Nate’s Thoughts On Work

June 2020: Two years ago on a long plane ride, I wrote these notes for myself and my friends. Sharing here with some light updating for anyone else who finds it useful.

This is a living document summarizing some of the practices I’ve personally found to enable (1) peaceful / calm work practices that are (2) effective at accomplishing difficult projects which (3) have measurable, positive impact on myself, my team, and my customers. Your mileage may vary, so take with a large grain of salt. :)

Personal Productivity

Opt-out of the attention game

Nearly all of us allow our attention to be splintered by a million apps that are honed to steal our time. Netflix’s CEO famously boasted that their competition is sleep. How crazy is that - an app is competing for our time with one of our most basic biological functions as human beings… and it’s winning. We’ve been trained to listen for phone notifications, refresh our inboxes, and respond to instant messages instantly. It’s a toxic addiction that corrodes the productivity of modern professionals.

Put your phone on permanent Do Not Disturb and turn off the volume. Close your email tab and only check at regularly planned times - maybe twice a day. If you need to be available to people more urgently, open chat only, but keep email closed.

Stop being busy

The appearance of busyness is usually a sign of failure. Whether driven by toxic work culture (“burning the midnight oil”), failure to prioritize (“I can do it all”), or errors in planning/execution (“working late to fix what I broke”), working long hours, rushing from meeting to meeting, or dashing off weekend emails creates a spiral of doom (low sleep, low personal time, and low energy drives errors which necessitate more work, causing the spiral to continue).

Nothing is often better than something. Instead of doing fake work, buggy work, wrong work, or just unnecessary work, spend time doing nothing. Go for a walk, get a coffee, take a nap.

Do more of less

Stop glorifying multitasking and start going deep. The Alpha Go team didn’t win by building 36 different game engines, they won by focusing on Go first. Do more of less and move on once you’ve won there.

Put on your own oxygen mask first

You know that annoying video they play before every flight? “In the event of depressurization, oxygen masks will drop from the panel above your head. Please put on your own mask before helping others”? As it turns out, that’s good advice for life and work. Prioritize your mental and physical health, prioritize your education, prioritize your personal life, prioritize your sleep. THEN you’ll be ABLE to help others.

Sleep more

The dangerous glamorization of “not needing to sleep” is wrong (output is not linearly correlated to time) and damaging to both your psychological wellbeing as well as (ironically) your productive output. Sleepy people make more mistakes, damage more relationships, work more slowly, and generally just run in the wrong direction more often.

Meditate daily

It’s incredibly simple - just find a quiet space, play a simple soundtrack or app (I use Oak), and practice for 10 minutes. I’ve found midday works best for me, just before lunch, to essentially reboot my brain.

Team Productivity

Meetings are landmines

A “quick” 30 minute meeting destroys the productivity of the 90 minutes surrounding it. Just 3 meetings scattered throughout a day can effectively guarantee that no deep work will get done between meeting prep time, meeting time, and brain retooling time.

This doesn’t mean all meetings are bad - some are incredibly valuable. Just be conscious about how you schedule meetings (ideally on days of the week and times of the day when it’s not interrupting focused work), be respectful of who’s invited, and be willing to politely decline or reschedule meetings where you aren’t needed or where the time can be improved.

Automate repetitive tasks

Treat your processes with the respect they deserve and make sure your core systems are running smoothly. You’re not on this earth to copy/paste daily updates in spreadsheets - Google search some light scripting and automate repetitive tasks. See this fantastic xkcd to know when to do something manually and when to automate.

Act like a Venture Capitalist

Be honest about where you’re investing your limited hours. Most good work falls into three categories (1) short-term pay off - the critical path, (2) longer-term pay off - making bets that might pay off over time and building your skill set, (3) loss aversion work - doing things needed to not lose what’s been won. All other work should be avoided.

Pass the torch

No one person should never be irreplaceable - a good team cross-trains for both redundancy and professional growth. As you build projects, start with the exit plan in mind. Is your documentation setting up the next person for success?

Get help early and often

All humans are constantly at different stages across a range of “skill ladders”. Just as you pass the torch on your current strengths, find others to light your torch on new strengths. It saves you time, makes your team more productive, and gives the person you’re asking a chance to enjoy being the expert!

*There is of course some point at which a question can be better answered by, but in my experience 90% errors I’ve seen tend to be the other type: spending 2 hours trying to find a 5 minute answer.

**Last caveat: changeover time is real, so unless something is actually on fire, send an email. If something is on fire, a ping may be justified.

Eliminate uncertainty

A perfect example is tech’s current infatuation with “unlimited vacation days”. Everyone knows they’re not really unlimited, and as a result self-limit, often below a reasonable level. Much better to simply be specific in the first place.

Project Productivity

Very little matters

The 8020 rule is real, but it’s actually more like 955. Focus on the few decisions that matter, and don’t give a second thought to any of the others. This is true in most of life. True innovation comes not in doing EVERYTHING differently, but in doing ONE THING differently and everything else the same. Better to be an incrementally positive impact today than a “before their time genius” who fails to achieve any real impact.

Invert scope creep

Never add more, but frequently remove that which can be deprioritized.

Replace deadlines with budgets

Instead of giving yourself a 6 week DEADLINE and burning out trying to bite off more than you can chew, give yourself a 6 week BUDGET and prioritize where you would like to spend that time. Then be honest: if you want to do more you can either (1) deprioritize something else at work or (2) increase your work hours and deprioritize something outside work (and usually your long-term success - see “Sleep More” above).

Don’t take risks; manage risks

Don’t take risks; manage risks. We glorify risk takers as brave heroes. That’s stupid. Some risk is necessary but mostly it’s just reckless and lazy. Invest in understanding the risks, protecting the downside, and stepping out in confidence.

In the parkour world, we have a mantra: to be and to last. So many people see parkour as an exciting sport full of fancy tricking and roof gap jumping. It certainly can be, but that usually doesn’t last. For most of us, parkour is about intense discipline, driving steady, slow personal growth in healthy movement. Being is easy; lasting is hard.

Stop doing things; plan more deeply

Seek to understand. Then plan. Then plan again. Seriously, people spend an inordinate amount of time doing unnecessary or even damaging things that a little more planning could have avoided.

As Abraham Lincoln probably didn’t say, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”.

Or as Peter Drucker probably did say, “There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.”

Influence / Storytelling

No one cares how hard you worked

When presenting, the temptation is to share what you DID (“talked with 200 customers, realized that offline mattered, wrote a 500 line query to identify offline usage on planet Mars”). No one cares.

What people will want to hear is what you LEARNED (“turns out offline usage is critical in Mars for people commuting by space shuttle”). But even that’s just interesting trivia.

What people really want to hear is what you RECOMMEND (“we need to email all Martian commuters who aren’t currently aware of offline mode”).


Further reading

Deep Work by Cal Newport

It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Inspired by

David Blane’s guide to parkour