Inside My Brain

Thoughts about startups, tech, marketing, and life

Using your commute time productively

Crowded commute

Commuting sucks.

It can be stressful and draining, and you literally lose sleep because of it.

I’m pretty lucky that I only have long commutes two days a week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have to drive out to Columbia, MD from DC, and half of that ride I’m with my wife because I drop her off at her job, so it’s not that bad. The rest of the week I usually work at a Cove co-working space, which is a 12-minute walk or 5-minute bike ride.

So commuting isn’t a big problem for me, but it’s a huge problem for many.

Regardless of how long your commute is, I think that it’s time that can be used wisely.

Yeah, you can listen to some morning talk show or watch that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (not if you’re driving, though!).

But there are many things that you can do that can make your commute or travel time more productive. Here are some of my favorites.

Plan your day

One of the things I like to do during my commute is visualize and plan my day.

Most of the time I will have my daily tasks planned out the night before. So on my commute, I’ll think more about how much time to dedicate and what resources I’ll need to complete those tasks.

If you take public transportation, you can use your commute time to write down your tasks for the day and get organized.

If you drive, you can visualize your schedule, think about your goals of the day, and better understand what needs to get done.

Then when you arrive at the office, you can hit the ground running and get to work right away.

Listen to an educational podcast

I love podcasts so much that I started one (though I’m on break now).

Podcasts are great because you don’t need to devote your full attention to consuming them, so you can listen while you walk, drive, ride a bike, or do something else.

I like to listen to my favorite podcasts during my commute so I can find some inspiration, motivation, or even specific tactics that I can apply to work.

Most of my favorite podcasts are related to startups and tech, but there are other subjects mixed in. They include:

  • This Week in Startups
  • The Tim Ferriss Show
  • Recode Decode
  • Freakonomics Radio
  • Talk Python to Me
  • Mixergy
  • Y Combinator Podcast
  • A16Z podcast
  • Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin
  • Bon Appetit
  • And a few others…

Podcasts are a great way to learn while you commute, and I love fitting them in whenever I have time.

Clear your mind

With a kid, a day job, and a startup on the side, life is pretty busy.

Sometimes I like to use my commute time to just disconnect and take in the world around me.

When I walk or take public transportation, sometimes I just clear my mind, listen to the sounds of the city, and watch the people and vehicles around me. I also take the time to appreciate everything I have and how lucky I am to be healthy and have a wonderful family.

This doesn’t sound like I’m being productive, especially since I’m not doing the things I just wrote about in the above sections.

But disconnecting and clearing your mind for a few minutes a day can really help in the long run. You’ll be more relaxed, more creative, and less stressed.

While I don’t do it during my commute, meditation is something I’ve been doing more often. 10 minutes of breathing and relaxation every day can help minimize stress and increase focus on what you need to get done.

How are you spending your commute time, and are you using your time productively? I’d love to hear more in the comments.

 

More on Reps and Sets and doing little things everyday

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Reps and Sets – how repetition and making little improvements everyday can make a big impact in the long run.

Recently, I was watching The Herd, a sports talk show with Colin Cowherd. I forget what the context of the sports conversation was, but Colin was making an analogy of eating a single cookie everyday.

Eating a 200-calorie cookie doesn’t seem too bad. But it’s an easy thing to do and keep doing.

If you eat a 200-calorie cookie everyday, over the course of a month, you will have consumed about 6000 calories, which equates to almost 2 pounds.

In one year, you will have gained over 20 pounds! Just by eating a single cookie each day!

With weight loss, it’s not about doing some ridiculous diet for two weeks. Yeah, you may shed a few pounds, but those diets are largely unsustainable, and you’re likely to gain back that lost weight after the diet is over. It’s about being consistent and cutting out small things like cookies and soda from your everyday diet and generally eating healthy each day.

Just like improving your skills in anything. It’s about consistent, everyday practice.

Reps and sets.

Slack, distractions, and Twist

If you read this blog, you know that I’m all about finding ways to increase productivity and minimize distractions.

And the more and more I use Slack, the more I hate it because it’s a constant stream of distractions.

I’m not alone. See here, here, and here.

Don’t get me wrong – Slack is an extremely well-designed, well-built platform. The integrations are great and the ability to build tools and bots on top of it is pretty awesome. It’s a valuable messaging tool, which is why the company is the fastest growing business app ever.

The underlying philosophy of Slack and many business communication apps – a stream of messages with little organization – is what’s bothersome to me.

My problems with Slack

Imagine you work on a remote team and you’re 12 hours ahead of most of your team members. While they’re in the middle of their work day, you’re deep asleep. Not only will you be bombarded with notifications, but you’ll also wake up to a cacophony of messages with very little idea of what subject was started where and by whom.

Another example is going on vacation. I was on a two-week trek to Thailand and got pinged with many messages that had nothing to do with me. The messages that were relevant to me were buried deep in multiple channels. I actually didn’t realize I missed messages until one of my co-workers asked me if I saw the message he sent to me.

And I know that I’ve sent many messages that were missed or unread.

At the core of the problem is notifications.

Yes, you can set certain your notification preferences – such as seeing all notifications, only those messages that mention your name, or no notifications for a channel. Those aren’t granular enough, and I find that I still miss a lot of stuff no matter which option I choose. And all you hear all day is that knock brush sound.

Another issue is that Slack doesn’t provide you with email notifications, so it forces you to use its tool to check notifications and messages, which again leads to missed messages. This is great for their engagement metrics, but not great for productivity.

Twist – a more thoughtful communication tool

I’ve been using a relatively new messaging tool called Twist, which is built by the same company who created the popular Todoist productivity app.

The philosophy and benefits of the tool are laid out nicely in this Medium post written by Twist’s creator.

We use Twist for WinOptix. Our team is pretty small (only 3 of us, all part-time), so our message volume isn’t very high. But we’ve already seen benefits from the different approach Twist has taken to messaging.

Channels and Threads

Like Slack, Twist has channels that you can denote subjects for, such as “Design”, “Development”, “Marketing”, and more. But Twist goes one level deeper with threads within each of these channels. So under “Development”, we have a thread for “Development Task Organization”, where our developer and I discussed the best way to organize development tasks, and “FPDS data – GitLab Repo” where we talk about how to access troves of government contracting data.

These threads portray the messages in a more granular fashion so you have a better idea of what the conversation is about.

Twist's channels and threads

Twist’s channels and threads

Sender can choose who receives notifications

The next big feature is the ability for the sender to select who receives notifications. This is HUGE.

Let’s say that I just want to ask our developer a direct question. I’ll just select his name in the “Notify” field and ask away. He’ll be the only one who receives a notification. Everyone else who is part of that channel will be left alone but will still be able to view that message at any time.

This is the best of both worlds. This gives the sender the power to minimize distractions for his or her team, not just the receiver to minimize distractions for herself.

In Slack, you can type “@username” to specifically mention someone in a message, but if other employees in that channel have selected to receive notifications for all messages, they’ll still get pinged with this message.

(BTW, as I’m writing this, I just got pinged with a Slack notification that had nothing to do with me. Ugh.)

Email notifications

Everyone hates email, but I don’t think it’s that bad. I used to receive 200 emails a day, but I’ve pruned that down to less than half. Maybe I’ve just gotten less popular. :/

I might be old-fashioned, but my email inboxes are the center of my work life.

Anyway, I love how Twist sends me email notifications about messages that have been recently posted. This allows me to see if I missed anything important without having to check all of the messages in the app itself. And the asynchronous nature of email lets me review messages whenever I please.

Conclusion

This may seem like I’m hating on Slack, but I’m not. It’s a really great piece of software, but it just doesn’t work all that well with the way that I work.

And I’m not getting paid by Twist to write this post. I just think it’s a very well thought-out tool that focuses more on productivity as opposed to just communication.

The caveat here is that we don’t yet have a high volume of messages, but I think that the way Twist is set up, ramping up the volume won’t be as distracting.

Anyway, if you’re frustrated with the constant pinging and missed messages, I’d suggest giving Twist a shot. If you do, let me know what you think!

Reps and Sets

I interviewed David Cancel, Co-founder and CEO of Drift, for my podcast a while ago. Drift just raised $32 million from top-tier investors, and he has started 5 companies. The guy knows what he’s doing.

One of the things he always talks about is “reps and sets.”

There aren’t any secrets, hacks, or shortcuts. Being consistent, putting in the work, and getting better everyday is the only way to success.

mathhub multiplier

Getting a little better everyday can be huge in the long run. Image courtesy of MathHub.

You won’t get in shape if you go to the gym twice a month. You won’t run lose weight if you’re not consistently eating healthy food. You won’t learn to code if you’re not doing it and educating yourself everyday.

Reps and sets. It’s as simple as that.

Success doesn’t happen overnight

I keep telling myself that.

AirBNB is a massive success, and it feels like they got there overnight. But according to CEO Brian Chesky, their “overnight” success took a little longer than that.

overnightsuccess

Gary Vaynerchuk talks about this all the time. The guy is absolutely everywhere today, but it has taken him over a decade and thousands of videos and articles to build his audience.

James Clear had a great tweetstorm about the amount of work that you need to, over a long time, to be successful.

There aren’t any hacks or shortcuts to success.

I keep telling myself that.

Whenever something isn’t going right with my startup or my day job, I keep telling myself to be patient.

Whenever I’m coding (I’m learning Python) and I can’t figure something out, I keep telling myself that the solution will come with time (and a bunch of research on Stack Overflow).

When I go to the gym, I don’t expect to lose my gut after one workout.

Things take time.

Of course, you always want to be able to learn faster and do more in a shorter period of time. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t.

Sometimes you have magical epiphanies, other times you just have to grind away until you figure it out.

All of that takes time. It ain’t gonna happen tomorrow.

I keep telling myself that.

Image courtesy of StartupTxt.com

The power of focusing on fewer tasks

I’ve been on a never-ending search to find a system that works for managing my short term tasks. I’ve experimented with different methods in the past – using my calendar as my daily task manager, writing daily tasks down by hand, and others – but they haven’t seemed to increase my productivity or made me more comfortable with my progress.

I’ve used Asana in the past, and currently use Trello to track all of my projects and tasks. Both are great tools (see the comparison article I wrote here) that certainly help me stay organized and not forget about anything that I need to do. But it’s less about logging the tasks and more about executing them to completion.

I always seem to have a bunch of overdue tasks in my Trello cards, and all I do is just keep pushing back their due dates. Shitty.

Trello Overdue Cards Blurred

Ugh. Lots of tasks overdue, and it’s usually much worse.

This week, I tried something different.

I selected four big tasks that I would absolutely complete this week.

There will still other weekly maintenance tasks, like analyzing web traffic, social media, and writing this blog post, that I would finish by week’s end. But the four highlighted tasks were larger To-Dos that were either started a while ago and never completed, or an important project that needed to get done soon.

To log these tasks, I created a new Trello board, starred it, and only put those four tasks on that board. That’s it.

No other tasks or lists to distract focus from those tasks. Four tasks on a little lonely Trello island.

I have to say – so far, so good.

None of the tasks are fully complete, but they are all 90-95% done, and I still have today and Sunday (when I always put in a couple of hours of work) to finish them off.

The key here is to really focus and put more time into a fewer number of tasks.

In the past, I would start writing a blog post, get sick of writing it, then start another post, get sick of that, then go on and do something else. After repeating this process for days, if not weeks, all I would have is three or four quarter-written drafts and multiple Trello cards telling me how much work I have to do.

This week, I selected one of those unfinished blog posts and focused on completing it. Lo and behold, it’s almost ready to go!

Not only will I get to archive that Trello card, but the progress I’m seeing gives me a shot of dopamine and gets me amped up to complete the next task.

Maybe I’ve finally found a system that works for increasing my productivity.

How do you manage your daily and weekly tasks? What has worked for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Lessons learned from Isaiah Thomas’ letter to Boston after being traded

Bradley Beal, Isaiah Thomas

Even if you’re not an NBA or sports fan, I think this story is something you’ll appreciate.

Isaiah Thomas is the former point guard for the Boston Celtics and was recently traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He recently penned a heartfelt letter on The Players’ Tribune telling how it all went down, how devastated he was, and how much his time in Boston meant to him. It’s an amazing read, so take 5 minutes and read it now – I’ll still be here when you get back.

Isaiah was the last player drafted – the 60th player overall – in 2011. Players drafted in this position rarely last in the NBA, and if they do, they’re typically relegated to the bench and traded many times.

Isaiah is 5’9″, tiny by NBA standards.

After stints in Sacramento and Phoenix, Isaiah was traded to Boston, where he became an All-Star and MVP candidate and led the team to the first seed in the Eastern Conference last season.

His sister Chyna tragically died in a car crash during last season’s playoffs. He flew to the West Coast to attend her funeral, then flew back to Boston to play the next night. And he scored 33 points and logged 9 assists.

Isaiah played months through a nagging hip injury that forced him out of the playoffs. He left his heart and soul on the court every day.

Yet he still got traded.

The guy he was traded for is Kyrie Irving, who is essentially basketball royalty.

He was drafted #1 overall that same year Isaiah was drafted. He played his college ball at Duke. Playing along side LeBron James, he’s been to the NBA Finals three years in a row and won the championship two seasons ago. Yet he wasn’t happy and demanded a trade.

While supremely talented, he’s been criticized as sometimes being lazy, playing bad defense, or being a ball hog.

Sounds like quite the opposite of Isaiah, no?

There are a few lessons that I took away from this situation and reading the article.

It doesn’t matter what deficiencies you have or what others think of you. If you work hard and keep learning and grinding, you can succeed no matter what hurdles are in your way. 

All odds were against Isaiah lasting in the NBA. Yet he continued to work hard and improve his craft, so much that he became one of the top players in the league.

Things can change at a moment’s notice. 

For better or worse.

Take nothing for granted. You can do everything right but bad things can still happen. Stay humble and just keep working.

Be appreciative.

I’m sure Isaiah was angry, and he could have lashed out against the organization and city that he’s leaving. But he expressed his appreciation and love. That’s class.

Ambition is a powerful thing.

It seems as though Kyrie Irving’s situation was amazing. He’s won an NBA championship and has perennially made the NBA finals. Yet he still wasn’t satisfied with this.

I’ve written about the difference between happiness vs. satisfaction a couple times in the past – see here and here. Kyrie’s ambition to “be the man” and play second fiddle to Lebron James led him to request a trade. Was he appreciative of this situation in Cleveland? Maybe. But was he satisfied? Nope.

On the other hand, Isaiah’s ambition to be a great player, despite his deficiencies, got him to where he is today.

Isaiah’s blog post is one of the most personal, heartfelt articles I’ve read in a long time. The guy has worked so hard and laid it on the line every night, yet he still got done wrong. Life’s a cruel thing sometimes.

All you can do is appreciate what you have and keep moving on.

Photo courtesy of Keith Allison on Flickr

Think for yourself

Venture capitalist Leo Polovets tweeted the above statement out a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t agree more.

I know many people who are contrarian for the sake of being contrarian.

It’s good to be different, but only if it makes sense to be. It can be easy to be contrarian – just say the opposite of what others are saying. But you don’t want to be that kind of contrarian.

I also know many people who don’t have a unique or independent thought at all. They go through the ropes, agree with everyone, do what is expected of them, and nothing more.

I think that’s worse.

Independent thinking is the result of true analysis and understanding.

If you think independently, sometimes you’ll be contrarian, other times you won’t. Sometimes you’ll be right, other times you won’t.

What you’ll have is a say, an opinion, an input. And if that input is well researched and backed up, you’ll get respect for your thoughts, regardless of whether you’re right, wrong, contrarian, or conformist.

Think independently about that, and let me know what you think!

Putting your life and career into perspective

Last weekend I returned from an amazing two-week family vacation in Thailand.

This vacation allowed me to take time away from work (I didn’t even bring my laptop!), reflect on what’s going on in my life, and enjoy time with family.

We spent a few days in Ko Samui, where my cousin got married in a beautiful ceremony. A bunch of our family stayed in a beach villa and had a great time.

We then trekked up north to Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai to hang out with elephants, tigers, nature, and lots and lots of Thai food. Check out my “Le Tigre” below. :)

Zoolander would be proud

 

While on the trip, Steve Blank wrote a great blog post titled “Working Outside the Tech Bubble.”  The gist of the article is that because he works in tech, he sometimes forgets that most of the world lives outside of the Silicon Valley bubble. He has a summer home in New England, and most of his neighbors don’t know or don’t care about who the ex-CEO of Uber is or what venture capitalist funded which hot startup.

Reading this made me think about perspective.

Like I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve been feeling guilty about not doing enough in both work and my personal life. I often look at others’ success and doubt myself and my decisions.

But when you put things into perspective, no matter how tough things get, it’s never that bad.

I’m not saying to look down on others’ hardships. It’s more about appreciating what you have and all of the options in front of you.

While in Thailand, we were amazed at how cheap things are. Uber rides were all less than $3, most meals were cheaper than $5 per person, and hour-long massages cost around $8.

Yet all of those low prices may be normal or expensive for the Thai citizens. And those citizens are working really hard to make those wages that are super cheap to us.

Many Thai people live in villages, without the comforts of running water and electricity that we are accustomed to.

There’s no doubt that people in the US still face hardships everyday. Crime, racism, and poverty are still rampant in society.

But by simply being born or living in the US, we’re luckier than 95% of people in the entire world.

We don’t have to face the threat of a suicide bomber day in and day out. Most of us have a roof over our heads with running water and electricity.

So whenever things get tough, I like to put things into perspective and appreciate how lucky I really am.

Sure, my career isn’t going exactly how I’d like it to go. Things aren’t perfect.

But it’s always helpful to take a step back and look at what I have – an amazing family, a beautiful home, good health, and lots of opportunity – rather than what I don’t have.

It’s good to put things into perspective once in a while.

The importance of taking time off from work

Career regret

A couple of weeks ago, a story about a woman who took a couple of days off from work to focus on her mental health went viral.

In summary, Madalyn Parker, an engineer who works for live chat company Olark, wrote an email to her team that said she was taking the next couple of days off to focus on her mental health. The company’s CEO responded, praising her for her email and stressing how important it is to take time off.

This is an ongoing issue in the startup world, where 80-hour work weeks are often the norm and considered cool. David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of Ruby on Rails and CTO of Basecamp, completely disagrees.

In the early days of my career in consulting, I used very few of my vacation days, and the thought of taking time off to work on my mental health never even crossed my mind.

When I was working for the Washington Capitals, the seasonality of the job didn’t really allow us to take any days off between September and May (when the Caps would crap the bed in the playoffs). We would take some time of in the summer, but even then I didn’t take full advantage of it.

I thought that taking days off would slow my ascent up the ladder. If I was the hardest working person in the company, I would get promoted and get more responsibility and authority.

Looking back, all that crap didn’t matter.

Unless you have a terrible manager, no one is going to ding you for taking days off. And as important and valuable as you are, your big company will go on without you and will still be there when you return. It’s harsh but true.

But as an entrepreneur, taking days off matters more, both for better and worse.

Any day that you’re not working on your product or business is a day of progress and potentially revenue lost. For each day that you take off, your competitors may be moving ahead of you, and it’s a day where you’re just not learning anything.

But if you don’t take time off, you won’t be able to recharge and your mind will never be 100%. You likely won’t be able to make those creative breakthroughs that are so important to the success of a company. You’ll get burned out.

Quite a predicament, huh?

Personally, I’ve been feeling a lot of guilt lately. I keep thinking that I don’t do enough for my day job, I don’t do enough for WinOptix, and I don’t do enough as a parent and husband. I don’t know how much of that is true or if it’s just me.

One possible answer is that I can work harder. Dedicate more hours to my day job, stay up later to work on WinOptix, and spend more time with my family.

You can see just how impossible that is.

Hopefully it’s just all in my head. And I think some time away will help clear my mind and be more comfortable with my situation. It has to be real time away though, where I’m truly physically and mentally disconnected from work. Otherwise, it’s not really time away.

On that note, I’ll be traveling to Thailand for the next couple of weeks to attend my cousin’s wedding, hang out with some elephants and tigers, see some temples, and eat some amazing Thai food. I’ll see family that I haven’t seen in a long time, and spend time with my family exploring very different environments.

I’m going to take this time to reflect on my current situation, think about the path forward, and reset my mind. So I won’t be blogging over the next three Fridays. Hopefully I’ll come back refreshed, less guilt-ridden, and ready to kick some ass.

See you in a few weeks. And remember, go take a day or two off from work and don’t feel guilty about it. It’ll help in the long run.