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.


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.


More on Being Untouchable

I had a great conversation today with usability expert extraordinaire Francis Beaudet about Monday’s post on how to be untouchable, and I thought I’d keep the rest of you in the loop.

Our discussion centered around a post from The 99 Percent entitled What Happened to Downtime. In it, the author discusses how before constantly-connected technology sparked its way into our lives, we used to have a lot more downtime — time to let our minds wander, rather than stay consciously focused. Now that we have smartphones and ubiquitous internet, that downtime is instantly converted to productive time, and our creativity and quality of life suffer as a result.

Give Yourself Permission to do Nothing

This is a thought Francis mentioned in passing that really resonated with me, because it’s really the core of what I was getting at on Monday and what The 99 Percent is referring to as well. We’ve reached a point in society where, by default, you are expected to be doing something productive all the time*. We really have to force that disconnect, that chance to think passively and reflect and really free our minds of intentional thought.

The 99 Percent piece elaborates quite a bit on the benefits of disconnect, and offers some suggestions for working these important breaks into your life. It’s a great read, you should really check it out.

* Francis notes (correctly) that there is a cultural bias here. In many other cultures, it’s common to do nothing for a few hours at a time; something that is easily seen as lazy or unproductive here in North America.


Motivation Hack: Be Untouchable

I had a busy summer/fall. I was on a lot of projects at work, plus writing blog posts, working on a whitepaper, speaking more than usual, buying a house… and there was something about a wedding in there, too. At times, this could get completely overwhelming. But I found a neat hack to ensure that I was focused, motivated, and in a good mood every morning when I got to work, and every evening when I got home to my then-fiancée. It helped me survive. One simple trick made my tasks easier, and my day more enjoyable. Here’s what it was:

I took the bus to work.

Yeah, that probably doesn’t sound relaxing or motivating to you, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First let’s read into this a little to see why it worked so well for me.

What makes me untouchable?

My commute to work is about 25 minutes by bus. So in the morning, I have a 25-minute ride to work, and in the afternoon, a 25-minute ride back home. In this 25 minutes, I’m only doing about three things:

  1. Listening to music.
  2. Looking out the window.
  3. Breathing.

…And that’s all. What’s probably more telling is what I’m not doing:

  1. Worrying about traffic.
  2. Checking my mail.
  3. Planning my day/next task.
  4. Writing, or doing any work of any kind.

In fact, I just sit there, headphones in, staring out a window — totally spaced. This is what I call my “untouchable” time, because nothing can get to me in that time. I’m relaxed and not paying any attention to anything important, and that completely loosens me up. It clears my head. And whatever was stressing me out when I got on the bus is forgotten by the time I get off. So when I stroll into work in the morning, and when I arrive home after a long day (ready for a long night), I’m golden. I’m calm, happy, and ready to start on whatever’s up next.

Now I’m willing to accept that most people do not associate taking the bus with a calming, almost meditative experience, so let’s look at some other options.

What makes you untouchable?

Everyone has something that gives them that Zen-like, tuned out feeling. And if you just do whatever gives you that feeling once or twice a day, it will have a big impact on your mood and productivity. Here are some ideas to help you find your untouchable trigger:

  • Read. No news, no tabloids. A real, physical book.
  • Meditate. This isn’t my thing, but it works for plenty of people.
  • Take a nap. Just be sure to set a timer.
  • Lounge out in a comfy chair, with a cold drink. I do this too.

And of course, just as important, here are some things to avoid:

  • Don’t do anything that will trigger dopamine. Internet, games, TV, etc.
  • Try not to strain your eyes. Close them if you’re tired and avoid screens.
  • Resist the urge to plan and organize. You’re on break.

A good rule of thumb is if you’re doing something productive, you’re doing it wrong. You can afford a small chunk of time every day to be non-productive. When you’re not super-busy, this happens naturally. When you are super-busy, it’s your responsibility to make sure you still get that downtime. You need it. Trust me.

Your turn.

Do you already do something like this? Tell me about it. Do you have other ideas for making yourself untouchable? Share them.


Varied Goals: Not SMART, but Still Effective

I set a different kind of goal for myself this month, and it was pretty unconventional. It made me think of how we set goals, and more importantly, what kind of goals we’re encouraged to set. I’ll tell you about that goal a bit later on, but let’s start with the stuff you probably already know:

If you’re at all familiar with planning and motivation, you probably know that it’s a good idea to set goals for yourself. If you’re up on the latest trends, you probably know that you should set SMART goals. That stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Basically, it means you should make goals that are challenging yet possible, as specific as can be, and with a deadline. “Get 10 accepted answers on Stack Overflow before my performance review in November” is a SMART goal (I’m at two so far).

That’s all well and good, but today I want to talk about a different kind of goal. It doesn’t have a fancy acronym, but for short I like to call them Varied goals (the name will start to make sense soon). As you are about to learn, Varied goals are not at all SMART goals:

  • Varied goals are intentionally vague.
  • Varied goals are not easy to measure.
  • Varied goals are never meant to be fully accomplished.
  • Varied goals are extremely idealistic.
  • Varied goals don’t have a specific deadline.

…but that doesn’t mean they’re not useful.

Varied goals are all about fine-grained motivation.

We’ll get to what Varied goals are all about in a moment, but first let’s look at an example of where SMART goals fall short:

Suppose I want to get better at soccer. It might help me to set a few SMART goals like “make a really solid pass every shift” or “score a goal in the next five games”. These goals give me specific tasks to fulfill that will help me improve important soccer skills. However, they’re pretty course-grained goals, don’t you think? Every game I’ll probably perform dozens of other actions that don’t impact those goals at all. What is pushing me in those cases? None of my goals apply, and my general desire to get better at soccer is far too general and not particularly inspiring. The idea of Varied goals is to fill that gap.

A Varied goal would be something like “Run harder than last shift”. This is something I can try really hard to do every shift, even though it doesn’t really satisfy any conditions for SMART. If I run into an unexpected soccer-circumstance and don’t really know what I should be doing, I can revert to my Varied goal; running harder is probably a good idea in a lot of situations, so this is something I can depend on. Best of all, it’s quite inspirational. When I’m running to get back to help defend my team’s net, I can think “Remember how fast I did this last shift? I’m going to be even faster right now”.

More formally:

  • Varied goals are meant to complement SMART goals, not replace them.
  • Varied goals are meant to be striven for, not attained.
  • Varied goals favour what’s possible over what’s practical.
  • Varied goals should be applicable to many general situations.
  • Varied goals should be inspirational. Something that really fires you up.

Now, about the name.

I call them Varied goals because it’s very important to keep variety in mind. For starters, as mentioned above, Varied goals should apply to a variety of situations. But even more importantly, it’s a reminder that you should maintain a variety of goals — some Varied, even more SMART.

Back to our soccer example: running harder than my previous shift will apply to a lot of situations, and it will complement a lot of SMART goals very well. How am I going to get that first goal in the next few games? Maybe by outrunning a defenseman when I have the ball, or sprinting up the field so that I’m open when my teammate is looking for someone to pass to.

So, what’s my Varied goal for this month?

Be unstoppable.

That’s it. I have it starred and highlighted at the top of my todo-list, which I check several times a day. It’s a frequent reminder that for this month, every instant of every day, I want to be unstoppable. Am I going to let that IE6 bug slow me down? Not a chance. Am I going to get overwhelmed when my already-overbooked schedule fills up even more? Definitely not. After a long day, when I have to decide whether I should sit on the couch and watch TV or go to my desk and pump out an epic blog post, what’s it going to be? I’ll give you a hint: it’s barely even a choice.

I suspect this sounds a bit crazy, but it’s just what I need right now. I’ve been early on all my deliverables at work so far this month. I’m a wedding-planning machine. I’m out of a so-so slump in softball, and I’m finally getting better at soccer. I wrote this post six (!) days early. Obviously I can’t attribute all of this to a bland, over-arching statement, but I feel it does really drive a lot of small victories that are helping me accomplish my SMART goals more effectively.

Does any of this resonate with you?

I’d love to hear some reactions to this. Are Varied goals something that could help you, or is all this wishy-washy idealism stuff total nonsense to you? I’m still very much figuring this out as I go, and your opinion means a lot.

Customer Experience

Rules are Made to be Not Strictly Followed

A couple of things happened over the weekend that made me wonder about rules. More specifically, they made me wonder about why rules exist and how strictly rules should be enforced. Let’s look at these two stories and see if we come to the same conclusions.

How I scored a free bus ride.

On Saturday, my fiancée and I attended a wedding (not our own). By a miracle of convenience, the reception hall was a 10-minute bus ride from our humble abode, and the reception included an open bar. This meant neither of us had to worry about driving or finding a ride home, we could simply take a bus that ran until 2am.

And so, shortly after 1:30 in the morning, the two of us stumbled out to the bus stop and caught our bus. I have a monthly pass, so I walked on as usual, but when la fiancée went to pay her fare, the bus driver stopped her and told her not to worry about it. I’ve never seen this happen before, and I’ve been taking buses in Ottawa for over ten years. The rule has always been pay your fare or get off the bus.

Why did he break this rule? My working theory is that the driver saw two young-adults making the responsible but unusual decision of taking a city bus home from a wedding in the early hours of the morning, and decided to mark the occasion by breaking a rule and saving us a few bucks. More on this in a moment.

How I spent half an hour at the airport.

On Sunday, I went to the airport to surprise my parents with a ride home. Their flight was delayed… for about two hours. So to kill a bit of time, I thought I’d grab a drink at the bar (yes, the day after the wedding; no, I don’t have a problem).

I sat down and ordered a gin and tonic. When it arrived, I realized that I didn’t have any cash on me and began digging through my wallet for my credit card. The bartender told me not to worry about it, and to just let him know when I’m ready to pay. I was a bit surprised here. Usually the rule is that the barkeep brings you a drink and you either hand him some cash or start a tab.

He didn’t know if I had any means to pay for my drink. In fact, he completely left the bar for about ten minutes to make a club sandwich for another patron. I could have nonchalantly up and left if I were that type of person (I’m not — I watched a bit of baseball, and paid for my drink when I got up to leave).

Why did he break the order-your-drink, pay-for-your-drink rule? Because it was convenient. I was fumbling through receipts and business cards, and someone else had just ordered a meal. Why make the hungry gentleman wait for me to sort out my payment details?

Let the over-analysis begin.

The first point I’d like to make is that both cases were great examples of good customer service.

On the bus, the driver likely recognized that I take the bus frequently on account of my pass, and may have deduced that I talked my date into taking the bus home. Maybe the bus line wants to encourage wedding-goers to benefit from its services, or maybe the bus driver just wanted to make our ride memorable so that we would tell people about it (mission accomplished). The price of a single fare on this one rare occasion was a small price to pay for those goals.

At the bar, the bartender managed to please two people by not requiring me to pay for my drink immediately. He trusted me, even though I was a total stranger. He had no idea that it was my first time at the Ottawa Airport Bar and Grill, or that I had a blog and might mention it in passing. He was just doing his job, and making a positive impact on his customers.

The second point I’d like to make is that this sort of behavior is probably actively discouraged (and that sucks).

I seriously doubt either the bus driver or the barkeep would have broken their respective rules if “the boss” had been watching. It’s way easier to enforce the rules (all passengers must pay, no exceptions! all drinks must always be paid for immediately!) than it is to flexibly provide great service.

I’m not going to say this should be actively encouraged, as that could get chaotic very quickly in both cases, but every once in a while a situation presents itself where it’s ok to break a rule or two. It makes the interaction feel more human, and we like that about it.

And the final point I’d like to make is this: are there any rules you strictly follow that might be ok to break every once in a while?

Software Development Web Misc

Motivation Overflow

Let’s talk about motivation.

I recently joined Stack Overflow (here’s my profile) and one of the things I noticed right away is how easy it is to spend time there. I think I’ve checked in every day since I joined, and in ten days I’ve already answered fifteen questions. Now, before we discuss whether or not I’m developing an unhealthy addiction to social networks, I’m sure some of you are wondering what Stack Overflow is — let’s sort that out first:

Stack Overflow is a place where people can ask highly technical questions about computer programming and related topics, and get answers from a community of well-qualified geeks such as myself. When I log on, for example, I scan over a few dozen questions and answer any that I feel qualified to weigh in on. It’s free, self-organized, and completely voluntary.

Now, back to the issue at hand: why would I choose to volunteer my valuable free time answering other people’s questions? Or more specifically:

How does Stack Overflow motivate its community of users?

We’ll get to the answer in a moment, but before we do I’d like to take a moment to mention that I recently read Dan Pink’s Drive, a fantastic book about modern theories of motivation. I highly recommend this book. It’s an easy read that’s full of all kinds of useful information, and I’ll borrow a lot of its concepts and jargon in the remainder of this post.

Stack Overflow implements a wide variety of motivational techniques. For starters, all users have a “reputation” score which is basically a fuzzy measure of how well the Stack Overflow community trusts you. You earn reputation by asking and answering questions, so users that participate more actively in the community will get more reputation. Already that’s a form of motivation right there; the more you do for the community, the more reputation you build up.

Specifically, you gain reputation when you do positive work for the community. Users can vote on each others’ posts, so a good answer that gets a lot of votes will grant more reputation than a mediocre or weak answer (and likewise for questions). It’s very encouraging to see your answers get a lot of votes, and this sort of now-that reward (now that you’ve provided a good answer, we’ll boost your reputation) has been proven to be a repeatable tactic to motivate good behavior.

Similarly, good behavior is occasionally rewarded with badges. For example, if you answer a question and your answer is up-voted by ten different users, you earn the “Nice Answer” badge. This is known as an if-then reward (if your answer is accepted by many of your peers, then you get this badge added to your profile) and is historically a very effective technique for short-term motivation. Stack Overflow does a couple of things to keep badges relevant in the long term:

  • Some badges are extremely hard to earn — I’ve seen a few that have only ever been awarded a few dozen times.
  • Some badges can be awarded multiple times.

These conditions mean longtime users still have something tangible to strive for, so the motivational boost generated by badges doesn’t dwindle over time.

But rewards aren’t the only things that motivate us.

So far we’ve looked at the measurable ways that Stack Overflow motivates its users, but there are a number of non-measurable motivators as well. For example, the higher purpose of helping others and contributing to a database of valuable knowledge is a strong intrinsic motivator, and studies have shown this type of motivation to be the most powerful. On a basic, human level, we like to help each other out and do good work. Stack Overflow is an outlet for these tendencies.

Likewise, we enjoy pushing ourselves to master various skills. Like the carpenter who perfects his craft over years of experience, it’s rewarding for geeks like myself to hone the technical and communicative skills required to answer challenging technical questions. Not only do I learn something new every time I log on to Stack Overflow, I teach something new as well — this knowledge-transfer cycle is something I simply crave.

Let’s discuss this a little more.

If you’ve spent any time on Stack Overflow, I’d love to hear your take on this. Do you find yourself motivated by the factors above? Did I miss an important motivator that really drives you to contribute to the community?

Better yet, did you stop visiting Stack Overflow because you found it boring or uninteresting? What motivated you to leave?