Archive for category Productivity

On Failure

An artist I look up to is Devin Townsend. He is an amazing singer, prolific songwriter, hilarious in his performance, and a great mind.

Months ago, I’ve run into the Devin Townsend Challenge video. From its description: “Get a unique insight into Devin Townsend’s creative process in this two-hour video where he records a completely new track from scratch.” I was intrigued and am glad I’ve watched the whole thing. It’s not everyday we get a chance to witness a brilliant mind at work.

Devin’s albums and concerts are always very polished. Everything looks and sounds flawless. This is one of my favorite songs and performances by him: Devin Townsend’s Kingdom

The most important thing I got out of his “challenge” was his transparency into his process. He didn’t try to make anything look or sound perfect. He showed how he fails many times until he finds what he’s looking for. He also shows how he uses certain building blocks that have worked well for him, which are part of his musical fingerprint, so new creations come out a little easier.

I then found this great article:

Devin Townsend’s Advice to Younger Musicians: “You Need to Learn How to Fail Efficiently”

The title of that article alone already makes me sit back and think about it.

How much effort goes into trying NOT to fail? That’s a waste of energy. We’re not likely to get it right the first time. And even if we do, what do we learn from it? I don’t know who said this, but it’s a good quote: “It’s only failure if you don’t learn from it”.

A few weeks ago I’ve put up a dartboard in the house. Say I walk up to it, throw the first dart, hoping to hit the bullseye, and it doesn’t come even close. I can get frustrated, say I suck, throw the 2nd dart, and do even worse. Or, I can throw the 1st dart accepting that I may not hit the bullseye, but being aware of things such as how I’m holding the dart, how I’m aiming, how much force I’m using to throw, the dart’s trajectory, etc. Then I see the result, and try it again, learning off the experience I’ve just had, coming up with a new plan (throw higher, softer, relax the arm, etc.) and then there’s a good chance the 2nd throw will go a little better. Rinse and repeat.

So, as Devin says, we need to learn how to fail efficiently, so we aren’t afraid of failing, and are better equipped to give our best and learn with the experience.

I love this quote from a TV show I’ve never watched:

“Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.” – Jake, “Adventure Time”

We all have a tendency to see successful people and get frustrated when we can’t repeat their success. We compare our beginning to someone else’s middle. We don’t think of all the roads they tried to get to where they are. I think of Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek hugely successful book, and how it was rejected 25 times, before he finally got an offer from a publisher. 25 times! We are always afraid of failing one single time, let alone 25 times.

Here’s a great 5-minute talk on Why You Need to Fail, by Derek Sivers.

There are many things I want to do, many goals to pursue. I’ll add a task to each one as a reminder to ask myself “how can I fail efficiently?”.

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Leveraging Constraints

When we’re constrained, we have a chance to get creative. This is a topic that keeps coming up, and I have been thinking about how this has applies to my life.

I hadn’t heard of Dr. Seuss until I moved to the US. I enjoyed reading the back story to his Green Eggs and Ham book, in which he took on a bet that he could write an entertaining children’s book using only 50 different words.

Somewhere else (I can’t find the source now, but I believe it was on a blog post by Tim Ferriss), there’s the question of “how would we do that if we only had one third of the resource?”, so 1 month instead of 3, $10k instead of $30k.

In his autobiography, Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to be an actor, but was told he’d never make it, because he had a name nobody can speak or spell, a thich accent, and a huge body that won’t look good on camera. He used those Underdog Advantages in his favor. The Obstacle is the Way also talks about this idea.

More recently, I’ve read the following in this book: “Imagine a Being who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. What does such a Being lack? The answer: Limitation.

I think back to when I was a kid and video-game magazines started to give away cheat codes that turned us unbeatable. After trying it on one or two games, I realized I quickly lost interest in those games. What was the point of playing it if I can do everything effortlessly?

When I got injured last year and it took me 3 months to be fully-recovered, I made a point to myself of pushing through it regardless of my physical limitations and pain during that time, and ended up being more productive than during the months leading into it.

In 2020, with the limitations imposed by the pandemic, I’ve once again focused on a system that allowed me to push through it, and got a TON of valuable things done, which mightn’t be the case if the year had just been a smooth sail.

I’m now experimenting with creating self-imposed constraints on a number of projects and tasks.

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The Search for Perfection

“Perfection” has an expiration date. Yesterday’s perfect may be today’s “meh”.
I watched Tony Robbins’ interview with Shaun White not too long ago. When they mentioned Shaun’s Perfect 100 Score at the 2012 Winter X Games, I looked for it on YouTube. To me, it looked stunning. It’s just unbelievable that people can do that. As I scroll down the comments, I see this one: “Probably a 93 today”.

A perfect score yesterday won’t guarantee a perfect score today. Not without work towards progress. Yesterday’s competitors will learn from that perfect score. I like this sentence I’ve read in The Obstacle is the Way: think progress, not perfection.

Year’s ago, I’ve read Derek Sivers’ summary of the Art and Fear book. This passage has stuck with me:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be greaded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weight the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

“Better good today than perfect tomorrow”, comes to mind.

I keep those things in mind whenever I see myself with tons of ideas but not starting them because I may not have what I consider ideal to get it done (“not enough time”, “not enough money”, “not enough skills”, etc.).

I have been putting out many songs over the last several years. Every time I’m working on a new one, I may think “if I learn how to play the drums better”, “if I learn more music theory”, “if I learn how to sing better”. But I’m getting better at realizing I’m falling into that trap and quickly shifting into getting it started, working on it, getting it done, and moving on. Next time, it gets a little better, and so it does the time after that. Instead of waiting 10 years to have the perfect song (which I know won’t happen), I get done however I can, with whatever I have.

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Work Soundtrack

I enjoy having some music playing while I work; even more so if I’m using the Pomodoro Technique. But I’m very specific about my work soundtrack!

If what I’m doing the requires deep thinking, I need instrumental music. Most often, that’d be classical music (Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Bach, Chopin, Paganini, are among my favorite), but it may also be World Music (Kitaro is my top favorite). For shallow thinking, I may go with guitar albums by Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Steve Morse or maybe movie soundtracks.

When I already know what needs to be done (either because I’ve finished the deep thinking mentioned above or because the task is just busy-work), then I crave some high-energy music (usually heavy metal, but it could be some other things I have in my music library).

Here’s an example:

I’m about to implement a user story. I set two Pomodoro sessions: one session to read through the user story and acceptance criteria, review mockups, etc, and another session to write my specs for it (only the Given-When-Then statements). My soundtrack consists of classical music.

Now I’m ready to write the actual tests and just enough code to make them pass. The soundtrack may be some fierce heavy metal, as I blast keystrokes on the keyboard. As I do this, I may practice the “sing and read” speed reading techinique; as I sing my favorite songs, I read through my tests, write code, read what I wrote, and eventually read it again in preparation for some refactoring.

Do you have a soundtrack?

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Reading vs Gaming: Where did my time go?

I used to spend a lot of time playing video games as a kid. Loved my Atari 2600!! Shortly after I started working full-time at age 14, I bought my first computer. After spending what I thought to be too much time playing Wolfenstein 3D and Doom on my computer, I decided I should never have games installed on my computers. And that’s how it has been ever since: I do not play computer games.

Shortly after getting my first iPhone (v2), I ended up getting some games on it. I’ve played the heck out of Angry Birds! At one point, I noticed I was spending too much time playing Doodle Jump. Yeah, this game…

The game has a stats feature. When I saw the total time I had spent on that game, I was not happy. I don’t remember what the number was, but it added up to a few days.

I couldn’t believe I had spent that much of my life on such a thing. I thought about many other activities I could have done in that amount of time and realized I’d be much happier if had spent such time in those activities instead (working on my music, sharpening skills I use to make a living, reading great books…).

So I decided to never have games on my phone again. And it has been like that since 2010.

When I first moved to the US in 2002, my first guilty pleasure was a 1st generation X-Box (videogame consoles are ridiculously expensive in Brazil!). I used to play on it for several hours some weekends. I’ve had the X-Box 360 and currently have the X-Box One X. So, how do I handle it these days?

For the last year or so, I’ve been tracking my time spent on certain activities using the ATracker app on my phone. The activities I track may vary, based on what I’m trying to improve in my life:

  • If I feel like I’m spending too much time on a given type of activity, I track it;
  • If I feel like I’m not spending enough time on a given activity, I track it;
  • In a given month, I may want to make sure I spend more time working on my music;
  • On another, I may want to spend more time catching up with friends.

I use time tracking as a tool to keep myself accountable.

Since March, I’ve been track the time I spent reading books vs the time I spend on the video game. When I pull up the app, I want to see no more than 20% of my tracked time going into video games over the last 30-day period. Playing games is fun, but I also get a lot of fun out of reading, and can get even better things out of it.

As I pulled up my phone right now to check the time tracker, I see 76% reading and 24% gaming, which tells me I need to focus on getting more reading done over the next couple days, before I think of video games.

When I do play video game, I deliberately set how long I’ll play (usually 30 minutes, sometimes 1 or 2 hours), and I have the ATracker timer in a visible spot at all times.


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My Experiences with Speed Reading

The other day I’ve mentioned I do some speed reading when reading autobiographies. I actually also do it when reading other things. Here’s what I currently know and do about speed reading.

Back in 2000 or 2001, a co-worker was taking a very expensive speed reading course. He kindly offered to pass his learnings on to those of us who were interested. We only had a couple of lessons, but it was enough for me to immediately harvest the benefits.

Speed vs Comprehension

In the first lesson, he gave us the test to find out our current reading speed (words per minute, or WPM) and the level of comprehension. At the time I was reading like we are taught at school: one word at a time (often one syllable at a time). I can’t remember what my WPM was, but I remember my comprehension was at around 70% or so. There are such tests online you can find to see where you are with that at the moment.

He gave us some excercises to practice for a week. The exercise was a page containing 3 or 4 columns of words. We’ve cut a piece of paper so its length would be enough to cover the page top to bottom, and its width would be enough to cover an entire column of words. We’ve cut a rectangular gap on the paper so that we could see one word, and only one word, when laying it down on the page.

Seeing words, instead of reading them

The exercise was to pass that piece of pager on the page, top to bottom, one column at a time, left to right, at a speed where we could see each word going by, but not read it. If we passed too fast, we’d only see a blur of words; if we passed too slow, we’d end up reading the words. The idea is to only see the word, without reading it in our mind.

The following week, we did the test again. I don’t remember my specific numbers, but I know that I read the text much faster, and my comprehension went up to 85% or so. That blew me away. Since I was forcing myself not to silently read the words (saying them in my mind), I thought there was no way I’d be able to answer any question about the text I had just read. Seeing my comprehension going up was enough for me to pursue speed reading a little more.

One of the following exercises was to read text on a page using my index finger going left to right line by line (which was something I remember my school teachers specifically telling us not to do. They were wrong). That’s how I still read it today when I’m going fast. It helps me focus on moving my reading forward, instead of constantly going back to re-read words or sentences I’ve just gone through.

Sing one thing, Read another, at the same time

Another exercise was to listen to a song and sing it out loud as I read something. That one was awesome! Saying the words in our minds as we’re read them slows us down a lot. The brain doesn’t need us to read the words back to us. Once we see words, the brain processes them immediately. If we’re driving on the road and know that we have to take the exit to Such and Such City, we do not need to read every word on every road sign along the way; as soon as we see Such and Such City on a sign, the brain tells us “dude, that’s your exit”.

So, back to reading something while singing. The point of the exercise is: if we are singing lyrics out loud, it’s very unlinkely we will be able to say in our minds words we are reading on text that is not the lyrics we’re singing. So we can only see the words. Give that a try! Pick a song you know the lyrics by heart, let it play, sing a long, while reading a page of a book, a blog post, or anything like that. When the song is done, write own what you remember from the text you’ve read. You don’t have to write down word by word; just write down in your own words what you remember. Then go back to the text and see how much of it you got right.

Pace Yourself!

I do NOT speed read everything. I control my pace based on what I want to get out of the text I’m reading. For example, if I’m trying to just quickly learn about a new technology, I’ll most likely read through the book really fast, focusing on the title of each chapter, words that are in bold or highlighted some how, bulleted lists, etc. As I mentioned about reading biographies, I speed read through sections I’m not deeply interested in, and slow down on sessions that grab my interest. When reading fiction, I really slow it down, so I can appreciate more the author’s craft with words, character development, etc.

Slow or fast, go read something else now!!

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Time, Energy, and Focus Management

There are tons of books and resources about time management. Time is important; one can always make more money, but not more time. We all have the same 24 hours each day, so managing how we use our time is very important, indeed. However, time is not everything.

Even in the unlikely event of having a lot of time in our hands, what if we don’t have the energy to make anything with it? So, energy management is equally important. But time management and energy management are not everything.

We may have time, we may have energy, but what if we don’t have focus? Without focus, we’re likely to deplete our energy and waste our time.

If we have time, we can find ways to replenish energy and focus.

If we have focus, we can find ways to better use our time and and energy.

If we have energy… you got the idea!

Time, Energy, and Focus management. Finding the proper balance between those three points allows us to get more meaningful things done.

I have many posted related to how I try to find that balance under the productivity and lifestyle categories on my blog. Check it out!

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Multiple screens may NOT make you productive

Several people talk about how having multiple screens makes us more productive. But does it, really?

It’s not the number of screens that matters; it’s how you use them!

Let’s take my current setup as an example:

Those three active screens are the ones I use when doing most of my focused work. Let’s say this is how I use those screens:

Hey, we can see a Pomodoro Timer at the top-left on that picture, so this MUST be a very productive setup, right? I’m afraid not. Consider my current focus is software development work. Let me walk you through the points I’m indicating on the picture:

1. Dead space. Unused real estate. If I’m on my focused time, I should probably not be seeing my exciting track photos, which change every 20 minutes; maybe a solid color would help keep my focus;

2. An email client. My current focus is NOT “email processing”, I shouldn’t keep the distracting email client open like that;

3. A messaging app taking up an entire monitor. Does that conversation pertain to the current task I’m focusing on? If not, then this app should not be there;

4. That is the browser window showing me the software I’m building. That’s the result of my focused work. It can benefit from a little more real estate, no? To add insult to the injury, maybe I’d even have the developer tools open, all squished, docked inside that same window!

5. The IDE. The thing where I produce the result of my current task. The code I’m working on cannot be seen without scrolling horizontally!

So, do the multiple screens make me more productive if used that way? Most certainly not.

Here’s a better setup I believe makes me more productive:

Let me walk you through it:

1. My Pomodoro Timer. Time-boxed task. The time I have left helps me stay focused;

2. A place to drop in notes, screenshots, links, etc., related to the task I’m working on;

3. Any research or supporting material I’m currently using. In that browser window, I make sure to only have tabs related to the task at hand;

4. My IDE. That’s the screen I’m looking at most of the time, so it has to feel comfortable, relaxing, easy on the eyes (not a lot of information or things other than the current code I’m working on);

5. The software that I’m building, which is the result of the code in #4;

6. The Developer Tools (console, debugger, etc.);

7. The terminal (console) window, so I can quickly see if my current changes have broken my local build (also supported by what I may see on #6).

As it has been document on the internets since 2007, I am very specific about how I organize windows and multiple screens. I organize them based on the focused task at hand and I’m always looking for A) better ways to organize it, B) processes and tools to make it easier.

If I’m working in Visual Studio, I may use the Windows Layout feature. Working either on a PC or Mac, I find ways to move windows around by only using the keyboard.

If I’m on the road, away from my normal setup, carrying only my laptop and my iPad, I turn my iPad into an extra screen (here and here).

I’ve just heard about the FancyZones in the Windows 10 Power Toys this morning, and I’ll be looking into adding that to my toolbox as well.

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VS Code tip: a handy snippet for console.log

Whatever the IDE I’m currently using, I always end up creating a couple of handy snippets, such as the one I’ve shared on how to create a TODO template in VS Code. Here’s another handy one…

Say I’m troubleshooting some JavaScript/TypeScript code such as the one below:

Many times, I want to write out the contents of something to the console. Say, the contents of “this.week” in the example above. I’d end up writing something like this:

Except that it bothers me having to write this same kind of thing over and over again. Snippets to the rescue! I created the following snippet for me:

Now, all I have to do is to select the thing I want to print out (“this.week”), copy it into the clipboard, and then invoke the snippet in the code editor with “clogc” (as in “console.log clipboard”):

Like it? Share it with your team and friends!

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Thoughts on the Pomodoro Technique

It looks like I’ve been using the Pomodoro Technique for way over 10 years now (that’s how far back I’ve found references to it on my blog)!

Most people learn the basics of the technique and run with it: set a timer for 25 minutes and do some focused work, take a 5-minute break, rinse, and repeat. As I’ve coached a lot of people on the technique over the years, I realize I’ve taken it beyond the basics. I remember back when I first learned about it, I did take the time to go through a short book the technique’s creator had up on his website. While I can’t find that version of the book anymore, there seems to be an updated version available.

Here are my general (and I guess some specific) thoughts about my use of the Pomodoro Technique!

You need to stick with it to see it work

Like with any technique, this one won’t produce any results if you try it once and never actually get to practice it, meaning, make sure to do it right, consistently. How can anybody do it wrong? Easy: set the timer for 25 minutes, start doing the work, and 10 minutes into it, go check out that social network notification that popped up somewhere, get your attention derailed for 10 minutes, go back to the remaining 5 minutes of your “pomodoro”, realize you won’t be able to finish your task and affirm that the technique does not work. That’ll do it. I’ve seen it happen.

Be mindful of what you do in your 5-minute break

When taking the short 5-minute break in between pomodoros, do your best NOT to engage in activities that’d get your mind busy with something completely different from what you’re currently working on. A big context switch would be a longer ramp-up time when we start your next Pomodoro, and that is a problem if you were working on a task that spans multiple sessions.

For example, checking emails in that 5-minute break can be detrimental to your productivity. You may get involved with an email that ends up taking 10 minutes of your time, stealing away all the context for the task you were working on. Instead of checking emails in that 5-minute break, set aside a full Pomodoro session dedicated to processing emails.

In a work-from-home setup, I tend to do things like playing my guitar for those few minutes, go outside and take a couple of deep breaths, practice juggling, etc; some simple activities that allow me to live in the moment, give the brain a little rest, and then get right back at it

Task-sizing in Pomodoros

Whenever possible, I like sizing my tasks in terms of the “number of Pomodoro’s”. For example, if I’m working on a given User Story, I may size it like so:

  • Pairing with QA to discuss test cases for the story = 1 Pomodoro
  • Writing unit tests (only the given-when-thens at this point) = 1 Pomodoro
  • Implementing the tests and the initial test pass = 3 Pomodoros
  • Cleaning up tests and code = 1 Pomodoro
  • Test/Code peer review = 1 Pomodoro
  • Creating Pull Request and updating tracking system = 1 Pomodoro

Total: 8 pomodoros (4 hours)

Such breakdown allows me to better organize my day so to make sure I get the uninterrupted time I need to do the work. If I need to pair up with somebody else on the team, it also allows me to be considerate of the other person’s time and have it on the agenda for the day.

Do I always work like that? No, but whenever possible, yes!

Wait, pairing during a Pomodoro?

Yes, I’ve mentioned above that I do pair during Pomodoros. How does that work? Well, both I and the person I’m pairing with are fully focused on the task at hand. Neither of us is checking emails or looking at our phones. This works great for:

  • Pair programming
  • Design sessions
  • Code review

What if those around you don’t do Pomodoro?

I see people walking out of restrooms without washing their hands; that doesn’t prevent me from washing mine!

I use the Pomodoro Technique because it works well for me. As it always happens, people see my Pomodoro Timer and ask me about it. I always take the time to explain and coach them if they’re interested. Those who aren’t interested at least start to respect my focused time and won’t interrupt me when they see I have my timer running.

Be mindful of abandoned Pomodoros

When you’re interrupted, you MUST abandon your Pomodoro. When you do, keep track of it. Write down why you had to abandon it. At the end of the day, reflect upon it and see if there’s anything that can be done/changed so that such interruption won’t happen again. Maybe you had an internal interruption caused by a Facebook notification you saw in a tab on your browser you’ve left open, so you now decide to close all tabs with content that’s not related to the task at hand. Or maybe you had an external interruption, caused by a co-worker that walked up to your desk and started talking about last night’s game, so you now decide to politely ask that person not to interrupt when you have your “do not disturb” sign up, whatever that sign is.

I talk more about managing interruptions in a previous post.

Working in Pomodoros all-day

People often ask me, “do you work in Pomodoros all day?”. That’d be great, but unlikely. I have different meetings at different times of the day on different days of the week.

I normally look at the schedule for the current day and find the blocks of time where I can work in Pomodoros. Any available half-hour is a Pomodoro where I can do productive work. If I can only do one Pomodoro in a given time window, I’ll use that for tasks that would comfortably fit in (a 1-Pomodoro task, as opposed to 3). Maybe processing emails, for example. If I have a larger window, say two hours, than I plan on 4 pomodoros, which is a nice time for focused, deep-thinking work.

If you do something like that, consider blocking those times in your calendar so people won’t reel you into unplanned meetings (just add something to your calendar such as “Pomodoro slot”, “Focused tasks”, or something like that). Over time, people will learn to respect that. Of course, let people know it’s ok to interrupt you during that time if there’s a real urgent matter that needs your attention.

Do you mute the ticking sound of the timer?

The ticking sound of timers drives some people nuts! If I’m deep in thought, that sound actually helps me stay in the zone. Some people also say the sound helps to stay focused (“the clock is ticking… I need to get this done!”).

I also like being able to see the timer. Let’s say I’ve planned to work on a task for 1 Pomodoro. I’m 20 minutes in and I think I’m done with my task. I look at the timer and see there are 5 minutes left. Instead of either “calling it a Pomodoro” or jumping to the next thing, I use that time to review what I’ve done. At times, it works like my “mini-retro” within a task. Maybe I can identify some quick code cleanup opportunities. Maybe I can identify things that could have been done better, but that can’t be done in 5 minutes, so I just take good notes about it, with enough context, so that should I have the time to come back and address it, I can quickly get my mind and thought process back and get it done.

Do you use an app for that?

Yes, I do. I have considered getting an actual Pomodoro kitchen timer, but I’m sure co-workers wouldn’t like having the tic-tac in the office. So I use either an app or a website such as this one.

Now if you excuse me, I need to start my next Pomodoro. 🙂

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