Bethany’s Maniac Week

Friday, June 6, 2014
By bsoule

Bee smiling and waving maniacally at the camera

Last week Danny took our children to Canada while I attempted a Nick Winter style maniac week. It was delightful, though less epic than its namesake. Nonetheless it was a massively productive work week for me compared to my average.

Here’s a time-lapse video of me working. [1] So fascinating! Look how often I put my hand studiously on my chin! (I thought it looked like I was posing for the camera, but I’ve been paying attention now and it turns out I definitely do that in real life.)

Ok. Let’s see the numbers. I did 87 hours of work, per TagTime. [2] That ties Nick Winter’s precursor-maniac, and is certainly an admirably full work week, especially considering that’s 87 hours of tagged time, i.e., time that was unambiguously on task, and not just 87 hours at the computer. I pushed 69 commits to GitHub, compared to 16 in the previous week, closed 19 Trello cards, and did 50 45-minute chunks of focused work (or 37.23 hours). Out of 122 TagTime pings at the computer, only 6 of them were not working on Beeminder, and of those, only 3 were labeled as “smack”. The other 3 were switching music and entering my own Beeminder data.

Here’s my Beeminder hours graph, to compare last week with this:

So despite the more qualified success compared to Nick Winter’s epic 120-hour work week, I got a lot out of this, enjoyed it more than my average work week, and intend to do it again. It’d be great to experiment over the summer with more non-traditional work-hour arrangements with Danny. Maybe trade weeks of intense work with weeks of vacation or something.

My biggest frustration during my maniac week was not having a good enough task list to work on. There were several things that would have been fun to dive into but weren’t sufficiently well spec’d out and required further discussion with Danny about how they should be implemented, etc. It was also hard to keep sitting at the desk. A standing desk surely would be nice for mixing up working posture. Getting up and stretching and walking around the room were not anti-productive in the way that being distracted by non-work is, but nontheless took away from total working hours.

In addition to all the work I accomplished, I made some discoveries about why my productivity sucks (when it sucks). So, here are some productivity tips! Or, the reasons why this was an awesomely productive work week for me.

1. Don’t ever read email

This might have been the biggest thing. I closed my email tab. And then I only opened it again a few times throughout the week. The rest of the time I got to just not care about what was rolling in. Maybe Danny and I can try out being each other’s secretary for a week at a time. If that works out I might consider outsourcing it permanently.

2. Do a large number of Pomodoros (or Tocks as we call our 45-minute variant)

Also, announce the tocks publicly (and automatically) on Hipchat to ensure against weaseliness about what’s worth counting as a tock.

Beeminding tocks really kept me on task much better than my long-time TagTime-based hours goal. There’s so much unfocused futzing that legitimately counts as Beeminder work.

3. Put your phone across the room, turn off notifications, and sign out of messengery apps

I signed out of Google chat in my browser and on my phone. I turned off the sound on my phone, closed out my email tab, put my phone physically far away from me, and face down so I couldn’t see notification lights. I turned off notifications for our Beeminder Hipchat. This all meant that I had to consciously engage in external stimuli. I also told everyone I knew that I was going off the grid for a week, so there weren’t nearly as many notifications to begin with. This was awesome because checking on the external world became a conscious decision that I had to get up from the computer to do. Obviously it would be easy to slowly stop the habit of putting your phone far away from you. But that’s fixable with a commitment device.

4. Decide today what you’re going to work on tomorrow

One evening partway through I found myself kind of frustrated and not sure what to do next. So as my final tock for the day I carefully curated a list of tasks to do tomorrow. This seems like a great idea. And it made it really easy to get started the next morning because I sat down and my list told me what to do.

Theoretically I could have spent my tock curating a list of tasks to work on, and then started in on them the next tock. But it was nice to close out with a little planning ahead for tomorrow and then take a break and sleep.

5. Hack your /etc/hosts to block flow-breaking or distracting sites

This is a really basic thing, and is really just an extension of #3: I put a line in my /etc/hosts file that redirected my most-visited distracting sites to localhost. Then even if I did make the mistake out of habit of launching one of those sites in a tab, it didn’t resolve to the site and let me get sucked in. Not that I couldn’t have gone and edited my /etc/hosts file again to get around it. But what it did for me was raise the bar of distraction to taking intentional action. I couldn’t launch a beloved comic and start reading and find myself 15 minutes later completely off task when TagTime pings. Instead I launch the beloved comic, get an “oops” page from Chrome, and remember that I’m supposed to be doing something else. I also had #6 working for me in this regard…

6. Take a screen shot every minute

This obviously exerted huge constant pressure to stay on task. Key of course is the expectation that you’re going to show it off in a blog post!

7. Walk away from the computer when you are done

This was lovely. I know it was billed as a week of solid work. But I found that really difficult to deliver on, working every waking hour, but I was incredibly efficient while I was working at the computer. There were a few days I was worn out and didn’t feel like I had any stamina left for thinking about things and coding, but wasn’t exactly tired. Because of the Maniac commitment (and the screenshots enforcing it), on those days I stepped away from the computer and wrote, or even read some poetry one night. It was really nice to stop work intentionally and leave the computer to do anything else. I’m so often fussing and futzing over Beeminder things in every spare moment.

8. Live at your office

This is something Danny and I have debated for a while, and it turns out he’s right and I’m wrong. I think I still have some value for leaving my house to work in general. There was something distracting about working out of our actual house when we did that for a year. But Danny is right that our current commute is too much. It means that we frequently make sub-optimal decisions about where/when/how to work.

 

UPDATE: Hacker News discussion.

UPDATE: In the above Hacker News discussion dreeves promised to do a Maniac Weekend (5pm Friday to 9am Monday), which he did. If you want to get yourself on the hook, add a comment below!

UPDATE 2014 August: Danny and I did a joint maniac 5-day workweek (9am Monday to 5pm Friday — though ours was shifted by 24 hours) and found it quite fun and, ironically, relaxing: My time-lapse and Danny’s time-lapse.

 

Footnotes

[1] A few technical notes about the time-lapse:

  • View it in full screen, 1440p, for maximal dizifying.
  • I corrupted the first hour of images while compiling the video, so it actually starts up at 2014.05.22 13:00 though I started right at noon on May 22nd.
  • My camera wasn’t taking pictures of me at all for the first day (and actually I got started a bit earlier on the second day, but no screen shots because I was changing the config for Telepath Logger. That’s why the embedded version of the video jumps ahead past the boring part without webcam footage.
  • There was a period on the 28th through the morning of the 29th when the screen shots were not triggering, so there are some blank shots at the end too.

[2] The 95% confidence interval on that, as computed by WolframAlpha, is 72 to 104 hours.

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  • http://about.me/gladstoneBA maverickmath

    Productivity wise, here’s a somewhat more extreme idea I’ve tried circa 2009: http://w-shadow.com/blog/2009/02/07/anti-privacy-beta/ (My currently abandoned account: https://mobile.twitter.com/fullexposure)

  • Jana Beck

    This is genius: “This is a really basic thing, and is really just an extension of #3: I put a line in my /etc/hosts file that redirected my most-visited distracting sites to localhost.”

  • Witek

    What’s the thinking behind computing a confidence interval in [2]?

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    Ah, very long story, which is here: http://messymatters.com/tagtime

    Short version is that she measured the time via random sampling so there are error bars inherent in the measurement. We mostly treat TagTime’s estimates as gospel since, in the long run, on average, they are. But when measuring a particular chunk of time, like the nominally 87 hours of Bethany’s maniac week, there’s something like a few percent chance that that was in fact over 100 hours. (And, similarly, a couple percent chance that it was only 60-something hours.)

  • Witek

    Oh, okay, thanks. I’m a statistician, so I understand the underlying ideas, but skimmed over the post, so didn’t understand where 87 hrs figure came from.

  • Matthias

    Can you please upload the video to another site too – it’s anavailable in Germany because of copyright?

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    I wasn’t ready for a whole week yet so I tried a Maniac Weekend (5pm Friday to 9am Monday):

    http://youtu.be/giBIJW-2hro

  • Lawrence

    I took a ‘grad student’s weekend’ (any arbitrary span of three days) from noon Sunday to 6am Wednesday, and although I had trouble staying focused (only worked 30.7 hours in a 66-hour span), I did hit my weekend goal by 9pm the first day!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcYQUXozxOA

    I also discovered that I am apparently the only person in the world who finds email useful, but even extremely brief text exchanges were far more disruptive than I thought they were. Overall, a very successful test-run, which I will repeat soon, to urgently re-learn Latin!

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    Wonderful! Congrats on your first maniac weekend! I love the clouds rolling by out your window in the time-lapse (except for how you were supposed to have been working then!) :)

  • Jandro Manríquez

    Congratulations! I see a productivity app above your rescue time. What is it? Also, you seem to have an excel sheet to track productivity. what about it!

  • Jandro Manríquez

    I commit to have a maniac weekend since 8am this saturday 12 to sunday 18 at 8 pm.

  • Lawrence

    Ah, that’s actually just a text file that I updated for the benefit of the video, though I also found it helpful for myself to have a clear marker of my current goal and my progress. And then the spreadsheet was there to keep track of the details of the conference applications I was sending– info on the conference, link to check my application status, etc. I have a lot of spreadsheets, but they’re all project-specific.

    It looks like you’re planning your own manic weekend– if you have a mac, you can copy my screencapping kludge, which is simpler than Telepath Logger; I used the apps Gawker and InstantShot and then edited together the results. And, good luck!

  • Jandro Manríquez

    yes i’m actually planning it. However, I use windows. Any tips on this or in maniac weekend in general?

  • Lawrence

    For screencaps — googling has turned up Chronolapse, which might work, but I don’t really use Windows, so I don’t know personally.

    For the weekend — the most helpful thing for me was uninstalling distracting apps on my phone and tablet. I also wrote a list of acceptable break activities and posted it above my computer, with things like ‘go for a walk’ or ‘clean kitchen’ that would let me keep thinking over what I was working on. Mostly I think the trick is to just keep working!

  • http://skritter.com Nick

    I’m also keeping track of videos of these maniac week(ends) in this post:

    http://blog.nickwinter.net/maniacs-minimalists-and-mega-hike

    Mine was over here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0qlr22cF14

  • Lawrence

    Ok, because I can already tell that I’m gonna wanna skip out early if I don’t publicly pre-commit: I started a manic week of Latin-learning today, and I have to work ONLY on Latin until noon on the 16th! (Then on the seventh day I’ll rest, and sit the exam on the 18th.) This should be enough time to get through at least three books of the Aeneid. I’ll show off on the 16th!

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    This is me and Bethany precommitting to a new maniac workweek! A maniac workweek, as we’re hereby defining it, is where you work like a maniac for 104 contiguous hours — such as 9am Monday to 5pm Friday. (A traditional full maniac week is 24*7 = 168 contiguous hours.) Ours will be shifted by 24 hours, so 9am Tuesday to 5pm Saturday. Timelapses to come the following Monday (Aug 11)!

    This is a joint/paired maniac workweek, which we think is going to be super fun (we seem to never get sick of each other!). Or maybe only one of us will emerge alive. We shall see!

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    Voila! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQDieCK2wE4 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_91yJiodYHo (It was indeed super fun, and in fact relaxing!)