Getting Better On Family

Secret weird things I do

One of my favorite podcasts is Reconcilable Differences, which is a biweekly conversation between two parents in tech/podcasting about their lives. It’s a huge inspiration for this blog.

There is a recurring segment the two hosts (John Siracusa and Merlin Mann) talk about called “Secret Weird Things People Do,” in which they talk about just that — not just confessing to the things they do, but also dig into where the weird thing came from, why they do those things, whether it’s actually weird or pretty normal, and the like. I find these discussions incredibly interesting and compelling and humbling.

In that spirit, here is a list of some secret weird things I do:

  • I cannot let my kitchen get messy, and if I do, it viscerally bugs me to the point of a near-anxiety attack. This is especially problematic since my wife is an Italian who leaves a huge mess in her wake when she cooks. Typically at meal time, I am cleaning up as she is making messes — much to her frustration, since sometimes I inadvertently wash dishes she is still using. If we are hosting people for dinner, I will try to escape the conversation to clean up the kitchen — also to the frustration of my wife.
  • If I need a reminder to do something (say, in an app), I can’t just take it down. I need to pick a time and appropriate category/list for that thing, even if it’s neither easily categorizable nor time-sensitive. Sometimes this bites me when I get a reminder at a horribly inopportune time, but it’s the only way I know how to keep track of things.
  • If you ask me to do something, I can’t listen to the next thing you have to say until I write that ask down. Due to the previous weird thing, this might take me an extra second and I’m sorry.
  • I compulsively look for things to automate, organize or optimize in my home, even if it’s a negative return on investment. (Merlin talked about this in a recent episode.) I spent an absurd amount of time trying to correctly place speakers around our house for audio playback. I rearrange my iOS device home screens almost daily — not for fun, but because I think I’m missing something by how they’re arranged. I track my dog’s bowel movements in a Numbers spreadsheet. I’ve set up part of my home to be smart and I’m not sure it was worth it, but it keeps feeling like something I must do. Sometimes this extends into my wife’s stuff, and she usually gets frustrated with me. I’ll probably write more about each of these weird things later.
  • I compulsively use GPS in my car even when I three-hundred-percent know where I am going and there is no possibility of traffic.
  • I don’t bite my nails, but I pick at them compulsively. Alicia loathes it and slaps/pinches me to get me to stop. I think this used to be a nervous tick, but now it just happens constantly.
  • If there is a stack of books (or book-shaped things like laptops/iPads), I must have them perfectly aligned in the stack. If there is a book in the pile that is slightly rotated, I must rotate it so all the edges are aligned.
  • Despite a lot of my cleanliness-related weird things, I don’t seem to be bothered by objects covered in dust.

Are these things actually weird? Do other people do weird things like this?

Getting Better

Fits & starts

Hey, it’s 2020 now! Cue things about resolutions and intentions and bettering selves. This year I intend to drive for more clarity and intentionality with what I put out to the world and how I spend my time doing it.

At work, most of us try to optimize how we spend our working time using a tool called Clockwise. It enables you to set preferences for how & when you like to work, automatically scans everyone’s calendars for meetings, and automatically reschedules those meetings to give each participant as much “focus time” based on their own preferences. On the surface, it’s wonderful for creating meeting block periods without having to think about arranging my day, and some of my colleagues thrive in long periods of deep focus.

But I barely use the focus time as Clockwise probably intends. Being at home, even in a relatively bare spare room / office space, I’m constantly distracted by my personal life: my wife, our things, my new puppy, my Nintendo Switch, my Apple Music library, Wikipedia, trees, cars driving by, a lightning strike of an idea, snacks.

For a while this frustrated me. I had thought working from home was the ultimate path to deep focus and productivity: no commute, no distractions by coworkers, no proverbial watercooler to seek out gossip (though I do enjoy my kitchen), no weird internal IT rules that prevent me from running my work computer the way I want. But I still find myself distracted, often by my own bullshit, which results in a very fits-and-starts style of work through much of the workday. Twenty minutes of deeply focused writing or backlog admin might be suddenly interrupted by my own desire to update my near-perfect playlist to cook to. Alicia might suddenly be having an awful symptom flare-up and I now suddenly need to make lunch and find her medication. Having a puppy isn’t quite like having children, but it’s certainly tested my ability to context switch on a dime to avoid pee stains all over the house.

I’ve very recently learned to accept this reality of working. It’s okay to get distracted by life. It’s okay to feel a little bored trying to improve how teams design products after hammering away at a product requirements document for a bit. It’s okay to stop and cuddle with my wife or a dog because that provides me so much more joy and fulfillment than how much time I can put into staring at a laptop screen.

I can still be quite intentional even if I’m bouncing between the many things in my life in fits & starts. An optimally-placed three hour block of time to write a song or a strategy document won’t solve for me being clear in what I’m looking to do and why; I can be comfortable working ten minutes here, ten minutes there, as long as I know why I’m doing it.

On Work

When work is fun, but it still burns you out

Right to it: I quit my job. I took a new job at a smaller company called Abstract, which builds a design system and collaboration toolset for product design teams. This is a job I have sought for years – not specifically this one at Abstract (since the business is only about two years old), but one that actually truly ticks all the boxes:

  • Small company, but not too small
  • Growing and relatively well-established in its niche
  • Thoughtful culture and approach to how it works – not one about obliterating the competition, working hard playing hard, you get the idea
  • Flexible to life situations, including the possibility of remote work
  • Compensation that reflects the value I believe I provide, without the noise of “benefits” I don’t truly need or value

It was a really hard thing to walk away from my job. Wayfair did have many of those boxes ticked. Those boxes also had big, painful asterisks associated with them which ultimately burned me out, despite having most recently been working on arguably the best team I’ve ever worked with on the most exciting product I’ve ever worked on.

But I also was getting no more than two or three hours at home by myself before my brain compelling me to fall asleep. Those 2–3 hours were usually zombie-like. My wife and I would haphazardly throw a dinner together – which is critical to do given my wife’s celiac disease and other food intolerances – and stare mindlessly at the TV most nights while we ate in near-silence. When she spoke for more than fifteen-or-so seconds, I would get short and my head would throb. Not because I didn’t want to listen to her for hours – because I did – but because my job had worn me out.

If I was lucky enough to spend those few hours with my wife, I had to be careful not to spend too much time with her, because I needed to sleep. I wanted eight hours of sleep, but realistically got six-and-a-quarter hours on average. (I know this to be true – my watch told me.)

Most people seem to get this amount of sleep regularly. I got stuck in a routine where I would be so tired on a Friday evening that we’d go to bed by 10pm, and then sleep in on Saturday morning. Then, my weekend routine of sleeping in to catch up gradually ceased because I couldn’t wake up later than 6:30am.

Waking up during the week was always the same routine: shower, dress, coffee, smoothie, read email, go. On most days I would wake up Alicia at steps 1 or 2, purely by accident. The “go” part could be anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes, depending on timing and other unpredictable things.

Virtually everything at home suffered as a result of all this. My wife’s mental health, my mental and physical health, our relationship in multiple ways, our willingness to travel, the cleanliness of our apartment, the diversity of meals we ate, the enjoyment we felt eating those meals in our unclean apartment. We constantly talked ourselves out of doing countless things because it felt like too much work after all the work we had each put in: me with basically nothing but my job, her with struggling to move her health and solo business in the correct direction.

The weirdest part about all this to me is that this all feels so first-world. I still had weekends, I still have a relatively nice apartment with meaningful flaws I could ignore, I make quite a bit of money, I have a life partner that I really truly do love.

Also, tons of people live like this. Literally every Monday was rife with colleagues of mine – mothers, fathers, driven 24-year-olds – half-asleep on the first day of the week. I have a neighbor who commutes and hers is thirty minutes longer than mine. I genuinely don’t know when she spends time with her children. Colleagues of mine often arrive home only to put their children to bed; sometimes I’m receiving emails from them after this time, clearly indicating they’re back at work.

By the way, this is not an indictment of my previous employer. This is on me. I truly enjoyed my time there, I tackled some really interesting product and organizational problems, and most of the people I work with are amazing people. I would happily work with or for several of them again in a heartbeat.

But what kind of life was I building for myself? What happens when roughly 80% of the interaction I have with my life partner are over text messages? Is this part of what leads to half of married couples divorcing? What kind of life is spent feeling mostly like a zombie?

A shitty one. And I’m fortunate to no longer feel like I’m building one of those.

I start on Tuesday. This will be good.

On Technology

Running a dumb robot vacuum with Shortcuts

I love the idea of a totally self-sufficient robotic vacuum to keep my floors clean. However, I am also cheap: a $1000 Roomba that empties its own waste is amazing, but not something I’m willing to chalk up for at this point in my life.

So, I got an Ecovacs Deebot N79 for sale on Amazon a few months ago. It’s great, but it’s also pretty dumb. Alicia and I call it DJ Roomba (obviously), and it’s very cute but kind of dumb.

It can schedule itself to run daily at a certain time, but no more granularly than that — I don’t want to hear a vacuum at 11am when I’m at home, but I do appreciate coming home to a clean house when I’m out and about. It does have Wifi capability and a companion iPhone app, but the app sucks: it requires 2 taps and several seconds of delay just to find DJ Roomba, and then I have to tell it what to do, and every time I want it to do something different I need to repeat this entire process.

It’s not great. I’d rather just build a scheme that DJ Roomba can follow automatically, whenever I want it to.

Homebridge and its flaws

I naturally Google’d the crap out of this problem. I quickly found sucks, a Python interface that connects to Ecovacs’ server and then enables one to issue commands to any robovacuums tied to your Ecovacs account. This was easy enough to set up. I then found a way to connect sucks to Homebridge via a plugin called CmdSwitch2.

I had never used Homebridge before, but I love the potential of HomeKit. I already have a moderately robust HomeKit setup in my apartment: some smart bulbs, a couple of switches (including a critically placed one controlling my modem) and a HomePod to yell at, so installing Homebridge on my Mac seemed like a fun little project.

Turns out I suck at and don’t enjoy the command line. The process of setting up Homebridge, connecting all the dots between Python, sucks, cmdswitch2 as a trigger that exists inside Homebridge’s config, and Homebridge itself, was a tedious process that quickly lost my interest. I kept having to kill and restart Homebridge to make sure everything was playing nice. I must have scanned the Homebridge QR code into my iPhone’s Home app twenty times to get it registered as an accessory.

The other major challenge: I didn’t want my wife to have to deal with this either, but we share an iMac. She uses it regularly for work, and often has to kill processes in order for Adobe apps to run optimally, or restart the computer if things go wrong — which also killed my Homebridge server. I found some options to automatically restart the server, and I could have kept trying those things, but my fun little hobby project of automating control of my dumb vacuum was increasingly frustrating me. I’d go to start the vacuum and constantly see the damn “No Response” in red.

So I gave up and dismantled the entire thing.

A few weeks later I realized that I don’t actually need Homebridge or cmdswitch2 at all. I really just wanted to run sucks on command: ideally a specific times of day or when I’m home, but just being able to trigger it from any of my devices (or my voice) would suffice.

Enter crazy and powerful Shortcuts.

Shortcuts and a simple AppleScript

Nobody I know personally really uses Shortcuts, but it’s sort of my lifeblood for controlling things around my home and work. I use it to set reminders without thinking, do a whole host of chores every morning & weekend, and generate canned email templates that I shouldn’t have to send as often as I do.

Viticci opened my eyes to the idea of Shortcuts triggering actions on a remote Mac via SSH, including waking it from sleep. I figured out that I could also run AppleScripts using the an SSH command — osascript.

I realize that most tech people probably know this already, but bear with me.

I then did the following:

  1. On my shared iMac, opened up Script Editor and created an AppleScript (.scpt) file that run a basic sucks command: sucks edge 15 clean 30 charge. This script, when run, tells Ecovacs to run the “edge” function on my vacuum for 15 minutes, then general cleaning for a half hour, then send the vacuum back to its charger.
  2. Saved that .scpt file my parent user directory on the iMac.
  3. In Shortcuts, wrote a very simple (1-step) Shortcut that triggers script via SSH. Rather than SSH-ing into the iMac locally, I enable SSH access and file sharing on the iMac, then connect to its IP address so I can run the command from anywhere.
  4. Repeated steps 1, but with a different script that simply tells DJ Roomba to go home, it’s drunk: sucks charge

Now I have two Shortcuts: Run Vacuum and Stop Vacuum. I can yell out to my HomePod, tap a button on my iPhone or iPad, to kick either process off. As long as my iMac is on, this will always work.

I can run this as part of another shortcut, such as my Bedtime Ritual one which darkens some lights around the home and reminds me to floss, clean out Roomba’s dustpan and a few other things. I can even have Reminders remind me to run the Run Vacuum shortcut at specific times or locations — for example, anytime I leave my house. Then, in one tap, DJ Roomba is up to his antics.

The possibility in iOS 13

This works really nicely, but it’s not perfect. I’d love to customize even further when and how DJ Roomba can run. It sounds like this all gets unlocked in iOS 13 via Shortcuts Automations. I’ll be able to, for example, run the vacuum on Saturdays as long as nobody is home, something I can do currently but only with HomeKit accessories.

This is really dumb and nerdy, but I find it satisfying and fun.

Getting Better

Impostor snowflake

It’s been a while since I finished writing and publishing something. I would love for this to be because I have an exciting thing to announce that I’ve been painstakingly working on for the last however many months.

But I don’t (at this point at least). I have personally nothing to add to the cesspool. (My wife does, though, and you should go to her new website, yay!)

It’s not like I’ve felt no emotions or accomplished nothing in the past year. I’ve gone through a lot — my family has gone through a lot. I moved twice, settled twice, changed roles at my job, put out an album of music. I’ve felt anxiety, rage, excitement and joy through all of it. But none of it seems worth sharing.

Why is that?

I’ve also noticed my unwillingness to share things on social media platforms. I even had to set up a daily habit reminder (in an app called Streaks) to remind me to post a photo at least a few times a week.

Am I depressed? Maybe I’m depressed. Maybe I’m the old soul my wife keeps telling me I am. Mostly it never feels genuine. Except it is — I have real joy that I feel, but usually it’s in small quirks that my wife and I share. The occasional lyrical idea that comes to mind and gets written down but never gets seen by anyone but myself and Apple’s servers. The most public things I do currently are this obscure blog and my day job work, which is conventionally sexy.

I don’t get off on winning. I get off on originality. Why is it so hard to find that? Am I just too risk-averse to go look for it?

Do people who actually share also exhibit these same feelings? What is the hurdle one must jump over to get past this feeling?

Do I just feel a need to individualize myself? I hate the idea of thinking that I’m a snowflake, but I think I feel awful and not worthy of anyone’s attention because I’m not a snowflake.

Is this ridiculous? Do people feel this?