I don’t blog consistently, and I’m still struggling to find my voice. I find writing difficult for many reasons, especially when it comes to identifying topics worth writing about. I want to bring a combination of passion, expertise, and a fresh perspective into a topic – which makes finding a theme to cover challenging. To top it all off, English is my third language. Getting the content to flow well is difficult, and I don’t always have the ear for it.
In contrast, I find it straightforward to write once I know what to write about. In part due to the volume of writing I have to do for work: as a technical lead at Google I routinely use extensive design documents to communicate my ideas. I also wrote a book once.
I found a set of techniques that work well for me. I don’t know if these techniques help me write higher quality material – you’ll be the judge of that. But these techniques help me express ideas from my head and onto paper. Hopefully in a digestible and entertaining format.
I never took journalism 101. Like with many things in live, I found my own way of doing things: why take an easy path, when a difficult one could work just as well?
I break down writing process into a set of distinct steps. I start with some preliminary research, write an outline, do my in-depth research, write a wine draft, turn that into a coffee draft, and finally proofread the result. I try to take breaks and get some distance from whatever I’m working on in between these steps.
This is a step zero, although it might not apply to everything I write about. This is a breadth-first, “open as many tabs as computer can handle” type of research. There’s no in-depth reading at this point, and only high level information is consumed.
I picked up this approach from my wife, who is an indisputable queen of online research. I find it tempting to dig into the first source I find. Stopping myself from digging too deep helps me understand the information landscape.
For instance, when writing about financial independence in Cote d’Ivoire (a topic I know nothing about) my preliminary research consisted of: a brief review of country’s history, a list of major geopolitical events, investment landscape, and identifying trustworthy sources which could tell me more about currency stability or tax situation.
I’ve also looked for existing sources on the subject, but there wasn’t any.
This post started with an outline. An outline is crucial to pacing and identifying areas of focus. Chapter summaries in a book, outlining headings in technical documents, or putting together a bulleted list for a blog post – you name it.
Outline only needs to make sense to you, and you don’t have to use complete sentences. I started with the following outline for this post:
- I write a lot
- Quantity doesn’t mean quality
- I don’t publish most things I write
- A lot of practice with technical docs
- Wine draft
- Coffee draft
An outline is not final, and it evolves as I write. For instance, by the time I wrote the bulk of this post, an outline evolved – something was removed, and a whole lot of things were added:
- I write a lot
- Double down on how bad I am at writing
- Quantity doesn’t mean quality
I don’t publish most things I write
- A lot of practice with technical docs
- Double down on how bad I am at writing
- Preliminary research
- Write an outline (you’re here now!)
- In-depth research
- Write wine draft
- Write coffee draft
- Proofread the result
I like to keep an outline on the screen as I write, as it reminds me to write in context. I often jot down a brief outline when I have ideas about writing something: this way I don’t have to start from scratch when I sit down to write.
This is where I actually read through dozens of tabs I opened during the preliminary research. This is where I spend the most of my time for topics I don’t feel particularly comfortable with.
I make a point to time box research tasks. It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole when researching a topic, and there’s always more to learn the more you understand the subject. Putting a time limit on each research topic helps me stay on track.
Step 4 out of 6: this is when I start writing.
I found it near impossible to write without separating creative stream of conciousness from the editing process. The “wine draft” is the first attempt at filling in the blanks. The grammar can be all wrong, and the sentences don’t always have to make sense. It’s not necessary for the content to flow or read nicely.
This is where the outline really helps, because writing top to bottom is generally very difficult. Filling in the blanks under the outline however is much easier. I often find myself jumping between different headings and writing a little bit here and there under each heading.
Prioritizing cadence during this step helps, as a stable writing rhythm helps me enter the state of flow. To stay in the flow, I have a wine draft authoring rule: no sentence-level editing. Moving paragraphs or headings around is fine, but changing sentences is generally not.
That’s the goal - get as much content out as possible, no matter how much the language rules get abused. I find it easier to edit down a boatload of content, rather than struggle to come up with the missing pieces when editing.
This is the stage when I decide if the content is not worth publishing – many of my wine drafts never see the light of day.
I find accompanying wine mandatory, but whiskey or tea works in a pinch.
After the wine draft is complete, I take a break. Often couple of hours is enough to create a distance between me and the text. A coffee draft requires more focus and attention. This is when the messy draft takes shape and becomes (hopefully) readable. You tell me.
I make my way down, sentence by sentence, turning ramblings of a madman into a coherent narrative. I rearrange sentences, correct syntactic and grammatical errors, and liberally remove what doesn’t contribute to the narrative. If the wine draft is particularly incoherent, I simply rewrite each paragraph one by one.
This is when I add illustrations if need be. A coffee draft is nearly the final result, barring typos and minor mistakes.
Coffee helps here, but, unlike with a wine draft, is not required.
The final step involves good old proofreading (unless you have a proofreader: it was great having one when working with a publisher).
I try to proofread in a different software suite, or with different fonts and colors: it helps create further distance between the content and I. For instance, I write this post in Vim using Markdown, but I proofread by reading the final preview using my blog’s visual theme.
It often helps to read things out loud too: anything you can do to change up the way you perceive the text.
And finally it’s ready to be published: ta-da! This method hasn’t failed me yet, be it for writing Mastering Vim, technical design docs at Google, or blog posts like this one. Fingers crossed it’ll continue working well for me.
Roguelikes are once niche, but an increasing mainstream video game genre. The genre is named after 1980 “Rogue” - a procedurally generated dungeon crawler. Rogue and games inspired by it often include simple ASCII graphics, feature procedural generation of the world, and include “permadeath”: the game is over once you die.
Many games were heavily inspired by it - like Ancient Domains of Mystery and Nethack, or more recent Cataclysm: DDA and Caves of Qud. Modern games bring a lot of fantastic fusion into the genre too with like The Binding of Isaac or Hades. But I digress.
A few months ago I was struck by a bout of inspiration. I’ve tried countless times before, but never produced a complete video game – this was meant to be the time! I’ve significantly reduced the scope, came up with a plan of action, and started coding!
I codenamed the game “Hikaya”, which means “a fairy tale” in Tatar - my native language (although I think the word itself has been borrowed from Arabic). I planned to make a fairly straightforward roguelike, without too many bells and whistles.
I’ve found a wonderful tutorial on rogueliketutorials.com, which introduces
libtcod – a library to simplify the mundane: drawing on screen, handling input, field of view and lighting, pathfinding. I’ve struggled through all of the above before, and knew that getting deep into the mechanical details would slow me down.
Alas, I didn’t finish the game. I’ve gotten maybe half way there, before my focus slipped away from the project. But not before getting some screenshots and documenting some interesting ideas I had!
The only contains a dozen dungeon levels, with a short story being told through item descriptions. The player is an adventurer who’s sent by their village to a nearby cave to retrieve the last flame - a placeholder MacGuffin.
Every item and monster posses a fantasy-sounding name, contrasted with a short, but colorful description hinting at a science fiction nature of the objects. Think magic scrolls with touch screens, or injectable health potions.
Each monster type has a unique behavior - with goblins running away and regrouping, ogres snacking on goblins to restore health, and so on.
As the player descends down the dungeon, they encounter multiple bosses guarding the staircases. The bosses drop unique armor pieces, which tell a story of a group of adventurers descending into the dungeon, but succumbing to traps, greed, and treachery.
Finally, a dragon guards the last light on the final floor. The game ends with the player becoming a dragon, and a cycle becomes anew.
I know, I know: edgy, uninspired – but I enjoyed the premise.
The combat is focused on tactical movement and avoiding damage, and the player unlocks new moves – like kicks, jumps, or faints – as they progress through the dungeon.
I wanted to experiment with the health system. Inspired by FATE tabletop roleplaying system, I attempted to use health pools. The system was meant to keep combat dangerous and entertaining throughout the game by making even the goblins dangerous throughout the game.
My biggest experiment came from a health system. Inspired by FATE tabletop roleplaying ruleset, the health consists of multiple pools (as opposed to a single bar). The goal of the system is to make combat deadly, and create a sense of danger even for trivial encounters, while still leaving room for error.
Let me try to explain. For example, a player might have three health pools - for 1, 2, and 3 hit points each. Each time a player takes damage, the smallest pool is used to absorb that damage. For instance, a 2 damage hit voids the 2 hit point pool. A second 2 damage hit clears out the 3 hit point pool. A third 2 damage hit is fatal.
You can see the voided health pools marked as red on the screenshot below, and the full health pools in green:
To complicate thing further, I give players some leeway by slowly draining partially damaged pools over time. For instance, if the player uses their 5 hit point pool to absorb 2 points of damage, I’ll slowly drain that pool over the next three turns. This would let the player take another 2 damage hit (or a few 1 damage hits) “for free” immediately after being hit. You can see those hearts marked as yellow on the screenshot above.
Needless to say, the system turned out to be very convoluted to explain in game (and on paper too – I don’t think the above is clear enough). I still think it’s a great idea, but it desperately needs better user experience design to make it accessible. In fact, FATE itself got rid of confusing health pools in it’s latest “FATE Condensed” release, simplifying health down to binary hit markers.
Despite not finishing it, putting together Hikaya was a fun experience. I’ve had a great time working on the prototype: I’ve learned a lot, and maybe I’ll lead my next video game project to completion given everything I’ve learned!
My wife’s cousin recently moved to Cote d’Ivoire, and our latest conversation centered around financial independence and early retirement. The topic is also known under the trendy term “FIRE”. You may have heard about it as “those darn milenials retiring in their 30s”.
A lot of the advice I’m familiar with is US-centric (or covering Canada, Australia, EU countries, and so on). I couldn’t find adequate resources for pursuing financial independence in emergent economies. I tried to research this subject, and here’s what I came up with.
This one’s mostly for you, Myriam – as a follow-up to our conversation.
I refer to “developing” economies in this article. I’m using this term interchangeably with low and middle-income countries, countries with emerging markets, or pre-industrialized countries. None of those classifiers are strictly defined either. This can be a controversial term, but I hope the reader will bear with me and focus on the primary goal of this article - financial independence outside of countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, UK, and others.
Before I dig in, I want to shine light on my credentials for this article: I don’t have any. I immigrated to the US at age 18. Before that I lived in Russia (which is often considered a developing economy). However I’ve never gotten a chance to become financially savvy in the country. Never held a full-time job outside of the USA.
My wife an I diversify into developing markets (and it’s less than 20% of our portfolio). We don’t have any inherent knowledge or in-depth understanding of emerging markets.
And I sure as hell don’t know what it’s like to live in a pre-industrialized country.
I’m bringing a perspective of a person who’s familiar with financial independence and early retirement in the United States (and vaguely Canada). This piece is a compilation of about 10 hours of research (give or take), with my own context applied to it.
This is not a professional financial advice, and I’ll be making culturally or economically ignorant statements about many countries. Read while having a tub filled with salt nearby.
Working to death
There’s a strong reason why the United States is a birthplace of FIRE movement as a media phenomenon. Limited worker protections, no government mandated vacation days or holidays, no maternity leave, low social security pension – you name it.
In fact, according to 2018 ITUC worker rights index, the United States is placed in “Systematic violations of rights” category. But this is where the first caveat comes in. A major chunk of emerging economies hold a “No guarantee of rights” or a “No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the law” rating. Make of that what you will.
There’s the cultural aspect to an overwhelming desire to escape workforce: it’s common to live for the weekend in the States. Culturally life is often put on pause Monday through Friday. Enjoying life two days out of seven can be draining.
In the EU, one might take two months off (okay, not quite: 28 legally mandated days off + 7 weekends in between = 42 days). In the States (Canada, Australia, etc) you work to death, and getting out of the rat race is a priority.
This is where I need another disclaimer: I quite like living in the United States. I just think it’s worker protections are shit and should be improved.
Of course the United States and the likes don’t have a patent on working long hours or having workers protection. But there’s a reason why FIRE is prevalent in the industrialized world (in contrast to developing nations). One word: “stability”.
Despite the popularity of FIRE in the United States, similar formula applies for achieving financial independence in the rest of the industrialized nations. And there’s a constant across those countries: stability.
It’s as simple as that. To ensure your financial future you need to plot and plan ahead. You can’t plan effectively in an unstable landscape. Currency hyperinflation or hyperdeflation, risk of regime and major law changes, corruption and nepotism.
When considering financial independence within developing nations, it’s important to acknowledge and asses the stability of the economy, currency, and political regime. These constants are treated as somewhat of a given in many FIRE conversations, but most recommendations and arguments quickly fall apart when faced with a lack of stability.
There’s no recipe for dealing with a lack of stability, but hedging against it would likely have to be a key part of one’s financial independence strategy. I found a few things that are worth considering – and I’m sure there are many more aspects that escaped my surface-level investigation.
The FIRE recipe
In it’s core FIRE comes down to three principles: increase income, decrease expenses, and invest the difference.
Decreasing expenses is simple, but not easy. Increasing income is hard work that pays off if successful: drastic income increase helps speed FIRE along. Investing the difference carries significant risks due to aforementioned lack of stability.
I’m going to dive into all three principles, but regardless of plans for retirement, building up an emergency fund is always the first priority in nearly every financial conversation. Let’s talk about that first.
The first question you might get asked when talking about FIRE is “do you have an emergency fund?”. There’s always a straightforward recommendation of having N months worth of living expenses in a savings account. Of course this blanket advice breaks down the moment we discuss developing economies.
Lack of faith in the currency or the government puts savings accounts under question. Granted, banks in the developing nations are quick to offer high interest accounts. You might get a 20% return on investment, only to realize that the currency lost 25% of its value in a year.
If the country allows for holding foreign currency, foreign currency could be used to hedge against that. The United States dollar is the most widely held reserve currency. Euro is pegged by 19 countries, making it a relatively stable bet as well. Japanese Yen (JPY) is the third most commonly used reserve currency.
I titled this section “Parking cash” and not “Emergency fund” because I wanted to mention an alternative to savings accounts often used in developing economies. Real estate.
While not a place for storing emergency funds, longer term reserves are often held in what’s perceived as the most stable asset – real estate. Due to a significantly lower cost of labor it’s common (and is often sensible) to purchase land, and then build on that land.
Although lower risk than other asset classes, it’s worth examining potential for asset seizure. 1980’s land redistribution in Zimbabwe is the prime example of this. Less stable political systems are at a higher risk for similar events.
Non-primary residence (that is: a house you don’t live in) can be used as an investment – either through having tenants, or through an act of reselling. Investment through real estate is work, and it’s the type of work I don’t think I would enjoy. I haven’t researched anything on the subject and will zoom past real estate and onto another topic.
Increased income is an important pillar of reaching financial independence. This is where you say:
I work in a highly specialized (and therefore well paid) field. I can talk all I want about saving and investment, but without the high earner salary, stock grants, and financial benefits my job provides - it would take me decades to get where it takes me years.
It’s possible to ensure your financial future with a lower income. It’s much, much harder.
There’s a significant luck element involved, and I’m not interested in peddling the “work hard and you’ll be rich” narrative. Load of bullshit if you ask me. There are however concrete steps one can take. These steps could open up the right opportunities.
Increasing earning potential is a massive boon in the FIRE world. Directing energy towards this goal might be a higher priority step compared to everything else I wrote about.
The most straightforward way to increase earning potential is through education (either formal or informal). College, university, books, online courses. If formal education is problematic, some industries (e.g. software engineering) are more open to self-taught professionals than others. Yours truly is a good example of that.
Networking is another avenue to pursue. It might be more difficult in certain nations due to inherent nepotism and lack of opportunities.
In fact, many developing countries make vertical mobility problematic due to corruption. In an increasingly connected world, earning internationally could be a feasible way forward to increasing income. That is if you have skills that are worth paying for.
Another “duh” topic, reducing your spending in proportion to income is crucial in achieving any type of financial freedom.
Expense reduction is very much a country-specific topic. In fact, it’s highly specific to individuals. Analyzing expenses and putting together a budget is a strong first step. Thankfully, reducing expenses is something commonly covered in media, with plenty of literature available around the globe. That, and this is something financial professionals frequently focus on.
A blanket advice I heard for expatriates living in another country is to avoid expat-friendly stores. Those often come with a premium, and shopping locally might reduce expenses significantly. That’s an extent of my knowledge on the subject.
“Earn more, spend less, invest the difference”. Generally “invest the difference” portion of the advice implies investing in mutual funds – a mix of stocks and bonds for a set of companies. But as you’ve come to expect in this piece, this advice comes with caveats when living in a developing nation.
General advice for investment into mutual funds is holding a 60/40 split of US/international assets. This represents the weight of the US-based stock and bond market in respect to the rest of the world.
But some countries might not allow for international investments. Some countries might introduce additional taxes on foreign investments. Or investments into certain markets could be made difficult due to local regulations. US in particular makes it more difficult for non-Americans to invest, introducing a number of hoops to jump through for identity verification.
To dig deeper, let’s investigate Cote d’Ivoire as an example - a country Myriam is living in.
Quick history recap of Cote d’Ivoire, a former French colony in West Africa. After gaining independence in 1960, the country enjoyed relative stability until 1999. A military coup led to an economic downturn, and two civil wars followed in 2002 and 2011. 2020 presidential election has resulted in unrest.
From those dates alone, political stability in the region at the moment seems problematic.
On the flip side of the coin, Cote d’Ivoire has the benefit of being a member of ECOWAS: Economic Community of West African States. This increases economic stability of the country, by pegging it’s economy (and currency) against it’s neighbors.
This is a nice bonus to economical stability of the region.
We’ve established that blanket investment advice might not exactly work with developing economies. A few questions come to mind:
- What are the restrictions on holding foreign currency or investments?
- How stable is the currency?
- What is the tax situation like?
Let’s dig into each one.
For financial independence, we’ll want to reduce risks where possible. This means hedging against a single country’s economy.Supporting local economy by investing in a regional stock market is responsible (please do!), but diversification is the name of the game. For a complete portfolio you’ll likely want to hold international stocks and bonds.
Certain countries either might not allow, or make it extremely difficult to hold foreign investments.
In Cote d’Ivoire, there doesn’t seem to be any restrictions on holding foreign assets. That’s a plus. Quick online search didn’t bring up a history of restrictions on ownership of foreign assets either.
Finding a broker that operates in the country of choice (or allows for investment from said country) would be a next step here.
Cote d’Ivoire uses West African CFA franc – a French treasury backed currency with a fixed CFA/Euro exchange rate. Political controversy aside, Euro pegged currency offers stability that many developing countries might lack.
To look at currency stability, we can look at an inflation rate or an exchange rate against other currencies. For instance here’s how many CFA a single USD would buy (from 2003 to 2021):
In contrast to that, some quick research surfaces official discussions for introducing “Eco” – a non-French backed currency for the West African region. While this could result in higher economical growth potential for the region, it comes with more risk.
Tax laws change how you invest. Our FIRE strategy is carefully crafted to leverage every tax-advantaged account possible: a good third of our assets is held in tax-advantaged accounts. And of course tax laws vary by country.
This is definitely the place where you want to bring in a professional. A quick search (and that’s the keyword: “quick”) indicates that Cote d’Ivoire has 1.5% salary tax, and 1.5% - 10% “national contribution”. Cote d’Ivoire taxes capital gains, dividends and securities. There’s pension both your employer and you pay into, which is nice.
There are likely country-specific tax law peculiarities one can take advantage of to optimize asset growth. This would require much more in-depth research.
Financial independence becomes a completely different beast in developing nations. Whatever little financial knowledge I have is challenged if not outright rendered useless when applied to emerging markets.
Yet there are a lot of directions for future research, and this piece only presents a view through a very much United-States-tinted lens. It could be that FIRE in developing countries might leverage creating a business and using more active forms of income generation.
Many of my findings are superficial, and I touched on a lot of different topics without going in-depth into any one of them. I can dedicate more time to this topic if there’s interest - let me know in the comments.
I just found my financial records going back to 2013!
I know that doesn’t sound exciting, but for someone who loves putting together spreadsheets this is a treasure trove of information! Well, maybe not a trove, but a sizable chunk of data. I only have two numbers for each month – income and expenses. But that’s just enough to calculate my savings rate!
(income - expenses) / income = savings rate
With this number I can trace a broad outline through the past 8 years of my financial life! I present my savings rate charted over the past 8 years:
It’s smoothed out using a 6 period rolling window, as it’s near impossible to see trends when plotting raw numbers.
This chart tells a life story: starting with a near 0% savings rate in early 2014, a dip in 2017, and a steady 75% from 2018 onward. Let’s trace my major life events!
By the end of 2013 I lived in downtown Philly and was working as a freelance software developer. Per-project pay was decent, but the gaps between contracts reduced the overall income. That, and being a sole breadwinner for a family of two – the funds were running dry and we were living paycheck-to-paycheck.
My then-SO and I had different financial upbringing. My ex-wife and I were both young when we got married, and we’ve never sat down and talked about finance – so I could only guess as to what her relationship with money was. I came from a household of a frugal single mother – we were never short on cash, but the expenses were low. In a rural community food was grown in a large garden, milk bartered from a neighbor, sweaters knitted.
I distinctly remember my partner not having more than a couple of hundred dollars in a bank account when we moved in together. On the other hand, by the time we got married I amassed a nest egg - nearly $20,000. Granted, it’s small in the grand scheme of things – but these were the savings I put together from working low wage jobs – before I learned software development.
You can see us deplete that fund by the end of 2013 and into early 2014. And paycheck-to-paycheck we lived.
In January 2014 I was offered a position with a software company in the Silicon Valley. Things were looking up for our financial life! My then-wife and I moved to a Bay Area suburb.
It took some adjusting after living in downtown Philly. Both our income and expenses increased. Thankfully with the new job we found it harder to keep up with the increasing income: that’s where we settled for the 25% savings rate. A balance between frugality and spending habits.
A marital disaster struck at the end of 2015: my now ex-wife and I split up. What was a downturn in life turned out to be a financial upturn for me. My ex moved back with her parents, and I stayed in the apartment we were renting.
In a bout of coincidental timing, the apartment complex I lived in was scheduled for demolition. I had to move out and look for a new place. Instead, I decided to move into my car. I wrote about that in detail before, if you’d like to read about that.
This is when I became interested in the FIRE movement. If you’re not familiar, “FIRE” stands for “Financial Independence, Retire Early” (I like to think everyone is aware that this is a terrible acronym). The idea is to increase income, drastically decrease expenses, and invest the difference into index funds to live off of indefinitely.
Now that I had an idea where my money can work best, I had an easier time justifying increasing my savings rate. FIRE also turned increasing savings rate into somewhat of a game.
Finally, I negotiated a chunky raise at work. I was underpaid by the Silicon Valley standards, and “I like working here, but I need to be paid X or I quit” tactics worked. Having a reputation for being a high performer no doubt helped.
It’s not surprising that as a culmination of those events, this is where you can see my savings rate beginning it’s climb to a respectable 75%. Occasional spousal support would bump up the expenses, but not having rent to pay and a higher salary made it easy to absorb those expenses.
By the end of 2016 I got my dream job at Google, and moved into a new studio apartment. No, the big dip isn’t just a new place, but it’s strongly connected. I decided to make up for a year of living out of a single suitcase. There’s furnishing the new place from scratch, top of the line gaming PC, a VR headset, and so many things I didn’t need! I definitely went on a bender.
It took me a year to slow down. This is also where my then-girlfriend and now-forever-housemate became more open with me financially: I happened to meet another FIRE enthusiast out in the wild, completely by chance. She reignited my desire to live frugally. End of 2017 was marked by me donating and selling an ungodly amount of things I accumulated over this year, and returning to comfortable living within (or below, depending on how you look at it) my needs.
We moved in together by the end of 2018 and married in 2020. We still keep separate accounts for ease of accounting, and this chart only displays my data for the sake of my partner’s privacy (it’s less work to chart too). Overlaying my SO’s data after combining our finances doesn’t meaningfully change the numbers you see above.
It’s not realistic for us to push the savings rate higher without sacrificing the luxuries we enjoy - like travel or occasional high end dining. So here we are, at a comfortable 75% to 80% savings rate.
My wife and I earn 7 times more than I did when I was a sole breadwinner. Our joint expenses are 60% higher than what my ex wife and I spent 8 years ago. Both my wife and I are in a priviliged position to be high earners in a high paying industry. We’ve gotten extremely lucky where many wouldn’t have.
There’s no real purpose to this post other than sharing my journey. Hope you found something of interest!
My first remote work experience coincided with my self-employment as a contractor. I was building a copyright enforcement service for a client in a year 2013. I lived in a one bedroom apartment in Philadelphia with my now ex-wife – a few blocks away from the city hall. I worked at a small standing desk (trendy!) in a corner of our little bedroom - by the closet.
I worked from the early morning and deep into the night at that desk. Sometimes I would look out of the window behind me. I would see an uninspired urban picture of roof tops of other four story colonial homes. And after a moment of respite it was back to work for me.
This was my first major foray into the world of self-accountability: I meticulously tracked the time spent working, billed the client per hour, provided in-depth breakdowns. The more I worked, the more I could bill the client – I had the incentive to put in as much time into work as possible.
So I did. I clocked in 80 to 90 hours of billable time a week. The checks with a before unheard of hourly rate kept coming, so I kept putting in the hours. Neither I nor my significant other had major professional experience. (To be completely honest we didn’t have much in the realm of like experience either). We kept on keeping on.
I thought about work during lunch. I was agonizing over the details when walking through the neighboring Rittenhouse Square. I would jump into late night coding sessions. As a young professional, I didn’t see the need to draw lines between my work and my life – my life was my work. There was no “me” without work.
That is until I burnt out. I woke up one morning, and something inside me snapped. I realized that I couldn’t spend another minute in front of the screen. I took a day off, and the feeling wouldn’t pass. I felt numb and overwhelmed at the same time. A day filled with my favorite video games - and I still felt that way. A day at a museum - nothing. I didn’t get better.
I invoked a force majeure clause in my contract. I transferred all the materials, sent the final invoice, and stepped away from the project.
I won’t talk here about the ways to fight burnout, because I didn’t know how to. I quit, took a break, and eventually moved onto another job. By the virtue of this happening early in my career, and me being rather young - I managed to “snap out of it” between jobs.
I wish I could share “the one thing” I did that helped - but there wasn’t one. I don’t remember how I took care of myself, and how I managed to get my head straight. All I remember that I felt discombobulated for weeks. And at some point the feeling went away. I couldn’t work during that time.
Time passed. I moved across the country to the San Francisco Bay area for a job with Google. My now ex-wife and I split up – it was a civil, but nonetheless a difficult divorce.
Around that time, I spent a year traveling across the United States. I lived out of my car and stayed in hotels while working remotely on my own terms. I established strict working hours and routines.
I would start my work around 8 am, without paying mind to the timezone I’d be in. I’d work out of coffee shops, coworking spaces, or even campgrounds. I’d always take a break for lunch. I’d wrap up work at 4 pm, and not a minute longer. Constant travel and change of scenery encouraged me to keep to my work hours. I had to weigh in staying past my end of workday versus going out and sight seeing a new city. The wanderlust always won.
The work was out of my mind after 4 pm. That was easy to do with an adventure afoot, but years later and the habit stuck with me. I don’t let thoughts about work slip into my day to day. My mind is my own outside of work.
That was a transformative experience, and it changed the way I see work. I know it’s trendy to say this, but I don’t live to work: I work to live.
Today, I work with some people who have never worked remotely before the pandemic. And I often hear a similar sounding sentiment: “never again”.
It makes me think about the time I was self-employed for the first time. Putting in 80 hour work weeks, and not having the awareness to understand how I was affecting myself and people around me. It created distance between me and my partner. I let the work spill into the time I had. In a way it made me less of an employee and less of person.
When the pandemic started I looked back to these memories. Google moved to continuous work from home model in March 2020. And I made a conscious effort not to slip into my early remote work days. I established a strict routine. Breakfast and lunch with my significant other (here’s some closure to my divorce). No deviation from “9 to 5”.
I established an area for myself to work in – I bought a sturdy desk and a chair from a used office furniture reseller. I make an effort to create not only mental, but physical separation from work. I wear office clothes during the day, and change once I’m done with work. I cook to distress after a long day. My partner and I adhere to scheduled date nights (we do leave room for spontaneity too).
That isn’t to say I didn’t slip over the past year: many times I stayed past an established time. I often started earlier than planned. And some days I would let work occupy my mind space as I’m relaxing with my better half. We’ve spent the past year working out of a one bedroom apartment. A bigger one than I worked out of 7 years ago, but still a one bedroom. It was difficult, and some days it still is.
But time and time again, I corrected the course and resumed my routine. During my soul searching adventure remote work was fun. Because this time working remotely is much harder. There are no sights to see. No new places to stay in. No novelty to look towards at the end of the day. Working from home in the middle of a pandemic is oh-so-difficult.
To be honest I can’t wait to be back in the office. But I’m also excited to work from home on my own terms. Because this isn’t what remote work is like.