Three Months in the Grass Roof Hut

Staying Focused, Motivated, and Engaged

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten feet square, an old man illumines forms and their nature.

Shitou, Translated by Taigen Dan Leighton and Kazuaki Tanahashi, from Inside the Grass Hut, Ben Connelly.

A big worry I had in taking a sabbatical was that I’d just end up a couch potato all day for months and end up with nothing to show for it. This is especially true during the pandemic lockdowns. After three months I can say I’ve done OK. Remember this schedule from my earlier post when I started my sabbatical? Here it is again.

Daily Schedule

8:15Feed Yuli, Make Coffee
8:30Daily inspirational reading with coffee
9:30Study and Reading
25-min intervals
Alternate with Yuli playtime, reading for book group
NoonFeed Yuli
14:00Unstructured Time
nap, exercise, chores, shower, Yuli playtime, journal writing
Note: All times are approximate

Let me be clear: I don’t follow the the schedule rigorously or consistently. It’s not a Procrustean bed, it’s a guide. Having a schedule is important. Even before sabbatical, before the pandemic-enforced working from home, I had learned that outside the office world, professionals always lean a schedule. Beethoven had a routine. To a significant level having a set of rules and rituals is one of the keys to being productive.

One of the best outcomes of setting the schedule is that I spend a lot less time doom-scrolling social media. When I find I’ve gotten distracted I can stop, look at my schedule, and know what I should go back to doing. I also know how much time I’ll devote to something on a day-to-day basis, which helps me when I’m not especially motivated to focus on what’s scheduled, because I know that I have a definite stopping time and don’t have to spend any more time on it than that.

In addition to the daily schedule, I have a rotation of areas of focus for each day of the week. On any given day I have a guide for which of my interests gets my focus (or at least my primary focus) for the day.

Weekly Rotation

  • Sunday: Spirituality
  • Monday: Photography
  • Tuesday: Writing
  • Wednesday: Productivity
  • Thursday: General Programming
  • Friday: Identity and Access Management (a sub-field in software)
  • Saturday: wildcard, catch up or off

Now, after three months of this, I’m starting to discover areas I may refine or evolve this routine. First, I need to be more explicit about when, exactly, am I writing or producing vs reading, organizing, and planning. Second, only working on a topic every seven days is seeming less than ideal.

When Does the Writing Happen?

I’ve done a lot of soothing the burnout, reading, and pondering ideas in the past three months. I’ve managed to regain my ability to focus for long periods, and I’m very happy with that. As part of my reading and pondering, I of course take notes and that involves writing, but that kind of writing is only the raw material for producing published pieces like this blog post.

Now… Where Was I?

When I pick up my topic for the day, I find it hard to pick up where I left off a week ago. That is to say, I lose the momentum too much with a seven-down interval. Putting something aside after working on it a bit is a necessity, as intentional down time. Creativity requires what Joe Kraus calls “gap” time, but seven days seems to be too long.

Dude, Where’s My Vacation?

And the big one. My sabbatical plans never included unending weeks of this. I was going to do it for a while until the situation with the pandemic was better, then I was going to go on the road, do some hiking, photography, visit people, see places. And where are we now?

Source: Trends in Number of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in the US Reported to CDC, by State/Territory

Was I too optimistic in April when I looked towards summer? For the past few days I’ve been in a bit of a funk over this. It was bad enough in Spring of 2020 when it became clear that Americans weren’t going to take it seriously, and by Fall of 2020 when the inevitable surge came, but now it’s disheartening in a way that’s hard for me to express. It’s definitely impeding my recovery from burnout.

It looks like I started this post over a month ago. I’m sure that I’ve been sitting on it trying to figure out how to make it longer. I think it’s long enough now.

Addendum: Counting Words

When I wrote about the state of my writing, and my as-yet-unrealized goal to be able to write a post of 1500-2000 words regularly, I used “word count” repeatedly. The problem is, I never defined what I meant by counting words. So what exactly is a word, how are they counted, and how do the rules of word counting affect the length of my posts here?

Anyone old enough to have gone to school before computers and word processors might remember that writing an essay to a certain word length came with a caveat: Some words don’t count. Other words counted, but differently from how they are counted now by software.

To count, or not to count

When a grade school teacher in the 1970s asked for a 300-word essay, they almost certainly mentioned a list of words that did not count towards the total: articles, conjunctions, and many prepositions. I recall at the time thinking that this was just the teacher being annoying. Think about it for a moment. How many words in Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 1 of the eponymous play?

To be, or not to be — that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1 .

In the first line alone, about half the words “don’t count”, according to old-fashioned rules. Most software that counts words will give about 39 or 40. Some will treat “’tis” as a word, some will not. A traditional school essay word count will exclude the words “to”, “the”, “or”, and “and”, which together are 11 of the total. Maybe Shakespeare really only wrote 20 words. He did manage to maintain iambic pentameter, though.

I haven’t seen anyone really harp on excluded words much any more. Partly it’s because in a 300-word grade school essay, it’s easy to inflate the total, while in a professional setting, at 2000+ words, the exact count doesn’t matter. You’re far more likely to hear about writing being too wordy than too short. Mostly the tools just count everything, using the computer’s rules for word boundaries. Note that the language matters: word boundaries in Chinese for example, are radically different than in English or other Germanic and Romance languages.

The question of “how many words” starts to matter less, except in a relative sense. A novel is longer than a novella, which is longer than a short story. In academia, output is often counted by page, because the required formats (10-12 point size, double-spaced, margins of such-and-such size) make it reasonable to compare pages, and there’s more often than not an upper limit rather than a lower one. Also, academic and professional work often includes navigation adds like title pages, tables of contents, and footers, as well as figures and tables. All things that aren’t easily quantified by word count.

Buddha in the Sky

But I digress.

All that matters

Recall that what I said really matters is that interested people be able to find my work and stick around to read it. The former is a matter of algorithmic quality, and the word counts don’t mess around with excluding anything. The latter is a function of attention and interest, meaning “how much time will a person be willing to spend reading this?”. In calculating time to read, the average reader’s words per minute is already a very rough approximation, which varies greatly depending on the quality and grade level of the writing.

Time!… is marching on

Rather than fret too much about exact word count, I just pick a tool that counts words consistently, and that lets me know if something is longer or shorter, nearer to or farther from my intended length in comparison with other things I’ve written.

Everything so far is just to say: I’m not a school kid trying to do the least work possible to get 300 words on paper; I’m not writing for a print newspaper where I have to hit a certain goal of column inches; I’m not interested in artificially padding my writing nor do I have reason to sharply limit how many words I write to fit limited space. I’m writing towards a certain sweet spot: long enough to say something but short enough that you, the reader, don’t lose interest.

Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace.

Dhammapada, Chapter 8

Out of the silence

Silent, Empty Diamond

When I first restarted this blog at the end of May, I wanted to start writing longer posts. After seeing how little I’ve posted, I’m re-thinking that goal, at least for now. I’d rather post shorter bits more often than long bits rarely. I thought a lot about why and how to write longer, so going into that may help clarify why I’m suspending that goal, for now.

Wordiness and intellection –
The more with them, the farther astray we go:
Away, therefore, with wordiness and intellection,
And there is no place where we cannot pass freely.

Sosan, Xìnxīn Míng

Why longer? For one, I felt stuck at writing 200-300 word notes that captured my thoughts but didn’t really say much. I had topics scattered around too many short notes. Another reason is that at work, when I’m called upon to write the sort of documents a software engineer writes, I struggled to write in a way that really covered the topic. I could bang out what amounted to glorified bullet lists, but pulling things together into a whole was harder.

I studied journalism in college, and writing for news media always emphasizes pithy, to-the-point, “just the facts, ma’am”, and I was pretty good at that, but it’s just one way of writing. Sure, there are a few magazines that do long reads, but those are the exception.

I wanted my writing to be useful for readers who happened to be interested in what I write about and maybe did a bit of searching to find related articles, but I’m not selling anything nor am I specifically looking for attention. In order to be useful, of course, my writing has to be discoverable, and on the internet that means it needs to show up in search engine results, Search engines definitely have quirks to be taken into account. Not that I want to spend time on full-blown SEO, using click-bait headlines and other tricks to rank higher, but neither did I want my ideas to disappear into a void.

I did some looking around for recommendations and found most places suggesting that 1500-2000 words was a good target. Apparently most search engines will favor items around that length. I also looked a bit at “length” as in “how long it takes to read”. The internet has, objectively, ruined the average person’s attention span. Nobody is going to sit down and read for twenty or thirty minutes without some serious motivation. If anything I happen to write is so good that someone is motivated to sit down for half an hour and read the whole thing, I’d be flattered. So I’m aiming, again based on a little research, for seven to ten minutes. How does that translate to word count?

To get a post that takes a certain amount of time to read, I need an idea of how fast people read. I keep seeing the figure of 200-250 wpm for the average adult reader, and a few places saying 300! There’s also a lower limit, sometimes cited, as 180 wpm. In any case, I’m going for the low end, because with the distractions and problems around attention span, I find it hard to believe people hit 300 wpm with comprehension.

With a bit of math we find that seven minutes is 1400 words. That’s a bit on the short end. At the top end, 2000 words is 10 minutes, at the top end. Good, my word count and time to read converge.

Some ways I have tried to write more words without artificially increasing word count through pointless verbosity include:

  • Addressing all the aspects of whatever topic prompted me to write.
  • Making sure the introduction and conclusion relate to the rest of the text.
  • Insert quotes where appropriate.
  • Add examples.

I’m also working to improve my note-taking and notes, so that I have more and better material for my first drafts.

Now that I’ve said all that, let’s get back to what I’m actually going to do. Jumping straight from 200-word notes with my thoughts to 1500+ words of carefully organized writing was probably too much of a stretch. I still have longer pieces as my goal, but I’m going to work up to them. In the mean time, I’ll be around with whatever length works for me to get something out weekly. Over time, I expect that the number of words will grow from the current 600-700 as I accumulate practice.

The practice I have in mind is going back to the suggestions I’ve found on how to turn notes into writing and bulking out a short bit of writing into a longer essay, and each time I write a note, try to apply one or more of those tips, until they become habit.

To my future self: good luck!