Lifehacks and my State of the Union address :-)

We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the important task rarely must be done today or even this week.  … But the urgent tasks call for instant action—endless demands pressure every hour and day. … The momentary appeal of these tasks seems irresistible and important, and they devour our energy. But in the light of time’s perspective their deceptive prominence fades; with a sense of loss we recall the important task pushed aside.  We realize we’ve become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent. -Charles Hummel

So as some of you know I’ve been looking more into productivity tooling and lifehacks since shortly after I started this new job back in July 2014. Microsoft as a whole is such a vast company – and there’s such a torrent of information – that quite a few very bright people struggle to keep up. I also would like NOT to be up till ten at night, getting no exercise, and not really making a lot of progress on real work. You know the saying “Some things are urgent, and some things are important – but not everything that’s urgent is important, and not everything that’s important is urgent.” I saw a lot of that in previous work – I would dump my all into a career, or a company – and my family and personal health would suffer.

So I tried the following things:

  • Don’t check email in the morning. I set “email block” meetings in Outlook from 12-1, and 4-5 daily. In the other times, turn off Outlook.
  • Eat that frog. Plan 2-3 most important (not urgent) actions on calendar and get it done.
  • Reflection. End of day – what did I do today? What will I focus on tomorrow? What could be improved?
  • Time management. Pomodoro (50 minute working cycle / 20 minute break. P.s. sitting all day is TERRIBLE for your health, even if you work out)
  • Personal fitness. Paleo diet and Crossfit mostly. I flirted with vegetarianism briefly, and even went off coffee for a month (otherwise known as the WORST MONTH OF MY LIFE)

Here’s what worked:

  • Crossfit is terrific, and so is Paleo. Changing up my diet and focusing on working out and strength training – hard as it was – was a game changer for me. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been and am losing weight, at long last. I feel like a hero around my girls, which is worth quite a bit.
  • Doing a technology detox (see the pix below) was actually a good exercise. We went without TV for a month, and I uninstalled a lot of social media apps off my phone. Guess what? Life gets better after FaceBook.
  • Not checking email in the morning made a HUGE difference in making me less reactive. If you try only one thing from this post – DO THIS.

Here’s what didn’t work:

  • I didn’t really focus on keeping Important things foremost. Too many times the more important things slipped behind the urgent issues of the day.
  • Pomodoro was NOT GREAT for me. I am thinking of retrying it in the future, but since much of my calendar is meeting driven not heads-down programming – it just didn’t apply.

Here’s my goals for the future:

  • I’m convinced that buying out the time for myself and my family first – esp with health-related things like exercise and diet – is vital for me to be really productive. So I’m going to push ahead with this. Seven days successfully on an improved diet and the odds are you’ll stick with it – yet most people THINK they lack the self-control to make this change, and so they drop out on day 4 or 5. I have all kinds of events coming up and free lunches – so saying no to this is hard – but going alcohol-free and sticking to Paleo is really good for me in all areas of life.
  • I will add to my daily diary routine more of a reflection on life and the big picture.


One last picture again. This really sums it up.


Checking in on productivity…

Enjoyed this article here on how to best be effective at work. 5 simple rules:

  1. To-do lists are evil. Schedule everything.
  2. Assume you’re going home at 5:30, then plan your day backwards.
  3. Make a plan for the entire week.
  4. Do very few things, but be awesome at them.
  5. Do less shallow work — focus on the deep stuff.

On my part, my data diet was a kinda-success. Today for example I horsed around for a few minutes (checking up on the Simpsons, Slate, “news” that really isn’t, etc) – which really stretched into nearly 90 minutes. But that’s the exception and I’m determined not to make it a habit. I do have a simple plan for today and I will kick it – just 2 important things I’ll keep a focus on until it’s done. Working out and a new diet (in September I didn’t even have coffee!) has also been a big boost to my energy level.

That’s it for now. Got to get back to work!

Being busy is a form of laziness??!

So I had a friend recommend “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Timothy Ferriss. It’s not your typical business book, and I like how he gets down to the essentials. (I think he’s a little materialistic but there it is.)

Here’s some points that made me think:

  • Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate actions. It’s a failure to set priorities.
  • The 80/20 rule – Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time.
  • Parkinsons law (tasks expand to fill the time allotted) – Shorten work time to limit tasks to the most important.
  • You should have, at most, 2 goals or tasks to do each day – and you should drive them through to completion.

So what am I going to try as a result of reading this book?

  • I’m going to go on an information diet. I’m always multitasking, walking around with a book in my hand, and never giving anything – or anyone – the attention they need. It sends the wrong message and contributes to a feeling of being overwhelmed by events – instead of in command of them. So, for 1 week, I’m swearing off newssites, TV, and even reading books (except for one hour in the evening). No web surfing except for what’s necessary for work.
  • Three times a day I’m going to ask myself – Am I being productive or just active? Am I inventing things to avoid the important?
  • I’m going to try to keep M/F as free of work as possible and use it to up my skillset.
  • I’m going to be setting my priorities every morning using Outlook calendar – but not checking my email. That’s for 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Checking email first thing in the morning is the worst thing you can do to start your day.

The Chinese Treasure Fleets and Microsoft vs Apple; and checking in on productivity

Microsoft hatchet job: Reading this article here I couldn’t help but grit my teeth. This is a little like that memorable Vanity Fair article hacking away at Steve Ballmer for being a klutz. The author basically says that while Facebook, Google, and Apple all have compelling reasons for existence – Apple with simplicity of design, Google with organizing the world’s information, and Facebook with connecting people – Microsoft currently lacks that clear distinction. As a result, there’s a brain drain where creative, talented programmers are leaving for other platforms.

This point of view is simplistic and WAY negative; it ignores the strengths of Microsoft as a company, and overemphasized the weaknesses. In my opinion, “devices and services” alone wasn’t enough of a niche for a 200K+ sized company like Microsoft; and there’s way too much competition in that space anyway. By starting from an office and meeting-type strategy – “we’re about productivity and building a platform for mobile and cloud” – that’s playing to the enterprise, MSFT’s great strength. Think about it like the board game Risk. At this point, MSFT isn’t messing around in Asia. They’ve holed up in Australia, and are stockpiling armies/cards so they can reestablish themselves. Azure, Surface, Windows 8.1, Office365, etc are all great products that are getting better – they’re starting to get a bigger footprint in the consumer space that was starting to slip away.

Microsoft made a great mistake 15 years ago not spending more on marketing; they allowed those dang John Hodgman Apple vs PC ads to define them as being stodgy and conservative. Worse was the grain of truth behind those ads; they badly missed the boat and have been playing catchup with the BYOD and tablet revolution. That being said, they’re still the best company out there for developers because of all the great ramp-up documentation that exists. I love the thinking behind Xamarin – where you can write one set of common code and still have platform-specific application development. There’s still not a company on earth that’s better able to give the guys in the trenches writing code a leg up. That’s I chose them over Oracle twenty years ago; I’d make the same call today.

In the book “Guns Germs and Steel” Jared Diamond faults a strong, gigantic central government in China as being a major contributing factor in limiting growth in China. Because if one guy (the emperor) didn’t like ‘risky’ adventures like what Christopher Columbus and others were undertaking, he could outlaw them. So, the old Chinese treasure fleets – instead of growing and taking part in the age of Exploration – rotted at the anchor in harbor, because they represented something new and scary. A European king didn’t have that luxury – he had to compete, innovate, or perish. In fact, Apple and Microsoft have very similar top-down hierarchies, and both – believe it or not – are very resistant to change. Apple was lucky enough a dozen years ago to have a true visionary at the helm who could winnow down the product line into a few compelling products – the iMac, Os X, then the iPad/iPhone/iPad and etc – and put design first, the consumer first. It already shows signs post-Jobs of losing traction in the marketplace against more nimble adversaries. Microsoft, in contrast, has suffered comparatively, but the new leadership comes from a web-first background. Microsoft’s true competition now is Google, and Microsoft’s abilities to support the enterprise far outstrip Google’s; I believe ultimately they’ll be successful in winning their way back into the minds of today’s consumer.

Time management check-in: I did an article on time management a week back. Let’s just say its been a mixed bag since then. My inbox is empty and is staying that way; I’m checking my inbox three times a day. That frees up a lot of mindspace for more important work. I do love the 1:1 format with OneNote, and I’m using that with my manager currently. I’m also scheduling my “frogs” for first thing in the morning for two hours – not every day, but when I can. The downside? I haven’t been able to use Pomodoro consistently, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for my job. Others in my role tend to be very reactive and highly responsive, since that’s what the customer base values – I need to look like them and act like them to be successful. Being offline for 50 minutes ‘focus time’ and then 20 minutes ‘break’ just won’t cut it. But, as a programmer, that would have been invaluable.

Eat that frog! Time management and taming the savage Inbox.

Living an email-driven life? Do your priorities switch by the minute? Find yourself having problems saying no? This blog might be helpful to you if you’re having problems focusing with an avalanche of things coming at you from all directions.

So I’m working from home now, and it’s been a wild ride so far. One of the first things I did was take that 2 hours I was spending a day commuting – and cut it over to more valuable activities. I’ve been walking about 4 miles a day and spending a LOT more time with my girls. It’s been, frankly, terrific. It’s also a terrific opportunity to loaf and become directionless if I let it. No one is around kicking me in the rear end, making me set priorities, and chew through to-do’s. So, how will I manage my time so I will be a responsible and effective employee WITHOUT working in a bullpen?

I decided early on not to try to work harder – but work smarter with ‘sharpening the saw’. So, I checked out some books on time management. One is called “The First 90 Days”, another “You’re In Charge – Now What?”, and then I looked at some material on the internet – and provided by Microsoft on their engineering site. I’ll get to those other two books later, but here’s what I’ve found.

  • Don’t check email first thing in the morning. This is failure to plan, and you’ll become intercept-driven. Instead eat that frog – and don’t check your email until you get at least one important task done.
  • Eat that frog. Plan out at the end of the day your 2-3 most important (not urgent) actions that you want to take. Write it on your calendar and get it done. (Very Agile!)
  • The importance of routines. At the end of the day, ask yourself – what did I do today? What will I focus on tomorrow? What could be improved?
  • Track your tasks. Use sticky notes. Use Kanban (either online or sticky notes with waiting / in progress / done columns). Use Outlook reminders, TFS, or a list in SharePoint. But for Pete’s sake, use SOMETHING.

More can be found below; I particularly found the “focus in the age of distraction” pieces interesting. But, here are the changes I’m going to try over the next week:

  1. Morning diary. This will help me keep track of where I am, and where I want to be.
  2. Pomodoro. 50 minutes working, 20 minutes break. I downloaded FocusTime, but there’s other tools available that will set your outlook/IM display to Busy – Do Not Disturb and give you scheduled blocks of productive time to focus – and then take a break to refocus.
  3. 8-10 am is disconnection time. I’ll schedule it in Outlook. I’ll also set 3 times a day to check email.

In more detail…

Overwhelmed by an Avalanche of Tasks? Frogs Versus Alligators

“If you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, you can go through the rest of the day knowing the worst is behind you. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” 

– Mark Twain


Rather than a simple to do list, try placing your tasks in one of the four following quadrants.



Think of the unappetizing frogs as the important tasks, and snapping alligators the urgent tasks of our working lives. You will find some tasks are both urgent and important. Certainly, take care of the upper-left quadrant first. But the upper right important tasks, require your devoted attention, too, or long-range projects will never get off the ground. You can address less important tasks later. And, you may find your urgent tasks may become less urgent.


Three main things to remember:

  • Plan your day and determine your most important task, whether urgent or long-range.
  • Schedule time for yourself to eat that frog.
  • Completely avoid the alligator pit. It’s not important.

Can’t focus? How To Focus In The Age of Distraction

We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the important task rarely must be done today or even this week.  … But the urgent tasks call for instant action—endless demands pressure every hour and day. … The momentary appeal of these tasks seems irresistible and important, and they devour our energy. But in the light of time’s perspective their deceptive prominence fades; with a sense of loss we recall the important task pushed aside.  We realize we’ve become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent.

-Charles Hummel

Most of us know that multi-tasking works for computers, but not humans. Not really. So, avoid context switching loss with some of these tips:

  • Avoid context switching—moving from one task or tool to another takes you out of the flow of work
  • Shut off tools like Outlook, Communicator, and Bugger
  • Block off your calendar to work on big tasks
  • Close your door
  • Work off hours
  • Avoid unnecessary meetings (when you are listed as optional)
  • Schedule meetings close together, so that your focus time is less broken up
  • Use a tool like FocusTime, Pomodoro, etc to help you disable toast alerts and set a timer to focus on what you need to. 50 minutes work, 20 minutes break is all you need. (I used to put a orange cone on top of my desk to help me concentrate, but that didn’t work too great.)


Still Can’t Prioritize? …Use OneNote to Track Your Tasks (and Look Great For The Boss!)

It’s a great idea to have a format like above in OneNote. (I’ve used both EverNote and Google Keep – OneNote is, so far, by far my tool of choice.) Create a list (Ctrl-1) with three sections – DONE, TO DO, and QUESTIONS. Right before you have your 1×1 with your manager, forward this on to him/her and use it for talking points. (P.S. it’s great come review-time as well!) It synchs with your phone, so you’ll always have it handy. Take notes during the meeting with your manager on that page. After the meeting, copy the page to a new page, change the date in the title, remove the Done items, and continue working on your updated Working On task list.

Slammed With Unreasonable Requests? Saying No With Chutzpah

Peace begins with saying No – you can’t accommodate every request. You can and should say no as part of your prioritization.  If a person comes and asks you to do something, show them the list of things you are presently working on.  Ask them to prioritize their task relative to the other task you are working on.


  • Say no, but explain why.  This is the bottom left quadrant of the Covey Quadrant system. 
  • Ask them to talk with your manager/lead.  Your manager/lead is responsible for your productivity, so if your manager/lead agrees it is important enough to work on, then you can add it to your list.
  • Don’t say No right away.  Get the person to submit their request via email, and then discuss it with your manager for their take on the request.  If you don’t feel comfortable asking your manager, ask a trusted co-worker.  Sometimes the person won’t want to take the time to type up their request and will either go to someone else or do it themselves. 
  • Suggest they contact another person who is better qualified for their request, or might have time available for the task.


If you do say No to a request, note it down and let your manager know about it during your next one-on-one.  Explain why you said no, and ask them if they agree with your decision.  Spin this as you are trying to learn when and how to say no, and are looking for their guidance. 

For more on this, check out “The Power of a Positive No“.

Living an Inbox-Driven Life? Aim for a Zero Inbox Triage Tree

The picture below says it all.