Fractal Pomodoros

Or: how to temporarily put your head down to focus, on different timescales

(Also, lest it’s unclear: I don’t think everyone should work this way, or that anyone should work this way all the time. There’s something to be said for defragmenting your attention, but there’s also something important about improvisation and fluidity.)

There’s a very famous productivity technique called the “pomodoro”, named after the Italian word for “tomato” because its inventor used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. There’s a lot of subtlety to the full technique, but here I’m going to mostly refer to the basic elements:

  1. pick something to work on
  2. work on it for 25 minutes without distraction
    • external distraction: don’t answer calls or knocks at the door
    • internal distraction: stay focused on your original task/project even if you think of something else you might do instead
  3. when the 25 minutes ends, take a break for 5 minutes
    • (even if you don’t feel like taking a break, take one anyway! stopping randomly, rather than when stuck, can make it easier to get back into it after your break, and it can be easier to get focused if you trust that you’ll pause when the timer goes off)
  4. …repeat 2 & 3 until the task is complete or no longer top priority

There’s something profoundly relieving, for many people, when they first try the pomodoro technique, where a big question goes away: should I be doing something else?

This should I be doing something else? applies to:

  • should I interrupt what I’m doing to talk to my coworker?
  • should I be working on something else?
  • should I be taking a break?
  • should I be working? (if taking a break)

The internal conflict that comes from evaluating these questions every minute or two while trying to work or rest burns a lot of energy without really producing anything meaningful. It’s not to say that those aren’t important questions to consider, just that by default most people can’t usefully consider them every minute.

So instead: pomodoros: a license not to think of anything that isn’t relevant to the task at hand, for 25 minutes. And people regularly discover that they’re able to get more done in a few hours of this method than they usually achieve in a day.

Seriously, if you haven’t tried the pomodoro technique, and you have trouble staying focused on a challenging project… It’s a classic and my go-to #1 productivity technique recommendation. Doesn’t work for everybody or every situation, but when it does work the ROI is huge.

But then, why stop at 25 minutes?

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How I run Online Workshops

(An alternative to “online courses”.)

Context: with a small team, I’ve been running online workshops a couple times a year (30 sessions total) since 2017, called the Goal-Crafting Intensive. It’s been a huge success, with many returning participants and lots of rave reviews and referrals. The GCI is about life-effectiveness (goal-setting, planning, execution, reflection) but the event format could be used for many other topics! I’m sharing this guide because I’d like to see other people make events like this for what they have to teach (and I’d like to attend sessions like this).

Summary/Table of Contents

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Dream Mashups

This article is an elaboration on this tweet:

Everyone is basically living in a dream mashup of their current external situation and whatever old emotional meanings are getting activated by the current situation. Like dreaming you’re at your high school but it’s also on a boat somehow.

What makes this metaphor really powerful is that, as in dreams, somehow the weirdness of this mashup goes unnoticed until you wake up (and only then if you think about it). And then even though you’ve noticed while awake how weird dreams are, you’re just as fooled by the next dream, until you wake up.

This helps explain the vivid reality of peoples’ experiences. The emotional brain is experiencing something totally real—just as your high school is real. The part of you that’s taking in reality is experiencing something totally real—just as boats are real. But, unless you had a really avant-garde education, there is no real “my high school, except on a boat”.

So people experience these mashups in relationships as well, emotionally experiencing their friends & partners as if they’re a parent, teacher, sibling, or bully from childhood, or an earlier friend or partner. Or someone is an adult but when they talk with their parents, they readily overlay their experience of their parents from childhood, who had absolute authority over them. To be clear, it can be particularly strong & weird with trauma but as far as I can tell this is how meaning-making works in general. It’s just sometimes the mapping is a good fit and other times it’s really weird.

And, as with dreams, no matter how weird it gets, we usually don’t notice when it’s happening to us.

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Work With Me – new site page

I’ve recently added a new page to my website called Work With Me. The page will evolve over time but I’m going to write a short blog post about the concept and share the initial snapshot of how it looks, for archival purposes.

Why a “Work With Me” page?

There’s a lot of stories I could tell here. I’ll tell a few slightly fictional versions before getting to the actual series of events that occurred.

One fictional version is that I was inspired by Derek Sivers’ /now page movement but I wanted something that created more affordances for people to connect with me, including regarding opportunities that I’m not actively pursuing now on my own. This is true in the sense that I was thinking about /now by the time I published the page, and in the sense that I would love to see Work With Me pages show up on others’ sites. You could be the first follower, who starts a movement!

Another fictional version is that I was thinking about my Collaborative Self-Energizing Meta-Team Vision and wondering how to make more surface area for people to get involved. I’m someone who thinks a lot about interfaces, not just between humans and products but also between humans and other humans, and it occurred to me that there wasn’t a good interface for people to find out how to plug in with me to work on self-energizing projects together. So I made this page! This was also on my mind, but it’s still not quite how it happened.

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Runway lengthens if you’re making money

(adapted from this twitter thread)

One thing most people don’t realize about starting a small business, particularly in the context of something with low overhead and low fixed costs, like software or media: not-enough revenue is still money!

Say you have $16k and need $2k/mo to live on. That’s 8 months of runway.

Say that after 3 months, your business makes $1k/mo. Not sustainable yet, but now you have 10 months runway! ((16-2*3)/(2-1)=10)

Not-enough revenue is still real money! 🤑

Huh. “runway” is actually backwards metaphor for this thing, at least in a personal context (may be different with “moon or bust” startups, that aren’t making any money while burning up runway).

Real runway is fixed distance, & certain speed needed for takeoff, but faster you go the sooner you run out of runway! 🛫 All-or-nothing. It’s dangerous to be going very fast but not fast enough, because it means that

By contrast, as you get momentum going with a personal business, that actually buys you more time.

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Letter to my younger self, who has just been sent to his room

On behalf of the universe: there’s been a mistake. You weren’t meant to be sent here, to your room.

I’m highlighting the mistaken nature of this situation because what I want to tell you is: you’re free. But I don’t want to be your rescuer, you see. In order for you to really be free of this room, in your mind not just your body, you’ll need to be free of the meaning of it, which means coming to understand why you were never meant to be sent here in the first place.

In saying you’re free, I’m not saying, “you’re good—it doesn’t matter what you did that resulted in you being sent to your room.” There’s probably some sort of conversation that needs to happen, because whatever you did affected other people in ways that you need to understand, and I think you’d want to do something different if you could understand both those impacts and also understand what prompted you to do what you did in the first place. Also, other people need to understand what impacts they had on you! All of that needs to be talked about, in order for everyone to have a good time now and in the future.

And… in saying “there’s still a further conversation that needs to happen,” I’m not saying, “you’re bad—you can’t relax or feel good until we have that further conversation.” You don’t need to stress about it. You didn’t do anything wrong. We want to have this conversation in a way that feels good for you, and for everyone.

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Lecturing & Learning: Emotional Coherence Case Study

This post is adapted from notes to myself plus a bit of context I added for some friends I shared the notes with. It’s a cool example of how gradually making an unconscious pattern more conscious can lead to transformational insight, and the specific pattern also seems like one that’s likely to resonate for a lot of other people with similar experiences to mine. I’m willing to bet that other people who’ve interacted with me a lot directly are familiar with this pattern as it shows up in me—and I’d be interested to hear about that!

For the last week or so, my partner Sarah and I have been doing a lot of active noticing a particular tone I sometimes have, which Sarah hates, and she described it as being lectured. It took many months of work on both our parts for her to be able to articulate the feeling so clearly as “lectured” and for me to be able to acknowledge that there’s something there even though I wasn’t sure what or why. While I could tell it didn’t work (because it made Sarah defensive) I didn’t initially have any intrinsic motivation to speak any differently. More on that work and on motivation to change, below.

Anyway, since we’ve gotten a better handle on that, I’ve gotten a lot better at noticing when I’m doing the Lecturing thing, often via Sarah making a 🤨 face at me, but sometimes from my own stance or tone. As I’ve been integrating that unconscious drive, I’ve started often interrupting myself midsentence, something like “So you see, it’s really important… (S: 🤨) …that I lecture you about this. You need a lecture.”

And speaking that explicitly defuses a lot of the tension, which has already been great. Yesterday some additional integration happened, via gentle prompting from Sarah. She was saying something and I was suddenly experiencing an immense urge. I had enough mental space to hold that urge, and I strained to speak: “It. Is. So. Hard. For. Me. To. Not. Lecture. You. Right now.” I started to try to convey something about my experience of that to her, and she very gently and groundedly suggested “is there something you might want to do for yourself, first?”

I tuned into that part of me and it voiced internally “why are you so fucking stupid?!?

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2020: Free to Dance

In my 2019 yearly review: Divided Brain Reconciled by Meaningful Sobbing, I experimented for the first time in a while with setting a theme for the upcoming year: Free to Dance. And lo, while I didn’t think about it that often, it’s proved remarkably relevant, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

The original concept of the phrase came in part from having just picked up Bruce Tift’s book Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation, which by early January I could tell would be a major book of my year. Another related dimension of it was something I realized in doing some of the emotional processing work last year, which was that parts of me sometimes still kind of think I’m trapped at school where I’m supposed to sit still at my desk, among other indignities.

The other main piece was observing at a couple of points that I sometimes seem to move through the world as if I’m dancing, and other times much more heavily. During an exercise at the Bio-Emotive retreat midsummer, we were asked to reflect on a question something like “how would I be if I were showing up most brilliantly/beautifully?” And what arose for me is something like “I think I’d always be dancing.”

So all of these layers mean that the social isolation of the pandemic didn’t put much of a specific damper on this life theme, even though I was hardly free to go to dance events (except some lovely outdoor bring-your-own-partner contact improv events that a friend hosted). I had been intending to travel the world a bit, to San Francisco, perhaps Austin, perhaps the UK, and none of those visits happened.

What did happen?

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Complice: Beyond Getting Things Done

Some years ago, I invented a new productivity system, called Complice. Complice is a productivity app, and it’s also a productivity philosophy, or even an entire paradigm.

What is Complice?

Complice is a new approach to goal achievement, in the form of both a philosophy and a software system. Its aim is to create consistent, coherent, processes, for people to realize their goals, in two senses:

  • realize what their goals are
  • make their goals a reality

Virtually all to-do list software on the internet, whether it knows it or not, is based on the workflow and philosophy called GTD (David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”). Complice is different. It wasn’t created as a critique of GTD, but it’s easiest to describe it by contrasting it with this implicit default so many people are used to.

First, a one-sentence primer on the basic workflow in Complice:

  1. Clarify your goals: what matters to you on the timescale of months/years?
  2. Set intentions for today: how can your day be in service of your big-picture vision?
  3. Take action: work on what feels meaningful, whether the intentions you set or other emergent opportunities or challenges.
  4. Review, reflect, reorient: did you do what you set out to do? Is it actually moving the needle? Go to 2.

There’s a lot more to it, but this is the basic structure. Perhaps less obvious is what’s not part of the workflow. We’ll talk about some of that below, but that’s still all on the level of behavior though—the focus of this post is the paradigmatic differences of Complice, compared to GTD-based systems. These are:

  • choosing & doing, over organizing
  • goals as fundamental, rather than tasks
  • aliveness, instead of exhaustiveness
  • proactive, rather than reactive

Keep reading and we’ll explore each of them…

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A Collaborative Self-Energizing Meta-Team Vision

Originally written October 19th, 2020 as a few tweetstorms—slight edits here. My vision has evolved since then, but this remains a beautiful piece of it and I’ve been linking lots of people to it in google doc form so I figured I might as well post it to my blog.

Wanting to write about the larger meta-vision I have that inspired me to make this move (to Sam—first green section below). Initially wrote this in response to Andy Matuschak’s response “Y’all, this attitude is rad”, but wanted it to be a top-level thread because it’s important and stands on its own.

Hey @SamHBarton, I’m checking out lifewrite.today and it’s reminding me of my app complice.co (eg “Today Page”) and I had a brief moment of “oh no” before “wait, there’s so much space for other explorations!” and anyway what I want to say is:

How can I help?

screenshot of LifeWrite landing page

Because I realized that the default scenario with something like this is that it doesn’t even really get off the ground, and that would be sad 😕

So like I’ve done with various other entrepreneurs (including Conor White-Sullivan!) would love to explore & help you realize your vision here 🚀

Also shoutout to Beeminder / Daniel Reeves for helping encourage this cooperative philosophy with eg the post Startups Not Eating Each Other Like Cannibalistic Dogs. They helped mentor me+Complice from the very outset, which evolved into mutual advising & mutually profitable app integrations.

Making this move, of saying “how can I help?” to a would-be competitor, is inspired for me in part by tapping into what for me is the answer to “what can I do that releases energy rather than requiring energy?” and finding the answer being something on the design/vision/strategy level that every company needs.

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A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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