Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Sat 05 March 2016

I was listening to the “Under the Radar” podcast the other day. The podcast is by independent iOS developers, “Underscore” David Smith and Marco Arment, who discuss topics and issues related to being solo, indy, software developers. They both work from home.

In this episode, they talk about how to maintain a good work/life balance. David Smith quotes an old saying, “good fences make good neighbors”. He was talking about the temporal fence he sets at five o’clock in his daily work schedule. As soon as 5pm rolls around, he stops working. This helps him stay focused on work during work hours. It then lets him focus on his family outside of work hours. It’s a great metaphor.

I do the same thing, but on a weekly timeframe. It’s what I’m talking about when I discuss home management and what I do to keep things organized. My wife works non-traditional hours, so I schedule my prime working hours to match hers. Friends and other family work “normal” weekday, nine-to-five hours. This makes it difficult sometimes, but putting up the “fences” helps, even if it varies weekly, and even daily.

I love listening to podcasts by folks like Underscore and Marco. Hearing other people talk about problems similar to the ones you face yourself is really helpful.

Speaking of Shallots

Thu 03 March 2016

Fried Brown Rice

Speaking of shallots…I made a batch of that brown rice a couple of days ago. We had it for dinner with some leftovers.

It was a Friday night. In contrast to most other households, Fridays are the beginning of a busy stretch of days for us. Efficient meal preparation is therefore key if we want to get any downtime to spend together. The freshly (and quickly) made rice therefore went great with some leftovers from lunch.

The next day, we still had some of it remaining. It just so happens that leftover rice is great for frying up with many other ingredients that you may have lying around.

Quick Fried Rice

I snipped off pieces of some black forest bacon I had in the fridge, caramelized some onions in the fat, then threw in some of the rice. I topped that off with an egg that I scrambled into the mixture, and voilá, lunch in fifteen minutes. It would have been easy enough to throw in some bell peppers or mushrooms if I had any.

I love cooking at home, and this gives a great example of why. It’s a better meal than you can get at most places, more healthy, super quick, and amazingly easy.

You should cook at home too.

Deep Work and Home Management

Mon 29 February 2016

Cooking, vaccuming, watering plants…why do I spend so much time and attention on home management tasks? I do it so I can forget about it.

Last year we were so busy, we got nothing done. This year, we laid out a plan to guide us through the year. I found a tremendous amount of help and inspiration for this from a book called “Deep Work”, written by Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport.

The Concept

“Deep work” is a concept that Newport has been developing on his blog for the past few years.

In January, he published a book of the same title. In it, he first describes exactly what he means by “deep work” and its value in today’s society. He then lays down a set of rules to help you design your circumstances to accomplish this work.

Needless to say, I find great value in the concepts and guidelines he has developed.

Deep versus Shallow

Fundamentally, deep work is “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”. It is set in contrast to “shallow work”.

Shallow work is busy work. It is the type of work you do when you are on the phone with many different people throughout the day. When you zip through a list of things, doing the same thing for each item on the list, you are doing shallow work.

Shallow work is easy to dip into for a while, take a break, then pick up where you left off. You are probably quite familiar with shallow work. It is prevalent in today’s world.

Going Deep

To accomplish larger, more meaningful tasks of higher quality requires work of a different sort.

Carl Jung revolutionized the field of psychology by building a personal retreat in the woods where he would go to think about the problems he was trying to solve. Cal Newport characterizes the work Jung did there as the deep work described in his own philosophy.

Newport presents other accomplished figures — famous like Mark Twain and lesser known like the blacksmith Rick Furrer from Wisconson — who also practiced or practices what he calls deep work. He finds the common thread in how these individuals are able to reach noteworthy success in their respective fields.

That thread is deep work – the ability to focus and concentrate for extended periods of time. Its principle is that these periods of concentration are necessary for achieving the breakthroughs that comprise extraordinary work.

You accomplish more in one five-hour session than in five one-hour sessions. Interruptions kill your momentum and cause you to start over from the beginning.

“The mind is a locomotive. It requires time for getting under headway. …Prolonged thinking leads to profound thinking.”Charles Franklin Thwing

How to Go Deep

Getting these chunks of time is a task in and of itself. Newport outlines several different philosophies you can use for finding these chunks in your own life. The last two-thirds of his book contains rules you can use to help you find them.

But getting the time is only part of the battle. The ability to use that time wisely, once found, is also critical. For this, Newport also provides tools and guidance.

These tools and rules are what separate “Deep Work” from other business productivity books. The rules are practical and useful. The advice is actionable and well-examined. Two months into the year, and I’m already seeing results from the practices I’ve put into place. My results will only get better as I get better at implementing them.

I can’t recommend this book enough.

Back to the Home

This of course leads us back to my home, my plants, and my kitchen.

In the exercise of finding, scheduling, and using deep work time in my own life, I have had to examine all the other parts of my “busy” schedule. In the process, I’ve re-purposed many tools I normally use for my “working life” and deployed them into my home. This has made managing my home life more efficient, which in turn has given me the time to go deep.

Mundane and repetitive chores can take over your schedule if you let them. I choose to take charge, put these menial tasks in their place, and forget about them. This leaves me with not just more time, but higher quality time to do the work that is important to me.

Shallots and Butter

Wed 24 February 2016

There are some classic food combinations that make cooking at home a real pleasure. I’ve recently spent some time with one of these: shallots and butter.

Shallots and Butter

When shallots slow-cook in butter, it releases a really nice aroma. Coming home to this smell when you’re hungry after a day at work really helps close out the day on the right foot.

All you have to do is finely dice a shallot, toss some butter in a pan on medium heat, mix the shallots into the butter, then season with salt and pepper. After a couple of minutes, you’ll have a nice base that you can take in many different directions. Be sure to mix it around while it’s cooking.

This base is what I use for a really simple and practical recipe that’s been in the rotation for the past few weeks, Brown Rice Pilaf.

Brown Rice Pilaf Recipe

Make the base as described above. About half a shallot with a tablespoon of butter should work.

Once the shallots are cooked through, pour in a cup of uncooked brown rice. Cook the rice in the butter until the kernels are slightly toasted, about 5 to 8 minutes. After that, pour in one and a half cups of chicken broth.

Turn up the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Once it’s bubbling, cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and lower the heat to medium-low. After 40 minutes, the rice will be ready to eat.

Cooking Notes

This is not a baking show, so be ready to make adjustments on the fly:

  • First, the amount of butter and shallots is up to you.
  • Next, if you don’t have (or don’t want to use) chicken broth, use some other liquid. Water works, so does vegetable broth. You can even put some white wine or a mixture of any of the three. It’s up to you.
  • Most importantly, check the water after about 25 minutes. If it looks like the rice is drying out, add some more. This is more likely to happen if the lid doesn’t fit well, letting moisture escape as steam. It’s the moisture that softens and cooks the rice, so make sure there’s enough.

Serving and Eating

I like to eat the rice for dinner, hot off the pan. If there’s any left over, I put it in a covered plastic container and refrigerate. The shallot rice goes well with eggs and bacon for breakfast the next day. Lunch and even dinner the next day works well too.

If you make enough, you’ll be set for a couple of days worth of meals. It’s a great way to eat some tasty, nutritious food and save time as well.

The Larger Goal

Sun 14 February 2016

The goal of all this hard work, task management, and organization is to build up something worthwhile – a family and our life. I believe that work is important in and of itself. But it’s also important to stop and smell the roses every once in a while.

Tonight, I’m taking M out to dinner. I managed to snag a reservation at a nice restaurant by logging onto their website right at midnight two weeks ago. Being a night owl has it’s advantages!

I may write about the restaurant here sometime in the future, but for now I’ll have to keep it a secret since it’s a surprise for her.

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