Motivation Hack: Lock Screen Reminders

One of the classic motivational techniques for achieving a goal is to keep that goal in front of you all the time.

The traditional suggestion is to put post-it notes all over your desk or monitor or whatever. This way, when you space out at your desk, you look at one of these and it reminds you that, oh, hey, you wanted to write a book, get that promotion, etc.

But post-its are a little old-fashioned, aren’t they?

Here’s what I’ve started doing instead:

Pick up your phone. You always have that with you, right? You probably check it a hundred times a day. And every single time you do, for a split second, you stare at that little screen you have to slide to unlock.

Take a picture of your goal, and put it on that screen.

Last week I had a lot to do, so I wrote it down, took a picture of it, and set that as my lock screen. For several days, many, many times per day, I would see that list, realize I have a bunch of stuff to do, put my phone down, and get back to work. Often without even unlocking it.

I’m training for a race (the kind you run with your feet). Right now my lock screen has a picture of my awesome running shoes, so that a few dozen times a day I’m reminded that running is awesome because I have awesome shoes. Guess how much trouble I’ve had motivating myself to train this week?

You can put all kinds of crazy stuff there. Anything that visually reminds you of your goal is fair game:

Want to write a book? Jot down an outline and use that.

Want to spend more time with your family? Use a picture of the wife and kids.

Want to start updating your blog regularly again? Try a screenshot of your traffic stats from the month you stopped.

Constant reminders are a tried and tested technique for boosting motivation. You’ve got a little portable reminder-machine that you carry with you all the time and are constantly looking at.

It only takes a few seconds to change the image on your lock screen. Why not do that right now?

Oh, and let me know what you set it to, because I bet I can learn from your creativity, too.


The Best and Worst Thing about Loving your Job…

…is that it’s very easy to do it for 14 hours/day.


Dan’s Seven-Step Guide to Being More Productive

Do you ever have trouble focusing?Do you ever wish you could get just a little more done in an afternoon?

Do you ever procrastinate on your next task because you have a meeting in 20 minutes?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then congratulations! You’re human. And like every other human being (even the ones that lied and said no to all three questions above), you aren’t always as productive as you could be.

That’s ok! It’s impossible to be productive all the time. Nobody’s perfect, every day has its natural ups and downs.

But sometimes you just need to be really productive, just for a little while. How do you give yourself that little extra push?

I’m about to share a little routine I’ve been using lately for just that purpose. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s worked really well for me so far. If that sounds like something you want to try, here are the steps:

Step 1: Get a second monitor.

A second monitor is useful for all kinds of reasons, and completely necessary for this routine to work. It doesn’t have to be nice, it doesn’t have to be anywhere near as big as your primary monitor, you just need more than one screen.

Step 2: Put all your notifications on your second monitor.

All of them.

Your dock or taskbar, your IM client, your mail client, your calendar, whatever browser you have your Google apps in, your Twitter et al.; if it flashes or has a notification of any kind, that counts. Second monitor.

Step 3: Put the really important thing that you really need to do on your primary monitor.

Thing. Singular.

This is a great trick for doing one thing at a time. It won’t help you multitask, because multitasking is unproductive. If you have several things to do, pick the most important one. If they’re all important, flip a coin.

Step 4: Put on some music.

This is the most important step. You can’t skip it.

You can listen to any kind of music you want, but you have to be able to set a finite limit on the number of songs played. Radio is no good, neither are apps like Pandora. I use Grooveshark, you can use your iTunes library (or open-source equivalent). Anything that lets you queue up an arbitrary number of songs will do.

The number of songs you line up matters a lot. You’ll see why in a second. For now just choose a dozen songs you really like and press Play.

Step 5: Turn off your second monitor.

Completely off. Unplug it if you have to.

Now, here’s the subtle but key rule in this routine: Don’t turn your second monitor back on until the music stops.

No exceptions.

Step 6: Work on the really important thing.

With your distractions completely blocked out, start working. Whatever you do, don’t break the subtle-but-key rule: as long as there’s music playing, that second monitor stays off.

If you’re blocked and you need to check your mail to figure something out, make an assumption and carry on. If you’re bored and you need a break, just sit there and rock out until that gets more boring than working.

Step 7: When the music runs out, or you’ve finished the really important thing, turn on your second monitor.

Read your mail. Answer your IMs. Catch up on Twitter. Whatever little things you need to do that aren’t actual, real work.

When you’re ready to get more done, go back to Step 3.

The fun part: Scaling up or down.

My favourite part of this system is how well it scales.

Need to get more done? Listen to more music. Meeting in 20 minutes? Put on 20 minutes of songs. Lots of email today? Stick to shorter playlists.

Your brain will grow accustomed to the “music on, notifications off” mentality. As soon as that second screen darkens and your ears start picking up sound, it’s go time. When the music stops, you know it’s time to sync up with the rest of the world.

This routine has worked wonders for me for the past few weeks. Do you have a routine to share? Why not try this one and tell me how it goes?


How to Learn Anything

It’s New Years, and a lot of you are currently making resolutions and setting goals for the coming year. If one of your goals is to learn something new, or something that you’ve always wanted to learn, this post is for you. If that’s not you, keep reading — this is a cool story.

The hardest thing I’ve ever tried to learn is Calculus. Specifically, it was calculus as taught in a horrific course I was forced to take in University called Calculus 2 for Engineers.

The marking was brutal. Here’s how it worked:

There were three midterms and a final exam. Each midterm was worth 15% of the final grade, the other 45% was the exam. No assignments, no labs, just midterms and an exam. And were those midterms ever vicious! Each one had only seven questions, and they were multiple choice. It was common to have pages of formulae and calculations for any given answer, and if you made even one tiny mistake — a flipped minus sign, a minor addition error, etc — then BAM! There goes 2% of your final grade.

It was awful, and probably the most feared course in all of Engineering at U of O.

One of the most vivid memories I have of University is sitting in class after getting our second midterm back. I failed it, just like I failed the first one.

The guy next to me, a friend of mine, was in the same situation. He turned to me, and he said:

“Dan, we can pass this course. All we have to do is one hour of calculus every day for the rest of the semester. It’ll work. I’m sure of it.”

I probably said I’d “totally do it”, and I might have even stuck with it for the first week or two. But I didn’t follow through, and much to my disappointment (but hardly a surprise), I failed the third midterm, and the exam.

This is the only course I’ve ever failed.

That friend of mine stuck with his plan. He did one hour of calculus every day for the rest of the semester, and passed Calculus 2 for Engineers with a B+. Not bad, considering he failed the first third of the course.

So if you want to learn anything, whether it’s calculus, how to juggle, or how to speak Italian, all you need is discipline. You don’t need to be smart, you don’t need fancy tools or textbooks or courses, you don’t even need a teacher or mentor. All you need is discipline.

Do it for an hour a day.

What are you going to learn?


How Do You Fight Starvation?

Do you know how a computer decides what to do when you’re listening to music while browsing Facebook with a half-written blog post tucked way down your alt-tab order?

It uses a scheduling algorithm, of course. Some little process inside your operating system looks at all the applications you’re running, and decides when to spend some time processing each one.

There are all kinds of different algorithms, optimized for qualities like overhead (how much time the scheduler spends making decisions) and response time (how long an application waits before getting its “turn” on the CPU). Whatever device you’re using right now probably has a very fancy algorithm that has been perfected for over a decade.

Let’s compare this to how we as people manage our time.

It’s very similar, right? We generally have multiple tasks on the go, and we often need to prioritize them and decide where to spend our time.

I clocked some overhead thinking about this the other day, and I realized that if my brain is even using a scheduling algorithm at all, it’s due for a firmware update. I have a serious problem with starvation.

In the digital world, a process is starved when it is given a low priority and there are too many other, high-priority processes stealing all the CPU-cycles. So many important things are happening that this poor, less-critical process is constantly ignored.

Most scheduling algorithms account for this by gradually boosting the priority of tasks that have been waiting for a long time. Eventually our forgotten process gets its chance to shine.

My brain struggles with the boosting.

I’m going to cut myself some slack and rationalize that I’ve been especially busy lately. I was in Europe, then speaking at a conference in Texas, then refinishing a basement, and somewhere in there work got kind of crazy. During that time, I let a lot of things slip through.

“I’ll get to that soon. I just have to wrap up [some feu-du-jour].”

The trouble is, there have been a lot of fires, and the tasks that are still really important and I really want to do them but they’re just not quite urgent enough to ever grab enough of my attention at once have been stagnant for far too long.

They’re famished.

So here’s what I’m going to do: Once a week (for the next little while) I’m going to spend an hour or two feeding some poor, starving task(s) in my to-do list. I can work on anything I want as long as it’s:

  • Not due anytime soon (if at all).
  • Something productive that I legitimately want to do.

Now instead of trying to prioritize some hapless, someday-task, I’m prioritizing the FIGHT STARVATION task. This level of abstraction will (hopefully) stop me from writing off those non-urgent-but-way-awesome tasks as things I can do when I’m less busy — a sun that never seems to rise.

I’m very curious to know how you deal with this. Do you find yourself with starving tasks every now and then? Do you have some clever (or super-obvious) way of feeding them?


Classics Week #2: Make Every Day New Year’s Eve

This post is part of the Classics Week(s) feature, which will run for three weeks while I’m off overseas. Like last week’s resurrection, this is an old favourite of mine, updated for your reading pleasure.

One of my favourite things about New Year’s Eve is making resolutions. You know, those promises to ourselves that we can never seem to keep.

I like this ritual because I like setting goals for myself. One of my resolutions for 2010 was to have a new post up every Monday (a tradition I’ve kept to this day). I made other resolutions that year as well, and as ridiculous as it sounds, by March I was already planning resolutions for the following year.

That’s when it hit me:

Set goals more than once per year.

Why wait until some arbitrary holiday to set goals for yourself?

You can set realistic, helpful, attainable goals right now. And they don’t have to be scoped to a full year, either.

Mix it up and have some that are month- or week-based. Short-term goals are easier to keep, provide benefits right away, and can help build confidence to hit more lofty goals that take a bit longer to reach.

Here are some goals that I’ve set for myself recently:

Each of these goals has taught me something interesting.

I’ve learned that writing blog posts gets easier the more you do it. That cooking a full breakfast helps me sort out my day (and is delicious). And that I am absolutely not meant to be up at the crack of dawn.

This brings me to my next point:

It’s ok to fail.

Many of my goals don’t play out exactly as planned, and sometimes they get completely cancelled if they turn out to be terrible ideas (6:30 mornings, I’m looking in your direction).

The point is to experiment and see what works for you.

Instead of becoming discouraged when you’re consistently not hitting a goal, pause and consider if this is really a goal worth pursuing. Did you over-estimate how much you could do? Is there a better way to get the result you were after?

Often it’s the goal that is the problem, not you.

Here’s how I hit my goals:

I use a few simple tricks to keep up with whatever goals my past-self may have signed present-me up for. This is what works best for me:

First and foremost, I try to be realistic. It won’t do me any good to set a goal that I won’t be able to reach, so especially for goals that are more than a week long, I’ll run my idea by someone I can trust to give me honest feedback.

This way if a goal is too ambitious, at least I’ll have a red flag telling me that I may need to adjust my targets. Of course, ultimately I know best; if I really think I can do something, I’ll still try it even if the feedback I’m getting back isn’t all roses.

Second, I find it helps to tell people if it’s an interesting goal (like breakfast). Maybe they’ll want to do it too, which makes motivation easier, or maybe they’ll pressure me into remembering to do it, which is nice when needed.

I find this works really well for me, for certain types of goals. However, it seems my opinion on this subject is not very popular. Your mileage may vary!

Third, I find it’s important to give myself visual reminders of my goals.

The tool I use most for this is a web-based task-management application called HiTask. For my month-long breakfast experiment, for example, I added a task to HiTask with a flashy-coloured label and a star, so that it really stuck out and was always at the top of my to-do list.

Low-tech works as well: At the start of the year I printed out a grid of every Monday in 2010, broken down by month, so that I could check them off after publishing each weekly post.

Does any of this sound useful to you?

I’d love to hear about what’s helping you hit your goals right now. What tools do you use? What strategies work for you?

If you haven’t set any goals for yourself lately, why not start now?

(What do you have to lose?)

Motivation Software Development

Motivation Hack: Make Annoying Tasks Fun!

Motivation is a tricky thing. Sometimes it can cause us to complete wildly-improbable tasks, other times it can cause us to dread even the simplest of chores.

The software I’m creating at work has one such chore. Our application interacts with a complex, proprietary, and highly-secure server. One of the consequences of this pattern is that we have to deal with security tokens.

Tokens forsaken.

It works like this: Whenever someone logs into the app, the server issues them a security token. From that point on, all communication between the app and the server must use this token. Easy, right?

Tokens purged.

The chore is this: Due to some wonky bug that is beyond our control, the server can only issue a few dozen tokens, and they’re not renewed properly. We’ve never counted it out, but I’d estimate the server can grant tokens for a hundred or so logins before it runs out.

Tokens scrapped.

When this happens, and it happens every couple of hours, someone needs to manually access some web form and click around a few times to reset the tokens. This is a pain for two reasons.

Tokens obliterated.

First, it interrupts whoever is trying to run the app. Maybe it’s QA breaking my stuff, or our PM showing the app to somebody important, or a dev like myself just trying to validate his latest code change. Whoever is unlucky enough to see the login fail must run through all the token-resetting hoops, and then context-switch back into real-work mode.

Tokens repudiated.

Second, nullifying the tokens will kill any and all existing sessions on the server. So if QA got the last token and is in the middle of a test sequence, and I try to log in next, and fail, and reset the tokens, then QA’s session is suddenly invalid and they’ll start seeing errors left and right.

Tokens slain.

So to stop QA from logging a whole whack of bugs that would be impossible to reproduce, we came up with a system. Whoever resets the tokens lets the rest of the team know by sending a message to our project’s group-chat in Skype.

Just murdered the tokens.

See? Like that.

This was really annoying, especially since we had to do it many times per day. There was much complaining, and clamoring about getting a new version of the server that might solve our problem.

Then, something changed.

Tokens punched in the face and had their milk-money stolen.

We made a rule: Every time you clear the tokens, your message to the group must be unique. At first, we saw a lot of synonyms for “killed”. When we grew tired of running to a thesaurus every few hours, we started getting more creative with our phrasing:

Tokens are dead, and their heads have been mounted on pikes to warn future tokens to stay away.

Topical, even. We would hit movie quotes, the latest news, memes… Nothing was off-limits.

Tokens defeated by attacking their weak points for massive damage.

It became a game. Who could come up with the most creative token-killing message? Who could get the most laughs?

Tokens were eaten by a grue.

Our moods did a full 180 from a few weeks prior. Instead of feeling frustration when I see that login failed error, I now feel excitement. “I have just the thing!” I proclaim, and off I go to reset the tokens before anyone else notices and beats me to it.

Down came the rain and washed the tokens out. Then, I shot them.

We successfully turned a real headache into a fun experience. Morale went up. And a happy team is a productive team!

Tokens fed through a detokenizer.

I’m going to look for other places where joy can replace annoyance. Maybe you can do the same?

You maniacs! You blew them tokens up! Damn you! Damn you all to heeeeeell!


Your Three-Step Plan for Getting Out of a Slump

My softball team won our first playoff game last night. It went to extra innings, and we just barely managed to eek out a win against a very strong team. Everyone was excited that we won, but I was a little more thankful than the rest of us…

You see, I’m in a slump.

My hitting has been sub-par the last few weeks. I’ve gone from hitting doubles every at-bat, to struggling just to make it to first base. Yesterday’s game was especially bad. When the team was rocking a two-out rally in the bottom of the seventh, I hit a soft ground ball back to the pitcher to end the inning — killing our momentum, and stranding runners on base.

I feel like I’m letting my team down. I know I’m not playing badly, but I can do better. I’m not my awesome, clutch-hitting self. And that hurts when it starts impacting our score.

Do you ever feel like you’re not as stellar as usual? Do you miss it too? It’s time we dig ourselves out of this. Here’s the plan:

Step 1: Stop psyching yourself out.

Your mental state in a slump is a toxic environment. You start counting your failures, and worrying about everything you might be doing wrong. You sweat the small stuff, and this throws you further off balance.

It’s one part vicious cycle, one part self-fulfilling prophecy.

We have to turn that thinking around. Let’s stop focusing on the negatives. Instead of beating ourselves up, let’s put on a happy face. Celebrate the little victories. Start building some momentum.

The first step towards getting out of a slump is to acknowledge that you’re under-performing, and to look for the positives anyway. Don’t let your nagging voice get in your way; fight back and show that voice who’s boss!

Step 2: Get back on track by tweaking your workflow.

When you’re in a slump, you’re there because something went wrong. Maybe your environment changed, maybe you got a little over-confident, maybe you were trying something wonky with your swing (guilty).

Whatever happened, it’s probably not possible to undo at this point. So it’s time to move on.

Remember that we’re not alone in this. Let’s ask for advice, and genuinely listen to what we get back. It can be a humbling experience, and it will give us a few new tricks to try out.

The second step towards getting out of a slump is to experiment. To gain some insight, and implement any necessary changes. Slowly, little-by-little, you’ll start moving in the right direction — back to your killer former self.

Step 3: Back and better than ever.

I know it probably seems like this is far away right now. It’s not. Despite what your mind might be telling you, you’re closer to your goal-crushing, homerun-hitting prior self than you think.

And you know what will get you that last bit of the way there? Hard work.

We’ve got to keep our heads down, and power through this slump. Sure, we’re not as productive as usual, but that’s the nature of the game; nobody’s a hero on every single play.

The third and final step towards getting out a of a slump is to just keep at it. Don’t let ordinary output slow you down. Instead, generate as much of it as you can! You won’t even notice when the switch happens. One moment you’re mediocre, then all of a sudden you’re kicking ass again — and we can forget this whole slump thing ever happened.

Falling into a slump is totally normal, and an expected part of any long-term endeavour. It’s not the end of the world. The way to beat a slump is to stop making it worse, start making it better, and keep at it until you’re back to your usual, entirely awesome self.

P.S. This applies as well to web development as it does to softball.


Do As Much As You Can (Even When You Can’t Do Very Much)

It’s easy to blow off responsibilities when you’re busy.

It’s easy to care less about something when your attention is constantly in demand.

It’s easy to skip a recurring task — just this one time — and make it up next week.

But by doing any of the above, you’re cheating yourself. And you owe yourself more.

The little things matter a lot.

You know about the little things, right? They’re the ones you consider skipping. The blog posts you don’t bother writing, because you’re tired, and you only have like 34 minutes and really what good are you going to write in such a short period of time?

But 34 minutes is still a whole lot more than no minutes. You owe it to yourself to take advantage of that time. Sure, your 34-minute post isn’t going to be the best one you’ve ever written, but does that automatically mean it’s not worthwhile? You’ll still learn a ton, and it will still be fun to write.

Do it.

And I’m not just talking about blogs.

Party too hard this weekend? Must be tempting to phone it in on Monday. Find some excuses, push a few things to tomorrow, whatever. You have to leave early to take the kids to soccer anyway, so you may as well relax and take it easy.

Don’t let rationalization fool you. You’re better than you give yourself credit for.

You have most of a day. You won’t be working at full strength, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take on a mean-looking todo-list and still win. You’re an underdog, and underdogs don’t give up. They push and use every bit of energy they’ve got to do what they shouldn’t have reasonably been capable of doing.

Be unreasonable.

Yes, I’m talking to you.

I know you have moments where you think of calling it off. You think of caving, of letting this one go. Everybody does.

Just remember: Something is always better than nothing. So go make something of that time, that energy, that everything.

Don’t make nothing.


Happy Canada Day!

Whether you’re sitting at home because you’re not into crowds, or you’re nursing a hangover from starting the party a night early, or you don’t even observe my favourite holiday, I’ve got just the thing to make your afternoon a little better.

One of the best blog posts I’ve ever read went up exactly a year ago today. It has nothing to do with Canada — or any major holidays — but if you’re into motivation and goal setting, this is a must read.

Allow me to present: Glen Stansberry’s Halfway.

It’s short, and it’s excellent advice.

Happy Canada Day! Or, if you’re somewhere else in the world, happy Friday afternoon!