Monday, December 06, 2010

Getting things done

Saved here, because the site it came from has been pulled due to the actions of censoring actions of Masshole police.
When TJIC is back, I'll cut this post loose. Much better on the original site anyway.

In the past few weeks I’ve had multiple people compliment me on how much I get done.
…which is always jarring, because I fall so very short of my goals.
On reflection, though, I think that that disconnect is part of the why I get even a little bit done.
I’ll make this a brief post on my thoughts on effectiveness.
Absolutely nothing here is original, and absolutely nothing here are habits that I manage to apply as consistently as I’d like – so think of this as much a reminder / motivator list for myself as for anyone else.
Know what you want to accomplish. There are only 24 hours in a day, and we all “accomplish” 24 hours worth of things every day. The trick is to figure out what tasks will make you happy today, in a week, in a month, in ten years, and concentrate on those, and not so much on the tasks that will make you happy in the second or in the minute.
Corollary: don’t accomplish the wrong thing. Primates are engineered to get nervous when their are tasks on their to-do list. Hungry? Thirsty? Don’t have a good tree to live in? You get nervous and antsy, and you start to boil off the surface and start roaming around, using excess energy to get the task done. This anxiety is not always pleasant, and so we try to scratch itches to get the anxiety to go away. Often we discover “false” itches. The scratching feels productive, and so the itch goes away…but we haven’t made our lives any easier or better. Got 2,000 items in your RSS reader? Want to level up your WoW character? Feel the need to improve your Rocky Horror cosplay costume? Are those really what you want to do, or do they just feel like good ideas?. If you want to do them, great, but if not, rm -rf them.
Eat the frog. Which is to say – acknowledge that scrubbing the toilet / updating the server / whatever is going to suck…and then do it.
Get the swirling cloud of concerns, worries, and tasks out of your head and into one flat text file. Not three notebooks, one in each jacket. Not a tree-list organizing tool for your PDA. Not a collection of emails. One file (or one wall of post-it notes) with 4-15 words per item, no more. You can store the footnotes elsewhere – in a wiki, or in an email file – but boil everything down to a stunningly crisp description. “Buy and replace kitchen light bulbs”.
If anything takes two minutes or less, do it immediately.
When you don’t know what the first step is, the first step becomes “figure out the first step”. This often immediately sublimates to “Google it, or pick up the phone and call someone”. I’ve seen folks dither for years over some financial transaction. “I don’t know what the tax implications are!”. Pick up the phone, call your accountant, and ask him. You don’t have an accountant? Send an email to your buddy who uses an account and and say “Give me your accountant’s contact information”.
When you speak, know what you want to accomplish. When others speak to you, try to get them to state what they’re trying to accomplish. I’m always amused when I speak to a customer, and they say something like “I ordered this DVD, and it got lost in the mail – I shouldn’t have to pay for this! That’s not right!”, and I respond “Yes man…I’ve just given you a full refund, plus another $2 in account credit, as an apology [ for the fact that the US government can't deliver the mail ]“. Usually folks are very happy with this … but every now and then they just keep ranting. They set the auto-pilot, and they didn’t really think hard about what their destination is, or when they can ramp down the engines. When you’re talking (other than just conversing) to an employee, a coworker, a family member, a store clerk, etc. to resolve an issue, think about what you’re trying to get: a piece of information? an apology? a refund? a change in behavior? Once you know what it is, you can make that your thesis statement: “Excuse me, waiter, this steak is cold and has the wrong sides. I’d like to send it back, at this point I want something quick – just get me the basic burger … and I’d like you to comp the desert as an apology.” Or “Hello, accountant X? Friend F gave me your number. If you’re taking new clients, I want you to do my taxes this year, and right now I’ve got a question – can I sell stock that I received as a gift 9 months ago?”.
Use Brownian motion. Maybe you don’t want to take the laundry basket down to the laundry room…but you’re walking past the basket, and then you’re walking past the stairs, so move the basket to the top of the stairs. Then, the next time you go down the stairs, you’re primed, and there’s no way to forget the task.
However, aside from moving stuff that’s already out, never leave things out as memory joggers. The checkbook you leave on your counter to remind you to pay the doctor stands out crisply against the empty counter…but then the empty light bulb box next to it (reminding you to buy light bulbs), and the dentist bill (reminding you to pay it) soon just crush the entire counter into a pit of chaos. Capture the to-do items in your one single list.
Corollary: keep things pristine. Just as well linted code makes it very very easy to see new compile time warnings, a pristine counter, a pristine desk, an empty email inbox, etc. make it very easy to discern the difference between “everything is under control”, “a few items to do”, and “things are out of control”.
Work hard. No getting around it: if you want 5 hours of television per day, you’re going to accomplish less other stuff than if you watch one hour (or less). Do not buy into the European mindset that 35 hours is all that a reasonable person ever works, and that weekends are vacation where one does nothing but eat brie, smoke cigarettes, read left wing newspapers, and cash your welfare check. Keep working!
Decide where you want to be in 10 years, and close the delta between “here” and “there” by 1/3,650th today!
Special sub-case: No one is responsible for your career but you. Decide where you want to go … and take the first step.
You are what you do every day. If you consider yourself a woodturner, but you haven’t made a bowl this week, then you are full of horse manure. If you consider yourself a musician but you have not played a song today, you are full of horse manure. If you consider yourself a self-starting software engineer, but you have not learned something new about software today, then you are full of horse manure. On the other hand, no matter what you consider yourself, if you watched two hours of television last night, then congratulations! You’re a huge television watcher.
Your mind is built out of what you feed it. Read some good books.
However, be aware that reading with out execution is useless – it is one of those “false itch scratchers”. If you want to learn topic X, and you go and read a book on it…you have learned nothing. Work through some of the example programs, though, and you will have actually learned something.
Get out of the house. No one ever learned a new skill, discovered a new hobby, made a new business contact, or met a hot woman with out going outside. Well, OK, let me correct that. Very few of us meet hot women by just sitting around our living rooms.
Don’t be afraid of failure.
Corollary: Try something 100 times if you have to. Malcolm Gladwell says that you need 10,000 hours to be stunning. Dave Sim, the comic book artist, says that you’ve got a 5′ tall stack of bad drawings in you, and you need to get them all out on paper before the good ones start coming out. Ben Casnocha has 30 steps to mastery. I read a story about a ceramics instructor once who divided his class in half – half were told that they would be scored on how good of a bowl they turned in. The other half were told that they would be scored on the weight of what they turned in. The result? Members of the first group each did one piece of work, which stunk. Members of the other half each did dozens, or hundreds of pieces … and they generated the best work as well. I know that this is true.
It’s better to strive for 10 goals and achieve 6 than strive for 3 and get 3.
Have good tools, well organized.
Corollary #1: Duplicate some tools, so that they are organized by function clusters rather than by location. I’ve got a half dozen utility knives: one in my electrician’s kit, one in my plumbing kit, one in my kitchen drawer, etc.
Corollary #2: The biggest investment in buying a new tool is not the cash outlay, but the attention outlay to store and organize it well. Until your tool is in a drawer with a new label on the front, or hung on the pegboard with an outline traced, etc., it’s not easily used.
Corollary #3: When you need a screw and you don’t have it, a 5 cent screw is a tool that costs you half an hour in driving around town. Therefore have ample supplies of supplies. Salt, frozen chicken broth, guitar strings, sheet metal screws, parachute cord, rags, etc. – you need them on hand, and you need them organized.
If you don’t have room for it in your [ schedule / workshop / house ], throw it away.
Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don’t hold off on going to the dentist until you’ve found the best dentist in the state. Do not hold off on starting your coding project until you’re sure you’re good at the language. Do not hold off on hitting on the girl at the bus stop until you’ve dropped 20 lbs and gotten to the gym. Get started now, with imperfect information and imperfect skills!
Not about effectiveness per se, but what is effectiveness worth if it isn’t coupled to moral goals? Money comes and goes, but your honor and your sense of self persists. Drive hard bargains, sure, but never chisel someone. Do not cheat. Be kind to the people beneath you – you’ll really appreciate their help when you’ve fallen below them and they can give you a hand up. Pick your hero and try to live up to his standard. I picked my maternal grandfather. You’ll fail, but you’ll do better than if you didn’t try.
Any I missed?

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