To everything there is a season

Depiction of Janus, Vatican collection, Photograph by Loudon dodd – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

It’s inevitable, at the start of a new year, to reflect on what has gone before and what is yet to come. Janus, the Roman God for whom January is named 1, is depicted in such a way, so it’s difficult at this time of year to be anything other than retrospective :).

I’m approaching the end of what has been my longest holiday in years 2 17 consecutive non-working days. I had plans. I was going to get ahead with my OU module M347 as I’ve now got a 50% chance of my commute being on a train that doesn’t have tables and was worried about losing this crucial (and only) hour a day I have to study. I was going to get down a first draft of a technical AI book I’ve been meaning to write after the success of the AI Playbook. I was going to bake with my family and build some of the Lego sets that are waiting for me to open3. It was a grand plan of productivity.

I’ll be wearing this for all my speaking engagements in 2020, solve the adventure at

It is probably a surprise to nobody that I deviated from this plan. Within a couple of days exhaustion hit me and I couldn’t concentrate and slept… a lot. Rushing one morning after oversleeping I managed to slip on the decking and ended up badly bruising my leg before a day out at a theme park, including my daughter’s visit to Santa – not something that could be postponed or cancelled. I found myself rushing at lot in those days before Christmas, posting cards late and very unlike me doing last minute present shopping.

How had I got myself into this? I normally like to have everything sorted for Christmas by the end of November, so I can enjoy the lead up to what is (for my family) quite a secular occasion. 2019 was far busier than I intended. I took on far too much, even though I enjoyed every minute of it. It’s easy to moderate the tasks you don’t enjoy, but difficult to say “No” when you know that you’re missing out on something fun!

Earlier in the year I had submitted talk proposals to three conferences, each with slightly different topics. I then got invited to speak at 5 meetups and a further three conferences that were not in the plan. Each of these were slightly different topics as well meaning that I had to write new talks for each. I love giving talks and it’s also a great opportunity to attend conferences that I couldn’t normally justify as well as meeting some incredible people for collaboration and give back to the community with meet-ups. So I kept saying yes.

The problem is that none of these talks were promoting my company or its products, so while they were supportive in giving me the time off to attend them, it would be inappropriate for me to have prepared the talks during work time. As such, writing these talks and creating slides, code samples etc was all done in my own time. For a one hour keynote, this is a couple of days of research, several days of coding, a day for the slides and then maybe another for rehearsals. From August until I finished work in December, I was giving a talk on average every single week. While some of these were 15-20 minute meet-ups that took far less preparation, the six main talks and keynotes took their toll. On the days I was staying away from home for my day job, I was working late into the night to maximise that time away. Even when I was at conferences, I’d get back to my hotel after the speaker dinner or other social and continuing to work4. It sounds exhausting just writing about it. And it was. I enjoyed every minute but didn’t get proper rest. I barely got to see the locations I visited. The time off that I had during these months was full of family visits so with the driving and everything else that was just constant activity too.

Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day were fantastic: chilled and so much fun with my family. I started to feel relaxed and then a little guilty that I hadn’t done any of things I’d planned to do. I came down with a cold and just felt rotten, but the enforced relaxing was a revelation. I had tried to force myself to make a start on the book, but just couldn’t concentrate. I binge watched the Witcher instead5. I drove around with my daughter singing along to the Frozen 2 soundtrack at the top of our lungs. While my vocal range is a bit more Jonathon Groff than Idina Menzel, it was a lot of fun. We saw the local pantomime. I watched a lot of streamers on Twitch. I slept in until after lunch and read so much I had to recharge my kindle twice6.

I talked about maths and chemistry and physics with my family and made a new friend with whom I talked about clinical treatments for language processing issues in the brain – this has given me some ideas for improvements with natural language processing, which (if I get time) may lead to us co-authoring a paper7.

This is probably the most refreshed and energised I’ve been at the start of a year for a long time, and I want to keep hold of that. So, looking forward, what will 2020 bring?

I will finish M347 and my OU Maths degree (which I’m doing for fun remember!) in June. I will get the AI book written by Easter. Most importantly, I will limit both the number of speaking engagements I do and the topics I’m prepared to cover. I’m not sure what this limit is yet. but there is a sensible mid point between none and one a week šŸ™‚ The academic paper on NLP algorithms is a stretch goal right now. I’d love to do it, but as I don’t work for a research institute, I can’t pivot my day to day tasks to follow this hunch.

Sometimes even the things you enjoy can lead to burnout – make sure that you don’t forget to spend time on the important things as well.

  1. Although sadly not my own name, much as I feel it is more apt than the accepted root of Jan as a given name šŸ™‚
  2. Possibly since 2010 but verifying this may be someone depressing šŸ™‚
  3. The UCS Millenium Falcon is currently taunting me, as is the Voltron set
  4. Except for the first night at QCon SF where I was so jet lagged I slept from 6pm until 3am šŸ˜‰
  5. Highly recommend this if you haven’t already seen it.
  6. Okay so it wasn’t fully charged when I started and I charged it as soon as the warning came up, but I read very quickly and the constant page refreshes get through the charge faster than you think!
  7. I haven’t told them this yet though and I’m not sure if they read this blog so it may be a surprise :D.

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. Iā€™m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.