David Tate

Mastering the Art (and Science) of Remote Work

Category: productivity Page 2 of 3

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.

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.

Wide Teams podcast

In case you missed it – I was the guest on the Wide Teams podcast last week discussing remote work and dancing:

Wide Teams Episode 99: David Tate

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.


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?

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.

Companies that support remote workers win against those that don’t

Years ago my boss asked if I could use a remote support developer in Europe for off-hours support of a critical system that processed data throughout the day.  He said that they had a sharp technical resource there who had normal working hours right in our support blind spot and that the candidate was interested in helping out.  I froze as the downsides flooded my mind:

  • He didn’t know our system at all.
  • I would never meet him.
  • We didn’t have much documentation of our systems.  All our knowledge transfer was done in person using heavy sarcasm and obscure hand waving.
  • We didn’t have a good ticket tracking system or history of service incidents we could point him at for self-study.
  • I wasn’t sure how I could judge whether or not he was helping or hurting.
  • I was afraid that instead of getting woken up in the middle of the night to solve a problem I would be woken up in the middle of the night to talk to him and explain the context because of the above problems.

All my objections were about how we weren’t ready to support him, monitor him, and grow him sitting where we sat as an immature support team. All my objections were things that we needed to change anyway and that he would serve as a canary and catalyst for these things to actually change.  We would be a better team by moving towards being able to support him.


With the developer job market being what it is  (i.e. a little nuts) some companies are offering work from home as an attractive add-on option – “Work from home Fridays”, “We support remote workers”, “Flexible schedule”.  This is being done as an after-thought and is not part of the core culture.

The difference between a company that can support a remote worker and one that cannot is not a small difference in perks: it is a chromosome-level difference. Companies that truly support remote workers win against those that don’t.


Having now myself been the remote person on the other side over the last 7+ years I’ve found a large range of differences between those that truly support remote work and those that just talk about it. Think of it as the difference between a watch being water-resistant [you can wash your hands with it on] and diving-level waterproof [you can operate it underwater].

The reasoning is pretty simple: in order for a remote employee to succeed a company has to have clear communication, a standard process, and a clear focus on results above other secondary concerns.

A company has to provide the following:

  • A pipeline of work that is ready to actually be worked upon (It is packaged with its context and links to how to find out information for any questions)
  • Clear expectations for results and the ability to track how things are progressing.
  • Clear communication channels: this might include some permanence and search-ability for work already done but also includes some form of ~democratic decision-making that includes those that includes more people than can fit in a conference room.
  • A teaching culture that includes helpful coworkers ready to answer questions and help out remote workers if there are gaps of context.
  • A Results-Only-Work-Environment (ROWE) culture that allows workers to get as much done as they are able, and processes feedback from those workers about obstacles they encounter.

All of those things are good for the company supporting remote work even without a remote workforce – they create less friction around communication and infrastructure and make results the top priority.  In the end a company that focuses on primary complexity will beat those that are optimized for other things.

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

Super-productivity is deeply personal – don’t listen to anyone else

This time of year the Interwebs are hit with the same standard 25 productivity posts guiding people to get more done (more quickly and with less cleanup) than ever before in 2013. Today it finally hit me why they all piss me off:

Super-productivity is a deeply personal thing – and you can’t take advice from someone else’s surface-level understanding of how you work

Tapping into your potential for getting a lot of important work done isn’t about figuring out a way to actually get more tasks done an hour – it’s about tapping into yourself emotionally to see what you care about enough to just do what is best for great work to happen. That’s it.

But isn’t there is so much great information on how to get more done?  Not really – all the standard blog posts about productivity tell you surface-level ways to:

  1. Block distractions (turn off notifications, go to a quiet place, tell that herd of rhinos to keep it down or move along)
  2. Guard your physical health to increase mental energy (eat clean, sleep, exercise, no or less coffee/heroin)
  3. Write down your to-do list, goals, and what you achieved (your to-do list should be as complex as your taxes)
  4. Gain 1.5 hours a day by being your best self ever today! (i.e. small foolish tips such as Learn keyboard shortcuts, use auto-responders, hire a virtual assistant, use two monitors, listen to music while working, never listen to music while working)

Great. Outstanding. Well-Done. There are about a million people that read those sorts of “Top 8 Things that Massively-Productive People Do” posts a few times a week.  So I guess they aren’t working.

Let’s turn the tables:

  1. Why do you get so easily distracted
  2. Why can’t you take care of yourself
  3. Why don’t you know your goals, what you are doing now, or what you did yesterday
  4. Why do you need a daily pep-talk from some stranger on the Internet (who may or may not be a cat)

Articles that talk about this stuff aren’t as catchy: “8 Ways to Care Enough to Do Good Work“, “Stop Being Distracted: Do Not Read This” don’t encourage or get page views.  Answering these “on the couch” personal questions leads to some interesting answers:


Calculus cat is aware of his emotions and really likes bookmarks.

  • Well if I get behind on emails its going to look like I’m not working, so I have to check my email every 5 microseconds
  • If I don’t see the latest cool/funny/shocking thing on Twitter/Facebook then I’ll miss out on it and feel left out
  • I want to feel connected even though I’m in this cube/office/airport Starbucks (the saddest kind of Starbucks)
  • I need a distraction that makes me feel good when work is hard because the work makes me feel stupid
  • I need the validation of new email, new notifications, new whatever
  • I don’t feel as if my work is that important, so I take breaks to get through the day

The list above might be nonsense to you – make your own list (that’s sort of the point).  My point is that you have to tap into why you don’t care enough to not tolerate petty distractions and instead allow obvious ways to improve your work occur to you naturally.  You have to care.  Maybe you don’t care about every single cell in this Excel spreadsheet that you are editing by hand but for what it represents – care that it is a way to provide for yourself and others, a way to have time for other things, a lucky accident that allows you to work inside and safely.  Your work has to be important to you either by faith or fact.

If you can tap into those issues preventing you from being passionate then you’ll find that doing well at your work matters more than they do and you will naturally focus, naturally take care of yourself, and naturally figure out your own ways to improve so that you can do great work.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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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