Scott Hanselman

Productivity vs. Guilt and Self-Loathing

August 02, 2012 Comment on this post [56] Posted in Productivity
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Pomodoro TimerThe guilt can be crushing. Everyone seems to be getting stuff done, except you. You drag yourself out of bed, go to work, start checking email, start deleting, then poof, it's noon. Lunch, perhaps at your desk, then some awful meetings, then it's 3pm. You start REALLY working, then you start feeling decent but then it's 5pm or 6pm. It's time to start getting home. You feel like you didn't really get a lot done today so you'll work late - just tonight - to catch up.

The not getting stuff done sucks, but the guilt and self-loathing is where you really get into trouble. You likely don't say it out loud, but you think it. You might not tell your spouse, but you think it. I suck. Man, I suck. I'm just not getting a damn thing done.

Sometimes I feel like this. I've talked about feeling like a Phony before. Folks say that Einstein felt like a phony and that was motivating. I'll let you know if that's true next time I revolutionize science, but for now, I still get down on my self for not getting stuff done.

I don't have the answers, nor do I have a proper "system." My system is always changing, and I've decided that THAT is the system. I adapt. If it's not working, I'll change it. I encourage you do to the same.

At WebStock I did a talk that I'm mostly proud of called "It's not what you read, it's what you ignore" and I like to point people to this video as a decent place to start when thinking about productivity. My system is a combination of thinking from Stephen Covey, David Allen, and J.D. Meier's Getting Results. All of these systems are highly recommended and I've pulled much of what I know from them and then synthesized my own ideas.

Here's what I do when I'm feeling non-productive and guilty. Again, watch the video for more details, it's not selling anything and I go into more detail. I need to just write a small book on this..

Stop Checking Email in the Morning

The quickest way to time travel into the afternoon is to check email in the morning. Time-box your email. Set aside an hour for email, and do that hour. Try to get work done before lunch in order to set yourself up for success and feel better about your day. Getting something awesome done before lunch is a great way to stop guilt. Email is the thing that we turn to because it FEELS like we're getting work done but unless it's truly focused project email, it's usually just pushing bits around.

Don't make Guilt Piles

You know that pile of books that you'll never read that sitting next to the computer you are reading this blog post on? That pile is too tall. You'll never read all those. That pile of books is a monolith of guilt. It's a monument of sadness and failure. Pick the book or two that you can read this week and put the rest away.

If it's important, Schedule It.

If you really want to read a book, catch up on HTML5, watch a video on Python, or learn to cook, schedule it. You schedule an hour for a  meeting at work and you show up, why not schedule an hour in your work day to read. If you boss asks you what you're doing, you're doing technical research on a project. You're sharpening the saw. Schedule time for you rather than trying to find time for yourself within a schedule you've setup to help everyone else. Make time for yourself as well as relationships.

Measure, then Cut

You can't decide what to stop doing unless you know what you're doing. I recommend Rescue Time as a great lightweight way to measure what you are up to, and when you review your numbers you can hold yourself accountable. If you know where you spend your time you can decide what your time is worth. We thought that hiring a guy to cut the lawn was too expensive, but when we realized that it was totally stressing me out, we measured, then cut and we're all happier. Are there meetings you can NOT go to? Are there projects you are unable to do to the best of your ability? Are you over-committed? Hope is not a strategy. Make appropriate cuts - saying No is your most powerful tool.

Do smaller things

Paint House is too big and too stressful for a single item on your TODO list. Break it up like Select Color, find Paint Store, Buy Paint, etc. Focus on the Rule of Three. Three Successes for the day, for the week, for the month, for the year. Have a Vision for your week on Monday and Reflect on that Vision on Friday. Find a small thing that you can do in a small amount of time and do it. Accomplish something small, anything and that will buoy you forward to the next thing.

Let go of Psychic Weight

List out all the things that weigh you down and find out how to let them go. I used to  get stressed by the shows I wasn't watching or the books I wasn't reading or the blogs I couldn't keep up with. Seemed like everyone else was able to keep up but me. But I let it go. I don't argue on Twitter and I don't try to read every blog post. I have never watched Lost and I don't worry about watching the news. Doing less - and more of it - is the only way to scale.

Schedule Work Sprints

It's hard to focus all day. You don't have to and stop being mad at yourself for not being able to. Rather than beating yourself up, trying focusing for just 25 minutes. Just focus on one thing for 25 minutes. When you're done, you'll get a 5 minute break to do whatever you want. Sprint. Run your day like a mini-Scrum. Try the Pomodoro Technique. It's free and easy and it is a great tool to increase your focus.

Stop Beating Yourself Up

Don't feel so bad about not getting enough stuff done. Eat well, sleep well, say NO more often and try your best. Remember you can always make a small change in your system and try again tomorrow.

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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August 02, 2012 13:42

Quite a timely and useful post for me. I recently suffered minor stroke and working just 3-4 hours a day is a chore. The more I didn't achieve the bigger the guilt.

What is working for me is to use kanban technique with The lists I use are:

- Backlog: Add all tasks and ideas as they appear. The sooner I add an item here the sooner my brain can refocus on current task.

- Today 2 to 4 tasks I will complete today

- This Week tasks I must complete this week.

- Completed (day of week) this list is important so I can remind myself that I have in fact achieved something day and this week.

Each week I move cards from Backlog list to This Week. I also remove items from backlog that will never get done.

Each day I move This Week and Backlog cards to Today.


August 02, 2012 14:36
We all feel like this eventualy, it means we care about what we do and we want to do it better. But one day you have to stop and think that no one deserves to be punished for trying hard even if you didn't get there yet.
Managing tasks is almost like coding, you can't just start doing stuff randomly as they appear. You need to create an organization system so you can be more efficient and productive, these things take time.

Actually i'm getting into a phase where my daily work is like this:

- E-mail Floods
- Phone Calls all the time
- Still have to code and produce

It's hard to manage all this because it breaks concentration and messes up your thinking.

I don't have a concrete system and i'll find one.
I can't solve everything in one day, but at the end of the day if i did my best, tomorrow i'll do better, i'll just find another way to get there.
August 02, 2012 14:39
Dude you never watched Lost? You have no idea what you are missing. Make time. Seriously.
August 02, 2012 14:48
Dude, I could kiss you right now.
August 02, 2012 14:51

Thanks a lot for this article!
You can't imagine how reassuring it is that even people like you, who achieved so much, are facing the same issues and personal crisis situation than I do.
Also thanks for the valuable tips (Rule of Three, Pomodoro Technique, ...) that will help me a lot managing my time and projects.

August 02, 2012 15:14

Key point: "If you really deeply care about something, you will do it."

I also like his point about not confusing activity for productivity. I think history is replete with stories of men and women who achieved great things by simply avoiding doing "things" and spending time in serious thought and analysis.

I think you hint at this in your post, but if you have so many smaller things that you can't get your job done, get rid of the those smaller things. Where I work, we have a concept of "meeting free Fridays", which I think is rather inane. If you have so many meetings that you need to schedule a day off from them to get work done, that means you need to stop having so many damn meetings!

Sorry if this response is a little disjoint!
August 02, 2012 15:52
I would add another advice: write only one tweet each day; check Facebook only one a week.. :)
August 02, 2012 16:24
> Man, I suck. I'm just not getting a damn thing done.
> Sometimes I feel like this.


I often wonder how one person (you) can do so much and achieve so much. Actually, reading this your blog, not only gives me lots of ideas and interesting information, but it also makes me feel like I should do so much more.

And if *you* feel like not getting a damn thing done, what shoud the average human feel like, then?

Isn't this very much like women being unsatisfied with their looks? I haven't met one woman who was satisfied with her looks, even very pretty women think they were inadequate in some way. Big industries depend on this (cosmetics, sports, advertising, healthy food, and many more).

The number of projects we can get done is limited. Using tools or paying an assistant or whatever, will only defer the point in time where we again get to the limit.

If we get 435 things done every single day, we still will feel sick and inadequate if we think we should have done 440 things.

So, IMHO the question is not how to be productive, but *why* do we have to be so incredibly productive? Why do we have to look so incredibly good? Why do we have to try out all those things and buy all those products? Is all this to our advantage?

But it's not about the Why either. Looking at kids: when they play and are having fun, they do not think about being productive. Only later, when we grow up, we begin trying to be productive. It's when we realize that our life time is limited and that we are using our limited time to make a living, it's then that we try to use our time as "productive" as we can.

Ok, got to run now! My todo list is sooo long, I'll never get it all done today. What am I doing here? Loosing so much time! This really makes me feel I suck! Next week I'll try this GTD thing ... ;-)


August 02, 2012 16:37
Great article, I appreciate the insight, but I do have some thoughts/questions.

I am relatively new in my career in programming, and given that fact and the fact that there is SO MUCH to learn, I try to do as much side-work/learning projects as possible. Currently on top of the 9-5 gig I have I am picking up another 20-30 hour part time thing to learn some other technologies on the side. AND I still like to play with my own projects as much as I can. Not saying "Look at how awesome I am!" here, I just wanted to see if you have any advise for us new guys who feel like they can't afford time to sleep because they fear they won't be able to keep up with the technology revolution?

Love your work Scott


David Stanley
August 02, 2012 17:22
> Don't make Guilt Piles
"Guilt Pile" is a beautiful name whether it's unread books, unfinished tasks on a TODO list, floating ideas in the back of our mind, stickies on the wall of hopes and dreams, etc.

One of my most important lessons was to "let things slough off" and create fresh lists. I create a fresh list each day, and a fresh list each week. Because I'm an information pack rat (and storage is cheap), I archive my old ones. This keeps them out of site, and out of mind, but within grasp if I want to flip through to see patterns and trends.

I let things "slough off" by carrying the good, no, make that the GREAT, forward, and letting the rest go. It's a way to get to great work in a more organic way, as well as deal with things in batches.

My mental model for getting to the essential work is -- "Trim the Tree." Imagine a Mind Map where you hack off branches, instead of just prune leaves. It's a great way to visualize your work, the Bonsai way.
August 02, 2012 17:25
This was a great article and actually exactly what I needed to read. I have a large number of books in front of me and I have been feeling guilty on not reading. And to be honest reading your blog, I always feel like you are one of the people who manages to read everything and I wonder how you do it with two kids. With a little one right now, I'm barely keeping my head above water some days.

Thanks for sharing. I know more often than not, most of us feel this well, but we have a hard time admitting it or feel like we are failing because we feel this way.
August 02, 2012 17:51
@David Stanley: "I just wanted to see if you have any advise for us new guys who feel like they can't afford time to sleep because they fear they won't be able to keep up with the technology revolution?"

That's an excellent question, and I don't know if this will be reassuring to you, but keeping up with the technology revolution will (hopefully/fortunately) never end.

Us old guys are in the same boat as you are as we are trying to keep up with all the latest technology as well.

Scott's post is telling everybody - new programmers and experienced programmers - to not sweat it so much. And, he also has sprinkled his posts with lots of good links to strategies to help us cope and focus!
August 02, 2012 17:56
Some very good tips. I plan on trying to use these when I feel overwhelmed with projects/blogs/books/etc.

I totally agree, saying "no" is your most powerful option, but it's easier said than done sometimes.
August 02, 2012 18:04
I feel guilty now. I've been reading HN for 2 hours.
August 02, 2012 18:46
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post - thank you for sharing this. I constantly beat myself up for feeling like I haven't accomplished as much as I'd have liked day over day, week over week, etc...

Feeling like you never stop doing, but looking back thinking "but what did I even do?" is the worst.

Love the "Rule of Three" - will definitely incorporate this in my own systems.

Other things that have helped me:

- Reminding myself that I don't have to volunteer for every project, task, etc...
- Asking for help. If I've underestimated the level of effort to get something done, and I know I'm not going to reach my deadline, I'll ask for help. Acknowledging it, and asking for help from colleagues can make a world of difference.
- Patting myself on the back when I have accomplished everything I set out to do in a day, week, etc...
August 02, 2012 18:53
Right on. Thank you.
August 02, 2012 19:06
Great, Scott Hanselman feels like HE doesn't get enough done in the day. Now I KNOW I'm not getting enough done. I hate myself.

August 02, 2012 20:08
"Set aside an hour for email, and do that hour."

How the *bleep* do you get an hour of email a day?
August 02, 2012 20:27
August 02, 2012 20:30
Scott, I've listened to your podcasts, read your blogs, followed your advice and been amazed by all that you have accomplished, and like your wife said in a recent show, you are the guy people rely on to get things done. It's been humbling. I have had a pretty successful 30 year career in software, a great wife for a little longer than that, and two successful and talented daughters. But there have been quite a few times where I felt like I have done very little, and never will do much that is significant in my career or my life. But that thought always brings me back to the acknowledgement of who I am.

Finally, four years ago, at the age of 50, I was diagnosed with PTSD and ADD. The only person to whom this was not a complete surprise to was my wife, who finally realized why I am the way I am. Everyone else sees me as someone who accomplishes and knows about a lot. Adderall and Wellbutrin have helped, as does simply knowing about my brain chemistry and how it relates to my limitations.

My point is, everyone is limited. All we can do is try to learn and evolve in spite of those limitations. Yes, we can grieve about them, acknowledge them. But then it's time to move on and figure out how to acheive what we can, love the ones we care about and let the rest go. Thanks for all your insight.
August 02, 2012 20:33
Email email email. Just don't read it. Seriously.
I work in an office where everyone is in the same building. I only check my email at the end of the day and people have now got into the habit of coming to see me directly if they need something. Far from being annoying for those people they're actually keen to do it because it means that they can be sure that I totally understand what they want instead of just "getting the gist" by reading some hastily written email.

Great post Scott, and thanks for articulating what the majority of us are feeling.
August 02, 2012 20:52
As I'm reading "Guilt Piles", I look up to my book shelf. Sad. Then I read the rest. Happy.
August 02, 2012 20:53
>> Pick the book or two that you can read this week

I was starting to feel good and understood until I got to this. Now I'm hanging my head in shame.
August 02, 2012 21:09
The Outlook one won't work for me. I have staff in Europe and I'm in the USA, so by lunchtime here, most of them will be done for the day. The rest of the ideas I will try and follow though.
August 02, 2012 21:15
Ahh, 'singing my life with his words' Not long after I wrote this blog on my immense levels of guilt around work and motherhood, ( I hired a Virtual Assistant.

Best. Thing. Ever.

Every Friday, she comes to my home office and schedules my work for the following week. I don't have less work, but I wake up on Monday, open my calender and all the "OMG, I have SO MUCH TO DO" crap that was stuck in my head (and stopping me from getting the little sleep I could fit in) is organised for me to see and set a critical path toward achieving.

Habits of a working lifetime die hard. I still procrastinate, still do the things I like most first, still work till stupid o'clock most nights but I am a hell of a lot calmer in doing it.

Sometimes, if you are super nonlinear, you just gotta let a linear person come in and draw you a straight line to follow.

Awesome blog. Thanks!
August 02, 2012 21:38
I'm crying, I'm actually crying. Thank you Scott.
August 02, 2012 21:46
@Brad Rembielak

Good insight, thanks. I agree and also hope it never goes away. It is one of the things I love about this career is there are so many options and choices out there and every day something new comes out that either makes life easier or harder. I will have to carve out some time to read up on some of the linked articles here.

August 02, 2012 21:57
I tried the pomodoro technique and didn't work too well.

I tried something else I read (Based on the pomodoro one)

Just cut the internet for 25 minutes, and get your work done (well not all internet, you can leave stackoverflow, this blog and MSDN open of course)

Once i begun with that my productivity boosted... but the company i work with got a problem with me having no internet during so much time during the day.

So now I resolved to the calendar one. mark a red x every day you do something. And don't break the chain... Sadly it is been quite difficult to achieve.

but so far, the best advice I have been given is that one:

"Measure often, cut often, change and adapt"

I will do that and let you know.
August 02, 2012 22:02
Seriously Scott, this is a fantastic post. Thank YOU.
August 02, 2012 22:22
Great article Scott and I really think you've hit the nail on the head - there's so much guilt associated with what we think we should be doing, so I think it's really positive that you say "get 3 things done". This appeases the guilt and does allow you to cross stuff off that list.

I very much agree with your "paint house" vs. breaking it all down in to small tasks. You just can't tackle a huge project like "paint house" without putting a weight on your shoulders.

Keep it simple folks!
August 03, 2012 9:23
Superb article Scott, hope it will increase my productivity...:D
August 03, 2012 9:36
@David Stanley: I also once feared that. I was MVP till 2009 (from 03), and still am involved in some community stuff, and I was really afraid when I just didn't have the time anymore for all of that I used to have.

What do I do? I also let it go, but not all, when a new technology is being pushed I do read on a longer term what's generally being said about it such as blog posts (or series) etc however I really don't jump into it like play day and night right away, but I gather the preinformation from where can I get the exact information when I need it. KInd of pre-indexing for potential use.

Initially one probably needs to do lots of catch-up -at the beginning of the career or if one switches to totally new job - but this industry is also pretty well "rememberizing" about those things so some catch-up happens kind of automatically (even if you think you're not doing anything) when you follow the good sources.

Pick few quality sources you follow, follow them, don't try to follow everything (you can't).
August 03, 2012 12:55
From the perspective of a relative newcomer to software engineering, I would say that avoiding being a Jack of all trades seems to help to keep me focused. It's very tempting to constantly wander off down new learning avenues, but just having a quick stroll rather than an ironman marathon seems to be the way forward.

But anyway, thank you Scott, it's good to know that these feelings of worthlessness will never go away, no matter how successful I am ;)

August 03, 2012 14:14
Thanks Scott for quite an inspirational quote.

For some time I was balancing a full time job with a second occupation (registered sole trader etc). I managed this for two years (enough to pay for a wedding, which was the best day of my life) however it soon got too much for me and my health started to head downhill.

I'm not concentrating solely on my full time career and have pretty much stopped my second job, except for the odd personal project as long as I don't start to feel stressed out.

You're post here reminds me that despite what I think, everyone feels this way sometime in their lives. For me I've got better at noticing the signs earlier on and taking action (by DOING nothing sometimes) really helps.

Also, thanks Tim Murphy for the heads up on Trello, I think this is really going to help with keeping my head above water and concentrating on what really matters.


August 03, 2012 15:18
Thanks for mentioning the Guilt Piles.
August 03, 2012 18:58
I need to be getting stuff done right now and I am reading this blog :-/
Great post! Off to productivity now .. !
August 03, 2012 19:08
Thank you Scott!

The fact that you also suffer from this, took a lot of the guilt off of my shoulders.

I feel so much better now, and I now have renewed hope for finding a way to deal with this everyday-problem.
August 04, 2012 8:37
I appreciate the great advice in this post. I think guilt and self-loathing are endemic within the software development community, and I submit that often I feel these potentially harmful emotions. I feel that it can get really bad if it detracts from the enjoyment of doing the work. The best advice I can add is prioritize what is important and strive to get that done. If the less important tasks don't get done, don't beat your self up over it.
August 04, 2012 8:40
Wow! You just nailed it!

Great Post!

Now I'm going to get back to work and stop reading blogs. :)
August 04, 2012 18:33
Thanks for the post!

I find this very relevant for me as well...
August 04, 2012 19:04
Thank you Scott. The subject of this post is extremely up-to-date because productiveness is crucial in every part of our life. Especially nowadays, when we are literally bombarded with information, it is essential to know how to deal with it. Thumbs up!
August 04, 2012 21:05
The title is funny. It sounds like a new addition to Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development. It could go right between "Generativity vs. Stagnation" and "Ego Integrity vs. Despair". (I was a psych student for a year before discoving the computer center at college) Perhaps this was intentional?

As for the content, the only comment I have is regardig Rescue Time (I only recently started reading your blog regularly, so I did not comment on the full post on it). I have wanted something just like Rescue Time for many years, and even contemplated building it on my own. The reason I have not used Rescue Time is because of the whole cloud storage model.

Perhaps I have become less trusting over time, but these days I find myself reluctant use products or services that involve storing a pile of personal data on some company's servers. I realize this is the way things are moving, but with continual data breaches in the news and stories of companies not following privacy standards (i.e. Google pulling data from wifi networks in their street view cars), not to mention the reliability of the technology and stability of the companies storing this data, I feel like the industry needs to mature quite a bit before I (and probably many others) are ready to accept that our data is safe and secure.

On the other hand, I may suck it up and give Rescue Time a try.

August 05, 2012 5:21
You need to ask yourself why being productive is so important to you. Who are you trying to impress?

I get stuck in "unproductive" guilt pits too. I assume everyone does. If I think it through I can usually find at the root the desire to impress someone (new boss, wife, friends, random internet people). Once I know that it's easier to be objective and realistic. Often I discover it's just not that important.
August 06, 2012 23:56
Great post & subject affecting/afflicting many.

Suggestion for book piles. Borrow book from library, don't renew it and if you don't read it in loan period it wasn't important enough for you now.

Analysis, study & thought are important tools but one can also learn lots from doing and not succeeding or not fully succeeding.

For new technology read reviews from people that you trust and then if you are still interested in trying it look for an appropriate project to occur to you or present itself.
August 07, 2012 10:50
Great Post Scott. But you should really consider scheduling some time for Lost. Awesome show! :)
August 07, 2012 18:06
Hi Scott,

Nice post.

I suffered from "Not getting things syndrome" and found following things helpful:

1. Check emails once in the morning.

2. Not checking twitter often for new tweets. I fixed the time for twitter as well. Social-Networks are biggest source of distraction at work. Don't get me wrong.

3. Like you, I am also following tips of Stephen Covey and Brian Tracy as well. As Brian Tracy writes: "We are too occupied completing tasks that need not be done at all". Or rather need not be done at this moment. And as Stephen Covey says: "First Things First, Always".
August 10, 2012 5:51
Thank you for the intro into the Pomodoro technique (mini-sprints). Definitely seeing a boost in productivity when that 25 minutes is ticking down. For every 25 mins., I've been writing my commitments in OneNote, and it's awesome to see the list of accomplishments after a days worth of work.
August 13, 2012 1:18
Wow, amazing coincidence,

the thing that you were saying about "Schedule Work Sprints" working 25 minutes and resting 5 minutes
I've been doing that for years, and it server me really well, I also built a small winapp (that is unnoticeable by the boss or anybody else) which notifies me when to take a break, and when to start working again,
just recently released it on codeplex, and now I see your blog post talking about this same thing :)
August 13, 2012 6:06
This is one of the best lists of productivity tips I have seen in a long time. I loved so many of these tips (especially about not making guilt piles!) for making your time better spent. Thanks!
August 13, 2012 23:43
Ugh, thank you for this. I've been in this trap for most of the summer.
August 21, 2012 17:50
Hey Scott,

I've been following your series of productivity booster posts for quite some time now (through your blog, podcast and twitter stream) but have got to say that this post really resonated with me.

The biggest learning from your advice is that the 'system' needs to constantly evolve, if it's not working tweak it that little bit.

Keep up the awesome work on sharing your experiences and 'system'!
August 22, 2012 0:47
Fantastic post Scott. Thank you.
October 05, 2012 17:07
October 22, 2012 15:50
Thank you for that very inspiring post. Greetings from Poland! :)
October 31, 2012 14:36
I am not a coder, but I can definately relate to the logic of this. I just went through hell for the last three and a half years as a research associate, which really meant "chief turd catcher" with respect to tasks that fell into my lap. I had a personal to-do list a mile long, and a work to-do list that seemed never ending. Meanwhile, In the first 6 months, my boss mentioned burning out, and at the same time, there was no strategic plan, or other managerial cover to prioritize tasks and or say no to. It was an enlightening experience where I saw no less than 6 people in the same boat leave, a few of whom were ranting like lunatics just prior. The reward of working there was the promise of safety, security, and great accumulation of wealth, so it seemed worth trying as hard as possible to succeed. As I accomplished my tasks, and became more highly regarded in the company, my manager was rattled to the core, and it seemed that the volume increased, the reversals of decisions previously made increased, and my overall well-being was replaced by deep depression. Long story short (its not yet over), I left in a rant, and have been unemployed now for 9 months. I feel incredibly betrayed, particularly because I was not competing for anything other than another opportunity somewhere else in the company. I find myself wondering if I was truly as un-focused as this, or if this is the operating mechanism of the company.
March 13, 2013 6:59
Yesterday, at work, somebody said me: there are time when, infront of yours monitors, you are looking as an horse with blinders.

Others time my wife said:when you are infront of yours monitors I can ask you everytthing and your answer is a simple "Yes"...
I don't know if it was an observation or a threat...
Perhaps would be better to be focused on a PC just at work... no?.

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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.