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Don’t worry about your tools in the beginning: Avoiding premature optimization

“What tools should I buy?” “What platform do I start with?” “What’s the best option out there?” Geeks have a special case of analysis paralysis at the beginning of things. We try to optimize that first step, and instead end up never getting started.

Here’s what I’m learning: In the beginning, you’re unlikely to be able to appreciate the sophisticated differences between tools. Don’t bother spending hours or days or weeks picking the perfect tool for you. Sure, you can do a little bit of research, but then pick one and learn with that first. If you run into the limits, that’s when you can think about upgrading.

Start with something simple and inexpensive (or even free). If you wear it out or if you run into things you just can’t do with it and that are worth the additional expense, then decide if you want to get something better. I do this with:

  • Food: We start with inexpensive ingredients and work our way up as necessary.
  • Shoes: Upgraded from cheap to medium.
  • Bicycles: Still on the first bicycle I bought in Canada, since it was enough for me.
  • Ukeleles: Glad I just bought the basic one, since it turns out it’s not quite my thing.
  • Knives: Okay, we splurged on this one and started with good knives, since I piggybacked off W-’s experience and recommendations.
  • Drawing: I tried the Nintendo DS before upgrading to a tablet and then to a tablet PC. For paper, I tried ordinary sketchbooks that cost $4.99 on sale, and have been happy with them so far – although I might downgrade to just having a binder of loose sheets.

Don’t worry about what the “best” is until you figure out what your actual needs are.

There are situations in which the cheapest or the simplest might not be the best place to start. You can easily get frustrated if something is not well-designed, and some inferior tools like dull kitchen knives are dangerous. That’s a sign that you’ve run into your choice’s limits and can therefore upgrade without worry. Yes, it might waste a little money and time, but you’ll probably waste even more time if you procrastinate choosing (more research! more!) and waste more money if you always buy things that have more capacity than you ultimately need. You can tweak how you make that initial decision–maybe always consider the second-from-the-bottom or something like that–but the important part is getting out there and learning.

Planning my next little business

I’ve been holding back from experimenting with new businesses. I’m not sure how the next few months are going to be like, and I don’t want to make commitments like sketchnote event bookings or additional freelance contracts. Besides, focusing on my own stuff has been an interesting experiment so far, and I want to continue it.

Still, from time to time, I get the itch to build systems and processes for creating value for other people. For example, when I talk to people who are struggling to find jobs or having a hard time building freelance businesses, I want to support and encourage them by helping them see opportunities. Talking about stuff can feel a bit empty, but actually doing stuff–and showing how to do it–is more helpful, especially since I seem to be more comfortable with sales, marketing, and business experimentation than many people are.

So, depending on how these next few months turn out, what are the kinds of businesses that I’d like to build?

  • E-books and other resources: I like the way free/pay-what-you-want information makes it easy for people to learn without friction and still be able to show their appreciation through payment, conversation, links, or other good things. I also like the scale of it: I can spend some time working on a resource, and then people can come across it when they need it. No schedule commitments, either.
  • Software, maybe?: Someday. The upsides of working on stuff that other people use: feature suggestions, warm-and-fuzzies. The downside: dealing with bugs. I think the first step would be to build tools for myself.
  • Visual book reviews?: People seem to like these, and I enjoy reading.

Let me take a step back here and break that out into the specific characteristics I like. If I identify those characteristics, I might be able to recognize or imagine other businesses along those lines. What attracts me?

  • Scale: Build once, help many. I don’t mind lower sales at the beginning if I’m working on the kinds of things that people will find useful over a long period of time.
  • Accumulation: I like collecting building blocks in terms of content and skills because I can combine those in interesting ways.
  • Generosity: I like free/pay-what-you-want because it allows me to reach the most people and feel great about the relationships.
  • Flexibility: I like minimizing schedule or topic commitments because that reduces stress and lets me adapt to what’s going on. Self-directed work fits me well.
  • Distinction: I like doing things that involve uncommon perspectives or combinations of skills. I feel like I can bring more to the table.
  • Value: I like things that help people learn more, understand things better, save time or money, share what they know, or be more excited about life.
  • Other things I care about: I care about making good ideas more accessible, which is why I like transcripts, sketchnotes, writing, and websites. I also care about helping good people do well, which is why I help friends with their businesses.

Writing fits these characteristics pretty well. If I can help friends through process coaching and things like that, I can learn more about things that other people might find useful too. It’s entirely possible to build good stuff around just this learn-share-scale cycle. Anything else (spin-off businesses? software? services) would be a bonus.

I have a little more uncertainty to deal with. I can see the timeline for it, so I’m okay with giving myself permission to take it easy for the next couple of months. After that, I’ll probably have a clearer idea of what the rest of this experiment with semi-retirement (and other follow-up experiments! =) ) could be like.

What would more focused writing or content creation look like? I might:

  • Pick a subject people are curious about and write a series of blog posts that I can turn into e-books
  • Revisit that outline of things to write about and flesh it in
  • Organize blog posts and other content into downloadable resources
  • Create courses so that people can go through things at a recommended pace and with multimedia content
    • Ooh, more animations

I think that would be an interesting life. =)

I still want to do something to help all these awesome people I come across who are having a hard time finding jobs or building businesses for themselves, though. It’s odd hearing about their struggles while at the same time watching the stock market keep going up – businesses seem to be doing okay, but it’s not trickling down? Maybe I’ll spend more time listening to people and asking what could help. Maybe I can spend some time connecting with business owners and seeing if I can understand their needs, too. Knowledge, ideas, and encouragement are easy, but there are probably even better ways to help. Hmm… That gives me a focus for networking at events. Looking forward to helping!

Realistic expectations, ruthless elimination, and rapid exploration

“You’re pretty organized, right? Do you have a system for productivity that I could use?” someone said to me. She sounded frustrated by her lack of progress on some long-standing projects. I shrugged, unsure how to help.

I don’t consider myself super-productive. I am, however, less stressed than many people seem to be. I’ve been learning to keep realistic expectations, get rid of less-important tasks, and work in quick, small, useful chunks.

Realistic expectations: We tend to overestimate how much we can do, particularly if we’re looking a week or two ahead. Even if last week was derailed by interruptions, we hope next week will be a smooth ride. I’m guilty of this myself. I compensate by expecting little of myself – just one to three important tasks each day, moving forward a little bit at a time. If I find myself with spare time and motivation, I check my other tasks for something to work on. It’s okay if I end up procrastinating something. That usually means I spent the time on something I valued more.

Ruthless elimination: “But how do I motivate myself?” This is another thing that people often struggle with. I use different strategies depending on what I need. For example, I’m currently working on a project with a high risk of failure and a fair bit of work. For me, it helps to amplify the perceived benefits, downplay the small pieces of work that I need to do (it’s just a small task), and downplay the risks (failure isn’t all that bad). On some other projects, I might decide that my lack of motivation is a clue that I should just wrap up the project, get rid of specific tasks, delegate work, or transform those tasks into things I might enjoy more.

Rapid exploration: After I adjust for realistic expectations and get rid of tasks through ruthless elimination, I think of tiny tasks that will help me move towards my goals. That way, I can explore and get feedback faster. Then I try to get as much value as I can from those steps, usually ending up with blog post ideas and lessons learned in addition to the thing itself. This also means that I can squeeze work into 15- to 2-hour chunks instead of waiting for a 4-hour span of uninterrupted, energetic time.

There are a bunch of other things that help me out (keeping outlines of projects and tasks in Org Mode, documenting as much as I can, knowing my tools well), but those three behaviours above seem to be different from the way many people around me work. Hope that helps!

Three productivity tools

Kosio Angelov asked: “If you could use only three productivity tools for the rest of your life, which three would you choose?”

2014-05-14 Which three productivity tools would I use if I could use only those for the rest of my life #emacs #productivity

2014-05-14 Which three productivity tools would I use if I could use only those for the rest of my life #emacs #productivity

I’m totally cheating with my answers. I can’t imagine using only three tools. What counts as a tool, anyway? Is the Internet a tool? What about the scientific method? Are we talking about apps, applications, platforms, systems, frameworks? =) Anyway, these are the answers that came to mind. They’re not your usual suspects, but I’ll explain why I like them a lot.

Emacs: This arcane text editor from the 1970s is capable of far more than most people think it can. It’s not an application, it’s a platform. I use it to code, write, plan, connect, automate, calculate, and so on. People get intimidated by its learning curve, but for me, it’s well worth it. I’ve been learning and blogging about it for more than ten years. Based on what I’ve seen, I could probably keep going for decades. I love the way you can dig into how things work, tinker with the code to make it fit what you want, and combine different packages. Great user community, too.

I’m not sure what to say to productivity newbies considering Emacs. It takes a certain kind of person, I think. If you’re someone who likes constantly learning and tweaking, you’re good at learning from what other people have written, and you’re not afraid to do a little worse in order to do even better in the future, this might be for you. You don’t have to be a programming geek, although it helps.

Linux: Again, I’m cheating by including an entire operating system, and probably I mean all the little tools I’ve gotten used to rather than the operating system itself. But I love being able to use utilities like grep and find (thanks, GNU!), stitching programs together, scripting things, installing other tools… People have suggested that I look into Mac OS X, but it gets a little on my nerves. I like Linux more. There are some programs I want to run on Windows, though, so I end up using Linux in a virtual machine so that I can do my development in a proper environment.

Ruby:  I use Ruby for little automated scripts as well as special-purpose web-based tools like QuantifiedAwesome.com, which helps me track my time. It feels like the way my mind works. I used to use Perl for scripting and I’m learning Python, but Ruby has the least friction for me. This may change as I get deeper into other languages, but in the meantime, Ruby is a good language for the kinds of things I want to do.

—-

All of these tools take effort to learn. They’re not like, say, Boomerang for Gmail or ScheduleOnce, which are easy to pick up and have clear benefits. My favourite tools require imagination, but they open up infinite possibilities. I’m not locked into one way of doing things. I still have limits, but they’re the limits of my own ideas and skills. I think that’s what I like about these tools. They have depth. Whenever I reach for some new capability, I almost always find it.

So, if you’re a newbie and this sounds intriguing, how do you get from point A to point B?

I think I got here by being interested in learning, being unafraid of tinkering, and having the space to do both. When you’re learning a complex thing, you might feel frustrated and intimidated by it. Good games design that learning experience so that people enjoy small wins as they develop their skills, but not all topics are like that. Sometimes you have to enjoy the learning for its own sake.

… which is an odd message to share with people who are looking for productivity hacks, maybe, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. There’s a cost to picking general-purpose tools that are perhaps not the best at one specific thing, but experience results in compounding benefits. There’s a cost to keeping both your schedule and your eyes open, but perhaps it can lead to surprising things. There’s a cost to choosing the path of learning rather than the quick fix, but who knows what the true cost is down the road?

On why frugal me is cool with paying other people to do things

I am frugal by nature. I do the mental calculations almost reflexively. Food is my favourite measure of equivalent value, since I rarely buy books these days. If I bike instead of taking public transit, that’s three Vietnamese sandwiches. For the price of dinner for two at Pho Hung, we could buy and roast two whole chickens. I hardly eat out, since I know I can make my favourite meals for $2-$4 a serving.

2014-03-06 Our frugal life #finance #frugality

2014-03-06 Our frugal life #finance #frugality

Many people who are working on financial independence take pride in doing as much as possible themselves. It’s a great way to save money and build a variety of skills. I usually do the same. It’s great knowing that fixing a washing machine doesn’t have to be a scary thing.

But there are some areas where I spend more than most people do, like outsourcing.  For example, even though no one expects transcripts for podcasts and even though I can transcribe my own posts, I pay other people to transcribe them for me. I pay people to research, draft, code, experiment, learn. I’m slowly getting the hang of passing on tasks even if I feel like I could learn a lot by doing things myself. If I outsource those tasks, then at least two people learn: my assistant and me. In fact, since they write down things I might otherwise just skim or take for granted, I can usually take what they send me and share that with other people.

For me, outsourcing is so much more than just a money-for-time trade off. I think of outsourcing as a way to help other people build up assets and skills as they figure out flexible work that fits their needs. It’s a way for me to learn from different perspectives and experiences, too. I don’t need stuff. I don’t crave experiences: no exotic vacations, no once-in-a-lifetime memories. I’d rather take advantage of the abundance to scale up and help others.

2014-01-28 What do I get out of delegation

2014-01-28 What do I get out of delegation

(See more in Ramping up delegation)

Independence matters to me. So does interdependence. If I can carve out enough to provide reasonable security for myself and I have the skills to go and earn more money if I need to, then I’ll use the surplus to make the world a little bit better. I had thought about focusing on stashing away more money so that we might have a greater margin of safety. (Who knows, maybe W- might even be able to retire.) I’m slowly adding to that stash, but that doesn’t rule out helping other people along the way.

I don’t want to become dependent on outsourcing. I make sure all my tasks are documented so that I can take over if needed. I establish financial limits so that outsourcing doesn’t encroach on my other plans. (This is one of the reasons why I like working with assistants on an as-needed basis instead of committing to a specific number of hours or tasks a month.) I learn from small experiments before I move on to larger ones. I prefer outsourcing to people who can learn from the experience instead of to established companies with polished solutions.

I don’t have to spend the money on this, but I decide to, and it’s worth it to me.

Thinking about my TODO keywords

It’s been twelve years since David Allen published Getting Things Done, with its geek-friendly flowcharts and processes for handling tasks in an interrupt-driven life. The way I manage my tasks is heavily influenced by GTD. I think in terms of next actions, waiting, and someday, and I have weekly reviews. I modified the TODO states a little to reflect what I need. It’s time to think about those states again to see what I can tweak and what reports I could use.

I use Org Mode in Emacs to manage my tasks and my notes. I can customize it to give me different kinds of reports, such as showing me all of my unscheduled tasks, or all tasks with a specific category, or even projects that are “stuck” (no next actions defined). Thinking about my processes will help me figure out what reports I want and how I want to use them.

Here are different types of tasks and how I track them:

  • Things I can work on right now (next actions): TODO
  • Things that I can work on after a different task is finished: currently WAITING, but probably better to implement with org-depend
  • Things I will revisit at a certain date, but I don’t need to think about them until then: TODO, scheduled (I used to use POSTPONED)
  • Things that would be nice to do someday, but maybe are incompletely specified or understood: SOMEDAY
  • Things I have decided not to work on: CANCELLED
  • Things I have asked someone else to do: DELEGATED
  • Things I can ask someone else to do: TODELEGATE
  • Things I am waiting for (usually not based on date) and that I need to follow up on: WAITING
  • Things I can write about: TOBLOG. These are pretty optional, so I don’t want them in my TODO list…
  • If something is a duplicate of something else – remove TODO keyword and add link?

I use the following code for an agenda view of unscheduled tasks:

(defun sacha/org-agenda-skip-scheduled ()
  (org-agenda-skip-entry-if 'scheduled 'deadline 'regexp "\n]+>"))

(add-to-list 'org-agenda-custom-commands
   '("u" "Unscheduled tasks" alltodo ""
     ((org-agenda-skip-function 'sacha/org-agenda-skip-scheduled)
     (org-agenda-overriding-header "Unscheduled TODO entries: "))))

So the to-do process looks like this:

  • Every week, review my evil plans and projects. Check my agenda without the routine tasks to see what new things I’m working on. Schedule a few tasks to encourage me to make regular progress.
  • Every day, go through my Org agenda (C-c a a) and do all the tasks that are scheduled.
  • When I’m done or if I feel like working on something else:
    • What do I feel like doing? If there’s a specific activity that I feel like:
      • Go to the relevant project/section of my TODO list, or check the TODOs by context (drawing, writing, etc.)
      • Clock in on that task.
    • If there’s a specific task I feel like working on:
      • Find the task, maybe with C-u C-c C-w (org-refile) and work on it.
    • If there’s a new idea I want to work on:
      • Use org-capture to create the task, file it in the appropriate project, and then clock in.
  • If I have an idea for a task, use org-capture to create the task and file it in the appropriate project.

How do I want to improve this?

  • Maybe get more used to working with contexts? I have all these Org Agenda commands and I hardly ever use them. I tend to work with projects instead. Actually, working with projects makes sense too, because that minimizes the real context shift.
  • Get better at reviewing existing tasks. I started tracking the number of tasks in each state (DONE, TODO, etc.), which nudged me to review the tasks and cross old tasks off. If I streamline my process for capturing tasks, filing them, and reviewing them by project/context/effort, then I can get better at choosing good tasks to work on from my existing TODO list.
  • Estimate effort for more tasks, and use that more often I have some reports that can filter or sort by estimated effort. I don’t use effort that much, though. Does it makes sense to get into the habit of choosing tasks by estimated time as an alternative approach? I usually have fairly large, flexible blocks of time…
  • Tag things by level of energy required? I want to take advantage of high-energy times. So, when I feel alert and creative, I want to focus on coding and writing. I can save things like paperwork for low-energy times. I can tag some tasks as :lowenergy: and then filter my reports.

Hmm…