Jeff Bezos’s Peculiar Management Tool for Self-Discipline
The modern workplace’s vogue is informal information exchange. We sit in open floor plan offices so that we can spontaneously collide, chat, and collaborate. The office setup for a meet-cute of ideas can be fizzy and energizing, though when sparks aren’t flying, the colliding can be noisy and distracting.
Jeff Bezos takes a totally different approach to management far from that madding crowd. He has a contrarian management technique that’s peculiarly old school — write it down.
In Amazon senior executive meetings, before any conversation or discussion begins, everyone sits for 30 minutes in total silence, carefully reading six-page printed memos. Reading together in the meeting guarantees everyone’s undivided attention to the issues at hand, but the real magic happens before the meeting ever starts. It happens when the author is writing the memo.
What makes this management trick work is how the medium of the written word forces the author of the memo to really think through what he or she wants to present.
"Full sentences are harder to write," [Bezos] says. "They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."
In having to write it all down, authors are forced to think out tough questions and formulate clear, persuasive replies, reasoning through the structure and logic in the process.
It makes sense that Amazon executives call these six-page memos “narratives.” There’s a conflict to be resolved and a story to reach the company’s happy endings of solutions, innovation, and happy customers. Specifically, the narrative has four main elements.
[The six-page narratives are structured] like a dissertation defense:
1) the context or question.
2) approaches to answer the question - by whom, by which method, and their conclusions
3) how is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches
4) now what? - that is, what’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?
Legendary CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, takes Bezos’s view on writing up a notch. Grove considered written reports vital because “the author is forced to be more precise than he might be verbally.” In fact, he considered the whole exercise of writing “more of a medium of self-discipline than a way to communicate information”, so much so that his ultimate conviction was that “writing the report is important; reading it often is not.”
Bezos and Grove’s imposition of writing as a medium turns self-discipline and personal reflection into a distributed process. Reflection is a fundamental way to think through and give yourself feedback on your work, where feedback can be otherwise rather scarce in the workplace but integral to improving the quality of your thought and action. Encouraging reports to engage in the reflective process of writing helps each and every individual autonomously work toward becoming a master of their craft.
So reflect and write it down, verbs and all. You’ll be better prepared and excited to present, share, collide, collaborate, and lead at work!
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
10 Socially Conscious Startups on How They Find Happiness and Motivation in Changing the World
What’s the secret to happiness at work? Recent studies show that it’s not how much money you make, but how much progress.
We’ve written before about the progress principle, an idea developed by Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer, who found that the greatest indicator of happiness and motivation at work is incremental progress toward a meaningful goal.
Meaningful goals can be anything from the team’s stated objective, to a personal goal. It can be tangible and specific, like tackling the bugs in a program, or more general, like ensuring customer happiness.
We were curious about the progress principle in action, but meaningful goals are so personal and variable that we didn’t know where to begin. So we approached startups that served a social good. For these companies, their meaningful goal was collective, explicit and already built into the job description.
We asked each of these startup founders:
Your startup works towards a meaningful social good everyday. How does your goal motivate your team’s hard work and happiness daily?
Here are their responses:
"I think everyone here stays in this because they know that it has a shot of really mattering to the world, and because that potential pulls some of the best work out of them and the people around them that they’ve ever seen."
"Many people are tired of deciding whether to do good or do well — here we get to do both. Having a higher mission beyond revenue brings the team together, lifts us up when times are tough, and motivates us to move faster and farther. We’re reshaping civil society through innovation, and that sort of higher mission is hard to escape. When profits and social good go hand in hand, it’s magic."
"We’ve built our ‘meaningful goal’ into the DNA of our company. We provide a meal to an American in need for every new member who joins. One member. One meal. That means when we’re doing statistical analysis of our cohorts, it’s not just numbers on a page of what our average daily CPA is, it’s real impact that we’re analyzing and the more effective we can be with our job, the more social good we will create. And it’s the social good that gets our team excited and keeps them passionate during the long hours that a startup can require!"
"At BetterDoctor, we always ask whether the task at hand is driving our mission ‘Make healthcare simpler and more transparent.’ At the simplest level I believe that happy employees are made of these three elements:
1. they have meaningful goals
2. they can make independent decisions
3. they belong to a group of likeminded people.
For me and my team the best validation of our hard work is the feedback we get from consumers who were able to find a great doctor via BetterDoctor. This always make us happy!”
"Our work helps to bring increased electricity and clean water to those who haven’t had access to it regularly before. Receiving a positive email, phone call or photo from someone that we’ve helped reminds us every day that we are working on something meaningful. I’m passionate about developing a solution that benefits others, and I hope to share that passion with my team."
"Our goal at DoGoodBuyUs is to change consumerism because we believe the world can’t change until it does. With that goal in mind, our employees understand that in everything they do, whether increasing our partners, or producing an event, they are bringing awareness to our charity’s causes. Knowing that your work is directly impacting others in a positive and tangible manner is an amazing feeling. We’ve been lucky to combine passion with career."
"The giving component of Pubslush is the heart and soul of our operation, and much of our team has been involved specifically in education philanthropy for years. Whenever we face a challenge, we collectively remind each other of our ultimate goal to alleviate children’s illiteracy. Considering in this moment that over 100 million children worldwide don’t have access to literature, our goal really helps us keep perspective.
We often reminisce about our favorite childhood books. How they affected us. I think that provides the greatest reminder of the power of books and why achieving our goal is so incredibly urgent.”
"There is nothing more important than having purpose in your life as one of the critical elements of true happiness. We are on a mission to give people a strong voice to show that their healthy lifestyle matters. Employees get up for that in the morning. They overcome obstacles for that. They care about something that is much bigger than themselves.
We can rally around this purpose as a team and feel great about it. All companies face their own rollercoaster of business ups and downs. True purpose allows those swings to create less whiplash and distraction for the team.”
"At Greenling, we have a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal). Ours is to change the way ten million people source their food. Our company works towards sustainability in everything we do and deliver. That goal is one of the primary reasons all of our team works here. On a daily basis, the team gets to interact with products they believe in and customers they care about."
Mason Arnold Co-Founder & Cookie Monster, Greenling
"On a daily basis we update a display in our office of total acres of affordable drip irrigation sold. Seeing this number grow every day is a tangible motivation that keeps everybody focused.
We also have various customer success stories posted in our office which remind each employee of the impact of their hard work. During our monthly company-wide meetings all team member share their achievements and how they relate to the overall goal of improving the livelihood of millions of small-plot farmers. Field staff and office staff get to share and represent their different work experiences, allowing each employee to see the different sides of the business that are required for overall success.”
Goals drive your employees’ sense of purpose and progress. While these 10 startups set their sights on achieving a social good as a meaningful goal, any other personally and professionally gratifying objective can be just as rewarding in terms of happiness, motivation and productivity at work.
Show your team that they’re making progress, however incremental or slow it may be, and remember to celebrate yesterday’s achievements — it’ll be the fuel for their happiness and hard work today.
Ginni Chen is Chief Happiness Officer at iDoneThis. When not striving for the happiness of iDoneThis members, she’s a rock climbing instructor, skier and collector of first edition books. You should follow her on Twitter at @GinniChen.
“'The longer you work, the less efficient you are,' said Bob Kustka, the founder of Fusion Factor, a productivity and time-management consulting firm in Norwell, Mass. He says workers are like athletes in that they are most efficient in concentrated bursts…. Working energy, like physical energy, 'is best used in spurts where we work hard on a few focused activities and then take a brief respite,' he says. And those respites look an awful lot like wasting time.”—
Lisa Belkin explores how we are both working harder and wasting more time. Whether you consider it wasting time, or productive “jell time”, she concludes that it’s the end result that matters.
By now, participants of NaNoWriMo are more than halfway through writing 50,000 words. That’s about 1,667 words a day. Not necessarily that many good words. But the point of it is to get you to start, so that by the end of November, there’s a novel. A whole novel!
I’ve never been able to do NaNoWriMo. The thought of all those words the first day — 1,667 probably pretty stinky words — is enough to make me run to the sofa and turn on the TV instead. I know I’m good at that.
The Starting Challenge
The blank page of any project — writing, exercising, making, learning, doing — is paralyzing. It’s the weight of great expectations and unmet aspiration. It’s the fear of finding out that you’re no good, of failing, of looking stupid. It’s laziness. It’s the specter of busyness that looms over your shoulder saying you don’t have the time and energy for this, to do it “right” — and you listen.
Facile advice like “Just start!” is no weapon in the struggle against those negative feelings and the heavy inertia of inactivity. It’s not merely by getting to point of “just do it!”, but by getting in the right place first. Merlin Mann reminds us that getting started requires acceptance, not struggle:
It’s not that successful and productive people don’t … feel that same fear—it’s just that most of the good ones have figured out how to either accept the fears as a natural part of the process, or they just choose to ignore each fakey barrier the second it appears.
In the same vein, Cheryl Strayed would bestow two words upon you, sweet pea: humility and surrender:
You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.
We get the work done on the ground level.
How to Get to the Ground Level
Lindsay Zoladz struggled with starting to write in her early 20s. She sat around, “not-writing" a lot. She figured out how to get to the ground level by taking up the practice of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters in The Beautiful and the Damned, Gloria, who keeps a “line-a-day” diary.
This is how Lindsay recommends keeping your own line-a-day diary:
Write one sentence a day. It can be anything — a quote or an observation from your workday or a one-sentence-short story or a very plain summary of what you did that day. Play with the drooly elasticity of sentences; experiment with colons and semicolons and run-ons and grammatical inaccuracies. If you are going through something that makes it difficult to write even one sentence, just write the date, or a period with no words before it, or maybe just the word, “Nothing.”
Gloria isn’t a writer, but Lindsay, line by line, page by page, becomes one — from not-writing, to sometimes-writing, to full-fledged “I’m a writer.” She has written at publications, including Pitchfork, Washington City Paper, Salon, Slate, and The Believer. That’s pretty awesome.
Write something every day. Anything. One line. One line is easier. And then another.
How to Keep Going
Alexander Chee also became a writer. He learned, through a nonfiction writing class at Wesleyan with Annie Dillard, that talent was nothing without work:
Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work.
Once you’ve overcome the hurdles of starting, you have to keep going, with good work habits. One habit that Chee practices is a daily writing journal for his novel. It gets him in the right place to start every day:
I keep a journal of my novel that is just about the novel–any ideas, questions, thoughts, lines, even just entries like “page 77 is still a problem!” or “return to page 13!” I make the entry, even if it’s just a few lines, every day of work on it as I close the day’s work, and I also put scraps in there, deleted sections and lines I want to save. If I’m working on an edit like I am now with a master copy, I include the page number from the master.
When I return to work the next day, I reread that entry first and I return to where I was and what I was thinking about the more quickly.
Maintaining a writer’s work diary like Chee is a great way to leverage the progress principle to keep motivated and moving. Record your progress, plan your next steps, think things through, and focus on the work of writing.
We’d love to know how you got started writing, making, and doing, and what methods you use to keep going!
The Sprawling Guide to Content Marketing that Made Us $10,000
We’ve experienced modest success with our content, to the point where people ask me for tips on content marketing. We went from $0 to generating $10,000 in revenue almost purely with content marketing. With what I’ve learned along the way, I’ve boiled how I think about content marketing down to one key approach.
Think distribution first.
What’s true for your product is true for content. The hardest part of starting a company most likely is acquiring your customers. The hardest part of starting a blog is acquiring your audience.
Distribution is the limiting constraint. Start there.
Thinking distribution first means framing all of my thinking with respect to content around distribution. Here’s how I think about content marketing viewed through the lens of distribution.
Is the distribution channel democratic or does it have a gatekeeper? Reddit and Hacker News are two great places to start distributing content, because they are democratic. Compare that with getting published on Forbes where you have to go through a gatekeeper like an editor or a PR firm to get written up.
One trick that I’ve used successfully is simple but effective: prove your success elsewhere, then go waving it around to everyone you can find. Here’s an example of a pitch I sent to Alyson Shontell at Business Insider that resulted in the publication of a guest article about bossless startup company cultures.
Would you be interested in a guest post on the topic? I’d tighten it up and add more examples from top startups like Skillshare and Stripe.
It’s a hot topic in the startup world, as startups aren’t only disrupting industries, they’re reinventing how companies are built and organized.
Let me know what you think.
Here’s a related trick that plays off of the same dynamic: When you write a successful post, it will inevitably get tweeted by other tech journalists and the content of the post will make its way into other pieces. I reach out to those journalists with “(iDoneThis)” or “(iDoneThis founder)” in the email subject with just one thing to say—”Thank you”. Later, if I think I have something of interest to them, I’ll send them a followup email using the same email thread.
This works because I am sincerely incredibly grateful to have people mention us and share our articles, and their sharing of the article qualifies their interest and knowledge of who we are and what we’re about.
Finding a relevant distribution channel that’s democratic can help the no-name founder bootstrap these processes.
Will the distribution channel give you a one-time boost, or can you turn it into a repeatable process? PR is often denigrated because it’s often either expensive or not repeatable. In other words, it only becomes repeatable by spending money in amounts that are likely per customer greater than customer lifetime value. The main reason for this is because PR is based on personal relationships.
There’s a place where the distinction between content marketing and PR blurs, and that’s what I would call the “business development” approach to content marketing.
The idea mirrors the distinction between sales and business development: either sell one widget at a time, or make a distribution deal for someone to sell widgets for you. You can either pitch one journalist and get one story at a time, or you can pitch the editor and make a single deal for them to publish your articles for you.
Once you get knee deep in this, you see how content publishing on the internet works. Business Insider publishes Inc articles. SFGate publishes Business Insider articles. And on and on. There is nothing these machines crave more than content, especially content that’s qualified as being the stuff that their audience will like.
In my experience, a business development deal in this context takes one of two forms: a guest posting gig or a republishing agreement.
A guest posting gig means that you have to write original content and you may have to get approval for it, but you have a relationship with the editor and the publication so that your content will get published on a reliable basis. Nevertheless, a word of caution: this is not for the faint of heart. Leo Widrich of Buffer, who is basically the god of guest blogging, got Buffer to 100,000 registered users almost entirely via guest posting but he did that while producing 1-2 blog posts every day for months.
Republishing means not having to create new content and possibly not having to submit the articles for approval if the republishing process happens programmatically.
To make these deals happen, it’s helpful to think like a biz dev person. How do I get a warm intro to a decision-maker? What’s my angle/edge? What’s their interest? What’s my value prop? What’s my social proof? What’s my success story?
Who is my audience, and how do they consume content in this channel? Know your audience, as the old adage goes.
Focusing on distribution forces you to think about who you’re writing for—potential customers, potential partners, potential investors, etc.
Thinking about your audience will help you to choose the appropriate distribution channels. Looking at the intersection between who the audience is and what kind of content succeeds in that distribution channel is vital to crafting content that will also succeed in that channel.
There are a few dimensions along which content can be crafted in accordance with how the audience consumes content within that channel. For instance, images do really well on Facebook while quotes do really well on Twitter. Longer thought pieces do well on Metafilter and Hacker News, while skimmable articles (tools posts, tips posts, etc.) do well on Inc.
On a more basic level, you can’t leverage Pinterest as a distribution channel unless you make your content an image; you can’t leverage YouTube unless you make your content a video; you can’t leverage Slideshare unless you make your content into a slide deck.
A mistake that we’ve made that I often see is using automation to crosspost the same content to multiple channels. When Twitter posts get crossposted to Facebook, what you’re left with is Facebook posts with Twitter syntax that’s nonsense to most Facebook users and looks horrible because of the lack of syntax highlighting. Twitter posts on Facebook don’t make use of the ability of Facebook posts to be longer than 140 characters, to share links without having the short URL clutter the post, and to have images appear as images on the Facebook wall, not as links.
Sincerity and authenticity under this frame of thinking happens at the intersection of fidelity to the distribution channel and your company’s/product’s soul.
When content isn’t tailored to the channel, what ends up happening is that you have a presence, but you don’t thrive. You don’t get much for your trouble.
It’s not enough to exist in various distribution channels, it’s vital that you understand what content does well, how it does well, and why. It’s obvious that on Tumblr, for example, if you’re reblogged, more people will see your content because another person’s reblog means that they’ve reposted your article in their feed. Another basic of social media distribution is that if you have more followers, more people will see your content.
What’s less obvious is that on Tumblr, in the sidebar, if you hit “Find Blogs”, it will take you to the Spotlight page. (Perhaps, as well, you’re more likely to be a suggested follow if you’re a Spotlight blog.) Apparently a lot of people use this to find blogs to follow, because after being put on the Spotlight page, we went from having a few hundred followers to our current count: 34,000+ followers. We’re extremely grateful to Tumblr for that.
There are endless opportunities to be featured—to be above the fold—and it can make a huge difference. In my experience, this involves figuring out the site mechanics that elevate content and connecting with the right gatekeepers.
How do I capture my audience and build my own distribution channel? You have it best when people come straight to you for content, and you aren’t reliant on any channel for distribution. Part of the point of this article is that writing the content is probably less than half of the job in making content work for you—the other half of your job is getting distribution. When you’re able to distribute your own content, you have it good.
One a basic level, this may mean putting a Twitter follow button and a Facebook like button on your blog. When you build up a following, you may get as much juice by pushing your content through your social media distribution as you would by getting the article published on Forbes.
Another tactic that I’ve heard is effective is requiring an email address to access certain pieces of heavy duty content (like an e-book), and then using that email to push content. Also, I’ve heard that email newsletters with relevant, high quality content like Wistia’s newsletter do very well. When a site has gotten enough backlinks with relevant anchor text, your blog becomes a search destination.
The harder part is building a real community. Hacker News is an example of a community that emerged out of a set of content’s shared themes. I started as a reader of Paul Graham’s essays and bought into the hacker ethos, and so I naturally became a member of the Hacker News community. Now Hacker News is a powerful platform for publicizing Y Combinator companies. They leveraged an audience into building a community.
A community is much more powerful than an audience, because a community grows as it grows, but an additional audience member isn’t likely to mean an additional audience member.
How do I create high quality content in a scalable way? When distribution as a constraint begins to loosen, the hardest problem is producing great content over and over.
One easy way to start is by taking a storyline that has proven to be successful in the past and rewriting it to suit different distribution channels. Take the interesting thread from the successful article and make it interesting in a number of different contexts. You can get pretty fast at this and produce content that you are certain is of interest to a lot of people in only a few hours.
A related tactic that companies like Buzzfeed and Business Insider have turned into an art form is taking content that you’ve observed is successful elsewhere (e.g., Reddit), boiling it down to its essence (ie, taking the most interesting thing out of it and making it the whole article), sticking a killer title on the post, and watching the visitors roll in.
Another tactic that I’ve observed (but haven’t tried) is what companies like Yipit and Seatgeek have done really well with. They use data from their platform to produce industry research that the fact-hungry press picks up. The press cites your stats over and over, and all you had to do was do research once. The bonus is that pulling the stats sounds like fun.
However you accomplish it, the thing to be avoided is creating a hit-driven content strategy. We still experience considerable variance in the results of our content strategy, but it’s far less than when we first got started. Reliable distribution is the foundation to a repeatable model for effective content.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
Perhaps you’ve heard of this “Bosslessness,” the latest pre-existing corporate substructure The Internet has now decided is trending. Perhaps you’ve heard it mostly involves de-titling everyone, then allowing intra-office relative strengths to organically emerge around compelling projects. And perhaps you’ve heard it’s profitable.
I call Shenanigans. “Bosslessness” is just a terminological shift that allows companies to convince themselves they’re not stifling innovation with sluggish bureaucracy. Do you remember the implementation of Casual Fridays? At least back then, something — your inseam, maybe — actually changed. “Going Bossless” is the equivalent of declaring a Casual Friday, then forcing everyone to go Full Victorian Steampunk, while telling them to RELAX.
Look, the most difficult thing about organizing anything, companies included, is figuring out who’s in charge. It doesn’t always have to be the same person, for the same amount of time, and they don’t always have to be in charge of everything at once. But they have to be.
At least, they do if you want to do well. Projects and companies profit more, after a certain saturation point, from a good boss than from another good worker. Professors Lazear, Shaw, and Stanton found in a 2011 study that bosses — essentially, people in charge of managing people — have outsized effects on their company’s productivity. Apparently, replacing a bad boss with a good one is worth more than adding another worker; a good boss makes good workers even better; and even a bad boss produces more, in direct proportion to their compensation, than a worker.
Sounds like when there are no bosses, you’re the boss. So when you show up to Valve, or to Github, or to Gore, you’re going to serve somebody. Or you’re going to be that somebody. Or you’re going to be a combination of both, nimbly, as the day goes on. Just like the rest of us.
A few people have been skeptical about this stuff. They’ve raised concerns about decreased motivation, the relative suckiness of group decision-making, calculating compensation, and the general difficulty of fitting the concept into a preexisting company that hasn’t grown it from the start. But these criticisms miss the point. Essentially, they’re just attacking the logistical challenges that accompany any organizational shift — changes in payroll, culture, etc. All they’re saying, ultimately, is “bosslessness can’t work because companies can’t work hard enough to make it work.” That’s silly. Plenty of companies have.
These critics aren’t saying “bosslessness can’t work because bosslessness doesn’t exist.” And that’s what I’m saying. “Bossless” is just the hip new jargon companies have invented to explain how they invert the troubles of managing a company hierarchy. Their bosses emerge from within their culture, instead of descending into it — and, at least for a few companies like Valve, being bossless is far less troublesome.
The Trouble with Bosses
When your company has bosses, it’s committed to a hierarchy of intention — a smaller group of people has a large amount of control over a larger group of people and their smallest actions. Your company’s productivity flows downwards. From a good boss comes good ideas (even if they’ve received them from somewhere else along the chain), followed by good planning, ending in good management of good execution.
Everyone has experienced the problem here. Today’s market is mercurial; windows for corrective adjustments and competitive advantages get smaller as their implementations get faster. If only a few people at a company are “bosses,” there’s an increasingly greater chance that the ever-expanding scope of modern business challenges will outgrow their expertise. And a “boss,” almost by definition, is not supposed to have a challenge exceed their expertise.
From this tension a company will strain. Bosses will resist new challenges, stunting company growth; they will shut down vertical communication, not wanting to risk exposing inexpertise. As Valve correctly summarizes in their Employee Handbook, “[boss] structures inevitably begin to serve their own needs rather than those of [our] customers.”
The Trouble with Bossless
When a company is bossless, it’s committed instead to a hierarchy of invention — a larger group of actions have small amounts of control over the company’s people. Valve’s workers vote with their wheels, and its productivity flows outwards — from a good idea, to a good project, encircled by good workers.
The problem here is less obvious. Think herding cats, but harder; like herding cats without a herder.
Today’s workers are, allegedly, mercurial: the half-life of an software engineer is bending towards that of an undersized NFL running back. Companies fizzle, explode, contract, leaving noxious gasses and labor forces behind. With no one “in charge,” there’s an increasing chance that the stresses pulling away at workers will shred their morale and direction; there will be no incentive beyond the immoral, and no hazards, including the moral.
Did those problems sound different from each other there for a second? Sorry, I got stuck in corporate rhyme-speak. They are just mirror images of one another.
Again, everyone knows a bad boss is bad primarily because “badness” is what only the boss is allowed to assess. It follows that a company with bosses risks losing its edge, not just because it has bosses, but because their bosses are not actively growing their skillset; not actively seeking out comments and criticism up and down the line; not actively assessing and improving their own worth.
But replace “bosses” with “coworkers” and voila! All of a sudden you might as well be quoting from Valve’s Handbook again:
We all need feedback about our peformance…to provide information that will help [us] grow.
You were hired to constantly be looking around for the most valuable work you could be doing.
If you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Wow, that sounds like a lot of responsibility,’ you’re right.
Valve and other bossless companies have simply inverted the HR/staffing challenge, from “find a capable manager who can master this business” to “find a master businessman who can develop capable management.” It’s why hiring, as they note, is “the single most important thing you will ever do at Valve.” After all, it’s hard to coherently list “openness” and “tenacious self-assessment” alongside “proficient in Unity and C++” on a resume.
A Change in Culture, Not Process
I get it, though. Companies, like people, love to look lean. Any excess is waste; in the wake of exhaustive and increasingly sleek new technologies like iDoneThis which are designed for a hierarchy of invention and to help individuals in a workforce optimize and manage themselves, and after Webpocalypse 1.0 [b. 1997 - d. 2000] dissociated an office’s performance from its appearance, it’s increasingly difficult to justify a labyrinthine corporate substructure.
But there’s really no obvious evidence that companies without titled bosses perform tasks any differently than those with them. In either instance, value/production/sales opportunities (or deficiencies) are discovered, workers capable of addressing them convene, solutions are floated, and the best are adopted. Even strategies for optimizing the performance of those tasks in a bossless company don’t sound all that new - increase communication! increase accountability!.
These companies and their approaches haven’t changed, nor have their incentives or ultimately their mid-project behavior. If anything, most of these bossless companies seem to be doing to hierarchy what has already been done by globalization to supply management — extract the values and optimalities a boss brings (overarching vision, daily motivation, general/vertical competency) and discard the old-world husk of elitist baggage (unnecessary reverence, communication/culture gaps, sluggish adaptation).
But it’s not clear that “bossy” companies always have — or have had — that baggage.
“As the Romans are supposed to have said: solvitas perambulum - ‘solve it while you walk.’”—
Harry Brennan, who found that a good walk turned on his mind’s light bulb when it came to his game development project:
You never know what you can come up with - and it may even help you avoid some deep technical problems altogether and save large amounts of time, simply by allowing you to take a different design decision.
When people don’t take enough breaks, their creativity and productivity decline. Humans are not designed to be sedentary. We come with our own mobile application. They’re called legs. Use them to jumpstart your brain!
"First, do no harm"—it’s a fundamental principle of medical ethics and constant reminder to every medical professional that intervention carries risks just as inaction does. In Latin, it’s Primum non nocere:
Another way to state it is that, “given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good”. It reminds the physician and other health care providers that they must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do. It is invoked when debating the use of an intervention that carries an obvious risk of harm but a less certain chance of benefit.
It’s something that’s easy to forget for doctors, because they view themselves as healers and they’re capable of tremendous good. But it’s an absolutely vital to check the behavioral tendency that Abraham Kaplan called the law of the instrument: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” What’s important is the health of the patient, not the dilemma between intervention and inaction.
In The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer discovered a surprising fact about what motivates people at work that every manager should know. The most powerful positive motivator for people at work is making progress in meaningful work, but it pales in comparison with the negative impact of hitting dead ends and encountering setbacks which has the greatest effect on motivation.
Professor Amabile and Kramer analyzed the language used in nearly 12,000 employee diary entries for accounts of progress and setbacks, and they compared appearances of those events to self-reported emotional levels of happiness and frustration, and what they found was alarming. Setbacks were greater than three times as powerful in increasing frustration than the power of progress to diminish it.
What comes next should be embarrassing to managers but not surprising: the frustration, deflated sense of accomplishment, and diminished happiness that results from setbacks and obstacles at work often came straight from managers themselves. Stories like Lucas’s were all too common:
During our new product review meeting, the MT basically told us what our top priorities were [for] new product development. [ … ] It was discouraging that our “freedom” to choose our direction / priorities was taken away from us as a team and we were given our direction, rather than being allowed to make more decisions on our own. [Lucas, 6/30]
Amabile, Teresa; Kramer, Steven (2011-07-19). The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (p. 15). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Where setbacks can have a disproportionately deleterious effect on an employee’s happiness, and motivation fed by managerial intervention is the not-uncommon cause, "First, do no harm" should be the manager’s mantra. This is all-the-more important when you consider just how vital employee autonomy is to happiness at work.
Doing no harm requires awareness that the people you work with are human, with lives, feelings, concerns, depth. In his book How Will You Remember Your Life?, Harvard Business School professor and founder of a company called CPS Technologies Clayton Christensen described an epiphany he had about what makes us tick when he observed Diana, a scientist in his lab, with her family at a company picnic:
Seeing her there, I began to gain a perspective of Diana in the full context of her life. She wasn’t just a scientist. She was a mother and a wife, whose mood, whose happiness, and whose sense of self-worth had a huge impact on her family. I began to think about what it must be like in her house in the morning, as she said good-bye to her family on her way to work. Then I saw Diana in my mind’s eye as she came home to her family ten hours later, on a day that had gone badly. She felt underappreciated, frustrated, and demeaned; she learned little that was new. In that moment I felt like I saw how her day at work negatively affected the way she interacted in the evening with her husband and their young children.
This vision in my mind then fast-forwarded to the end of another day. On the one hand, she was so engaged by the experiment she was doing that she wanted to stay at work; but on the other, she was so looking forward to spending time with her husband and children that she clearly wanted to be at home. On that day, I saw her driving home with greater self-esteem — feeling that she had learned a lot, having been recognized in a positive way for achieving valuable things, and played a significant role in the success of some important initiatives for several scientists and for the company. I felt like I could see her go into her home at the end of that day with a replenished reservoir of esteem that profoundly affected her interaction with her husband and those two lovely children. And I also knew how she’d feel going into work the next day — motivated and energized.
Christensen, Clayton M.; Dillon, Karen; Allworth, James (2012-05-15). How Will You Measure Your Life? (pp. 26-27). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
When you take that fleshed out, three-dimensional perspective on the lives of your colleagues, the imperative behind the manager’s oath is simple but profound: we’re human beings whose mood, happiness, and self-esteem is hugely affected by what happens at work. And so first, and above all, do no harm.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
Being a manager is difficult because it feels unnatural. Your job isn’t actually to get work done. You’re doing your job as a manager when what you’re doing doesn’t resemble work at all.
To Andy Grove, legendary CEO of Intel, a manager’s fundamental work of information gathering can be among the most unnatural and that awkwardness is a necessary part of being a leader. Information gathering is the bread and butter of a manager’s work, but doing it effectively can mean making yourself vulnerable to looking and feeling like you’re doing nothing.
Grove instructs managers that “[t]here is an especially efficient way to get information, much neglected by most managers” that is underutilized “because of the awkwardness that managers feel about [it].” That is, be out in the open in your company, doing nothing.
Why should you do this? Think of what happens when somebody comes to see a manager in his office. A certain stop-and-start dynamics occurs when the visitor sits down, something socially dictated. While a two-minute kernel of information is exchanged, the meeting often takes a half hour. But if a manager walks through an area and sees a person with whom he has a two-minute concern, he can simply stop, cover it, and be on his way.
Making yourself available to casual information exchange is vital to information gathering, because it lowers the barriers to conversation and takes ceremony out of the exchange. Grove suggests a stroll around the office, “walking through an area without a specific task in mind.”
Ironically, this is sometimes why the most driven people struggle as leaders. They’re so focused on setting an example for their team of getting stuff done that they’re totally unavailable for conversation. Their team members are afraid to interrupt them, and information exchange becomes more of an event or more of a report.
Verbal sources of information, to Grove, are “the most valuable,” so it’s absolutely vital that leaders make time for it, even if it means doing what’s akin to standing alone at a party, phone in pocket, open and vulnerable.
It’s awkward because it’s plain uncomfortable, and counterintuitive to a busy manager because being open, out in the open, seems more of a passive attitude rather than an action to be done. But ultimately, without first gathering information from all possible sources, it’s impossible to be an effective leader. Take a note from Grove:
It’s obvious that your decision-making depends finally on how well you comprehend the facts and issues facing your business. This is why information-gathering is so important in a manager’s life. Other activities—conveying information, making decisions, and being a role model for your subordinates—are all governed by the base of information that you, the manager, have about the tasks, the issues, the needs, and the problems facing your organization. In short, information-gathering is the basis of all other managerial work, which is why I choose to spend so much of my day doing it.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
[A]fter a year of practice in my parents garage I came to suck a lot less, and by the time I gave up the instrument I had risen to the ranks of the “Merely OK.” But I didn’t feel “Merely OK.” I felt like a king, because I knew from whence I came. I knew that great distance (and it is great) between “Utter Suckage” and “Merely OK.”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, comparing learning the djembe as a child to learning French and the awesome that comes from “becoming good at something which you kind of naturally sucked at.”
Check out our post about breaking down your perspective on progress by recognizing the small triumphs that happen every day and tracking that great distance on the road to feeling like a king.
Corralling brilliant and creative individuals to work together as a team is incredibly difficult. That’s why every successful company where people are both productive and happy feels a little magical. The harried, stressful environment or the disengaged, sullen office are both far more common sights.
You might think that creative and productive individuals easily combine to form creative and productive teams, but I’ve noticed that the opposite happens more often than not. An individual’s creativity and productivity are extremely fragile things that are liable to fall apart when individuals are put in a room to work on problems that are complex, time-constrained, and flat-out hard.
A well-intentioned response that I often see out of productive people is to get frustrated when not enough is getting done and go 100% into heads-down mode, but that just exacerbates the problem. What ends up happening is embitterment, disengagement, and finally, attrition. Preventing all that from happening is the other half of everyone’s job.
Tom Sachs is a contemporary artist famous for his sculptures which are elaborate DIY recreations of modern engineering and design masterpieces (like the space program) who has a surprising take on how to get creative people to work together and get stuff done. In his studio, if you’ve done your work, you’ve only done half of your job.
'[S]ent does not mean received' is a profound thing. Half of your job in this studio is doing your work, the other half of your job is communicating that it’s been done. Because if you do it, and I don’t hear about it, how do I know what’s going on? I’m not trying to control everything, but in an intimate work environment, where we’re really trying to develop something complex, a nod, saying, ‘I got it,’ helps moves things along.
Focusing too hard on getting stuff done just produces more stuff that needs to get done, and that’s a trap. This is most poignant to people who’ve worked on projects with lots of moving parts. Communicating that you’ve gotten the work done is another half to your job that’s absolutely vital.
Ultimately, we as humans are extremely sensitive creatures and the moments when we do our best work can quickly become fleeting. In Tom Sachs’s understated words, “Working with 15 people is very difficult.”
To me, this is what people talk about when they talk about company culture: it’s the entire other half of everyone’s job to make the company run smoothly. What Sachs says about artists rings true for anyone involved in creative work.
The artist’s creative process is a very fragile thing. Nowhere else do you find people who are as brilliant and self-motivated as in the arts and yet as fragile and insecure. Working with 15 people is very difficult. We’re trying to cultivate the indulgences of the creative process and, at the same time, eliminate creativity as a capricious gesture. In other words, a little creativity goes a long way. It’s like chili pepper. A lot of artists are filled with caprice and silliness. Finding that balance is the key to everything.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
“From looking at the time logs of extremely successful people, I’ve learned that they focus on three categories: nurturing their career, nurturing their family and nurturing themselves.”—Laura Vanderkam, speaking to the Washington Post, on how to be successful before breakfast.
Happiness at Work: A Photo Safari of Culture at 10 Awesome Startups
Many of the startup companies we work with have built incredible cultures and teams. Cultures that are quirky, fun-loving, hardworking, energetic and adventurous. Teams that are tight-knit, creative, dedicated and happy. While there are a thousand words we could use to describe the characteristics of each company’s culture, we all know what a picture is worth.
Photographs can tell you more about a company’s culture and their team experience than any lengthy blog post we could ever write. So we decided to ask some of the innovative startups we work with:
Send us a photo that best represents your company culture, and tell us why.
We share their awesome responses below so you can get a glimpse of the inner lives of ten iDoneThis musers companies.
1. Kitchensurfing is an online community and global marketplace connecting private, professional chefs with food enthusiasts everywhere.
"Kitchensurfing is a worldwide community of chefs and people that love to cook. Our customers love inviting our chefs into their homes and offices for special events and meals with friends and family. But! The Kitchensurfing team also loves doing right by our chefs. Everyone’s heard of Christmas in July, so the KS team decided to cook Thanksgiving in June for a dozen or so of our most active chefs. We roasted a turkey (hard to find in June!) and had a full array of sides. We’re fortunate enough to have an office that doubles as a test kitchen.
I’m one of the founders and CEO in the blue-checked shirt (the solo shot of me needs to be credited to Peter Hobbs). The gentleman that’s excessively excited about the turkey is our community director, Max Siegal, who cooked the turkey. The multi-person shot shows our little dining room, some KS staff, and a few of our chefs.”
Chris Muscarella Co-Founder & CEO, Kitchensurfing
2. Olark is an easy-to-install service that enables you to chat live with any visitor to your site.
"Yes, this is at our OFFICE. We do things a bit differently here at Olark… Redwood trees, gymnastic rings, team lunches, and a cat that runs the meetings between our Palo Alto and Ann Arbor offices. It’s all in the name of building the best live chat software around (sorry we weren’t able to share the photos of our top secret control center)."
Roland Osborne Co-founder, Olark
3. LKR Social Media is a team of online marketing whizzes that trains small businesses to leverage social media.
"We don’t have an office, but we do meet up for in-person retreats at least once per year. Here’s a snapshot from our latest retreat that was held in the Ace Hotel in New York City. I like this picture because it shows our value of not taking ourselves too seriously. Our customers come to us because they want social media to be easy, not a complicated burden. We try to keep things fun and light to take away from our customer’s stress, not add to it!"
Laura Roeder Founder, LKR Social Media
4. TravelPod helps users create an online travel blog, upload photos from their phone while on the road and participate in travel challenges.
“We work hard and we play hard.”
Luc Levesque Founder & GM, TravelPod
5. EZTable is a 24/7 online reservation platform for diners and restauranteurs that started in Taiwan and is expanding.
"EZTABLE focuses on customers. The biggest mission is to figure out what the customer needs. “Hack, everything” is what we believe and we learn hard from failures. Without failures, no successes."
Alex Chen Co-Founder & CEO, EZTable
6. SocialToaster helps you engage and empower your fans to share your social media content.
"SocialToaster has a dynamic, fast-paced, energetic culture that embraces the work-hard/play-hard mentality. We take great pride in the closeness of our team. We regularly participate in extra-curricular activities outside of the office… And although the size of our lunch table has grown into a lengthy “Hogwarts style” table in recent months, we still try to eat together everyday.
The SocialToaster environment, and associated culture, is truly the envy of Baltimore. Not only does our team work hard and play hard together, inside (and outside) the office. But our office is somewhat of a playground, as well - with a velour room (company lounge area with velour couches and coffee tables), eclectic renovated warehouse office space, and am onsite pool and hot-tub.”
Brian Razzaque Founder & CEO, SocialToaster
7. Alton Lane customizes men’s clothing to fit your exact measurements and personalized style online.
“At Alton Lane we are always evolving with our customers and their individual and collective experience as our most important guide. The only way to achieve this is to empower and supply our team of amazing people with tools that assist them in being more efficient. We value creativity, innovation and fun in everything we do and believe that communicating across teams allows us to break down information silos and concentrate our efforts in the most effective ways.”
Colin Hunter CEO, Alton Lane
8. ShopLocket is an easy-to-use e-commerce site that lets you sell anything from anywhere.
"At ShopLocket we work hard and we ping pong hard. Staying tight-knit is very important to us. You have to hire the right people, someone that you’re willing to be with for long, long hours. And someone that’s good at ping pong."
Dan Kalmar Community Manager, ShopLocket
9. FreeAgent is a stress-free, simple accounting solution for small businesses and freelancers.
"We’re very proud of our team here at FreeAgent. Not only are they an awesome, friendly bunch of people, but they’re also the reason why our business is going from strength to strength - and that’s why we’re committed to keeping them happy.
But it’s not just the Aeron chairs, Herman Miller desks and Apple Macs that we give all of our staff that creates a happy office culture. Nor is it our shiny Edinburgh office with its fridge full of soft drinks and beer, or the fact that we pay for everyone’s lunch each Friday. Rather, it’s because we’ve built an environment where people actually want to share their talents, support each other and make FreeAgent the best cloud accounting system for small businesses and freelancers worldwide.
We love the camaraderie that runs through FreeAgent: not only in our headquarters, but across all of our staff working remotely in the UK and the USA. Whether its our Edinburgh-based engineers hot-desking to develop new features - or our developers hooking up over Skype to solve problems - it’s great to see dozens of exceptionally talented people working together and having fun doing so.”
Olly Headey Co-Founder & CTO, FreeAgent
10. Springestmakes it easy to find and compare online educational programs for personal and professional development.
“Here’s a picture of our balcony a few months ago during a Ruby Hack Night we held with about 40 Ruby developers. It shows 5 Springest guys working on PingPongGuru for ranking and displaying our ping pong results… But of course there’s beer and a nice view of early 17th century buildings along the canals of Amsterdam. It shows our open culture and especially our drive to always share numbers about performance. iDoneThis does for our normal operation what PingPongGuru and our hack nights do for ping pong ;).”
Ruben Timmerman Founder & CEO, Springest
Looking at all these photos reminds of me of something I once read, that humans across cultures and generations can tell a fake smile from a real smile. This is because of the orbicularis oculi muscles, located near the outer corner of the eyes. Those muscles cannot be voluntarily moved, and thus a forced smile is always discernible from an emotionally honest smile.
The same could be said of company culture. Bells, whistles and office amenities aside, you can’t fake or force employee happiness and engagement. And as many of these photos show, it’s those employee smiles that are the proud focal point for our muser companies and what drive their success.
Now it’s high time we shot our iDoneThis team photo!
Ginni Chen is the Chief Happiness Officer at iDoneThis. When not striving for the happiness of iDoneThis members, she’s a rock climbing instructor, skier and collector of first edition books. You should follow her on Twitter at @GinniChen.
“I’ve gotten better at the drudgery of real life, but I still suffer from bad habits. I put off difficult tasks, and then I feel guilty about putting off these tasks, and I blow that guilt out of proportion, and then I rub all these bad feelings around my insides like broken glass. I become a worry machine. It is not an overstatement to say that the despair of these tiny, accumulated failures keeps me from truly living, because it creates in me a need to hide from the world. I needed to figure out a way to get right with the world—not because I was going to die soon, but because I probably wasn’t.”—
How VHX is Leading the Self-Distribution Revolution
VHX is bringing digital video distribution up to speed with this internet-fueled modern age, delivering DRM-free video, such as Aziz Ansari’s Dangerously Delicious and Indie Game: The Movie, directly to fans. Having launched as a social video community — a way to discover, share, and queue video for later — VHX could soon be seeing their distribution platform and consumption community interact in interesting ways down the road.
We talked with co-founder, Jamie Wilkinson, who describes how the timing felt right for VHX’s push to help small filmmakers and artists self-distribute their work: “It really helps leverage all the growth we’ve seen in social media for people to actually financially support themselves outside of the old studio distribution model. For filmmakers, it’s really great because we don’t take any rights restrictions or exclusivity, so we push things to market super fast and work in a way where every project is individualized and has a bespoke solution.”
Jamie also appreciates the bespoke solution that iDoneThis provides for the VHX team, with its flexibility regarding entries and settings. “Everybody uses it differently and it’s interesting seeing just how it’s evolved as people use it more.” For Jamie, iDoneThis’s most important function is providing talking points for the next morning. “It’s been really good just in terms of thinking about what will get accomplished that day.”
The VHX team is in the process of expanding (calling all hand models!). Jamie explains how, with the company centered in New York and remote team members like himself, “we lean really heavily on tools to make sure that everybody is up to sync all the time. I have a lot of experience, especially with open-source software development, so I know how critical it is having good communication lines.”
iDoneThis is one communication tool among many that VHX uses, including email, HipChat, Google Hangouts, Asana, and Github. “It’s a question of having a good Swiss Army knife.” Jamie elaborates on how one tool shouldn’t try to do everything, that instead, “it works having a Unix style, having small tools that do certain things really well.” iDoneThis is the small but powerful tool that keeps everybody in the loop. “With the chat, you’re going to miss things and you shouldn’t be expected to see everything necessarily. With project management tools, it’s more static, and you kind of tune it out because there’s so much activity.”
Many of us grapple with the challenge of navigating the relentless stream of information and activity at work. Jamie sees our daily digest feature as a great solution for dealing with the flood. “iDoneThis’s daily digest model has been really great because it’s a summary of what has been done and it gives you a high-level view. It’s exactly how start-ups probably should be run and how we try to run [VHX]. I think there are almost lessons for services like Twitter. I mean, they finally started pushing out these digest-like highlight emails that I think most people turn off, but if it’s something you know is important, you pay really close attention to your inbox and you’ll pay attention to everything that you’re looking at.”
We’re proud to serve as one of the handy tools on VHX’s swiss army knife of work solutions, helping VHX democratize the world of digital video!
Marc Andreessen's Productivity Trick to Feeling Marvelously Efficient
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon among productive people: they often overlook their own productivity. The more productive you are, the more likely you are to get down on yourself and think at the end of the day, “I wasn’t very productive today.”
Because ambitious people measure themselves by their progress towards achieving audacious goals, they often can’t appreciate a single day’s worth of tiny, incremental advancements that they’ve made. Plus, the fuller your day is with activity, the harder it seems to pinpoint what exactly it is that you did at all.
Between starting Netscape, Opsware, Ning, and Andreessen Horowitz, Marc Andreessen has done monumental work in his career and seems particularly at risk to fall into this trap. To arm himself against the daunting imperative of making meaningful progress toward his big objectives, Marc came up with a system: the Anti-Todo List. It’s his way to stop and recognize his own accomplishments, measured not by a project’s impressive success, but in increments, to fuel his motivation for getting stuff done day after day.
What you do is this: every time you do something — anything — useful during the day, write it down in your Anti-Todo List on the card.
Each time you do something, you get to write it down and you get that little rush of endorphins that the mouse gets every time he presses the button in his cage and gets a food pellet.
And then at the end of the day, … take a look at today’s card and its Anti-Todo list and marvel at all the things you actually got done that day.
Note that he’s advocating for more than crossing items off your to-do list. His Anti-Todo List gives him credit for everything he gets done, not just what’s preordained by his to-do list. And keeping a separate list means that when you take stock of what you’ve achieved, you aren’t hounded by what’s still left to do.
There’s value gained from the act of slowing down to write down accomplishments, which is inaccessible without acknowledgment. It turns out that “being able to put more notches on my accomplishment belt, so to speak, by writing down things on my Anti-Todo list as I accomplish them throughout the day makes me feel marvelously productive and efficient[,] [f]ar more so than if I just did those things and didn’t write them down.”
Rather than waiting for a major milestone to celebrate an achievement, recognize that tiny, wonderful triumphs happen every single day. Turn that into a daily process of rejuvenation and inspiration after a hard-day’s work, and you’ll have added a crucial ingredient to your day that maintains the positive emotional balance necessary to accomplishing great things.
Chris Savage, CEO of Wistia, wrote about how magnifying your field of vision when it comes to your perspective on progress is key to generating the momentum and joy to accomplish big things. He expressed this lesson concisely in two graphs:
There’s a hard road to travel to get to big-time achievements and reaching heady dreams, whether it’s making your first million, mastering the piano, or running a marathon, and if you’re too exhausted every day to take stock of your successes, you’ll lose heart. Take a note from Marc Andreessen:
[Y]ou know those days when you’re running around all day and doing stuff and talking to people and making calls and responding to emails and filling out paperwork and you get home and you’re completely exhausted and you say to yourself, “What the hell did I actually get done today?”
The science behind why better energy management is the key to peak productivity
We live in a culture that seems obsessed with being productive.
While increasing our output and doing more with our time is certainly an admirable goal, according to Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything, that misguided approach is actually liable to hurt your productivity.
Without real restoration and rejuvenation throughout the day, people (knowingly) hold themselves back because they are worried about “pacing” their energy to make it through the day.
This is incredibly damaging to your potential, because it distributes your efforts at 25% across your whole work day instead of reaching 90% output at the moments that correspond with your body’s naturally productive rhythms of alertness. The result is that you aren’t able to do your best work and you aren’t getting the rest you need to rejuvenate yourself either.
I know I’ve fallen into the trap of conventional thinking that to be productive, I just need to work harder. I spend more and more hours at the desk, but when I look back, I’m not sure where the time went.
To Schwartz, not being able to push yourself to 90% output without worry is the biggest impediment holding you back from being truly productive and producing your best work. True productivity is determined by better energy management rather than simply cranking out more hours at your desk.
What do our energy levels actually look like throughout the day?
We all have a sense of our energy level, whether we feel productive or not, whether we’re alert and excited or tired and groggy, but most of us try to ignore it and don’t know the science underlying its effect on our work. It turns out that our energy functions according to what psychophysiologist Peretz Lavie called “ultradian rhythms,” or natural cycles that take place during the day.
Lavie conducted a fascinating series of experiments where he put young adults on an ultrashort 15 minute awake-5 minute sleeping schedule in 8-hour sessions, first from 4 pm until midnight, and then after 6-7 hours of sleep, he put them on the 15/5 schedule from about 7 am until early afternoon. He then observed when his test subjects fell asleep and couldn’t fall asleep during this bizarre sleep schedule and came up with some surprising findings.
In the afternoon and evenings, we get sleepy at two times: at 4:30 pm and at 11:30 pm. But in the morning, we get sleepy every 90 minutes. These 90-minute cycles are our ultradian rhythms which define when we’re naturally feeling awake and productive. We perform our best in between those periods of drowsiness.
Those who work with instead of against their ultradian rhythm perform better, according to a study on world-class violinists. You might expect the best violinists to practice until their fingers bleed. Not so. Top-tier violinists practice no more than 4 1/2 hours a day, in 90-minute bursts, plus they got more sleep than their peers (notably, 20-30 minute afternoon naps).
It’s not just about concentrating when your energy levels are high. It’s also absolutely vital that you rest when your energy levels hit bottom. One piece of research that Schwartz regularly cites is a Federal Aviation Administration study of pilots on long haul flights that shows the crucial importance of resting when your energy levels are low:
One group of pilots was given an opportunity to take 40-minute naps mid-flight, and ended up getting an average of 26 minutes of actual sleep. Their median reaction time improved by 16% following their naps.
Non-napping pilots, tested at a similar halfway point in the flight, had a 34% deterioration in reaction time. They also experienced 22 micro sleeps of 2-10 seconds during the last 30 minutes of the flight. The pilots who took naps had none.
If you push yourself to continue working during periods of low energy, you risk continued grogginess and low performance. It’s critical that we acknowledge our body’s natural rhythms and align our periods of work and relaxation with them to work in a sustainably productive way.
You improve by pushing your practice, not yourself during low energy.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” is what you need to become an expert in your field. Research from psychologist Anders Ericsson on deliberate practice shows that it’s true strain and “wear and tear” that helps people build expertise.
(via K. A. Ericsson, Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406)
Although getting into a flow may feel good, sometimes we use the term “flow” to describe times when we’re not pushing ourselves very hard. But it’s the hard practice that allows us to improve. A good metaphor is weightlifting at the gym: while a good flow might involve a 30-minute walk and some light free weights, if you are looking to push yourself into chiseled, six-pack ab territory, you’ve gotta hurt.
Building muscle at that level doesn’t come without pushing into the territory of the uncomfortable, and this is why Schwartz and noted authors like Cal Newport are so adamant about these “hold nothing back” periods of work. During these sessions, it’s vital that we challenge ourselves with increasing difficulty and focus uncompromisingly on how to fix our weaknesses.
When deliberate practice corresponds with periods of intense concentration, we suss out our weaknesses, make progress, and do our best work.
3 Important tricks for managing your energy
Break your work sessions into 90-minute blocks: I tested this for myself, and I noticed that the feeling of reckless abandon in being able to give your all for those 90 minute periods was incredibly useful in allowing yourself to pour out creativity without having to think, “What will I have left for the end of the day?” It’s a surprising bit of mental jiujitsu, but it works: I feel energized and empowered to operate at peak levels because I know that it’s only for 90 minutes.
After your 90-minute sessions, take 15 minute breaks: According to Schwartz, breaking up work periods into 90 minute sessions with the knowledge that there will be a 15 minute break at the end is a great process to get started with balancing energy and recovery throughout the day. This way, the 90 minute work period can be approached without having to worry about pacing or burnout: a scheduled break is just on the horizon. It seems strange to allow yourself these sorts of breaks if you are a person who prides themselves with being busy/productive (two very different things, actually), but on the advice of Schwartz and the complementary studies that support it, it’s definitely worth a try.
Take Naps: The naps were the hardest sell for me, but after seeing the science behind napping by my buddy Leo Widrich, I was sold on at least giving them a go and was very glad I did: my productivity “dip” around 4pm is now all but gone, thanks to a quick 30-minute nap at 3pm. Schwartz gives this schedule as a sample:
Nick, by contrast, works intensely for approximately 90 minutes at a stretch, and then takes a 15-minute break before resuming work. At 12:15, he goes out for lunch for 45 minutes, or works out in a nearby gym.
At 3pm, he closes his eyes at his desk and takes a rest. Sometimes it turns into a 15- or 20-minute nap. Finally, between 4:30 and 5pm, Nick takes a 15-minute walk outside.
What did you think of the research in this post and Schwartz’s approach to finding a work schedule that works with you?
Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!
“Trust yourself. If you are passionate about your idea you can do more than you ever imagined. There is no secret to success; you simply start with a vision and then it is about problem solving, breaking everything down into smaller pieces, getting it done, and remaining tenacious even when the uphill pursuit becomes steeper. Nothing is more rewarding!”—Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp, co-founders of Birchbox, giving the scoop at goop about starting your own business.
Wistia provides super easy, distinctive video hosting, management, and marketing for businesses. We wanted to find out from co-founder and CEO, Chris Savage, how Wistia uses iDoneThis and why they love it.
In the past year, Wistia has gone through a growth spurt, doubling to a total of fifteen people. Chris wrote a great blog post about the challenges of staying productive during such rapid growth, pointing out how Wistia’s “internal communication mechanisms have had to evolve so that they are less disruptive, more relevant, and more helpful.”
Allotted ample ownership and authority, people at Wistia have a great deal of freedom over what they do. As a result, as Chris explains, “it’s hard to know what everyone else is doing, which I think is really important.” So, the Wistia team uses iDoneThis to “facilitate what would often be those random connections that would happen if you were sitting next to somebody, if you were walking by somebody working on something.”
iDoneThis enables fast-growing companies like Wistia to revive something of the easy immediacy of two founders working in a room together, capturing valuable information that wouldn’t have been pre-set on a task list or deemed “worthy” of sending out yet another email. Chris notes, “That’s something that’s been really big. It’s good that other people can see that that’s happening, know that it’s important, and can comment on it.”
The Wistia team relies on tools like Yammer to keep the productivity engine running and continues to hold weekly stand-up meetings, but specifically for announcing goals for the week. iDoneThis is used for “a very different purpose,” says Chris. “It’s an accomplishment list and a way to show others what we’re working on. Other tools don’t supply that.”
What’s distinctive about the Wistia team is the obvious pride that they have in the company culture and the deliberate effort with which that culture is cultivated. Chris elaborates, “A big thing we wanted to do was start to write it down and talk about it and have a vocabulary, because we felt like if we don’t fight for it, we won’t be able to maintain it. It actually feels like a competitive advantage.”
Part of building that company culture meant defining a company identity, or the “Wistia way” of doing things. When Wistia launched a free version of its service in June, for example, they created a rap video instead of simply sending out an email and adding the plan to the pricing page. They did it the Wistia way: “Go a little over the top, have a lot of fun with it, and express our own excitement.”
We haven’t created a rap video about it, but we’re very excited that iDoneThis helps make the Wistia way happen!
“A growing body of research suggests that paying attention to the body clock, and its effects on energy and alertness, can help pinpoint the different times of day when most of us perform our best at specific tasks, from resolving conflicts to thinking creatively.”—
Any.DO is an elegant task management application available for Android, iPhone, and the Chrome browser. While the app has received praise for its simplicity and ability to sync across platforms, the Tel Aviv-based startup found that it needed some management tools to synchronize itself, with one of its founders, Omer Perchik, relocating to San Francisco. Plus, the company, which started in 2010, saw its team nearly double to twelve people.
Any.DO turned to iDoneThis to sync its team, and as co-founder Yoni Lindenfeld explains, to solve one of the challenges of fast growth— how to get all the newbies up to speed. “It’s a good tool to get new people coming on board to understand what other people are doing and to show other people what they’re doing.”
Communication and coordination are priorities for Any.DO, achieved through transparency regarding the inner workings of the company. “It’s really important for us for everyone to be involved and aware,” declares Yoni, as part of Any.DO’s tight-knit “family-style environment” work culture. These objectives led the Any.DO team to implement iDoneThis with a plan to be more specific in their daily entries. Yoni elaborates, “Before we started using it, we talked to everyone about how we would profit most from using it. It’s going great because people are writing more details about what they’re doing and other people,” —including new hires — “know more details. It’s a great tool.”
Everyone at Any.DO uses their own creation to manage personal and work-related tasks, but according to Yoni, iDoneThis plays a different role. “When you put a task in your to-do list, it’s more of a personal thing. Actually that’s something we’ve learned from researching a lot about how users manage their tasks. Tasks are usually much more personal and you don’t elaborate a lot because it’s just something that will remind you about what you want to do.” Meanwhile, a tool like iDoneThis functions more broadly and publicly. Members find value both in personally focusing on accomplishments and in sharing that attention with others.
We’re delighted that a company that made a task management app uses iDoneThis to help get them from to-do task to Done!
The art of getting stuff done without bossing around
The availability of seed-stage funding today means that there are a ton of first-time entrepreneurs out there assembling teams and building companies without any experience running a team or managing people. Building a team in this environment is especially difficult because funded companies typically grow teams prior to sustainability or product-market fit. It’s hard to steer the team in the right direction when you yourself don’t quite know what to build.
Naval Ravikant at AngelList has blogged about “Building a team that ships”, describing his assembled team as “self-managing people who ship code.” Naval calls this peer management: one person per project (with help from others as needed), no middle managers, and individual choice on what to work on using accountability is the rudder. In his words: “Promise what you’ll do in the coming week on internal Yammer. Deliver – or publicly break your promise – next week.”
At iDoneThis, we’ve seen peer management as an effective approach to take for the young startup CEO. We’ve worked closely with many first-time entrepreneurs like Danny Wen at Harvest and Tobi Lutke at Shopify who have succeeded in building unique, quirky, and profitable companies by empowering individuals at their companies to manage themselves and each other to build out great products exceeding a high standard of excellence. Here are some keys to effective peer management that we’re seeing.
Skillshare uses a system called Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to systemize accountability. Every individual is responsible for company objectives, which are broken into measurable bites in the form of key results, resulting in alignment within and accountability throughout the team. At the end of every week, month, and quarter, individuals measure themselves against their OKRs to evaluate performance.
OKRs have a rich history in building great tech companies, going back to Andy Grove at Intel in the 1980s and what he called “Management by Objective.” Drawing a fundamental distinction between output and activity, Grove’s use of the word “objective” involves dual meanings. Output is both the objective and something that’s objectively measurable, while activity is a black box. An engineer at heart, management by objective was Grove’s way of bringing scientific and engineering principles to management.
OKRs have since been embraced by tech giants like Google and Zynga and spread throughout the Valley and to the broader tech world. At Salesforce, they do V2MOMs (vision, values, methods, obstacles, and measurement); at Yammer, they do MORPHs (mission, objectives, results, people, and how did you do); others use KPIs (key performance indicators). While the acronyms may vary, the general principles hold true.
To Mark Pincus, OKRs are the solution to the basic problem that’s at the heart of many a founder’s anxious and sleepless night: how “to keep everybody going in productive directions when you’re not in the room.” Every individual has one objective, and they are the CEO of that objective, entrusted with authority and accountability for their objective and the key results necessary to get there.
In old school, hierarchical companies, information that passed down to employees or up to executives had to travel through middle managers and that created a single-point of failure anti-pattern. You had to rely on your manager to get information and also to market your accomplishments upward to upper management and the executive team.
Where individuals manage themselves and each other, it’s vitally important that everyone gets the requisite information flow they need to do their jobs and that they have channels to market their own accomplishments and results.
The system of snippets adopted at Google is an example not of big brother monitoring, but of empowering individuals to see everything that’s happening in the company so that they can find their niche in the company and contribute. You get a weekly email that asks what they did last week and what they plan to do in the upcoming week. Replies get compiled in a public space and distributed automatically the following day by email.
The power of snippets is in gathering data to demystify the black box of the notoriously fuzzy production process — in which raw material turns into output with the application of labor — and makes progress possible to measure, analyze, and recognize. It makes sense then that peer management environments tend towards transparency, meritocracy, and individual professional fulfillment. Companies on the rise like Shopify and Harvest track and celebrate their daily accomplishments with a daily email from us here at iDoneThis.
Fit as a Deal Breaker
In company cultures of extremely high personal autonomy, fit is paramount because it reduces friction in every interaction. Companies like Valve and Github tout bossless cultures. Stripe is building a world-class team and every employee can veto a potential hire.
While fit can be tested by hiring a candidate first as a contractor, fit often amounts to guesswork based on intuition and impression during interviews. Peter Thiel said PayPal once rejected a top-notch engineering candidate because he said during an interview that he liked to play “hoops,” and a PayPal engineer does not play basketball, much less “hoops.” The wisdom of that decision is unclear, but that decision process no doubt solidified a sense of self in the team.
Fit is about an ever-solidifying sense of self as much as it is about bringing on like-minded people, and that sense spawns canonical stories and processes. Carwoo is a company that’s a little weird, so they ask every interviewee how weird she thinks she is on a scale of 1 to 5. There is a right answer. 3-4 is the sweet spot a weird person who is self-aware.
Wistia is a company that highly values its culture and the unique identity it has built. Co-founder and CEO Chris Savage finds that combination of autonomy, culture, and fit becomes “a competitive advantage”, as Wistia hires more people, “the culture of the company should get stronger because we’re hiring for values that the company believes in, and people with those values should make it stronger.”
As work gets automated and outsourced, self-directed, creative work is required in ever-increasing degree. Peer management not only makes us more efficient, but it builds a workplace that enables — as Dan Pink describes — autonomy, master, and purpose that makes work fulfilling and joyful.
“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”—
Published in the journal, PLOS ONE, the study found that viewing photos of cute animals — which induces positive emotions — results in improved “subsequent performance in tasks that require behavioral carefulness, possibly by narrowing the breadth of attentional focus.”
Well then! Here are a few cuties to focus you today:
We’vewrittenbefore about the secret to happiness and motivation at work. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer wrote a whole book about it called The Progress Principle. They found that the number one driver of a positive inner work life, the key to motivated, engaged, and productive employees, is making progress on meaningful work, even if that progress is a small win.
In a recent 99U conference talk, Professor Amabile shared the best way to achieve those small wins and leverage the progress principle in our daily lives: keeping a work diary. We’re so pleased that she suggested using iDoneThis as an online work diary tool, and we thought we could break down how iDoneThis contributes to the four benefits of keeping a work diary that she identifies:
1. Capture progress that may have been lost in a busy workday and celebrate the small wins.
Professor Amabile notes that even on frustrating, seemingly unproductive days, you can almost always find one thing on which you made progress. Note it. Celebrate it. “This is the best way to leverage the progress principle,” Professor Amabile says. Next stop: more awesomeness.
iDoneThis helps you see your workday through the lens of accomplishment because it asks, “What’d you get done today?” In taking a moment to reflect on this question, you make a habit out of focusing on the progress you made and your wins, however small. Writing and recording wins in your iDoneThis calendar is a quiet affirmation and celebration.
2. Plan next steps, think things through, and overcome setbacks.
Professor Amabile also suggests using a work diary to consider the causes of setbacks you experience and create a plan of action if a similar problem rears its head again. The Progress Principle encourages learning from negative experiences and counts those valuable lessons toward your overall progress, turning negatives into net positives.
iDoneThis contributes to such positive growth, because it keeps a record of all your daily doings. You can go back into your log and see what decisions, actions and efforts led to the setback. In short, you can pinpoint where things started to go wrong. This record gives you the information to form a plan of action to resolve similar setbacks. Down the road, your iDoneThis becomes a map to which you can refer back and see how you overcame obstacles.
3. Nurture your own personal growth and work through difficult events.
In her talk, Professor Amabile provides an example of one engineer struggling through the experience of massive layoffs at her company. While grappling with the stress of watching her team members being laid off and her own uncertainty about the future, the engineer turned to her work diary to center her thoughts. She recognized that because she had no control over her position at the company, instead she would focus on the one thing that she did have control over — her work.
iDoneThis is about you, you the captain of your work. It’s not a task-specific or project-oriented tool in that it isn’t interested in micromanaging questions like: “How far did you get on Project X today?” or “What did you do for Team Y?” No, it asks, “What’d you get done today?”
This is a question that matters when the going gets tough. Your progress is what matters, not that of a particular endeavor. If you need to center yourself and regain control of a situation by focusing on work, iDoneThis allows you to see evidence of your control and progress. If you need to focus on your emotional and cognitive processes, iDoneThis provides an outlet for that as well.
4. Spot patterns in your reactions and behaviors. Identify your greatest strengths and weaknesses.
In The Progress Principle, Professor Amabile recommends asking yourself at the end of each month, “Do I notice trends over time in this journal? What are the implications?” She also describes how research participants would change their behavior based on recognizing unwarranted and unconstructive behavior patterns.
Patterns of behavior and trends are easy to spot with tools like iDoneThis. Because iDoneThis records all your entries in an easy-to-read monthly calendar, you can see at a glance the ebb and flow of your inner work life, day to day, week to week, month to month.
iDoneThis also provides a Word Cloud, a fun way to spot trends in your entries. The Word Cloud is populated with the most commonly used words in your entries. At the moment, my most commonly used words seem to be “worked”, “idonethis”, and “gym.” Sounds about right.
5. Find patience.
Professor Amabile adds a bonus benefit to her list of four, noting that keeping a work diary “can help to cultivate patience.“ Why? Because you can always look back and see how you persevered and survived much worse days.
It’s especially true if you’ve kept your work diary with iDoneThis. Every day that you make an entry, you’ll see a blue check mark appear over each calendar day. Over time, you’ll see from the number of blue checkmarks in your iDoneThis calendar that there are no unproductive days. Even on the worst days, you achieved accomplishments worthy of note. Don’t believe it? Click on that day and see for yourself. There’s always something in each of your past days to be proud of that contributed to the successes that came later on.
It’s an honor for us to have Professor Amabile’s recommendation. It’s always been our goal to create a tool that helps people find happiness, meaning, and motivation at work through celebrating their daily progress, however incremental.
Ginni Chen is Chief Happiness Officer at iDoneThis. When not striving for the happiness of iDoneThis members, she’s a rock climbing instructor, skier and collector of first edition books. You should follow her on Twitter at @GinniChen.
The Mozilla Foundation has a super software team working on projects that range from Popcorn (a video remixing application) to Thimble (an easy-to-use web page maker) to Open Badges (a digital badges system that support learning and achievement).
Developer Jon Buckley talked with us about the struggle to align three teams when Mozilla wanted to integrate Badges into both Popcorn and Thimble. Combining multiple product worlds could very well collide into chaos and confusing communication, but Mozilla is seeing smooth sailing.
Status update discussion used to fall to a weekly call, which was time-consuming, while a shared mailing list was only used periodically for such purposes. The Mozilla teams soon turned to iDoneThis to coordinate communication for people spread across time zones and for cutting across teams. “You don’t have to worry about being in the same room at the same time. That asynchronous nature of updating people is very helpful.”
After the switch, Mozilla found that they cut down on a ton of meeting time and used their gatherings for things that required real conversation. “I still find meetings have their place,” Jon noted, “but if you don’t have to give a status at a meeting because you’re using iDoneThis, then that’s a way you can save a meeting for this particular problem that we need to tackle. Let us discuss this in person.”
Jon is one of our work-style kindred spirits in his cultivation of time away from the distraction of Things That Constantly Refresh like, IRC, Twitter, and bugmail. He prefers to turn them off and head into one of the smaller conference rooms to work without distraction.
Personally, he has found iDoneThis helpful in broadening his perspective from building software for developers to building for a general audience, because he gains insight from his UI and UX design teammates. “If they’ve been working on mockups, they can post that in their status, so we can get visibility into what they’re doing. It’s not quite obvious. On our team, we use a bug tracker really heavily, and the UI or the UX designer workflow doesn’t fit into that all that well, so it’s useful to have a way to see what they’re working on that we can comment on.”
The Mozilla Foundation’s getting stuff done and innovating for the people. We’re psyched that we’re helping Jon and his team build an open, accessible web by opening up avenues of communication and collaboration!
As any incredibly productive person will tell you, it boils down to knowing what your priorities are and systematically attacking your tasks with a focused mind. The one resource in the world that is common to millionaire CEOs and the average Joe is time.