New job, new life

A few months ago, a major change happened in my life: a career change and a move of house coincided. The new job is as part of a small, entirely remote team, working on improving the integration, delivery and operations of a suite of applications. This is a major change in a way – a totally different space, intended both as physical as well as business space. In other ways, it is the thing I’ve been preparing for, for the last 5 years. I’ve learned and even taught the theoretical aspects the vague thing we call “DevOps”, but haven’t had the opportunity to put my knowledge into action in a real operational sense. Since I’ve been in this role, I’ve felt ever more satisfied with the challenge of solving real problems. However, there is more at stake than professional fulfillment.

As I have grown older, personal and family priorities have changed, and this change is giving me the opportunity to re-focus my energy on things that would better help realise these new priorities.

New life, new environment

It also meant that I would no longer have a nominal office in a place different from home to work in, because I would be working from home.

I’ve always been comfortable working from home, but a distinction must be drawn between before and after having kids, especially whilst they are small. The ability to concentrate evaporates when you in the same environment as your small children since, as any parent knows, they demand constant attention. My personal experience has been one of frustration and irritation at myself and my children when I try to force my attention to my work whilst my children are present. The general feeling I am left with is an utter waste of time. Time which could have been spent better either concentrated on my children or on my work, but not both.

This was greatly exacerbated by the fact that I didn’t have a proper office to work in, but rather a desk by the window in the lounge. A beautiful place to work, indeed, when there are no distractions, but impossible to isolate. I always had the option however of “going to the office” when I needed to concentrate. Although there were certainly other distractions at the office, it was entirely acceptable to the people there if I chose to isolate myself with some headphones – something which which is impossible for a small child to understand.

Now, for the first time in my professional life, my office is my home and I have nowhere to run to should I need to isolate myself and get things done. In order for me to accept the new position, and start this new phase in my working life, I needed a real office at home.

Luckily, that’s just what I have.

Staring at a screen is killing me

The nature of all of my work is digital. Where once only large part of it was sitting at a desk staring at a screen, now that is one hundred percent of my professional activity. I know that this lifestyle is very unhealthy, and will contribute to an early death, so I was thinking about ways to change my habits and working environment to counteract the implicit nature of the work. As a physicist, I often had to do physical work, either in the electronics lab, the data centre, or indeed the experimental hall. There was a lot of running errands, walking around a campus, going to talks and meetings, and of course I had time for exercise. These things have evaporated from my life mostly due to the time constraints of raising children, but they are also due to the nature of the work.

The main fact however is that physical objects have been slowly disappearing from my life and have been replaced by a screen, a keyboard, and ideas put down in code. I have started thinking somewhat obsessively about ways to re-introduce physical objects into my working life.

Re-introducing actual things

My office isn’t large, but it has enough space for an exercise area (as long as I don’t swing a cat for exercise). Adding two kettle bells and a yoga mat was the first step in having things I can use my body with. On days with regular schedules (i.e. no unplanned meetings or emergency deploys, etc) I try to write down the list of things I can do in 20 minutes and use the pomodoro technique to check them off my to-do list. This helps me get into a rhythm of digital work and physical activity - at every pomodoro interval, I go to the other side of the room and do an exercise, either with weights, or using my own body weight.

Maintaining this schedule is not particularly challenging. The difficult part is in the planning of tasks, but the rest is neither daunting nor stressful. Any able-bodied person, I think, can do five minutes of situps or pushups. Getting the blood flowing again after sitting down for 20 minutes supposedly helps stave off the harmful effects of sitting, so I like to tell myself that I’m doing something good for myself.

One thing I do find myself missing, however, is mental stimulation or distraction whilst I’m not staring at a screen.

Food for the mind

The pressures of parenting, work and life in general often come rushing in when one is not paying attention to anything in particular, and I’m finding it ever more difficult to concentrate on things I want to think about rather than intrusive, repetitive worries. I realised that in previous workplaces, I simply had interesting things to look at. I have forgotten many of the things I’ve learned as a physicist, but I remain passionate about the way the world works. I love staring at tables, diagrams, lemmas, derivations, proofs, schematics. They allow the mind to wander and wonder at the beauty of universe and the order, chaos and unexpected phenomena that emerge from its simplicity.

However, wall art is not just letting my mind roam free – sometimes that five minute break is what I need in order to allow my mind to resolve some puzzle that has been blocking me. With the right triggers or reminders, this is so much easier.

So, I have started hanging first science porn (graphic art representing the composition of stellar atmospheres, various prints from XKCD, selected posters from the CERN library etc) as well as reference cards on the wall. They are printed in easy-to-read large formats, so that my eyes can rest from staring at a screen, and wherever possible in earthy colours.

Get the outside inside

Finally, lighting, sounds, and natural shapes are on my to-do list. I want to have subconscious reminders that there is a real, physical natural world outside that I am still a part of and that needs tending to. My idea is to have some form of adjustable lighting that can recall bright days at the beach, shady walks in the forest, or open blue skies of the desert. The background noise in my apartment is close to zero, thankfully, and as I type this I can only barely discern the traffic outside. The dominant component in the soundtrack of my office is birdsong, which I am truly grateful for. This is only so, however, because my windows are open, letting the outside air in. On days when it is too cold, or noisy and the windows are closed, I nevertheless want to have some ambient sound. My plan for doing this is to have something like a Noisli running on my raspberry pi, over bluetooth speakers above and behind me. More about that later.

Finally, natural shapes. Simple - add some plants to the office. Clean air and ancient monkey brain satisfied in one foul swoop!

These have been the thoughts of bringing the physical world back into my daily life. I hope you have enjoyed them and may they spark something within you too.