David Tate

Mastering the Art (and Science) of Remote Work

Category: hack Page 1 of 2

A Technique for Getting Unstuck When Working Alone

When you work alone you get stuck. Whether it be a hard problem, a heavy lunch, or just a bad interaction with resistance there are times when you find yourself in a rut and need to force your way out of it.

If there is one global law of productivity it is that of momentum: once you are working well, it is easier to keep going. Likewise, when you are in one of these ruts you have to spend extra energy to get going again.

I’d like to call out one simple technique that I used to keep momentum going and climb out of these holes: small, daily tasks.

One of these things is a secret.

This technique is simple: you have a handful of 5 – 10 minute tasks that you would love to do daily. If you get stuck, do 1-3 of these to get your mind back to making forward progress. These small tasks are not real breaks, but rather refreshers.

If I’m stuck on a hard problem I can take a break (with permission) and do 10 pushups, or go for a short walk, or meditate, or go read something. When I come back I no longer feel stuck since I was doing something, some forward motion. After the tasks are complete it is much easier to then shift the positive momentum back into the work that you need to get done.

This technique is different than the people who recommend you get up and run 10 miles and then write three pages, then work on your side project, then put another brick on the orphanage you are building.

Even on the worst of days you can find time to do a few of these. At the end of a sub-par day you can say “well at least I went for a walk and drank some water, plus those pushups”.

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

Personal Pre-Mortems

If you are like me you can get into a mindset of negative thinking where you can poke holes in any potential project idea or action. After all, thinking of doomsday scenarios is a marketable skill when you actually take action to prevent them, but in our personal lives having this negative view is very bad for us. It makes us hesitate or not get started on an important project with an uncertain future. It makes us not surprised by failure or neutrality. If you expect the worst you will probably get it.

This same method of thinking can be a powerful ally, however, when used as a weapon.

Defensive Weapon

Think of an important project, relationship, or trajectory in your life. Now imagine the worst that can happen. I call this technique “pre-mortems” and it is not the most fun you will have today. Think of the following scenarios:

  • You are divorced
  • You are bankrupt
  • You have a terrible, but preventable, health issue
  • You have lost your job, and are suddenly unable to get another one in the same industry, geographic area, or market due to a damaged reputation.
  • All of your shoes have been replaced with pink crocs.

Now ask yourself this question: “How did this happen?” and list the reasons.

Well if I’m divorced it was probably because my wife and I stopped communicating, or stopped making sure that we spent time together and just focused too much on the kids, or maybe I got a wondering eye because of some unresolved problem, or because I stopped trying.

Well if I’ve got diabetes or cancer it might be because I order fried chicken from a car more times than I exercise most weeks. I guess that wouldn’t be a surprise.

If I’m bankrupt it is because I have become disabled and don’t have good coverage in that area. Since I’m the primary breadwinner and we have kids, my wife’s salary wouldn’t cover everything so we would have to lose the house.

If I can’t work in my field this is probably because some really bad scandal was slowly slipped into by a group of people encouraging or ignoring the warning signs.

If I only have pink crocs it is probably because I lost a bet of some form and am being forced to wear them as some sort of shame spectacle.

Now go and avoid those things, establish guardrails against those results, make contingency plans for those things:

  • I need to make sure I’m focusing and working on my marriage more.
  • I need to get better disability insurance.
  • I need to exercise, eat real food, and focus on my health.
  • I need to continue to avoid any financial or relational gray areas.
  • I should not bet on the New York Jets.

Now take a deep breath – none of these has happened; you still have time. During the life of a project you can apply this same mode of thinking – 60% into a software development project I can sit down and say: “OK this project is late – why?” and list three actions I could take to avoid the most common failure scenarios.

Offensive Weapon

For new projects, you can use the same method without depressing yourself. Let’s imagine something that you want to do but you keep putting it off or convincing yourself that you can’t do it. We all hear a voice that tells us “it won’t work out”, “you will fail and people will see”, “you aren’t good enough”, “your pink crocs are so dumb”, etc.

Maybe you want to write a book, try a new career path, take some time off of work to drive across the country, or audition for American Idol. Pick something you really want to do that you have talked yourself out of a few times.

Let’s listen to the inner voice, really listen for a minute. Give the little hater its chance to make a speech.

OK if you start this project and it fails, then you will have wasted $30,000, which means you would need to sell your crappy car and maybe live with your parents for awhile. As a twenty-eight-year-old man. If you are living with your parents it wouldn’t exactly be a secret, so that would be really embarrassing. Everybody that thought that you had it together would realize that you didn’t, so it would actually erode my reputation in a way that would be hard to crawl out of. From there – living in a basement – it would be really hard to recover emotionally. But I guess since you are not that special it would be what you deserve for trying to be.

Now filter out the emotions, insults, and judgments and just think of the real consequences of failure for your project. Split out how they would make you feel for a moment and just think logistically:

  • I would lose a lot of money
  • I would be spending time on something that didn’t work out, when I could have been doing other things
  • I would trade some of my reputation

Now make some plans to guard against these things being as bad – ways that you can hedge or counter these things – and list them.

  • I would lose some money, but I won’t touch a one-month emergency fund. If I got to the point that I touched this I would get a job at Starbucks. I look great in green.
  • Yes, there is an opportunity cost, but once I get started I would ignore this thought and really commit. Besides, anything else that I worked on would run into the same obstacles – I’ll be smart with the projects I pick to focus in on.
  • My reputation might get hurt, but I might also draw attention and respect for trying something bold – and perhaps I care about those people’s opinions more anyway. Besides, learning from failure means you have to actually fail sometimes.
  • Living with my parents would stink, but I wouldn’t have to do my own laundry. Plus my mom will not make fun of my pink crocs.

Now answer the inner critic with a detailed version of “So, what are you going to do about it?”:

I might fail and lose money, time, and face, but I would have really tried, and probably learned something. I would then be able to rebuild my life by taking a regular job and working to save like I have done so far in my life. Since I would have been following what I really wanted to do I wouldn’t regret it and wouldn’t feel “behind” in the years when I was re-establishing my financial stability. I would have failed doing what I want to do, rather than half-failing over the long-term doing something I didn’t care about.

Read some more about this technique at Business Insider and watch some other practical benefits to Pessimism.

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

How To Read 118 Books In One Year

This year I continued my odd quest to read a lot of books and ended up reading more than last year. This feels very odd since I’m a big fan of making things rather than just constantly drowning in consumption.

In fact I’d like to send a special message to the hundreds of people that have visited my website because they typed “Bad Effects of Reading” or “Why Reading is Bad For You” into Google: It isn’t always bad for you, but just reading crap all day long is.

How I Read Two Books a Week

My system for reading this much is quite simple:

  1. When I am in a situation in which it is socially acceptable (or encouraged) to be staring at your phone I read on the Kindle app instead of doing things on social media. These social situations are more frequent than you think and are probably more than 15 minutes a day.
  2. When I am working I take at least one break a day and read for 10+ minutes.
  3. Some nights, not always, I read to help me relax and fall asleep. Some days I drive in my car and listen to books on Audible, about 8-10 of the books were consumed this way.
  4. I read things that I like. If I get 25% into a book and I hate it, I close it, loudly shout a curse word, and then donate it to the library or throw it away. After I shout the curse word I don’t regret having wasted some time on the book, and I try to not ever regret buying a book that I never read.
  5. I surround myself online with other people that read a lot, thus making this amount of reading seem normal.

My Favorite Book This Year

I read a lot of very useful books this year – ones that were fun to read but also actionable – and one that continues to standout is The Obstacle is the Way (by Ryan Holiday). Great writing, good structure, interesting historical anecdotes, and direct relevancy that you don’t see in many books of this form. I am currently reading through the rest of Ryan’s books and have also enjoyed Ego is the Enemy.

What Else I Read This Year

What follows is a partial list of the books I read this year (some items have been removed to protect privacy).  If I recommend that you, dear reader, should also read the book I have included it as a link.

Fun To Read:
– Modern Romance
– Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread
– Silver Screen Fiend
– Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself
– Consider the Lobster
– Zombie Spaceship Wasteland
– Le Metier
– Mere Anarchy
– Funny Girl
– True Grit
– Microserfs
Temporary Stories
The Whites
– The Abortion
– So The Wind Won’t Blow it All Away
Big Fish

Not Fun To Read, But Needed:
– Between The World and Me
– Erasing Hell

– Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why
– Rules for a Knight
– Keep Your Love On

Things That Defy Category and This is a Compliment:
We Learn Nothing

Books That Defy Category Because I am Lazy:
Stories of Your Life and Others
– Turing and the Computer
– Dirty Library
– Calvin and Hobbes
– Ready Player One
– Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

Advice That I Have Ignored:
– Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual
– The Short Guide to a Long Life

Memoirs and Biographies:
Yes, Please
– Little Black Sheep: A Memoir
The Inventor’s Dilemma: The Remarkable Life of H. Joseph Gerber: maybe 2016 wasn’t the right year to read about how quickly the Nazis took over, but a wonderful read overall about an amazing man.
– My Mother was Nuts

Work / Self-improvement:
Ego is the Enemy
The Obstacle is the Way
The Passionate Programmer
Building Great Software Engineering Teams
The Magic of Thinking Big
The Lean Startup
– The Greatness Guide
– The Greatness Guide: Book 2
– Awaken the Giant Within
– Flourish
– The Talent Code
Zero to One
– Catching the Big Fish
The Hard Thing about Hard Things
– Hooked
– Enough
– The Art of War
Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War
– Don’t Make Me Think
– The Difference Maker
High Output Management
– The 2-minute Leader
– Paper Towns
– Claw Your Way to the Top: How to Become the Head of a Major Corporation in Roughly a Week
– Manage Oneself

Distributed / Remote Working
– The Field Guide to Telecommuting
– Embrace Remote Working

– Egghead
– This is a Book
– Point Your Face at This
– My Life and Hard Times
– The 50 Funniest American Writers
– Fierce Pajamas
– Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans
– Sick in the Head

There is no such thing as Children’s Books:
– Hatchet
– The Poet’s Dog
– The Phantom Tollbooth

Gerald Weinberg:
– The Secrets of Consulting
– More Secrets of Consulting
Are Your Lights On?
– Becoming a Technical Leader

– The Elements of Style
– Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t
– The Writing Life

Written by Someone I Know, or About Someone I Know, or Just Self-Published:
– A Wicked Creature
– Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian
– Fearless Salary Negotiation
– Untethered
– The Zen Founder Guide to Founder Retreats
– What I’ve Learn from Failure
– Postmortem of a Failed Startup
– The Lost 10 Point Night

OK I guess but not something to base a religion on:
– The Four Agreements
– The Alchemist

Neil Simon Plays
– Biloxi Blues
– Brighton Beach Memoirs

Dave Eggers:
– The Wild Things
– How We are Hungry
– You Shall Know Our Velocity!

Written by Men with Mustaches Who I Wish I Could Meet:
– How to Tell a Story and Other Essays
– Armageddon in Retrospect

A Sudden Interest in Steve Martin:
– Shopgirl
– The Pleasure of My Company
– The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People
– Pure Drivel
– Born Standing Up
– Cruel Shoes

A Constant Interest in Elmore Leonard:
– Riding the Rap
– Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

Books That Took More Than Six Months to Finish:
– Fifty Great Short Stories
– 12 Essential Skills for Software Architects

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

Help with the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique is a rare productivity tool: simple, powerful, and popular.

Years ago when I first started working by myself, I used the technique to train my mind to focus for longer periods of time; my previous job had so many interruptions I was wired for only ten minute periods of actual work. I organized my day into Pomodoros of longer and longer length to increase my endurance. It was not fun, but it worked.

While I don’t use it every day anymore, I do find myself using it to kickstart myself when things get hard. Typically, when I return from lunch I’ll set a timer to warm everything back up.

Even though the technique is dead-simple it does have some common problems for practical use at work; here is what I hear from people who have tried to use it:

I get interrupted too much at work; I can’t exactly ignore the phone.

Please don’t use Pomodoro if you are a 911 operator.

Otherwise, if you have a job where you have to respond to interruptions with great urgency then you may have to lower the “robustness” of your use of the technique, but it can still help you make the most of the time you aren’t interrupted. In this case, it might make sense to try to lower the Pomodoro time (to less than 20 minutes) so you feel yourself completing them.

For the rest of us we probably just think we have to respond when we don’t. We have been trained to respond to instant messages immediately much like we have all been trained to answer a ringing phone even if someone is right in front of us. These tasks might feel urgent, but are not typically important. If the message isn’t an emergency then ignore it or tell them “I’ll get back to you in 12 minutes”. Once you do this enough you will establish a reputation for being attentive when you do speak with someone.

To help with this you can of course simply communicate that you are using the Pomodoro Technique to get stuff done and therefore might be a bit delayed in responding to IMs. There are also ways to integrate popular messaging tools with Pomodoro tools so you can passively communicate “Do not Disturb” semantics.

If you really never have time for deep work sessions, I’d recommend just creating yourself one time for it, and to use Pomodoro only in that time:  This will keep your endurance up and allow you to keep your ‘focus muscles’ ready for those rare times when you get a few hours to work.

The 5-minute breaks are so dumb. I just check my email or look at the web – what a waste. (Or – the 5 minute breaks aren’t long enough to get a cup of coffee)

You might not be taking effective short breaks, or effective long breaks.

It is tricky because 5 minutes is hardly any time at all to some deep thinkers and too much time for the NADD among us. This will need to be closely managed at a personal level. The idea is to clear your head during the work enough that you are essentially catching your breath a bit but not getting fully out of work mode (that is what the longer breaks are for). Think “stop pedaling during a bike race as you round a large corner” rather than “get a cup of coffee and a doughnut” or “go walk the dog”. I typically stand up, squat, look out the window, take some big deep breaths then freestyle rap for a bit (you know the standard combination) and then sort of let my mind be blank and suddenly the 5 minutes is up and I sit back down.

I don’t want to stop every 25 minutes, once I get going I want to keep going.

Pomodoro doesn’t force 25 minutes as the timeframe – it is just a wise default amount of time. You can increase, as I did and many do, the amount of time for each block of work as it better fits the type of work that you do and your ability to focus. I increased from 25 minutes to 45 minutes with longer breaks; make sure these stay in a sane proportion or you will miss out of some of the benefits of the technique. You control the joystick – if you feel like you can keep going then the timer going off can simply be a reminder to stand up or rest your eyes or some other simple break. The point is long-term endurance rather than exact compliance to a technique.

This puts too much structure in my day man, I need to just ‘feel it’. I’m not a robot; I work when inspiration strikes.

This is true you are a unique snowflake – everyone knows it. Pomodoro works for multiple reasons:

  • It makes you stay in your chair.
  • Because it forces you to catalog all your interruptions it makes you focus on how much you interrupt yourself.
  • It is a form of mental interval training which is a great way to improve your focus and mental endurance.

I agree that doing it as prescribed all day is sort of nuts; I certainly don’t do this. This said, sometimes you have to turn into a robot for awhile to gain the advantages above. And to return to the objection about inspiration – let’s agree that the “work when you feel it” is clear bullshit. All people who have accomplished large works have done it by having a worker mentality that to you might look like a robot. I can’t say it better than Pablo:

La inspiración existe, pero tiene que encontrarte trabajando.

Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.

– pablo picasso

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

You Need a Don’t Do List

Most people agree that a “to do list” is a great way to track work tasks whether it be shopping lists or work lists or people that you need to tickle this week. But for most workers, especially those that work from home, you also need a Don’t Do List.

This is a simple list of behaviors that you know can ruin your workday. In addition to the obvious things like ‘Watch TV’ or ‘Open up YouTube.com without a plan’ there are some more subtle ‘don’t do’ items that you need to identify and make a plan to avoid.

But first let’s list the relatively obvious ones for a telecommuter:

Don’t Do:

  • Watch TV during the workday (even at lunch)
  • Play video games.
  • Browse reddit, espn.com, velonews.com, youtube.com, whatever-your-addiction-is.com
  • Snack when you aren’t hungry.
  • Check your email. (Stop and acknowledge that checking email is essentially saying “I want more work and stress now”)

Now the more subtle emotional ones:

Don’t Do:

  • Get discouraged.
  • Prefer fake work.
  • Avoid the really hard important tasks.
  • Respond too quickly to an email that frustrated you.
  • Panic.

Everyone’s personal don’t do list is different and will shift over time. There was a time when I could work and listen to podcasts but then I realized it got to be too distracting, so it moved from my bag of tricks into my don’t do list.

Some items you can’t avoid doing altogether but have to manage as ongoing tensions. One of these for me is distractions caused by my family. I know that each day at least once I will be taken away from my normal level of concentration (that of a tiger watching the zookeeper put the string on a piece of raw beef) by some noise of a kid picking the lock to my office to use my printer or a kid throwing mud at my office window.

So my “don’t do” list is simply to not let this stuff bother me. I mitigate this risk with my attitude.  All other items I simply put in a box to do be done later; I don’t do them so that I can get the real work done consistently.


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

Fake Work

We have all been there – you are busy all day but as the day ends you still haven’t done The One Thing that you really should have finished today. What were you doing all day? Fake work. You fell into the trap of fake work.

From Paul Graham’s post on Self Indulgence:

And yet I’ve definitely had days when I might as well have sat in front of a TV all day—days at the end of which, if I asked myself what I got done that day, the answer would have been: basically, nothing. I feel bad after these days too, but nothing like as bad as I’d feel if I spent the whole day on the sofa watching TV. If I spent a whole day watching TV I’d feel like I was descending into perdition. But the same alarms don’t go off on the days when I get nothing done, because I’m doing stuff that seems, superficially, like real work. Dealing with email, for example. You do it sitting at a desk. It’s not fun. So it must be work.

Characteristics of Fake Work

  • It’s easier than real work (this is why we prefer it)
  • It isn’t obvious to people that you are doing it (fake work is rarely publishable / shippable)
  • It doesn’t pass the following gauntlet of tests:
    1. If I did this all day how would I feel at the end of the day? Does it feel good in the short-term only?
    2. Can I justify it to a coworker? (“Well these files need to be organized by color name in Spanish so that we can get to them rapidamente next time”)
    3. Is this defensive or offensive?

Some examples

  • Your computer says it needs to restart, and you restart it shortly after. “When it restarts I might as well see if any apps need updating as well on my phone”.
  • You know the hotkey for your “get new email” in your email client. (I mean really)
  • Organizing your todo list.
  • Refactoring code is non-complex ways.
  • Trying out a new writing application or messing around with new fonts.
  • Organizing your email.
  • Reading blog posts, especially those mildly related to The Important Task That Must Be Done.
  • Over-formatting presentations, spreadsheets, etc.
  • Cleaning your office.


There are times that you need to read blog posts or clean your office. In fact one of my favorite productivity hacks is to do *something* when I’m feeling procrastination creeping up on me. I will intentionally clean my office as a break with the intention of returning to full strength afterwards. The trick is to not let doing *something* ruin doing the *one most important thing* that must be done.

Final Note

The main issue with fake work is that you could be working on the right things in the wrong place. Do you care about the problem? Are you digging in the right place? This is a complex personal question, but make sure you have an answer.

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

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

The Dangerous Effects of Reading

I am working out of a massive office building in one of those little commercial compounds this week. The entire area has all sorts of nice things – a paper-printing shop, coffee, sushi, burritos, dry cleaners, even food carts most days. Cellphone coverage is near 100%, free WiFi is everywhere, lots of places to park and work, etc.  There is even a formal attire shop with adult prom dresses.

The entire area is optimized for staying there and working. Because it is optimized for this, it is hard to do other things: drive a car around, go jogging, throw a Frisbee, interview people on the street, walk your dog, violently start or stop a parade, etc.

In our personal lives we tend to optimize for one of two things: input or output. Reading or writing. Consuming or creating. The environment we live in – the prevailing culture – by default is optimized for consumption.   Even our personal computers are turning into devices that are optimized for consumption! This is terrible and dangerous.

A life optimized for consuming might look like this:

  • 45 minutes in the car listening to podcasts (at double speed) while driving to work
  • 30 minutes of blog reading in the morning.
  • Time in bathroom spent reading on your phone [Side note: how freaking scary would it have been to explain to your great-great-grandfather that people would carry around computers and look at them while in the bathroom or driving – he would have been terrified of this future]
  • Time spent waiting on someone for lunch spent looking at your phone.
  • Time in elevator spent reading a little screen with news clips.
  • Get home read email, watch TV, play on cellphone, Facebook, iPad.
  • Read eBook in bed until you fall asleep.
  • Dream of an Inbox with no Unread messages.

Consuming this much makes you get really good at filtering crap from gold. Everything you pick up to read or watch you are constantly thinking “Does this suck? Is this cool enough to continue doing? Is it cool enough to tell others people about?”

Is it bad to think like this all the time? Absolutely – it is like a bucket of glitter dumped on your head levels of bad. Come on – isn’t consuming just learning? Reading and learning are great – but over-consumption changes the way that you think:

  • I need to quickly judge things
  • I need to use other people’s work to make myself look cool through sharing them with my friends
  • I need more and more faster – the more you read blogs the more you think you need to read to get “The Top 10 Productivity Tips”
  • I need to hear what others think before I form an opinion (If you have ever read a review of a new gadget before it launches: think about how ridiculous this activity is)
  • I should accept the world as it is and just offer my opinion on it

I think we should all agree that getting faster at judging things is bad, but I think the real danger in having a super-efficient-filter is that your default mode is exclusion – you reject long enough and you lose the ability to create things that pass your own filter.  You stagnate at work for fear of everything you do being judged like every news article or viral video that you view.

So how do you break the power of consumption? By creating your own things.  All the things you consume – somewhere somebody is making all this stuff, right?

Normally when people think of ‘creating’ or ‘innovation’ they think of a naked hippie standing in the woods painting a tree, an alcoholic writer slaving away at a sad tale of a small town, or some tech geek coming up with some new way to annoy everyone by sharing every detail of their pointless life.  It doesn’t have to be that complex. Adding anything (not just your opinion) to the world is creating – writing, drawing, dancing (not line-dancing which is not art but instead some sort of long-term psychological annoyance stress test).

If the world overwhelms you with its constant production of useless crap which you filter more and more to things that only interest you can I calmly suggest that you just create things that you like and cut out the rest of the world as a middle-man to your happiness?

From where I sit creating things does the following:

  • Let’s you filter to something you like: You can create things that please you and you only.
  • Frees you:  Helps you let go of the downsides of quick judgment of others since it allows you to appreciate the absolute difficulty in making original things.
  • Makes you happy: creating is something that is core to human beings.  Just watch a child drawing pictures.
  • Plays to strengths not weaknesses:  Most people consume things to fix weaknesses like reading about how to better spend your money if you are bad with money.  When you create it flips around and you tend to draw, write, or make movies about things you are passionate about.
  • Changes the way you think: I can’t say it better than _why:

when you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. your tastes only narrow & exclude people. so create.

But how do you optimize for creating?

  • Cease input – turn your cellphone off, stop reading every stupid blog post about productivity, just stop.
  • Get off the popular train – teach yourself not to judge based on anything other than your own view.  Stop listening to the mainstream radio or to popular music channels.  Try college radio.  Browse an actual bookstore for books rather than the Suggested for You or Popular sections of some website.  Stop only reading popular blogs.
  • Have a system for capturing ideas – no matter where you are – a paper notebook, your phone, whatever.  You think it you capture it.  When you have an idea, any type, any quality, record it without judgment.  Separate idea generation and filtering into two phases.
  • Put some structure around making things – give yourself some time to write, to record, to photograph, to think.  Schedule a lunch break to just sit and think.
  • Change your mind about your mind – overcome common mental barriers to making things.

If you quiet your mind and allow yourself to stop judging everything you will find that you have more potential for innovation (at work, in the kitchen, in the garage, in the bathroom [this just got weird – bringing it back], with your hobbies, with your thoughts) than you thought before.  You were using the same brutal quality filter on yourself that you used on viral videos, talk radio, and blog posts.  You deserve better.

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

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