Practice Subtraction

Mon, Aug 4, 2014

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Constraints can make you more creative. When constrained, you consider different possibilities and end up with more and better output. I’ve shared time boxing techniques before, but time is only one kind of constraint. Those in creative industries know this well. Visual artists might choose a restrictive medium. Actors often gather for improvisation, with no storyline determined until it’s selected at random. They narrow their focus, subtracting enough of the possibilities

Creativity is subtraction

Austin Kleon writes that all creativity is subtraction in his book Steal Like an Artist:

“Don’t make excuses for not working—make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now. The right constraints can lead to your very best work. My favorite example? Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat with only 236 different words, so his editor bet him he couldn’t write a book with only 50 words. Dr. Seuss came back and won the bet with Green Eggs and Ham, one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.”

Kleon has used subtraction—literally—in his own art. He wrote a book and maintains a website with poetry based on newspapers redacted, much like the image above. Using a black Sharpie, he subtracts the words he doesn’t want, uncovering a poem that was always there, unseen.

Similarly, the Laws of Simplicity boil down to subtraction. What can you take away from your work and still have it feel complete? What can you take away from your process that inspires entirely new types of work?

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100 Day Goals for Team Productivity

Sun, Jun 1, 2014

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100 Day goalsI’m a fan of time-boxing techniques for creating constraints that encourage me to get things done. The POWER HOUR, for example, has been in my arsenal since 2005, though I don’t use it every day. That’s great for personal productivity, but what about when it comes to motivating toward the same end?

Jason Freedman shared the 100 day goals that have kept his company moving without burning out the team:

“Setting deadlines first and then choosing ambitious goals is the key.  The deadline becomes a forcing function that wipes away distractions.  There’s simply no time for extraneous features.  Failed experiments end much earlier.  Hacked together solutions get tested much faster because there’s no time to build the scalable version.”

Now I’m going to try something similar, but with my growing developer relations team at Orchestrate. This week we’ll be on an all-company retreat, where among the outcomes I want is a plan for the next 100 days. Using Freedman’s approach the deadline comes first. Whatever the developer relations team will accomplish during this timeframe will happen by September 9.

Determining what fits into those 100 days is the hard part. And we’ll be using some of those precious days to figure it out, likely walking back and forth on the two simplicity paths until we find the right balance.

As Freedman suggests: be ambitious, but do away with wouldn’t-it-be-cool-ifs. Then we’ll start again.

What are your 100 day goals?

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Orchestrating the Next Chapter in My Story

Tue, May 27, 2014

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Orchestrate

Our own personal stories tend to make sense in retrospect. There may be plot twists that at the time cause a little confusion, but then it all sorts out into a tale that seems predictable in hindsight. That’s how I feel today as I join Orchestrate to start a developer relations team.

It was tough to leave SendGrid, a fast-growing developer-focused company that I’ve respected since my days as an API journalist. I had a good year working across multiple teams and learned a lot. Most of all I’ll miss the great people, but I know I made a lot of lifelong friends there. Plus, this world of developer relations is not very big and there still aren’t very many “B2D” (business to developer) companies, so I expect our paths to cross often.

About half of Orchestrate’s small team is based in Portland, so I’ll have an office in town for the first time in more than a decade. I was lucky to have a handful of news organizations cover my career move:

And this post marks the third time I’ve written about this new job. On the Orchestrate blog I explained why I’m joining and at PIE (an incubator where I first met the founders) I talk about my earlier mentorship role in the company.

From the plot twist of 2008, when I moved from programming to writing about programming, each additional career move seems to have led to this role. Even this site, started in 2004, feels like part of the story–Orchestrate simplifies databases so developers can focus on what separates their story from everyone else.

There’s a lot of work to be completed on this next chapter, but it’s a draft I’m excited to write.

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Don’t Bury the Lead

Mon, May 19, 2014

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I’m an accidental marketer. Before that I was an accidental journalist. One of my most important life lessons that has served me in both of these fields is to not bury the lead (or lede). It comes from a Nora Ephron book, though I first saw it when I read Made to Stick in 2007:

My high school journalism teacher, whose name is Charles O. Simms, is teaching us to write a lead–the first sentence or paragraph of a newspaper story. He writes the words “Who What Where When Why and How” on the blackboard. Then he dictates a set of facts to us that goes something like this: “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the present of the University of Chicago.” We all sit at our typewriters and write a lead, most of us inverting the set of facts so that they read something like this, “Anthropologist Margaret Mead and University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty Thursday in Sacramento at a colloquium on new teaching methods, the principal of the high school Kenneth L. Peters announced today.” We turn in our leads. We’re very proud. Mr. Simms looks at what we’ve done and then tosses everything into the garbage. He says: “The lead to the story is ‘There will be no school Thursday.’”

This clearly had an impact on Ephron. You can see her tell the story and how she realized journalism “is about the point.”

After reading thousands of bad press releases, I realized I wanted to help get to that point. When I joined SendGrid, I preached developer communicators need to share knowledge, not features. It’s not what you’re announcing but what someone can do with it that matters.

Get to the point. Get to what matters. Don’t bury the lead.

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Stop Fishing at the Popular Spots

Fri, Mar 21, 2014

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I’m not much of a fisherman, but I go out with my friend Steve every couple years. We usually walk along the river, looking for the bends, where the water gets calm. The first couple spots are usually taken by others casting their flies. The next couple of spots Steve often walks right by, because they’ve likely been fished by others too lazy to hike in a little farther.

Fishermen at sunset

Even if you don’t fish, this likely makes some sense to you. As a Portlander who likes breakfast, I know going to a less crowded restaurant gives me a greater chance of having a seat for my salmon hash.

Another story of a fisherman takes a less obvious approach to choosing the less popular spots. It’s not about where you get the fish, but what you do with it afterward:

After his first few hauls of fish, John did something quite significant. He bucked an industry trend that had lasted for decades. Instead of doing what all the other fishermen did, which was to sell his fish to a distributor, John went direct to the biggest fish buyers in town: the tourist-packed seafood restaurants on the Cape’s famous Atlantic Seaboard.

After knocking on a few doors, John quickly realized that the restaurant owners were only too pleased to hear from him. After 50 years of being at the mercy of the centralized resellers, John’s service – fresh fish, straight off the boat – was exactly what they’d been waiting for.

I love this story, Fresh Fish, from the eBook Do Ideas. It simply questions an assumption that all other fishermen are making.

What’s the equivalent of the distributor for you in this story? What if that were not as important as you think?

Photo by Mohamed Malik

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How to Show Just Enough Data

Mon, Feb 10, 2014

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I love tracking my activity. I’ve been using a pedometer of some sort for almost five years. I even created units for distances I had measured in steps. Now that wearable computing is an accepted trend, I’m excited for our future. There’s one potential downside to devices collecting and presenting data to us—it’s easy to try to show too much. As a result of that downside, it’s tempting to show absolutely no data as an overreaction. This post is about one device that is showing just enough.

There are at least two personal use cases to retrieving data from a tracking device. One is to immerse myself in my own data. That is the navel-gazing use case and for that I should have as much data as possible. The promise of tracking devices is that they change habits. For that, you need data that inspires action. Much less data is needed for that use case.

Fitbit flexOver the years I have tried several different Fitbit tracking devices. I loved the original Fitbit that could clip on to things, but I lost a couple of them because they could also clip off of things. The Fitbit Flex has become my everyday tracker now. It’s a wristband with a clear slot window on the top. The actual device slips into the wristband and displays five LEDs through the window as the entire interface.

I thought I would miss being able to check in on my exact step count and other data throughout the day. In truth, it greatly has simplified my experience with tracking. Here’s how the LEDs work:

  • Your step goal is split into five segments
  • Tap twice on the device to see your progress
  • The number of solid LEDs are the segments you have completed
  • The blinking LED represents the segment you are currently working toward

If you’re gunning for 10,000 steps per day, the math here is pretty simple. Each segment represents 2,000 steps. If you have a different goal, it’s harder to translate into a step count.

But here’s the kicker: I have learned that is okay.

Knowing my exact step count is not nearly as important as knowing approximately how close I am to my goal. For example: if it’s into the afternoon and the fourth LED is neither solid nor blinking, I probably should go for a short walk. It’s showing me just enough data to make a decision.

Fitbit provides a way to get at that additional information, through syncing with my smartphone or computer. But that’s more for navel-gazing than taking action.

Syncing for Data, More or Less

There are devices with more—and less—data feedback on the device. The Fitbit Force now has a step count (and a watch, but I hear it’s bulky). I expect that we’ll see some attempts at wearables that give us way too much data. And there will be devices that rely entirely on syncing with another device to show feedback. That has its own set of problems.

My friend Aaron Parecki wrote a post about the wearable tracker syncing problem. There are many different methods that devices with varied displays use. There seems to be some kind of drawback for each, along with a healthy dose of bugginess. The tradeoffs of battery power (of the tracking device and the syncing device), frequency and required user intervention all impact how well syncing performs on today’s devices.

The sync is likely the long-term solution, especially with semi-permanent displays like Google Glass. But even then there’s a need to prioritize certain data for the action-oriented use case. When I’m navel-gazing, I want as much data as possible. When I’m checking in throughout the day, I want to see my progress. In this case, I believe devices should show just enough to get a feel for how I’m doing.

It turns out, five LEDs can suffice. What would you do with a few good constraints?

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6 Productive Time-Boxing Techniques

Mon, Feb 3, 2014

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Over the years I’ve written many posts about productivity. For starters, it’s a topic that interests me, because I’m always looking to get more out of less (part of why I love Fancy Hands). Also, the tricks to be more productive are usually very simple to apply–and I think Simplicity Rules!

The most common and effective techniques for productivity involve some form of time-boxing, artificial constraints that help you focus on what is important. Though I had been practicing variations of time-boxing, I first heard the term in this Adaptive Path article about designers and chefs.

Here are six ways you can being productive with time-boxing.

POWER HOUR

“Yes, the capitalization is necessary,” I wrote about my POWER HOUR technique in 2005. I felt like uppercase helped explain the power in the simple process:
Eliminate the distractions of email, instant messaging, phones, radio and anything else that will take your attention. Then work on one project for 60 minutes.

Lately I have found tackling my POWER HOUR first thing in the morning works best for me. I don’t even have the distraction of someone else’s priorities in my head from reading email. More often than not, I spend this hour writing now, because that’s one of my highest-valued tasks.

What will you do in your POWER HOUR?

60 Second Deadlines

Which features are essential and nice-to-have?

If you don’t have an hour, how about a minute? This technique comes from my series on Designing the Obvious. Robert Hoekman, Jr., suggests taking 60 seconds to discover what is essential to a project:

“The project timeline has been cut in half. We have about 60 seconds to decide what to keep and what to throw away before we meet with the client in the conference room.”

Use this technique when you have a big project and want to get to something that is good enough. From your giant list of features, cross out things that aren’t absolutely essential.

Two Minute Rule

If you have more than 60 seconds, try the trick to get anything done in two minutes. That’s perhaps over-stated, but it plays on the reality that you can never do something you don’t start.

There are two parts to the two minute rule:

  1. If something can be done in two minutes, do it
  2. If something takes more than two minutes, start it

The Two Minute Rule comes from James Clear on Quora. It’s helped me jam through to-do lists by making just enough progress to have a better view of what to do next.

Pomodoro Technique

This one has its own website. The Pomodoro Technique is a way of scheduling an entire block of productive time.

Pomodoro technique

Work heads down on a specific task for 25 minutes, then take a short break. Then do another “pomodoro,” the 25 minute timed work session. Every four pomodoros, take a longer break, 20 or 30 minutes.

Sometimes I’ll use a variation of this technique on with the Vitamin R application on my Mac. It helps you set what it calls “time slices” and even hides distracting apps from your view.

Four Day Work Week

Don’t confuse this with the more-hyped Four Hour Work Week. While more realistic, my guess is most people don’t see this one as very achievable, either. But the idea is sound because it builds in constraints:

The problem wasn’t a time issue, it was a mental issue. I knew I had a whole week to finish my work, so I spread it out over five (or seven!) days. If I knew I only had four days to finish a whole week of work, it would’ve motivated me to get things done more efficiently.

Ryan Carson, who originated this idea, has made it a part of the culture of two companies. His latest, Treehouse has raised 4.75 million and still closes up its office (in Portland!) on Thursday.

Workstation Popcorn

This final technique is new to me and I haven’t actively tried it yet. But I think I have found myself naturally gravitating toward something similar when I look for a new work spot to change my perspective.

Workstation Popcorn says to group your tasks into three roughly equal time chunks. Then, work from a different coffee shop or cafe for each of those chunks. You focus only on the group of tasks you’ve set aside for that location.

Using this and other time-boxing techniques, you can get the important things done in less time. Which one will you try first?

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Get Better By Doing More

Mon, Jan 27, 2014

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We all know that to get really good at something requires practice. The popular notion is that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. In my experience, it takes considerably less time to become noticeably better. And noticeably better is good enough for most people. It turns out that quantity and quality are not always at odds. In fact, with practice–quantity–one can achieve quality. My favorite story of this principle comes from art.

Ball of clay

It’s said that an art teacher split his class into two segments at the beginning of the semester:

  1. One group of students would be graded on the number of art pieces each created, without respect for whether the art was any good.
  2. The other group would have one project upon which the entire grade would be based.

At the end of the semester, the students with the best work were the ones who created the most art. Quantity produced quality.

Bowls of clayI’m not sure where I first heard this story, though I recently saw it cited here. And I’m also not sure if the story is true, but the lesson it shares is important. It’s changed how I approach creative work.

Writing a book

When I struggled to write a 300 page book, I took to blogging at ProgrammableWeb to flex my sprinting muscles. Each day I started by writing a blog post. Since I was being paid per post and had a big book to write, I would blog as quickly as possible. After a couple weeks of this five posts per week pace, I realized the mentality had transferred to my book. No longer was I thinking of each section as something that would be forever in print, a daunting mental block. Each page of the book did not need to be a perfect gem, it just needed to be another page.

Writing a blog

My friend Fritz at Who2 had a similar issue, a common case of blogger’s block. The desire to make each post an opus was keeping him from writing posts at all. Then he just started writing. Sometimes he’d write short posts, just a few sentences long, but it was important that he was publishing posts. Just doing something develops the habit. Then the repetition makes you better. By the way, the Who2 blog is now really, really good, far surpassing “noticeably better.”

Making hit pop songs

It’s not just writing and clay, quantity can also create quality in other artistic endeavors. Take the BeeGees, who we now know for hits like Stayin’ Alive. They released 12 singles before getting on any charts, and that was just in Australia. Granted, there are plenty of stories of bands that never reach commercial success. But think about the effort that goes into recording and then releasing a dozen singles. That practice paid off.

Coding websites

Last year I happened upon a pretty cool student project called API a Day. Ali Fairhurst spent the month of January using a new API every day. APIs are ways websites can share data or functionality with other sites by making it available to programmers. I was keen to follow along, because Ali was living the principle of quantity. I touched base with her about halfway through and she said something interesting: She as finding the use cases of the APIs she chose too similar. She was getting bored.

Boredom may be the key to why quantity breeds quality. By doing more of the same thing, you yearn for something different. And since you’re bound to also be bored by something lesser you try something greater. Until that, too, becomes boring.

In far less than 10,000 hours you can become noticeably better at whatever you practice, simply by aiming for quantity over quality. What do you want to do better?

Photos by bptakoma

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Seven Years Ago Today the iPhone Wasn’t That Great

Thu, Jan 9, 2014

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On January 9, 2007 Steve Jobs announced the iPhone. This device, and the other phones and tablets it has inspired, clearly changed the way many of us live our lives. At the time it was impressive technology, but there were many problems with it.

Original iPhone with 3G and 4

Photo by Yutaka Tsutano

To me, the most impressive thing about the last seven years is not that Apple created a whole new approach to smart phones. The company, known for its determination to get things right, was willing to release the iPhone before it was perfect… and has spent the last seven years practicing kaizen, incrementally improving the iPhone.

The original iPhone was too expensive

The cheapest iPhone cost $499 in 2007. The cost of the iPhone has continued to be an issue, but the original price was scary high at a time when most of us spent far less time with our phones. PCMag called it a revolution for the few, declaring the iPhone a niche product.

Now one can have a new iPhone for $99.

The connection was too slow

Though 3G connections were available on other smartphones, Apple launched the iPhone with an Edge connection. Those who already had fast data were unlikely to give it up.

It took another year for the iPhone 3G. Now Apple has fully caught up, first with 4G and now LTE.

Couldn’t copy and paste

What?! Despite introducing several new types of interfaces with the iPhone, there was no way to copy and paste text.

That took over two years to come.

No GPS

It took a long time for the iPhone to get turn-by-turn directions, but that wouldn’t have even worked on the original iPhone. The 2007 model used cell tower and WiFi triangulation to determine the placement of the blue dot on the map.

Attached to a single carrier

The first iPhone was only available on Cingular (later rebranded as AT&T). It is now available on a number of carriers world-wide.

Couldn’t download attachments

A non-starter for most business users:

Will the iPhone support Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents? Jobs says you can synchronize the iPhone with e-mail — and even pointed to IMAP support, including Microsoft Exchange — but what about attachments? Without support for standard office documents, the iPhone is a non-starter for most business users.

I rarely receive attachments that are useless to me these days. That’s perhaps helped by the next item.

No apps

Not much to say here. I barely remember life without apps.

In fact, I don’t remember much about my pre-iPhone life. I guess I used to phone in tasks to myself rather than add them to a to-do app. And I took photos with a camera?

My post about the iPhone in 2007 focused on the lack of a physical keyboard as a choice Apple made for simplicity. While that was seen as a negative by many at the time (“the letter keys are just pictures on the glass screen“), people got used to it. But many more issues with that original iPhone were short-term shortcomings.

There are many ways to be inspired by the iPhone as a product. The one I celebrate on the seventh anniversary of its launch is all the ways it’s been improved, a little at a time.

What can you launch even if it’s not perfect?

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Start at the Very Ending

Sat, Nov 23, 2013

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Let’s say you’re visiting a friend in a nearby city, driving by car to get there. How do you know when to leave?

Well, that depends when you want to get there, right? For some reason, when planning a trip it is natural to work backwards from the end result. If you want to arrive at noon and it takes an hour to drive there, leave at 11. You’ll need to allow another 30 minutes to stop and pick up a gift, so that’s 10:30 now. And it always takes 15 minutes to load up the car, so 10:15.

For other goals and achievements it doesn’t seem to be that simple. This year, as part of my effort to get better at one thing, I’m trying to begin with the end in mind. And it’s been challenging. I often find myself returning to my old ways.

Here are some questions I ask myself to help me work backwards:

  • What does this look like when complete?
  • How do I feel once I’m done?
  • How have I changed when I’ve finished?
  • What are the assumptions I am making?

I’m not a runner, but I know the hardest part of running is the start. In fact, it may even be earlier. I’ve heard it said that putting on your running shoes is the most important part of being a runner.

Yet, the end is also key. You probably want to know how far you will run. Just setting out running is a good way to avoid procrastination, but how do you know the run is over? How do you know you haven’t short-changed yourself? Or exhausted yourself?

Forward progress feels good, but it might not be the progress you need. That’s why I’m trying to think first about the end and work my way backwards. What are some ways you have done this effectively?

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