Separating work from play

A recent post by Seth Godin has showed up multiple times in my feed reader recently that has ignited some old ideas. As with most of Seth’s post this one is short and tight with a good lesson tucked into the end. While you should read the whole thing if you’re in any sort of creative profession, here’s the pithy one liner you need to remember:

Simple but bold: Only use your computer for work. Real work. The work of making something.

This ties in well with a tweet by the erstwhile _why the lucky stiff that I came across a few weeks ago:

when you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. your tastes only narrow & exclude people. so create.

Creating and making things is important. And not just on a one-off, once in a while manner, but on a regular, consistent, day-to-day basis. The reason that most of us get into programming, writing, designing and related fields is that we loved building things. Let’s face it: the joy of making something is pure, unadulterated crack. Sure it’s hard to get started and it can be even harder to keep going when things don’t go the way you want them to. And by the time we get done, we’re drained and tired and just want to sleep. But the rush of taking something out of our minds, something that was just a thought and putting into a definite shape and form is unequaled.

Unfortunately, as Seth Godin says, we’re using the same tools for both work and play and that doesn’t turn out well. It’s hard to concentrate on writing or hacking when there are email and Twitter alerts clamoring for our attention. And it’s not just the momentary interruptions. Even if you aren’t getting bothered by notifications, it’s hard to gather the mental energy to create when it’s easier to play a game or check the latest Internet happenings. Seth Godin’s solution is actually deceptively simple: use separate machines for work and play. In fact, this is something that I had written about in my rules for computing happiness.

Originally I had planned to wait until graduate school to put this division into effect. Since I was going to get a work machine form the department I would use it for work only. There would be no social software on it, no Facebook or Twitter, no RSS feeds and maybe not even email. I would have a separate Macbook for my non-work stuff, social or not. I’ve heard horror stories about graduate students hemorrhaging time until suddenly it’s five years later and the thesis is only half done. I did not plan on being one of them.

I considered keeping my current setup, but Seth’s post led me to think if I could make any quick, effective changes. The answer was staring me in the face. I’ve had a Google Chrome netbook for a few months now that comes with just the ChromeOS. However there is a developer switch that you can use to unlock it. Yesterday I flipped the switch and installed Ubuntu. I now have a lightweight, portable, lightning fast machine that I can use for getting work done. Also since this is a clean install I can consciously avoid installing stuff that has no place on a work machine. I have the standard Gnome terminal, Emacs and Firefox 4.0 and that’s it. There isn’t even music or a media player. Since I always carry my iPod Touch, that can be my ‘play’ machine. It has all the distractions that I indulge in and my entire music library (which isn’t that big).

I’ve been playing the productivity game long enough to know that no technological tool or setup is a silver bullet for the problem of wasting time. The new setup is going to work only if I use it properly and consistently. There is going to be some work involved to break my old habits and set new, better ones but this is a start. Someday I’ll get around to reforming my other machines but till then this work/play setup will do nicely.

Sunday Selection 2011-03-26

Around the Internet

iPad 2 is not revolutionary, but it is great I’ve been lusting after an iPad for a while now and with this refresh I think I’m going to finally crack and get one. This review is worth a read if you’re considering getting one (or wondering what all the fuss is about). It explains why the iPad is likely to be the best tablet on the market for a while (even when all the others stop being vaporware).

How Kickstarter Became a Lab for Daring Prototypes and Ingenious Products I haven’t invested in any Kickstarter projects (starving college student + I’m on a minimalism kick) but I think it’s a great idea that is doing some measurable good in the world. And helping create some beautiful products in the process. Required reading for anyone starting a business or service organization.

The Einstein Principle: Accomplish More By Doing Less This is an older article to offset the other two. I’ve been thinking a lot about focus and concentration, both in terms of mentally energy and actual physical doing-stuff. There’s no big secret revealed here and we’ve probably heard the facts already. But every now and then we need to calm down, take a breath and be reminded to focus on what’s important.

From the bookshelf

Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience While digesting the wisdom of the Internet is definitely fun and worthwhile, sometimes you have to go back to basics. This book gets cited a lot in articles on productivity, focus and time management. It’s the distilled wisdom of one man’s journey to understand what makes life worth living from a spiritual and scientific viewpoint. If you’re only going to read one book on self-improvement or time management, this is it.

Software

Instapaper and Readability After my last tribute to the resurgence of web reading how could I not recommend these two wonderful pieces of software? Part web service, part mobile app, these two will definitely make reading on the Internet a much better experience.

The Reading Revolution

The Web is in the middle of a reading and design revolution. And I’m not talking about the demise of the erstwhile <blink> tag. We’re seeing the rediscovery of the web as powerful document and knowledge transfer platform just as the Renaissance saw the rediscovery of Classical knowledge and wisdom. Independent of the rise of the online video and music people are also reading on the web, now more than ever. And there is no shortage of words, paragraphs, ideas and stories to read. Flexible web typography, the popularity of clean, elegant designs and the increasingly sophisticated rendering engines in modern browsers are helping to sustain and fuel our reading needs.

At the heart of this resurgence of reading are technologies that fundamentally change the experience of reading on the web. First on the list is Instapaper. The brainchild of Marco Arment (formerly of Tumblr) Instapaper is a web service and iOS application that is designed to one thing: make it possible and easy to save text content from the web and then present that text in a beautifully designed package. Instapaper strips out all forms of advertisement, images and anything else that distracts from the experience of just reading. To use Instapaper you sign up for an account and install the “Read Later” bookmarklet. When you find an article you want to save you just click on the “Read Later” button in your bookmarks bar and the entire text gets parsed and saved for later. There is no form to fill out and no need to set any options. You can get along really well with just the defaults.

 

Instapaper on the iPad

Instapaper on the iPad

 

Where Instapaper really shines is if you pair it with the iPhone or iPad app. These apps sync automatically to your account and download the full text of your saved articles. The articles are then presented in a no-distractions format on a clean background with beautiful fonts. Reading Instapaper articles on an iPad is one of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had, second only to the Kindle. Words and screenshots do not do the experience justice, you have to see it for yourself. If you read a lot of long-form web content it might be worth getting an iPad just for Instapaper.

But what if you want a better experience right now while you’re reading in your browser? Filling that niche is Readability — a bookmarklet backed by a web service that strips away all the fluff from a webpage and presents just the text (with any important inline images) for your reading pleasure. Like Instapaper the reading experience is carefully tuned with a good selection of beautiful fonts set on clean, neutral backgrounds. You can also get along just fine with the defaults but have some options for customizing your experience if you want (mainly font size/type and background color).

Personally, I think Readability is a more important innovation than Instapaper. While Instapaper works best with a reading device like an iPad, Readability works on mostly anything that’s text-heavy on the web. Not only does it get bad design and unwanted ads out of the way, it’s also great for sites that are have font that is just a little too small, or columns that are just a little too narrow for comfortable reading on a wide screen. Personally I find myself reaching for Readability on anything that I find even slightly difficult to read. After all, it’s right there in my browser and takes barely a few seconds to beautify a page.

Readability on the web

Readability on the web

Alongside the aesthetic fixes, Readability also has a business model for sustaining ad-free reading on the web. 70% of the monthly $5 (or more if you like) fee gets sent to the content providers. For the individual reader, $5 a month is a tiny price to pay for a great reading experience. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands (millions?) and you get a business model that doesn’t depend exclusively on selling consumer information.

Both Instapaper and Readability (and similar apps like Reeder and Tweetmag) build on a set of basic principles to offer great, compelling products. They acknowledge that people like, and will pay for, thoughtfully designed and beautiful tools. Instead of trying to offer services for “free” and turning their users into products they tighten the loop between producers and consumers both in terms of product and financing. In the process they do what I would consider a public good: making the acquisition and production of knowledge a pleasurable, worthwhile experience.

We’re living in the years of the resurgence of the web as a communication and knowledge platform, rather than just an ad delivery vehicle. While video, music, animations and visualizations are making the web a more dynamic and vibrant environment, tools like Instapaper and Readability are ensuring the existence and growth of a web “designed for reading, not a web where reading happens despite the design“. And I for one like it that way.

Attention to details

Yesterday I decided to subscribe to a friend’s RSS feed. She is currently in Japan and writing about her experiences there (yes, she’s been talking about the earthquake among other things). I’ve been carrying around my Chrome netbook since it’s more comfortable to use than my Eee PC netbook and I was using when I decided to subscribe to her feed. Chrome OS is supposed to be optimized for living on the web and RSS is definitely a part of the web. In fact, Google Reader is the probably the best web-based feed reader out there (and one of the better RSS readers period). However, despite Google’s expertise with the web and their investment in ChromeOS doing something as simple as subscribing to an RSS feed takes three separate steps.

When you get to a webpage that has associated RSS feeds, Chrome will auto-detect them and put a small RSS icon in the address bar. When you click that icon you get  a list of available feeds. That’s fine because it exposes important information in an unobtrusive form and makes more detailed information easily available. Once you click whichever link you do want to subscribe to, you get taken to another page which shows a preview of the feed articles and lets you choose which feed reader you want to subscribe to. To be fair, this step can be removed by picking a default feed reader. In my case I choose Google Reader. But instead of just adding your feed to Google Reader, you are dropped into Reader where you have to click the subscribe button to actually subscribe to the feed. Though I’ve seen far worse signup processes, this could all be boiled down to a single step process if Google Reader and Google Chrome OS worked just a little bit better together (yes, I said Google twice to make a point).

I’ve done this lots of times already, but today it really bothered me. A few hours before I subscribed to my friend’s feed, I read Andy Ihnatko’s review of the iPad 2. If you’re considering buying the iPad 2 (or just interested in it) take half an hour and go read it. I want to highlight the part of the article that really stuck with me (and fueled my annoyance at the Chrome/Reader signup process).

The iPad 2 Smart Cover is emblematic of what makes Apple a great technology company. I kind of want to hide one in my jacket pocket every time a tech company is giving me my first briefing on a new tablet, and bring it out at a decisive moment.

“Halt,” I would say, unrolling the Smart Cover and holding it before me like a talisman to ward off evil. “Did you put as much thought into your entire tablet as Apple put into this deceptively simple screen cover?”

See, I’m increasingly coming to the view that the small things matter. Not only do they matter, they are downright important and worthy of serious attention especially if they are part of products you want to get into the hands of lots of people. Unfortunately this does not seem to be clear to people and companies that are making said products, even companies that should know better.

As much as we’d like to pretend that humans are logical beings and use products and services based purely on their technical merits, the truth is we’re not Vulcans. Using beautiful, well-designed products and living in attractive environments actually makes us feel better and more productive. And when it comes to making a solid, fine-tuned experience, the small stuff matters. It really matters.

Not to sound like a total fanboy, but Apple realizes this and executes it well, and is one of the few companies that do. Interestingly enough, Apple’s penchant for polish and good design spills over into the whole ecosystem of Mac apps. OS X is the only platform where I honestly say that some applications are beautiful. The web is a becoming close second thanks to the increase in quality of rendering engines. I think this is an analog of the “broken windows theory” — Apple actively discourages broken windows on its platform. It’s own products are useful, well-designed and a joy to use. They’re continually raising the bar, in terms of hardware, software and the combined experience.

Demanding perfection and not shipping bad products is not a easy choice to make, but is certainly pays. Again, Apple last made $14 billion in profits. In profits. And is now the second largest company in the world. Companies like Moleskin, Behance and Rhodia make beautiful, thoughtfully designed stationary products and they’re not cheap. But they’re worth it. If you’re serious about creating products and services that people not only use, but want to use, then you should sweat the small stuff and work on creating the filter.

Diets and break days

Tim Ferriss’ new book “The 4 hour body” seems to have become pretty popular among hackers and programmers I follow on Twitter. Among people who I know are Alex Payne (formerly of Twitter, now BankSimple) and Sarah Gray. I’m not sure why this is the case. One reason could be that the simple, strict nature of the diet gels well with the logical thinking us programmers are used to.

The slow carb diet is simple, with a small and well-defined list of things you can and cannot eat. No “white” carbs or liquid calories and no fruit. You make some fixed meals out of non-carb, high protein ingredients and eat them in rotation. An interesting feature of this diet is that you get a once-a-week “break day”. One day every week you get to eat literally whatever you want — all the sweets and carbs and unhealthy stuff that you want. This helps fat loss by preventing your body from going into starvation mode. I think the psychological effect is just as important — you’re not starving yourself of tempting, fatty foods for an indefinite or even a long period; it’s at most another 6 days before you get to make up for all the delicious stuff you stayed away from yourself.

I’m doing this diet myself, though I will admit that I don’t stick to it as strictly as I should. In particular, skipping breakfast and drinking beer are great temptations. But I am seeing good effects and I certainly feel more healthy so I think I’m on a good path. I’m interested in taking the slow carb lessons rules and applying them to be other areas of my life. There are things in my day to day life that are poisonous (over the long term) in the same way that unhealthy foods are dangerous over years.

To start off, movies and television (including Netflix) can instantly kill off productivity. There is absolutely no way I can get serious work done with the TV or a movie going in the background, and yet I keep trying to convince myself that I can. It’s like eating a bowl of french fries with every meal even though you know all that is going straight to your waist and heart. Watching a movie while trying to “work” isn’t going to hurt me while I’m actually watching, but in the long run I get less work done (and certainly much lower quality). Unfortunately I’ve been fooling myself long enough that I’m starting to feel the effects (akin to being unable to go up a flight of steps without getting all out of breath) and something’s gotta give. Watching video during work has got to go.

The second thing that needs to go is thinking that I can get serious work done at a library or lab machine. I alluded to this in my rules for computing happiness. I use a lot of specialized software that helps me to work faster and better and I lose all of that when I sit down at a stock public machine. The only thing I can realistically get done is reading and answering email (which lives in Gmail) or using Microsoft Office. Even reading feeds or Hacker News doesn’t work because I often send stuff to Instapaper or Pinboard.in and I need bookmarklets or plugins for that. So no more public computer use unless it’s for email (or printing stuff).

On a similar note, I find it very hard to do any kind of programming work on my netbook. Even though I run Ubuntu with all my favorite software, the 10-inch screen and smaller keyboard is just a bit too small for me. I know I’m being whiny here and I’m sure there are people who crank out great code on netbooks, but I like my full size keyboards and multiple monitors, thank you very much. As such, I’m going to be phasing out my netbook over the next few months (see my nostalgia post) and so I’m going to make sure that when I need to get work done, I’m in my room sitting at my work laptop, hooked up to an external display.

Finally, and this is a biggie, is accepting that the programmer’s life is a lonely one, especially if I want to become anything resembling an expert. As a senior college student, this is really hard to stomach. I have friends I want to hang out with and I only have two months to spend with them. But spending the better part of the morning in the library working on and off while “socializing” isn’t killing two birds with one stone as I’d like to believe. It’s more like getting not much work done and having a bunch of disconnected short conversations with people as they move between classes. Like the videos, it doesn’t have a big immediate impact on my work, but it’s certainly something is building up and I can start to feel the effects. So with two months of school left I’d rather buckle down and spend mornings doing solid work and leave socializing for actual get-togethers at night and over weekends.

In many ways, what I’m planning is a productivity slow carb diet. Instead of getting short bursts of immediate feel-good I’d rather work and live in ways that have a much better long term payoff. Like slow carb, the rules are simple: no video during work, work only on personal, adequate machines and work hard, play hard. I also want to include a break day. I’ sure hours of concentrated, isolated work without entertainment for more than a few days on end will break me and cause my productivity and general happiness to plummet. So I get Saturdays off to do whatever I want — watching as many movies and as much TV as I like. Saturdays have generally been my off-days from school work, so that should work out fine. On a daily basis, lunch and dinner are never to be eaten alone. I generally have lunch with a group of close friends and I’m sure I could make similar plans for dinner. I won’t be missing out on socializing and relaxing, but won’t have it interspersed with work time either.

Balance is generally considered a good thing, but I think most of us approach it the wrong way. We tend to take a “don’t work too hard” approach to balance, whereas a better way to go about is the way the slow carb diet works. Pick a seemingly difficult (or even impossible) goal and dedicate yourself to reaching it. This will take hard work and perseverance. The balance comes from the periodic rest and refocusing that helps keep you on track. Through these changes I want to incorporate this sort of high-level balance and throw out the mediocre working-but-not-really  that I’ve been trying to get to work so far. Guess we’ll see if it works in a few months.