Being alone is not being lonely

I have started meditating in 2014, thanks to Francesca. I was coming from a very hard year: working in the sport event business is no joke when it comes to stressful environment.

However, I was thinking I was doing OK: new year, new job, new city, new work domain. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it turns out that sometimes the problem is you! You change everything you can, but you keep doing the same things with the same attitude and no surprise if you end up with the same results: I was still struggling.

Francesca figured out that I needed external help and knowing me, proud stubborn southern Italy nerd, she knew that it couldn’t be just “you should talk to somebody”, but it had to be some sort of a project I could keep doing by myself. She gave me Headspace by @andypuddicombe and everything changed.

At the beginning it was tough. I couldn’t focus on the exercise. I kept creating lame excuses like “I don’t have time for this meditation thing. I have stuff to do!”, but week after week, it kicked in.

For the first time in my life, things were different, because I was different. Being forced to sit for 10 minutes and do nothing became being able to sit for 10 minutes and be mindful.


Since then, I’m meditating every day, improving my ability of managing stress, unexpected events and conflicts, sleeping better, being focused and creative in what I do. A lot of improvement from just a few minutes of… well… of what exactly?

I put quite an amount of thoughts into this and now I can say “a few minutes of being alone”. I believe this is something that my generation lacks a lot. We are so constantly busy with everything that we struggle with being by ourselves, like if we were somehow scared.

I often got asked about my personal and professional path and the mindfulness topic always comes up. It’s always tricky because the moment I start talking about my experience and my current meditation habit, I get comments like “I can’t do it!”, “No way I can sit for that long. I have stuff to do!”, “I tried it once. It didn’t help” and so on.

After a few of these conversations, you start seeing patterns: people misunderstand being alone with being lonely. I see this a lot in my generation: a subtle, unconscious, uncomfortable feeling of guilt when you stop doing things, and so, we fill our lives with stuff to do, constantly struggling to complete the todo list.

I was exactly like this: busy, stressed, always struggling. It was a long time ago… actually not… it was just a few years ago, but it feels like a lifetime ago, because the difference is enormous and the difference is mostly in how I feel when I’m alone, in the room, meditating. I’m not lonely, I’m aware of myself, of things I can control and aware of my ability of properly processing what I can’t control.

Self-improvement never stops, because you can’t be prepared for everything that life throws at you. What you can do is working on being at peace with yourself and this reflects all around you. When I’m mindful I keep a positive mental attitude and this creates a healthy atmosphere also for those around me.

Make no mistake: I’m still a big work-in-progress and there is still a long path towards being the person I want to be, but what I can tell you is find a person that loves you and sees behind the mask you unconsciously built, find a company and colleagues that care about your happiness and find those 10 minutes to be alone with yourself.

Could you do remote working?

When I started working a few years ago, I was a common junior programmer in a common huge open space. It was fun: lots of people hanging around, cool projects, lots to do. It didn’t last. Something went wrong at some point. I couldn’t focus, my productivity was decreasing. I started working more hours to be able to finish the job. I was struggling.

A new opportunity came in: “Our client needs somebody to work in-house. Do you wanna go?” — “Hell, yeah!!”. New environment, new city, new people, new project: that was great! It didn’t last. I switched from small size company to huge size company: everything was different and nothing was different at all.

A new opportunity came in: “Mid-size company, different technologies, new people, higher salary: this is gonna be great!”. And it was great for some time, but it didn’t last. “There is something wrong with this country!! I gotta go abroad: Germany will do!”. It didn’t.

Quantum leap

It felt like a nightmare. I was pushing my skills further, I was learning more and more. I was evolving and I was changing every single thing I could change, but nothing was really changing in my job reality. Then the epiphany: it was the office. I changed everything, but I never changed “the office”.

When I say “the office” I mean working in a place where your work is roughly measured with how-many-hours-your-ass-warmed-up-that-chair-for; I mean a company where there is no proper work organization, no vision, no commitment; I mean a place where leveraging the fact that “they see you at the desk” all day long, every unpleasant duty can be dodged with a smart move: a mail here, a “I don’t think so” there and the classic “Come on, man! It took me all day! You saw me. I was at the desk!”

Most of all, I couldn’t stand the commuting anymore: traveling around the city, reaching the office and working with a client 5000km away from me or sending emails to people in the next room. At some point, a colleague sitting next to me said:

“I will send you an email to recap and than we can have a quick Skype chat eventually. How about that?”

Well, if I can send you an email or chat with you via Skype, then I can work from home, can’t I!?

It was time to switch to remote working. I started as a freelancer and immediately perceived the difference: it’s not the privacy, the freedom or silence. It’s the company mindset: If you are not physically there, they have to figure out a different way to measure your productivity, tease your commitment, organize the work and reach their goals.

If they are smart enough, they can do remote working. But can you?

My way

I’m a people person. If you hung out with me at some conference, you know that I could talk forever: nerd jokes, techy stories, name it!

And now I’m gonna spend every single hour of my daily work routine alone!?

I definitely need a plan!

Pomodoro technique

Working alone gives you the opportunity to get in the zone with a mouse click: “Disable notifications”. Now that you have peace, you need structure. During the 80s, Francesco Cirillo invented the Pomodoro Technique, to properly manage his study and work habits. It took me to my Engineering degree and it’s working now that I’m a programmer.

I split my work day in Pomodoros. A Pomodoro is an atomic time unit: there is no half-pomodoro. An interrupted Pomodoro is a lost Pomodoro and this becomes tricky knowing that a Pomodoro is actually 25 + 5 minutes long. Every 25 minutes of totally focused work, you get 5 minutes of break. Every 4 Pomodoros, you get 15 minutes of break.

Apply this for a few days and you will realize a few interesting things:

  • Your colleagues will initially hate you, because this will slow down your chat response time. But a few days of slow chat responses will push them to look into a solution by themselves or creating a Trello card with your name on. Win — Win
  • You do more. Having zero distractions create a state of mind that allows you to process more;
  • Those 5 minutes of break are not “breaking your flow”, they are saving you! No distraction = more work = more spent energy. If you don’t stop, you burn after 3 hours. After 25 minutes of full-focused work, even if you step out of your home-office, drink some water, play with the dog, your brain does not actually switch. It is still working on the task, just differently. Have you ever had a “brilliant” solution for a work problem when you were taking a shower? Rings any bell?
  • You cannot do 16 Pomodoros per day. You just cannot divide 8 work hours by 25 minutes slots of full-focused work and expect to be able to make it out alive. Nobody can do it. Or at least, I can’t do it. Nosce te ipsum, they say.

Neck Stretching

This just saves me. You can find tons of video on YouTube about relaxation and stretching. Just do it. I have my set of easy exercises and I do them during the Pomodoro breaks: a couple of minutes every now and then can give you tons of benefits.

One of my worst enemies was headache. I tried every f*cking drug, trying to solve the issue.

“It could be the weather! It could be the blood pressure! It could be the stress!! It could be moon phases or something in the water!”

It turned out it was just tensions in the neck. Spending hours and hours in front of a screen, no breaks because “you are in the zone”. And then you wake up 2 hours later: your code works, but you need an analgesic and to lay down a bit.

Mindfulness

This is a tricky and personal topic and I won’t spend too many lines on it. I want just to say that I find meditation extremely useful to reach a higher level of calm and peace. It helps me to relax and stimulates my creativity.

I came in contact with Headspace thanks to my girlfriend. She gave me a Headspace book as a gift: extreme measures for stressful times, you could say. After the book, I installed the Android app, I did my 10 days of free trail and I’m a happy subscriber since then.

Try it for 10 days. If you can find 10 minutes a day for 10 days to meditate… well… you will want to do it forever.

Discipline

Discipline is the final point. It’s the hardest one. Discipline is the only thing that can save you… from yourself.

I know, it’s 2 in the morning, but just another episode! Come on!

I’m too deep in the zone. I’ll skip this break.

I’m tired. I’ll start later this morning. Nobody will notice. They can’t see me.

I have food. I don’t need to go out. I won’t get dressed. They can’t see me.

I will work from Starbucks today. Yeah, it’s loud, but I need to see people. This is driving me crazy!

There is so much to clean in the apartment. Let’s do it!

Lack discipline and you will become soon your worst enemy. Working from home frees you from a lot of constraints that “the office” forces on you, but at the same time puts you in charge of setting your own necessary constraints.

Start slow. Try to get some kind of routine, lunch routing or sleep routine, for instance: same bed time and same wakeup time every day. Try to balance your freedom and your entropy.

I don’t want you to transform in some sort of programming soldier or a sleeping-eating-coding machine. I don’t want to see you going back to “the office” either.

Conclusions

I think that remote working is the future for our field of expertise: there is no need to rent an office and fill it with programmers that could work from home.

At some point, companies will realise that they can obtain more hiring the best programmers on the market and manage them with the best PMs on the market instead of having to pick the best available… in town instead.

Let me live where I want, because I can work from everywhere.