Work Anywhere

I’ve never liked the phrase “work-life balance.” It’s a bad distinction: work is a part of life, and being alive is a prerequisite to getting work done. To think of the two as separate is to impoverish both, so I’m inclined to blur the lines. This is easier to do today than ever before. Many people see this as a negative, but not me.

By “work,” I mean creating value for others in exchange for some remuneration. There’s no reason why this should be constrained to a particular time or place. We’ve inherited our current work patterns from a previous era when work required expensive, fixed infrastructure. (Think industrial factories.) People agreed to be at this infrastructure at particular times of day, in shifts. This maximized efficiency for industrial work.

But this is not necessarily efficient for information work. If a client emails me to ask a question, a faster reply is often more valuable than one that takes longer. Using my little glass rectangle, I can get back to them from anywhere. I’ve generated lots of value while sitting in public transport, waiting for the teller at the bank, after finishing lunch, etc. These impromptu dips into “work” aren’t an intrusion into “life” — I see both as a continuous stream.

Independent consulting gives me great control over when and where I work. When I don’t have meetings, I like to work from my local public library, which is always quiet and pleasant. Or maybe I’ll walk to a coffee shop for a cup of tea. Whatever the case, changing my physical environment helps me get things done. I cordon off particular activities to one place or the other; the change of venue is a palette cleanser that allows me to shift my focus from one task to another.

This way of working is very effective for me. There were times in my career when I forced myself to sit at the same desk for eight-hour work days. Even though I was “working” more, I was much less productive. Tethering myself to the same place and forcing myself to produce “on command” was often a recipe for frustration. That’s not how the mind works — at least not mine. I need to shift modes, change the zoom on the lens, get my body moving.

I can engage more fluidly because my work doesn’t happen in physical environments; it happens in information environments. With small, powerful electronic devices, I can access those information environments from anywhere. This calls for discipline — the work needs to be done, after all — and organization. But the payoff is a release from the tension many of us feel between “work” and “life.” A well-ordered information ecosystem can simultaneously make us more effective and more engaged with the world beyond our desks.

My Digital Memory

I was an early user of Gmail. I don’t remember exactly when I signed up for the service, but I do know I was using it by September of 2005. It became my primary mail system in a relatively short span of time. There were four features that drew me into Gmail:

  • Its amazing anti-spam filters. Hooboy has this saved my sanity!
  • Its lightweight web-based UI.
  • Its large (for the time) storage allocations.
  • Its search functionality, which is (still) one of the best I’ve experienced in any system.

It’s the last two of these features that I want to delve into here.

Gmail isn’t just an email system; it’s a digital memory of my life. Shortly after I started using it, I imported the previous four years of mail into my account. As a result, I have a searchable email archive of the last eighteen years or so. This is an incredibly powerful thing to have at your disposal.

Email isn’t just about communicating with other people: We also receive confirmations for doctors appointments, bank statements, flight boarding passes, contracts, etc. Over time, these things add up to an important repository of information about your life. Something that may seem trivial now can be quite important in the future. Because you have so much space in Gmail, you don’t have to throw it out. And because Gmail’s search is so good, you don’t have to worry about categorizing it upfront.

Last night I was making a list of trips I’ve been on over the past few years. Compiling this list was relatively easy using Gmails advanced search: I used the before and after operators to define time windows​ and included the three-letter​ airport codes where I frequently fly from (SFO and OAK.) I completed what could’ve been a long, tedious task in a matter of minutes.

I particularly feel the power of my digital memory in its converse. Once I was trying to recall the exact date of an event that occurred prior to 2001. This proved surprisingly challenging. I’ve been paperless for the past decade or so (meaning I scan every important paper-based document that comes my way,) but I have few documents in my system from before this time. For stuff between 2001-2008, I can fall back on my Gmail archive. But I have scant information in my system before 2001. Searches return nothing. I looked for a long time among old paper-based archives for the date I needed, only to come up empty-handed.

Some people are very disciplined about keeping archives. I’ve gotten more so over the years, but have little to show for earlier parts of my life. For stuff in between, I can rely on Gmail as a digital memory; it seldom lets me down.

Marc Andreessen’s Guide to Personal Productivity

How we organize our personal information ecosystems impacts our productivity. 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

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.

Buffers: A Key to Working at Your Most Effective

I’m on an ongoing quest to be more effective with my time. This means — among other things — doing more with less: finding ways of being more productive in less time.

One of the most important principles I’ve learned is that my cognitive abilities vary throughout the day: Some times my mind feels fast and sharp while at others it feels slow and dull. Effectiveness requires the ​presence of mind to recognize when I’m in one state versus the other. Trying to get things done when I’m feeling dazed will lead to either taking longer, being frustrated, producing poor wor​k or — more often — a combination of all of them.

Knowing I’m not always available to do my best work, I batch tasks to focus on the ones I’m ready to work on at any given time. This requires creating buffers: parts of my information ecosystem I’ve set aside for “parking” things I’m not ready to deal with yet. Some of my buffers include:

Once every week or two I’ll go through each of these and “process” it — go through items in the inbox and do something with them, one at a time.

For example, I use one of my DevonThink inboxes to keep links I may share in my newsletter. I capture these throughout the day; perhaps I’ve read something in my RSS reader or through Twitter that may be of interest to my subscribers. I send that link to DevonThink, where it will wait until I start building my next newsletter.

I edit the newsletter every other Saturday. I’ve blocked time to sit at my computer and review all of the stories I’ve collected over the past two weeks. I decide which will make it into the next newsletter, and create short summaries that give readers the gist of the story. I’ll also write short posts, often inspired by what I’ve learned from reviewing the things that are going into the newsletter.

The process of editing the newsletter takes anywhere between two and four hours every two weeks. I consider it an effective use of my time. But this only works because I have a buffer; it’d take much longer if I had to deal with the materials I’m sharing at the moment I’ve found them — often with varying degrees of cognitive ability. Saturday mornings are less hectic for me than at other times of the week. I’m also usually rested. This gives me the necessary cognitive bandwidth to deal with this task.

The old Delphic maxim to “know thyself” is even more relevant today when we have so many sources of distraction. Knowing when you perform your best — and setting up places to park work until you’re able to deal with it at your most productive — is essential if you want to maximize your effectiveness. Setting aside buffers is a key component in an information ecosystem that’s structured to let you do your best work.​​

Stephen Wolfram’s Personal Information Ecosystem

Some people manage to get more done than the rest of us. These folks are constrained by the same 24-hour days you and I are, but use them more effectively. How do they do it? What can we learn from them so we, too, can be more productive? I’m always excited when a super-productive person gives us a glimpse into their methods. (So much so that I’ve started a podcast to elicit stories about people’s setups.)

Recently, Stephen Wolfram published a lengthy article that explains how he’s configured his personal information ecosystem to help him be more productive. Mr. Wolfram is a world-renowned computer scientist. He’s the creator of Mathematica and the Wolfram Language — among other things — and the author of A New Kind of Science. Besides being a rigorous scientist and scholar, he’s also a successful entrepreneur: his company, Wolfram Research, has been going strong for the past 31 years. He’s a textbook example of a super-productive person, and someone I’ve looked up to for a long time.

Mr. Wolfram’s blog post is a real treat. It covers everything from his software and hardware choices to the ways he’s configured his physical environments to help him get things done. As the CEO of a software company, some of Mr. Wolfram’s software choices are particular to his job (i.e., he uses his company’s software for much of his work.) However, there are also many insights in the post that apply to anyone who needs to work with computers. The core insight is simple:

At an intellectual level, the key to building this infrastructure is to structure, streamline and automate everything as much as possible—while recognizing both what’s realistic with current technology, and what fits with me personally.

I’m particularly impressed (though not surprised) by Mr. Wolfram’s long-term approach to information processing. Some aspects of his ecosystem (including his approach to file storage — both physical and digital) have evolved over three decades. He also mentions some intriguing products, including a pair of glasses that have helped him conquer motion sickness when working in the back of cars. (A problem I deal with more often than I’d like.)

This is a long read, but an inspiring one. Well worth your time.

Seeking the Productive Life: Some Details of My Personal Infrastructure

The iPad As a Travel Computer

Long flights are one of the few contexts where I’m disconnected from the internet for a long period. As a result, I’m often very productive in airplanes. Much of this work happens on my iPad Pro. The iPad is light and compact and has a long battery life. It’s a perfect computer for working on a seat tray. I’ve even grown to like typing on its keyboard cover. And once I’m done with work, the iPad also doubles as a great entertainment device. All things told it’s a great little travel computer.

However, there’s one caveat to working on the iPad while flying: Doing so requires more planning than doing so with a regular laptop. In particular, I must always remember to download the stuff I want to work on to the device before getting on the plane.

In some crucial ways, the iPad functions more like a phone than like a laptop. I have lots of files I can call up at any time on my laptop. If I’m working on a presentation and want to copy a slide from an older deck, I look for the document and open it. Not so on my iPad; older files are usually in one of the various cloud services (Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, etc.) rather than on the device itself. This isn’t a problem on the ground; my iPad has a cell radio that keeps me connected to the internet everywhere. Except for airplanes, of course.

In this particular flight, I was planning to work on the slides for my WIAD Switzerland workshop. When I’d already boarded I thought to double-check that I had all the files I needed, and — sure enough — I was missing three of them. These are relatively large files, with lots of images. I started downloading them as the airplane was taxiing. The process became a race against time. I could see the download progress bars slowly nearing completion, download speeds varying as the airplane moved around. The files finished downloading a few minutes before we took off; I got everything I needed and was able to work on the slides during the flight. Still, it was stressful.

There are many advantages to being device-independent. It’s great to be able to work anywhere using any one of various computers, phones, tablets, etc. If any one of them dies or is stolen, it won’t take my work with it. Being device-independent also means being able to work from the device that’s best suited to current conditions. That said, being device-independent also means being network-dependent. It’s easy to become complacent about network access when we’re in our home region. That dependency can impair our effectiveness when we don’t have good connectivity, such as when we travel.

Getting More Done With Information

My recent conversation with Fabricio Teixeira (Ep 3, The Informed Life podcast) focused on how Fabricio and his partner Caio Braga manage UX Collective, one of the most popular UX design publications in the world. Fabricio and Caio leveraging a chain of tools that allows just the two of them to produce work that would’ve required a larger team in the past.

Much has been written about how social media and other information environments impair our cognitive abilities. (I touched on this myself in Living in Information.) But information environments can also augment our abilities. There are ​myriad easy-to-use information systems that allow us to get stuff done more efficiently.

As a small business owner, there’s much I can do online that would’ve required outsourcing or hiring other people in the past. There are online systems available to automate everything from bookkeeping to marketing. It’s not that they do it all for you; automation isn’t quite that advanced yet. That said, these systems allow you to better leverage your time.

Take Buffer, one of the systems that came up in the conversation with Fabricio. Buffer allows you to pre-schedule social media posts; you can determine when you’d like specific messages to be published through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. In essence, it allows you to create a personal marketing system. This means you can allocate your time more wisely: rather than having to post messages in real-time (with the potential distractions that entails), you can set time aside to plan out your messages in a batch.

APIs make the system work. Buffer wouldn’t be of much use if it couldn’t leverage social networks. It’s not a free-standing tool, but rather a way to bring together several other systems that provide particular functionality. Centralizing posting to several social networks creates great efficiencies. I’ve been using Buffer for years, and have found it useful. It allows my messages to have greater reach than they would’ve if I had to post individually to each social platform in real-time.

Buffer is one of many such systems. I’m sure there are many others I’m not aware of that could automate or augment my other workflows, or help me do things that I simply wouldn’t have been able to before. One of the reasons why I started The Informed Life is that I want to learn about such systems — and share what I learn with you. What’s working for folks? What isn’t? How might we configure our personal information ecosystems so we can thrive?

Getting Unstuck By Switching Environments

Sometimes I get stuck when working on something. I’ll sit at my desk, staring at the computer’s display. Nothing! It’s not that I don’t know what I need to do next. Instead, something in me resists moving forward. Perhaps I’m feeling overwhelmed, or maybe I’m distracted by some other issue I must deal with.

When I’m feeling stuck, I’ll usually pack up my laptop and move to a nearby coffee shop or public library. Switching to a different environment usually does the trick. The combination of a 10-15 minute walk and entirely different surroundings are enough to allow me to regain my focus. I treat the excursion as an appointment with myself, one that will focus on getting a particular thing done. When I get to my destination, I’m usually ready to get back to work.

While this trick invariably works when I switch to a different physical environment, I find that switching information environments often makes a difference as well. For example, perhaps I don’t leave my desk but instead switch to working on my iPad in a different app. Often, changing contexts from the laptop to a mobile device is enough of a jog to help me regain my attention.

In especially busy days, I’ll often switch several times: I’ll move to work on my iPad in a coffee shop, and then walk a bit more to work on my paper notebook at the library, then come back to my office to work on the larger display there. This helps me draw boundaries around tasks: whereas I spent the last hour focused on project A, now I’ll spend the next couple of hours on project B. The change of place creates a clean break between activities and helps introduce some variety in my day.

I’m lucky to live in a time when we have powerful portable computing devices and the flexibility to work when and where I want. I try to make the most of it; doing so contributes to my productivity.