the fact that time-wasters and distractions run rampant. Facebook itself is a vortex that swallows you whole before you even have a chance to realize you're being sucked in -- then you look at the time and 45 minutes have passed since you casually ambled over to take a gander at the latest status updates. What the hell???

I've taken various measures to control, thwart and otherwise avoid the negative consequences of being self-employed, self-directed and without anyone to moderate me whenever I open facebook thinking "Oh, I just need to send this message real quick then I'm done". None have been very effective, which is why I was extremely interested to find Maneesh Sethi and his blog "Hack the System".

He wrote an article called "Why I Hired A Girl On Craigslist to Slap Me In The Face  -- And How It Quadrupled My Productivity" which speaks to his attempts to better focus while in front of the computer. Using a combination of friendly slaps when he was observed to be off-task and a program called Rescue Time, which monitors overall usage of programs and applications, he was able to quadruple his productivity according to numbers generated by the program.

My first thought was, "Holy god of crispy things, I need this", followed by "Dear lord above, do I have the strength to face the evidence of my procrastination??"

I didn't care, I needed to know. While the slapping aspect of Sethi's experiment didn't resonate so much with me, I DID need PROOF of my excessive time-wasting and/or moderately productive computer usage. I downloaded the free version of Rescue Time, which analyzes how much time you spend utilizing anything and everything on your computer, down to how much time spent on certain websites. You're able to designate which activities are Very Productive, Neutral, or Very Distracting (and levels in between). Furthermore, it sets goals for you automatically, which you can tweak to your own liking -- for instance, spend less than 90 minutes on social networking platforms overall, and 3+ hours on Very Productive activities.

Once the program was up and running, I felt a little spied on and a smidge of secret judgement from the quiet eye of Rescue Time, unblinking and watching all. I could practically feel the red numbers ticking upward as I flicked over to facebook to send an actual scheduling-oriented message to a friend for that day (RESCUE TIME, I NEEDED TO GO THERE), and noticed a pleasant hum of satisfaction as I stayed rooted in my work tab the rest of the morning.

The Eye of Sauron sees all in Mordor -- similar to the way
Rescue Time quietly and unfailingly witnesses my computer activities.
This picture is an Eye of Sauron desk lamp, which I might need to purchase
as a way to keep myself on task as opposed to hiring someone to slap me.

Once enough hours had passed for the program to collect any meaningful data on my productivity (or lack thereof), I braved my way into the Dashboard to see what the results might be, knowing within myself that I had spent the day thusfar as probably 'decently productive'.

The percentage of productivity that faced me was 32.



One the shock of judgement via arbitrary computer program had subsided, I looked further into my usage. 52 minutes facebook, fine. 4 minutes iTunes, great. But then came a surprising tidbit -- it had categorized my 3.5 hours of Outlook, Gmail and other Legitimate Work-Based Activities as "Highly Distracting".

Rescue Time, no! Bad Rescue Time! That's my bacon, my dough, my fat cash, that's not highly distracting! You've got me all wrong! Contact the database administrator, tell him I've been working, working HARD, for god's sake! Alert Mordor, inform the orcs before they arrive to slap the shit out of me! HURRY!

After spending a solid 20 minutes trying to figure out how to re-categorize computer activities (which technically detracted from my time spent working but I went ahead and classified as 'neutral' because, I mean, this is important), I was able to re-brand certain computer activities and websites from "Very Distracting" to "Very Productive". This changed the number around. It jumped from 32 to 68.


However, still not that productive.

To be honest, I'm not sure what number equates to "a good work day". I don't really care, either. I'm not going to force a number up against my life and expect it to have any meaningful value. But what Rescue Time has been doing for me is shedding light onto my time-wasting activities, allowing me to face the cold hard truth behind my less-productive days and see exactly where 46 minutes here and 37 minutes there was spent when my only real goal was "to work".

I won't beat myself up if I score an 83 versus a 96 one day, nor will I strive to make a certain number each day. I will, however, utilize this data to better inform myself about where most of these hours spent in front of the computer are really going. Knowing is half the battle, especially when engaged in the amorphous world of self-employment from home, and distractions lay a mouse-click or Google Chrome tab away.

So, in summary? I need to stop using Facebook.

(But don't we all?)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Lessons in Valpo

"There's a couple things you need to know about Valpo," a friend said the other night, after we found ourselves whining about the city over glasses of wine. She's lived here for years, and to boot is Chilean, so that gives her a certain correctness in complaining about the place, a respectability that I am unable to achieve as a freshly-minted ex-pat.

"They cut off the water," she said, "and the garbage workers go on strike."

Both of these 'Valpo Highlights' have been common occurrences lately. It started with the water. A couple weeks ago, I get a friendly message from a Chilean friend saying, "HEY. They're going to cut off the water today at 6pm! It'll be back the next day at 6pm. Make sure you save water! Besitos!"

[insert lengthy pause here]

I'm sorry, what? The water will be gone? Who is doing this? The city can't CUT OFF the water. That's impossible! 24 hours without water, for an entire city? Valpo, are you nuts? 

She was right. Come evening time, all faucets had been reduced to a sorry sputtering drizzle of droplets and then...nothing. The water was gone! Seriously, Valpo??? And without even informing your citizens!

The water came back around the next day as scheduled. But then, a week later, IT HAPPENED AGAIN. The same Chilean friend warned me in enough time for me and my roommates to get showers and stow plenty of water for coffee-making, pasta boiling and more. We're 5 people in this house now, so it's more critical to know in advance.

But wait, readers! There's more.

Valparaiso is known for being rather dirty. Some describe it as 'filthy.' I would instead say it has a gritty charm. Sure, there are scrapes of dog poop on every street, the understandable clash between pedestrians and the enormous amount of stray dogs in the city. Wisps of plastic and paper float through the streets at all times, every day. Certain corners reek of urine, I won't lie.

Common trash buildup in the city.
Is the trash just a physical expression of street art?

BUT IT'S VALPO! Half of it's charm lay in the aura of port-city disrepair.

Garbage disposal is a bit different here. In fact, there's a system that I still scarcely understand, seemingly composed mostly of word-of-mouth and blind faith. I will attempt to explain the system to the best of my ability, but please be aware that aspects of this may be wildly inaccurate.

For starter's, you don't need to call a trash company and pay for service, because there just IS trash service in Valpo. On certain nights, you must leave all of your trash on your front stoop (or at a designated point outside your building if you live in a place with multiple houses/apartments). But not EVERY night, because they only come certain nights, and this information is only available by asking your neighbors. When you wake up, the trash will be gone. People appear in the night to whisk it away, though I'm still not sure if this is accomplished via truck pickup, hired roaming hobos, wild packs of dogs, or obliteration via laser from some of those warships sitting in the harbor.

At any rate, the trash disappears. Usually.

Because sometimes the garbage pickup workers (or hobos, or dogs, or laser beams) go on strike. Which means that all of that unsightly trash you left on your stoop at night will still be there in the morning. And then it bakes all day in the sun. And then the dogs come and poke around. And then one of them finds a hole and steals all of the remains from your asado the other night, leaving a trail of asado scraps and other awkward things you threw away knowing nobody would ever see but is suddenly on display for a quarter mile outside of your house. Like those To-Do lists proclaiming a need for rugs, tampons and soy milk, and other notes to self like "FINISH THE NEW WEBSITE ALREADY".

Garbage workers striking in Valpo is an annoyance itself, but what it does to the city is heinous. This week, they went on strike for maybe the second time since I've lived here. I noticed this only because during my noon-time walk through the city center, there were far more stacks and piles and crumbling pyramids of trash bags than in common. Usually, there are none -- during the day. Night time is different, since that's when everyone telepathically decides to toss, which makes for a striking visual difference depending on when you arrive to Valpo for the first time. Your first impression will be either gritty charm (prior to 8pm) or chaotic, heathen decadence (after 8pm).

The piles of trash lasted for a couple days, and then, governed by the same mystical forces that dictate the water shut off, everything was gone and clean this morning. Including all of my panicked To-Do lists and notes to self.

I'm happy to have water again, and a clean(ish) front stoop. I still don't know when the garbage workers come -- it doesn't help that when I ask Jorge, who is the Bearer of Garbage Knowledge for this household, he responds "Monday, Wednesday,, no, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday. No wait....Monday, Thursday, Saturday" -- but I remain strong in my faith that when I leave my tidy plastic bag of sundry trash on my front stoop, it will eventually disappear, whether by force of stray dogs or mysterious garbage workers that materialize during the night.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Adult Onset ADD something that I might have. I tend to take on too many gigs, and during busy periods is usually when I decide to start new, complex creative projects, which leads to long stretches of the day where I'm flicking hyper-actively between programs and browser tabs, unsure of what I was doing 30 seconds ago and what I was supposed to be focusing on.

Though this doesn't surprise me, given the To-Do Lists I used to come up with as an adolescent during the summers. I think I'm still working on finishing some of those, almost 20 years later!

One of the outcomes of this is my newest website:

Go check it out! It's a cute little meeting point for all the crap I've done. Or rather, the crap I want to put out there in a portfolio sense. (Family and friends will notice Shanonce is absent.)