Marc Andreessen’s Guide to Personal Productivity

How we organize our personal information ecosystems impacts our productivity. Everyone does this a bit differently, and some patterns work better than others. (I’m always looking for ways of being more productive, which is why I started a podcast on this subject.) Although everyone does this a bit differently, not everyone gets the same results. I’m especially keen in finding out how very successful people organize themselves.

Few people have been as successful in the tech world as Marc Andreessen. He’s the co-founder of several influential companies, including Netscape — which helped usher the web revolution — and Andreessen Horowitz, one of the leading investment firms in Silicon Valley. Mr. Andreessen published a blog post twelve years ago that lays out his productivity principles. Given how successful he’s been, this post is worth studying.

Mr. Andreessen’s advice includes some counter-intuitive ideas. For example, he suggests not keeping a schedule. By this,​ he means not committing to appointments in advance. Instead, he proposes you focus your attention on whatever is most important or interesting at any given time. While he acknowledges that this may not work for everyone, it’s an intriguing notion. I live by my calendar, and this post has me wondering what it’d be like to just go with the flow. (My work doesn’t give me much leeway here. But it begs the question: what would I need to change to allow me to eschew my schedule?)

I also love the idea of managing just three to-do lists. (Mr. Andreessen suggests a Todo List, a Watch List, and a Later List.) I follow my own take on David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” approach, which means I have per-project lists; that’s too many at any given time. So I’m drawn to this idea of boiling it down to three. Also, he suggests writing down the 3-5 most important things you must do every day to keep your priorities straight. This is something I’ve been doing for a long time, to great results.

However, my favorite of Mr. Andreessen’s nuggets of advice is this: Only agree to new commitments when both your head and your heart say yes. I’ve been guilty of taking on too many things because I’m excited by the possibilities or interested in the subject (the heart saying “yes!”), only to find out later that I’m overcommitted and en route to disappointing myself and others. Giving the head a veto would’ve solved many difficulties for me.

It’s not a long post, and it’s aged well. (Just replace “iPod” with “iPhone”.) Well worth your attention.

Pmarca Guide to Personal Productivity

Thoughts on the First IA Conference

I just returned from Orlando, where I had the opportunity to attend the first ever Information Architecture Conference. That’s somewhat disingenuous: “IA Conference” is only a new name for the conference formerly known as the IA Summit. The name was changed this year due to a transition in stewardship: the event is no longer organized by ASIS&T but by the Information Architecture Institute. In any case, I’ve been attending this gathering since 2005, missing only one year since. So even though technically this was my first “IA Conference,” it was actually my fourteenth event.

Given the change in name and management, I expected this year’s conference to have fewer attendants than in previous years. That proved to be the case. I don’t have the numbers, but this felt like the smallest version of this conference I’ve attended. Perhaps my perception was influenced by the setting, the cavernous Renaissance Orlando at Seaworld. This hotel features a very large atrium that served as the setting for many of the conference’s meals and informal gatherings. It’s a place designed to accommodate large groups, and it made our small gathering feel smaller. (Where a smaller venue would’ve made the gathering feel more intimate.)

The weather was relatively warm, which allowed us to enjoy a few outdoor activities. The conference’s opening reception was held in one of the hotel’s “lawns” (actually covered in AstroTurf.) This lawn was also the setting for the first of two Polar Bear Yoga sessions that I hosted (and that were graciously sponsored by Rosenfeld Media.) This was my third year hosting yoga sessions at the conference, but the first in a setting that allowed us to practice outdoors. It made a big difference: we had the opportunity to do sun salutations as the sun was rising, and got to lie in Shavasana to a soundtrack of birdsong and (artificial) waterfalls. (Alas, the following day’s Polar Bear Yoga session had to be moved to a conference room due to changes in the weather; it got cooler and wetter.)

Besides hosting Polar Bear Yoga, I also led my Information Architecture Essentials workshop at the conference. This workshop is designed to serve as an introduction to the discipline of IA through a high-level overview of the material in the polar bear book. As a result, the workshop attracts folks who are new to the discipline (and to the IA Conference community as a whole.) It’s always a pleasure for me to meet enthusiastic newcomers to our discipline. I still remember the thrill I felt when I discovered early on in my career that there was a community of practice that did what I did. Interacting with folks who are discovering the discipline energizes me and fills me with a sense of responsibility towards our community.

This year I felt that sense of responsibility more strongly than in past years. As I’ve already mentioned, this was a smaller conference than previous ones. Again, I don’t have the numbers, but my perception was that there were relatively less first-time attendees than in previous years. (Again, predictable given the name change; people already “in the know” were more likely to come than people who were looking for something called “IA Summit.”) So I’ve been mulling questions about the conference’s future. What do these changes entail for my “home” community of practice? With newcomers outnumbered by old-timers, do we run the risk of coming across as insular? How do we engage more newcomers? There are people in the world doing this sort of work and not knowing what it’s called. How will they find our community and its yearly gathering? More to the point, does this smaller gathering signal the beginning of a downward spiral in attendance/interest or will it usher a time of reinvention and renewal?

I wasn’t planning to address these issues publicly. However, a last minute speaker cancellation led to my being invited to an impromptu panel about the past, present, and future of the IA Conference (alongside IA luminaries Jesse James Garrett, Lou Rosenfeld, Stacy Surla, and Noreen Whysel, and moderated by one of the conference chairs, Amy Marquez.) The discussion in this panel prompted more thoughts about what this gathering is about and how we can get more people to know about it.

This is where I landed: I went to my first IA Summit because I wanted to meet the people behind the blog posts, books, and online forums I was already immersed in. In so doing, I discovered my community of practice. More than any other conference I’ve participated in, the IA Conference is a gathering of a tribe. (The metaphor of a family also came up during the panel, but I think “tribe” is more apt.) The Conference thus serves two purposes: it’s a way to advance the discipline of information architecture and a yearly gathering of this community.

The IA Conference community gives a lot of thought to increasing the diversity of people who join this tribe. This manifests in various activities and facilities designed to make newcomers feel welcome and safe, such as first-timers dinners, mentoring tracks, a robust code of conduct, bingo cards to spark conversations, etc. That said, while we try to make newcomers feel at home, we don’t make it easy for people who don’t already self-identify with the discipline to discover the community or the quality conversations we have every year at this event. Once they come, they feel like they belong — as evidenced by this tweet from one of the first-time participants in my workshop:

I remember that feeling: “Wow, these folks are working on the same things I am! And they’re into the same sort of stuff I’m into! Is this my professional tribe? OMG this is my professional tribe!” There’s huge value to this discovery, but somehow you must be drawn to the conversation before you realize its value. The key question is: How do we reach out to the people who will find value in participating in this community but don’t know to look for it?

As I said during the panel, I’ve made lifelong friendships at the IA Summit, and now the IA Conference. Joining this community of practice has had an enormous influence on my career. I know it can do the same for others. This year was a moment of transition for this community, if not for the discipline it represents. I left Orlando wondering: What are we transitioning towards? How can this discipline and the community that has formed around it become more sustainable in the long term? How can we open up more so that more folks can discover and participate in both?

The Informed Life With Kevin M. Hoffman

Episode 5 of the The Informed Life podcast features an interview with my friend Kevin M. Hoffman, author of the book Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone. After a long career as a designer, entrepreneur, and manager, Kevin is now focused on helping people in organizations hold better meetings.

In this episode, we talked about meetings and how Kevin organizes his information environments to manage lead conversion for his business. His description of the process sparked an image from our childhoods:

the metaphor that comes to mind is this… There was also this cartoon thing called School House Rock and the one that I remember — and I imagine a lot of people who know what Schoolhouse Rock is remember — is one about a bill. “I’m Just a Bill sitting here on Capitol Hill,” and how that bill goes on a journey to become a law.

Kevin goes on to describe the journey through which his leads become customers. This journey has information moving from a physical environment to a digital environment to another physical environment and finally to another digital environment. In all, it was a fun and fascinating conversation.

The Informed Life Episode 5: Kevin M. Hoffman

Against Wireframes

Yesterday I led a bright and engaged group of folks through my Information Architecture Essentials workshop. Most of them were new to the discipline, and wanting to know more. We talked about many things, but had an especially active discussion about wireframes. I don’t like them and haven’t used them in my work for a long time. I thought it worthwhile to document my reasons here, in case it helps anyone.

Wireframes are a design artifact that has long been associated with information architecture. I’ve heard people ask to be “sent the IA” meaning they expect something that looks either like a sitemap and/or a set of wireframes. I consider these “deliverables” to be tools from a prior — more “waterfall” — era of web design and mostly a waste of time today, if not outright misleading. (I include sitemaps in this statement, even though I’m focusing on wireframes here.)

Although I’m sure it’s been written about at length (and better) elsewhere, here are some reasons why I don’t like them:

  • Wireframes are too abstract and not abstract enough. Wireframes are an attempt to explore the relationships between elements in a screen. Often this includes the relative visual priority of things. However, they attempt to extract aesthetics (the “visual design”) from these visual explorations. As a result,
  • Wireframes confuse stakeholders. I think of design artifacts as tools that allow people — both designers and stakeholders — to make design decisions. Wireframes are mostly clear designers, but not to stakeholders. Asking folks to comment on the relative hierarchy of elements in a visual document while also asking them to ignore the aesthetics of the thing is a tall order.
  • Wireframes are ineffective as decision-making tools. Visual design affects the perception of the relationship of elements on the screen. Font and color choices affect the relative prominence of elements. More abstract wireframes fail to convey these important distinctions. On the flip side, less abstract wireframes are close enough to visual design to derail the conversation towards the lack of aesthetic nuance. As a result, wireframes are seldom effective in helping people make design decisions.
  • “But,” you may protest, “we don’t use wireframes to make decisions. We use them to convey decisions to developers.” Alas, wireframes are also ineffective as design documentation. Wireframes require more effort to produce and maintain than lower fidelity artifacts (like freehand sketches.) Evolution of the design seldom stops when the wireframe deck is complete, leading to either the deck becoming outdated or — worse — design being “fixed” because the wireframe deck is now “signed off.”
  • Wireframes give the impression that things are more polished than they are. I’ve seen designers present early-stage ideas as wireframes. (Perhaps because some folks are uncomfortable drawing freehand?) These artifacts can look very clean and beautiful, leading the viewer to assume that the ideas they present have been thought-through. Often they haven’t.
  • Wireframes are relatively expensive to produce. Given that so many organizations are using design systems these days, building a comp using a tool such as Sketch isn’t that much more work than making a more abstract artifact such as a wireframe.

So what’s a better way of doing it? I prefer freehand drawings, which allow designers to vary the fidelity of artifacts on the fly. Nobody confuses a freehand drawing with a more polished artifact. Freehand drawings are fast, cheap, and disposable; if somebody has a great new idea, you can draw it on the spot. Yes, this requires that designers learn to draw. (I’m still astonished that some people protest this; communicating visually is essential to design work.)

My preferred way of sketching freehand is to use the Concepts app on the iPad Pro. This app treats the lines I draw on the screen as vector-based “ink”; I can select sets of lines and copy them, paste them, delete them, stretch them, mirror them, etc. This allows me to reuse elements (such as window chrome) across drawings, speeding up the process tremendously. Concepts also allows me to share drawings directly to Slack, email, or other channels. The result: very tight feedback loops that enable the design process to move much faster.

What if you’re communicating design intent to developers? In that case, comps or prototypes do a better job than wireframes. It’s not unusual for developers to ask to be sent Sketch files so they can pull out things like colors and element sizes.

Of course, there may be exceptions to all of this. Some teams may have particular circumstances that allow them to move fast using wireframes. Some industries may require them as official documentation. But in my experience, they aren’t very effective. If you’re a stakeholder, don’t waste time and money by asking your designers to create wireframes. And if you’re a designer, learn the basic principles of drawing by hand (such as the use of distinct line weights, how to start and end lines, etc.) You’ll get better results faster.

Design 3.0

My friend Stephen Anderson gave a talk at SXSW 2019 about the future of design. I’ve not seen the presentation itself, but he posted a transcript on Medium. The gist:

Design is in the midst of a shift. A shift that will make much of our present skills obsolete, and demand we learn new skills, or become… irrelevant.

He refers to this as Design 3.0, “a shift from Products to Experiences to Outcomes.” It calls for designers to develop new skills. What sorts of skills? Training machine learning algorithms, monitoring outcomes, modeling possibilities, and reframing the contexts of our work to see the bigger picture. In other words, systems thinking. Design at a higher level of abstraction: designing the thing that designs the thing.

While not a wholly new direction (Gordon Pask was writing about this stuff fifty years ago), technology has finally caught up with the possibilities. So these ideas are very much part of the current zeitgeist. (I’m reading Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown’s fabulous Design Unbound, which argues along similar lines. More on that soon.)

Even though the objects of focus for design are changing, the things that make us good designers aren’t. As Stephen rightly points out, designerly approaches such as problem reframing, human-centeredness, and the embracing ambiguity are perennial. They’re also key to doing a good job in this complex new environment.

I’m glad to see design at a higher level of abstraction becoming a thing in the world. I’ve seen few introductions as accessible and compelling as Stephen’s talk; it’s worth your attention.

The Future of Design: Computation & Complexity

A Space for Collaboration

Yesterday I spent most of the afternoon working with a friend and colleague. We were synthesizing the results of a workshop we co-facilitated earlier in the week. It was fun, but I often felt constrained by the limitations of the space we were in and the technology we had available.

This type of work usually requires reviewing lots of photos from sketches and stickies posted on walls. My friend and I bounced ideas and memories from the workshop off of each other; we spotted patterns in these materials and captured them in a presentation deck. It’s easier to do this sort of work if we can both see the photos and files we’re editing. We took over the living room in my house, where we had access to ample wall space and projector. We projected photos from the workshop on one of the walls in the space, while we sat on the couch discussing their implications.

While this sounds like the ideal setup, soon it became apparent that there were limitations. For example, we were constrained to a single rectangular window of information on the wall. We could show photos and the document we were editing, but only if we split this rectangle, reducing our ability to see what we were doing. This was workable but not ideal.

A bigger issue was that only one of us could control what was being projected. For example, I was examining the photos from my laptop and my friend was editing the presentation deck. If I was sharing the pictures on the wall, we couldn’t see changes to the presentation deck and vice-versa. Yes, there are workarounds to this problem. For example, we could’ve used Google Docs (or something equivalent), which would’ve allowed us to edit the deck jointly. But this wasn’t ideal either. We spent more time than I would’ve liked trying to figure out how to best collaborate in this setup.

What I wanted was for all of the walls in my living room to be “digitally active” — to allow us to arbitrarily distribute our work around the room and jointly control it. Current computer display technologies are based on a one user/one computer/one display paradigm; projectors are treated as a display that is expected to be displaying the information of one computer at a time.

Instead, I’d like to place various photos on the walls around the room — perhaps recreating the space of the workshop. My friend would put his presentation on another wall. Both of us could then annotate and edit these digital objects arbitrarily. We’d be inhabiting a physical space that was also digitally active, a shared computing environment that we could inhabit and manipulate together.

Something like this is already being built at Dynamicland. That project features a space that allows users to manipulate digital information with physical artifacts. The digital information is projected onto the environment, with cameras detecting the positions of objects in physical space. As you manipulate these objects, the information projected on them changes. It’s a fascinating environment, one pregnant with potential. However, Dynamicland’s objective isn’t to extend our current collaboration paradigms but to reinvent them.

What I’m describing here is conceptually different: I want the sort of stuff we’re used to moving around in computer windows in our laptops and desktop computers up on the walls, while transcending the current single-user paradigm. (It’s a much more conservative vision than Dynamicland’s.) Does such a thing exist? (Perhaps using augmented reality instead of projectors?) It seems like it should be feasible.

From the Digital Town Square to the Living Room

Mark Zuckerberg, in a blog post on Facebook:

I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.

The post lays out a vision for the future of a privacy-focused Facebook platform built around the following principles:

  • Private interactions
  • Encryption
  • Reducing permanence
  • Interoperability
  • Secure data storage

Ultimately, these principles will enable “the digital equivalent of the living room,” in contrast to today’s “digital equivalent of a town square.”

Interesting and laudable. Alas, there’s no mention in the post of changes to Facebook’s business model. As long as the company’s revenues are tied to selling our attention, the goal of serving as our digital equivalents to physical meeting places — be they town squares or living rooms — remains suspect.

A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking

Possible Future

An old Pink Floyd song includes the following lyric, which I love:

They flutter behind you your possible pasts,
Some bright-eyed and crazy, some frightened and lost.
A warning to anyone still in command
Of their possible future, to take care.

These lines provide a visual to an otherwise abstract — but important — idea: that the future holds many possibilities, but once set on a particular course of action, these possibilities close off.

Your ability to affect outcomes diminishes as you become invested in the decisions you’ve already made. The older you get, the harder it becomes to change course. Time runs out; “the future” shrinks; you’re left to contemplate what might have been.

Thus, as you age it becomes increasingly harder to change directions. Eventually, you run out of time to undertake major corrections. Where early in life the vector for your life was flexible, it embrittles as you grow older. You become set in your ways.

This is a challenge in a world in which change happens faster and more thoroughly than before — and in which people live longer. You must actively fight the urge to become fixed and brittle. It’s an ongoing struggle: The more you experience, the more invested you become in the things that have worked; things that feel comfortable.

Comfortable is for chumps. Your possible future needs ongoing care.

Book Notes: “Digital Minimalism”

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
By Cal Newport
Portfolio/Penguin, 2019

When people ask me about resources to help them make better use of digital technologies while avoiding distractions, I refer them to Cal Newport’s work. His previous book, Deep Work, argues that social media has a negative impact on our ability to do meaningful work, and argues for leaving it outright.

His most recent book, Digital Minimalism, takes a more nuanced — and in my opinion, practical — approach, one rooted in a philosophy of use for digital technologies:

as is becoming increasingly clear to those who have attempted these types of minor corrections, willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape—the addictiveness of their design and the strength of the cultural pressures supporting them are too strong for an ad hoc approach to succeed. In my work on this topic, I’ve become convinced that what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.

Instead of doing without digital technologies altogether, Mr. Newport proposes that we embrace digital minimalism,

A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

He compares the approach to how the Amish people embrace new technologies. Many people assume that the Amish are against all tech. That’s not the case. Instead, they have a very thoughtful approach to new technologies that considers their impact on the community as a whole.

This requires trading off conveniences, but these conveniences often come at the expense of healthy social relationships. Mr. Newport describes the relationship between offline and online interactions as zero-sum: digital communications hamper our ability to communicate with people in physical space. Clearly we want to optimize for the latter.

Rather than quitting cold turkey, Mr. Newport proposes what he dubs the Digital Declutter Process:

  1. Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.
  2. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.
  3. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.

He also offers a useful heuristic for going off particular technologies and apps:

consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life.

In all, this is a useful and practical book. It’s my new go-to recommendation for people looking to be more effective amidst digital distractions.

Buy it on Amazon.com