April plans

Today is the 1st of April. It’s time for the internet to get out of control with craziness and ridiculous April’s Fools Day. Today was also registration day at college, meaning that all of us 20-something year-olds had to get up at 7 in the morning (known as the crack of dawn to most of us) and schedule next semesters dreary existence. It’s also the start of a new month and hopefully the start of good weather that actually lasts. Since it’s a new month, I decided it would be a good time to try doing things a little bit different. I suppose you could think of them as 30-day trials in some ways, but most of them are minor enough that I don’t think I need to use the ‘trial’ concept on them. In no particular order, here goes:

Writing daily: quantity over quality

I already write a fair amount, mostly in the form of blog posts and email. But I’m also prone to slacking off terribly. I’ve gone for a week at a time without writing anything substantial. Writing isn’t a day job for me, but it is something I enjoy, something I value and something I want to improve on. So I’m going to try a bit every day.

I’ve thought about doing this at various points in the past, but I’ve always agonized about the process. I would like to sit down at any computer and just write for a few minutes. But I could never decide how exactly to do it without having writing scattered all over the place. And I always knew in the back of my head that I needed to start down for an hour or so to actually write something of value.

I’ve always been a fan of quality over quantity, but for once I’m going to give it a rest. I’m going to write everyday in the hopes that the much increased throughput will produce a greater number of good works in the long run and it will also develop my writing skills (especially in terms of avoiding writer’s block and being able to switch into writing mode at the drop of a hat). When I have an extended period of time (an hour at least) I’ll write techie articles for this blog and when I have shorter snippets I’ll just dump them into documents on Google Docs.

Reading: everywhere, anytime

While I like to write, I like to read too. Unfortunately I don’t often have the time to sit down and read for a few hours at a time. On the other hand I have short bursts of time every now and then (5-10 minutes) and instead of just sitting right or looking at funny videos of cats, I want to spend that time reading. I’ve already read one book on my iPod Touch using little snippets of time here and there. Though I don’t think I’ll want to do that with all forms of literature, I can certainly do it for short pieces. I’m considering getting the Instapaper Pro app (which lets you save stuff you want to read) and offers some features like text extraction and font customization that I think will come in pretty handy.

Using both brain hemispheres

I’m going to be graduating in just over a year with two degrees: computer engineering. So yes, my left brain is going to be very well exercised. But I want my right brain to get some training too. In retrospect it might have been a good idea to pick up a studio art major, but I like what I have know.

In order to exercise my right hemisphere I’ve taken to looking at art and design. I don’t really study anything formally (though I among going to Italy over summer to study Renaissance Art) but I do observe and absorb. In particular I’ve been looking at data presentation and web design. I plan on spending some time building “blogazine“-like content on my website, probably centered about poetry and stories I’ve written before. I might even dabble in some hand-drawing (which I haven’t seriously done in years). Of course everything I do will be free for everyone to see and reuse.

Measuring my time usage

I often have days where I feel like I did a lot and didn’t really waste time, but didn’t quite accomplish much. I tried to apply the principle of “what you measure improves” by tracing all my time usage for a day. It turned out to be rather clumsy because I wanted a system where I could write things quickly and still get fairly good analytics on how I spent my time. Unfortunately paper is great for recording, but it sucks for analytics and most time tracking solutions I found were too heavy and expensive.

A few days ago I stumbled across a new webapp called Freckle which seems to hit the sweet spot between features and usability. All you do is enter a time (or use their timer bookmarklet), what project it was for and a bunch of tags and it gives you a set of fairly decent analytics. You have to pay for it and I just started a free month long trial. If I find that it actually works well, that I use it and that I’m getting more stuff done, then it’s a keeper and I’ll gladly fork over the $12 a month and wish them well.

Agile daily productivity

The agile development methodology eschews large complicated schedules and project plans in favor of smaller chunks of work, quicker feedback and review and greater flexibility. I’ve been an applying a similar system to my own daily workloads and it seems to be working, but I’ll be enforcing it better. Being a college student it makes absolutely no sense for me to have long schedules because every day brings new challenges (homework, tests, projects, random coffee drinking sessions) and any long-term plan would be shattered in a day. Instead I’m using a dual system: due dates to make sure I’m on track with my long term goals and shorter lists of daily and weekly tasks that need to be done. I’ll try to set aside large blocks of time for things like homework sets and fill in shorter blocks with reading and writing. I’m also consider doing weekly reviews but I’m not sure how much of a value that will provide to me right now.


All that probably seems like a lot and taken individually it is. But I’m going to try to collapse/multiplex them into a congruent workflow where I schedule with flexibility in mind. Ideally, I’ll spending large blocks of time on homework, programming and content creation with shorter blocks on light reading, practice writing and random errands that pop up now and again.

In 30 days my free trial of Freckle will run out and that’s also when I’ll sit down, take a deep breath and see if all this actually worked or not. If it doesn’t work, I’ll try to see what it failed and see if I can fix it. Even if it didn’t work, I’m sure there will be places to tweak and improve. And though I’m tired from having written this (and from everything else I’ve done and need to) I feel pretty excited for this month.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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