Scott Hanselman

Optimize for Tiny Victories

September 13, '15 Comments [15] Posted in Productivity
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I was talking with Dawn C. Hayes, a maker and occasional adjunct processor in NYC earlier this week. We were talking about things like motivation and things like biting off more than we can chew when it comes to large projects, as well as estimating how long something will take. She mentioned that it's important to optimize for quick early successes, like getting a student to have an "I got the LED to light up" moment. With today's short attention span internet, you can see that's totally true. Every programming language has a "5 min quick start" dedicated to giving you some sense of accomplishment quickly. But she also pointed out that after the LED Moment students (and everyone ever, says me) always underestimate how long stuff will take. It's easy to describe a project in a few sentences but it might take months or a year to make it a reality.

This is my challenge as well, perhaps it's yours, too. As we talked, I realized that I developed a technique for managing this without realizing it.

I optimize my workflow for lots of tiny victories.

For example, my son and I are working on 3D printing a quadcopter drone. I have no idea what I'm doing, I have no drone experience, and I'm mediocre with electronics. Not to mention I'm dealing with a 7 year old who wants to know why it hasn't taken off yet, forgetting that we just had the idea a minute ago.

I'm mentally breaking it up in work sprints, little dependencies, but in order to stay motivated we're making sure each sprint - whether it's a day or an hour - is a victory as well as a sprint. What can we do to not just move the ball forward but also achieve something. Something small, to be clear. But something we can be excited about, something we can tell mommy about, something we can feel good about.

We're attempting to make a freaking quadcopter and it's very possible we won't succeed. But we soldered two wires together today, and the muiltimeter needle moved, so we're pretty excited about that tiny victory and that's how we're telling the story. It will keep us going until tomorrow's sprint.

Do you do this too? Tell us in the comments.


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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Totally stressed out? Sync to Paper

May 29, '15 Comments [57] Posted in Productivity
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Messy Moleskine photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy and used under Creative Commons

One of the things I often talk about when I give presentations on Personal Productivity is that more people should Sync To Paper. I first had this idea in 2006 while working on a completely overwhelming project at my last job. I was already deeply into using OneNote, which was rather new at the time, so I was putting everything onto my laptop. I was convinced that my unorganized brain could "get organized" if I just wrote everything down in some cloud-based text file.

The problem is, at least for me, is that there isn't a great way to see the big picture when you've just got pixels to look at. Life is much higher resolution than I think folks realize. I'm frankly surprised that so many of you can feel organized and productive on those 11" laptops. What a tiny window into your life!

Anyway, when I was working on this huge project the database was extremely complex. Hundreds of tables and relationships to manage. It was far too much for anyone to keep in their heads or view on a screen. So they turned to the plotter. Remember those? The database team would print out massive posters and hang them on the wall. They'd stand together in front of them and stare and think.

You see syncing to paper a lot with user interface/user experience teams (UI/UX). We'll wallpaper entire hallways with mockups of what the system should look like, putting them in high traffic areas so everyone can absorb them and collaborate.

When my life is overwhelming and I am at PEAK STRESS, I do a three things.

  • I get a haircut, because at least I got that handled.
  • I clean my office, so I'm not reminded of the chaos of my life by the chaos of clutter around me.
  • And I sync to paper. I get a Moleskine notebook (Here's how to pronounce Moleskine, BTW) and I find a clear page and I write down what's stressing me out. I sync all my devices to paper. Calendars, Todos, thoughts, life, to paper.

The physicality of it is very satisfying in a visceral way. I've tried to do the same on a Surface or iPad with a stylus, but it doesn't work for me. The removal of technology and the scratch of a good quality pen on paper (I use a space pen) is very cathartic. Often I'm working on solving a technical problem so stepping away from tech is as important as the paper. It's a forced context switch. Even more, as a kinesthetic learner I feel like the moving of my hands differently, even if I never refer to the written notes again, the process helps cement the issues.

True Story: If you watch the Microsoft BUILD Keynote (a big deal, in tech circles) you'll see me come out for my 15 minute demo holding my Moleskine notebook. No one else does this. In fact, they tease me a little about my notebook. In fact, I'm usually given a 30 page typed script to memorize. It includes screenshots, talking points, gotchas, demo instructions, passwords, all the stuff I need for my demo. Folks work on these scripts for weeks and then deliver them to me. It's VERY stressful for everyone. We sit together for days and go over these huge documents and I freak out and panic and then get out my Moleskine and synthesize 30 pages into one. Here's what I took on stage with me for the BUILD 2015 keynote. Insane isn't it? But without it I would have freaked out. Now the stage crew knows me as "the guy with the notebook." And yes, I know my handwriting sucks and that this is an unintelligible pile. It still worked, and worked well. ;)

I have horrible handwriting

When I'm completely a mess OR I'm trying to get my head around a large problem, I'll cover the floor with paper, or find a wall or large whiteboard and try to work it out.

We focus on touchscreen and pinch gestures a lot these days, but for me "zoom out" means literally and figuratively taking a step back from a piece of paper and trying to absorb the big picture.

Paper is the cheapest retina display you'll ever use. Give it a try, at least until I can afford a Surface Hub for my office. ;)

Microsoft Surface Hub

Do you sync to paper? How does it work for you?

UPDATE: I was pointed to a post from Robert Greiner who promotes the same idea! Great minds think alike. I encourage you to also read his thoughts on the concept, as they are different from mine. He likes the temporary aspect of paper, and the pain of writing as ways to keep one focused.

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* Messy Moleskine photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy and used under Creative Commons

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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"Simply terrible advice" - If the shoe pinches, don't wear it.

September 10, '14 Comments [41] Posted in Productivity
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Photo by Ben Grey used under CC

There's few things that get me too riled up when it comes to advice. I love hearing about other people's lives and their life systems. From the mundane and familiar, like how they pack their kids lunches, how they manage their finances, or how they manage their email.

The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself. - Oscar Wilde

We are an amalgamation of all the advice we've ever been given. The first 18 years of my life I was trapped in my parents' house and subjected to their "advice." Most of which turned out to be spot on. I am currently forcing my children to take my advice until their brains full form (which I suspect will happen in about 25 years).

A word to the wise ain't necessary - it's the stupid ones that need the advice. - Bill Cosby

I did a post yesterday called "Don't Check Your Email in the Morning." It's not that controversial, I think. However, it's been characterized as "The singular most life-changing productivity tip I've received" as well as "Simply terrible advice."

Come on. This is simply an issue of self-reflection. Look at your personal habits, your routine, and how you go about your day. Do you go about your workday on auto-pilot, or with a sense of intentionality?

Don't check email in the morning is a rule of thumb. The essential point is "Don't get caught up in the minutiae of unimportant morning email checking if you're unknowingly using email checking as an way to procrastinate."

Maybe checking email every 5 min works for you. Perhaps that morning quick email sweet is essential to your business. Hey, more power to you. You check email 365 days a year. I wonder what would happen if you didn't check it in the morning for a day? Might be useful advice. Totally might not. You'll never know unless you try.

I like trying on shoes. But if the shoe pinches, I don't wear it.

Consider not checking your email in the morning, if you think it might help you. Enjoy the comments.

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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Don't Check Your Email in the Morning

September 9, '14 Comments [68] Posted in Productivity
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Hanselman's Productivity TipsIn my productivity talk "How to Scale Yourself and Get More Done Than You Thought Possible" I include a challenge to the listener. It's kind of insane, but it's actually proven very useful to me when I really need to get important work done.

Don't check your email in the morning.

Insane right? I believe that checking your email in the morning is the best way to time-travel to after lunch.

Why DO we check email first thing in the morning? Well, because something crucial might have happened overnight.

There's a few things wrong with that sentence, in my opinion. Words like "something" and "might" stick out. We check our email because of fear, a sense of disconnectedness, and (in some cases) a feeling of urgency addiction.

We often go to bed with our current project or work on our minds. It's THAT project that we should probably wake up and start working on. It's that project that we kind of left unfinished when we went to bed in the first place.

We SHOULD get up and start working on our project first thing. Instead we check our email, get sucked into it, answer a few, get stressed, answer a few more, threaten to delete the whole inbox, and then it's lunch time.

When I'm not really focused, sometimes the day just slips past me. I find my feet around 5pm when the day is winding down, not at 9am when it should be winding up.

If something really really important happened it won't be in your inbox. Your phone will be blowing up. Someone will be sitting in your seat when you show up at work. They will find you.

When they DO find you, you should be working. Go to work and resist the urge to check your email. Start working immediately, head down, sprinting. There's HOURS of time before lunch to be discovered.

Here's your homework. Go to work tomorrow and don't open email until afternoon. You might be staring at first, wondering what the heck you're supposed to do. Do that project. Write that code. Work on that book. Update that blog. Do literally ANYTHING except email.

When you open email for the first time after lunch, you'll have hours of amazing work already behind you and you'll feel amazing.

Try it.


Sponsor: Many thanks to Aspose for sponsoring the blog feed this week! Aspose.Total for .NET has all the APIs you need to create, manipulate and convert Microsoft Office documents and a host of other file formats in your applications. Curious? Start a free trial today.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Personal Productivity: Business vs. busyness vs. laziness

July 14, '14 Comments [28] Posted in Productivity
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There's an ancient cliché that drives a lot of my thinking about personal productivity. "Excessive busy-ness is a common form of laziness."

Busy-ness in the Tibetan tradition is considered the most extreme form of laziness. Because when you are busy you can turn your brain off. You’re on the treadmill. The only  intelligence comes in the morning when you make your To Do list and you get rid of all the possible space that could happen in your day. - Elephant Journal, 2008

The Tibetan term lelo, as I understand it, begins to describe this kind of laziness.

Kausidya (Sanskrit; Tibetan Wylie: le lo) is a Buddhist term translated as "laziness" or "spiritual sloth".

Alan Wallace explains that kausidya (lelo in Tibetan) refers to a very specific type of laziness, that is concerned only with virtuous activity. Wallace explains from Wikipedia:

[...] lelo in Tibetan, is often translated as ‘laziness,’ but it is much more specific. If a person is working sixteen hours a day, hellbent on earning a whole lot of money with absolutely no concern for virtue, from a Buddhist perspective you could say that person is subject to lelo. A workaholic is clearly not lazy, but such a person is seen as lelo in the sense of being completely lethargic and slothful with regard to the cultivation of virtue and purification of the mind. Our translation of this term is ‘spiritual sloth,’ which we have taken from the Christian tradition, where it is very comparable to the Buddhist notion.

I'm not saying you're lazy so don't get mad quite yet. I'm saying that using "I'm too busy" as an excuse or a reason to not do something important to you, then you might want to give your situation a closer look. I'm saying that sometimes we are busy with work, but not the kind of work we should be busy with.

Sakyong Mipham states: "Speediness is laziness when we use it as a way to avoid working with our minds."

Of course, there's busy people who are literally on fire and being chased by ninjas, I'll give them a pass. But when someone says "I'm too busy" perhaps they are letting you know they are too important to talk to you, or they are just using it as an excuse to not engage. Often I've said in the past that "I'm busy" when I really mean "I'm not really that into your idea to take the time to think deeply about it."

So when we say "being busy is a form of being lazy" we're saying think about what's important, and think about the work you're doing. Is it moving the ball forward? Is it moving YOUR BALL forward. The Ball that you care about?

I have an hour set aside once a week that's for a meeting. The meeting is with myself. No one else comes to this meeting but me. I think about what I'm doing, where I'm going, and what I need to be working on. I use this meeting to think about the business and busyness of my previous week. I think about what busy work I did that was a waste of time, and try to setup myself up for success in the coming week.

My parents and brother are convinced that I'm too busy to hang out or have lunch. I constantly hear "Well, we didn't want to bother you." I'm never too busy for them. Time can be made. It's amazing how quickly a day of meetings (or a half-day) can be cancelled or moved. Days can be cleared and time can be made.

It's easy to get caught up in the chaos of business. It's fun to play Tetris with your Outlook calendar. It's satisfying to pack those productive meetings in and feel important and urgently needed. It's cathartic to delete email and think that getting rid of that email is moving my life forward, but often it's not. Often I'm just on a treadmill, running to keep up. I know this treadmill and my inertia keeps me going.

The hard work is to consciously step off the treadmill, step away, turn around and look at it. What can be removed? What can be refined? In what ways have we taught our bosses or co-workers how to treat us and our time?

I was in Egypt once and the hosts wanted to take me to the Sphinx, but I didn't want to miss a weekend with my sons. They may have thought me rude, but it was about consciously choosing one priority over another. I knew my time and my priorities and made a conscious choice on how I was going to spend it.

In what way are you buying into the idea of being always busy? What are you doing to find balance?


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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.