All in your head

Distraction.

It’s the thing that could destroy your productivity and send you down the rabbit hole of wasting time and achieving nothing. You will find yourself doing everything else but the one thing you need to be doing.

And you know what? The biggest problem isn’t with distraction. It’s not that video game. Not that Netflix show. Not that book. Rather, it’s you. You are the problem. You choose to play that video game, watch that show or read that book.

So why did you make that choice?

Is it because you lack the discipline?

Or maybe be that the thing you should be doing doesn’t have a strong enough draw to pull you away? Maybe it’s not as important as you think it is? And don’t kid yourself and be all defensive. After all, if it’s important, then why aren’t you doing those things? Why are you allowing yourself to be distracted?

It’s also a conversation that I’m having with myself every now and then.

As much as I like to think I have the discipline to work from home, it’s a lie perpetrated by me on me. The truth is being distracted is a recurring theme. There were so many projects that I want to do but ended up not doing them. I went with playing video games, stopped thinking like a writer and stopped thinking like a designer.

I even told my friends that I couldn’t find the time or concentrate on my stuff at home and needed to work outside. There’s just too many distracting stuff.

One of them said, “it’s all in your head”.

I won’t say I’m surprised. From what I have learned so far, it’s the truth. And the only truth when it comes to productivity.

And that’s a great reminder on who’s really in control.

No one else can make you concentrate or focus. You are the one who decide whether you can concentrate and do the work. Everything else that you say or fight against is just you finding an excuse.

What if you really think that your home has a ton of distractions and you can’t prevent yourself from utilising those distractions? Then go out there and find an environment to work in that allow you to focus. Otherwise, remove all those items in your house that distracts you. Move those distracting things, be it television, your internet router/access points, etc. to a storage unit. Smash them to pieces if you need to. You can always buy a new one later. It’s all about creating that environment you need to work.

And watch what you say to yourself. A lot of times, many of the comments or complains you make are just you being fancy and refuse to do the work. So shut up, and make a plan and execute.

Dont wait

We spend a lot of our time waiting for shit to happen. It could be we are waiting for the bus to arrive at the bus stop, waiting for that cup of coffee or waiting for that friend to arrive for a lunch appointment.

In hindsight, it’s a such a tremendous waste of time. But here’s the thing. There’s nothing we can do about it. The things I mentioned are out of our control. It’s something that we have to learn to accept and let it happen.

Easier said than done, right?

I know. It’s difficult because I’m still struggling with that. As far as I remember, I like to control aspects of my environment so that I get what I want. However, age has this effect of showing you it’s just stupid. Attempting to control anything else but yourself will only make you miserable.

So… let’s give up our control and mindlessly wait!

Right.

It’s one of the stupidest choices you can make because you are giving up opportunities to grow.

For those who know me knows that I work as a software engineer. In this line of work, you can’t afford to stop. The moment you stop or get comfortable, you will be replaced by something new or fresh. Technology is progressing at an exponential rate. And this fact is what deter some people that I know from this line of work because it’s hard to have a decent life. At least based on what I’ve been told and personally experienced.

Even then, it didn’t stop me from falling into the trap of getting comfortable and doing what I already know. You see, I started out as a Java programmer, switched to C# and now wants to go back because I love that language more than any other languages I’ve used. Furthermore, I saw that it’s time for me to specialise.

But there was no action because I went with waiting. Didn’t go for courses any more or bothering to read up on the latest stuff. And I’m waited, stupidly might I add, for the opportunity to switch the programming language that I use. No more pet projects too.

And look at where it got me.

I couldn’t secure any job interviews with the companies I really want to join.

You might think this situation only applies to developers or engineering fields. Have to be very careful with that. Because, as far as I know, no business, field or industry remain stagnant for a long time. Everything is a fair game when it comes to disruption. Look at how Uber disrupted the transportation industry. Or AirBnb disrupted the accommodation business within the tourism industry.

So the question is, are you going to wait until the day you are disrupted and find yourself out of job?

I for one don’t want that to happen.

So, it’s time to start from scratch again to build up my experience with the programming language I began with.

And no more waiting!

This is why I’m spending time to read up on Java again and using it to build pet projects. It doesn’t matter if the project idea has been done to death by other programmers. The key thing here is that you learn how to code in that language again to solve problems. You have to demonstrate to your future employers that you can write in that language without issue. And the good thing is I’ve got my own startup idea that I want to work on with my friends. It will be a great opportunity for me to practice.

Maybe for your case, you are working in a highly-specialised field and it’s not practical for you to be having a side business or side projects to learn or relearn skills that you don’t really use in your day-to-day job anymore. But it doesn’t mean you can’t learn other stuff. There are many other things that you could learn to make yourself a more well-rounded person.

For example, in this day and age, emotional intelligence is the most important skill anyone should have. Unlike technical skills, no amount of courses or seminar is going to teach you emotional intelligence if you don’t actively practice it in real life with your friends, family or peers. I for one know that I’m no good with that and it’s one of those things I’m constantly learning during my day to day work and interactions. Because I know that if I don’t work on this, I will alienate a lot of people and make it hard for people to work with me to achieve some goals. I can’t wait for something really bad to happen before I start practising.

Or, here is another example. Maybe you find that you are a very creative and chaotic person. You don’t really plan anything out because it doesn’t seem to affect your work. Yay, you are a pantser of sort. high five Therefore, you don’t really bother yourself with it. But does it mean you wait for something bad to happen before you learn how to be organise?

Because you see, having the ability, or some resemblance of ability to plan, is very important to achieve goals or targets. I’m a pantser and acknowledge the importance of basic planning. I do that from time to time if not my work process will be very chaotic. And the ability to plan or be organise could be the difference between you and some other creatives who are trying to show secure some sort of contract, sales or opportunities.

So what you could do is to go for courses on planning or even do it in your daily life. Like your groceries. Or getting the tools you need to do your work. Or plan out your finances. Whatever it is you can find to practice planning, just do it.

Don’t wait for things to happen. It might already be too late. Do it now.

Dealing with backlogs

These days there are so many things that vie for our attention and we usually aren’t mindful about which thing actually get our attention. And so we find ourselves reacting to things or just doing things without asking if we should or need to.

It’s because of this that most of us feel miserable at the end of the day. Rarely do we feel happy about our life. Thus, there is this growing movement of minimalism to counteract the increase in busyness, being called to devote our energy and attention on various things and the increase in mindless consumption.

So if you are part of this movement, you can call yourself a minimalist. And the thing about being a minimalist is that you develop a habit of constantly questioning yourself about what you are doing, what you bring into your life and what’s the purpose. Put it simply, it’s all about saying no so that you can say yes to the things that is more important. Things that are more valuable.

And I call myself a minimalist. Saying no to a lot of things is the default stance because I want to devote my limited attention to the things I find joy or meaning. Decluttering and being mindful of what I consume is a big part of my life.

However, I slipped up in recent months. I fell into that trap of mindless consumption. The end result is not pretty.

First of all, there’s a backlog of eight physical books, 50% of which are science fiction novels, that I’ve yet start reading or read halfway. That’s not mentioning there are also four more science fiction e-books in my kindle app also in various reading stages. Then there’s also five video games to play across my three gaming consoles that are in various stages of completion. Third, I got a bunch of personal software and writing projects that I’ve not done or in various stages of completion. Lastly, the backlog for my day job has also grown almost unmanageable.

For some people, they would probably feel pressured to do all of the above I mentioned. Furthermore, other areas of their life will also catch up and demand for their attention. Cortisol level will rise.

Now, this is where things get interesting…

I don’t feel that kind of pressure to complete all of the above. Not like how I would have felt in the past.

You may be wondering why.

I got it figured out.

First of all, I know why I’m in this situation. It’s nobody else fault but mine. Once you accept that, you actually will feel empowered to take back control. Second, you accept that you don’t have anything to prove to anyone. Third, you recognise and accept the fact everyone got the same amount of time. It’s virtually impossible to deal with all the above at the same time without sacrificing your health or life.

Now, your combination of backlogs and situation would be completely different. But the important here is that you figure out what’s the things that you can actually say no to so that you can say yes to clearing your backlogs.

For me, I have been spending my night time looking at jobs and trying to determine what’s suitable for me. It has been that way for the past month. Inadvertently, I got demoralised by the lack of experience I have in various technological stacks that companies are looking for. Also, I had issue reconciling my aspirations and desire for growth versus having time for those things I mentioned because they are important to me. Those things affected my mood to do my projects, read or play video games.

And don’t get me wrong, those things that I mentioned are pretty trivial stuff in grand scheme of things and are not more important than eating, being healthy, spending time with family, have a roof over my head and have quality sleep. But they are what make me happy.

With that, I took actions actually to start clearing my backlogs as of last week. Whatever slot of time I could find, be it commuting, using the toilet, waiting for things to happen, I use it to read or to play my games. This way, I can clear my mind for my personal projects, especially since I know I can get distracted very easily or would rather do something else but “work”. By that, I mean anything that need me to think a lot. Programming and writing both require lots of thinking.

But it’s also important to remember to say no to all the above. If you’ve notice, all my hobbies, my day job, and my personal projects require me to be sedentary. And that is bad for health. So going out for a quick jog, do some pushups, weight lifting is always more valuable in grand scheme or things.

Focus and specialise

Conventional wisdom dictates that there are two main types of people in this world: Those who are specialists and those who are generalists.

But do you accept that wisdom is the truth?

For me, I don’t accept that wisdom.

It’s because, we also forget there’s the third type of person. The polymath. The Leonardo da Vinci of the world.

These are people who are really good at multiple fields or industry that to most people they are no different from specialists from specific field or industry.

Now, some people will just say that a polymath is really just someone who’s the best version of a generalists. However, the truth is polymaths are not generalists. They are specialists who figured out how to take what they are truly good at to apply at other fields or industry as described by Sean Norton in his article titled Polymaths aren’t generalists.

And the sad truth is that being either a specialist or a generalist isn’t good enough anymore for the global economy we have today. We all have to polymaths in order to participate in the economy in any truly meaningful way and earn our keep.

The reason why I said that is because of what I experienced during my job search.

Although I have at least five years of software development experience with a collection of other experiences I acquired over the years, they aren’t enough for me to get into the doors of certain companies like Grab, Lazada, PayPal or even Google. At the same time, I’m unable to go with a smaller and older companies, especially those SMEs in Singapore because they are unable to pay the kind of money that I believe I’m worth. If you are wondering, on average, a software engineer with my years of experience can command at least SG$4800 per month, excluding bonuses. Most SME can’t afford that. And so they will either hire someone who just need a job or more junior. Worse case, the role will be vacant for months because they just couldn’t find the right person.

So my conclusion is, to be a truly good software engineer who can command a high salary and respect from your peers, you have to really devote a large portion of your time to practice and play with technology. Because, you are to have a good grasp of algorithms, mathematics, software design patterns, software architecture, be fast, rational and logical, understand user needs and requirement, know about the different databases, and have working experience with a bunch of programming languages under your belt. A polygot, if you will. You also have to know how to write properly to prepare the necessary documentations. Furthermore, you have to know how to properly manage your time, communicate well with your colleagues and the various stakeholders. Finally, you have to know how to sell or market either your idea, yourself or both. Oh, don’t forget, you might also need to provide support to users…

What if you aren’t that good or don’t want to be that good due to a variety of personal reasons.

You are left with companies that are neither here or there. You still can get a decent pay writing code and managing projects but don’t expect yourself to be doing “change the world” type of projects. Before long you will be replaced by younger generation of software engineers who are probably smarter, faster, more nimble and flexible. I’ve seen first hand just how good the younger codes are. And who knows. Maybe replaced by an artificial intelligence (AI).

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with going to tech companies that are neither here or there. Maybe they can offer better working conditions. Maybe they are much slower in terms of pace. Less over time. The thing is, these companies are still around because they still can deliver a certain kind of value to their customers. In that context, for a person who’s married, have kids and a variety of commitments, your priority will be very different from someone and that might be a good fit. But for someone who’s single and still want to make an impact with what he or she does, those kind of companies might not be suitable.

But of course, don’t forget about self-awareness. You have to know who you are truly and whether you are a good fit in those startups or big tech like Amazon, Facebook, or Google. If you know you are not, then you better find alternatives that are more inline with what you look for and take actions to go that path.

For me, I know why I’m not there at the top. It’s nobody’s fault. I made the decision to split my time into doing a variety of other stuff that don’t really have any relationship to software development.

I devoted time and energy into writing that went relatively well for me for a time. Then the motivation just died and my writing enters into mediocre, barely any content state that you see now. You don’t even see me log in to Medium or WordPress that often these days. Neither do I even think much about writing. I let my writing projects sit and idle. I devote time and energy into video games and TV shows. Furthermore, in terms of the programming languages and technology stacks that I use to build software, I’m all over the place. Even my job role changed from developer to consultant-like and back to developer. I don’t even know how to market myself to job agents and hiring managers. Hell, I don’t even know what I like anymore.

So the lesson here is that one have to focus and be a specialist in whatever they do. Because ultimately, even polymaths are specialists. Don’t be a generalist because it will lead you to nowhere nice. After you have mastered all that you could possibly master in a given field, take the skillsets you’ve acquired to master the field and apply it into another field.

For example, as a programmer, I know I care deeply about formatting, style and highly readable yet expressive codes. So I have to keep practicising until I can do it without betting an eye just so that I can apply those techniques in writing with ease. Furthermore, if I focus on mastering a specific technology stack and framework, I could expand out into mentoring people using that specific stack. Now that will allow me to grow in a different way. Maybe, grow to become someone who can teach and communicate well. Even better, write highly detailed contents about the technology stack I use to help other people. And that could be the start of the journey to become a polymath.

The curious case of not enough or missing time

Have you ever experienced the loss of time and you can’t seem to remember what you did? It’s not that you are suffering from some kind of mental illness that cause you to lose track of time but rather you know you are still going about your life and yet time just flies by. When you do realise it, the day is gone and the new day is upon you.

And that’s been happening to me for the last few weeks ever since I tendered my resignation.

You just go to work as usual because you have to serve a two months notice, do your tasks and before long you find yourself packing up for home. Once home, you just simply go through the motion of life and then you are off to bed. You wake up the next morning to repeat.

By the time you realise what had happened, it’s already nearly the end of the month and you have not quite achieve anything.

From the context of a person soon to be jobless, it meant that he hasn’t found a job to move on to. In part, he hadn’t be that active looking for a job but not as active as one should be. And the potential jobs he did find, the hiring managers rejected him.

Now that’s a problem.

And there’s more.

In terms of writing, he also hasn’t achieve much. There’s virtually no content to write about because he didn’t put in the effort to because he was distracted by other shiny things in life. And it’s troubling because his resignation meant the scaling down of his workload and thus he should have more time to do writing. But it’s not the case.

His backlog of video games have grown from one game to six games. It’s not very minimalistic of him. And he just couldn’t seem to find the time to play those games.

Last but not least, his backlog of novels and books to read has grown from one to eight. Somehow, he couldn’t make the time to read them.

In hindsight, it’s probably not that hard to figure out why.

Motivation.

It’s gone.

And severe neck, shoulder and back pain. It’s detrimental to his well-being. So much so, he couldn’t concentrate on what he needs to do.