Jason Fried On Momentum, Productivity and Business Success

37 Signals recently added a page for talks given by their staff where I came across a presentation that Jason Fried gave at the Business of Software 2008. Fried is never afraid to speak his mind and be controversial and there’s much here I would disagree with. Just because what he does works for 37 Signals doesn’t mean it works for everybody, but there were some ideas that really grabbed me.

Interruption is the Enemy of Productivity

Fried talks about how creative people need large blocks of time in which to work and that interruptions cut into this time. 37 Signals has dealt with this problem by maintaining an office that nobody works at; everybody works remotely, meeting only occasionally as a group in their office space. This eliminates some common forms of interruption like the tap on the shoulder or the address from across the room.

The Four Day Week

All 37 Signals employees work a Monday through Thursday with Friday off. Fried says that productivity has increased since they cut Fridays, his explanation being that people have had to cut out the non-essential work and focus on what’s important.

There are certainly many jobs that can expand to fill the time allotted to them and distractions can eat up a lot of time. Still, I’m not so sure that cutting out a day of work would automatically eliminate this kind of waste. 37 Signals clearly is committed to creating the most effective work environment, and it’s this kind of support that seems most crucial.

Momentum

This was the overall theme of the talk: how building momentum creates good work and great companies. It seems that there are a few components to this, but a big part of it is creating easy opportunities for success. Smaller projects, attention to detail and constant iteration: these tactics create successes that can be repeated such that people are always motivated to do better work.

This talk is well worth viewing. Check it out below.

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Think

I’m not going to be one of those bloggers who uses a whole post to apologize for not having posted in so long, so let’s jump right into a look at Think a mac application from Freeverse.

Think

Think does one simple thing: it hides all applications except the one you’re working in. There’s a whole lot more to it and more sophisticated features but I’m not going to talk about that. Instead I’d like to address how surprisingly useful this application is.

It’s A Bug, Not a Feature

I remember when I could only do one thing at a time on my computer. The last time was probably when I had a Mac Plus that ran applications off a floppy disk. If you wanted to run another app you had to quit whatever you were doing, eject one disk and insert another. Over time computers added more and more memory and designers came up with ways to switch between applications running at the same time. Now I regularly run around a dozen apps on my computer simultaneously, often switching between them constantly. Rather than making me more efficient this constant switching of tasks and contexts makes me scattered, tired and unhappy.

One Thing At a Time

Of course, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. I’m not going to go back to only running one application at a time. The time spent quitting and starting up apps would seem immense, even if it made me more efficient overall. I just don’t have the discipline to take that kind of step. Likewise, I don’t have the self control to just work on one thing at a time when all those other apps are clamoring for my attention in the Dock and around my Desktop. So what’s a guy to do?

Help Is On The Way

Think has effectively solved the problem of app overload. Seeing just one application at a time (with the rest of the screen blacked out) has an enormously calming effect on me, making focusing on the task at had much easier. There’s still times when I flit between apps, although I’m trying to keep that to a minimum. But when Think is doing its job I can turn off all the noise of multiple applications, desktop background, etc., and just. do. one. thing.

If this appeals to you, check out Think. Oh, and it’s free.

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Mastery

I just read this great interview with David Foster Wallace that was printed by Amherst Magazine in 1999. I knew that Wallace was a terrific writer but here he proves to be a great interview subject as well. How does he do it? He changes the structure of the interview to suit his strengths.

This interview was conducted by mail: Wallace was sent the questions and was able to draft his answers in his usual writing style: an original draft, two rewrites and two typed drafts. Rather than forcing himself to adapt to an unfamiliar structure Wallace makes the interviewer adapt to a format that works best for him. The lesson here: don’t just play to your strengths, make others play to them as well.

Not only does DFW control the format of the interview, he makes this format explicit within the interview itself. I’m guessing that many interviews I’ve read in magazines are conducted over email, or over extended periods of time, and then presented as short conversations between interviewer and subject. Wallace refuses to buy into this conceit and, to her credit, the interviewer (or editor) follows suit in the way the interview is printed. Example: when asked a question about the limits of entertainment as a means of communication DFW answers “Unanswerable within the constraints of a condensed back-and-forth like this (see Q14).” This answer would be impossible to give in a conversational interview since the subject would not know the content of future answers. Here Wallace calls attention to the structure of the interview in a way that expresses his own style. So lesson number 2: After establishing a favorable environment, exploit its features as much as possible.

These insights seem more akin to the teachings of Sun Tzu than the practice of a literary master. I guess it never hurts to have an edge, and David Foster Wallace was sharper than most.

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Buxton on Innovation

A BusinessWeek article by Microsoft’s Bill Buxton got a lot of links and after reading it I have to throw in my two cents as well. The article is titled How To Keep Innovating but offers advice that goes well beyond the stated goal. What Buxton seems to be talking about is how to stay engaged in your work and play by constantly challenging yourself.

Buxton’s method, in a nutshell, is to always be engaged in an activity that fuels his passion, and to continue to seek out new opportunities for doing this. The key is to accept being bad at something when you start it and to be willing to let it go after you’ve reached a level of competence in favor of being bad at something else new. Buxton’s article reminded me of a few different philosopbies of how to live a rich, satisfying and creative life.

Go With The Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow explains how one’s skill level at an activity and the challenge that the acitivty presents interact to create an experience. Flow (what MC calls the optimal experience) occurs when the challenge presented and skills brought to bear match each other. Buxton’s model plays into this but doesn’t really optimize for it. When you start any new pursuit, the challenge is going to be greater than your skill level at first, then your skills will improve coming into balance with the challenge. Eventually it becomes harder to stay interested as the pursuit becomes boring as skill outpaces challenge. Buxton recommends looping through this process again and again, which avoids boredom but also replicates the early period of excessive challenge.

What this tells me is the Buxton has a high tolerance for anxiety. He can keep starting new pursuits without being defeated by the learning curve. For most people this would cause anxiety, but there are some who flourish when faced with a challenge that is steeper than they can handle. Alternatively, Buxton could be a very fast learner, so he can meet early challenges in a short amount of time.

For the rest of us, Buxton’s advice may not work. In this case the key may be to continue to find new challenges in areas that we already feel comfortable in – otherwise mastery leads to boredom. Or perhaps it means starting a new pursuit in which you can use some but not all of the skills you have learned already.

Either way, it’s important to keep things fresh and expand your areas of expertise. This can make you not only more successful, but happier and more satisfied as well.

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If You Don’t Enjoy it, Quit

There’s one problem with trying ot acquire habits – we often strive to acquire the wrong ones. Not that we try to pick up habits that are bad for us, or impossible to do. The problem is that we try to pick up habits that are good for us but that we will never enjoy.

Life is Too Short

That’s right – I’m advocating what feels good. I’ve found that when something feels wrong, it usually is. That’s not to say that everything I’ve accomplished has been easy – far from it. But even the most challenging habits should feel right, even when they are challenging. In fact, it’s the challenge of some tasks that makes them enjoyable.

Of course, not all pursuits can be enjoyed immediately. Sometimes the learning curve is too great or the initial challenge to strenuous. Over time those activities can become enjoyable though. How long can that take? Well I’m no expert but I would say that after four to six weeks of engaging in an activity habitually you should have an idea of whether you can enjoy it.

So if you’re trying to take up jogging, or reading science books or knitting and you’re just bored by the experience – give up. Quit. Try something else that will be rewarding and make you feel good. Because without enjoyment there’s no passion, and without passion the best you can hope for is mediocrity. That’s no way to fill the days that you have.

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Impatience

One of the major impediments to my own productivity is impatience. Part of me always wants the thing accomplished now, better, faster. Any imperfect efforts are not good enough and certainly not as good as the fantasy I maintain of what can be. Working with this impatience is frustrating and sometimes paralyzing. So how the heck am I supposed to get anything done?

Chunk It

Breaking projects into bite sized chunks has helped me a lot. The key here is to define a task as something that cannot possibly be done wrong. “Create Design for Blog” is something very difficult to do perfectly, but “find four photographs for a possible banner image” is something that, once satisfied, is difficult to find fault with.

Leave Room for Iteration

There is always room for improvement, but how often do we give ourselves that room? Whenever possible, I plan for iteration of tasks and projects so that I don’t have to do it perfectly the first time. It’s much better to rework something several times than spend the same period trying to get it right once. Techniques like Agile Software Development have taken this idea and used it to complete huge projects involving teams of workers. So it should work for my own personal projects, right?

Forgive Yourself

On the first try or even the fifth, sometimes a project won’t work out the way I’d like. At that point it’s crucial to forgive myself, learn any lessons I can from the process, and move on. Failed attempts are inevitable and carrying around bad feelings about them only puts more pressure on the next project, creating a vicious circle of inflated expectation and dashed hopes. &lquo;Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.&rquo; So said Samuel Beckett, and he knew a thing or two.

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Fun with Blogging Tools

There’s only one thing I know about carpentry and construction: pick the right tool for the job and know how to use it. The same lesson applies to many other kinds of work and I’ve tried to apply it in how I blog and work on the web in general.

Having the right tool is about more than getting a job done efficiently. Tools can be beautiful, elegant and in some cases works of art in themselves. The U.S. Constitution might not command the same respect if it were written with a ball point pen. Chefs prize their knives and take great care in their maintenance. What tool we use to get a job done makes a difference to our entire experience of the task.

Down to brass tacks: here are the tools that I use in publishing this blog:

MacBook Pro

The macintosh computer has been my favorite tool almost since it was created. If you’re a mac person then you know that the experience of using one of these computers becomes part of how you interact with the digital world that you would never be willing to replace with another kind of machine. Apple was built on the idea that computers should be easy and even enjoyable to use and create as little friction as possible in people’s lives. For the most part they’ve lived up to that promise and the Macbook Pro may be the best computer I’ve used.

WordPress

More of a platform than a tool, although it has many tools built in.

MarsEdit

A blogging application for Mac. Marsedit is the only tool of its kind that I’ve used, but it’s never given me a reason to look elsewhere. It handles multiple blogs on several platforms (now including Tumblr) and its clean interface stays out of my way. Writing text, uploading and embedding images, saving drafts, previewing posts – that’s about all I’ve needed to do and MarsEdit handles the task admirably.

Textmate

The best text editor I’ve ever used and perhaps my favorite application of any kind. Powerful, flexible, elegant – everything you want a text editor to be. What makes Textmate so good? First of all it’s amazingly fast and responsive, which I put down to smart coding on the part of its sole programmer Allan Odgaard. Second, this app has functionality to burn thanks to its plugin architecture which makes it possible to add commands, snippets and shortcuts. Subversion support, commands and syntax coloring for every known language, tag completion, and on and on and on. My favorite new command: look up a selection in Google and then wrap the selection in a link that points to the top result, automatically populating the title attribute with the page title. Brilliant. I use Textmate in tandem with MarsEdit using the system wide “Edit in Textmate” command which Textmate will install for you. MarsEdit for blog access and posting, Textmate for writing.

These tools are not just necessary items that help me to get things done, they are sources of pleasure in their own right. Goals are great and some tasks need to be completed, but if you enjoy the process of getting there it all becomes much easier. Using the best tool for the job, the one that feels right, can make it happen.

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Just Give it Fifteen

I don’t know anybody who is good at figuring how much time tasks take. There are some who generally overestimate, giving themselves too much time to complete a certain task and then not being sure what to do with the surplus. There are those who underestimate, never having enough time in the day or short changing their own work. Case in point: it’s surprising what you can get done in fifteen minutes.

Most nights I put my three month old son to bed. Sometimes he fights it, sometimes not, but either way he’s asleep in about fifteen minutes. This is a fact I have to keep reminding myself of because when he is fighting sleep it seems like it’s never going to happen. I get frustrated and this time alone with my son becomes no fun for anybody. But then I remind myself to just stick with it for fifteen minutes. Sometimes he’ll yell for ten minutes and then settle down; sometimes it’s gradual and sometimes it’s as if a switch was flipped from awake and upset to asleep.

All kinds of activities work this way. Sometimes you just turn a corner. So next time I’m faced with a difficult challenge or a project that I don’t know how to approach, or even a household chore that I’m dreading, I’m going to give it fifteen minutes and see what happens. Maybe I’ll get a little closer to resolving the issue; maybe I’ll take a giant leap forward. In either case fifteen minutes isn’t much of a cost to get there.

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The First Fifteen Minutes

Upholding my commitment to 15 minutes a day on this blog has been difficult. On any particular day other matters intrude, other priorities seem more urgent, and even 15 minutes seems like a long time to be taking from other concerns. Worst of all, if I miss that day, I can’t just make it up the next day – this blog is developing 15 minutes at a time. Period.

So what I’m doing today, and hope to do every day, is commit the first fifteen minutes of my online day. I’m in front of my computer every day, usually at work. I can get to work fifteen minutes earlier. Or, while everybody else is checking their email, reading their favorite blogs and waiting for their PCs boot up (glad I work on a mac), I can be working on this blog.

I’ve learned this already: a habitual task not tied to a habitual time is difficult to maintain. When I think of the things I do on a regular basis, they almost all take place at a particular time of day, or at least a specific time relative to other tasks (first thing, right before bed, etc.) Some tasks I can throw on a list and trust I will complete them, but only if they are part of the same workflow as the rest of the tasks on the list.

Context switching is hard. Since posting to this blog takes place in a separate context than the rest of the day, I’m going to have to put it at its own time. That first fifteen minutes is my time and, dear readers, yours.

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Zeldman on Blogging

Jeffrey Zeldman

Jeffrey Zeldman taught me how to work on the web. His Designing With Web Standards was the first book I read on web development and his web magazine A List Apart continues to be an invaluable resource. So of course I jumped to check out the interviews conducted with Zeldman by Big Think.

Check out Zeldman on the history of blogging. I really related to one of his comments: “Just write. I just wrote and it made me an expert. The reason I’m sitting here as an 'expert' is because I did stuff first".

Here I’m trying to “just write”. I’m not the first web developer, I’m not the first blogger; maybe I’m the first blogger to commit to writing every day for a short period of time and write about it. Maybe, some day, I can be an expert at that. It’s pretty amazing that the web has given me this opportunity at all. As Zeldman points out in his interview, you don’t have to find a publisher any more, you don’t have to worry about how many people are listening to what you’re saying. Just write. Just create. Worst case is becoming an expert at something that nobody else values. But if you live your life by accommodating other people’s values…well that’s a post for a different day.

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