Fancy Tools Are a Distraction—Here’s What I Use Instead
Selecting, setting up, and configuring tools is fun, and it feels like real work—but it's not.
Here's a post from the Time Dorks archive about why I think it's best to avoid using "fancy tools" at work, and which tools I like to use instead.
Here’s my argument: I think fancy tools are a distraction from work that matters. We live in a world of abundant choices, and fancy tools give us yet another way to stay busy while avoiding the work we mean to do.
Claire Lew (CEO of Know Your Company) has been doing some fantastic writing about leadership, management, and team culture.
I really love this one, about how to assess the health of a company's workplace culture. My favorite question is the first: "When is the last time you had a 4-hour block of uninterrupted time?" It's so rare and so important.
Two years ago, while we were writing Sprint, for the first time in my professional life, I had days without meetings.
The first few weeks weren't so successful. But then I thought about the elements of an ideal workday, and I redesigned my day around those principles.
I'm back to a "normal" schedule now, but I learned some important lessons from those days with no meetings...
I spent most of those writing days at home, which meant no commuting and no meetings. I had complete control over my schedule. From the moment I woke up, until bedtime, I decided how to spend my time.
What did I do?
From the archive...
Here's a piece about some of the common problems I see on design teams. We developed the sprint process to solve a lot of these problems, by making the right behaviors the default behaviors.
I’ve seen a lot of design teams in action over the past decade. The people on these teams are invariably talented, smart, and hard-working. But having great people doesn’t guarantee great teamwork.
I’ve come to recognize eight common dysfunctions of design teams. Fortunately, I’ve also seen solutions to these dysfunctions — proven, reliable, and simple techniques that teams can use to work better together. And finally, I’ve translated these ideas into a set of mantras that capture the best behaviors of successful design teams.
From the archive...
The design sprint process is fast. I mean, it's called a "sprint." But it's not what you think. The sprint is not an all-out, late-night, stack-of-pizza-boxes-on-the-conference-table affair. In fact, the sprint day only lasts from 10am to 5pm. You’ll have plenty of time to hang out with your family, meet up with friends, get a good night’s sleep — and yeah, stay caught up on those pesky emails.
Here's how sprints can help your team go faster, illustrated with examples from Slack, LendUp, Gimlet Media, and more.
The typical workday is busy, but it’s not always productive. We spend too much time on email, have too many meetings, then struggle finding willpower and energy to focus on what’s really important.
The New York Times covers the new generation of "sleep entrepreneurs"—including, of course, the irony of trying to fix sleep with smartphones.
Ms. Rothstein, the sleep ambassador, is less bothered by privacy concerns than by the temptation to wakefulness that phone interfaces pose. And nearly every gizmo seemed to have one.
“I’d like to have a survey done to show how many people are also reading their texts while they’re tracking their sleep,” Ms. Rothstein said. “If you want to improve your sleep, you have to make some changes. Your Fitbit and your Apple Watch are not going to do it for you. We’ve lost the simplicity of sleep. All this writing, all these websites, all this stuff. I’m thinking, Just sleep. I want to say: ‘Shh. Make it dark, quiet and cool. Take a bath.’”
I helped Daniel with his latest post. It's about the idea that everyone is a designer, and why that's so important. Check it out.
"Whether you like it or not, whether you approve it or not, people outside of your design team are making significant design choices that affect your customers in important ways. They are designing your product. They are designers."
Here's a piece I wrote last year about the importance of repetition in learning. It's not enough to just put in the time—you need structured cycles of feedback to become great at anything.
Sometimes people ask me for career advice. This must mean I’m getting old. Usually they want to know about skills to learn, books to read, where to find inspiration, stuff like that. But my favorite advice is not about what to learn; it’s about how to learn:
Find a way to get in lots of reps, especially early in your career. Look for companies or teams where repetition and iterative design are part of the culture. If you can’t find that culture, do whatever you can to create it.
Jonas Downey is one of my new favorite writers about design. He works at Basecamp, so his perspective is different, but good. This post is a great example, about the absurd ways we slice up design job responsibilities and titles.
We (but mostly Jake and Laura and Daniel) wrote a new post about the Three-Hour Brand Sprints we do with startups at GV. Give it a shot, and let us know how it works for you!
Over the past few years, I’ve watched Laura and Daniel help startups through these stressful decisions about naming, identity, logos, and so on. They start with brand exercises. Much to my surprise, the exercises are not a goofy waste of time.
The point of these exercises, it turns out, is to make the abstract idea of “our brand” into something concrete. After doing the exercises, the team gets a common language to describe what their company is about — and all subsequent squishy decisions about visuals, voice, and identity become way easier.
From the archive...
Last year I wrote about my frustrations with to-do lists and the "One Big Thing" system I created to get more focus and calm in my days.
If you haven't tried it yet, check it out. And please let me know how it goes!
I grabbed a Post-It note and a pen, and wrote down the one big thing I planned to accomplish that day. I added a couple of smaller things to the bottom of the note, just in case I had time left over. I called my system “One Big Thing.”
Here's a cool story about how The Atlantic (!) used a sprint to launch their new Life Timeline feature.
The sprint has proven to be a powerful catalyst for concept development here at The Atlantic. More than a year ago, the site’s deputy editor Matt Thompson conceived of a tool that found a story from The Atlantic’s archives pegged to the midpoint of a reader’s life. Everyone liked the idea, but nobody was quite sure what shape it should take, or what the best way to deliver it to the reader would be.
Then, along came the sprint.
My latest Time Dorks post is about a trick I use to keep control of my time in a busy team/work/office environment.
My calendar often looks like a minefield. A 15-minute “quick chat” explodes, destroying Tuesday afternoon. I agree to present at a local conference at 11 a.m. on Thursday — hey, at least I’ll have the afternoon free — but forget that public speaking sucks up all my energy. Our regular team meeting is every Monday, which means that all I’m doing every Monday is attending our regular team meeting.
I enjoyed a meeting-free stretch last year while we wrote Sprint, but that’s not normal. No… most weeks I have to fight and scrape and resort to dorky tricks to regain control of my time.
My favorite trick is to Start With a Full Calendar. Fill your calendar with activities that matter to you, before others can fill it for you.
From the archive...
It's been a few years since I stopped following the daily news. And in the age of Trump, that practice is more important than ever.
Here's my post (from early 2016) on why I ignore the daily news—and how I keep up with important events instead.
Truly important breaking news always finds me. For everything else, there’s The Economist.
For anyone who’s weary of the frantic daily news cycle, The Economist is a breath of fresh air. It’s a London-based weekly magazine (although they call themselves a newspaper) covering global political, social, economic, and business news. They are moderate, quirky, and unconventional.
The Economist publishes thoughtful reporting and analysis of the week’s most important news. In the extra days between when “news” happens and when The Economist writes about it, facts settle and tempers soothe.
From the archive...
Most days, I wake up at 5:30 or 5:45, make coffee, then work for two hours before walking to the office. Here's the story of how I became a morning person.
It’s early and dark. The alarm sounds, and you reach over to switch it off. After a short pause, you sit up. You swing your legs off the bed, touch the floor with your feet, and reach for your phone. You sit quietly while your phone’s screen illuminates the dark bedroom. There are a few notifications waiting—new emails, a Twitter reply, a prediction of rain. You look at your messages, the news, and the weather. “I’m half asleep,” you think. “I’ll just look at Twitter while I wake up.” Ten minutes pass, then another five. You’re not asleep, but you’re not really awake either.
Five years ago, I decided to become a morning person.
From the archive...
There are many kinds of design. Visual design is the most obvious, but it's not always the most important. Here's a guide for managers who are trying to decide what kind of design investment to make.
What about those successful companies that don’t have great visual design? They appear to have succeeded despite poor design. And in some cases, that’s true. Maybe they didn’t have any competitors; maybe their technology was so useful that it didn’t matter how it looked; or maybe they were lucky.
Many of the successful yet “poorly designed” companies used as examples — e.g. Craigslist, or Google circa 2004 — chose not to focus on making beautiful products. They focused their design efforts elsewhere, in areas that were critical to their business. They were doing the right design at the right time.
Here’s a novel suggestion for those who feel they are in a constant race against the clock to get things done: Make some time for others.
While it might seem counterintuitive to sacrifice some of the very thing you think you don’t have enough of, our research shows that giving a bit of time away may, in fact, make people feel less pressed for time and better able to tick things off their to-do lists.
From the archive...
Shortly after arriving in Santa Barbara (we sailed down from San Francisco), we met an interesting group of guys on the docks.
Last Friday, after we arrived in Santa Barbara, after we hosted an impromptu cocktail hour with Nick’s friends Paul and Ginger, after we had dinner at the yacht club, after we stumbled upon a high-school football game and watched the dramatic 4th quarter — after all that, we were walking back to the boat when a tall jovial guy came alongside and said hello.
From the archive...
Here's a short story about the time I aborted departure from Morro Bay because of a steering problem on our sailboat.
“Dammit, I should have known,” I said. “When troubleshooting something on a boat, you always start at one end of the system and work through it component by component.”
Nice post from @rands on the power of focusing on one big thing at a time.
I am prepared to declare that I am 100% done with productivity products. There is a better, simpler, and more productive way.
My new Time Dorks post is about Infinity Pools—those always-on, effectively infinite sources of information and entertainment that lurk in our smartphones and laptops.
Things like pull-to-refresh apps, video streaming services, and even web browsers, which provide on-demand access to pretty much all the information in the world.
When I removed Infinity Pools from my iPhone in 2014, the results were pretty amazing.
Turning off notifications is a great start. Actually, I think it’s a little bit nuts to leave them on. Carrying around a smartphone with all the notifications enabled is like tuning your television to CNN, cranking up the volume, and then leaving it on all the time while you try to work, hang out with your family, drive a car, read a book… you get the idea.
But if you feel like you’ve lost your ability to focus, and you want to reclaim the time wasted on mindless browsing and pull-to-refreshing, disabling notifications is not the solution.
From the archive...
Here's my follow-up post about copywriting. This time, I focused on how copywriting fits into the design process.
Every time we did a design sprint with a Google Ventures portfolio company, I focused on copywriting, and looked for successful patterns and approaches. Here’s what I learned.
I've wanted to write about the difference between goals and systems for a long time.
About how goals are good for setting direction, but systems are much more useful for making progress. About how good systems are inherently rewarding. About how systems help you do great things, even if your goals change or become obsolete. I even have a few drafts of articles about the topic in Apple Notes!
But I may not need to write about it after all, because this explanation by James Clear is just so good.
I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.
Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.
From the archive...
Here's a piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal, where I attempt to define and demystify design for entrepreneurs.
Design is the process of figuring out what a thing should be, what it should do, how it should work, how it should look, and what it should say.
This definition is broad, but it’s kind of a relief. No wonder design is so confusing — we can use it to figure out almost anything!
Design can be applied to software, business models, clothing, cars, or anything else you can imagine. At Google Ventures, we’ve used design to make better medical reports, help people save money with coupons, renovate our office, and sell coffee beans on the web.
Mr Money Mustache describes my approach to health and fitness.
Fitness as a Part of Life
(rather than something you do at the gym)
Far too often in modern life, we cut an artificial line between the ideas of getting in shape and everything else we do. People train for Ironman events, but then drive a car for local errands. They use weight machines in the gym, but then take the elevator up to the 12th floor in the office building. They claim that getting in shape is important, but then drive their kids to school in the morning in one of the world’s most ridiculous spectacles of Car Clown behavior.
A lot of productivity and self-help advice is about less: less work, less stress, less time. But often the path to happiness is actually more.
Here's a great post about the idea of adding meaningful work, stress, and responsibility to your life.
We think we want rest and relaxation – the absence of all labor and responsibility – but what we really crave is the presence of meaningful work and interests. We don’t want a complete lack of tension, but a different variety of it.
We don’t need less stress, but more of the right kind.
From the archive: I attempted to collect some of my best advice on interface copywriting.
People are often surprised when I tell them writing is a design skill. I used to work with an excellent visual designer who hated being called a visual designer. His defense was: “Isn’t all design visual?” Well, no. Most of our design work is expressed visually, but we use design to figure out all sorts of things: what a product does, how it works, and what it says. The last one — what our products say to the people who use them — continues to surprise me as one of the most important things we need to decide as designers.
From the archive...
Here's a short piece I wrote with advice for entrepreneurs, product managers, designers... anyone who's trying to learn by talking to customers.
I think it’s fantastic this entrepreneur had talked to so many potential customers. That puts him ahead of teams who work for months on a product without getting out of the building.
But getting out of the building isn’t enough. It’s a good start, but to truly learn what people need and validate product concepts, there are a few things you must get right:
We can, if we want, re-create a digital Sabbath each week — just one day in which we live for 24 hours without checking our phones. Or we can simply turn off our notifications. Humans are self-preserving in the long run. For every innovation there is a reaction, and even the starkest of analysts of our new culture, like Sherry Turkle, sees a potential for eventually rebalancing our lives.
My latest Time Dorks post is about making the best use of time and energy to get real work done. I hope you enjoy it!
I had complete control over my schedule. From the moment I woke up, until bedtime, I decided how to spend my time.
What did I do?
At first, nothing special. I would get up, make coffee, start writing, realize I was hungry, find breakfast, write more, get distracted, and so on. I had plenty of “crap it’s lunch already” days. They weren’t planned and they weren’t intentional.
But I recognized the opportunity: to start with an empty calendar and build up, hour by hour, my perfect schedule for deep work.
Here's a quick post I wrote last week about sending (but not receiving) email.
When I started Distraction-Free iPhone, I was immediately taken with the lack of incoming email; the absence of sounds, buzzes, and badges; the quieting of that nagging voice that used to speak to me: “hey, you might have an email.”
But I did miss the ability to send email. Before you ask, no, I am not a sadistic lunatic who enjoys filling other people’s inboxes while blissfully ignoring mine. I actually have two good reasons for sending email from my phone:
YES. Thanks @Mark_Sisson for articulating the health benefits of coffee.
But all in all, coffee has some very cool effects.
It’s great for training.
It’s good for productivity and mood.
It contains a whopping dose of antioxidants.
It’s consistently associated with protection against a host of diseases and conditions.
I can't stop thinking about this article by Tim O'Reilly.
It raises some difficult questions, and the solutions discussed are challenging, but it's a great exploration of today's global economic situation.
It didn’t turn out quite as Keynes imagined. Sure enough, after a punishing Depression and a great World War, the economy entered a period of unparalleled prosperity. But in recent decades, despite all the remarkable progress of business and technology, that prosperity has been very unevenly distributed. Around the world, the average standard of living has increased enormously, but in modern developed economies, the middle class has stagnated, and for the first time in generations, our children may be worse off than we are. Once again, we face what Keynes called “the enormous anomaly of unemployment in a world full of wants,” with consequent political instability and uncertain business prospects.
By getting clear on the one thing that matters most to you, it’s so much easier to make smart choices with money, time, fitness, and more. When you know what you really want, everything else is noise.
Recently, I’ve come to realize this same idea can be applied on a smaller scale to everyday circumstances: Whenever you face a mountain of choices, whenever life becomes overwhelming, you can use the “One Thing” principle to give you focus.
The notion of the indolent French worker, for one thing, is a fiction: the country’s hourly productivity, for example, rivals that of the United States, and French workers put in more hours a year than their supposedly more industrious German counterparts. The difference, then, is not in our attitudes toward our jobs but in our attitudes toward the rest of our lives. In France, a personal life is not a passive entity, the leftover bits of one’s existence that haven’t been gobbled up by the office, but a separate entity, the sovereignty of which is worth defending, even if that means that someone’s spreadsheet doesn’t get finished on time.
After a few people recommended this interview, I decided to check it out. I'm sure glad I did. And I hope you'll enjoy it too.
Because if you put a drop in a bucket every day, after three hundred and sixty-five days, the bucket’s going to have some water in it.
Hilarious but true. Sarah Cooper nails it again.
As meetings grow longer and longer, workers will look to email to follow up on conversations, that will then be needed to be taken back to a meeting.
This post on schedules from Eric Barker is just great.
Here’s what a successful schedule looks like:
Your Morning Ritual
Important Work First Thing — With No Distractions
Regroup When You Slow Down
Meetings, Calls And Little Things In The Afternoon
A Relaxing Evening
My latest piece, about the power of repetition for improving in life and work.
Here's a wonderful and thoughtful piece from Ryan Avent on our relationship to professional work. There's a lot to think about here.
But my work – the work we lucky few well-paid professionals do every day, as we co-operate with talented people while solving complex, interesting problems – is fun. And I find that I can devote surprising quantities of time to it.
What is less clear to me, and to so many of my peers, is whether we should do so much of it. One of the facts of modern life is that a relatively small class of people works very long hours and earns good money for its efforts. Nearly a third of college-educated American men, for example, work more than 50 hours a week. Some professionals do twice that amount, and elite lawyers can easily work 70 hours a week almost every week of the year.
Work, in this context, means active, billable labour. But in reality, it rarely stops. It follows us home on our smartphones, tugging at us during an evening out or in the middle of our children’s bedtime routines. It makes permanent use of valuable cognitive space, and chooses odd hours to pace through our thoughts, shoving aside whatever might have been there before. It colonises our personal relationships and uses them for its own ends. It becomes our lives if we are not careful. It becomes us.
I've been reading JD Roth for a long time—since he started Get Rich Slowly back in 2006.
When thoughtful folks like JD write about money for long enough, they eventually end up writing about happiness, work, and attention too. Once you get past the basics, you can't meaningfully talk about money without considering the rest of life.
This piece is some of JD's best work. It's a tour through the most important research and philosophy on happiness and meaning. And toward the end, JD shares some of his own techniques for identifying what's important and staying focused.
Because circumstances play such a small role in your well-being — and because many of your circumstances are unchangeable — it makes more sense to boost your bliss through intentional activity, by controlling the things you can control while ignoring the things you can’t.
You can’t wait for someone or something to make you happy. Happiness isn’t something that just happens; happiness is a byproduct of the the things you think and say and do.
I wrote about how I manage my time and attention.
Then one day in 2014, it clicked: I would give up the small tasks and focus my planning on the big things — those important, meaningful projects that produced real value.
Here's a story about our sprint with Gimlet Media. We originally wrote it for our book, Sprint, but ended up cutting it. A great story should never go to waste, so we're sharing it here!
A Gimlet app was an obvious solution, but it wasn’t obviously a good idea. Gimlet didn’t have a technology team — their people had titles like “producer” and “editor,” not “software engineer.” And Alex worried that the app project would be overwhelming for his fledgling company.
The question nagged at Alex: should Gimlet build an app? To really seize the opportunity, and make his company a massive success, did he need to tackle the podcast problem? And if he did… what would it look like?
“Do Consumers Make Too Much Effort to Save on Cheap Items and Too Little to Save on Expensive Items?” The answer is, resoundingly, “Yes.”
Here's a great exploration by J.D. Roth about how time affects money and money affects time.
Most people see the “overnight success”. But if you peek just a little bit further back, you’ll see Ryan doing something similar to Benjamin Franklin.
He was writing.
one of the world’s preeminent graphic designers didn’t know graphic design was a thing — let alone a job you could get paid for — until high school
As such, it’s not that Designers have ready answers to challenging questions. It’s the approach, the methodology, all grounded in a set of sensibilities.
Favro is part of an elite cadre of mariners known as the San Francisco Bar Pilots. Named after the horseshoe-shaped sandbar that lies beyond the Golden Gate strait, this group of approximately 60 captains guides commercial vessels into and out of San Francisco Bay. Maritime pilots can be found in all international ports, but few face conditions as treacherous as those on the bay.