Moving On

When I don’t write, I feel lazy. So I try to force myself to put words on a page whenever possible. Writing fun or silly prose or poetry makes the task more bearable. I wrote the paragraph below as an exercise in producing words and I’m sharing it here just because I can.

It was time to move on. Tom knew he was being held back by his group of friends. His mother always taught him that he should surround himself with the type of people he wanted to be like. Tom wasn’t. This became a stark reality last week when Mitch Panitkin was arrested for publically displaying affection for macramé. Word on the street was that the DA was out for blood. Mitch was likely facing real time this go-around. The gang had been embarrassed in the past by Mitch’s unscrupulous behaviors. During his years playing Snooker in high school he was caught juicing. Coach Bell tried to take care of the situation quietly but Mitch refused to quit. He was addicted to the performance boost. Bell was shocked when Mitch suggested the whole team do it. He said they would be unstoppable. In all fairness, Mitch should have been kicked off the team. But coach liked to win more than he liked to be fair or ethical. He let Mitch continue playing but made him promise to limit himself to ten pounds of carrots per week so no one would become suspicious. But everyone knew what kind of person he was.

I Willed Myself To Write This Post

As with most self-help texts (that’s another term for a book, not a short message you type out on your phone and send to your friends without fixing the mistakes autocorrect caused) out there, the meat of Benjamin Hardy’s book Willpower Doesn’t Work could probably be condensed to about 20 pages without impacting the message one bit. In fact, I think 20 pages is being generous.

The thrust of the book is that rather than trying to will yourself to do what needs to be done, you must customize and control your environment so you’re predisposed to accomplish your goals.

There’s nothing new in the book that anyone who’s researched productivity in the least doesn’t know. Get off your computer, turn off your phone and give yourself a deadline are some of the tired but useful pieces of advice found in the book’s pages.

There are also the obligatory nods to the evolution theory that are found in most how-to, self-help, cooking, travel and car repair books. Usually something along the line of your ancient ancestors needed to process “danger” when a sabertooth attacked so that’s why your brain’s the way it is and this book taps into that. Nonsense, of course, but it seems to sell.

So why am I reading a book that I don’t seem to think much of? Maybe I’m a sucker for book titles. I like the fairy tale idea that a book has some nugget of knowledge that all the other books (and internet sites) don’t. I know willpower doesn’t work because I’ve experienced it’s failure time and again. So maybe this book has a just as simplistic method that does work but with minimal effort on my part.

It doesn’t. But any book that attempts to nullify one paradigm of productivity probably has a recommedation for another one. And in reading about that different paradigm, you might find a point of view you hadn’t thought of (or had at least forgotten about) before.

Sometimes you just need a gentle reminder to turn off your computer because you’ve fallen back into the habit of staring at it for twelve hours a day. And it’s not bad advice to turn off your phone and set deadlines.

Most books (including this one) carry a bit of advice and then fill in the remaining pages with stories and anecdotes. If you want inspiration, read through them. Otherwise, scanning the headlines and speed reading through it gets you just as much out of it.

Set Tiny Goals To Accomplish Anything

I have more project ideas and things to write about now than at any other time in my life. But I can’t seem to get very many of them done or even started. I look through my notes every day and think, this is a good idea. I’ll start on that today. But by the end of the day nothing has happened.

There are three things that seem to cause this:.

  1. The complexity of a project overwhelms me.
  2. I have no idea why I wrote something or why I think it’s important.
  3. I missed my peak motivation time and can’t get myself started.

It’s great to have a broad overview of the thing you’re trying to accomplish. But it can be overwhelming to take on the whole thing at once. I try to get it completed today or I’m afraid I won’t complete it later. I end up not starting a lot of things because I fear not finishing. The irony is that I’ll never finish it anyway if I never start. At least there’s a chance to finish a thinig if you start it.

Instead of getting bogged down in complexity, you just have to sit down and think of the individual steps that it will take to get a thing done. Break a project down into tasks that can be accomplished quickly. If those individual steps seem too big themselves just break them down into progressively smaller chunks until they seem doable. Then start doing them. This even works for projects that don’t have a known outcome or proceedure. Once you start working on something, its purpose and meaning will start to unfold.

Sometimes you just have to sit and think about things. Some of my ideas are just random thoughts, phrases or observations. On their own they don’t go anywhere. That’s when deeper thinking comes into play. My mind generated these ideas for a reason. Now I need to mull them over and try to find connections with the other data lurking in my mind. Once a connection is made, those ideas become something real and actionable.

But even if I can see the next step and it’s small enough to accomplish, I don’t always buckle down and do it. If it gets late in the day I get tired. I do my best work between 5 am and 11:00 am and then again between 7:00pm and 10:00pm. Outside of those hours I’m often tired and unmotivated to do anything that takes real thinking. When I’m at work during the day, I try to schedule my activities so I’m doing planning, programming and design during my peak hours. I try to spend the afternoon hours doing any rote work and attending meetings.

Outside of work hours it’s always a struggle to juggle exerecise, spending time with my family and trying to be creative. I often find myself just wanting to watch TV, read a book or play a game. These situations are almost impossible to get out of. The trick is to avoid getting into them in the first place. Even when I’m tired and unmotivated it’s not too difficult to write a list of things that can be done tomorrow. Then, I set a calendar appointment to do those things early in the morning. Or I plan to do them in the evening so my mind is predisposed to getting things done at night rather than binging on netflix. When I know what I have to do and I have a list in front of me, I move faster and get more done during my peak times.

Ultimately, getting stuff done, for me, means breaking projects down into tiny component tasks, thinking about what I’m actually trying to do and then executing on those tiny tasks early when I’m still fresh and motivated. Now if I can just remember to do this each day, I’ll have no problem.

No More Sundays

For several months now I’ve been posting something to the blog every day of the week. I’ve made it a point to create something (prose, poem, drawing, photograph) new every day and share it. But lately I’ve been feeling like weekend posting is too much. Even something good like writing can benefit from a disruption in the routine.

I don’t want to get out of the habit of creating something every day. But I think I’m going to go down to posting only 6 days a week by taking Sundays off. 

Just Write Something

Over the years I’ve written prose, short fiction and poetry. But consistently writing, refining and finishing pieces has always been a struggle for me. Sometimes I’m inspired. The words just come to me. Or my first draft says exactly what I wanted it to say and in the way I wanted to say it. However, those pieces are rare and they’re not usually produced at will.

There’s a solution to this problem. It doesn’t have anything to do with methods or techniques. There’s just one little trick that I need to employ that solves my consistency and production issues. The trick is to write.

I tend to fear imperfection in my writing. More than that I fear not having anything useful to say. Not writing anything certainly takes the imperfections in my writing. And I don’t have to fear writer’s block. But I also ensure that I’ll never create anything good. I’ll never have the satisfaction of producing polished pieces or anything I’m proud of.

I think writing nothing is much more troubling than writing something bad.

Stop Putting Things Off, Start Getting Things Done

Have you ever put something off for days, months or maybe years before buckling down and getting it done? Or maybe you never finished it even though you can and probably should?

Sometimes circumstances force you to get them done. For example, at the last house we lived in I kept intending to remodel the bathroom, remodel the kitchen and re-landscape a section of our front yard. After two years of living there I finally did all of these things in the last few weeks before selling the house.

I often put off returning unwanted items to a store until just before the deadline. Even now I have a piece of luggage that needs to go back. Throw it in a box, tape it up and put on a label. That’s all it would take. But I keep walking by it and thinking, “I’ll do it later”. Yes, I’ll finally get it returned but it will feel like a chore because it’s something I have to get done.

This type of reactionary thinking sometimes follows me into the workplace too. I’ll have a map that needs to be finished or a piece of code that needs to be refactored. But I’ll wait until the deadline to finish it or until software breaks before fixing it.

Why do we leave some things undone even if they could be completed relatively easily? We might put off difficult tasks because we don’t want to get started on a chore. But I have a theory that we put off difficult tasks because we don’t want to finish them. When you have something you know you could accomplish but you don’t, it does two things for you.

First, it gives you a sense of control over your life and environment. You can do these things with relative certainty of success but you choose not to. If it were a task or project that didn’t have a clear path to completion it would become a major project and would, in a sense, control you. We like to keep some unfinished but doable projects around so we can have a hand in our own future.

Second, we keep certain projects around a buffer to the bigger and more uncertain things in our lives. Maybe these are those big projects that threaten to control us. Maybe they’re buffers against a phone call you have to make or something you need to learn. Whatever the thing you’re avoiding, you distance yourself from it by first avoiding something simpler and giving that thing priority.

So how do you break free, sweat the small stuff and get the big projects off your plate as well? It’s actually pretty simple. But it’s hard to actually do. I’ve found that you need to create a new habit of accomplishing at least one small thing on your to do list every day. You also have to commit to working daily on any big projects you may have looming.

Along with creating work habits, you have to carve out specific times to do them as well. It really comes down to self-discipline. You’ll soon discover that you get a much more satisfying sense of control over your life when you purposefully tackle your tasks. And those bigger projects will soon seem much smaller and more doable as you chip away at them day after day.

Great Ideas Are Hard to Come By

When I get a great idea for a project that would be satisfying to complete, my first reaction is often to shelve it and not start. Two things drive this:

  1. An unfulfilled idea means I still have the potential to finish it. If I start on it, I might find I lack the motivation and drive to finish it. It would become another idea in a huge slush pile of ideas that never came to fruition.
  2. If I start on it, I might find that the idea itself is flawed.

The irony of the first excuse is that if I never start a project or play with an idea, there’s a 100% certainty that it will never get done. The slush pile is already started. The goal is to eventually get one or two things out of it.

The second driver of inertia is itself a flawed idea. An idea may well be bad. But I’ll never know it if I don’t work with it and see what it’s made of. The fact is, most ideas are going to be bad. It’s in the formation of a glut of ideas that you end up with one or two that are home runs.

The lesson I have to keep teaching myself is that ideas are a dime-a-dozen. Great ideas that are unique and useful are much harder to come by. But you can’t have the great ideas until you sift through all of them, good and bad. You don’t automatically know which is which. You have to research, experiment and think. Ultimately, most will fall to the slush pile. But first, you have to make sure they belong there.

The Integrated Developer’s Environment

I was home sick from work the other day and had plenty of time to think. It occured to me that whenever I go in to the office I am very productive almost immediately. When I’m home, I tend to have little enthusiasm for programming. When I attempt to program at home I’m usually nowhere near as productive as at the office.

It hasn’t always been that way. When I lived in Las Vegas I wrote code at home on a regular basis. My immediate thought was that I don’t currently have the right hardware to be productive at home. In Las Vegas I had a decent desktop PC with two monitors and a hardwired internet connection. I currently have an old, slow laptop that shares a wireless connection among several people and lots of devices.

But is it really the hardware that holds me back? Most of my work is done in JavaScript which can be written with lightweight text editors/IDEs (I use Atom these days). I don’t need a lot of computing power for that. Honestly, my high-end rig at work is mostly for large imagery datasets and working with GIS.

I started realizing that it’s less the hardware and software that impacts my productivity and more the intended use of those things. When I go to the office, I use that computer for work. My home computer is used for surfing the web, writing emails and watching Netflix. When I sit down at it, my brain switches to mindless mode. I find myself wandering, checking email or googling things that pop into my mind.

So it’s less the development environment and more the developer’s environment that inluences his productivity. In my Las Vegas home I had set up my computer in a separate room and only really used it for programming. We had a separate laptop (the same one I have now) for web surfing and intertainment. For me, I have to have a psychological, if not physical, separation between work (anything that takes concentration and thought) and play. I would like to spend some time working on some open source projects on the weekends so it looks like I’m going to have to carve out some space in the house or a dedicated office.