In my previous post, I talked about how creating order from chaos can lend itself towards innovation. It was inspired by this quote from a book I’m currently reading:
“Careful planning was, indeed, the water that nourished innovation.”
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson, page 412
The patterns and habits I’ve developed to help nourish innovation in my own life are based on a simple idea: people are at their most creative when given a clear, correct direction. Living in a state of chaos without direction may lead to some interesting creative thoughts and expressions, but will not yield a positive outcome. It can quickly become misguided, and produce nothing at all.
By creating a perimeter around my day, I am able to give my brain a structure to work within. The perimeter needs to be open enough to allow for innovation while being constricting enough to lead me down the correct path. The balance between the two is still a work in progress, but the results so far have been positive.
The first boundary I set is the time of day that I work. I took a look at the instances where I was most productive, and found that they all happen before 1 PM. After that guideline, my productivity drops dramatically. I know I do my best thinking in the morning, so I try to do the majority of my programming to be before that time.
Having that inflexible cutoff means that I have to go into work early. I’m normally programming by 6:30 AM every weekday. It took some getting used to, but the rewards have been tremendous. I produce better code, and my overall level of happiness has greatly increased. I’m very lucky that I can choose my own schedule.
The second limit I set is when I respond to emails. To the untrained eye, responding to emails looks like work. It has most of the traits people associate with working hard: constant communication, a hard 24 hour deadline to reply, making sure relevant people are kept in the loop.
The one thing emails lacks is that a client will never buy your product based on how many emails you’ve sent to your coworkers. You may have spent three or four hours composing a beautiful, succinct, and well rounded email. That certainly helps make a product successful, but a client cares about functionality. If they can’t see it, then it might as well never happened. By focusing on producing code over producing emails, I will have saved myself years of my life from writing and reading emails.
Don’t get me wrong, I still read emails, but I do it completely differently than I used to. When I receive an email, I quickly scan it to see if I need to act on it immediately. If so, I do whatever is required. If I can put it off, I leave it in my inbox and forget about it. I scan through my inbox after 1 PM to see if there are things I easily do. If so, I do them immediately. If not, I schedule it on my calendar to take care of later.
Once I complete an email, I move it out of my inbox into a folder called “Finished.” That allows me to quickly see the size of my inbox, and prioritize its minimization over writing code. By making email asynchronous, I free up my most productive hours of the day to focus on producing.
The third habit I’ve developed is to not check Twitter, Hacker News, etc. while in the middle of coding. Humans as a whole are terrible at multi-tasking. We like to think we’re really good at it, but we’re not. Switching contexts costs a computer CPU power, and it costs humans brain power. It sucks, don’t try it.
I work on one thing at a time now. When I am done, I can switch off onto something else just fine. But during that time, my focus is on that task alone.
The one exception to that rule is people. Consultants need to always be in the mode to help out the customer, even when it comes at a personal or development expense. If someone asks me a question while I’m working, I will either immediately answer it or have them wait a minute while I finish my current thought.
The most successful teams I’ve been on have a mentality of total responsiveness. Any member of the team should be able to ask any other member of the team any question at any time of the day. The team will produce less if I focus on my work and my work alone. This is a fundamental exception to have, but it is there for good reason.
To summarize, I do my best work before 1 PM, I respond to emails asynchronously, and I do not multi-task. These simple principles allow me to be at the top of my game every day.
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