David Tate

Mastering the Art (and Science) of Remote Work

Category: random

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

My 2013 Resolution: Get Way Weirder

My resolution for 2013 is to get way weirder. Not like eat-my-hat-as-per-the-prophecy weird, but maybe make-a-statue-in-my-backyard-out-of-mailboxes weird.

My family in the last few years has already gotten a little weird by adopting all our kids, me working almost exclusively from home, and expecting twins. Just these simple actions have gotten us to the point of feeling like we are different enough to not accept anyone else’s advice without actually sitting down to think it over as our situation doesn’t really easily line up with anything else.

This being weird is a strength as this “normal bubble” is quite dangerous. Most people follow the crowd with small decisions and it becomes a habit so they don’t realize the power it has over them in big decisions like when to buy a house or how to spend their money.

Or infinitely more importantly: how to spend their time. Most people end up spending their lives based on the crowd formula of work vs. family vs. hobbies and it infects their thinking. There are other ways to work than 9 to 5 over 45 and other hobbies to have other than watching TV and playing golf for the love of all things.

The default choice for most people involves other people profiting from it. The default career choice benefits the company at your expense, the default eating habit benefits restaurants at your expense, the default choice of hobbies benefits some organization, and the default financial choices benefit anyone that profits from you being in debt. The smart money influences the crowd to hurt themselves.

So I plan to be weirder with how I spend my time and money and to teach my kids to move far enough away to the crowd’s collective voice and to more easily hear their own. As per the prophecy.

How to be creative: Non-silly advice from John Cleese

Via @danforthfrance via @hotdogsladies comes a talk John Cleese gave about creativity and how to encourage it.  I was amazed at the common sense level advice given that rang true from my own experience and, as always, by Cleese’s ability to speak without appearing to move his bottom lip:

John Cleese – a lecture on creativity

Cleese makes the following high level points:

  • Creativity is a mode of operating and not a talent
  • Creativity happens when you are ‘open’ and not ‘closed’ where ‘open’ means a state of play and ‘closed’ a state of tactical completion-ism
  • Block off multiple small amounts of time (he said 90 minutes) rather than some huge session once a week
  • For creativity to foster you need:
    • Space (quiet, free of distractions)
    • Time (set start and end times so you can let go of other worries)
    • Time (you have to be patient and allow yourself time to think and chew on a problem and not quickly resolve the tension of not knowing)
    • Confidence (that you will think of something and not die alone then get eaten by your cats after never coming up with anything)
    • Humor (it helps us move from closed to open and encourages play and new combinations of ideas)

At an organizational level he raised some interesting points:

  • You can be more creative in groups if you are confident and work well together, but it can go bad easily:
  • It is hard to be creative if people expect you to be (or appear) very decisive
  • It is hard to be creative around people that you are trying to impress
  • To discourage creativity discourage humor and people talking about intermediate ideas that might be bad
I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Secret Developer Acronyms

They might take away my github account for this, but:

BTB: Broke the build

Hey Ralph you BTB with that last check-in so I have touched one of your keys to my  inner elbow to punish you with creepiness

GDOS: Grumpy DBA Over Shoulder

GDOS – I’ve never heard of cursors and definitely never ever used them also I hate NULLs and wide tables and I think that ok he’s gone yeah just do an index rebuild and see if that works

UIT: Using Insufficient Technology; using any tool or framework that makes you dumber

Sorry I yelled at you I’m all UIT with Crystal Reports over here

NTRDTB: Numb to Reality Due To Boredom

I’m still UIT but I figured it out now I have to go all NTRDTB to fill in all these fields one by one

FNG: Green programmer, new guy

Look at FNG suggesting we need to add more comments – he is so cute like a kitten in a shoebox

STR: Spec Tremor

Oh we had a STR and now it’s not a time-tracking system it’s a gambling system for cats with a social networking add-on module

THOSB: Take A Hit Off The Scope Balloon, an advanced technique in which you calm down scope creep by participating in it and overwhelm everyone until they stop adding scope

And it should use your social media profiles and advanced heuristics to tell whether or not you want to install the program for you or just for everyone and did I mention a mobile version because a remote interface into an installer is just so hot right now and also Sharepoint integration and does it export to CSV and what out internalization because I’m talking to this one guy in Nigeria who seems interested and XML plus Javascript packages and Cloud technologies and have you guys ever thought about adding advertising to the window that shows during the installation?

NTPM: Non Technical Project Manager

Hey dude go tell the NTPM that Ruby is now illegal after the election and we have to start over

Obligatory Year End Reflective Post

This year I did a bunch of awesome stuff:

  • Listened to the song Sail by AwolNation 65 times [Source: Spotify logs, 2011]
  • Ate 31 Chicken Burritos from Chipotle [Source: Cherokee County Waste Management Quarterly Report (Q4 2011)]
  • Wrote 65,000 words [Source: 750words.com]
  • Learned how to spell Cheetos (there is no “h” – BELIEVE IT) [Source: personal food diary, 2011]
  • Rode my bike 1,043 miles [Source: dailymile.com]
  • Lost and then re-gained 15 lbs. [Source: personal weight diary, 2011]

I’d like to thank all those who helped me make this possible – my wait staff, my network of virtually personal personally virtual assistants, my team of condiment day traders, and of course my personal life coach/pet bearded-dragon. And I’d like to say a special thanks to the accounts payable and accounts receivable departments – guys there are loses on both sides and let’s just end the beef.

As I look forward to the blessings of 2012 I have many goals but I’ll just share publicly three of them:

  • Ship the book.
  • Earn $1,000 from something other than software development then give it away.
  • Be more vocal with my gratitude and more loose with my time.

Thank you.


Obstacles adults face in creating

All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
— Pablo Picasso

I am amazed at my daughter’s productivity. She makes things at an astonishing rate – pictures, ideas, animals, pretend situations, etc. All day, everyday. Really all night too – she wakes up and tells me about dreams that she has had that blow me away. Then she sits down and draws a handful of pictures while telling me a story about her pet elephant as she makes up words with her cereal.  And then I go to work and can’t think of a single idea.

What can I learn from her?  And after thinking about it for 27 seconds I’ve realized: she just avoids 3 common obstacles to creation that all adults face.

#1 Thinking you need more skill before you start.

Kids don’t sit down to fingerpaint and think ‘I’ve never taken a class on this, I don’t know how to do this’.

#2 Being afraid of bad ideas, ‘wasting time’, of being mocked.

Praise decreases as we get older. Part of why kids create is that they are encouraged in most things they do. Adults rarely feel their work praised but often see it ignored, mocked, or dismissed as being a waste of time. (Skeptical of this? Write a blog, make a hat, or draw a picture and put in on your cubicle wall and then ask people what they think of it)

Something inside you has to value the act of creating in order to just ignore this type of feedback. You have to value the act not the result before you can focus on doing the act more.

In terms of fear of bad ideas I think the thought chain looks like this:

Hmmm -> I can’t think of any ideas for this t-shirt -> Cause I’m not creative


What if we put a bunny on it? -> That sounds stupid -> I’ll be made fun of since bunnies are girly -> Forget it

You think children think like that?

#3 Evaluating ideas as they are generated.

If you combine the first two and make the process more efficient you end up with what I think is the most common problem with people being able to imagine as they grow up – they have gotten very good at very quickly dismissing what their imagination leads them towards. This ‘clogs the pipe’ so badly that they simply stop generating ideas – its more efficient to just have only safe ones.

The trick is to separate the act of creating from evaluating it for dismissal. As you are making something you are constantly evaluating it and improving it, but this should be done by your taste and not your experience. And this difference is the difference between children and adults.

Have you ever sat in a brainstorming meeting with people that don’t believe that they are creative? (i.e. have you ever pulled your own eyelashes out with pliers?) They normally start with silence until somebody starts throwing out really bad ideas and then people don’t immediately criticize them. Smart organization focus on *not* evaluating ideas while they are being made.

Generating ideas good or bad will always be a good thing to practice and bad ideas when mutated, combined, or twisted sometimes become really good ideas. But only if you don’t listen to the little voice telling you that you don’t know how, you will be mocked, or that the idea won’t be good.

Computer Science Terms from Lunch

Today the family tried to eat at Chick-Fil-A but they were so pegged that the drive-thru had wrapped around itself and was deadlocked. This meant that the person who just got their food couldn”t leave as the last car in line was blocking them.

We ended up going to a sit-down restaurant where we waited our turn in line. There were four people waiting ahead of us so we were the fifth people to be called in the queue. While waiting the hostess pushed the buzzers back onto the stack on the top.

While ordering our waiter read our order back to us before writing it down. The order was uncommitted until he wrote it down, which allowed my wife to change my order from Fried Buffalo Chicken Wings to Grilled Chicken Salad. If somebody had asked me what I ordered they would have gotten a dirty read (and, er, a dirty look).

While eating I keep switching my attention from eating to making sure our 17 month old wasn”t throwing food, this sort of thrashing between threads lowered my efficiency and made me focus on throughput, while my wife was able to eat hers with great speed as our four year old”s interrupt clock cycle is much lower. There was heavy resource contention around the Ketchup bottle as my wife and I discussed future plans to spawn new threads.

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