If your job is anything like mine, you need to do deep concentrated work but you also have to be on top of things outside of your control, like responding to people and fielding tasks that pop up seemingly randomly.
In my quest to become more productive and less distracted, I’ve been doing my best to focus on one task at a time, and I try to get that concentration by ignoring additional things that come up. Ignoring, in this case, means seeing a notification for something business-related or seeing an email pop into my inbox and marking it as “unread” after reading it.
Two problems with this.
The first is that I probably never should have seen the notification in the first place. I shouldn’t have the email tab or Outlook client open on my computer at all when trying to focus, and I shouldn’t be getting Slack notifications for something that isn’t urgent.
The second problem lies in acknowledging the distraction. If I’ve opened an email, I’ve read it, and I’ve wasted time. I’ll have to re-read it before responding anyway, plus I’ll probably have to slot it into my email priority list (even if that list is only in my head).
Some ways I’ve been trying to improve this:
1. My “focused task” window is now the same one where my email is, meaning that while I’m doing my task, the email tab can’t be in focus. I have two monitors, and I used to have email open on one screen and whatever I was doing—manipulating an Excel doc, writing a blog post, whatever—on the other. I’ve switched it so that I have my task list on one screen with the current task or some reference open, and the screen where email once was is switched to my working task so I don’t see email pop up.
2. I clean up my inbox at certain times in the day. Usually this is first thing when I arrive, right after or before lunch, and at the end of the day. Anything that comes into my inbox can wait a few hours, if not a few days.
3. I use gmail filters to tag emails automatically when they come in, which gives me a head-start on prioritizing. “Bills to Pay” emails are tagged and red, “Bug Reports” are pink, “Learning Stuff” is blue, and “Received Payments” is orange (you’d think I would have made it green but oh well).
3.b I only clean up things with a certain tag at larger intervals than my usual inbox clean-up. “Payments”, for example, need to be noted in our accounting software, documents need to be renamed and saved, etc. Nobody is waiting on this with any amount of urgency, so I do these once a week or so. “Bug Reports” need a quicker response, so every few days or couple of days I clear these out.
Do you have any tips for improving focus at work or managing things that pop up unexpectedly? Feel free to share in the comments! Thanks for reading!
Mini work-hack! I guess some would call it a life hack, but I’m not sure it helps your life so much outside your work—and if your work is your life there are other problems to address. Anyway, I’ve been using this cool thing called AutoHotkey at work, which allows you to set hotkeys to type things for you. Essentially, I press ctrl+shft+X and it works its magic.
I have one for my email, one for the date (types the current date), which is super useful for naming files since we name them with 2020-01-09 [filename] to keep things in order. I’ve got one for our work address, which makes form-filling much faster, especially when you have to fill a form in 13 times because it keeps breaking. And finally—after over 4 years of typing “Ultimate Chicken Horse” 90,000,000 times—created a hotkey for it. I probably could have saved an entire 24h of work time and a sore pinky if I had done this years ago.
All of the credit goes to my co-founder Kyler for showing me this, and of course to the people who make this software. I’m sure there’s other software that do the same thing, but AutoHotkey has been very reliable for me for years and it’s a non-profit company making an open-source software. Download it here.
At this point you may have gotten what you need from this post, which is that you should use something like this to speed up your life. If you want to know how I set up the software at Clever Endeavour, read on.
I don’t think there’s a more basic way to use this software than the way I use it, which essentially follows the first steps of the beginner tutorial. My script looks like this:
^+u:: ;Send UCH
Send, Ultimate Chicken Horse
^+a:: ;Send address
Send, 123 Sesame Street, Montreal, QC, H2E 3R9
^+x:: ;Send email
^+d:: ; This hotstring replaces "]d" with the current date and time via the commands below.
FormatTime, CurrentDateTime,, yyyy-MM-dd ; It will look like 2018-01-29
There are a ton of things that you can do with this software. At one point, Kyler was using it to do something like: open a program, move the mouse some number of pixels down and to the left, click, type something in, move the cursor again, press a button, and close the program.
Hope you enjoy! If you have questions, I’m probably not the best person to ask but they have damn good forums and tons of documentation exists about the software.
The conversation started when discussing gym membership prices with my brother. I’ve been going to EconoFitness, a budget gym downtown which sees approximately 3000 people trying to work out on any single piece of equipment at one time. I’m switching to another, more expensive gym, though still far from the expensive end of the spectrum. The question was, how much would you pay for the convenience of not having to wait for gym equipment, having clean equipment, and having showers at the gym? None of these things are essential in order to get a workout, so where do you draw the line? Would you pay even more for steam baths, saunas, warm towels, and top-of the line equipment?
In most things, there’s a balance of cost vs quality. And in some things, there’s a point where quality is reached and then surpassed, and you end up in the realm of luxury. An old beat up rust-bucket car with faulty seatbelts may be cheap, but is probably below most people’s bar of quality. An entry model Honda Civic is slightly less cheap, but likely reaches the bar of quality for most people. A Porsche Panamera definitely passes the quality bar, but goes above and beyond and offers things that are considered luxury, but that nobody (even the Porsche owners) would argue are essential for the car’s function and regular use.
The discussion that my brother and I had revolved around the definition of a baseline, which differs from person to person. It proved extremely hard to define, but I’ll give it a shot.
To me, the baseline is the most simplified form of what you feel you need to live a fulfilling life.
Two important things to note before I go on: first, I’m considering material possessions or things that money can buy, not things like fulfilling friendships or love or work satisfaction. Second, the baseline is not the bare minimum on which you can survive. Most of us can survive on much, much less than what we have as long as we have food and shelter, so that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a comfortable baseline (note that the word comfortable is problematic… more on that in a bit).
To give just a few concrete examples from my own life, here are some of my baseline needs:
A car that allows me to drive to hockey, to visit my girlfriend in Ottawa, etc.
Baseline example: a basic, functional, safe car. Above baseline example: that Porsche we were talking about.
A bike that allows me to commute to work
Baseline example: any functional bike that gets me to work and back. Above baseline example: a sweet road bike that feels fast and light.
A workout routine for strength training
Baseline example: Gym membership at Econofitness or even workout from home with resistance bands. Above baseline example: a fancy gym with steam baths and a sauna.
Groceries that allow me to eat healthy
Baseline example: Staying away from junky food, avoiding very expensive foods such as pine nuts. Above baseline example: eating only organic foods and ethically raised meat and animal products.
The problem is that the baseline is constantly moving. My brother argued that no matter what you do, your baseline moves up as you earn more and are able to spend more on things that make you more comfortable, like the Porsche or the swanky gym. You start to feel that you need to be able to access gym equipment right away, or have that top-of-the-line elliptical machine in order to satisfy your fitness requirements. You start to lose sight of what it was like to work out at the budget gym, and you would feel uncomfortable going back to that after getting used to the pricier gym. In short, as your income increases, you allow yourself to spend more for things that are more convenient or luxurious—that becomes the new normal.
I agree that this is what typically happens, and I believe that it’s a problem. This mentality is what causes people to be spoiled, to complain when things aren’t perfect, and to see the negative in everything that happens. It causes people to make illogical decisions about spending when income or life situations change, and it causes people to simply be less satisfied.
So what’s the alternative? Can you strive to live above your baseline, and treat yourself to things above this line, but maintain it so that you won’t be unhappy if things change? I think you can. I feel that you can keep your baseline low but still live above the baseline by observing your relationship to things that are above the baseline.
The first way to observe this relationship is to be grateful for the fact that you can afford that $80 pair of jeans instead of the $30 ones. The second is to constantly remind yourself that you would be absolutely fine with the $30 pair of jeans. Fine, meaning that you would be no less comfortable than you are with the $80 pair of jeans. More specifically, if you lost your job and had to buy $30 jeans, it wouldn’t cause you any amount of suffering—you would be equally happy. That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t get that $80 pair of jeans if you want them and can afford them.
As usual, I like to write about questions that I’m curious about and don’t claim to have solved. Hopefully, this can inspire you to think of the following questions as it has inspired me. What constitutes your baseline? What things do you currently do that are above your baseline? Are you grateful for those things? How much would your baseline move if your income increased or decreased? How would your life change if your income changed suddenly? It can be a fun thinking exercise.
I’ve been rushing to get an American Dollar credit card by the end of the month in order to pay a US supplier on time, and finally I got a confirmation email today (the 29th of the month) saying that everything is approved, the card is ready. That is, the card will be ready after 5 days of processing and 5-10 days of something else, so actually it will come in 3 weeks or so.
In my email response about this, I started off by writing something along the lines of: “Thanks for the help on this. I was hoping this would be quicker so that I could get my bill paid on time but I guess it’ll wait until next month.”
I caught myself before sending this. Was that last sentence necessary? Who did it help? Maybe it helped me to get some frustration off my chest, but that’s not a reasonable excuse. Did it help the bank to do their job better next time? Did it help the person to feel good about trying to push for this as quickly as possible? No.
Instead I wrote: “Thanks for the help on this. I’ll pay next month’s bill with the CC then!” The meaning is exactly the same, but without showing useless frustration or implying blame.
Moments like this happen all the time. Moments where you can catch yourself and say something much more useful for yourself, the person you’re speaking to, and the relationship between the two of you. Ask yourself: is what I’m about to say actually helping? What is the outcome if I refrain from showing frustration and keep my emotional reaction in check? How much is ego a factor in my behaviour? To me, there are two important reasons to do this.
The first is that I see relationships being strained all the time from a simple lack of awareness that what people are saying is for themselves and not for the other person or the relationship. The second is that often, reacting in a way that is not showing frustration, anger, upsetness, etc. will actually cause you to feel less frustrated, angry or upset.
See if you can catch yourself sometime today, or this week, and try to reflect on how you feel about it. You might be surprised!
I was listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast recently, and at the end he promoted his “five bullet friday” newsletter where he shares his five favourite things that he’s discovered during the week. These can be life-hacks, books, new strange things to ingest (supplements and otherwise), or whatever he feels like.
That got me thinking: wouldn’t it be nice to learn for a living? Wouldn’t it be nice to work in a place where we can learn new things all the time? Or as a leader or owner of a business, wouldn’t it be nice to create a work environment where our colleagues can learn and develop themselves professionally?
Back to Tim Ferriss for a second though: wouldn’t it be nice if your day job was to interview people and learn new things? Many of these famous podcaster types (Tim, Joe Rogan, Chase Jarvis) support themselves by doing research, asking the right questions, and taking in massive amounts of knowledge. I wouldn’t try to rob them of the ridiculous amount of work they put in to get to this point, where people like Elon Musk and Lebron James will happily be on their podcast, and I also realize that at this point it’s somewhat self-perpetuating. Famous people come on the show, more people listen, more famous people accept invites to the show, etc. But I can’t help but think of how nice it would be to be constantly learning, speaking to the best of the best in various fields, and making money doing so.
But wait a second, can’t we get paid to learn already?
Post-docs and researchers are essentially doing that, though there are a couple of differences between the academic path and what I’m talking about. First off, they don’t tend to get paid very much for it. Generally they have to sacrifice some pay to follow their passion and research the thing they love. Second, they’re often learning very specific things for a few years at a time, if not longer. This hyper-focused learning can be fun for some, and that’s great for them and for everyone their research serves, but it’s not the same as learning about anthropology one day, followed by a day of neuroscience, astrophysics next, and politics after that.
Then I realized that maybe there’s a middle ground. And actually, there are two ways to achieve that middle ground. First, the work itself can inspire me (and even force me) to learn a wide range of different things related to my trade. Second, that work can leave me enough time in my personal life to learn the rest.
Fortunately for me, I’m one of the owners of Clever Endeavour Games, our game development company, so I can try to help create this magical place in both of those ways. Maybe you can too, if you’re a leader or business owner.
We decided, as a company, that we were going to allocate and dedicate time to learning, in whatever way we (and our employees) deem appropriate for our development within the company. That could be by prototyping new ideas, by taking an online course, or by honing our pre-existing skills.
This promotion of learning time in the workplace serves a number of important purposes. First, it allows our team to improve their skills, which they will bring to the table for current and future projects. Second, it shows that we value our employees and care about their individual development regardless of whether or not it directly impacts the company. Third, it helps keep employee morale up by making sure that they’re working on fun things part of the time. Lastly, it gives us a better chance of finding innovative and creative ideas, as we’ll be constantly drawing inspiration from new sources of learning and experimenting.
For me, I can split my time between the work I need to be responsible for (keeping the company alive, finances, bank stuff, accounting, management) and learning. This week that was in the form of learning a visual scripting tool for Unity (a game engine), next week it may be making art for a prototype I’ll start working on with that tool, or something else.
Regardless of how you choose to integrate learning into your company culture, workflow, or daily routine, I think it’s important to make the space for it and foster that creativity, innovation and happiness in your company and work life.
I was speaking to my father last week about public speaking, and about the talk I’m going to be giving at GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) this March. I mentioned how there are some people who just “have it”, they speak and it comes out perfectly and everyone simply needs to listen to them. Then he told me a story.
He was at a law event, a dinner I believe, and someone wanted to make a little speech. Off the cuff, he broke out this flawless, heart-warming narrative thanking the partners for their service and he was met with thunderous applause for this improvised speech. Afterwards, my father told someone how impressed he always is that this guy can just whip out these speeches and deliver them with such grace, and without any preparation either. The response, from a friend of the speaker, was surprising. “You didn’t see him practice that in the mirror 6 times before coming into the room then, did you?”
It takes hard work and practice to be good at something. Often, if not always, the people who we think are “blessed” with innate talent are really just people who have worked harder than everyone else to get to where they are today. That could be with regards to sports, public speaking, academia, singing, or fine arts. Sure, there is some amount of genetic influence and some people are able to learn certain things more easily than others, but let’s not take away the fact that the people who are really exceptional at what they do have also worked their asses off to get there.
Paying them the respect they deserve for their skills humanizes them, and makes us realize that we can get there too through hard work and dedication. It also increases our ability to be proud of them and grateful for what they bring to the table, as opposed to resenting them because they’re simply born with talents that we don’t have.
If you’ve read my blog recently, you’ll know that not long ago I discovered Seth Godin and his genius wisdom. At one point in his interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast, he talks about controlling your inputs in order to overcome a feeling of being overwhelmed. In fact, not controlling your inputs can lead to overwhelm, stress, ignorance, dependency, and more, so I’d like to talk about this idea today.
Everything you read, hear, see, and do comes to you somehow as an input. The news you read in the morning, the stories your friends tell you, the tasks you choose to do at work, the art you choose to go see, these are all inputs that you engage with. But what happens when these inputs are too many, too time-consuming, or too demanding? We feel overwhelmed and stressed. What I’m about to discuss can apply equally to your work life as it can to your personal life, and I find that this is a problem I’ve faced while running the business side of my game development studio.
In Godin’s words, it’s a systems problem. We’re not controlling or managing the inputs we have in an efficient or effective way, and it leads to stress. The imagery he used (which I absolutely loved) was that “drinking from a firehose is a really bad way to get hydration. It’s a dumb choice to drink from a firehose,” even if it could hydrate you. I, of course, pictured someone grabbing a firehose, turning it on and carefully trying to get their lips in the stream only to have their face blown sideways by the ridiculously high pressure water over and over again. So how do we manage these systems?
Removing and Rebuilding Inputs
The first step toward diminishing stress from overwhelm is to remove all unnecessary inputs, to the best of your ability.
In Seth Godin’s case, he says that he doesn’t have a television, he doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter, and he doesn’t go to meetings. Not every input can be removed of course, but many of them can. When I say unnecessary inputs I mean anything that you have control over, even if it’s something you enjoy and feel that you need. Then, you can properly start from zero.
The next step is to add carefully picked inputs back into your life. By choosing the ones you care about most, you may realize that some of the things you do are done without you really wanting to. Again, I’m not talking about the things you don’t have a choice about, but rather the things that you do have a choice about but you might not realize it. Once this breakdown and rebuild of inputs is done, you will almost surely end up with less inputs than when you started.
Say No to More Things
In both business and in our personal lives, a lot of us (myself included) have trouble saying no. We think we’ll be missing opportunities or that we’ll offend someone, but I’ve found that saying no to things frees up my time and energy for much more useful things. I almost never miss much, and I’ve always found people to be more receptive to “no” than I thought they would be.
More specifically on the work side: do you really need to follow that business lead? How long will it take you to look into the new software they’re offering? Who told you about the software? How long will it take you to learn it if you do follow through with using it? For our company, I try to make sure that we choose the inputs we see when it comes to things like software. We don’t just open our ears to anyone selling us anything, we seek out a solution to a problem we have only if it’s an actual problem we actually have. Otherwise, I try to defend my team from the noise firmly and unapologetically.
Sometimes we feel like we just have too much to do. Maybe this concerns work, maybe it concerns our social lives, and maybe it concerns hobbies. We’re overwhelmed, and we don’t know where to start. I can think of two good ways to prioritize these inputs: starting small and pushing past discomfort.
Starting small is the best way to get past any kind of procrastination, and is an equally valuable strategy to get started when feeling like we have too much to do. When you look at a messy room with clothes everywhere, dust on shelves, and papers on a desk, you can start by choosing a small corner, working on it until it’s done, and moving along from there. This is an over-simplified situation, but it’s an example of a negative input that you didn’t choose and you need to deal with. In the past, I’ve written very brief outlines for documents I’ve had to prepare. This was as simple as starting a 90 slide presentation by writing six bullet points on a page. That was my first bit of work on the presentation, and that’s all I did on the task that day. From there I could go back another day and put more bullet points between the ones I had already created, and start moving along from there. The tiniest commitment to the start of a task can make a huge difference.
The second situation when prioritizing is to decide whether or not you have the energy to push past what might be a negative or difficult input. In Godin’s (paraphrased) words:
Do I care enough to experience discomfort to get to the other side? If I don’t, then I should turn off the input. Because sitting with an uncomfortable input when we don’t care enough to make things better is just a formula to be unhappy.
As I mentioned above, sometimes it’s not worth the effort to deal with the input. Oftentimes, the seemingly impossible-to-turn-off inputs can actually be turned off.
Control Your Inputs on Social Media
This one relates more to our personal lives, but could have applications in work as well. In our everyday lives, assuming you’re using social media, you’re being bombarded by ideas and thoughts and suggestions of what to do, where to go, how to dress, and what to think.
As much as Facebook’s algorithms are good at serving you information that you already want to see, you can’t stop there. If you do, you risk complacency and ignorance. Facebook, Google, etc. do not control your inputs, and I find that blaming them for your lack of balanced information is irresponsible. You actively choose to use their platforms to get your information, and even within those platforms if you stick to only the things that are being served to you, you will end up missing out on finding greater knowledge and truth.
Read opposing views of news stories that involve conflict between two sides, do the fact-checking on topics you’re going to consider sharing with others or being passionate about, stop spending time scrolling through your personalized news feed, stop falling into YouTube holes watching silly videos… these are all ways of reducing your inputs to things you actually control.
Seek Out Inputs, Don’t Let Them Seek You Out
To conclude, the common thread in this whole post is that you’ll be better off if you actively choose to seek out specific inputs. If you can avoid inputs that throw themselves at you and more purposefully seek out inputs, it can lead to less stress, less feelings of being overwhelmed, less time wasted, less ignorance, and less complacency. Generally speaking, this will create space and time for you to improve in the way you want to improve and live your own life, and not the life someone else tells you to live.