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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How I Saved $39,420 by Not Buying a Domain Without a Prototype

Mon, Oct 14, 2013

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Just about every day I have at least one new idea. New ideas feel really good. With a new idea, everything is possible, nothing can stop me and there are no barriers in the way of everybody instantly seeing its value and adopting my new idea.

Along with every idea comes a name. Names are important. For example, I have been in three bands in my lifetime. There were another 84 bands that I wanted to start, but we never found a name. With these ideas I have, they’re usually accompanied by a name. And sometimes I really, really like the name. When the domain version of the name is available, the urge to buy is strong. Remember the false optimism about an idea? It pushes me to make the purchase.

Buying a domain name for a new idea releases dopamine in your brain. Almost certainly no study has shown the previous assertion to be true, but obviously it is true.

My own assessment of pricing pages on no fewer than two domain registrars has shown that buying a domain name costs money. Buying multiple domain names costs more money. And buying multiple domain names for every idea I have, then continually renewing them… that costs yet more money.

I discovered a method for solving this issue of buying domain names for projects that never go anywhere. I just don’t buy the domain names. This leaves me with more money, though less dopamine.

Instead of buying a domain name for today’s amazing idea, I give myself a goal: create a prototype for this can’t-miss idea and as a reward I get to buy the domain name. Yes, that means someone could register the domain name out from under me. That’s why I should move quickly.

Should. The reality is I rarely move quickly. After all, there’s a new idea tomorrow.

My savings breakdown:

365 ideas in a year
3 domains per idea
$12 per domain
3 years before I let it expire in defeat
$39,420 in savings

Your mileage may vary. Results not typical. Use only as directed.

Keep in mind that this is how much I saved in just one year of instituting my prototype-first rule. I actually have been at this for several years. For example, when I launched unrut, I sat on that domain name for six weeks. I put together the prototype and only when it was done did I allow my hands on that five letter, pronounceable, brand-able domain name.

Setting this rule has been useful for me to avoid habitual domain purchases, but also harness my energy toward the projects I am most likely to finish.

What are your tricks for making the most of your best ideas?

Photo by Images of Money

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Get Anything Done in Two Minutes

Sun, Oct 6, 2013

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What blows eight minute abs out of the water, according to a crazy hitchhiker in Something About Mary. “Seven minute abs.” But he didn’t go far enough. How about two minute anything?

That’s what James Clear says in the Two Minute Rule. There are, fittingly, two elements of 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

It’s an off-shoot of the Getting Things Done philosophy. Think of any project, even large projects, in terms of the next action. I often spend my two minutes making a list of all the little actions necessary to move a project forward. Sometimes I am able to pass those off to Fancy Hands.

At the very least, seeing everything in one place helps relieve stress. Reality is rarely as daunting as the one I’ve imagined for myself.

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There is No Egg Nog in August

Sun, Aug 18, 2013

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Six grocery stories in Portland have confirmed what I assumed was true: they only sell egg nog during the U.S. holiday seasons of November and December. Finding this out became one of the more outlandish tasks I’ve given to Fancy Hands, a virtual assistant service I have been using this year to simplify my life. It started with a conversation over egg nog–probably spiked with rum–over the holidays. Sipping the thick, sweet, milkish liquid, I wondered whether I could get it in a decidedly non-holiday month. So, I quickly added a task to Hiveminder and set a due date far in the future.

When it popped up in my todo list, I laughed aloud, thinking back to my silly December self, the only one in the house slurping down this beverage with an acquired taste. I didn’t want to let December-me down, but August-me had plenty of work to do. That’s when I gave the task to Fancy Hands.

Sure, I could have called one store and probably had the answer I needed. But I decided to know for sure I needed a mix of specialty grocery stores and larger supermarkets. And it took me less time to write out the instructions than it would have to make even one of the calls.

I pay $45 per month for 15 tasks. So, yes, it cost me $3 to find out that I’ll have to wait several months to buy egg nog. And given what I know about myself, I might have spent awhile making those calls myself (at least seven minutes, according to Fancy’s log). Even worse, what additional time sink did I avoid by not even starting the research, which easily could have ended with me reading up on the history of egg nog or looking for specialty online retailers who could overnight me a quart any time of the year.

It’s a struggle, but my goal is to use Fancy Hands anytime I open a new browser tab and begin typing a search query. That said, my most common task this year has not involved research. I have used Fancy Hands about twenty times this year to schedule (or reschedule) doctor and other appointments. Those are the sorts of things that stay on my todo list for multiple days. The best part about that type of task is that it’s free. Anything that ends up on a calendar does not count against my monthly tasks.

The assistants are U.S.-based and often offer suggestions beyond the task. When I was looking for some temporary housing, the assistant let me know about her favorite neighborhoods from her experience in the city. And when my task to find egg nog in August came up empty at all six grocery stores, the assistant linked to this video (embedded above) that teaches me how to make my own egg nog.

Now if only Fancy Hands would come to my house and clean it for me. (Oh, there’s a service for that, too).

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Kill Your Favorite Ideas

Sun, Dec 16, 2012

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Sometimes the road blocks that are keeping you from where you want to go are actually the ideas you like the most. Perfection is the enemy of progress, but so is vanity. Learn to let go, says Henning, as he describes a feature he loved, but removed from his bucket list app.

My first app concept included just one screen for each goal. That screen had an area for a picture, and area for text, and a thermometer on the side, which would show your progress in achieving your goal. I envisioned the user sliding his finger on the thermometer to set the goal’s progress.

Today there is no thermometer. It was a bad idea. It took me a while to realize that, and I didn’t want to admit it at first. I just thought it would be cool, and my stubborn little brain didn’t see what a crazy idea it was.

Henning had to become comfortable “killing his darling,” a turn of phrase from William Faulkner that I first read in Lew Hunter’s screenwriting book. Faulkner and Hunter were both offering advice on writing. I think it works for many areas of your life, from product management to planning a vacation.

Ideas are nothing without execution and a misplaced idea that you love can be a major barrier to executing. Assumptions are powerful when you don’t take a moment to question them.

So, don’t kill all your favorite ideas, your darlings, but at least consider it.

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The Opposite of Perfectionist

Sat, Aug 11, 2012

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If I told you there is a guy who travels the world dancing for a living, you’d call him a professional dancer. If I told you he had no formal dance training, you’d be impressed.

Matt Harding has paid his bills by dancing dorkily all over the globe. And in a great interview with the New York Times, he shares one secret to his success:

We usually only danced a short time for each clip. I knew I was only going to use four seconds, so I would just loop the move I wanted and we’d do it a few times; there wasn’t much point in beating it to death. When you’ve got a large crowd of untrained dancers, the challenge is keeping their energy up. The most fun and exuberant moments always come at the beginning, after they’ve gotten the basics of the move down, before they start looking tired, bored and cranky.

Also, I’m very lazy. If there’s a word that means the opposite of perfectionist, I’m that.

What are you spending too much time on now that would be good enough if you didn’t try so hard?

(This post written in about five minutes)

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Simplicity Rules, Meet SimplicityRules.com

Sun, Jul 15, 2012

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The following is the not-so-simple tale of how I finally came to own the domain name that many people thought I already owned.

Why did my blog even need a name?

When I started this site in 2004, it was out of a mutual challenge with Mike Duffy. We were reading a lot of blogs at the time and it felt like we needed a way to participate beyond comments. So, Mike started up Smarter Stuff and I named what had been the news section of my personal website Simplicity Rules.

Maybe it was because Mike had a catchy name for his, but I also think I felt like a blog needed a name. I didn’t want it to be just my name, but something that described my ethos. I’d always liked the dichotomy of the simple and complex:

  • Simplicity can be the answer to complexity, like the old myth about the Russian space pen just being a pencil.
  • Simplicity can also disguise complex inner workings, like what Google makes available in a single search box.

In either case, simplicity is amazing–it rules. And also, I decided, there must be some tenets to follow–rules of simplicity.

This blog was started to explore and celebrate simplicity, with a focus on the web in which I work.

Why didn’t I buy the domain from the start?

That’s the question I’ve asked myself for a long time. SimplicityRules.com was available when I started the blog. Apparently I thought the blog needed a name, but not its own URL. So, Simplicity Rules sat where it still does, at adamduvander.com.

Sometime in the months after I started this site someone else registered the domain, but he never put anything on it that I saw. It was just a parked page, with a cheesy graphic and spammy links. And that’s what I saw when I finally realized I’d missed my chance to register SimplicityRules.com. Over the years, I’ve received emails from friends telling me my site is down or parked. Here I had named my site something memorable and I didn’t own what turned out to be the domain people assumed I had.

Why didn’t I just pay the guy?

I figured with a parked domain that the owner would prefer to sell it to me than collect the pennies is may have been generating. His contact information was in the domain information, but I first decided to learn a bit more about him. It turned out there was quite the exposé in the newspaper asking Who is James Dicks?

I decided that I might not want to deal directly with him. So, I spent $69 to hire a reputable domain acquisition firm. Along with it came a free appraisal of the domain: $1,750. That was more than I was able to pay, but I proceeded with an offer of $500 from my representative.

Looking back, I think sending a third party sent the wrong sign. I let Mr. Dicks know how much I wanted it. He countered with $10,000.

That was the end of that.

Why did I register the trademark?

The attempted acquisition was in May, 2007. A year later I again found myself disturbed that the domain was in someone else’s hands. Still without 10K to blow on my personal blog, I set out with a new method. I’d learned there were rules in the domain world and one of them is that a trademark owner can obtain a domain that matches their mark. And since my first use of the term pre-dated the domain name, I felt like I was entitled to using this legal route.

In May, 2008, I registered the trademark. That October, it was granted. I could now write Simplicity Rules ®.

A funny thing happened around this same time. SimplicityRules.com went down. It was no longer parked with the cheesy graphic and spammy links. The domain was still registered, just not showing anything. I nevertheless continued with my plan and sent Mr. Dicks the following email:

I am the owner of the trademark Simplicity Rules. ICANN guards against
domains that infringe upon a trademark, so I would like to arrange to
have simplicityrules.com transfered to me.

Because I know this doesn’t come without hardship for you, I am
willing to offer the reasonable compensation of $200 US for the smooth
transfer of the domain.

It’s perhaps a bit presumptuous that someone who had counter-offered $10K and kept the domain for four years would roll over. He was cordial, but referenced an internal law firm that watches out for trademark issues. The domain had stopped resolving because that’s a loop-hole in the domain rules: if there’s no website, there’s no confusion in the market.

He was able to keep the domain even though I owned the trademark. Foiled! I probably deserved it–that was sneaky.

How did I finally get the domain?

Every January passed and as the domain expiration neared, the owner would re-register it for another year. In 2010, another friend emailed to tell me the domain wasn’t going anywhere. I sighed and replied back, “I don’t think SimplicityRules.com will ever be available.”

There’s a line at the beginning of Swingers where the main character is told the only way to get his ex-girlfriend back is to forget about her:

Rob: I mean at first you’re going to pretend to forget about her, you’ll not call her, I don’t know, whatever… but then eventually, you really will forget about her.
Mike: Well what if she comes back first?
Rob: Mmmm… see, that’s the thing, is somehow they know not to come back until you really forget.
Mike: There’s the rub.

So, I forgot about the domain. Until this April.

SnapNames sent me an email to let me know it had grabbed up the domain when it became available. At some point during this saga I had backordered SimplicityRules.com on the chance that it ever did go un-registered in all the future Januarys. Apparently it did in 2012.

Next I had to wait through an auction process, in case there was someone else who had backordered the domain. Thankfully, I was the only other person in the whole world who wanted SimplicityRules.com. I got it for the minimum bid of less than $100.

Now what?

If you go to SimplicityRules.com, you’ll find yourself redirected to adamduvander.com. Back before I forgot about it, I planned to move this blog over there, minus personal posts. I wanted to double down on exploring simplicity. Now I’m not so sure it needs its own site. There’s the rub.

It’s not that I don’t want the domain name. When I renew, I’ll probably max it out. Might as well. It’s now eight years from when I first started this blog. When friends type in SimplicityRules.com, for the first time they’re getting where they mean to go.

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The Marathoner’s Guide to Accomplishing Anything

Thu, Jun 14, 2012

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If you want to run a marathon successfully without getting injured, spend four days a week doing short runs, one day a week running long and hard, and two days a week not running at all.

Now, that seems like a pretty smart schedule to me if you want to do anything challenging and sustain it over a long period of time. A few moderate days, one hard day, and a day or two of complete rest.

— Peter Bregman, 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done

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