Stuck

For reasons I don't quite understand, this week has been incredibly long. There has been almost no motivation to do any work and, worse still, the work that I have tried to do has been absolutely awful. Today, despite several attempts to shake the lack of creativity and energy, I've managed to accomplish absolutely nothing aside from the bare minimum … which is not at all what I need to be delivering in the next couple of days. I am, for all intents and purposes, stuck in what appears to be burnout for the second time in 2019, and the fourth time since May of last year. What the heck is going on?

Generally when I run head first into burnout there is an unhealthy dose of depression that goes along with it. Unfortunately the only way out of this unproductive rut is to plough right through, forcing things to get done in the hope that something will trigger the dark cloud to go away, allowing creativity to return and the lethargy to dissipate. When I first started encountering these low-points in the late 90s, they would generally last for a day or two at most. The current incarnations are much more persistent, often stealing a week or two of my time, making every waking moment while working at the day job feel like an eternity.

This run of sluggishness is different in that there doesn't appear to be any signs of depression. Instead there is just an ambivalence to getting work done, which makes no sense.

Two deadlines arrive tomorrow with a third this coming Tuesday. If I can't shake this lack of motivation, then schedules will slip. While nothing I work on is of life-and-death importance, any delay that I cause will have a domino effect on the rest of the project. It's true that I haven't been sleeping all that well over the last couple of months — if not years — so this may have something to do with it. Tonight, rather than invest some time into client work after the day job, I think I'll just head to bed.

Given the substandard quality of the stuff I'm typing today, this is probably the best thing to do.

Asleep at the Keyboard

Today an interesting thing happened in that I fell asleep at the keyboard while in the middle of writing a SQL query. This is the first time in recent memory that I've lost consciousness mid-thought, and it's clearly a sign that I'm not getting enough sleep. While I no longer have the accuracy of a sleep tracker like SleepCycle to tell me just how poorly I'm resting, I can count on one hand the number of hours of sleep I've achieved since Sunday. Last time I checked, today is Wednesday. Meetings are taking place at all hours of the day. The boy needs attention for the 12 hours he's not sleeping. Nozomi and Reiko also need a bit of time. Then there's the time I dedicate to 10C and freelance jobs. Clearly the body is a lot more tired than I'm admitting, which means falling asleep at the keyboard1.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon Keyboard

To make up for the lack of rest over the last couple of nights, I've blocked the schedule from 10:00pm until the start of the following day. Hopefully this will mean getting to bed by 11:00pm at the latest and falling asleep somewhere between 30~60 seconds later2.

There are just two more working days to go this week before the start of Golden Week, which will work out to 10 consecutive days off work with six of those days being fully paid holidays. The lack of OT will hurt the pay cheque a little bit, but the ability to get some sound sleep will more than make up for a few hundred dollars less in income.


  1. Would this be short-keyed as AAK?

  2. I generally fall asleep within 15~30 seconds after lying down in bed but, when overtired, a little more time is needed.

Worn Out

Over the last couple of years there has been a recurring theme on this site where I write about a lack of sleep either due to a persistent bout of insomnia or just a larger-than-is-manageable workload. In every post I refer to my age and how a little power nap with lunch1 isn't enough to recharge if fewer than four hours of sleep is obtained. Generally I'll make some efforts to get to bed before midnight on the Friday and hope like heck the boy doesn't wake before sunrise so that the weekend isn't a blur … but this doesn't seem to be enough anymore. The candle has been burning at both ends for months, and I'm just absolutely worn out.

Like a Lit Match

In just one week the Japanese holiday period dubbed Golden Week begins, which will mean that for ten days I will (ideally) not be doing anything related to the day job. Reiko and I have been making some general plans to bring the boy to some special events and parks, and we'll also be meeting her parents to enjoy a nice dinner at a nice restaurant to mark 12 years of marriage. If that wasn't enough to have happen in one week, the news cycle will be jumping between stories on the over-capacity bullet trains ferrying people around the country and the coronation of Japan's next emperor. During this time I'll be working on a number of items related to 10C, but I'll also be starting a new project that I hope will be seen as a positive step forward in my goal to be fully self-employed in 2022.

When I set my mind on a goal, I tend to work incredibly hard to make it happen. Unfortunately, when working for someone else, there will always be multiple goals that need to be completed, often with conflicting or near-simultaneous deadlines. This makes it easy to get stuck in one of those vicious cycles where the more you work, the more work you have to do.

Last month I worked the equivalent of 6.5 40-hour weeks for the day job, plus 10C, plus being away from the computer to spend time with the family. It's simply unsustainable. What I need to do is become more like the match above, being lit at just one end2. 2022 is not that far away, and I'm not at all keen on being with my employer for much longer3.


  1. I used to do this while in Canada. A quick, 15-minute power nap at the office after the colleagues went out for lunch but before they came back was an excellent way to recharge, especially if there were going to be meetings in the afternoon.

  2. I certainly see the possible error of working during a vacation period, but this would be more for personal development than the day job. It would be "fun" … so that makes it okay, right?

  3. I'm not interested in working for most other companies, either. The time has come to be independent … again.

Sources

Anxiety is a problem for millions of people around the world and can range from being a slight unease in the chest to a full-blown panic attack. Not everyone will experience it the same way and rarely have I seen people who do not battle anxiety on a regular basis understand how it can affect someone. In my case, the strain that I feel most often is social anxiety, which generally appears almost every time I’m in a crowd without a pair of headphones on. What I don’t understand is why this feeling exists at all.

Social anxiety is a mental disorder where a person is incredibly nervous when in a social situation. Symptoms can include abdominal discomfort, a tight chest, lightheadedness, and a 'negative loop' of feeling anxious about any anxious feelings. Panic attacks may also occur if the right conditions cascade into each other. I’ve yet to experience a sense of panic when out shopping at a crowded mall or even when on a train in Tokyo. Everything else, though, is a regular occurrence to such an extent that I’ve started to actively avoid going to busy places unless I am alone and wearing headphones. When in a crowded place by myself, it’s possible to push away the oppressive claustrophobia that comes with being surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people who generally stand a little too close to others. This is generally impossible when out with Reiko or the boy because both enjoy talking in a near-nonstop fashion, and not answering questions or being part of a conversation/soliloquy is not an option. So, when out and about with the family, I generally keep the ears open to keep the peace at the cost of enjoying the different environment.

This has been “just the way it is” for years, and I’ve usually associated this with my strong dislike of unstructured noise. When people congregate somewhere, conversations and other sounds blend to become virtually incoherent, which makes it a challenge to hear what anyone is saying. However, after a bit of an anxiety issue today that resulted in a feeling of oppressive claustrophobia where I wanted everyone in a crowded park to “go away”1. The feeling is completely irrational and I understand it as such, but anxiety is really hard to control.

As the feeling generally crops up when I’m surrounded by noise, I’ve been paying attention to how loud a place is in order to maintain some semblance of sanity when outside. However, Reiko seems to think that my problem is not sound, but sleep.

This past week I’ve been working pretty long hours to accomplish a number of tasks and objectives. From Sunday to Friday, a six-night period, I managed to get about 27 hours of sleep. Nozomi gets more than this in two days, and the boy gets it in three. Generally when I am not getting enough sleep I have difficulty focusing on voices and this results in conversations coming across as incoherent noise rather than communicative language. As the ears get tired2, noise increases, which leads to anxiety, which leads to lots of frowning or a strong desire to escape the current environment, even if it’s just my living room. Reiko thinks it’s better if I get to bed before midnight every day, understanding that sometimes I’ll be waking up at 4:45am for early-morning meetings.

The idea does have merit. Generally I’m battling the strong desire to fall sleep between the hours of 2:00pm and bedtime. The body or, more likely, the mind is clearly trying to tell me something. My concern is that by spending more time in bed there will be less work accomplished. Reiko’s concern is that if I’m always focused on getting work accomplished, then a serious burnout isn’t too far off.

Two decades ago I could push myself pretty hard and the consequences were minimal. I’m clearly not as resilient today, and adjustments must be attempted. So, with this in mind, I’ll set a goal for myself to be in bed by 11:30pm every night, as this will mean being asleep before midnight. The trick will be to tell the mind it’s time to shut down for the night.


  1. By “go away” I mean leave and/or give me and my family a good 50 meters of space.

  2. I know it’s not the ears, but the brain. That said, this is generally how I describe the issue.

Productivity After Midnight

Twenty years ago my most productive hours were between 10pm and 3am. This is when I could get most of my homework done, and this is when "inspiration" would strike and I'd invest hours on whatever idea had triggered the surge of ideas and adrenaline. These night-owl hours became a lot more difficult to maintain after accepting a full-time job that expected an alert person at the store no later than 8:00am six days a week, but when the weekend would arrive I'd be right back to staying up half the night while creating something that did not exist the day before. Unfortunately the habit came to an abrupt end in 2007 when I moved to Japan.

Black Watch Face

An abrupt end until recently, that is.

My sleep patterns have been in disarray since the boy was born, but they went completely off the rails five weeks ago when I flew to New Jersey. Perhaps I'm just feeling restless. Perhaps I'm just nervous about owning a house and being in debt for a decade's worth of paycheques1. Perhaps I'm just so distracted during the day that the only time I can get any time to make things is after everyone's in bed and I don't want to lose more time due to personal exhaustion. Who knows. What I can say is that this newfound block of time has not gone to waste and is actually turning out to be quite beneficial.

Hopefully this continues. While spending six to seven hours in bed is quite enjoyable, creating things is what I want to do with my life.


  1. the mortgage is quite a bit longer than 10 years, of course

Un-Quantifiable

A little over four years ago I started down the path of quantified self, measuring sleep patterns and caloric intake. A year later I was fortunate enough to upgrade to a phone that included the ability to track steps and, with the help of other applications, other measurements such as heart rate were tracked multiple times a day. This stats collection has been a regular component of each and every day up until last night when I decided to bring it all to a stop, delete the data from the phone, and walk away from the practice. This isn't out of laziness or the added complexity of collecting data when a newborn is screaming like a banshee at 3:30am, but a niggling question that has remained unsatisfactorily answered since 2014: What problem am I trying to solve?

I love numbers and charts and turning data into actionable information. There isn't much that I'm particularly good at in life, but data processing is where I excel. One would think that analysis from all this self-observation would be sufficient reward in and of itself. However, looking at the statistics, this is what a person can surmise about me:

  • I'm getting older
  • I sleep better on a clear day after a bit of alcohol and a shower
  • I don't get very good sleep during the workweek
  • I consume more "unhealthy" calories during the workweek
  • My body weight alternates between 78.2kg and 93.8kg every sixteen months
  • My heart rate is a steady 52bpm at rest
  • I generally walk 7,200 steps on a working day, and half as many on weekends
  • Anxiety keeps me up at night

Just over four years of data shows all of this to be true … but did I really need to make tens of thousands of personal measurements across 1500+ days for these insights? Aside from the heart rate data, everything else is pretty much observable without fancy hardware or data-collecting software. More than this, half of these numbers are outright inaccurate due to the problems with the very tools I use to collect this data. So, if the data is unreliable, is any of it actionable?

First there's the problem with measuring caloric intake. No two people are alike, and my body likely processes calories different from your body. You and I could eat the very same quantities of a food, but absorb a different amount of energy, too. The calorie count on packaged foods are inaccurate as well, being an average number for a product, rather than what's actually in the package. Then there's the problem of accurately measuring foods that you prepare at home. If I have a banana that was grown on a farm on the western coast of the Philippines, does it have the same caloric value as a "standard banana"? Many people I've spoken to about this generally say "who cares? It's just a tiny percentage different!", but those tiny percentages add up very quickly. Then there's the other argument that calories mean little, and it's nutrition that counts.

So … calories are a poor measure of one's intake. Time for me to ditch it and not feel guilty for the occasional unhealthy snack that I enjoy for reasons that have nothing to do with fuelling the body.

How about measuring my heart rate? Over the last few years I've seen it get slower by about one beat per year. From what a lot of health sites online say1, this is completely normal as we age. What's more concerning to me isn't the speed of the heart beat, but the rhythm during times of acute stress. It's been really weird for quite some time, and I occasionally need to lean against a wall or sit down for a few minutes until things return to the regular pattern. My cholesterol is very low. My blood pressure is very high. Maybe these are the numbers I should be paying attention to.

So heart rate makes no sense. Okay, let's ditch that. But how about the number of steps taken every day?

Yesterday I managed to power-walk an extra 45 minutes above my regular route every day, and I climbed an extra dozen flights of stairs because the elevator at the office was incredibly busy. What did my phone report? I'd walked 2,000 steps less than the day before and climbed zero flights of stairs despite doing an average of 45 every work day for the last year. When I pace at home with a baby in my arms, that counts as zero steps. When I'm cooking in the kitchen and going back and forth between the stove, counter, and fridge, that's zero steps. When I get up at the office for a cup of coffee, trek to my locker for a coffee pouch, walk to the shared kitchen for the hot water, then walk back to my desk, that's fewer than two dozen steps despite the 50 meters travelled. The numbers reported by the phone2 are wholly inaccurate and untrustworthy, therefore cannot be used in any decision-making process. If I wanted generalizations, I'd measure distances and calculate steps based on the length of my stride.

No point using the pedometer function on the phone, then.

And then there's sleep. This was the very first measurement I started keeping track of because I was sleeping so very poorly in 2013. The reason turned out to be work and home-related stress, yet I continued to measure my sleep because the application3 doubled as an alarm clock and would measure my heart rate first thing in the morning. Simplicity was key, and this was a very simple way to collect data while unconscious. Looking at the stats, though, there is nothing unexpected. I still struggle with stress and anxiety. I still lay awake in bed until 2:30am two weeks every month. Do I need a constant reminder that my dog is infinitely superior at sleeping than I?

Perhaps it's time to ditch measuring the sleep and focus on actually sleeping?

Looking at the Future

A lot of people have become quite enamoured with the idea of quantifying their daily activities in order to lead a more conscientious lifestyle. I wouldn't go so far as to say the concept of Quantified Self allows people to lead a healthier lifestyle, because I don't believe this is necessarily true. Health is deeply personal, and the cold algorithms we currently use to "gamify" and otherwise motivate ourselves fail to take a great number of important details into consideration. Our psychological well-being intrinsically tied to our physiological well-being, yet so many applications that try to tie these two disparate metrics together do so in an arbitrary and ultimately inconsistent manner, which leads one to ask whether the information collected can actually be used to make better decisions.

Validity of data aside, the other problem that people are bound to face going forward is the matter of privacy. So much of the data we collect about ourselves is stored on 3rd-party servers by organizations who are eager to pay the bills. While we can see visualizations of our data, not every application gives us the ability to export our data in a usable format for analysis somewhere else. To make matters worse, some services will not simply give people their data but instead charge them for the privilege of downloading their own data in an unwieldy CSV format. We are paying companies to get our own data back. Even if this is explained in 100pt font in the Terms of Service when signing up for the service, the practice strikes me as terribly wrong. Then comes the question of whether that company sells your data to other companies — and you know they do — and what measures are in place to protect your privacy. We cannot go a week without hearing of a high-profile hack or data leak. It only makes sense to never share data with a health and fitness company that we wouldn't also share with the CEO of our employer or the attendant at the gas station down the street. This isn't always realistic, though.

Looking just a few years into the future, the entire Quantified Self industry looks set to undergo a huge revolution. One with millions (or billions) of people taking part in an attempt to lead healthier, happier lives. While this is certainly a noble goal, there should be a few pre-requisites beforehand. Any serious Quantified Self project should:

  • operate in complete isolation, free of corporate interference or surveillance
  • make use of incredibly accurate, dependable measurement tools
  • be personalized to take into account our lifestyle, genetic makeup, and heredity
  • take into account that people are not machines, and that we all like to do "less ideal" things from time to time

So while the last four years of data collection has not been a waste of time or energy, it has revealed that there is still a long way to go in our understanding of what needs to be measured as well as the appreciation of what makes us all different. In time these problems will likely be overcome as very smart people make very smart systems but, until such a time, we are ultimately unquantifiable.


  1. Yes, we should never read health sites online for all the incorrect and inaccurate information, but it's hard to justify making a doctor's appointment just to ask asinine questions

  2. an iPhone 6S for those who are interested

  3. I used SleepCycle exclusively for the entire time I measured my sleep

Nozomi Sleeps

Nozomi Sleeps

On my lap, Nozomi sleeps, the afternoon away.
She's had her fun, her morning walk, and now needs to hit the hay.
Almost seven years, this puppy is, if a "puppy" she still be.
And these quiet moments we shall cherish, both Nozomi and me.

Placebo or Not?

Last night I broke form and did not put the blue lights away at 10:00pm. In fact, I was looking at my phone right up until about 20 minutes before I tried to get some sleep … only to find that I couldn't actually fall asleep. Right before 1:00am I did manage to drift off for a half hour before my neighbours on the 3rd floor returned home, waking 50 families in the process. I then caught another 90 minutes of shuteye until something brought me back to consciousness for an hour. Around 5:30, half an hour before y alarm was set to go off, I woke again and decided to call it quits and get on with the day.

SleepCycle reports a 38% sleep quality score, though I'd put it much lower. I can't help but wonder if this isn't due to my exposure to blue light after a few days without or if this is due to some other cause, like eating too much dinner at 10:30pm.

A few people have questions the authenticity of my personal experiment and the original work it's based on. Some have gone so far as to say that the research is false and I'm experiencing better sleep, greater alertness, and higher spirits through some sort of placebo effect. All I can say is this: if I have been duped and this is all a self-induced delusion, it's not the worst one I've fallen for.

Millions of people use their blue-light-emitting devices right up until they sleep, and some go so far as to leave a TV on all night and pointed in their direction. These people can sleep. Fact of the matter is, even when I'd sit in front of a laptop for 16 hours a day, I could sleep. My little research project isn't so much about battling those oh-so-frequent bouts of insomnia, though I'd love to slay that dragon, it's about getting better sleep.

For nearly four years I've used SleepCycle to measure my sleep, and one thing is clearly apparent: I think better when I am properly rested. I want to think better.

232 Hours

After listening to an episode of You Are Not So Smart talking about the importance of sleep, I've decided to not use blue-light devices between the hours of 10:00pm and 6:00am. Of course, if I sleep in, this means not using a screen even longer. I'll do this until December and, as today is the 2nd of the month, this means that I could go 232 hours without using the phone or notebook. Considering how I'm typically asleep from midnight to six-ish, this shouldn't be too much of a problem.

I am surprised by how often I want to use the little devices, though. Addiction no doubt. When I stopped reading the news every spare minute, I slowly became desensitised to the madness that fills the news cycles. I also lost the desire to always know what was going on. By reducing the hours I use blue-screened devices, will I slowly lose the desire to "check something quick"? I can usually control this quite well when out with friends. I wonder if I can do it while alone …

I Can't Get No Sleep

I'm sittin' at a coffee table unable to see straight,
watchin' parallel lines unwind and undulate,
across the steam-streaked windows the scene seems bleak,
another train leavin' home
conceding defeat with a low moan.

Hanging in a sky made of stone,
everybody's leavin' home,
I call my man Jerome to come meet me in the Twilight Zone
"Leave your mobile phone at home and come alone."

It's been a recurring problem throughout my life, but the last few weeks have seen it take new shape. The last time I managed to get a full night's sleep must have been close to a month ago, with the 30 days since consisting of remaining wide awake for close to 20 hours a day. My wired consciousness interspersed with short power naps; the kind that leave you with bloodshot eyes and the sensation that you're here, but not.

Insomnia has been both a benefit and a curse for as long as I can remember. In my youth the uncaring touch of wakefulness helped me accomplish some of my most obscure writing which has since been lost to the sands of time. This was back before I had paid much attention to computers and what they could do. The sound of binary code being manipulated by a sliver of silicon with etched lines had yet to seduce me. This was a time of paper and pen.

As I grew older and new hobbies and passions were discovered, I started to develop software in the early hours of the night. My fingers would hammer away at the keys until two or three in the morning, when a voice at the back of my head would then remind me of the alarm that was due to pierce the otherwise silent and dark cavern that was my sanctuary, heralding in the start of yet another day and yet another dollar.

I had thought this was something I could "grow out of." My older friends had always complained about how tired they were once they reached a certain age. It was something I looked forward to. A full night's rest, every night. How relaxing.

But it never happened.

Once I Was Fat, Now I'm Not

Since moving away from Ontario in 2002 I've had only a handful of restful nights each month, the majority of which have been here in Japan. Aside from these few days of peace, my mind has been constantly battling for sleep while deriding me for all the things I've yet to accomplish.

Where's Embink? Why haven't I put more efforts into studying Japanese? Why is my Arabic so rusty? Why haven't I finished my books? Did I fill out my reports at work the day before? How will I present new material to the people who are notoriously resistant to assimilating a new language … despite their presence in the room?

These are but some of the things that run through my head on a minute-by-minute basis. But when the thoughts get quiet … that's when things get interesting.

I've been having lots of "alternate story" moments running through my head lately. Things that I could have said in a given situation had I thought of it or if I were far more rude. One that I had posted to an open community reminds me of something I had read on CraigsList a while back, but most have been rather odd collections of "what ifs" and "who are theys."

What Ifs are my favourite, as these often turn out to be pretty funny. My mind has a rather poor way of coping with stress in that it makes everything funny … even if it's not. When things get really serious, I'm often reminded of something I had seen in a book, or online, or on some TV show. It makes me laugh … sometimes out loud. Naturally, this does have consequences, but it's kept me alive thus far.

Who Are Theys are sometimes fun, but often just an exercise in boredom evasion. I see some people and try to imagine what their life is like. It's done by taking into account how they dress, what they eat, how they walk, and just about anything else I can observe in the space of five to ten seconds. With this piddly amount of information, I then take it upon myself to guess what kind of house they live in, how materialistic they are, what kind of education they might have and just about anything else a guy in his late-20's might think about. Suffice to say, it's the biggest time waster at my disposal outside of reading the Daily Yomiuri.

Thought experiements occasionally mix things up by filling my head with mathematics, the varying laws of physics, and things I've learned from sources as respected as a post-secondary institution and as under-appreciated as a children's science-related TV show (thank you Bill Nye, you science guy!). All of these things combine in order for me to think about the problems with interstellar travel, the amount of energy required to escape the gravitation pull of a black hole right before slipping into the event horizon, the amount of energy created by a star in its life, and just about anything else related to reality … be it inside or outside the Earth's atmosphere.

But, despite the amount of time I spend in my head, and despite how tired I might get with the various types of thinking exercises, I just can't fall asleep. Nothing has worked, and I refuse to take sleeping pills. If I wanted to be knocked out, I'd just hit my head against a brick or something. So pills are not the answer.

What have I tried? Everything I've been able to find in books and as recommended by doctors. Before sleeping I would:


  • drink warm milk

  • drink a few beer or something stronger

  • get a comfortable bed

  • get into a set routine, where I would wake and sleep at the same time

  • exercise physically for an hour or two

  • meditate

  • listen to music

  • listen to nothing

  • listen to traffic

  • watch TV

  • sleep in a dark room

  • sleep in a well lit room

  • not eat or drink three hours before bed


The list has a few other items that I'd rather not discuss but, suffice to say, it's a pretty extensive list. I'd be happy to get a good night's rest for about 80% of the month if it were possible. Sadly … it's not. So perhaps I could enlist a little wisdom from you. Do you ever suffer from insomnia? What do you do to overcome it?