Nick Ang

Free time default activity

Towards the end of my 20s and the beginning of my 30s, I suddenly gained the remarkable ability to see my cognitive fuel being depleted as a day goes by. At a party I’d probably describe it as, “It’s like I can see the amount of brain juice I have left for the day. Each time my brain takes a sip, I can feel it.”

Anyway. One of my goals each day is to deplete the day’s allotted brain juice before the 24 hours are up. That’s how I know I tried my best that day. Tomorrow, if I sleep eight hours, I get a full tank again.

What’s interesting about this ability is that I have started noticing how much thinking (and brain juice) goes behind making small, seemingly trivial decisions.

One of the decisions I make multiple times every single day is “what should I do now in my free time?”

The few hours after work, the one hour when my wife sleeps on the weekend and I’m completely alone, the few minutes I have between running errands on the weekend. These wonderful pockets of free time show up only when unplanned, so I’d always have to think about what to do with it.

Oh, look, I left that book on the tea table. I should read that! Hmm, but maybe I should organise my blog and create a ‘start here’ page because I find it hard to remember my favourite articles. But man, I shouldn’t! What matters more is the content of a blog, not its usability. Perhaps I should just write an article now. Plenty of ideas in the backlog. Oh wait, Simon from work recommended a new Netflix documentary about Berlin today. He sounded very enthusiastic about it. Maybe I should relax and watch that…

That inner chatter goes at 3,000 rpm and guzzles my brain juice. It’s annoying and it’s unnecessary. I could use that juicy brain to make art, read stories, learn skills, or try to achieve something.

What I have found to be effective in helpng me waste less juice is to figure out my single, preferred default activity.

When I’m alone and have free time, my preferred default activity is to write. It doesn’t have to be writing for publishing; it can be writing for reflecting and clarifying, or writing for fun.

a glimpse of part of a freewrite

I write on my phone if I know that I may be interrupted by someone physically near me. I write on my laptop or my Freewrite if I know I won’t be interrupted.

Since I’ve had this clear default activity, I’ve noticed that I waste almost no brain juice in deciding what to do. Got free time? Okay, I’m writing.

Over time, I believe I can further refine this to be a few defaults depending on conditions. For example, there are 30-minute blocks of free time, and there are 2-hour blocks of free time. For the shorter kind, perhaps I might edit a draft instead of writing a new one. For the longer kind, I can recognise its preciousness and go straight into doing some uninterrupted, flow state writing.

If you’ve never tried having a default activity, I recommend trying it. You will have more energy during that activity for the rest of the day.

One thing to bear in mind if you do try this: it will probably take you some trial and error to arrive at a sensible default for the unique person that you are.

"Dad, have you always wanted to be a software engineer?"

A hand drawn illustration with the capture "how am i going to make money?"

I’m going to sound crazy, but I’m imagining my yet-to-be-born daughter asking me this question in a few years, and it plunging me into a mid-life crisis. The timing sounds about right too, me being in my early 30s now.

“Well my dear, no. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I went to university,” is what I imagine my response would be. Despair ensues.

A child is a child, so I’d expect a follow-up question from her. “So then, how did this end up as your work?”

A stab straight to my adult heart. I start bleeding internally.

How do adults end up doing what they end up doing?

As far as I can tell, money seems to be the main puppet master for most of us.

About 2 years ago I was at a company off-site on Bintan island in Indonesia and in the evening my colleagues and I went to the swimming pool. I remember us forming into a circle, wading in the water, about to start talking.

One of my colleagues started, “So, what would you do if you didn’t have to worry about money?” We went around the circle in the middle of the pool, answering this bloody difficult question.

It’s a difficult question because each of us in that pool, having grown up, has had to learn to give up pursuing our dreams. Right after we’re done with school, people around us just started expecting us to find work. Don’t be an unemployed bum. You’ve studied enough, time to get to work.

But what if we haven’t had enough time to explore the work of our dreams? Like writing or singing or rock climbing or becoming an astronaut?

It’s not until I was suddenly booted out of school after my final year into the “real world” that I realised, “Oh crap, now I have to somehow have an income.”

That moment I asked “how am I going to make money?” was the moment I put my dreams of being a writer in a metal box on the top of a bookshelf. In the basement. With no lights.

Once I graduated from university with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies (Geography specialisation), I started a company. Then I realised how bad I was at trying to build that company that I went to learn to write software. I’ve been doing software engineering work ever since because I don’t hate the work and it pays well.

“That’s how dad ended up being a software engineer, my dear,” I imagine myself finally saying to my daughter.

And I know I wouldn’t be satisfied with that answer.

Showing up in the cellar

An illustration of the author Steven Pressfield, originally from the Tim Ferriss blog Author Steven Pressfield. Illustration via 99designs, credit: Tim Ferriss blog.

Over the long Easter weekend, I listened to Steven Pressfield’s interview on the Tim Ferriss Show while I cooked lunch. I was already familiar and impressed with Steven’s work, having read Turning Pro and The War of Art, and I was primed for more.

The thing that stuck with me was what Steven said about the “hero’s journey” and the “artist’s journey,” two paths that artists will need to trot in that order, chronologically. I may be misinterpreting what he was saying, but my interpretation of his words bypassed my mind and went straight to my vulnerable heart.

The hero’s journey is about figuring out who you are based on everything you have done so far in your life. It’s a journey you were told to go on, one that you struggled to find meaning from even though you have somehow emerged in one piece.

The artist’s journey begins when the hero’s journey ends; when one realises that who he is is not who he wants to be. When I heard Steven articulate this idea to Tim on the podcast, I immediately knew that I was at that junction in my life. I want to start on my artist’s journey, because I know that I have arrived at the end of my hero’s journey, doing what I am supposed to do: get a good education, get a good job, get married. We’re even expecting our first child in September. While the miracle of life works its thing, I’ve been wondering to myself, what’s next?

To not let inspiration go to waste, I acted on the insight this morning by waking up at 5:30 am, an hour earlier than my usual, to write.

First, I unfolded a plastic chair and sat on the balcony to write. The day before I decided on a whim to write on my balcony (in the afternoon) and it was thoroughly pleasant. I wrote some reflections. But being at the end of winter and the start of spring, at 5:30 am, it was cold, even with my thermal pants and down jacket. So after ten minutes, I came back in.

Next stop: the cellar! It was clear in my mind that I had to go to the cellar, even though I still think it’s kind of a weird thing to do, now having done it. I thought of myself as that weirdo loner who isolated himself in the cellar with his typewriter.

We live in the centre of the city of Berlin in a 60 square meter apartment, but it comes with storage space underground. Ours was a 3-minute walk out in the open to get to, but once inside, there are around 10 other cellars in the cellar room, each belonging to a different household in our estate. At 5:40 am, there was nobody. The Mieterkeller was quiet and just well-lit enough for me to write.

I unfolded the chair I brought with me from my balcony, turned on my Freewrite, and began to type. In my cellar. Like a madman.

For the first time, I was writing alone in Berlin, including away from my wife and dog. I typed on the Cherry MX mechanical keyboard of the Freewrite harder than I ever had to commemorate this moment. It gave in to my hammering and performed, faithfully as I expected. The tool has been itching to be used.

I was there for an hour and a half alone, writing. The word tally at the end was something like 800 words. Not bad. But the number honestly doesn’t matter to me quite as much as the fact that I found a way to show up and beat what Steven Pressfield calls The Resistance.

Picture of a folding chair propped up against the wall in my basement cellar where I wrote this morning My new writing room.

Anyway, I left my chair in the cellar. Tomorrow I shall return to write again.

Side note, it turns out that Steven Pressfield has a book called The Artist’s Journey, which I am currently reading. It’s a philosophical companion to the other two books.

Notes from Show Your Work by Austin Kleon (Part 1)

Show your work by Austin Kleon book cover Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

Though a short book, I experienced many moments of inspiration and have plenty of takeaways from reading this book. As someone who feels like he does not qualify as an artist but wants to be one, I’m keeping this book close by.

I’m taking my time to digest this one, so here is part 1 of my notes. You can find ways to buy the book on Austin Kleon’s website here.

What are the main ideas?

You are no genius. Find a “scenius.” Get rid of the idea of the lone genius who creates brilliant works of art. Take it to the other extreme and view the creation of all art as a collaborative effort. Art is made by what Brian Eno calls a “scenius,” which I think is a chimaera word made from “genius” and “scene”? The point is to view all great ideas and the ensuing creation as being made by a collective of tastemakers who make up an “ecology of talent.” Nowadays, that collective is on subreddits, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook groups, and there are no gatekeepers.

Be an open amateur. Be open by learning in public. Amateur means an “enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love,” as opposed to someone who does work for extrinsic reasons like fame, career, or money.

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few” Shunryu Suzuki, zen monk

Amateurs are all lifelong learners. By sharing what you learn publicly, you are helping others learn from your failures and successes. They are experiencing what you have not long ago experienced, so they can relate much better with you than they can to an “expert.”

Start sharing and look for what people are not sharing. Those voids are opportunities to help elevate your chosen “scenius.”

Find a way to have a near-death experience every day. Quoting Steve Jobs, this will help you “avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” Austin recommends reading the obituaries every day as “near-death experiences for cowards.” Same idea as memento mori. This is what’s missing from my reflection of the magic of a light touch.

Turn your invisible process into something others can see. The process by which you do your work is hidden by default, but that’s what creates a bond between you (the artist) and your audience. To make that process visible, “scoop up the scraps and the residue of your process and shape them into some interesting bits of media that you can share.” Photos of your desk, videos of you working, scribbles on a notebook, etc.

Aim to share what you are working on once a day. Austin has a wonderful way of explaining why “once a day” instead of another cadence: “Seasons change, weeks are completely human-made, but the day has a rhythm. The sun goes up; the sun goes down.” Sharing daily helps you work with Sturgeon’s Law, which states that 90 percent of everything we produce is crap, but we don’t always know what’s going to be in the 90 or 10 percent, so it helps to put things in front of others and see how they react. Just beware not to let sharing take precedence over doing the actual work.

Share something only if you believe it will be helpful or entertaining. Don’t share pictures of your meal, dog, or selfies, but share instead pictures of your work, or how you do the work. Also, share your influences.

In an online-first world, remember to attribute credit properly. If you don’t attribute, you rob both the creator and the people you’ve shared the work with the opportunity to connect. That’s a big disservice, so make sure to attribute. To do it well, think of attribution as “little museum labels next to the stuff you share,” and if it’s online, remember to also use hyperlinks because most people won’t bother googling a name. Austin has a rule that you should never share work if you cannot find the right credit to attribute.

Do your own thing like no one’s looking. The way Austin puts it is that you should “build a good domain name, keep it clean, and eventually it will be its own currency. Whether people show up or they don’t, you’re out there, doing your thing, ready whenever they are.”

Keep telling stories of your work and its value increases. Art forgery proves that people’s assessment of everything is deeply affected by what you tell them about it. Citing the authors of Significant Objects, Austin illustrates this with an experiment they did: they bought a bunch of trinkets from random places, invented a story about each object, and tried to sell those trinkets on eBay afterwards with the stories attached. At the end, they sold $128 worth of trinkets for $3612. I noticed the same phenomenon about the same products of different brands. Artist Rachel Sussman attributes this to the fact that “Personal stories can make the complex more tangible, spark associations, and offer entry into things that might otherwise leave one cold.”

To be continued :)

Problems and solutions

For every problem, there is almost always multiple solutions.

For example, you may live on the 10th floor in a building with multiple elevators. One of the elevators is closest to the supermarket downstairs and you want to know which one because it will reduce the time you’re outside in the cold of winter or the heat of summer with two bags full of groceries. How can you go about figuring that out?

The first option is to walk home from the supermarket and find the nearest elevator you can see from the street that connects to your apartment building.

The second option is to walk within the building in the general direction of the supermarket from your apartment and take the elevator that is furthest from you in that direction. Once you emerge on the street, you’d know which elevator is the nearest and you’d know how the entrance looks.

Both options may yield the same answer, but the second approaches the problem in a more efficient way.

Here’s another example, and a funnier one: how can you find out how much your shit weighs?

The first option? Shit into a plastic bag, tie it up, and put it on a weighing scale.

The second option? Well, you weigh yourself before and after taking a shit, and then do a subtraction.

For the elegance and efficiency of not having to dispose of a shitty plastic bag, I would always take option two for this problem.

Many problems in life have more than one solution, but among those solutions, one is probably more effective than the other. It’s therefore prudent that we invest the time to think before we pick a solution to a problem, rather than taking the first possible approach.

twitter icon