“We have a fucked-up perception of time. We count hours but discount how they’re spread out. It’s binge-learning and it’s no way to grow.”—
Check out writer and designer Jack Cheng’s great piece from a couple years back, Thirty Minutes a Day on the best way to learn something new.
Cheng mentions the same Seinfeld calendar productivity trick that helped spark the creation of iDoneThis, pointing out that “When trying to develop a new skill, the most important thing isn’t how much you do; it’s how often you do it.”
We’re here to help you record your 30 minutes a day!
Jason Fried, co-founder of 37signals and co-author of Rework, found that when people wanted to get stuff done, their answer was rarely the office but instead someplace where they wouldn’t encounter externally imposed distractions.
What’s perhaps most insightful about Fried’s 2010 TEDxMidwest talk is his comparison of work to sleep when thinking about why stretches of uninterrupted time are important. This sleep comparison is applicable to your productivity no matter what work situation you’re in — whether you’re studying for school, writing a novel, working at a small start-up, for a large company, or for yourself.
"[S]leep and work are phase-based, or stage-based, events. So sleep is about sleep phases, or stages … There’s five of them, and in order to get to the really deep ones, the really meaningful ones, you have to go through the early ones. And if you’re interrupted while you’re going through the early ones … you don’t just pick up where you left off… .
You’ve got to go through these phases and stuff, and if you’re interrupted, you don’t sleep well… . Why do we expect people to work well if they’re being interrupted all day at the office? … .
Giving someone for hours of interrupted time is the best gift you can give anybody at work.”
How Sourceninja Gets an Extra 7 Hours of Productivity Every Week
We went through AngelPad with the guys at Sourceninja, so we’re proud that they’re one of our oldest and most loyal customers. Sourceninja is worry-free open source management made simple.
One of the first lessons of AngelPad that the founder Thomas Korte impressed upon us was to maximize every minute of every meeting, because time spent in meetings has a multiplier effect. Every meeting costs the number of minutes it takes multiplied by the number of people in the meeting.
For the Sourceninja team, this used to mean 20 minute standups for their four-member team on a daily basis. 20 minutes five days a week for four people multiplies out to close to 7 hours per week spent in their daily standup.
The guys at Sourceninja love iDoneThis because it’s a time-saving tool. Instead of spending time in meetings, they’re getting stuff done. Brett, one of Sourceninja’s founders, told me that iDoneThis is “the easiest method I’ve found to have open communication in a team.”
That means a lot to us because Brett and his co-founder Matt have been around the block. They worked together at PGP, a startup, and stayed together through PGP’s acquisition by Symantec, the largest maker of computer security software. They’ve gone through many different companies’ attempts at solving the hard problem of communication: how do you stay focused and communicate what you’re doing? Besides standups, they’ve used wikis, sat in other kinds of meetings, and written weekly email rollups.
iDoneThis succeeds where other methods have failed because it gives visibility into the entire company and provides a record of everything that’s getting done, but it doesn’t force people to waste time listening to information that’s irrelevant to them. They’ve used those extra 7 man hours every week to make incredible progress—like with the Heroku add-on that’s launching soon—toward building an awesome product that makes open source easy to manage and rely upon.
I’m a huge fan of the folks at Code Academy because they’re builders, and on top of that, their mission is to empower others to create. It makes perfect sense then that after they heard about the concept of Google snippets, their first instinct was the build the product themselves. They went from the thought, “man, I wish there was an app for that,” straight into action.
Code Academy is a rapidly growing company, and that means that it becomes more and more difficult to get perspective on the company as a whole. Individuals within the company add tons of value every day, but with limited information of those accomplishments, it can be difficult to realize that value and get comfortable on how to move forward.
In some companies, that means that an individual’s daily wins can go unacknowledged and the company’s decision making amounts to guesswork. I’m reminded of what artist Tom Sachs has said: “Half of your job in this studio is doing your work, the other half of your job is communicating that it’s been done.”
To fill this need, the team spent a day rolling their own solution, but the next day, Code Academy CEO Neal Sales-Griffin did a little bit of googling and found iDoneThis. We’re especially flattered, knowing full well the Code Academy team’s ability to create awesome software, that they found that iDoneThis was “exactly what they needed.”
After using us for a few weeks, Neal described the impact of getting his team’s daily status updates in stark terms. He put it simply: “I sleep better at night.”
The toughest part of doing a startup is the emotional roller coaster. When you have a great team that gets stuff done like the guys at Code Academy do, then daily status updates turn into an affirmation and celebration of the team’s progress. Just as Code Academy exists to help people create, we exist to help companies create — and we’re thrilled to help them work toward their vision as a cohesive team.
Watch Shawn Achor’s entertaining, thought-provoking TEDxBloomington talk on the power of positive psychology.
The author of The Happiness Advantage and CEO of Good Think Inc., a research and consulting firm, points out that the common understanding that happiness as the last thing to happen after success achieved by working hard has the order all wrong.
Instead, raising the level of positivity in the present creates a happiness advantage that results in better, more productive performance. In fact, 75% of job successes are predicted by optimism levels, an environment of social support, and ability to frame stress as a challenge rather than a roadblock.
Achor recommends daily practices to rewire your brain to get on a positivity track, including journaling and acts of kindness that spread positivity to others.
Use iDoneThis to help you set up your pattern of productivity!
We want to know: what are your favorite productivity boosters? Drinking eight glasses of water? Listening to classical music? Turning off the internet? Chair yoga?
What little things help you get more done?
Our interview with Matthew Stibbe veered into tea-related territory, which wasn’t included in our profile. We wanted to share his take on why tea works for his productivity and his greatest tea-related tips:
Coffee doesn’t work very well for me. I saw a lovely poster in New York. It said, “coffee lets you do stupid things faster,” and that’s exactly what it does for me. I redouble my efforts in the wrong direction.
Tea, on the other hand, is a more reflective drink for my biochemistry. It puts me into a much more grounded place. The act of making a cup of tea is a very good way of giving myself a break between tasks. When I occasionally get to try the Pomodoro Technique, a cup of tea is the perfect thing to do in the gap between two bursts of work.
Two tea-related things that have changed my life in the last couple of years:
1. I bought a little travel kettle and I put it on my bedside table, and I’ve got a little tin of leaf tea, my teabags and a mug. In the morning, all I have to do is reach out, put the kettle on, and I can make myself a cup of tea in bed to wake up. It’s the best start to the day.
2. I am half Dutch, and I found in Holland that they sell DIY teabags, tall teabags but there’s no tea in them.
If you have a really proper high tea in a posh London hotel, they’ll have a big teapot and they’ll put leaf tea in it. Otherwise, people in England drink this crappy teabag tea. It’s designed to brew quickly, and it doesn’t taste very nice. These teabags are available if you know where to buy them, but it’s not in the high street, so people don’t know about it.
It’s a classic case of William Gibson: the future is already here but it’s unevenly distributed. What I love about online stuff is you have access to a new capability, or a new technology, a new idea — whether it’s buying DIY teabags and looseleaf tea because they don’t sell it in your hometown or it’s something like iDoneThis or it’s something like Turbine.
It just changes what is possible, and I think that’s very exciting.
“Feeling genuinely appreciated lifts people up. At the most basic level, it makes us feel safe, which is what frees us to do our best work. It’s also energizing. When our value feels at risk, as it so often does, that worry becomes preoccupying, which drains and diverts our energy from creating value.”—
How Pipedrive Achieves International Scale by Working Remotely
The reason why we exist is to help companies like Pipedrive work richly. They have an amazing story — they’ve gone from Timo selling books door-to-door in San Jose to a company that spans three continents and has created one of the hottest and most useful CRM tools on the market today. We’re so proud to be an ingredient in their success.
I love the guys at Pipedrive because their ambition is global. They know that sales is a problem that knows no boundaries—not language nor culture—and so from day one, their scope has been international. Pipedrive was founded in Estonia, but at any given time, its founders are in Tallinn, San Francisco, Santiago, or Nairobi to spread the good word about Pipedrive, a simple CRM that people actually use.
With distributed teams, there’s a daily struggle for team members to maintain a basic understanding of each other, especially across different disciplines. We get stuck in our silos. At Pipedrive, marketing has its own Skype chat and its own weekly standups. Engineering has its nose in Asana and it’s filled with technical mumbo jumbo that no one else in the company can understand.
iDoneThis bridges this divide. Just taking 30 seconds to write down the three highlights from the day pays huge dividends in giving the team a basic understanding of teammates’ contributions and the direction and progress of the company. They dig up the company roadmap on a quarterly basis at Pipedrive and have a “all-hands” meeting. iDoneThis keeps the company together and headed in the right direction in the meantime.
Maybe this is best experienced from the perspective of the “new guy.” Pipedrive recently had a new developer start working for them remotely, and he was immediately bombarded by questions on Skype asking him what he got done by four different people every day. On Skype, it’s hard to tell what someone is feeling, and the most benign questions can become irritating and overbearing. The new developer was thrilled to use iDoneThis, because now no one pesters him to find out what he’s done, everyone just knows.
Pipedrive exemplifies how a company can use international reach to drive revenue growth. To make that happen, they’ve mastered the art of working together remotely. We’re proud to be a part of their workflow, one that encourages understanding and appreciating the work of other business divisions and one that fosters daily participation in and ownership over the trajectory of the company as a whole.
Successful entrepreneurs like Dennis Crowley and Mike Karnjanaprakorn at SkillShare have pointed that building a great product is only step one. The next, harder step is building the machine that builds the product which turns improvement into a repeatable process.
Mark Pincus, discussing his experience of growing Zynga, observed that products can be built “through the strength of your personality and lack of sleep,” but that doesn’t scale — and soon “you’ve got to find some way to keep everybody going in productive directions when you’re not in the room.”
To Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, what’s required is “higher level thinking.” It’s the ability to step back and take the perspective of someone who’s looking down at your company from an objective standpoint, as if the company were a machine. The machine consists of people plus design, with goals as inputs and outcomes as output.
For Bridgewater and companies like Google, this means an obsession with tracking and data to peer into the black box that is the machine. Goals go in, outcomes come out — what happens in between? Without tracking and data, there are no log files to comb for debugging the discrepancies between outcomes and intended outcomes.
Dalio would say that it’s about the search for truth. I’ve talked to a number of startups that do a daily standup or scrum with the idea that it’s an iterative process that provides for improvement by rapidly addressing and resolving issues as they arise. It’s often a young company’s first stab at formalizing a process. But without a log file of what happens in a company, I’ve observed that issues inevitably get addressed reactively, on a case-by-case basis.
A record that shows how the machine works makes it possible for higher-level pattern matching to identify systemic issues plaguing the company — and this makes exponential progress, not just incremental progress, possible.
Terri Trespicio is a writer, editor, host, broadcaster, healthy living expert, and former senior editor at Martha Stewart’s Whole Living magazine. She also hosted the live, daily call-in show “Whole Living” on Martha Stewart Living Radio on Sirius XM 110. Terri has appeared on the Today show, Dr. Oz, The Early Show, and The Martha Stewart Show. She’s also the creator of Best Decision All Day.
We chatted with Terri about the connections of health and wellness to productivity, the power of owning your time, and the navigation of career paths, as she steps out into a new chapter of self-employment.
You’ve been a great supporter of iDoneThis. How did you start using it?
This app is something I actually use is because I really do tie my sense of wellness and calm to feeling productive. Nobody wants to feel like they’re spinning their wheels, not sure from one day to the next what they’re doing. Now that I’m not answering to a team so much and working on my own from home, I like to be able to keep track of what I’ve done. it’s just a cool way to feel good about not just what tasks you’re getting done but things that are building you toward what you want to achieve.
I like how you tie wellness and worth to what you’ve done and what you said about being mindful about the building process. Maybe to-do lists don’t get to that as much.
Of course I have a to-do list. Everyone has one, and I continually scratch things off it. It’s fun. But when you cross things off, in a weird way, you’re sort of negating it. And I do think people let their lists get out of control.
There’s literally too much to do, so I feel like it’s sort of a yin yang thing. The yang is I’m going to go out and do this and that — it’s very aggressive. Your to-do list is aggressive, how you’re going to attack the day, but the yin side of that, you need to receive what you’ve done and be able to look at it. iDoneThis is the sort of yin to my to-do yang.
You’ve been seguing into freelancing and working for yourself. Could you talk about that process?
I had outgrown my role at the magazine, quite frankly. I had wrung out every opportunity and while I loved my time there, it was time to go. This is probably the most exciting time of my life because how often do you get a clean slate to re-jigger and re-decide what your life looks like? I was thrilled because then I got full permission to move ahead with my next phase, being a creative consultant which is really a lot of fun.
There’s tremendous power in owning your time and being able to do with it what you want. It makes you more productive. [With] presenteeism, you have to be at the office so you might as well piss away some of the time. But I know that if I get stuff done, I actually can go out and not feel bad.
Do you have any advice for people who are thinking of making the jump to self-employment or just starting out?
I think that being on your own little planet is going to be one of the biggest moments of self-discovery you have, because you’ll really see what you’re made of, what you’re interested in, what you’re afraid of. You’re not obligated in the ways you are normally, and it can be incredibly freeing and a little scary too.
I would say, don’t keep your life in park and sit there and think that you’re going to be good. Always be driving around looking for another spot. I’m always, always thinking, what am I really good at that other people are wowed by, that they’re not as good at, or that they want you to do for them. I’ve found that.
Seek out contacts, be networking all the time, and not in a cheesy way. There’s not a week that I don’t have lunches or coffee or something planned. If you are going to endeavor to work for yourself, really strongly consider getting a gym membership if you can afford it because you need a place to get up and move. My friend who’s a mother said, take a page from the mom playbook: up and out and to the gym in the morning, shower, put on real clothes, and sit down to do work.
Also make sure that you’re always reaching out and giving back to connections, not just asking for help. I think the key is to be always exchanging ideas with colleagues. Make an effort to stay socially connected, stay physically active, and keep healthy food in the house — set up your conditions for being as clear-minded and stable and calm as you can, so you can actually man your own ship.
That idea of setting up conditions is really neat, placing thinking about productivity outside of work but in terms of health.
Oh yeah, health! I never used to be one of these go to the gym in the morning people ever, ever. When I was working full-time, no way you’re going to get me out of bed early to go, and now … I don’t know what it is! This is proof that people’s habits can change.
I make sure I have food on hand, and that I can really follow my gut. If I feel sleepy, I need to lay down and take a nap. I need to eat? Eat something and take a break. Take breaks — people don’t do that enough either.
I think to be really productive, you have to feed the nonproductive side. I’ll eat and watch The Daily Show, or I’ll take a nap, or I’ll do some errands. You’re not supposed to be a working machine, whether you’re full-time employed or self-employed. It’s really important to put conditions in place to be the healthiest you can be and the most rested, so that you actually can get stuff done.
For those of us who feel like we don’t have a strong sense of self-discipline, how do we manage that dangerous line of too much non-productivity?
If you’re struggling with self-discipline, it tells me that you must not like what you’re doing, trying to force yourself to do something you really don’t want to do. So I would say, take a really good look at what it is you’re doing and why the heck you’re doing it. You might say, oh I’m just doing this job, it’s just for money now. Okay, then maybe you’ll limit the amount of hours you do something that you hate, that you must do for now, and then build in, if you can, some time to do something that you really love. Then your reward for doing what you don’t like as much is doing what you love and that you’re good at.
You mentioned that a growing sense of boredom is a good guide to moving on. How do you take that next step?
Life is too long and too short to be bored. My advice there is always be growing and always go for the next thing. Don’t apply for the job you already have. I was a senior editor at Whole Living. I could have jumped and applied for any number of other editor jobs, and I think it would be the same damn thing.
A lot of people go out thinking, when they’re young, in their twenties, “I’m going to do this one thing.” They have to pick it and they’re supposed to go find it. You want to be guided by what you want to do, but I really strongly think that you are created by the choices that you make. You’re not supposed to go “oh, what if I make the wrong choice?” There are no wrong choices. You make a choice, you don’t like it, you’ll leave. It’s not a big Easter egg hunt where people go, “did I find the right path?” It’s not a game.
I turned down - which I still think is dumb - an invitation to apply for and probably get an editorial assistant job at Inc. magazine years ago. I wish I could go back in time, but you know what? I was too scared. I always wonder what might’ve happened. I might have had many more years of publishing, maybe I would’ve been onto something else by now. But fear kept me back.
I thought, there’s no way I could do that, I don’t know anything about business. I didn’t know anything about anything! I was 22 years old. So I think waiting until you have this perfect knowledge to go do this perfect thing is not the reality. The reality is put yourself in the path of people who like and trust you and believe in you and allow them to open some doors for you, and don’t run away screaming like I did. Eventually I wasn’t running away screaming, I’m not running away screaming now!
Know Yourself to Have the Confidence to Breakthrough
James Chin is a guest columnist and a professional poker player living in Las Vegas, Nevada. He has a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from The University of Texas.
On the one hand, if you’ve had bad results for an extended period of time, then you must be receptive to the possibility that you’ve been doing something wrong and, if so, have the courage to change. On the other hand, if you’ve analyzed your decisions and can find nothing wrong (i.e., if you could have a do-over, you’d do the same thing you did before), then being results-oriented can be the worst mindset because it causes you to doubt your decisions.
Ultimately, you must have the mindset that good results will come in the long run if you keep on making good decisions. The problem is that you have no control over how long the “long run” is. So focus on those things which you do have control over: your decisions. This means not only experimenting and adapting to make sure you do have a genuine long-term winning strategy, but also deciding on your response to those short-term intervening losses.
What might the best response be? Whatever motivates you to persevere in the face of difficulty. For others, that might be anger or a sense of pride, and if those emotions work for you, awesome. John McEnroe was a winner, despite seemingly being on tilt half the time. But for me, the answer is equanimity. I’ve found that a sense of calm is the most sustainable emotion for me to have in continuing to put in good work.
How do I draw on that sense of calm? One answer I’ve mentioned previously is a mantra that helps keep me present and centered on the action. But another answer is an awareness of my history of using a calm mindset with an eye toward improvement. It becomes a positive feedback loop because I’ve already experienced those smaller wins that happened when I kept calm and kept working, so this winning mindset for me gets reinforced.
It comes down to self-awareness. You ought to have a sense of your own history, of what has worked for you in the past, of productive patterns. You already have a foundation of past success that short-term present losses can’t take away from you; be mindful of and build on that foundation, and your future success will come.
She points to the authors’ discussion of the Zeigarnik effect, which explains why our brains continue to nag us about what we leave unfinished. Originally thought to be the mind’s way of making sure we get stuff done, recent research shows that this nagging is to make a specific, doable plan of action to get stuff done.
Fascinating! Have you read Willpower? Let us know what you think!
Matthew Stibbe, Founder of Turbine & CEO of Articulate Marketing
Matthew Stibbe is the CEO of Articulate Marketing, a marketing copywriting agency, and founder of Turbine, an online application that helps businesses take care of administrative issues, to “take the paper out of paperwork.” In what he calls his spare time, he’s learning Dutch and blogging about flying and about writing and productivity. We talked about his faith in to-do lists, the shortcomings of productivity systems, and how we are all becoming robots.
Since you’re in charge of two companies that do different things, how do you divide and maximize your time?
I am a devotee, a worshipper in the temple of lists. I love to-do lists. I’ve had this same list running in various versions of Microsoft software back almost 20 years, and it’s a very strange thought to think that the items on the list have changed, change constantly, but the list is still here. I’ve still got it, and it’s still fundamentally the same electronic thing that I had when I was running my computer games company in the nineties. It’s an interesting philosophical point — one day we will all become lists, some computer memory somewhere.
We’re all becoming robots.
I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords.
I think what I’m trying to do is to capture all the things that I’m supposed to be doing. Sometimes it’s about saying what you’re not going to do. There’s a very great commonality between personal time management and being the boss of a company in a way. If anything’s possible, what’s important? That’s the question that you ask yourself every morning when you wake up. I could spend the day doing this or this or this, but what is the priority? So what I’m doing with my list all the time is I’m trying very hard not to carry around a lot of things in my head.
Do you ever get stressed out just knowing how much stuff is on the list?
I do. I think this is slightly the problem with these sort of time management bibles. The premise of those books is you keep a list and you do your time management really efficiently, you’ll have less stress.
I suppose what you get is a choice of stress, meaning without a list, you have the additional stress of actually not being sure you’ve remembered everything, not being able pick the most important thing to do today or when your deadline is. That’s quite hard work. It’s a pretty uncomfortable place to live, I will grant you that.
I think once you get used to the idea that the list goes on but the things on it change, that’s oddly a comforting thought. In other words, you’re never going to get everything done. So don’t worry about that. And then you treat it as a sort of menu of options for a given period of time.
It sounds like your list is a living, changing thing and you have to treat it as such.
You do have to do a bit of pruning from time to time. My experience is without doing that pruning and without shaping that list a little bit — I mean all this sounds terribly sort of clinical. It’s not. I’m very leery of turning this into a sort of Getting Things Done — it literally doesn’t happen like that. It seems more organic to me. But I’ve got this habit going back decades of using this list and obsessing about the list.
The List in capital letters.
Yeah, THE LIST. All my working life has been governed by deadlines. So it fits into that pattern very well too.
This is why iDoneThis is great for me. Because the bit that is missing is the record of accomplishment or the confirmation that you have actually done something, right? When I mark a task as complete, I do put it into a completed tasks archive, but it’s just a list of things with lines through it. There’s no sense of context to it.
Sometimes you get to the end of the day and you feel like you’ve been working really hard, but you cannot actually remember what it is you’ve done. It feels very frustrating doesn’t it? What I like about iDoneThis, it just encourages me to take really only about 30 seconds or a minute just to jot down I did this, I did that, I had that, I spoke to him, I landed that … and it’s quite satisfying. It turns that feeling of “Ugh, I’ve been working and I haven’t done anything” to a feeling of, “Huh, I did quite a lot today. That’s good! Pat on the back!”
You seem somewhat hesitant to wholeheartedly embrace what I might call the cult of productivity. Do you think it can get too clinical? Sometimes all these ”10 things to improve your life and be awesome” make me a little angry or frustrated. I’m like, I’m already awesome!
There was a zen master in San Francisco, Shunryu Suzuki, who said, “All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” That’s probably the human condition. Self-improvement and self-help are very powerful motivators for people.
We’ve talked a little about Getting Things Done. It’s probably one of the more humane productivity guidelines or books out there because it’s not over-regimented and he’s got some pretty practical suggestions. I think part of my objection though is that style of book typically takes a couple of good ideas and spins them out. Goodness, I’ve written blog posts like 10 ways to do this or how I got up earlier in the morning, and I try and write it from a place of sincerity.
But at some point as an author, in order to make that kind of article work, you are sort of implying, “I know something you don’t.” You’re setting up rules and regulations which — and I’m pretty sure in these books and blog post authors’ lives, as in mine, you probably stick to most of the time — but in a sort of human and erring and occasionally lapsing way, instead of being a complete superhero robot of time management.
So I find that sort of author person a little bit hard. I know it’s gross hypocrisy because I write that stuff. Then the other part that I find very hard is that, yeah, I’m awesome already. My circumstances are not yours, and sometimes there isn’t a mechanical or a black and white or an A-B-C solution to what you have to do.
I guess that’s the gap. First, it’s the tone of “I know best”, but it’s really that the ultimate work is left to you to do to translate those suggestions and hints and make them work.
I suppose my ultimate advice or my ultimate feeling for myself is the only way you know if a particular approach is good for you is, do you do it, does it work, does it help? Try it for yourself. You’re responsible for your own life.
We live in a world where buying a book is quite a cheap exercise. If you go and read zenhabits, which is a great blog, I think it’s really nice, but it’s very much in that space. All those sorts of things, they’re quite cheap to get into, but we live in a world where we’re sold quite expensive things as the solutions to these problems, right?
This is why iDoneThis is kind of nice because it lets me use it how I want to use it. It’s not got a formula that I have to apply to it. It’s just you write down whatever it is you want to write down and we’ll just keep track of it against a calendar. It’s a pretty simple proposition and a lot of online sort of time management or time organizational tools are much more prescriptive. This is kind of what we’re trying to do with Turbine. What we really want to do is to give people the tools that will let them simplify the paperwork but kind of do it their way. Every company’s a bit different and every company has its own little style. I just admire the simplicity of what [the] guys at iDoneThis are doing and I kind of want to emulate it a bit.
James Chin is a guest columnist and a professional poker player living in Las Vegas, Nevada. He has a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from The University of Texas.
Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody’s got a plan until they get hit in the face.”
So you’ve been going through life with these plans in your head, these perfect ideas of how everything will turn out, and eventually, it comes to pass that the world isn’t like how you envisioned. What then? Do you lose your motivation? Do you only have the courage to live a perfect life?
Hopefully not. Hopefully, you realize that setbacks are an opportunity to learn more about how the world actually works rather than how you idealized it in your head.
This is where being truly passionate about what you do and how you do it is more important as a motivating force than “living the dream,” full stop. Because you’ll have to, in a real sense, get over yourself: let go of this idea of your perfect self, study and experiment to see what actions actually work, and adapt those actions to a newer, better self.
Perfect is the enemy of better.
In poker, it’s often said that there are multiple winning styles. One guy can have a very loose-aggressive style and win, and another guy can have a relatively tight-passive style and also win. Many poker players misinterpret that idea and take it to mean that you should play in the style that you’re comfortable with, because if you’re winning with your style and are uncomfortable playing in another style, then you’ll make more mistakes and be more apt to lose.
Staying in a zone of comfort (especially if you’re winning) comes at a cost. When you make short-term mistakes in order to learn, you make yourself better long-term. Game conditions might change and your formerly winning style can easily become a losing one.
Don’t be afraid of failure. More important, don’t take either failure or success too personally. No one has a complete understanding of how the world works, and if your ego causes you to think that your understanding can’t be improved upon, then when circumstances change, you might be caught standing still.
Instead, embrace experimentation. An evolutionary understanding is much more robust than an understanding based on dogma and the comfort of inertia. When it comes time to get things done after getting hit in the face, you’ll be ready.
iDoneThis will be hosting our first #prodtalk Tweet Chat of a series on productivity, motivation, and getting more done!
The topic: Our recent post, Silicon Valley’s Productivity Secrets, has piqued a lot of interest, and we’d love to hear more about your thoughts and reactions! What do you think about scalable people management? How do you check in at work? What are the limitations to the Snippets system? Share your tips and comments!
The details: Our first #prodtalk Tweet Chat will take place Sunday, Feb. 12, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. EST.
We’ll be moderating the chat through @iDoneThisChat. Use the hashtag #prodtalk to follow and participate in the chat.
Wait, what’s a Tweet Chat? They’re live discussions that take place on Twitter on a pre-determined topic, sort of like a Twitter version of a chat room. (So you do have to be a Twitter user to participate.) Tweet Chats are a fun, easy way to have a live, directed conversation and to meet other Twitter users who are interested in the same topic or field.
The key to participating in a Tweet Chat is to use the pre-determined hashtag identifier (that thing with the # sign before it, like #prodtalk). You’ll use this hashtag to find the conversation if you want to “listen in”. And whenever you want to participate and “say” something, include the hashtag so that your tweet gets picked up in the conversation stream.
For more information, check out this guide on how to participate in a Tweet Chat.
Dan Pink, #1 New York Times bestselling author on the changing world of work, told us that the most radical change happening in enterprise organization is that “[t]oday, talented people need organizations less than organizations need talented people.” The effect of that is to upend the traditional corporate hierarchy and put individual employees at the top. As Robert Greenleaf wrote in 1970 in his influential essay, The Servant as Leader, the winners will be those companies whose “first order of business is to build a group of people who, under the influence of the institution, grow taller and become healthier, stronger, more autonomous” — in other words, those that put people first.
Greenleaf argues that the only person to lead a people-first organization is a servant, because a servant’s natural inclination is service to others — not coercion — for the purpose of others’ growth, health, wisdom, freedom, autonomy, and benefit, and for that reason, in the future, “the only truly viable institutions will be those that are predominantly servant-led.” That makes the value proposition of the social enterprise stark and dead simple, and, no surprise here, it isn’t covered by buzzwords like “collaboration” or “social”: adapt to the social enterprise or face complete obsolescence.
Social enterprise software’s obligation is to deliver processes and culture oriented around people first, defined by the amplification and incentivization of service to others. I remember talking with Andrew Gilbert at Yammer, and he told me that one of the biggest determinants of uptake in a company was whether management participated in using Yammer and led by example. The bottom-up distribution and adoption model relies on internal champions to build community within a company’s network, and community building is made up of acts of service. It doesn’t result from demands for participation or IT’s imposition. That means that everyone needs to get down and dirty and adopt a servant’s mentality, and software’s job is to amplify those behaviors. What’s at stake isn’t just adoption of some piece of software within a company, it’s the wholesale transformation of a company’s culture.
In The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer write about the “crisis of disengagement” at work, a $300 billion per year problem of lost productivity. I’m reminded of what Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. wrote to young lawyers setting out for a career in law in his seminal essay, The Path of the Law, emphasizing the curiosity and drive for fulfillment, purpose, and truth that compel individuals to participate in the knowledge economy.
[A]s Hegel says, “It is in the end not the appetite, but the opinion, which has to be satisfied.” To an imagination of any scope the most far-reaching form of power is not money, it is the command of ideas. If you want great examples, read Mr. Leslie Stephen’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, and see how a hundred years after his death the abstract speculations of Descartes had become a practical force controlling the conduct of men. Read the works of the great German jurists, and see how much more the world is governed today by Kant than by Bonaparte. We cannot all be Descartes or Kant, but we all want happiness. And happiness, I am sure from having known many successful men, cannot be won simply by being counsel for great corporations and having an income of fifty thousand dollars. An intellect great enough to win the prize needs other food besides success. The remoter and more general aspects of the law are those which give it universal interest. It is through them that you not only become a great master in your calling, but connect your subject with the universe and catch an echo of the infinite, a glimpse of its unfathomable process, a hint of the universal law.
100 years later, Amabile and Kramer’s work uncovers that the #1 motivator for employees at work is daily progress towards a meaningful goal. More interesting, perhaps, is their discovery that a setback, however minor, can have a greater negative impact on inner work life than progress can have in the positive direction. A manager’s job then is merely to lead with a compelling vision and provide service by removing blocks that cause setbacks and impediments to progress, and then stay out of the way. This model of leadership and management can be poignant for those who’ve sought pleasure in work but have been stifled by a manager who serves himself first.
The place where the servant leader and the social enterprise meet is a place where an individual’s professional aspirations and drive are enabled at scale and the organization succeeds because the employees’ visions align. Servant leadership is a culture that spreads and nourishes an organization by leveraging networks and structured engagement. Greenleaf lays out a test for answering the question, “How does one know the servant?” that might equally apply to technology as it does to persons: is it “strong, able, dedicated, dominating, authority-ridden, manipulative, exploitative — the net effect of whose influence diminished other people”, or does it “build up people and [make them] stronger, and healthier?”
Stacy-Marie Ishmael: Founder, Editor, and Reporter
Stacy-Marie Ishmael contains multitudes. Currently, she’s the founder and editor of Galavant Media and an adjunct at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Previously at the reins of FT Tilt, an emerging markets news service, as a co-founder and editor, she has also reported for the Financial Times and FT’s financial blog Alphaville.
We talked with Stacy-Marie about the challenges of running a news startup and how she gets the better of distractions and deals with a career transition.
With FT Tilt, you were in charge of a team from all over the world — Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, London, Sao Paulo. What was it like starting a new project this way?
The challenge for me was how do I get these people to think like a team. How do I get them to feel like these are their colleagues even if they have never met?
One of the things I did very early on was to have a call that everybody has to dial into, no matter what you’re doing. That became one of the spaces where they could hear each other’s voices.
The second thing is we had two different Skype chats. We had one that was called General Tilt chatter, and that was the watercooler Skype chat. That was when they were like, “hey guys, what up, have you seen this hilarious cat video?” as if they were all sitting next to each other.
Then there was the “official” Skype chat. We needed to get stuff done, so I didn’t want to have that buried in the general chatter because it would be like shouting across a crowded newsroom “can somebody edit my story?!” so separating them worked really well.
It’s interesting that you thought it was important not to shut down the watercooler chat.
It was a social lubricant in a sense because otherwise it would have been a very formal working relationship. I think that was one of the key things that helped them build camaraderie.
How did you deal with the challenges of starting a new news service?
One of the things I’ve learned is that whatever goals you set will be what people work toward, and in a startup environment, those will change all the time. One of the things I tried to do with the team is say, here are our basic outcomes and I want your ideas on how we should get there. So I said, hey, you’re covering Russia, how many stories do you want to have done, what kind of traffic would you like to see, that kind of thing.
Then my job became not telling them what to do but making sure they were on track to achieving the goals they set for themselves. I found that that worked really well because if somebody says, “hey, this is what I want to do,” it’s not a case of “hey, this is what you have to do.”
What about the times where you have to say exactly that?
Yeah, there are always times where you say “this is what you have to do.” But once you get to the point where the team feels invested in whatever they’re doing, they’re very, very receptive to that.
Right now, you’re in a bit of a transition period career-wise. How do the work habits you’ve cultivated cross over to help you?
One of the ways I was using iDoneThis is whenever I sent an e-mail or followed up with somebody, one of the things I’d say was, e-mailed my resume or got in touch with these potential references. Having it written down as kind of a mental prompt to what’s the thing that I need to do next, I found that to be very helpful.
Sometimes, frankly, I would be embarrassed if I didn’t accomplish anything. I feel bad if I don’t get to write down that I went for a run today. Because it’s very easy when you’re in a transition period to feel like because there isn’t anything to do, you can’t do anything.
I also find that I can get bogged down in projects, so I need to cut them up into bite-size pieces. That’s kind of how I’ve had to approach this transition period, like there’s no way I can go through the process of re-editing my resume for the first time in six years or doing all of these cover letters. So what small tasks can I do to get this done? Revamp your LinkedIn profile, you can do that in ten minutes. Then when you update your LinkedIn profile, you’ve got to update your CV, so it’s gamifying my life in a sense, like mission accomplished, a good way of staying on track. I’m not getting distracted.
Do you find that distraction is one of your main obstacles?
One of my issues is focus. I get distracted extremely easily. Have you seen the movie Up? I’m like the talking dog whenever he sees a squirrel. My main thing is that I need goals to help me focus. So I wake up in the morning and I think, here’s what I need to get done today, or here’s what I’m working toward. It’s very helpful. Otherwise it’ll be 4 pm and I have instapapered 5000 articles and done nothing else all day. Once I’ve started writing, once I’ve achieved that kind of flow state, it’s fine, but it’s the getting there process that’s not so straightforward.
So how do you set goals for yourself at the beginning of the day? How do you get into that flow?
This is one of the things I really like about iDoneThis — it lets me look back at what I achieved for a period, and it helps me see patterns.
I started noticing that on the days when I got out of bed really early and I went for a run or went to the gym or went to spin class, I got three times as much done than as on the days when I get up slightly later. For me, there’s a direct correlation between waking up early and doing some kind of exercise and having an incredibly productive day. That’s not something I would have noticed, had it not been for keeping track of that and looking back at my calendar.
You mentioned in an e-mail that you also use iDoneThis to keep in touch with your friends? It’s one of the first times I’ve heard of using iDoneThis in a social sense.
I have this crazy all-over-the world group of friends that are drawn from people that I grew up with in Trinidad and when I went to LSE [London School of Economics], which is the kind of school where it’s more than 60% international students, and they’re not on Facebook. E-mail is such a horrible way of staying in touch with groups of people. So I thought, here’s this group of people that I know, they’re doing cool things, but I’ve got no idea what they’re up to in a smaller space of time. I’ll get a big 6-month update from somebody like, “Hey! I got married!”
But when you’ve got this daily thing, I feel like it fleshes out the relationship in a way you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. When you have lunch with them, you get that background noise, but when you’re only seeing somebody maybe once or twice a year, you only get the headlines because the background noise you feel like it’s too unimportant to talk about.
You’ve accomplished so much already. What would you love to be doing next?
The main thing I want in my next job is to learn different skills. I know how to be a reporter, but I would like to be a lot more on the business side of things. I’m more into product development, project management, so editing from a different point of view —still seeing things to completion but instead of just words, you’re helping a whole new company or a whole new team.
“More satisfied and engaged employees perform better. In a Towers Watson study of some 90,000 employees across eighteen countries, companies with the most engaged employees reported a 19 percent increase in operating income, and a 28 percent growth in earnings per share. Companies whose employees had the lowest level of engagement had a 32 percent decline in operating income, and an 11 percent drop in earnings.”—
Tony Schwartz, "Transforming the Way We Work," HBR
Investing in your employees’ happiness feeds the company’s bottom line. What do you do in your workplace to engage and satisfy employees?
James Chin is a professional poker player living in Las Vegas, Nevada. He has a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from The University of Texas.
As a professional poker player, creating and maintaining flow is of great importance. It’s often the difference between a winning hand and losing your shirt.
What is flow? To me, it’s the feeling of being perfectly adapted to my environment. My working environment is the poker table. Here’s how I do it.
Genuine study of craft. Every situation I encounter at the poker table, I’ve thought through before in my head.
Reading poker books, watching poker videos, analyzing hands away from the table, and playing many hands while at the table with a deliberate thought process give me confidence that I know what the correct play is.
From genuine study comes genuine confidence.
Structure. I make sure that I practice good bankroll management — only playing a certain level of stakes if I have a minimum number of buyins for that stakes such that risk of total ruin is vanishingly small — so that the costs of my poker decisions aren’t so high that they cause me to make risk-averse and sub-optimal plays rather than the plays I know are correct for the situation.
Creating flow feels relatively simple once I have the correct form down and the freedom from fear to use that form.
Mantra. Maintaining flow is still another matter. Poker is similar to life in that even if I make the correct decision, at times, the result will still be negative due to factors outside of my control.
At times like these, it’s easy to slip into a sub-optimal thought process where I dwell on what could have been instead of staying present in the moment and continuing to make the best decision for hands I’m currently involved in.
What helps in these instances is having a mantra that centers me back on the action. It may sound silly, but one mantra that’s been effective for me is a lyric from the film Before Sunset: “Let me sing you a waltz.”
Whenever I think about that scene and that song, I’m immediately flooded with a sense of calm. And just through the swingy nature of the song, I internalize the feeling that swings (in life, in poker) are natural and not something to dwell on.
How do you create and maintain flow?
Study the structure of your field and practice so that you’re confident you know the fundamentals intimately, make sure the cost of failure isn’t so high that it inhibits you from aiming for the lines, and be present, even in the face of difficulty.
Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus—these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify… Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.
Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.
There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.
The wonder of Silicon Valley has been its rich history of producing incredibly capital efficient companies operating at massive scale. No doubt part of that achievement lies in the capital efficiency of software engineering itself where technology gives incredible leverage to create and disrupt established industries. Nevertheless, as a company scales, individual engineers need to work together in concert which results in the industry-agnostic problem of people management.
Unique from other industries, Silicon Valley’s natural inclination is not simply to find a solution to people management, it’s to create a scalable management model. Of course, technology is the natural place to turn.
During Google’s growth stage, Larry Schwimmer, an early software engineer, stumbled upon a solution deceptively simple, but one that persists to this day at Google and has spread throughout the Valley. In his system called Snippets, employees receive a weekly email asking them to write down 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.
A number of the top Silicon Valley startups have similar processes. At Facebook, they have a system called Colbert where weekly check-ins are logged. Square employees, for example, send weekly reports directly to the COO Keith Rabois. The elite engineering shop Palantir requires a weekly email to managers detailing what got done last week and what’s planned for the upcoming week.
The Snippets process at any scale is a compelling productivity solution, and companies of all sizes have adopted it — some, like SV Angel, rich in Google DNA, do daily snippets. The process forces employees to reflect and to jot out a forward-looking plan for getting stuff done, all while requiring a minimal disruption in the employee’s actual work.
Setting aside time on a daily or weekly basis to reflect on the day is a powerful productivity hack. In The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer showed the counterintuitive conclusion that progress toward a meaningful goal is the #1 motivator for employees at work, not financial motivation or downward pressure. Professor Amabile prescribes 5 minutes per day of reflection, religiously protected by bosses, centered around the progress and the setbacks of the day. Simply put, employees connected to their work and its progress are happier and more productive.
On the flip side, Snippets works because it has a minimal disruption in employee flow because it works asynchronously and without facetime. It allows for a maker schedule — large blocks of time dedicated to concentrated progress on work — rather than breaking up an engineer’s day into a manager’s schedule to suit a manager’s need to manage. At Palantir, they do email snippets because they have a very strong culture against meetings. In addition, email as an interface avoids the issues with, for instance, CRMs, where employees spend valuable time logging into a system and entering highly structured information or they don’t use it at all.
Google turned periodic email updates as a process into a scalable management solution, leveraging technology, through automation, data storage and data retrieval. An individual’s Snippets are transparent across the organization and are linked to an individual’s internal resume in its MOMA system which connects individual employees to the work of team members and others within the company. It can kill political squabbles, the core problem of people management, by providing a record of what’s been done.
Put differently, Snippets is a management process that scales because transparency means that individual engineers can manage themselves and individual engineers can manage each other without having to go through a middleman. It’s the disruptive power of peer-to-peer for management centered around atomic units of work.
Silicon Valley’s focus of work around the work itself is still an ongoing competitive advantage. Compare it to the East Coast and you’ll see a stark contrast in the importance of dress and facetime at the office. Being work-centric means focusing manically on how to formulate process to eliminate all the cruft. Most engineers at Google, Zynga, Palantir, Square, etc. do often end up finding the process of Snippets and OKRs to be annoying and unnecessary — at the same time, many of them admit that they were their most productive when they closely tracked their Snippets and OKRs (objectives and key results) and that much of the autonomy and freedom that’s characteristic of top software engineering shops in the Valley could be attributed to Snippets doing its work of people management secretly, in silence.
I’m often surprised by how often I meet VCs/investors who seem to express interest in hearing my personal story of how I ended up going from being a math nerd to working as a big firm corporate lawyer to running a startup. I remember telling Brad Burnham at Union Square Ventures something self-deprecating — like, “Oh it’s boring” — in an attempt to move the conversation away from questions I imagined he was asking merely as a courtesy, but in that moment and moments like it, I forget — I am a young guy living the dream.
I’m reminded of Randy Pausch’s lecture on achieving your childhood dreams and enabling the childhood dreams of others as two of the best things in life.
My dad is a math professor. He loves to do math, but he also drips with pride at his students’ accomplishments. I found out that he recently offered his own summer salary to support his graduate student. VCs exist to make money, but they share a similar, important institutional role — to put capital in the pockets of the next generation of entrepreneurs. One generation enabling the childhood dreams of the next is the process of technological and intellectual advancement.
To be able to relate to a professor, no doubt you have to show resourcefulness and tenacity in problem solving. My dad refused to give partial credit to students who left his exams early. He taught me that if I finished an exam early, I should do the entire exam again on the back of the test without looking at my work. If a student had shown up before at office hours, she’d get the benefit of the doubt.
But most important of all, I think — be pure of heart. For example, there’s no worse student than the one who asks, “Is this going to be on the exam?” Intrinsic motivation manifests an effervescence that’s a gravitational force to investors, potential hires, and customers and users. It makes it easy to speak freely and connect with others with an open heart, and it transforms a pitch into the most natural thing in the world.
Wanting to report what you’ve gotten done is a perfectly natural inclination. Before today, we had a rudimentary CSV export file and the option to copy and paste, but no doubt, iDoneThis users deserve better.
Click and drag on the calendar to highlight multiple days’ worth of accomplishments. Where the yellow circle is in the image above, you’ll see 3 icons. Plain text, PDF, and email.
The plain text export will make it much easier to copy and paste your dones, the PDF button will give you a nice report of what you’ve gotten done, and the email icon will let you send off your accomplishments to anyone you choose.
Rashik Parmar, President of IBM's Academy of Tech, on Work and Dones
Every company needs to re-invent it self regularly. Without guiding principles that are more than financially motivated, they will struggle with the transformation to capture new value.
- Rashik Parmar
We took time to catch up with Rashik Parmar, the President of IBM’s Academy of Technology. From across the pond, he shares with us his greatest Done from 2011, his work process, and the future of review processes in large corporations.
Rashik, tell us about yourself in three sentences. What do you do and why do you do it? What do you love about your job?
I have worked for IBM for 28 years and am currently the President IBM Academy of Technology. My passion is applying technology to solve real world problems. In my current role, I lead over 5,000 people around the world and hopefully inspire a wide range of new technology solutions.
Tell us about PBCs at IBM. What are they, what purpose do they serve? Where do you think the annual review process in large corporations is headed? Will they ever die out?
We call them Personal Business Commitments. I think everyone needs a personal set of values and goals that are meaningful and motivational. Some of the goals need to align with the corporation - otherwise you need a new job! I think that corporations that live by a set of values and have clear goals that are social, economic and environmental will succeed. IBM is in a good place here. The Smarter Planet Agenda along with the values provide an enduring foundation.
Every company needs to re-invent itself regularly. Without guiding principles that are more than financially motivated, they will struggle with the transformation to capture new value.
Routine is important for a technical person such as yourself. Tell us, what’s the first thing that you do when you arrive at the office? Before you leave?
I maintain various lists which track the next action against all the “open projects”. I skim through those and decide what I want to get done today. I pick a realistic set, so that I can overachieve. I then go through my mail (very quickly as per GTD) and see if anything else needs to be added to the list. Finally, I review my diary and get to work.
You’ve been an active user of ours for a while now. How and why do you use iDoneThis?
It is great to spend a few minutes to reflect on what I have achieved, and it is fantastic to have one place to document that. Then, on a quarterly basis, I review what I to have hoped to achieved and re-plan my long term goals. I am a strong believer/user of the GTD method from David Allen.
What was your greatest accomplishment, or “done” if you will, from 2011? What are your goals for 2012 and how will you accomplish them?
Tough question! For 2011, my greatest Done was defining 5 models for how technology can and is disrupting industries and using these as an innovation technique with clients.
For 2012, I want to bring the vision for the Academy to life. To accomplish this, I’m developing a complex programme of work based on some specific themes including: Technology, Client Innovation, Affiliate Engagement, IBM Brand/Strategic Alignment, Geographic Alignment.
Maybe we’ll visit you in the UK someday. Just in case, how do you take your coffee?
I prefer black coffee - at most a couple of times a day. I also like “fruity teas” - the flavours help to calm the stresses of daily challenges.
“Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”
“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
"Getting up every morning and looking into the mirror, asking myself: ‘Do I like what I am doing?” After every full day, I do the same in the evening. Whilst I write my next day’s to do list, I reflect on my achievements. And by doing this, I also try to listen as good as I can how much fun and fulfillment I have gotten. If there are too many days in a row that I can’t answer with a loud ‘Yes’, something is up – I am not happy. And I aim to change things around sharply. Very sharply sometimes." - Steve Jobs (Thanks to our blog reader, M. Kelley, who shared this excellent quote with us!)
“He who every morning plans the transaction of the day and follows out the plan, carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life.” - Victor Hugo
“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” – Bruce Lee
“Schedule your time well. When I know what I am doing from hour to hour I get more done. Write it all in the day’s calendar, what you want to accomplish and in what time frame.” - Gwyneth Paltrow
Dictionary Evangelist and founder of Wordnik.com, Erin McKean spreads the good word about words. Former editor in chief for American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press and editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2E, Erin also shared her quest to redefine the dictionary itself in a 2007 TED talk.
That redefined dictionary is Wordnik.com. Erin explains, "What we’re really trying to do is map the whole language. We really want to transform the way people relate to meaning. We want to give you a 360-degree view of what that word does.”
We spoke with Erin about her passion-driven career and running a start-up. Plus, we get her expert opinion on iDoneThis’s name.
Your career has clearly been shaped by your passion for words and lexicography. What motivated you to actually work within these fields?
It just felt like a really compelling thing to do. The funny thing is, my hobby is sewing but I have absolutely no desire to do it professionally in any way. I just want to sew for myself. I think that’s probably the difference — how compelled you feel to share what you like with other people.
Did you already have a clear idea of what you wanted to build with Wordnik or was the result more organic?
A little bit of both, because at the beginning we weren’t sure that making this map was going to be even possible given how big English is. But we knew that making a dictionary was not going to be enough.
So Wordnik captures how language evolves with technology.
Yeah, that’s a lot of fun. Because the map that we make changes as people use it. You look up something that we’ve never seen before — we add that to the map, even if there’s no data there. It’s like we pencil it in waiting for the meaning to arrive.
Lexicographers are always playing catch-up. We’re always chasing the language. We don’t produce the language, we report the language so we’re always a step behind, but I’m hoping to make that a baby-step behind and not like a seven-league-boot-step behind.
How has working on Wordnik been different than working on a print dictionary?
I love working with software engineers. The ingenuity and the pride they have in making the impossible possible, not just barreling through but doing it as elegantly as possible.
I’m envious in a way, because their words actually make things. So I’ve been trying to pick up a little bit of coding as well because that seems to me like the ultimate interesting words.
Right, because coding is a language too.
Yeah! And it’s much more regular. It has to be a certain shape. It’s like Shakespearean plays. It has to be in iambic pentameter or else it’s not Shakespearean.
Have your work habits changed since becoming a founder of a start-up?
When I first started working on dictionaries, the joke was that every day was like Sesame Street, like today is sponsored by the letter P. You’d spend a lot of time on one letter. But now as a founder, my job is mostly to do whatever needs most doing that day.
You’ve also found time to write a novel.
I’m kind of an accidental novelist. Before I worked on The Secret Life of Dresses, I really didn’t ever intend to write one. Or if I did, it was going to be science fiction and full of angry robots. But I’m really happy that I did and it was a really tremendous experience, kind of like running a marathon.
I’m trying to get deep into another one. I’m trying to set aside time for writing. It used to be that I could fit in writing into the empty spaces of the day, but startups don’t really leave that much time. Unfortunately, it’s a little bit of a zero sum game.
How does iDoneThis fit into that schedule?
It’s nice to have iDoneThis which is so relatively unstructured that I can put down anything. It’s much more reporty. Even though I love some to-do list programs, by the time I check the little tick-box, the task has changed so much that it bears very little resemblance to what I originally said needed to be done. So what I’m checking off doesn’t feel like the real thing.
I tend to be really playful with it. I’m really writing to myself. So instead of writing “answered e-mail”, I tend to write things like “email email email email email email” to kind convey how much email I was actually answering.
I make sure that I record things that wouldn’t normally be in my to-do list, like if I get a funny text from my son who’s 11, or if I have a particularly good run that day I try and note it down, ‘cause I don’t want to have a separate program where I’m like, here are nice things that my child did and here’s my workout log.
As someone whose work focuses on words and language, what do you think about the name of iDoneThis?
Oh, I actually like iDoneThis as the name for the product! I think it’s very lighthearted and “iDidThis” sounds — it’s just not as fun. For some reason “done” sounds more complete. Like you could do something and have it still not be done. And even something that you “did” could still not be done. But when you’ve done something, it is over. I think it’s memorable and that’s an important point.