Nicolas Bouliane

Slowing down Posted on

I’m too busy.

Adulthood feels like a treadmill that never stops. Every time I slow down to catch my breath, I have to make up for it later. If I’m on vacation, chores and bills pile up until I return. Nothing is ever just done, the crank never turns itself.

I’m not new to this. I’ve been fighting entropy for some years. It’s just that these days, the treadmill is going too fast. My work is preordained for months, and I never get to work what I want. Not without neglecting something else.

Objectively, things are fine. All About Berlin – the website I run for a living – is steadily improving. This little digital garden grows, flowers and bears fruit. But it’s a big garden. I spend more and more time on upkeep, never finding the energy to plant new seeds.

I want to slow the treadmill down. I need more slack to build great things.

Automation

I automate a lot of the tedium in my work.

I use Wachete to monitor hundreds of pages for changes: mostly pages on Berlin.de and relevant passages of German law. If something change, I get an email highlighting the differences.

I use Better Uptime to get notified when something goes wrong with the website. That mercifully never happens.

I run a growing battery of automated tests against All About Berlin and all the tools I’ve built for it. I regret not writing more tests sooner. I slowly relearn the habit of writing a test every time I fix a bug.

Yet, some parts of my work are still painfully manual.

Bookkeeping and invoicing are my least favourite activities, but they’re unavoidable. Every month, I must match every transaction with an invoice, then email half a dozen people to ask them how much I should invoice them. Some have automatic invoicing, and I only invoice the rest quarterly. It saves some work, but it’s still a drag.

Efficiency

My main work – researching and editing guides – is fully manual. I must research, absorb, synthesise and summarise complex information. I must talk to people, interview experts and trawl forums for relevant information. This kind of work can’t be automated. AI is still incapable of boots-on-the-grounds journalism.

Nonetheless I have made remarkable efficiency gains in 2023.

The first was moving to a static site generator. It did for my work what a sharp knife and a well laid out kitchen does for a chef’s. I wrote about it earlier.

The second was creating a small community of immigration experts. These kind individuals who navigate German bureaucracy for a living give answers I could only dream of just a few months ago. It helps me find better information in a fraction of the time.

There are a few more things I’d like to do.

I’m currently thinking of ways of setting an expiration date on content. If I write “The minimum wage is 12€ (12.41€ in January)”, it should trigger an error after January 1. Currently, I set calendar reminders, but it’s a slow and awkward process.

Saying no

When I started All About Berlin, I often used the line “what are they gonna do, fire me? ask for their money back?” Somewhere along the way I lost the arrogance and started taking my work more seriously.

I often find myself in a position where helping someone costs me very little, and has a huge impact. But the costs add up, and it plays a big role in how fast the treadmill is going.

I’ve become better at saying “no”. It’s harder when someone you respect has a great idea, but there just isn’t enough time to do it. When I started my career I was the one pestering others for a chance, an opportunity. Now opportunities fall on my lap and I’m too damn busy to exploit them.

I know that I don’t owe anyone my time and energy. I’m offering a lot of valuable information for free already. I don’t feel great about declining people, but it has become a necessity.

Doing less

If I don’t have time to do everything, I must learn to do less.

I’ve already eschewed the artefacts of a modern website. I don’t have a newsletter, and I’m absent from most social media. I don’t print stickers or business cards. I refuse invites to podcasts and talks. I try to focus on the main thing: building a useful website.

More and more, I do less and less. I have shelved many projects in 2023 to stay focused on what matters.

Mind the maintenance

I’m wary of work that requires maintenance. I am particularly averse to time-sensitive maintenance.

I always wanted to create a community around All About Berlin, but I’m wary of moderating a forum ad perpetuum. It’s thankless, unpleasant work that I will never do again.

Likewise, I don’t write content that requires constant updates. I have learned my lesson after maintaining a page with coronavirus restrictions for two years.

However, I still need to bite the bullet sometimes. I wrote a few important calculators that need a yearly update in January. I will update them for a third year next week. I’m getting much better at it. Each year, the code is a little easier to update, the tests a little more thorough. Eventually, I hope that it will mostly update itself.

There’s one last task that requires a lot of maintenance: my guide on choosing a German bank. Banks frequently change their terms and update their fees, and it’s a pain to rewrite the guide every few months. I’m thinking of either hiring someone to update that information, or sharing the work with other websites that have similar guides.