The Tipping Point

What are the steps in learning a new skill?

First you hear about it. You think, hey, that’s something I could do! And you set about learning everything you can about the subject.

You’re limited by knowledge. You don’t know how to write an iPhone app/design a website/golf anywhere near par, so you watch others and read and try to learn as much as you can. The more you learn, the better you get.

This is the amateur period. You don’t quite know what you’re doing, and you’re not yet a force to be reckoned with in your new field of interest.

What happens at the end of this phase? When you’ve learned as much as you can from others, and the only way to improve from here on out is to practice and gain experience?

Well, you’ve reached the tipping point.

…and you’re not alone!

This happens to everyone, and applies to any new skill. There’s always a point where you make the transition from “reading about training for a marathon is helpful” to “now all I need to do is run!”

You probably knew that already. Here’s the useful bit:

The way you study and improve is very different before and after the tipping point. Here’s how you can maximize your gains — how good you get at this new skill! — before and after that point:


1. Breadth is more valuable than depth.

You should learn as widely as possible. The more topics you’re aware of in writing ActionScript/snowboarding/beekeeping, the better. Being informed helps you specialize post-tip, so you can focus on whatever you enjoy most.

2. Learn from as many resources as possible.

I’m sure your friend is fantastic at hacking perl/home decor/figure skating, but it’s always best to get a second (or third) opinion. You have to do your due diligence. Find another mentor, pick up a great book, subscribe to a few blogs (or magazines!) or take a course.

Diversification is key, because it ensures you’re getting the whole picture. The more sources you hear from, the less bias. You want a balanced opinion.


1. Switch your focus to depth.

You know what you like about blogging/motorcycling/meditation, so focus on that. Become an expert. Your new goal is to be your friends’ and acquaintances’ go-to guy (or gal) about your new passion.

2. Share your knowledge.

Now that you’re one of the pros, it’s time to start paying back the web design/juggling/skydiving community. Help out on a few forums, start a blog, offer tutorials to close friends and family. Share your new love of your new favourite thing!

Regardless, I wish you well on your quest to learn something new. It’s an exciting time, and by keeping a few things in mind, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a maven in no time!


Productivity Hack: Killer Mondays

Monday is my new favourite day of the week.

Most people hate Mondays. My commute this past Monday was full of unhappy, sleepy faces. I used to be like them. Barely awake, I’d drag myself on and off the bus, and proceed to have a slow morning followed by a marginally faster afternoon.

Then I woke up. Literally, and figuratively. Monday is the start of my week. My week. Do I really want to kick off my next five days in a groggy, semi-productive state? What does that say about me and my work habits?

When you start a new project, do you half-ass the first few days? Do you promise yourself you’ll make up for it later in the schedule? Of course you don’t. So why is that an acceptable way to start your week?

Next week I want you to absolutely crush Monday. Make it memorable. Make it the best day you’ve had all month. Get your week started off right, and see what soaring heights it brings you to.

Then do the same the next week.

And again, the week after that.

Eventually, those killer Mondays will become your new norm. And when the rest of your week has caught up, and gotten even better? Give this article another read, and start anew.


Focus on the Frisbee

I had my mid-term review at work last week. This is a meeting where I meet with my manager, and we discuss my accomplishments, goals, strengths and weaknesses over the past six months (we have a similar year-end review in the fall).

I won’t brag about the great things I’ve done this year, or how awesome I am at my job, or about the superb goals I’ve set this year. What I want to talk about is my biggest weakness:

I lack focus.

My boss compared me to a puppy.

Tony is great at explaining things. This was a perfect analogy. Here’s how I remember it:

“It’s like bringing a puppy to the park. He’s really excited to be there, full of energy. You throw a frisbee and he’s off and running after it.

Then he catches a whiff of something really interesting, and slows down to figure out what it is.

After following the scent a few steps, he sees a squirrel out of the corner of his eye, and sprints after it…”

You can see where this is going. The puppy takes forever to get to the frisbee, because he got caught up doing other things. Important dog things, maybe. But the goal wasn’t to do great things: the goal was to retrieve a frisbee.

The similarity is striking.

I don’t have a short attention span, and I’m no slouch either. My problem is that I have a lot of energy, and no trouble finding interesting problems to solve.

We need a DAO to retrieve model data? Great! We should probably use Core Data for the model, let me go ahead and set that up. Oh, and this property should be an enumeration! What’s the syntax for that again? What’s the proper way to store enumerations in Core Data, anyway? We’ll want to localize this too, and I’ll need a new function to serialize it for the UI, and…

And all we needed was a DAO.

(Yes, this is a true story.)

Instead of focusing on quickly pumping out the data access classes that we really needed, I wasted time solving interesting sub-problems that weren’t part of my task.

As you might have guessed, this came with consequences. My task was (very) late, and instead of spending that extra energy on other things we really needed that week, I spent it on a deep-dive into enumerations in objective-c.

Lesson learned.

I read a great quote a little while ago. So good that I wrote it down:

“Management is the art of choosing what not to do.”

Turns out the same is true for other disciplines. This was advice I really needed to hear.


(P.S. That last quote is by Michael Lopp, from his book Being Geek. This book is so badass that it has its own trailer. Check it out! It’s a great read.)


Three Ways to Suck at your TODO List

“You should have more images on your site.”
“I know! That’s next.”


Next is a giant TODO list of great ideas. A new design, some WordPress plugins to check out, that brilliant idea for a killer webapp. And you know what? I suck at Next. I have no problem adding things to my TODO list, but I can never seem to get them done fast enough, including whatever’s “Next”.

This is the part where I explain how to fix your productivity problems.

Except I can’t. Because I’m no good at this, remember? So instead, here’s a list of what not to do. What to avoid doing! Bad habits that I just can’t shake, and maybe you can’t either.

1. Don’t book time in your calendar to tackle your TODO list.

You’ll find time eventually, right? After you get back from Vegas, after the move, then you can settle in and finish that guest post.

This will never happen. You won’t just find a pot of free time at the end of the rainbow. If you don’t commit a couple of hours per week to tackling the stuff that normally falls through the cracks, then, well, it’s going to keep falling through the cracks.

This is hard for some people. It’s hard for me. I have a lot going on right now, and I bet you do too. That’s never going to change. Find some time you can commit to every week, even if the only time you can spare is early Saturday morning while your wife is at the gym.

2. Don’t set deadlines for yourself.

Deadlines are for office drones. This is your spare time! You’ll use it as you see fit. You’ll write that ebook when you feel like writing it.

Guess what? If it’s as big as an ebook, and you didn’t start on it right away, you’ll probably never “feel” like doing it. You’ll certainly want to — that’s how it made the list, after all — but that’s not the same as needing to do it more than anything else right now.

Don’t lie to yourself. If you don’t set a deadline, and put something BIG at the end of that deadline to show yourself that you mean business, it’s not going to happen.

There’s a reason offices like deadlines. They work.

3. Don’t let logic overrule emotion.

Of course I want to play softball again this year. Of course I’ll also play soccer. Yes, I promised myself I’d start running this summer, and I still will, dammit; I’ll do all three.

Choosing is hard. It involves making sacrifices. Sometimes you have to give up something you really want to do for something you really want to do. It’s lame. You want to do both, or all three, or all of the above, but the math just doesn’t work out.

This is an easy trap to fall into. Saying “No” is hard. I struggle with it a lot, and unless you’re incredibly self-aware, you probably do sometimes too. The upshot, though, is that there are an infinite number of chances to practice getting this one right. So practice.


I don’t have a magic formula for implementing the advice implied above. Nobody does, there is no such thing. The only solution is hard work, and being judicious about where you choose to spend your time.

If it’s easy, if it’s not a constant struggle, if it doesn’t feel like work: you’re probably doing it wrong.


The Internet as Ambition Amplifier

Seth Godin wrote a piece last month entitled The internet as envy amplifier. While I can see where he’s coming from, I follow a different approach.

I see the internet as an ambition amplifier. Of course there’s always someone better out there, and of course it’s easy to envy that person’s success. But isn’t it way better to spend that energy motivating yourself to improve?

Do the searches. Find out who’s better than you. These people are your new role models, and their numbers are your new goals.

Motivation Software Development

Creating Software isn’t a Job…

…It’s a lifestyle. I’ll explain why in a second, but first let’s get some context.

Here are a couple of people that are in the wrong profession:

We’ll start with the engineer. If he were a character in The Wizard of Oz, I can tell you what the Wizard’s diagnosis would be: He has no passion. He thinks he can just phone in his programming career in a 9–5 setting and be done with it.

The cargo-cultist is a more interesting case. Here’s a young man that is trying to decide if programming is the right career for him. He wants to become a better programmer, but he’s unsure about his skillset. He (wrongly) blames his learning abilities for his shortcomings, when really he has all the tools he needs to succeed — He’s simply not motivated enough.

There’s a simple fact that neither of these gentleman have yet realized:

Software is art.

Being a software developer is like being an artist. You aren’t just creative for 8 hours a day. You can’t turn it on and off. Your motivation to create ebbs and flows around the clock.

Not into the art thing? Fine. Here’s my* other analogy.

Programming is a sport.

A competitive one, like soccer football.

Do you think footballers only play football during games? Or even just games and practices? Of course not. They love football. They play as much as they can.

Would anyone ever think it’s stupid that footballers make jokes about football? Or play football on weekends? Or try to change the world by kicking a ball? Never.

Near the end of a losing streak, do the players blame their skills? Is everyone else just more talented? Don’t make me laugh. They get out there and train as hard as they can, because they love what they do.

And so do we.

If you’ve any doubt left, it’s time to start thinking about your next gig…

* Ok, so this wasn’t entirely my metaphor; hat tip to davefp for the assist :)

Experiment Motivation

The End of The Month

So, end of March. This was supposed to be Unbroken Promise Month, a thirty-one day period over which I resolve my outstanding debts for favours I’ve promised and never fulfilled. As I hinted earlier, this didn’t exactly go according to (my admittedly wildly ambitious) plan.

I have novelty issues.

The idea sounded so incredible in my mind. For at least a week and a half, I was sure I would make it. I was working so hard! Things were getting done! Then it all kind of stopped.

At first I wasn’t really sure what went wrong. I didn’t burn out. I didn’t want to “get things done” any less. It felt like the motivation just sort of evaporated. Slowly, and reluctantly, I realized that the novelty of tackling a daunting list of todos (on a deadline! with a plan!) wasn’t enough to carry me through the entire month.

Ultimately, you can’t will a UI update into existence, and a series of blog posts doesn’t just appear out of thin air.

Next steps.

It wasn’t all failure. I did learn a few new tricks to keep myself on-task, and I feel much more capable of tackling side-projects than I did at the end of February. I simply tried to do too much at once.

Most importantly, this month has forced me to take a hard look at my colourful HiTask dashboard, and decide which projects I’m really committed to finishing going forward.

And now, a little wiser, I’ve a better chance of seeing them through.


Productivity Hack: Still Learning Edition

A few weeks ago, I set a goal for myself to finally get around to doing the handful of half-started personal projects I’ve promised various people I would finish. I called it Unbroken Promise Month. As you may have guessed from the lack of exciting posts recently, this hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. However, I’ve learned a lot about motivation and myself over the past few weeks, and I’m ready to make a few corrections and carry on. Let’s have a look at the things I tried to do this month that I thought would help keep me focused:

1. Wake up at sunrise every day.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that for the first 10 days of March, I posted a picture of the sunrise every morning (like this one). The idea was that I’m not very good at making productive decisions at night, so if I shifted my day by forcing myself to wake up earlier, that would boost my productivity overall. Sounds reasonable, right?

It turns out this sort of helps. I did actually do a few productive things before going to work in the morning some days. This was nice! What happened more often, though, is that I would rush to get to work earlier, and therefore leave work earlier, and have more time in my evenings. This was nice too. It didn’t quite bring in as much extra productivity as I’d hoped, but it did make me more conscious of how I spend my non-work time.

What didn’t work at all was waking up at sunrise on weekends. I’m glad I tried it, but this is simply incompatible with my lifestyle. The sleep deprivation gradually built up, and then I went off on a mini-vacation thinking that I would catch up on sleep and get back to my sunrise mornings upon my return. Of course, that’s not what happened: I actually slept less while out of town, and haven’t hit a sunrise since I left. I need my weekend sleep.

Overall, it looks like I’m going to keep getting up early on weekdays (maybe not at sunrise, but earlier than I woke up for most of 2010), and play it by ear on weekends; I know waking up early doesn’t work, so it’s time to find out what does.

2. No gaming.

I’m not a video game addict by any means, but I did go a bit overboard in February. I played way too much Fallout, and this had a predictably negative effect on me being productive in my spare time. So I figured to help keep me focused for March, I’d cut video games completely.

This sucked.

I don’t know how to say this without sounding pathetic, but I need that time for myself. It calms me down. It makes me a better person (or so the science says). Cutting it completely didn’t help anybody.

This one makes me wonder, though. Normally when I find something that I enjoy a little too much, I set some arbitrary limit and that works just fine. For example, after my job moved to Gatineau, I started eating way too much poutine. Poutine is delicious, but I can feel my heart beat slower while I eat it. A little is okay, but several times per week is absolutely not. So starting in January, I set my limit to one poutine per month, and that’s worked really well so far. I don’t crave it, or struggle to keep myself in line with my limit, and I don’t feel horribly unhealthy for eating a dozen poutines per year.

I don’t know what sort of magic number will work for gaming. It’s a vice. It’s normally not a problem, but every once in a while I decide that I need to cut back, and so I do. I’m still figuring this one out, but zero is definitely not the solution.

3. Dual-boot Linux.

The motivation here is based on that age-old adage re: the separation of work and play. By allowing my PC to boot to Linux in addition to Windows, I can do relaxing, non-productive things in Windows, and exclusively productive things in Linux.

This kind of works. I really do appreciate the separation, but some things have proven difficult to pigeon-hole. Skype is a great example; is that more of a productive tool or more of a slacking-off tool? Well that kind of depends on how you use it. At my day job, we would not be able to function without Skype or something similar. But it can also be a major distraction, interrupting flow and feeding me non-productive links and funny stories.

I’m going to keep it up, but I think I have to start being a bit more lenient on the everything-must-be-productive rule. Skype should be okay. I need to modify my system to allow for it and similar tools.

Carrying On

I knew it was a bit crazy to try to do all of these projects in the same month. I’m still going to try to get many of them done, or at least started, before April. And if I get that far, I’m still marking that down as a win.

Sure, it would have been great to have powered through all of March and caught up on everything I’ve ever wanted to do. But I’m even better off if in exchange for not getting everything done right away, I’ve developed a sustainable set of practices that I can use for the rest of my life.


Productivity Hack: Small Victories

Do you ever wake up late for work?

This happened to me the other day. And I mean late — it was 9:30 when I groggily reached for my clock to check the time.

I went through the usual woke-up-late routine. I took the world’s fastest shower, grabbed some clothes off my floor, brushed my teeth (most of them, anyway) and rushed out the door to catch the next bus.

Then, just as I was slipping on some running shoes that were about to be put to good use, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror… It wasn’t a huge deal, but I looked pretty dishevelled. I hadn’t shaved. In my rush, I’d forgotten to grab a belt, and the shirt I’d picked up off my floor was totally wrinkled. My hair was a disaster, but that’s hardly news.

Here’s where the day got interesting. The easy thing to do would be to keep going and catch that bus, and get to work as soon as possible. I didn’t look great, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I had a whole bus ride to rationalize and justify my less-than-stellar look.

Instead, I stopped. I took off my shoes, I cleaned myself up, I changed into a clean shirt.

Appreciate the small victories.

This took some effort. I was in no mood to waste time getting dressed again, and now I was going to be even more late because I’d have to wait for the next bus. But if I couldn’t even be bothered to wear a clean shirt, what would that say about the rest of my day?

Small victories like this one are important because they put you in a victory-mindset. Instead of feeling a bit off all day, I took the extra time to make sure that when I got to work, I was ready. Ready to succeed. Ready to give 110%.

You don’t go straight from zero to all-star performance. It’s the little victories that get the ball rolling. They prepare you to succeed. The next victory will be a little bigger, and so will the one after that. Your day will go nowhere but up, all you have to do is follow along!

And sometimes, when you’re in a rut, all it takes is one small victory to get you back up on your feet.


Great Advice about New Year’s Resolutions

I didn’t want to do a post about resolutions this year because I wrote a great one that I still feel strongly about back in April 2010 called Make Every Day New Year’s Eve. But this is still a time when a lot of people do the introspection thing and come up with some goals for the new year, and I’ve read quite a bit about it in my RSS the past week or so.

As a quick thought going into the weekend, here is my favourite quote on resolutions out of everything I’ve read all week, from the mentally incontinent Joe the Peacock:

Here’s a helpful hint: Make your yearly to-do list a bunch of verbs. “Run every day.” “Write a book.”

This is exceptionally good advice. It’s easy to follow, easy to verify, and it will absolutely lead to healthier goals.

For my part, the closest thing I have to a resolution this year is to cut down my poutine intake to once per month. The statement itself isn’t quite dead-simple, but it is still verb-focused. How do your resolutions stack up against this rule?