Tips for Productivity and Happiness at Work
Every so often, I get asked what my strategy is for "getting things done". This morning, I had a short session of mass productivity, and on my ride into work, got inspired to jot down a few tips productivity tips. Keep in mind that I grew up in the back woods of Montana with no electricity and I'm mostly Irish.
- Write stuff down. The first and most important means to getting things done is to keep a todo list. I keep mine on Ta-da List and update it daily, if not hourly. My two most important lists are "When I have time" and "This Week". I regularly re-order "This Week" for the current day.
- Quit reading e-mail and blogs. One of the ways I can tell I'm in uber-productive mode is my unread (or starred) mail piles up and I haven't read any blog posts (or blogged myself) in a couple days. I like GMail because I can easily star an e-mail after briefly skimming it. For some reason, flagging e-mail in Thunderbird or Mail.app doesn't work for me - I rarely go back and find those e-mails. With GMail, I'm always conscious I need to revisit starred messages.
- Work on open source late at night, with a beer on your desk. While I do get the opportunity to work on open source at my day job, I still find that I'm most productive at night. Maybe this is because no one bugs me via e-mail or IM, or maybe it's just because the world is asleep. The strange thing is I often find myself motivated at 3 p.m. for my 11 p.m. workload. However, when I get to 11 p.m., I'm not motivated to work on anything. I've found that cracking open a beer at 11 when I start helps me focus and quit worrying about all the other computer-related tasks I need to do. Also, on beer #2 or 3, you'll start to forget what time it is and really start getting things done. NOTE: this isn't for rookies. If you're a lightweight and get hammered on two beers - just go to bed when you start coding with one eye shut. It helps to sleep in the next day after doing this. If you finish off a six-pack before going to bed, it's probably best not to check your code in - you're probably going to spend the next day fixing it anyway. Regardless, this is a great way to get started on a new feature because you're less concerned about the details and more concerned about the big picture. I've also found that "bug fixing juice" can be great for fixing bugs - it gives you a different perspective on the problem. I told you I was Irish didn't I? ;-)
- Work disconnected. To further facilitate not checking e-mail or reading blogs, I've found that going to a coffee shop w/o connectivity is my most productive environment. They have liquid motivation in the form of coffee, and you can feed your brain with breakfast/lunch or some kind of snack. My most productive days are the ones where I show up at my local Einstein's (bagel shop) at 6 a.m., have two cups of coffee, and work with my headphones on. After the coffee and uber-productivity, I often have an awesome ride to work and barely notice the miles. NOTE: I've found that I'm more productive writing code late at night and authoring articles/books in the early morning.
- Listen to music while you work. Some noise-cancelling headphones and your favorite music can do wonders for your productivity. Of course, earbuds work just as well - whatever makes the music sound good. Good music can really help you "get into the groove" of what you're working on, regardless of whether it's writing or coding.
- Work long hours on Monday and Tuesday. This especially applies if you're a contractor. If you can only bill 40 hours per week, working 12-14 hours on Monday can get you an early-departure on Friday. Furthermore, by staying late early in the week, you'll get your productivity ball-rolling early. I've often heard the most productive work-day in a week is Wednesday.
- Avoid meetings at all costs. Find a way to walk out of meetings that are unproductive, don't concern you, or spiral into two co-workers bitching at each other. While meetings in general are a waste of time, some are worse than others. Establish your policy of walking out early on and folks will respect you have stuff to do. Of course, if you aren't a noticeably productive individual, walking out of a meeting can be perceived as simply "not a team player", which isn't a good idea.
- Sleep. While working late nights can be productive in the short term, doing it consecutively will burn you out quickly. Getting a good night's sleep can often lead to greater productivity because you're refreshed and ready to go.
- Work on something you're passionate about. If you don't like what you're doing for a living, quit. Find a new job as soon as possible. It's not about the money, it's all about happiness. Of course, the best balance is both. It's unlikely you'll ever realize this until you have a job that sucks, but pays well.
To follow up on that last point, I think one of the most important catalysts for productivity is to be happy at your job. If you're not happy at work, it's unlikely you're going to be inspired to be a more efficient person. Furthermore, if you like what you do, it's not really "work" is it?
Here is some general advice I give to folks about jobs and careers. I realize that I'm biased here because I have a good job and I've been fairly successful in my career. However, I also grew up with virtually nothing, and learned all my computer skills on my own. Therefore, I believe that anyone can be successful (meaning: happy with that they do, and financially stable at the same time) if they put their mind to it.
- If you're not happy at work, quit. I got into contracting early-on in my career (6 months out of college), so I got spoiled with good rates early on. It was also the late 90s, so you could easily switch jobs if you didn't like the one you were in. However, I've always had the policy that if you hate your job for more than 2 weeks, quit. It's just not worth it. Some people enjoy bitching about their jobs and complaining about their co-workers, so this doesn't apply to everyone. However, if you're truly miserable - quit. I've done this a couple times, and it's always led to better opportunities (even if I had to wait 3 months). Julie's done it once or twice and it's always worked out for the better. Once she even got a 20% raise by quitting her traveling-consultant gig with KPMG and going back to her old company, Qwest.
- Always try to be a contractor before a full-time employee. This especially applies to younger folks who don't need the security of insurance for the family, stock plans, etc. Contractors typically make 50% more than full-time employees and tend to be excluded from company politics that might make the workplace difficult to deal with. While you won't get billable vacation time, you will get the freedom to take however much vacation you want - as long as you get your stuff done. The higher rates can generally make up for the unbillable time while on vacation. However, if you travel too much for fun (or conferences, etc.), it's likely your year-end salary will equal that of a full-time employee. If you make good money as a contractor, you'll also get the opportunity to start your own company (to save money on taxes). This can be a great learning experience. The biggest fear that folks have about "going independent" is they'll have a hard time finding their next gig. If you're productive and blog about what you're doing, this shouldn't be a problem. I haven't had an "interview" since 2002 and haven't updated my resume since then either. Networking at your local JUG and conferences is key.
- Don't work at a company with a two-week vacation policy. I've never worked at a company with a two-week vacation policy, and I hope I never will. The two full-time gigs I've had in my career have had no vacation policy. This is usually only found in startups - but it generally amounts to "get your shit done, and you can take off all the time you want". My parents both work for the BLM (government agency) and they get 6 weeks off a year. Furthermore, they can earn "comp time" (more days off) by simply working overtime. If you have the ability to take time off whenever you want, it'll likely lead to you being more motivated to work long and hard - b/c you know when you finish that project, you're heading to Cancun for a week.
- Don't travel if you have kids. If you're single, traveling for work is pretty cool. New places, new people to meet - and seeing the world can be very cool. If you have a spouse, it's likely your desire to travel will decrease, but it's still not that bad. If it helps your career, it's probably a good move. It also helps to save money since everything you do is generally expensible. When Julie and I first met, she traveled 100% and made $20K more per year b/c of it. When you have kids, everything changes and traveling sucks. You miss their first steps, and when they get to toddler-age, they'll want to go with you. Hearing your daughter say "Daddy, can I go with you?" can be heart wrenching when you're leaving on a Sunday afternoon to spend a week with people you've never met before.
- Ask for more responsibility. If your job sucks, but the company is pretty cool - you may want to ask for a shift in responsibilities. I was once an HTML Developer at a .com. It sucked because we were constantly waiting on the Java Developers to fix bugs we found in their code. Finally, I got tired of waiting and asked my boss to show me how to fix the Java bugs. Granted, I wrote some pretty horrendous code at first, but my boss and co-workers helped a lot and w/in a year I was doing 80% of the Java Development.
- Most things can be learned by reading. If you want to learn something new (for your current or next career), the best thing to do is read. The world's knowledge resides in books and you can learn a lot. Of course, the best way to retain that knowledge is by doing, but reading is a great first step.
Those are my tips, many of them off the top of my head. I may add more as time goes on - but hopefully this helps in the meantime. Please share yours if you have any.