Staying Productive: Take Real Breaks and Keep away from Ace of Base

My productivity tip of the day is pretty simple and exists in two parts:

Take real breaks; and always know when you are on a break.

Know when you are on a break

If you are building a chair its pretty obvious when you aren’t building the chair. Like if you look down and you aren’t in your workshop or near any wood then you probably are taking a break.

On a computer it isn’t that obvious. You can be working along and suddenly find yourself on the Wikipedia page for Ace of Base and not remember what brought you there. You were tired or hit a wall of fear or doubt or boredom and just opened up your web browser. You were on a mental break unintentionally. Instead plan your breaks ahead of time and push through these times. Use Pomodoro or whatever flavor of GTD or focus techniques that you like to keep working when you are working.

Take a Real Break

Well then what’s a real break?

The goal of a break is for you to not work for a bit and come back fresh to work more after.  Its a small investment for clarity and endurance.

A real break:

  1. Is away from the computer screen (or the loom if you work with a loom)
  2. In some way takes your mind away from the immediate.
  3. Occupies your mind in some other way.
  4. Is of a length where you can come back and keep working easily.

Away from computer screen

Your eyes get tired, your liver gets tired, everything gets tired. Time away from the screen resolves this quickly.  (Not the liver part)

Takes your mind away from immediate

I would not recommend thinking of work-related things as taking a break. Reading a technical blog while you take a break from computer programming is not as good as reading a magazine or skeet-shooting on your break. Do something different.

Occupies your mind

There is this myth that you can “veg-out” in front of the TV to unwind, but this does not really work. Working on your own is all about maintaining a productive momentum so I would recommend doing something with your mind (like reading or a puzzle or equivalent) or completely not using your mind like walking or taking a shower rather than doing something passive like TV watching.

Is of the right length

This varies per person, time of day, and moon cycle but for me this is typically 10 – 30 minutes.

With those criteria here are some examples of bad breaks:

  • Building a barn. (takes too long even with help from the other villagers)
  • Going to see all the Twilight movies. (too long; also they must be terrible)
  • Opening up a new tab and randomly growing reddit or equivalent. (does not actively engage your mind, is at computer)
  • Watching YouTube videos at random. (at computer, soul-crushing)
  • Getting into fights about stuff over the Internet. (at computer, does not occupy your mind)

Here are some example of good breaks:

  • Going for a walk.
  • Washing all the dishes in the sink.
  • Drawing a small picture of a tree with a money in it. The monkey has a telescope and is looking at you.
  • Smoking a cigarette. (unfortunately)
  • Brewing and then drinking tea.

My personal favorite technique

I am literate.

 

My personal favorite break technique is to read one “American-style” short story. These are typically 20 pages long and establish a character or idea in that length. They take about 30 minutes to read and completely take your mind away from whatever you are doing. I read them away from my computer but near it (sometimes it is necessary for me to keep headphones on in case there is an emergency). This technique clears all my requirements above and has lead me to read all sorts of great stories. By the time I’m done I am “back”, my mind and eyes are rested, and I am ready to work.


*I know that the term “veg-out” means act-like-a-vegetable and not move, but it blocks the term from being used when you eat a huge salad.  Barbecue Ribs don’t move either, it should be “Rib-out” because they don’t move and you don’t move after them.
Back

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Sacred Space: Building the Energy of your Home Office

In a previous entry I mentioned that you should have certain infrastructure readily-available when you work from home. After I wrote it this idea kept bouncing around my head that is a lot more important: how you treat your home office.

What you don’t do in your home office and what you don’t have in there matters more. You can’t just pull up a fold-up chair to a coffee table and get real work done over the long-term from home. You have to create a Sacred Space.

Professionalism

To pull off working alone and to build anything of any real value you should treat yourself as a professional and respect your work for its intrinsic value. Take it seriously and build a space that shows this attitude.

Don’t eat at your desk. Don’t browse YouTube aimlessly at your desk. Take a break at a separate desk or computer; the space for work is for work only. Don’t allow your kids into your office unless they are there to make something. When they make something put it up on the wall. The smell, energy, and feel of the place is that of doing stuff, making stuff. It helps your muscle memory when a space is always used for the same purpose.

This of course means that you probably won’t be sitting at your desk for 8 hours a day. The time you aren’t working you shouldn’t be in there. Run your online errands elsewhere; check your news elsewhere.

Design your space

Your office should be highly-functional but pleasant. You should be in  direct control of noise and interruptions as much as possible (door that shuts is a minimum, steel door that shuts is better, sound-dampening room with a parachute catapult for quick exits is ideal).

Your office should be treated seriously but it should be a place that you want to spend time. Work is hard sometimes. When you look up from your computer to think  you should enjoy the fact that you don’t have to look at sad greyish-brown-really-man-oh-man cubicle walls or generic ‘art’ and the smell of sad coffee stains soaked into the walls of a typical office space. Put up some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle posters. Have toys, write something on your wall. Buy some ZenPencils posters. Have something that you want to look at; change it often.

As an illustration of this concept the below are some videos of professionals showing the rules of their spaces:

Casey Neistat: Red Boxes

Tom Sachs: Sacred Space

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Docked and Unplugged

Last year I went on my first cruise with my family. On the last night of the cruise my daughter got massively sick at 4 AM. Unable to go back to sleep after getting her settled I decided to take a walk around the ship; we would be de-boarding soon and I was sort of curious what the mini-floating-world would look like that early (especially on the last day). I was expecting a lot of tired children with Type A parents sitting at breakfast trying to stay awake so they could reach the car per their detailed schedule. Instead I found a closed breakfast buffet and a handful of men all sitting around looking at their cellphones.

I had noticed that my phone had chirped to life during the elevator ride to the 11th floor – finally within range of a cellphone tower and out of the deep interior of the ship it started its soft little symphony of text messages, work notifications, application updates, and social media “alerts”.

The men I found seated at tables (1 per table facing the same direction like an odd morning commute) didn’t have sick children who had awoken them at 4 AM like I had. They also didn’t have their families with them. They were all staring blankly at their phones and slowly scrolling through all those notifications. Not really knowing what to do since there were no pancakes to be eaten like I hoped I also sat down and pulled my phone out. Per usual whenever any modern person has a few spare moments I assumed the default behavior – slowly scrolling with my right hand.  News outside the network of things that actually affect me, work emails, photos and funny sayings, pictures of cats and babies – all scrolling past in a slow scroll.

I then stopped, stared blankly for a minute, and simply thought: What in the everlasting crap am I doing?

To want to leave the comfort of family and vacation a few hours early to catch up with work: this is the behavior of an addict.  I stood up and rode the elevator back to my softly sleeping family.

Work Life Harmony & Resistance

We recently did a home refactoring project to make it better fit our family as it exists now with some new requirements (two kids and one work from home Dad more than originally anticipated).

The core idea was to create a completely separate work space for me that could operate independently from the family life while still be near it – sort of like a small guest house. We considered: soundproofing my office, moving it upstairs, shifting some rooms and wall configurations to allow secret access to a bathroom, and building an astronaut helmet for me so that I was in a quieter space and away from our 87 children aka entropy amplifiers.

At the last minute I decided against it – not because of price or effort or how disruptive it would be. I chose to leave my office as it is now because the reality of working from home for this long is that I’m no longer trying to strike a work/home balance or separation but instead a work/home harmony.

All these terms are completely overloaded. In a job interview people always ask about work/home/life “balance” and whether a company supports it. The idea is that if you have balance in your work vs. home life you won’t miss your family’s important events. No last minute weekend work or 90 hours a week expectations. The marker of whether or not you have work/life balance is whether your significant other* sort of hates your boss. In reality the work side typically wins in this “balance” anyway:

Every one of us has learned how to send emails on Sunday night. But how many of us know how to go a movie on Monday afternoon. You’ve unbalanced your life without balancing it with someone else. – Ricardo Semler

The old success model was that the wealthy could completely separate work from home. Subway ride to Manhattan, secretary to manage work errands, home life miles away. Or constant business travel – first class around the world away from home cashing big checks and eating buttery dinners at steakhouses with people you don’t really know.

The new success model is to have work come to you rather than you travel to work. In the most boring scenario you work from home and you are near your family. A more exciting version is that you take your family with you and travel around the world working. An even more exciting version is that you work blind-folded using only an old Android tablet whilst riding a bull as you dodge bullets and manage to install a Java update without ruining your computer as your kids cheer you on from galloping recently-broken wild horses as your wife sprays shotgun fire at your enemies.

I don’t want separation of who I am into different arenas. I want my work life to be an extension of who I am just as my family life is – something to be proud of and work very hard at and fill with humor and love and creativity. I want my kid’s creativity to spill into my work life and my work to be understood by them.  I would love to have a small desk in my office where my kids could do their homework; my ideal coworking space would be me and my family, a $4,000 espresso machine, and a barista that speaks in the voice of Shredder from TMNT.

I don’t have all the answers on how to accomplish the sort of deeply-focused highly organized work that my job requires while in the same house with my kids, but I know that I can’t avoid the problem to solve it.

In The War of Art Pressfield talks about resistance – the idea that any good work will be worked against by outside forces. It’s quite a spiritual idea to some and to others is a physical manifestation of our need to procrastinate on the important things. In any event in my work life I’ve found that the more I gain control over my working parameters the more resistance I face.

Imagine this: the absolute ideal for getting a lot of work done is to have a private island accessible only by your boat that is stocked with food and water and clothes freshly cleaned and dropped daily via helicopter.  Your Internet connection is wicked fast but only allows sites relevant to your work; the temperature is perfect inside and out; your devices do not need charging; your bills are paid, Wild Berry Skittles grow from the ground like weeds, etc.  You are freed from all things but the work.  Any person who has worked alone knows that this scenario would, after a few days or weeks, find us waxing that boat or organizing the driftwood or climbing the palm trees rather than working.  We are not made for these isolation chamber existences and such deep unwavering focus and our minds object and we face resistance.

So we have to build-in and control our resistance. And given the choice between any other distraction and my family I’ll take my family every time.

* Or cat or lizard.

Now that’s your problem: A Short Guide to the required Infrastructure for Working from Home

Working from where you want is awesome. You get to be more in control of your workspace, put up any poster your want, have a picture of Oprah on your desk, save on gas, and avoid talk radio.

Being in control of your environment is something that sort of sneaks up on you though. Until you have a power outage (not that likely), internet outage (highly likely GRACIAS COMCAST), or coffee outage (sweet zesus please no) you won’t appreciate the fact that it is both a freedom and a responsibility.

You need a minimum set of stuff to work from home comfortably. Most remote workers just pull a chair up to their existing home office and just start working then slowly replace things over time as they realize that things that were the company’s problems are now their problems.

A slightly less than definitive list of your new problems

  • Coffee/tea/cocaine
  • Hardware and The Network
  • Ergonomics
  • Noise

Coffee, Tea, Cocaine

So your old job provided free coffee.  When you get your oil changed at one of those 10 minute lube places where they take parts of your car out and show them to you to shock you
(look at how pink this oil filter is sir!) – even these places have free (slices of) coffee.  But sadly there is no free coffee at your house.  Or tea.  Or Mountain Dew.  Or Mountain Dew Tea (read the New Yorker TO THE EXTREME).

So you start out with a $20 coffee maker, then you move to a Keurig, then a nicer coffee machine, then a coffee press, then essentially the machine that is in the Starbucks, then the machine that is in the only coffee-shop still around after Starbucks came to your town.   Anticipate these costs and buy something that prevents you from going out for coffee/tea/cocaine everyday.

Hardware and The Network

Your employer and coworkers don’t care about the difference between you being offline due to an IT issue or you watching Nacho Libre instead of working.

I’d suggest the following bare minimum:

Create a Plan B connection

If you have Comcast or some other dependence on an entity not motivated primarily by their service performance or your overall satisfaction with them then you are going to have Internet outages. Now is a great time to figure out who in your neighborhood uses DSL (if you have cable) or Cable (if you use DSL) or dial-up (if you live next to your Mom). Now is also a good time to crack their password aka learn their kid’s/dog’s names and ages.

Create a Plan B location

If your power or internet goes out for a few minutes just ride it out, but if you need to jet somewhere else in the middle of a conference call for example be ready to do so. Have your bag packed and have a location in mind within 5-10 minutes of your home. Don’t think coffeeshop – think Dunkin’ Donuts.

Create a Plan B device

Your company probably provided you with a computer. Great. Be aware of what happens if your kid takes it and puts it into the toilet then throws it into the backyard where a wolf grabs it and runs off and it isn’t a wolf that you recognize so you can’t follow it. Kids are totally unpredictable. Your personal computer can run VM software and have basic email and work connectivity. Your phone can check email and let people know that you are offline for a bit if your primary machine goes out. Take the time to get anything that is easy to get up and running in places before the worse happens.

Ergonomics

I used to work for a large company that had remote workers policies and websites and salary tables and probably a budget line item for buying people headsets in the southeast region. They employed three (aka tres) people in an Ergonomics department to help people not get overuse injuries at work. One of these people specialized in “remote assessments” which is basically when you videotape yourself in your home office working and this total TSA-wanna-be-weirdo watches it and gives you advice about your setup.

I thought that this was a little bit silly at the time but its quite wise on the part of the company. At a typical office job they have spent about 1K on a nice chair for you and a nice desk. At home you might be working from an old sewing desk and a lawn chair. As a recent “victim”* of a back injury I’ve found that my ergonomic setup at home was a leading cause. I have invested in the following:

  • Standing desk setup
  • Sitting desk upgrade (better chair, raise the height of my desk)

You owe it to yourself to work on this. Some basic information:

  • 90 angles are better than slumping
  • The middle of your monitor should be right where you look when your neck is neutral (if you use a laptop its probably too low if you use its keyboard)
  • If you are outside of the middle of the bell curve in terms of height in either direction you are move prone to back issues if you sit a lot
  • Getting up and moving often

More information secretly embedded as links in this sentence.

Noise

Some of my 87 children have some overlap with my work day after they get home from school. This means that at any point in my last 2 hours of the workday one of them can scream out “You are the worst mom ever” or “I’m going to marry Niles from One Direction and you can’t stop me” and I can’t really do anything to prevent hearing it or the people I’m on a conference call with from Iowa hearing some version of it. There are a few moves here:

  • Buy a really really good bluetooth headset with a hardware mute button. Learn to tap on it with the speed and accuracy of an old timey telegraph operator with a gun to his head
  • Buy a Daft Punk headset and work only whilst wearing it (available for purchase here)
  • Manage your schedule so that external distractions like this don’t interfere with your most productive times. I for one prefer to be on conference calls during this time rather than doing highly intense focused work (like playing Jenga with my cat).

But please enjoy the freedom

So with all this said I’ll also say that there is a list of things that simply aren’t acceptable within an office environment that are at home that might be beneficial to your productivity and your health. Keep these in mind and remember that you can make changes as you move along. A short list to get you think:

  • Standing desk and sitting desk (hard to pull off in a traditional cube farm)
  • [Advanced] Standing on your hands desk (type with a pencil in your mouth like a boss)
  • Treadmill desk – walk slowly away from cardiovascular disease as you make a crapload of typos
  • Stationary bike desk – slowly pedal as you destroy your laptop with your own sweat

 

* Victim: a person who, though years of inaction, causes a serious problem and then deals with the consequences of their own actions.

Tribal SQL

I am honored to announce that a chapter I wrote has been published in a book. Nope – it’s not the additional Appendix that I sent the author of Everyone Poops, but is instead Tribal SQL. Edited and produced by the infamous Jen McCown and published by Red Gate the books is on sale now.

If you are attending PASS Summit you can pick up a free copy at the Red Gate booth October 16th 6 – 8PM, and you can meet some of the authors Friday October 18th at 10:45AM.

My chapter carries the title Guerrilla Project Management for DBAs and offers advice on how a DBA can use some simple techniques to better communicate what they do, how effective they are, and why they should be given huge raises.

Here is an excerpt from the book:

A DBA’s Place in the Organization

Organizational skills matter more to a DBA than many other technical jobs due to the diverse nature of their workload. In addition, this diversity exposes the DBA to a greater surface area of the organization than is typical for most technical roles. As part of our jobs, we talk to many people:

  • Vendor’s technical resources – mainly to ask why they need ‘sa’ access, but also to request updated pictures of them that are coincidentally the size of a dartboard
  • Internal development resources – mainly to ask politely why they decided that a homegrown triple-nested cursor implementation of GROUP BY was a good idea, but also to enquire, for no particular reason at all, about their food allergies.
  • Business stakeholders – mainly to discuss capacity-planning decisions, but also to find out how to prevent an in-ear Bluetooth headset from affecting one’s golf swing.
  • Internal semi-technical resources (project managers, product managers, business analysts) – mainly to help with decisions about performance, capacity, and future goals for each product that needs database resources, but also to spread misinformation (“What, you didn’t know that using the first column in Excel has been outlawed as part of the Patriot Act?”)
  • Internal IT resources – mainly to work with them in configuring and securing the hardware and software platforms on which the DBMS infrastructure depends, but also to trade Magic: The Gathering playing cards
  • Management resources – to complain about all the above people

Since we talk to so many people, we are at higher risk of finding ourselves in the cross hairs of the blame gun.

Reasons you should buy this book:

  1. All author royalties go the the worthy charity Computers 4 Africa.
  2. There are many other great chapters from my fellow authors including:
    • What changed? Auditing solutions in SQL Server
    • Agile Database Development
    • Verifying backups using statistical sampling
    • Taming Transactional Replication
    • SQL Injection: How it Works and How to Thwart it
    • Building Better Reports

Hit it up Tribal SQL on Amazon to purchase:


Subtle (cost and cultural) benefits of supporting remote workers

One typically hears about how great remote work is from the individual perspective – it allows me to be happier, more empowered, live-my-life-in-harmony-smelling-flowers-blah-blah.  How it helps employers is then left as a given side-effect of this happiness: happy employees mean more gets done.

I believe that there are more direct benefits to having employees that work where they wish.  What follows is for all the Pointy-Haired-Bosses and bean counters; disregarding employee happiness – can you make more money?

Self-Healing Network

Have you ever attended a fire drill? Ever seen the flu take out an entire team? How about somebody plugging in a new machine in your server room and suddenly it’s a bit more romantic with all the lights out?

Now imagine that your workforce is spread out across the country. The following productivity drains are now eliminated, reduced, or are spread out over time to keep people working:

  • Fire drills
  • Bad traffic
  • Network and power outages
  • Severe weather events
  • The ice cream truck driving by your office
  • Flu season, stomach bug, lice, cooties, etc.
  • Forced happy birthday sing-along and the odd awkward sadness they flower

In addition having employees spread out allows you expanded time coverage more easily; an east coast employee can get a three hour jump on customer support for a west coast-based company.  In addition supporting remote workers shifts your IT infrastructure’s costs and outage risk a bit from you to them – they need to make sure that they have a fast internet connection, they should respond and move to a coffeeshop if it is down, etc.

Less time-wasting small talk and gossip

In a typical office people chat about the weather, celebrity news, their personal medical conditions, what type of soup they like, etc. for a surprising amount of time.  These same types of conversations just don’t translate into electronic equivalents.  Ever seen somebody video-chat about the Superbowl for 45 minutes over Skype? Simply not going to happen.  Those tools are great for professional communication, but for informal back and forth they just don’t translate with the same speed and nuance.

You might thinking that it isn’t a big deal that people save a few minutes a day by not chatting socially – who cares?  But remember that this slight barrier to communication reduces another problem: gossip. Negative but not-acted-upon thinking about work (“Man this place stinks”, “That guys is an idiot”, “The company logo looks like a dog drew it”) is poison to a team and ultimately a huge distraction once your company gets large enough to hire a few gossip super-spreaders.

Reduce Human Resources silliness

You don’t care if remote workers leave the kitchen or bathroom a mess.  They do not use your paper towels, electricity, water, sodas, or trip on your wet floor and break their leg.  They do not need to attend workplace violence seminars, be told to not bring life-size cutouts of Gene Simmons into their cubicle, or told to take off their sombrero during the morning meeting.  They do not have to be told how to ‘be a good cubicle citizen’ by avoiding heating up their fish-and-feta-with-pepper-jack-with-curry sandwich. They do not serve sentences on the Party Planning Committee or as Floor Safety Officer, or decorate their office doors for super-wicked fabulous prizes that someone took time to buy instead of doing actual work.

Increased loyalty

Remote work is still not the default choice; many companies are trying it out but it isn’t as common with established companies. For this reason remote employees tend to be more loyal for the simple (perhaps silly) reason that it’s a pain to find and get integrated with a new company. People will stick around more; you get this benefit for free.

Trial hiring

Hiring is super hard everybody.  A new effective trend is to replace the 87 interviews with made-up questions and instead hire them for a small, real project and then determine if their work ethic, communication, and personality fit within the team.  This is quite hard if you try to make them come into an office for a few weeks, but quite easy if you are already setup to support remote work.

Work life balance

Two interesting little tidbits about remote workers: they tend to work slightly more hours and they tend to object less to off-hours work. A common anti-pattern for remote workers is to use their old commute time to just work instead; you get these hours for free. In addition when emergencies happen being able to easily handle them without needing to drive into the office reduces the friction. A remote worker, unlike his cubicle-dwelling cousins, is always a few steps away from logging in to work; plus when he works a bit at night you don’t have to buy him pizza.

Free work while sick

At a traditional office if you are sick and contagious you don’t work. When you work remotely there is a large class of illnesses that are not too sick to work, but too sick to come in; remote workers typically push through this wall and work while sick. You get these hours for free.

Improve your processes

I’ve made this point in a separate blog post, so I’ll just refer you there instead. TL;DR – remote workers need clear processes, clear documentation, and a way to measure how much is getting done to be effective. These things just simply make you better and they organically improve when you support your employees not being present physically.

Employee selection

By hiring people that have worked remotely in the past you are selecting a certain type of person that might be different than a person with a resume just looking for someone to love them.

  • Have an opinion about where they want to work (re: gives MVD [Minimum Viable Damn] about their work)
  • Are a bit above average at written communication
  • Are a bit above average at speaking up over the phone

Be bought or buy more easily

A company that operates with remote employees is more attractive for Mergers and Acquisitions.  It is easier to buy a company without an office and integrate their workers, and it is easier to sell a company that isn’t locked into long-term contracts or physical constraints.  During integration a results-focused fully documented process eases this transition (and nobody has to move or quit because they won’t move).

Hire who you want to

There are certain market segments that you can attract or retain when you seek out remote workers:

  • Sharp young person that worked at an entry-level position but then wants to move away. (as young people tend to do)
  • Experienced person that wants to move away; you can now retain them instead.
  • Workers while they go through a situation that might otherwise require FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act), a leave of absence, or resignation. Think mono, a family illness, serious injury, complicated pregnancy, or chronic cooties.
  • That super sharp person that you only know from twitter or your favorite conference.
  • Attract and retain those with hearing impairment*, vision issues, physical disabilities, speech impairments, etc.
  • People that would work out great at your company but would hate to live near your office.

Scale your company more effectively

Traditional office space is very mind-shiftingly expensive which is why small companies tend to start out in coffeeshops, garages, and Dunkin Donuts. If you aren’t entertaining clients you can eliminate the massive outlay for mildly brownish walls, gray furniture, and is-that-green carpet. For small companies office space comes with additional insurance needs and rental commitments that might not make sense. Even at the bottom of the food chain office space its amazingly expensive – a three person company with nice hardware can easily spend their entire hardware budget for a year in a few months of office space.

Office space is simply one example in which remote workers allow you to scale more precisely. If you are a 10 person company how much office space do you need? How many secondary (admin, HR, IT support) people do you need? You have to choose a number and increase it in large blocks – hire an additional person, rent another large room that you won’t use yet, build a robot to make coffee and the clean the floor, etc.

Remote workers allow you to avoid or lazy load all of these items. Not having a physical office also moves you outside the traditional scaling path: maybe you don’t need to just ‘hire a guy to do that’.  Maybe a cloud service, 3rd party payroll and accounting service, or an internal company blog can replace those things.

Conclusion

Whether or not remote work helps your employees manage their lives and do good work you can save money as you grow, be more flexible in times of crisis, and retain more talented people by structuring your company, processes, and culture such that remote work is support or encouraged.

 

* For software development a good way to test how well you support your remote workers is to imagine that one of your workers cannot hear.  How could they continue to do their job from another state?

Running at RunLevel 1 : How to function on little sleep for an extended period

Over the last year my non-work life has been an adventure in the original sense of the word: an unusual and risky undertaking with an uncertain outcome. For a number of personal reasons I’ve had to survive on four to six hours of frequently-interrupted sleep while continuing to work and maintain a normal family schedule.

What follows is advice for how I’ve maintained some level of sanity and productivity in the face of such a challenging constraint. Hopefully it will be useful to someone else facing a family crisis, medical issue, or some form of voluntary insanity like trying to write a book, ship a version 1.0 of a product, or simply work at a startup.

Disclaimer: I am neither a doctor nor some sort of sleep scientist.  These are things that have worked for me.  I have not done all of these things 100% of the time; these are lessons learned. Please consult your rabbi, personal trainer, one of George Foreman’s kids, and your local plumber before trying out these techniques for yourself.

Reset your expectations

If you aren’t getting much sleep you need to reset your expectations about what you can physically accomplish. Physical exhaustion leads quickly to mental exhaustion. I halted work on my book and barely limped into writing a chapter in another due to decreased energy, lack of extra motivation, and a creative down period.

On the physical side you need to manage your exertion carefully. The amount of recovery needed greatly increases if you aren’t getting the bare amount of sleep your body requires. Recovering from one hard workout can take days – now is the time for slow walks not marathon training.

Some simple rules about your diet

Physical health is a core requirement for any higher level forms of health. Since you are not fulfilling one of your body’s basic needs you need to be very nice to it in other areas.

Simple things to avoid: alcohol, caffeine, crappy food. I’m not free of sin in these areas but I regretted each drink when I was completely exhausted and found that fast food made me feel worse. Eating clean foods (i.e. foods that don’t have commercials) allowed my body to survive on less sleep.

When many people are sleepy they feel hungry (my body easily confuses the two). You might think since you are awake and moving around more that you might need a lot more calories.  Drink extra water to keep your digestive system thinking it is full and avoid an extra meal.

Random side note: Make sure you are getting enough B6 and B12 in your diet; lack of these combined with lack of sleep made everything much harder.

Caffeine

On the subject of caffeine I’ll offer the following tip: don’t or be very careful. The normal expected reaction to getting less sleep in the USA is to just drink another coffee or pound a Red Bull or Mountain Dew. These substances are additive, taste like garbage, and may or may not contain cat tears.  Ironically these substances are normally B12/B6 overloads laced with caffeine and a series of things that increase blood-flow.  Just eat the real stuff and avoid the unknown side-effects of mind Viagra.

Too much caffeine can also hurt you when you want to go to sleep but you drank something four hours ago and your body won’t let you.  Caffeine intake cannot match the pace of the lack of sleep you are dealing with – this is a slippery slope in which you end up four years from now with stomach surgery and a reputation for being cranky and smelling mildly of tar.

I’ve found that a well-executed nap replaces caffeine in the afternoon. An additional tip I picked up from an ultracyclist (somebody who rides their bike for days at a time) is to drink coffee or caffeine and then take a 20 minute nap during the 20 minutes it takes for your body to absorb it. I call it ‘slingshot napping’ because it feels roughly like slingshoting the moon while riding a unicorn shooting rockets out of its mouth while you both shred a guitar.

If you do need to stay up just drink a lot of water instead. Drinking water keeps your metabolism moving and makes you get up to use the bathroom a lot. A simple, sort of silly, method that is very effective.

Sleep routine

When you have the opportunity to sleep you need to get to sleep fast and consistently.  All the normal advice for how to get a kid to sleep applies here – sleep in the same place, as much as the same time of day as possible, using the same ‘go to bed’ routine.  I’d add that avoiding “screens” of any kind near when you wish sleep is ideal – no phones, TVs, or computers in your bedroom.

One additional tip for managing the weekends – if you have the opportunity to sleep in on Saturday and Sunday take the additional hours as naps and not all as extra morning sleep.  When you are truly in a massive sleep hole 3+ additional hours for 2 days in a row will wreck your body’s natural rhythm and make you miserable on Monday and Tuesday of the next week.  Getting an extra hour in the morning and then taking a short nap Saturday and Sunday afternoon keeps the schedule going but let’s your body rest.

Surviving at work: your mind and memory

You will be a dumber version of yourself when tired – not able to learn as effectively, not able to make connections or recall information that you surely know, not able to problem solve as effectively, etc.  You need to account for this.

Manage your energy and not your time.  If you are less tired in the morning, try to shift all of your difficult work to that time of day.  If you end a task at 4PM but need to stay at work until 5 and are getting tired try to find something that doesn’t require deep focused concentration if possible.  Try – and this is a delicate balance – to do ‘easier’ work during your time of sleep deficit if possible.

Automate as much of your mind as possible. Have a bit of trouble at times remembering appointments? Occasionally forget to perform some small procedure at work (like doing your TPS reports every Thursday)? Under the compromised position you occasionally will turn into always. Use a reminder service or some foolproof system to make sure things get done.

Monitor yourself

Once you get deep into lack of sleep you lose your sense of direction. After a few weeks you are a low-functioning person capable of making terrible decisions and missing important details. The difference between sleepy and it is dangerous to operate heavy machinery is hard to detect due to your friend Mr. Adrenaline.

Learn to detect your level of energy:

  • How moody are you?
  • How long would it take for you to fall asleep if you just sat down?
  • Are mental challenges that shouldn’t be hard taking forever?
  • Are you forgetting a lot of things?
  • Are you willing to take shortcuts to complete something because you feel like you just want it ‘done’?

There are roughly three energy levels when sleep-deprived that require you to modify your behavior:

Well rested: After a string of days of little or interrupted sleep you suddenly get a few extra hours. Do as much as you can the next day. Tackle hard problems; use your focus for good.

Compromised: You have a string of days of less than ideal sleep and have a few hours of great energy everyday followed by rough afternoons or nights.  Do the most important stuff during the hours you can think clearly.

DestroyedYou feel like you are going to fall asleep at red lights and the idea of getting out of this chair to get a glass of water feels like an epic quest. Take a nap; avoid important things until you get back to ‘Compromised’.

Decision-making and mood

Have you ever heard that you shouldn’t make big life decisions when you are on a plane? I have no idea if that is garbage or not, but I know you shouldn’t make huge life decisions while lacking sleep. Your mood is affected by your body’s exhaustion level – you will tend to favor short-term decisions as the thought of harder and longer-term work efforts is harder to imagine.

One additional thing to note is that if you get some extra sleep you will feel so much better that you might be tempted to suddenly change course or commit to new things. Ten hours of sleep after you are used to almost none will send signals that you are, in fact, Superman and should signup for the 2020 Olympics in a sport you just heard about.

Conclusion

The main takeaway should, of course, be that you should try to get some sleep and be healthy.  Some of the things listed are just good ideas all the time.  You think better, feel better, and can be more effective when you are well-rested.  Now that the intense period of sleep deficit is over in my life it has been quite refreshing to see how my mood, effectiveness, and life have improved.  You should sacrifice sleep only for things that you deem in the short term to be more important than your health: your family’s health and well-being for example.

On Mayer: Remote workers have a default culture

I was offline due to the birth of our twins during the huge Mayer controversy so coming back into it weeks later and reading through the many opinions (really outrage) was interesting. I obviously think that remote work is a great thing both for employee and employer in measurable ways but also subtle ones.

What was interesting was that my initial reaction wasn’t as extreme as I thought – I didn’t think it was obviously some terrible idea. I think it will be a mistake but my gut feel is that I know why it was done and I can see some benefits for Yahoo’s particular situation. Yahoo’s situation is unique because remote workers were a minority and they are trying to completely reboot.

For an established company like Yahoo, to have a few hundred remote workers means that:

  1. They didn’t really support remote work. They have most likely rejected it for the newer workers who have asked for it.
  2. The ones that worked remotely were likely special cases: long-term employees from acquisitions that stayed where they were, employees that used to work in an office but convinced the company that they should stay on after a big move, people who smelled really bad, etc.
  3. Really key people that were able to bend the rules.

Seems like cutting them all loose would be a very risky thing to do (especially #3).

Mayer is trying to reboot the culture at Yahoo. From some of her other moves it seems she wants it to transform into a smaller startup-style firm like the younger Google that she joined. She wants to start over and redefine the culture and remote employees of the sort that Yahoo had respond more slowly to cultural changes that happen on-site.

Many companies that need more production out of their employees use subtle cultural clues. One of the most effective means of creating culture is enduring shared pain. The effort to launch a new product which translates into long nights at the office with no showers and slurred speech is one example. Psychological peer pressure – the subtle enforcement of 80 hour weeks by people staying until the lights go out – is another. These are the components of building teamwork in its rawest form.  Yahoo should expect some of these actions.

In a remote minority situation not everyone feels the ripples in the pond. Remote employees don’t feel these subtle cues; they don’t hear the ra-ra of employee pep rallies and don’t see the odd looks when they logoff at 6:30pm. They only see work and process – if you send me more work or improve the process more will get done.

Remote employees have a default culture that fills in any remaining space: a culture of working efficiently. They optimize down such that they do the work as quickly as possible. Their entire work paradigm is based on the idea that travel time is inefficient and they are constantly dealing with the fact that they aren’t in the office and have to adjust for any barriers this creates. So to them, arbitrarily working an extra three hours a day to build teamwork is not effective.

So if you are looking to build a startup from within a large, established company by rebooting it; maybe the remote employees are risks. Maybe.

A blog about successfully working from home