Today begins week two of my “un-“, er, “self-“, employment. Week #1 was spent in large part taking another pass at my processes to see what further enhancements I could make to the way I get stuff done. Here’s the cheat sheet of my favorites.
TODO List: Who knows how many different incarnations I’ve had of TODO lists? The one I’ve kept going back to is just a running document that sits in my Gmail “Drafts” folder. But I think I’ve finally found a piece of software that can beat the elegance of nothing: rememberthemilk.com. I found the site after Googling “best todo software” and finding a web poll where people rated about 10 different pieces of online TODO software. RTM beat the others by a factor of many. After using it, I can see why. It’s interface is dirt-simple, but it does everything I hoped it would, without bells and whistles getting in the way. Which is not to say it doesn’t also have bells and whistles: it took about 2 minutes to set up my Google Calendar to show which TODO items I have scheduled on which day. I consider RTM a must-have for any person who makes their own schedule.
Park on a Downhill Slope: The idea, which I read in Life Hacker (Confession in order: I got almost all these ideas from Life Hacker), says that the last thing you do before you leave should be to leave a folder on your desktop that describes in specifics what your first task will be for the next day. Then, when you get in, you’ll get straight to work and set up your momentum for the rest of the day. This goes hand-in-hand with a similar idea: don’t check your email for the first hour of the day (until you finish your first task). It sets the stage for distraction and not getting tasks done.
Close Thine Email: I’ve heard this recommendation countless times, but have finally started taking it. What I’ve noticed is that even though having Gmail open doesn’t seem like a big distraction (it doesn’t pop up or make noises when I receive an email, like some of my friends’ Outlook configurations do), it serves as an escape valve that my brain uses whenever hard problems arise. My tendency had been to double-check whether there might be any email to read instead of solving said problem. Bad, brain, bad!
Ban You from Your Most Visited Sites: Another Life Hacker special — here’s a script that you can use along with GreaseMonkey to keep yourself from visiting certain, customizable, web sites at customizable times of day. I scoffed at this one when I first saw it (isn’t that what self-discipline is for?), but it is handy to have the computer be strong for me when I am weak.
Time > Money: I came up with this one myself — when one is a programmer, and one has a lot to get done in not a lot of time, many hardware expenses, most software expenses, and pretty much all book expenses are worth the cost if they can make you work faster. When you figure that the average Rails contractor makes $75-$150 an hour, if there is a book that could cumulatively save you one hour, it is worth whatever it costs. It was this same stream of logic that emboldened me to get my fancy new Quad Core machine last week, which is not only going to minimize my idle time, but improve morale when I get more done with the same amount of brain power.
I love being wrong. Actually, check that, I hate being wrong. But I love finding out how and why I am being wrong.
When considering whether to undertake a new type of challenge, my guess is that “being wrong” is a big component of what makes people hesitate. Why?
In school, we all had regular opportunities to be wrong. Every test you took, you would probably be wrong on at least 10% of the answers. And there was no subjectivity; no “this seems wrong but it could just be me.” You simply didn’t “get” the test question, or you misunderstood the homework instructions, and you had to learn what had caused your reasoning flaw.
Graduating to a professional environment, it seems like the opportunities to be bona fide “wrong” are few and far between. Those who are regularly told they are “wrong” are often people who become disgruntled and leave their job. The rest of us glide happily along, forgetting what it was like to get a “C” on the final.
But what more fundamental component of personal growth is there than learning, and what more fundamental component of learning is there than experiencing failures? If you haven’t been exceedingly wrong at least six times in the last six months, I’ll bet you’re becoming less than your potential.
I think I’ve hit upon a pretty apt analogy for the ebb and flow of getting one’s business rolling. It is the very indicator used by millions of business the world over. It is the stock market.
First of all — and you won’t hear me admitting this again at any point in the near future — a lot of what comprises “success” is stupid luck. I have spent hundreds of hours recruiting our team to this point, and the best people we have all 1) came from different sources 2) did not find out about Bonanzle through any of the numerous postings I’ve made to sites like Jobster and the UW Career Center. People routinely ask me (and I routinely ask other people) how to find the best people for a project, and the generally accepted answer is that nobody’s got a clue. You just keep talking to people and eventually get lucky. The stock market analog is the (fairly common) incident where a lifelong financial analyst is beaten by the S&P 500. Even seasoned analysts can’t generally compete with luck.
Second, no single day is very indicative of the overall trend. I think this is one those principles you hear a lot when talking about entrepreneurialism without really understanding it. It’s often worded as “you should expect a lot of adversity and challenges to overcome,” but when you actually experience these “challenges” (or less nicely: failures) on a daily basis, it is easy to get discouraged and lose track of the overall upward trend. What it feels like is that every time you get traction with a new idea or new recruit or well-executed maneuver, it gets negated by the Looming Unforeseeable Obstacles. But, viewed objectively, a business only needs to have slightly less failures than it has successes to win. In the stock market (and in my stock market, fantasy basketball), the same is true: trend trumps daily blips.
And the correlate to both the first and second principle? That the best you can do for either your business or stock is to put yourself in the best possible position to succeed, cross your fingers, and pray to the law of averages for a break. Oh dearest law of averages always comes to the rescue of the worthy. But eventually.
Talking to the fabulously intriguing Mr. Nathan Rohm this evening, I found myself referring to my previous venture, Spek, as “a vaccination against quitting.” The more I think about it, the more I believe that is the most simple and accurate description I could give of the experience.
For those not in the know, Spek was the Xbox Live Arcade video game company that some friends and I started to start a little more than a year ago. It began in a flash. Within a week of having the idea to start the company, I had teamed up with two hard-working and dedicated friends to fill the roles of designer and artist. Within another week we had our programmer, and away we went.
By the time the ride came to an end, we had worked on it about six months and had the trappings of a working prototype, complete with an engine and a decent amount of the art assets. We had the game fully designed, and had entered serious talks with Microsoft about publishing the game on XBLA. I believe that, had we not been derailed, we stood at least a 50% chance of getting the game published, and from there, taking the company in whatever direction we wanted.
But we didn’t. Ostensibly, this was due to NCA provisions in my current employment contract (i.e., my lawyer said we could justifiably be sued and our company taken), but at the same time, I was tired by the time the party came to an end. Here’s what I learned:
1. One person can not be the business planner, project manager, and lead programmer while working 40+ hours a week at their day job.
2. Any attempts by one person to be all of the above roles will swallow you whole and make you suck at everything you do, which will in turn kill motivation.
3. Starting a business is learning to embrace ebb and flow. On one day you might win a client. On the next day you can lose a partner. On the day after you can be admired. On the day after that you can be forced to revise the whole business plan.
4. Once you commit to a particular idea, many other good opportunities will present themselves. In the case of Spek, it was the opportunity to be the lead developer on the title that was going to be the highest-budget project our studio had ever taken on. By a factor of two.
5. And despite all of this, your commitment must be absolutely unwavering.
Though I’ve avoided reliving lessons number 1 and 2 with Bonanzle (where I’ve yet to do a lick of programming (I miss it, but Bonanzle’s success to this point would have been completely unattainable any other way)), lessons 3, 4 and 5 have been just as applicable to this project as they had been to Spek. The difference is, this time I saw it coming. The longer I can prove to myself that I have that unwavering focus on what the end result is, the more fortified becomes my ability to lead any type of business, or really, realize any type of goal. What is it that Thomas Edison says on a notecard tacked to my wall?
“The three great essentials to achieve anything worth while are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; and third, common sense.”
I knew the words, but now I know the depth of their truth.
Every day I spend with my nose to the grindstone, it keeps sneaking up on me. It started as “maybe someday,” and eventually progressed to “hopefully soon,” “maybe four months,” “about two months,” and now, three wee-little weeks: my (partial) liberation from the man as I transition to working a half-time shift!
I’m (partially) ecstatic. I don’t yet know exactly how calling my own shots will effect my day-to-day life, but it sure sounds terrific. Currently, I’m squeezing 25-30 hours a week between late weeknights and long weekend days. Time to meet with people is limited. Time to develop the site myself is non-existent. For all the time I’ve spent looking for someone else to give the executive branch of this project a shot in the arm, I’m now betting that in three weeks, I’ll be infusing the project with about as good a boost as could be hoped for at this point. For progress and morale alike.
I can still clearly remember the first morning I woke up in my own apartment after arriving in Seattle. The apartment was a complete disaster: cheap, run down, and littered with leftover food and partially emptied boxes. I woke up at about 8 in the morning after just a few hours sleep. Though I had thrown off my blanket when dusk broke a few hours earlier, I was still drenched in sweat from the sun shining through my window, baking me on my futon. I looked out my clear, sunny window onto the neighbor’s cluttered porch and an already bustling 15th Avenue. I deeply inhaled the pale smell of cigarette and newly washed dingy carpets, and pasted a grin on my face that lasted the rest of the week.
The independence was intoxicating, unlike anything I had felt in my life to that point. Every trip to the deathbed Safeway on 50th Street was a field trip where anything was possible. I couldn’t give a damn about yielding at crosswalk signals, paying bus fare, or doing the dishes.
Even today, many of my favorite moments are those where I shun convention in favor of the freewheeling ethos that personified that time in my life. Given that, it is something of a wonder that I managed to do the 9-5 routine even for the three-plus years I’ve been at it. From what I have read and what I can sense, making the leap away from security and into a self-directed challenge that will engage me daily promises to hold the same clear air of possibility that blew by me as I baked on that futon almost 10 years ago today.
For better or worse, I think I am probably perceived by some at my day job to be a “troublemaker.” I like to consider myself the good kind of troublemaker who makes trouble that leads to meaningful improvements. Because I do bring about a number of those. But trouble is trouble. Given that causing positive trouble has probably cost me far more in effort and energy than it has netted me in recognition and praise, I think one could reasonably ask why I persist in doing it.
I remembered the answer today, when I stayed a couple hours late to write a Perl script that would track the cumulative time that myself and our team of 15 people spend building our project every day. I’ve been wired to derive a feeling of exhilaration from finding solvable problems and figuring out the steps to get those problems solved. So when the day comes in a couple weeks that I can assemble 15 people worth of build data and present my interpretation of what the cost of those times is, it won’t matter to me what kind of trouble I’m causing, because ultimately, a problem will be one big step closer to being solved.
The shareable observation to make here is that, though the pleasure I took from writing this script was tremendous, there were still a few days that I prioritized it lower than my everyday tasks, because technically, it was optional. But once I finished it this evening, I realized that this is what makes me really happy. If you’ve got something that sounds like a good idea to you but is going to take a couple hours to get done, listen to how you feel once you finish that thing. If it is “good” or “great”, hopefully you will join me and be smarter about what gets precedence next time you’re prioritizing standard responsibilities, distractions, and whatever makes you feel like a champ.
The other point is that every company needs some quality troublemakers.
I’ve been progressing through the highly lauded Maximum Achievement by Brian Tracy. It’s a pretty good book, and you would probably be better off if you read it. But if you’re like me, that is also true of 1,024 other books you won’t soon have the time to read. So I’ll let you in on its best tricks as I find them, and you can just send me the $12.00 you would have sent to Amazon for it… deal?
My favorite idea so far has been the Affirmation Technique. The basis of this technique is that you will considerably accelerate your progress toward your goals if you can visualize their end result while ignoring the steps between where you are and where you’ll be when you achieve the result. Tracy uses an example comparing how you would take in a movie if you watched it from beginning to end vs. how you would take it in if you watched the last 10 minutes, then watched the rest of it. His contention is that if you already know what the outcome is, you are calm and relaxed, and generally more able to witness the cinematography, dialogue, and the way the scenes are connected.
So it is with business. I am currently applying this technique to the increasingly deadbeat renter in one of my investment properties. I’ve had to call him the past couple months to get rent paid, and while he has presented a variety of plausible reasons why the checks arrive late, the bottom line is that they’re late (or in the case of this month, very late). Thus, my first inclination is to experience annoyance or unease as I think through what next steps will be necessary to either get rent from him or get him out of the house.
Applying the Affirmation Technique to this situation has helped me see that, even in a worst-case scenario, I’m still going to be making many thousands of dollars from this house. As distracting as the situation is now, the result of this house will still be a net positive. As such, I can experience today from the perspective of a successful investor who, in a matter of time, could be sipping down thousands of mojitos for his trouble. And in the meantime between now and then, I’m confident that I’ll be able to take the necessary steps to reach that goal, because I see it so plainly.
Likewise with Bonanzle, where there are daily challenges that, taken outside of the big picture, can be fatiguing. But zoom out, and there is plainly visible a site that people need, and I know how to make it. Put aside whatever challenge today will hold, and its easy to imagine a number of scenarios where things are going to end up very, very positively. In that reality there is a well of confidence to draw from while the finer details of the plan are worked into place.
Yo non-profiteers, ye so virtuous, ye so in touch with your internal belief set, and working every day to further your altruistic cause: you suck!
Yo for-profiteers, ye so obsessed with pennies in a billion dollars, ye so proud and ascribed to the adage “It’s business, it’s never personal”: you suck too!
Yo Mickey Mouseketeers, ye with such freakishly proportioned ears, ye so happy on the inside and somehow also happy on the inside: you suck three!
Is that everyone now? Good. Let’s continue.
I want to meet people who are benevolent and like getting paid. From what I can tell on TV and even in real life, it seems that people are largely split into the two groups. The non-profiteers want no part of the capitalist, affluenza pandemic that has infected rappers and America and especially for-profiteers. The for-profiteers, on the other hand, want money severely. They want money so badly that they will pollute environments, defraud geezers, or otherwise embrace whatever vices blacken the bottom line.
In the middle, there is an island upon which I hope to find some fellow refugees. What’s so bad about getting paid?
One of the key metrics to indicate you’ve found your passion: you can’t tell weekday from weekend.
I love my weekends. It’s the time I get to spend with Katy and my friends at large. It’s the time I go on vacations. It’s the time I get to be outside and enjoy the ever-nicening weather around the ‘Sound. But it is seldom a Friday that I even realize the weekend is about to begin.
Not so when I was in school. I can recall feeling a palpable joy every Friday. In class, I took to watching the second hand of the clock dilly-dally in slow, ambling circles. The same was true when I worked at the University Bookstore. I have met a fair number of people who claim to like their job “because it gives them plenty of time to cruise their favorite Internet sites,” but I can remember no slower, more agonizing days than the ones that I had to try to find website after website to keep my brain occupied in five minute intervals. I wonder if these same people would want a job that required them to watch daytime TV for 8 hours a day?
To someone whose weekends were discernably more satisfying than their weekdays, I would hasten to remind them that weekdays are the 5:2 winner in how they will spend their life. That’s a problem if you don’t love ’em.