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.


Friday, April 30, 2021 was my last day at my employer. This time, rather than waiting to be let go when the project wound down and they had no other place for me, or getting so burnt out and stressed that the company decides I’m no longer wanted, I decided to take a sabbatical. I was inspired by a couple of sources that one, this was a good time to do it, and two, I could do it.

Max Frenzel’s work on disconnecting and deliberate rest inspired me to assess my condition, and look into whether or not I was burnt out or approaching burnout. Spoiler: I was. Frenzel has a book out, by the way, titled Time Off, it’s about learning to slow down and appreciate how leisure is essential. The other inspiration was Will Larson, who mostly came to my attention for his book Staff Engineer, which I bought and love. But more directly, in his blog, Irrational Exuberance, made it clear to me that I needed a change to continue my programming career and take it up another step.

And the Inside Times had their say, too. After a year of sheltering in place, not traveling, not going out to bars or restaurants, and pretty much only leaving the house every couple of weeks to get groceries, I was about to be fully vaccinated. My second Pfizer shot was, as I was planning, scheduled for May 5, and I knew that by Memorial Day I would be as safe as I was going to get until the US finally drags itself out of the pandemic. I didn’t get a summer in 2020, I was determined to have a good summer in 2021.

After quitting, I set up a schedule for myself, based on ideas from Frenzel and other sources, that boils down to doing Deep Work for half a day, in the morning, and spending the rest of the day on, well, rest, as well as taking care of all the little things like chores and errands. It’s a good schedule, it works, but I’ve had trouble sticking to it. I’m writing this post during my morning work time.

8:00Wake up
8:15Feed Yuli 😻, make coffee
8:30Have coffee while reading daily inspirational text
9:00Meditate for 25 minutes
9:30Study and reading rotating topic list in 25 minute intervals, Pomodoro-style.
Alternate with Yuli playtime, reading for book group
Daily Topic List
Sunday: Spirituality
Monday: Photography
Tuesday: Writing
Wednesday: Productivity
Thursday: General Programming
Friday: IAM
Saturday: wildcard or off
NoonFeed Yuli
12:15Meditate for 25 minutes
14:00Unstructured time: nap, exercise, chores, errands, shower, Yuli playtime, journalling
21:30Meditate for 25 minutes
Daily Schedule for May, 2021

Here at the end of May, though, I’m going to launch into the actual task I set for myself in this sabbatical. After a few unsuccessful jobs interviews earlier this year, before I decided to take a sabbatical, I realized that however much I detest the coding part of interviews, I still have to deal with them. Will Larson in his guide to interviewing for staff-plus roles, mentioned the book Cracking the Coding Interview and the companion website. I feel quite a bit more inclined to work through it than spend any time on one of the coding practice sites. Starting June 1 I will modify the above schedule to fix a hour-hour block of two rounds every day, and the rest of my work time I’ll continue with daily the rotating topic list.