Optimize, don't Organize: Part 7

Over the next week I will be giving out 7 (unedited) excerpts from an eBook I have in the works called Optimize, don't Organize. This is slightly less pretty than the eBook and doesn't contain any of the nice pictures or diagrams....but, as they say, you get what you pay for. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so by all means leave me some comments at the bottom of this page or contact me at alan@angrymonkeys.com.au or even Twitter @alandownie

Start at Part 1 of Optimize, don't Organize here

 

7. Sticky notes, and why they rock.

If you have a wall next to you (or even that whiteboard I told you not to use), sticky notes may well be your saviour.

It’s harder to escape your decisions.

A sticky note wall tends to promote a “first in, first out” mentality. The oldest and most important tasks tend to end up at the top of the list rather than at the bottom. For some reason when you added that task to the top, you considered it to be the most important. It probably still is, even if you don’t feel like doing it. Putting it off isn’t as easy as moving it to the bottom of the list, at least not unless you re-sort and re-evaluate the entire list (and even that’s not a bad thing).

Just because it’s new doesn’t make it more important.

We have a tendency to think that new tasks are more important than old ones. Someone jumps on the phone and tells us they need something done by the end of the day so we drop everything to get it done, forgetting that we have two other tasks that also need doing by the end of the day. Just because it’s newer, doesn’t make it more important. If anything, our older tasks should take priority. The sticky note list will tend to force you to put newer tasks below older ones. And if you really need to place it above your existing items, you have to be damned certain you want to raise the limit on “importance”, because eventually you’re going to run out of “higher” on your wall or whiteboard.

Sticky notes are only semi-permanent

My sticky notes are on a painted wall. The glue lasts about three or four weeks before the heater (or air-con) blows them off the wall. In reality, if I haven’t done a task that’s been on my list for three weeks, I’m probably not ever going to do it. When your notes fall on the floor, it forces you to re-evaluate them. Is this task worth rewriting on a new note, or should I just bin it?

Sticky notes are real

Taking down a task is a reward in itself. The little square of paper has texture and colour. If it’s been on your wall for a few weeks, you may have even gotten used to the quirkiness of whatever you wrote. It’s a real thing that existed in your little work space. It gives the task life and a sense of reality. Best of all, they’re something you can screw up into a tiny ball and take a shot at the nearest bin (or colleague’s head, whichever works). 

 

Previous chapters:

Optimize, don't Organize: Part 6

Over the next week I will be giving out 7 (unedited) excerpts from an eBook I have in the works called Optimize, don't Organize. This is slightly less pretty than the eBook and doesn't contain any of the nice pictures or diagrams....but, as they say, you get what you pay for. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so by all means leave me some comments at the bottom of this page or contact me at alan@angrymonkeys.com.au or even Twitter @alandownie

Start at Part 1 of Optimize, don't Organize here

6. Why most task lists don’t work

 

As a rule, task lists don’t work. They become cluttered, out of date and full of things we never intend on doing. 

Why digital lists don’t work.

Digital lists are too easy to add to. We add things that aren’t important, things that we don’t need to remember and things we feel we “should” do, but never will. Worse than that is that tasks are too easy to strike off. With a click of a mouse or a swipe of a finger we can permanently erase our failure to complete something that we originally thought was important enough to add in the first place.  With every second person owning a smart phone, digital tasks lists are popular for their portability and convenience. Whilst it may be great to remember what you needed to buy down the shop, organizing your work in a digital list is always going to end in tears. If it’s too easy to fill with clutter, and too easy to remove our failures, we won’t trust it. If we don’t trust it, we won’t use it.

Why pen and paper doesn’t work.

I have too many notebooks. I take notes in meetings, I take notes on the phone and I take notes when I’m programming. I don’t need a todo list on my desk as well. Pen and paper tasks lists are also the worst for maintainability. As your tasks are crossed off your list becomes more and more messy. This either forces you to regularly rewrite your list, or to throw it out entirely. You can’t sort, you can’t undo, you scribble phone messages in the corner and worst of all you most likely can’t read your own writing. We write something down in a hurry and are later left wondering, “what’s ‘sulmif buffon’?”

Why whiteboards don’t work.

Whiteboards are the worst. Even someone with the best penmanship can’t write for shit on a whiteboard. The whiteboard suffers from all the same problems as pen and paper but without any of benefits. Possibly the only thing in favour of a whiteboard is also its biggest drawback - the ability to erase. It might be handy to be scrub off that completed task, but it’s also just as easy to accidently remove your whole weeks work. Somewhat contradictorily, whiteboards are also a magnet for old information. Unlike a paper list which we may eventually throw out, a whiteboard tends to collect things that nobody ever thinks to wipe off. Out of date information is the worst kind.

 

Coming up:

7 - Sticky notes, and why they rock.

 

Optimize, don't Organize: Part 5

Over the next week I will be giving out 7 (unedited) excerpts from an eBook I have in the works called Optimize, don't Organize. This is slightly less pretty than the eBook and doesn't contain any of the nice pictures or diagrams....but, as they say, you get what you pay for. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so by all means leave me some comments at the bottom of this page or contact me at alan@angrymonkeys.com.au or even Twitter @alandownie

Start at Part 1 of Optimize, don't Organize here

 

5. The better way to prioritize.

The only thing you ever need to be concerned about is what you should be doing right now. Tomorrow’s list doesn’t help you right now. Worry about now now, and later later.

If something can wait, make it wait.

This doesn’t mean procrastinate or avoid things which really need to be done. It means something which has to be done today really should get done today. Priority isn’t always about relative importance. Sometimes the least significant job still needs to be done by COB today. The flip side of this is that if something doesn’t need to be done until next month, leave it till later. Don’t leave it to the last minute, but if you have something that needs doing sooner, do it...even if it just landed on your desk right now.

Clear junk in batches.

Sometimes you accumulate junk jobs. You need to renew your domain names, export your transaction statement, send that email to that guy from school, call back that person who left a message and then you have to take out the bloody bins. Rather than constantly interrupting your day with junk jobs, gather them up and do them in one morning. The danger with junk jobs is that they let you procrastinate. That 10 minute task can easily turn into a 30 minute task when you bookend it with Twittering. Set yourself three hours, and tick off one junk job after another. Once you’re done your list will be half the size and you can get on to doing the real work.

Do big tasks early.

Plenty of people suggest getting “quick wins” out of the way to build up momentum. This works sometimes, but more often than not clearing junk off your list before tackling a big job is just procrastination. Quick wins become more about seeming busy than they are about actually being busy. Worst of all, short tasks are the worst way to get into the zone. Big tasks, whilst hard to start, mean you’ll get more done in a shorter space of time.  You don’t need to be motivated to do the whole job, just motivated enough to start it.  The main reason to get your big tasks out of the way early is because they’re harder to finish when it comes to crunch time. If you’ve done all your big tasks, it'll be easier to find time to do the smaller ones at crunch time. That one big job you’ve got is unlikely to get any easier or any less important. Get it done first before moving on to the easy stuff.

Don’t do things in halves.

We all have to multi-task on occasion, but the reality is that we all suck at it. Dividing your attention between many tasks will make you less efficient overall. By concentrating on one task at a time, you’ll get all of them done a whole lot quicker. It is almost always quicker to knock over three full jobs than it is to complete six half-finished jobs. Working on one task at a time allows you to immerse yourself in that problem and see it through to completion. If you put it down only to have to pick it up again later, you have to relearn, rethink and remember. The less remembering we have to do for unfinished tasks, the more we can use our brains to remember more important things.

 

Coming up:

6 - Why task lists don't work.
7 - Sticky notes, and why they rock.

 

Optimize, don't Organize: Part 4

Over the next week I will be giving out 7 (unedited) excerpts from an eBook I have in the works called Optimize, don't Organize. This is slightly less pretty than the eBook and doesn't contain any of the nice pictures or diagrams....but, as they say, you get what you pay for. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so by all means leave me some comments at the bottom of this page or contact me at alan@angrymonkeys.com.au or even Twitter @alandownie

Start at Part 1 of Optimize, don't Organize here

4. What’s the worst that can happen?

So what if you forget? What’s the worst that will happen? Do you really need to remember everything? Consider this before you add something to your todo list.

If it’s important, someone else will remind you.

In reality, there isn’t much you’ll need to remember that someone else isn’t also remembering. That’s not to say you should just become an unreliable slob, but it does mean if you DO forget something, someone will most likely let you know. I wouldn’t plan my life around forgetting everything, but it is a reality that you can get away with not trying to remember every little detail. The more important something is, the more people you’ll have knocking on your door for it. If you’re being reminded constantly about doing something, writing it down isn’t going to help you any more.

If it’s not important, why are you prioritising it?

A todo list is a list of things that you really MUST do. If it’s not a must, it shouldn’t be on your list. The quickest way to kill a list is to fill it with things you really have no intention of ever doing. If you add every little thing to it, you’ll quickly end up with a MAYBEDO list, not a TODO list. Nobody wants a MAYBEDO list; it just sounds stupid.

It’s important to you.

This is the one and only item that should be on your todo list. Your list is about you. That doesn’t mean you should fill your list with Golf, Video Games and Beer. Sometimes things that are important to you aren’t necessarily fun, but they still need to get done. If your list only has things which YOU find important on it, you’ll be far more motivated to tick things off. As soon as you hit an item that is for someone else, your list will fail. If it’s for someone else, let them put it on their list. However, buying flowers for your wife may be FOR her, but it’s still in YOUR best interests. The key here is that if you forget something on your own list, there will be no one to remind you, and you’ll only screw yourself over. The problem will be all yours. If that’s the case, put it on your list.

 

Coming up:

5 - The better way to prioritize.
6 - Why task lists don't work.
7 - Sticky notes, and why they rock.

Optimize, don't Organize: Part 3

Over the next week I will be giving out 7 (unedited) excerpts from an eBook I have in the works called Optimize, don't Organize. This is slightly less pretty than the eBook and doesn't contain any of the nice pictures or diagrams....but, as they say, you get what you pay for. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so by all means leave me some comments at the bottom of this page or contact me at alan@angrymonkeys.com.au or even Twitter @alandownie

Start at Part 1 of Optimize, don't Organize here

 

3.Too much information is a bad thing.

If you don’t rely on your memory enough, you will get slow and lazy.  Conversely, if you try to remember too much, you end up remembering nothing. It's not only important to remember the right information, it's important to not overdo it. By trying to remember or learn more than you actually need, the important details can become lost in amongst the redundant details.

Information overload.

I remember at high school and university how much I’d laugh at people summarising text books. I can't think of a more useless activity. Some students would take a 400 page text book, and summarise it down to a 50 page set of notes and take that into an exam. These are the people that invariably don’t finish exams. They spend more time looking up examples than they do actually working. There is a balance. My “cheat sheet” only ever consisted of formulae that I really had no hope of remembering. While they were summarising, I was revising the application of these formulae. Everything in an exam is an application of knowledge. If you don’t trust yourself to hold that knowledge, how can you possibly hope to apply it? 

Long lists never last.

A mountain of notes, when finished, seems to be an insurmountable challenge. Similarly, long todo lists are more scary than they are helpful. In an attempt to get organized, the first thing everybody does is write down a todo list. Then they see a mountain of work and give up in disgust. Long lists are the world’s worst motivator. Yes it might feel good to tick a few items off, but when you feel like you’re not even scratching the surface it becomes a big turn off. You don’t even want to look at the list for the fear of rapid onset depression. The longer the list, the quicker you will drop it. If you must make a list, list the things that you need to do today or this week. Keep next month’s out of sight until next month.

Be selective about what you write down.

Some things you really should just remember. Your partner’s birthday, your computer password and when that “really important thing” is due are things you should probably be able to remember. If you need to write these things down to remember them, you’re going to find yourself in trouble. Over reliance on todo lists is as bad as not having one at all. As good as my wife is at organising, she can never remember our anniversary without looking it up first. One day you’ll be caught without your precious list, and then you'll find yourself red faced, or worse. Barring serious health concerns or a head injury you’ll always have your memory with you. Trust it...even if it is just a little bit. Over reliance on lists and notes just makes us lazy.

Coming up:

4 -  What's the worst that can happen?
5 - The better way to prioritize.
6 - Why task lists don't work.
7 - Sticky notes, and why they rock.

 

Optimize, don't Organize: Part 2

Over the next week I will be giving out 7 (unedited) excerpts from an eBook I have in the works called Optimize, don't Organize. This is slightly less pretty than the eBook and doesn't contain any of the nice pictures or diagrams....but, as they say, you get what you pay for. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so by all means leave me some comments at the bottom of this page or contact me at alan@angrymonkeys.com.au or even Twitter @alandownie

Read Part 1 of Optimize, don't Organize here

2. Work to your strengths but remember your limitations.

I’m usually a great navigator. I refuse to buy a GPS, not because of some manly desire to always know the directions, but because it’s a fantastic mental exercise. I enjoy the test of looking at a map, remembering the route and then getting there. What's even better is being able to get to some new location a second time, without needing to look it up again. I don't have a great memory for details, but I have a great memory for generalities. Knowing this strength and weakness of mine is how I never get lost.

Remember the turn, not the name.

The usual method for navigation is to write down a step by step recipe, “Right at York, Left at Sayers” etc. Recalling these instructions not only involves remembering many distinct (and often peculiar) names, but it requires looking for itty bitty street signs whilst trying not to run over small animals or old ladies.

The problem with remembering specifics is that it's far too easy to get them wrong. This is especially true in suburbs where street names are often along a certain theme. Our suburb, for example, are named after New York streets. I grew up in a suburb where the street names were all native trees. The cues we use to remember words or names are easily confused when you're forced to pick one name from many thematically similar names. This is especially true when you see them one at a time instead of as a whole.

In reality, it’s far easier to remember to turn left after the sports ground, or right at first roundabout, or straight until you reach the school. In a broader context, it’s easier to remember generalities than it is to remember specifics, but more on that in a moment. It also means that once you've been to a location once, you have a visual memory of where to turn instead of just a name you need to try and recall. 

Know when you don’t know.

Before I go any further, if you’re lost, pull over and look at the damn map. Nothing will make you look like more of an imbecile than driving around protesting, “I’m sure it was a left at that last junction”. If you think you got it wrong, own up to it. Stop and have a look. Nobody will ever get angry at you for not knowing everything, but they will sure get pissed if you pretend you do.

In any situation, it's always better to say you need to look something up than to pretend you know. I've conducted possibly hundreds of job interviews of the years, and one trick that never failed me was to ask a candidate a question which they could not possibly remember. At least 80% of people try to prove their worth by having a guess, rambling incessantly and just hoping they hit the right answer or worse yet state a blatant untruth with absolute conviction in the hopes that if they believe it we will too. The 20% that say, "I don't know, I'd need to look it up" are the ones that get a big tick in my book. I'd rather work with someone who knows they don't know than someone who'd rather lead us all down the wrong path in an effort to impress.

Broad concepts are easier to recall than intricate details.

If you were to describe a movie plot to someone, you talk in broad terms about big ideas. It’s unlikely that when describing Die Hard (the first and best), that you’d feel the need to mention that it was in LA or that the protagonist's name was John McClane. What you’d more likely describe is, a cop, a terrorist, an office tower, explosives and hostages.  Even if you haven’t seen the movie in 20 years, that is enough for you to start recalling your own finer details about the movie. Therefore, rather than trying to recall specifics, recall the big picture stuff and let your subconscious fill in the gaps for you.

Just as remembering a sports ground is easier than remembering a street name, it's also easier to remember general programming concepts than it is to remember specific syntactic rules. It's the main reason why when a developer learns one language, they can often easily jump from one to the next. Once you learn how to create a loop in one language, applying that same knowledge anywhere else is simply a matter of looking the syntax specifics of that language.

In a wider sense, broad knowledge of how an internal combustion engine works is far more beneficial (and easier to learn) than it is to learn the specifics of a particular make and model of car. Before fuel injection engines came along, pretty much ever car worked the same way. If you had replaced the distributor off a Toyota, you could probably do the same on a Ford. Knowing exactly how a distributor works isn't as important as knowing that all cars have them.

Learn to apply, not to recall.

Unless you’re responsible for making split-second decisions in a critical scenario, you are most likely always going to have time to stop and look something up. It’s far better to learn how to research and apply knowledge than it is to remember things off the top of your head. This is especially true given the wonderful source of information and knowledge that is the Internet.  Whilst you may forget the specifics you learn today, you will still remember the general application of that knowledge in 20 years time. 

If you have put your efforts into learning general principles and broad concepts, when you are faced with a new problem at the detailed level, your broad knowledge will allow you to fill in the gaps. Being adaptable is about taking general learning, twisting it and making it fit a new situation. If, in school, you spent your time memorising the formula for Newton's Second Law (Force = Mass x Acceleration), it will assist you in solving exactly one problem. If instead of memorising the formula, you learned how it can be altered, rearranged and applied with other formulae, then whenever you're confronted with any one of a hundred different problems, you're understanding of the concepts behind it all would allow you to invent a means to solve the problem. Anyone who spent their time rote learning formulae failed to gain the ability to apply the formula they're remembering!

In short, it is always easy to look up specifics, and it is always hard to look up their application.

Coming up:

3 - Too much information is a bad thing.
4 -  What's the worst that can happen?
5 - The better way to prioritize.
6 - Why task lists don't work.
7 - Sticky notes, and why they rock.

Optimize, don't Organize: Part 1

Over the next week I will be giving out 7 (unedited) excerpts from an eBook I have in the works called Optimize, don't Organize. This is slightly less pretty than the eBook and doesn't contain any of the nice pictures or diagrams....but, as they say, you get what you pay for. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so by all means leave me some comments at the bottom of this page or contact me at alan@angrymonkeys.com.au or even Twitter @alandownie

1. Don’t remember what you don’t need

I drive some people crazy; especially my wife. To some people I seem forgetful and careless; to others I appear efficient and percipient. It all depends on the person and the context. I make a point to remember things which I need to remember, and I rely on people, resources and notes to cover the rest. Forgetting stuff I don't need leaves room for things I do need.

There’s no need to remember something someone else will. 

My wife is a list person. Everything we ever do individually, socially or financially is written down in a list somewhere. I don’t need to remember where we’ll be for lunch next week any more than a security guard needs to know “today’s specials” at K-mart. In the context of databases, we’re a highly normalized couple...but only in the context of databases. Just as she need not understand the inner workings of our Rancilio espresso machine, I need not know what we’re doing next Thursday at 6pm. This isn’t a matter of delegation; it’s a matter of playing to one's strengths...or to someone else’s as the case may be. 

There’s no need to remember something you don’t need to know. 

If you were to ask me what our quarterly tax bill is, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. There is little point in me remembering, or even knowing when our accountant has it more than under control. I have a vague inkling that my birthday is somewhere in September, but I’m damned sure to remember my wife’s and son’s. The point is, remembering things which we will never need to act on just fills our minds with information that will never be useful. Remembering all the capital cities of the world may make for a fun trick at dinner parties, but unless you're choosing "Cities of the World for $500", there is not otherwise a lot of point.

There’s no need to remember something you can look up. 

My domain is here in front of my computer, developing software. I have over 10 years experience doing just that. Surely by that measure, I’d be able to code blind in any of 5 different languages? Sorry to disappoint, but no. I tackle every problem on its merits. I rely on proven techniques, of course, but more frequently I refer to previous work done, or online resources. The recall of knowledge is far less important than its application. Besides, do you really think you can remember everything about a certain API, language or framework? Even if you could, it’d only be out of date next year, so why bother? There are certain tools or techniques which never date and are broadly applicable, these are worth remembering. But remembering specifics or minute details which may only server you once or twice in your programming life is a complete waste of space.

Be an expert on things you DO need to remember. 

Of course, it’s not all as easy as forgetting whatever you like. The idea of clearing space in the old memory banks is to make room for something else. In this case, when you’re expected to be an expert, you MUST be an expert. In situations when you can’t rely on someone else, you can’t look it up and you really DO need to know, then it is absolutely essential that you have the answer. It’s ok to be a slacker when it doesn’t matter, but when something is your responsibility and people look to you for the answer; you have a duty to those around you to know your stuff inside out. We're not all programmers, and we don't all of the Internet at our fingertips every day of the week. If you need to know your stuff, make sure you bloody well know it.

Coming up:

2 - Work to your strengths, but remember your limitations.
3 - Too much information is a bad thing.
4 -  What's the worst that can happen?
5 - The better way to prioritize.
6 - Why task lists don't work.
7 - Sticky notes, and why they rock.