DIY Slack Busy Light

My adventure of recreating this DIY Raspberry Pi Busy Light by @eliostruyf for Slack.

A few months back, after listening to Deep Work and trying it out, I was hooked. I found I could accomplish the most difficult and daunting of tasks with absolute understanding and concentration. Though working from a small home with a young family and a couple of pets, needing to communicate at work, and my own personality traits, the absolute best I can do is 90 minute spans. 90 minutes of head down, no notifications, no distractions, no Slack, concentrated work – followed by a bit of a break, then another session. (I realize this is likely more Pomodoro technique than off-to-a-cabin-for-a-week true deep work, however the high level premise is the same, I get into a state of flow).

Setting up less notifications in my life, filtering all input, building timers, blocking out time for sessions, remembering to do it, and sticking to it, was all the easy stuff. Avoiding my family’s interruptions, was impossible. My wife, three year old daughter, and eleven month old son are all living their lives in our small home, feet away from me at any given time. They would randomly pop in, yell, knock, throw things, cry, text, ask, poke, question, hug etc. Breaking the session. Not only demotivating as it scratches the record on my focus that I just mentally committed too, but it would take around ten or more minutes to refocus and realign after they had left, leaving me a bit scrambled and a bit behind. Best illustrated in this comic:

My wife sympathized with me, and we both knew we needed some sort of way to indicate I was in these sessions, or on a call. The classic ‘door open/close’ or ‘headphones on/off’ wouldn’t work in our family, and shooting a text seemed unideal as that may backfire, ignite a conversation or trigger some reminder that may fill the brain with life instead of work. We both agreed that some sort of red light outside the door would be best.

I was thinking just a single LED light. I’d drill a hole in the door jam, and run some wires from a Raspberry Pi or other small computer or bluetooth device to turn the light on or off. This was the plan.

Then searching “DIY Busy Light” to see what else others have done, returned an amazing post by the very impressive @estruyf (which to my surprise, had only been posted days earlier) that took me away. It amazed me how good it looked and sounded. The code written for the project was minimal and well done. The parts looks awesome. I had never played with a Raspberry PI, or any DIY hardware, but this all excited me a great deal. I quickly ordered up everything.

I won’t go into detail on the hardware side as @estruyf’s post explains it all, but after a lengthy international shipping wait, it was easy enough put together.

I opted to not get the Pibow case and picked my own, but I was unable to put everything together because of the way my case and the holes of the board aligned the same, opposed to the Pibow that is wider and doesn’t use the Pis back two holes. Having no long tiny screws around to makeshift something myself, I ended up purchasing some legitimate standoffs and they worked well to pinch the whole thing together while giving the correct amount of even space between. Overall I was happy with how it turned out and I liked the darker backing and bolts:

On the software side, I use Slack for my work instead of Microsoft Teams as the tutorial guides for. And despite how my family will see only green or red, I recognized that I have more than just two states, each state needing to reflect differently in both Slack and on the Busy Light.

I began by defining those states in a JSON file, now hosted on Gist:

Life is complicated, so to me it was understandable to have this many different states. Basically, there are times I don’t want to be interrupted by work, other times family, sometimes both, and sometimes I welcome interruptions, and am open to new chats. Additionally, at my job communication is oxygen, so I do like to be explicit about why I’m not responsive during my normal work hours, and what state I’m in instead of just online or offline. (The rainbow status is just for fun, it’s available in the API so we’ve made it a signal that I want a hug from my daughter).

I next needed a consistent and quick method to reference and set these statuses. I didn’t want to memorize this table, or second guess myself on which version of an emoji to use. Even with knowing the keyboard shortcuts, I find the Slack UI a bit clunky for status setting – so I wrote a small Alfred workflow in PHP:

This Alfred Workflow pulls down, caches, and parses that JSON file of my statuses, displays them for quick selection, then when selected fires off a simple CURL to the Slack API, which sets my emoji status and online/offline presence. (I’ve opted to not share this code as it uses Slack Legacy Tokens, which are now unavailable).

Though I never forget to switch a status when I step out for a break or lunch, knowing myself, there was about a 100% chance of me forgetting to set an “In a meeting” status as I prepare and log into one. I automated this status setter with the Google Calendar Slack App. This app reads my meetings calendar and adjusts my Slack Status while in a scheduled meeting.

I furthered this automation to my Pomodoro timer (which I use to block out and keep on track of my 90min deep work sessions) so when my timer starts up, theres a call to an external workflow, triggering the Slack Status Workflow to set to DeepWork and go offline. Once the timer completes it clears the emoji and sets me to Active.

Everything boiled down to Slack being the canonical source of my current state, and defining a small pool of what that could be. Slack allows for easy automation and integration, and my JSON file allowed for easy editing and modifications. With this setup, the Busy Light just needed to read and reflect Slacks state.

To poll Slack, compare the emoji status and online/offline presence to the list of statuses, and determine the colour and send a request for the Busy Light, I thought about running a cron job on the Raspberry Pi itself, a single Python script that’d be under 100 lines, however, for several reasons I explain further below I opted to keep the RPI as a standalone server that only handled request. I only wanted the stable and simple Flask server by @estruyf on it.

So to bridge Slack and the Busy Light, instead I built a widget on my personal Dashboard “Albert”. Albert is an Express app that displays data from a personal PHP data API I have for myself (called ‘Artemis’, which supplies data to the Dashboard from other APIs like Google, current weather, stats on Things.app, etc).

The widget I wrote for the Dashboard in my API Service polls every 15 seconds, reading Slack, figuring out the status, and sending off a request to the Busy Light if it differs from the previous state sent. Making the Busy Light responsive within a quarter of a minute.

Besides being easier to debug and work on and writing in PHP instead of Python, another big draw of not writing the script on the Pi itself was that my Dashboard has a UI and a setup that allows for easily creating beautiful views for the data. Here’s some screen shots of the widget in four different sample states:

This Dashboard and widget is open all day on my second monitor, providing me a constant glimpse of Slack (despite the app not being open) and the Busy Light (despite the door being closed), which has proven very helpful for preventing accidental incorrect statuses.


So does it work?

A fair amount of time and energy (both things I don’t have) went into setting this up. It would be funny if for all the investments made that the light was ignored and useless. However, I’ve had the light up for about two weeks now and it’s been great. It works consistently, reliably, without fail, and most importantly the “red” is respected in our household. I’m getting in around 2-3 (uninterrupted) deep work sessions a day.


If I had to do it all over again:

I would opt out of using the Pogo pins. Despite how easy they look in the video on their site, for me I found they had to be tapped every so slightly in just the right angle after they were installed and already snug, nudged just right to get the lights up running. This problem would take about 5 extra minutes every time it was moved. I ended up switching which pins I used for ground and power and that helped a little, but it was just annoying to fix every time I worked on it. Luckily, I won’t be moving it anymore so this is a non-issue now and I will keep it as is, but I’d recommend instead to get a Zero WH and Unicorn HAT Mini so there’s a tight, solid, and reliable connection without all the fussing.

Secondly, when buying standoffs, I’d look for a kit that included longer screws, the small one-size provided in the kit I chose presented some challenges when putting the Pi on the case together, and made a simple task a litter harder and less secure than it ought to be.

Lastly, in my list statuses, there’s a few states that are starting to feel redundant and perhaps not as unique and useful as I had thought, like ‘On a Call’ vs ‘In a Meeting’. If I was starting up, I’d likley make the list as small as possible and grow it based on need instead of starting with a big list. Luckily, Alfred results in workflows order by frequency of use by default, so right about now after weeks of use, it will be evident which states I don’t use, and I can trim them off, refining the list.


Ah, this thing is so cool:


Links to build your own:

Stop Alerts From Shared Google Calendars in iOS / macOS Calendar.app

Tips for silencing calendar events that don’t matter, leaving only the ones that do.

At work, I’m shared a whole bunch of Google Apps / G Suite calendars that are very relevant for looking up events, but none of which I need to actually alert me. For several weeks, I was plagued with dozens of notifications that weren’t relevant to me whatsoever, and made a sea of noise that took away from the few importance of the tasks I actually needed to alert me. Meetings were missed.

I tinkered with Notification settings over and over, but nothing worked. For me for whatever reason, the solution to this wasn’t straight forward. It turns out you need to explicitly silence specific calendar alerts – here’s how:

macOS

  1. right click the noisy calendar in the sidebar
  2. Get Info
  3. Select “Ignore Alerts”

iOS

  1. Calendars
  2. Hit the (i) button for the noisy calendar
  3. Turn off “Event Alerts”


I presume there’s a similar process for watchOS.

Troubleshooting xdebug setup on VVV with VS Code

Some tips for troubleshooting setting up xdebug on VVV while using VSCode and Felix Becker’s PHP Debug extension and BrianGilbert_‘s Xdebug Helper for Firefox add-on.

Ensure xdebug is turned on within vvv

You may check xdebug status by taking a peak at your servers http://vvv.test/phpinfo/ page. If not on, via https://github.com/Varying-Vagrant-Vagrants/VVV/wiki/Code-Debugging we can toggle it on by accessing the virtual machine via ssh, then running a command that will turn xdebug on and restart PHP:

$ cd ~/your/location/for/vvv/
$ vagrant ssh
$ /vagrant/config/homebin/xdebug_on

The xdebug_on command is supposed to work without the full path, but I haven’t much luck with that. As a second saver, I store this full path in my text expanded since every time the machine is restarted xdebug being on does not persist and it will need to be manually turned on. A bash_alias entry could be made as well.

Ensure the browser extension is turned on

Yes, simple, but often forgotten.

Ensure you’ve started debugging in VS Code

Again, yes, simple, but often forgotten.

Ensure VVV is up to date

Older versions of vvv have compatibility issues with xdebug and php. Ensure you’re running the latest version of vvv, that vagrant itself is up to date, and that you’re using the latest version of php.

Turn off “Everything” breaks

Sometimes xdebug works while setting it up, VSCode pops up, but it stops on a breakpoint that isn’t the one you specified, it’s a random file from your app. This is an error that was picked up and xdebug stoped on because the default VSCode extension has it specified to break on “everything”. Unselect this in the Debug sidebar:

Check the xdebug profile is correct

Via the debug sidebar (shift+cmd+d), we’ll view our xdebug configuration file. Here’s an example of a WordPress plugin delete-thumbnails and the path I used

{
    "version": "0.2.0",
    "configurations": [
        {
            "name": "Listen for XDebug",
            "type": "php",
            "request": "launch",
            "port": 9000,
            "pathMappings": {
                "/srv/www/vvv-vip/public_html/wp-content/plugins/delete-thumbnails": "${workspaceFolder}"
            },
        }
    ]
}

Two important notes:

  • VVV has two initial paths to get to your sites, /srv/and /vagrant/, the latter is a symbolic link which xdebug does not understand, you must use /srv/
  • Other tutorials may say to use ${workspaceRoot}, this variable is deprecated in favor of ${workspaceFolder}

Try a breakpoint outside of your current script

We usually want our breakpoints on what we’re working on, and we’re frustrated when xdebug doesn’t pick up on the breakpoint, so we dig around our config to check what’s wrong. Let’s first make sure that our desired code is actually running and capable of breakpointing, after all, the code not running might be why we’re firing up xdebug!

Add a breakpoint at the root of your application, somewhere you know runs 100% for sure. In WordPress, this will often be in either WordPress’ /index.php file, or the primary file in your current theme or plugin. For this plugin I’m working on, I checked that the plugin is activated, and I’ve placed a breakpoints on a fake var on the main fire which I know for sure loads:

Is your VSCode the nightly build?

I’ve heard of users being unable to run xdebug while using their beta releases. Best to always use the stable releases.

Separating Work & Life

This is something we know, we hear about, we’re reminded about, but we rarely do. After all, contrary to stereotype, we’re the hard working millennial who don’t know how to quit.

One of the many parts of preventing chronic burn out is to properly separate work and life, with no exceptions. For me personally, I found the most impactful method to separating the two was by untethering my devices from each other and silencing almost all notifications.

I’m not going to go into the obvious here, but reading work emails during dinner, takes you away from life around you. Getting a text message notification from a friend while you’re in the middle of writing an email to your manager takes you away from work. Each app on your respective device is prying for your attention with notifications of messages, new posts, upgrades, releases, etc. It’s distracting and disruptive, it weighs on you mentally to respond sooner than later or take action.

After reading the article linked to above, I realized yes, I must have something like chronic burn out. I needed to start behaviors to correct the course I’ve been on for a decade now. The biggest impact for me was having two devices, for two different purposes: one for work, one for life. With little to no conflicting overlap. This physically forces me to ‘quit’ when I don’t know how to myself.

To separate like this, I needed to think of “work” as more than my 9-5, I need to think of work as my “career” since in our generation, building our personal “brand” and a social presence (like this blog post, or contributing to open source) is part of the expectations in our careers. I’ve also bundled in household “admin” tasks like bills and research (for things like purchasing appliances) into “work”. It’s admin work and it’s actually ‘work’, to do it effectively you need concentration and alone time (things life doesn’t usually offer).

Separating devices was a bit of a hurtle to undo as over the last 5 or so years, Apple has designed their ecosystem to be seamless between devices. Everything on all devices. This was a selling feature and I ate this up with a spoon and loved it! SMS Text messages on my macbook? Sold! Check out the homepage of any modern app, their first selling feature is it works both on smart watches and desktop. This was and is such a mistake, and only now am I realizing how problematic and damaging this meshing of work and life is.

To stop this, I first made a clear list of what goes where:

Laptop (career)

  • Things (todos)
  • Bear (notes)
  • Slack
  • Email
  • Documents
  • Firefox
  • Other work Apps

Phone (life)

  • Reminders (hubbydo, grocery lists)
  • Notes.app (life notes)
  • Messages / Texts
  • Photos
  • Safari
  • Email
  • Slack

Each device gets it’s a seperate app for the same thing. I used to belive in having “everything in one place”, but having two Todo list apps, one for each device, has been a game changer.

I then visited each devices iCloud settings I disabled almost all of the device sync settings (Contacts being the one exception).

I took this steps further by disabling all notifications for both devices, turning each apps notifications to “none”. I then did a second pass, turning on things that were truly actionable or urgent: Calendar events (for important calendars only), Phone Calls from family members, Slack messages on desktop. That’s it. No pings for new emails, no pings for updates, releases, new features, new posts, no text messages during work. Everything besides direct real-time requests that require immediate action, is silent and asynchronous. I check my emails when I want to, not when my devices tells me to.

This is contrary to what these devices offer us, but this is how life was only like a decade ago, and honestly, it’s so much better. This makes these rules in my life so much more manageable:

  • When I’m working, I’m working.
  • When I’m “offline”, I’m living my life.
  • The only notification I receive are related to what I’m currently doing, and are actually critically important, and actually require immediate action.

Since implementing this, my phone is now terribly boring, I rarely pick it up – but now I’m not thinking about work first thing in the morning during breakfast like I used to. I’m not brushing my teeth at night mentally preparing my next-steps for an email I just received. This change makes me feel so much more energized and refreshment for my work day, and allows me to be more present and enjoy small things in life a little more.

This isn’t a miracle ‘fix all’ post that suggests if you do this all problems disappear – this is just something that worked for me and has me feeling healthier, balanced, and more productive at work.

Tabbing Through Links in FireFox

I migrated from Chrome to Firefox in a support of Open Source software and because all other browsers have caught up to Chrome in terms of quality, performance, tools, and integrations.

Nothing much has been different except by default you cannot tab through links on a webpage! I’m a huge proponent of using my mouse/trackpad as little as possible, so this was a deal breaker for me.

Luckily, there’s a hidden setting in Firefox, visit about:config in the address bar, right click to “Add New » Integer”, create a key of accessibility.tabfocus and set the value to 7.

You should now be able to tab through all your links, which saves so much time on Google and other straight forward sites.


While reviewing this, you can also adjust how the TAB key behaves in dialog boxes. Checkout System Preferences » Keyboard » Shortcuts » Full Keyboard Access.