adrift on a cosmic ocean

Writings on various topics (mostly technical) from Oliver Hookins and Angela Collins. We have lived in Berlin since 2009, have two kids, and have far too little time to really justify having a blog.

New Year, New You!

Posted by Oliver on the 20th of January, 2019 in category Thoughts
Tagged with: CareerMovingMental Health

It's 2019! Or so they say - I'm not very inclined to believe it, as most days seem like a dream. You know that kind of dream, where you are in the house where you live (or perhaps where you grew up), but you somehow know within you that it's not your house? This is the life I'm living at the moment.

We've been living in Berlin, Germany, since 2009 and have now - after just over nine years - moved back to Sydney, Australia. We've visited, of course, in the intervening years (at increasing cost as our children increased in number and age), but there's a distinct difference between coming back for a few weeks as some kind of bizarro tourist versus coming back to actually live here. The city itself has changed, we have changed - we left as an unmarried couple with a very different life to the one we have as a married couple with kids today. At the same time, many, many things have not changed a bit. We understand what people are saying, in English! The accents are a bit jarring now that we are unused to them (and our own have softened somewhat).

There were numerous things precipitating the move. We started expecting (and now have) our third child, and the conversations around proximity to wider family and the support they could give us solidified into something quite critical, whereas before it had been a constant but manageable frustration. The daily friction of not really being very good in German, again manageable in the earlier years, had become a bit of a grind and mental burden (especially with children in the picture). My mental state had also begun degrading in the last few years (cause still unknown) and while I'd managed to more or less keep it together enough to work, I was unable to find any English-speaking therapy, and I was becoming less helpful and present to my immediate family. A multitude of other factors added to the mix, but ultimately we decided in 2018 that we needed to come back.

Very luckily I was able to find another job after doing a decent bit of reconnaissance into the Australian tech scene. Goodbye Contentful, hello Atlassian! While sad to leave another very promising tech startup (which seems to have become my niche), it's very nice to join a large and extremely successful tech giant (one of seemingly few in Sydney), with products I've been using for just about a decade. They also publish a lot of material around their culture online, and I found that a lot of it aligns with my values and interests around healthy, agile teams. So, hooray! Promising times ahead.

The last six months

With a new job secured, we really had to get down to business and I'll be honest - it was incredibly stressful. While nine years ago we left Sydney with a lot of naïveté, a tiny bit of money, no job and not much else, this time we were leaving with quite a lot of things left to wrap up, and three children - one of them just a baby. Getting citizenship applications, passports, cancelling accounts, finding a new renter for the apartment, shipping all of our possessions in a container, and a variety of other things became a large mental burden. Not exactly good timing. Oh, and we actually had to have the baby in there somewhere too, just around six weeks before we were due to make a trip to the other side of the planet.

All due credit to my wife who supported me through all of this, while also giving birth to a third child (at home again in a water birth), and recovering physically enough to help move me and the kids in ~20 hours of flights. Handy tip: if you fly from Berlin to Sydney via Doha, make sure you space out your flights and stay in the airport hotel - it's a saviour for your sanity and physical wellbeing when travelling so far. Just trying to figure out what to pack in the suitcases and what could be entrusted to the shipping container was an ordeal. I could probably talk for hours about the preparation process, but even though we had months, I feel like it came down to the wire.

Oh yeah, and the "Abmeldebestätigung". This magical document that incates (from the local government office) that you are no longer living in the country, was incredibly difficult to attain. In the end, we only got it in Sydney via a mail redirect, weeks after we arrived. Without it, we were unable to cancel numerous accounts or convincingly change our address with several different institutions. Not very handy. Things are just about (but not quite) in order, and we still have to figure out taxes and other lovely things.

Modern life

Now I am two weeks into a new job, and a calendar month into our new lives in Sydney, it honestly still feels like a dream for most of the time. I'm working amongst Australians, who, culturally, feel very natural to me. There are many other nationalities around of course (and I'm the only Australian on my team), but just hearing the accents (and yes, seeing the actual sun again) is very reassuring. I feel the mental clouds starting to part, although I think there's a long road ahead still.

Life with two children and a baby never really took shape in Berlin, and we had so many other things going on anyway, it's all rather a blur. Now in Sydney, the reality is starting to sink in, and that reality is flavoured by a distinct lack of time. My commute to and from work is longer (and slower), and mornings and evenings are filled with wrangling the children. With the heat at the moment I don't wake up feeling very rested, and remaining evening time when it happens is usually filled with translating documents, checking finances, composing letters to send back to the Motherland for account cancellations or address updates, etc. Hobbies, fitness, and leisure (like couple time) have all taken a back seat.

Speaking of hobbies, I've managed to accumulate a significant list of things I want to do (for no apparent reason), but now have practically no time to do them:

  • Continuing the various online courses I signed up for a long time ago around Blender, Unreal Engine, Unity, and eventually building my own game or architectural visualisations. I find this stuff incredibly interesting but it is also correspondingly time-consuming. There are numerous sub-components of this like getting better at texturing, modelling etc but suffice to say that this item could take all available time very easily.
  • Working through my vast backlog of reading various agile and organisational evolution books - mostly relating to work in engineering management.
  • (Re-)Learning C++ and learning Qt (for some reason).
  • Taking an online course around OpenGL, renderers and shaders (in C++).
  • Getting my Java knowledge up to professional levels (for my new job).
  • Exercising enough - which mostly means running these days, but should be a little broader if I want to do any Tough Mudder or Spartan Race type events.
  • Getting better at German - even after all this time, I'm still trying to memorise more words and would eventually like to (this year if possible) read an adult book in German.
  • Indeed, even writing more blog posts like this!

I'm probably forgetting some things, but it doesn't matter - the end result is the same - I have zero time for any of these. In the last month I've barely opened the computer at home, let alone find time for any of these things. There simply isn't the time in the day, and any time there is has been required for various organisational matters around our new lives here, or wrapping up affairs in Germany. It took me the better part of a weekend just to write a few very similar letters in German, print them out and put them in envelopes. Not even mailed (which incidentally is a very expensive exercise).

This ultimately brought me to the realisation that I have to get serious about time management in this new phase of my life.

The time management

Despite loving order in my life, I find myself fairly bad at achieving that order. Sometimes you just have to live with the chaos (especially when children are involved). I feel any kind of management has been a struggle - time, finances, energy, possessions and cruft (although I've gotten better at ensuring I'm only surrounded by things that spark joy in my heart, and donating/recycling/chucking everything else). It's a struggle, and one that's made only harder by being under mental pressure and stress.

One habit that fell by the wayside some time ago and has only recently returned is meditation and mindfulness. I got started on it around 2014/2015 when I undertook a leadership course at my then employer, and got a free subscription to Headspace. It's a bit like meditation with training wheels, but I enjoy it and hopefully it is making a difference to my life. I feel like if I want to get better at anything, having a clear head and rested mind in the right state will be necessary to get there. My loved ones around me, and my new employer deserve my best performance and presence, and this is a proven way of getting there.

Exercise is a non-optional activity, especially as I get just a little bit older. I notice that when my exercise slips so does my diet, and I can't just shrug off the calories any more - they stick to me. Unfortunately even running proves hard to fit in, and it's one of the simplest and most effective forms of exercise. I'm trying to figure out how I can run to work a few days a week, but it will require a bit of creative transportation hopping and scheduling. Once this is in place, though, it should help the forming of other better habits.

Sadly for the other hobbies I listed above, there is a good chance that I just ome to terms with giving them up. Ultimately the most important things in my life should be my partner and children, and my own happiness. Your own happiness is so flexible, and can be achieved through any number of things that don't necessarily take any time or effort. I don't need to learn more programming languages or get better at 3D modelling, but my kids do need my love and attention. Seeing them learn to read and write, take swimming lessons or feed the local cockatoo that has started perching on the deck outside are all situations that need my presence, and can deliver happiness. Isolating myself in self-indulgent activities that don't involve anyone else aren't necessarily going to make me happier, on the other hand. Not to say that it will be easy, and I imagine I'll fight hard to keep at least one hobby fit in my schedule somehow. There's always time on my new commute, during which I can fit at least 60 minutes of some activity most days.

Finally there's the actual topic of time management. I feel like the problem is partially around time, partially information and partially something else I haven't yet identified. I mismanage my time because I don't know what I should be doing, because I don't have a good way of keeping it in my head. Outside of various todo lists for personal tasks, I usually have a Google Document or analog notebook for work-related notes, a collection of browser tabs, personal and work email inboxes, MacOS sticky notes on the desktop, Confluence action items, Trello and Jira board cards, Slack self messages... the list goes on. How can you cohesively manage and prioritise the most important things to do right now, when the information is so distributed?

After collecting many ideas from many people on the topic, I'm still split on how to adequately tackle the problem (especially whether to unify around an entirely digital, or entirely analog solution). For the moment though, I've decided to be "agile" about it, and just try something as an experiment, then iterate. To begin with, I'm trying out the Bullet Journal method. I don't have a fancy custom journal or pen, and after watching the tutorial video it does strike me as a very automatable system (especially around migration of notes from month to month), but if it is a system that I can use consistently and look in the one place every day for what I need to be doing, maybe it has a chance of working. If it works any better than my previous systems, it should reduce stress and make me more effective - even if by a small amount.

So that's really my big takeaway after the big move has been completed - I need to re-evaluate how I go about my life and actually understand whether any part of it is making me happy. My bad habits need to be broken and re-formed. Expectations need to be re-assessed. It's probably in some way a mid-life crisis, but if anything, I'm angling for the reliable and cost-effective Toyota rather than the fancy Tesla (both metaphorically and literally).

© 2010-2018 Oliver Hookins and Angela Collins