article January 31, 2018

How I Get Things Done 

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Over the years, I've experimented with many different techniques for time- and task-management; I've read several books and far too many articles, experimented with virtually every app on the market, and at one stage even embarked on a project to build my own web application to manage my projects. (Sadly, like so many other side projects, it currently languishes in mockup hell, never to be seen again.)

Nowadays, I'm happily using Wunderlist, which does almost everything I need. In conjunction with a few regular routines and practices, right now I'm feeling more productive and organised than ever before. Here's how I do it, 2018 edition.

Lists and lists of lists

The core of my task-management process is taken from David Allen's canonical Getting Things Done book. In it, he advocates maintaining many folders, in which you store the things that need dealing with, including several 'special' folders for particular contexts. I use this same approach within Wunderlist. The special lists include:

  • @home for anything that I will be doing at home;
  • @work for any uncategorised tasks that relate to work (project-specific tasks go in project folders);
  • @chores for mundane tasks—fixing things around the house, mowing the lawn, washing the car, etc.;
  • @errands for anything that requires leaving the house or office—shopping, posting stuff, banking, that sort of thing.

In addition to these special groups, I also have a few repeating tasks that I keep separately in appropriately named groups:

  • @daily for those tasks I want to make sure I do every day—setting an agenda, writing in a journal, mindful meditation, even simple things like remembering to eat a piece of fruit every day;
  • @weekly tasks are a mixture of recurring appointments (meetings with my mentee and my manager) or maintenance of key documents (such as reviewing my personal goals list);
  • @monthly tasks are mostly boring things that I need to remember to do regularly—pay my credit card bills, submit my expenses, or reserve my car parking space.

Everything that doesn't fall into one of the categories above goes into its own task list. These tend to be divided into either work projects or personal projects, plus 'life topics' such as Fitness/Health, Finances, Car, Things To Learn and so on.

Capture everything

Another key technique I've taken from David Allen's book is to capture everything, no matter how insignificant, as soon as it occurs to you. Get it out of your head, and into a list! I do this for virtually everything, even the most mundane and boring tasks—for example, if I notice my nails are getting a little long, I'll add "Cut nails" to the @home list, since it means I can immediately forget about it, safe in the knowledge it is now on my to-do list! Relieving the mental pressure of remembering everything I want to do means I can free up brain cycles for the important stuff.

One aspect of 'classic GTD' I don't do is the idea of an 'Inbox' where all tasks are captured, and which you then "process" at regular intervals. Instead, I prefer to categorise the task at the moment I create it, since it's usually obvious where a task belongs.

However, I do try to stick to Allen's "Two minute rule": anything that will take you less than two minutes to complete should just be done there and then, rather than adding it to a list for the future.

Scheduling

I mentioned above that one of the daily tasks I perform is to create an agenda. Every day (weekdays and weekends), from the outstanding tasks that I have, I select those that I intend to deal with today, and schedule blocks of time for them in my calendar. Some are fixed (meetings, appointments, going for a run before it gets dark); others can be slotted in around them.

The amount of time allocated to each topic can vary depending on what type of work it involves. Project reviews or brainstorm sessions can be completed in an hour; a decent coding session may occupy four hours or more. I try to leave time for breaks, including a walk at lunch to get some exercise and fresh air away from my desk.

Brainstorms

Speaking of brainstorms, I'll frequently book myself a small meeting room for an hour or two (luckily my office has enough rooms that I don't feel as if I'm blocking other teams) to think through the next steps in a project or work through a UX issue. I find that in an open-plan office, it can be the only way to avoid interruptions or distractions.

I often start these sessions in a text document like TextEdit, where I'll list out the key bullet points; then I'll branch out from those into multiple levels of sub-list to form a kind of text-only mind-map. It's a technique that the Workflowy app has formalised; I tried using it at one point, but nowadays I prefer to just create dozens of plain text documents on my desktop.

The most important part of any brainstorm session is to come out of it with some actual next steps, so I always try to finish by identifying the next actions that I need to take ... and, of course, capturing them in the appropriate to-do list.

(It's worth mentioning that I work remotely from my colleagues, otherwise I would certainly recommend a more traditional team brainstorm process.)

Music (and other isolation techniques)

Of course, I can't spend all my time in meeting rooms. Those times when I need to get my head down and concentrate for an extended period on work, I rely on a decent pair of headphones, and Spotify. For true isolation, I also recommend switching off phone notifications (I have Workplace chat and Slack on my phone) as well as turning off email and/or Slack on your computer.

For maximum concentration I find that I can't listen to music with understandable lyrics, so I favour playlists like Spotify's Deep Focus, electronic music, or occasionally something in a foreign language (like my favourite album from last year, Juana Molina's Halo).

Reviews

Returning to the GTD side of things, I now combine the Weekly Review ritual (going through all of my lists to check if there is anything missing, or tasks that are no longer needed and can be removed) with a weekly personal OKRs check. This means that every Monday I spend some time going through both my outstanding tasks and my main areas of focus, and ensuring that the two are aligned.

Conclusion

This particular combination of habits, tools, and routines has served me well for a few years now. Knowing that everything I need or want to do is securely captured in a list somewhere helps me to focus on just the task at hand, and being able to access my task lists from anywhere (desktop, laptop, phone, or web) means I can rely on it completely.

For anyone who struggles with juggling multiple competing projects, I definitely recommend looking into GTD; it's a great way to introduce some structure into a busy life.

article January 11, 2017

Personal productivity hacking 

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When I look back over the last year, one area in particular stands out as needing improvement. Both at work, where I'd let a wide range of extra-curricular activity slowly drift away until I was doing little beyond my immediate team's scope; and at home, when after six months of intense work on a first draft my output slowed to nearly nothing in the latter half of the year.

Towards the end of the year, I resolved to address this petering out of productivity. And, as part of my research into effective ways to improve my personal output, I came across Chris Bailey.

At the age of 24, after completing business school, Bailey took a year-long break during which he experimented with every productivity technique, new and old, that he could find -- from living in isolation for ten days, to switching off his phone for three months -- and documented his findings on a blog entitled A Year of Productivity. He later parlayed the popularity of the site into a bestselling book, The Productivity Project: Proven Ways to Become More Awesome, and continues to consult and write on productivity via his website.

At the end of his year's work, Bailey posted a giant summary post, 100 time, energy, and attention hacks to be more productive, detailing the top 100 most effective 'hacks' to better manage your time, your energy, and your attention (the three categories into which he believes almost all productivity improvements can be found). And I, after dismissing those that seemed irrelevant or unachievable, assembled my own slightly smaller list of things to try. After more than a month, it's time to take stock.

The hacks

There were a couple of email-related applications -- The Email Game (gamify your inbox!) and Unroll.me (automatic unsubscription from marketing emails) -- that I found I couldn't work with, and with three kids it's hard to find any time to meditate, but for the most part the other tips have worked out pretty well.

At work, I've started to use a Pomodoro timer during the day, timing alternating focus periods and short breaks. I also now drink caffeine more strategically; caffeine-free green tea for most of the day, with a single espresso in the early afternoon for a post-lunch boost in focus. I've installed f.lux on all my computers, and started listening to more podcasts on the daily commute to work, as well as designating an Errands Day.

Every morning, I schedule my time using Google Calendar (weekends as well), and the Block site extension ensures that I don't waste so much time on the internet, both at home and at work. I've cut out drinking caffeine right before bed, and instead started drinking more water, including when I wake up.

Of course, not every habit can be so easily altered. Of the hacks that I'm still working on how to integrate into my daily process, make a list of things to do while procrastinating is at the top of my list of things to do while I, uh, procrastinate; and I know that I need to get better at planning each task before starting. And as for trying to smile more or make more friends at the office -- maybe I'll give those email apps another go instead...

article January 29, 2016

On Bloom 

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“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

The travels and travails of Leopold Bloom, the sort-of-but-not-really-eponymous hero of James Joyce's Ulsysses, are the subject of both the novel and the plethora of critical analyses that followed Joyce's publication of his modernist classic and continue to this day. There is even a special day, Bloomsday, timed to coincide with the date on which the book's action takes place, which sees Joyce devotees retrace Bloom's sometimes unsteady steps around the city streets of Dublin.

But aside from the lasting literary legacy of Ulysses, Joyce's indelicate anti-hero has also provided lazy writers of the world with an additional gift; a name that is just dripping with cheap, unearned, ready-made symbolism.

Bloom on screen...

Cinema is a veritable bouquet of Blooms.

Mel Brooks' 1968 debut, The Producers, stars Gene Wilder as the fearful accountant, Leo Bloom; the character was apparently explicitly named after the Ulysses protagonist, although other than that he bears little relation to his namesake. Matthew Broderick played Bloom in the 2001 Broadway adaptation and subsequent 2005 movie remake.

Another antihero with a similar name is Jake Gyllenhaal's creepy Louis Bloom in 2014 crime thriller, Nightcrawler. Here the parallels are closer, as the modern Bloom travels around Los Angeles, meeting strange characters and having odd conversations, particularly with the women he encounters. One wonders what Joyce's Bloom might have recorded, had he too been equipped with a video camera.

The 2003 film Big Fish, adapted from Daniel Wallace's 1998 novel of the same name, features a brace of Blooms. Son William (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) listens as his dying father Edward (Albert Finney, with Ewan McGregor as the younger Edward Bloom) recounts tall tales from his youth, which draw on both Ulysses and its predecessor, Homer's Odyssey, for inspiration.

Moving to the small screen, American Pie star Jason Biggs plays Larry Bloom in hit Netflix series Orange Is The New Black. Described by the OITNB Wikia site as an "egotistically selfish character [who] does things without considering the backlash he causes" and having "a vengeful attitude", he doesn't sound a million miles away from his literary namesake. (It's probably a stretch, though, to ascribe any Leopold-like attributes to The Big Bang Theory's Stuart Bloom, comic store owner and nerd's nerd, unless it be in his fascination with, and uneasiness around, women.)

...and elsewhere

There are many others. IMDB has a full list of the more than one hundred characters you can encounter across film and television that share their name with that most famous of literary gastronomes, and there are yet more in other works of art, from books to songs. One of my personal favourites is the never-seen Hollywood producer, Sheldon Bloom, from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me On A Sunday. The lyrics to his introductory tune (by Bond theme lyricist Don Black) are almost as full of comestible quirks as the original Bloom's thoughts.

It seems that, almost 100 years after the first publication of Joyce's work, the spirit of Leopold Bloom refuses to be extinguished; it has become almost a form of nominative determinism among the well-read, a shorthand to communicate both the character's moral fibre and the author's literary obeisance.

And while hidden meanings in character names is nothing new -- almost everyone in HG Wells' The Invisible Man has a name rich in hidden significance -- the preponderance of Blooms in recent times is bordering on the ridiculous. Even Joyce himself was critical of lazy writers making use of unimaginative names in their work, as his literary alter-ego Stephen Dadelus makes clear in Chapter 9, Scylla And Charybdis, with respect to Shakespeare:

“He has hidden his own name, a fair name, William, in the plays, a super here, a clown there, as a painter of old Italy set his face in a dark corner of his canvas. He has revealed it in the sonnets where there is Will in overplus. Like John O'Gaunt his name is dear to him, as dear as the coat of arms he toadied for, on a bend sable a spear or steeled argent, honorificabilitudinitatibus, dearer than his glory of greatest shakescene in the country. What's in a name? That is what we ask ourselves in childhood when we write the name that we are told is ours.”

article January 14, 2016

The D&D Alignments of A/B Testing 

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To the outside observer, A/B testing can appear to be a web designer's Utopia. Never make another decision! the adverts for such a place might trumpet; Let your users show you what works best!

And it's certainly true that A/B testing changes to a website -- running two different versions and then analysing the differences in user behaviour between the two -- can be an extremely powerful tool in a designer's arsenal. But anyone that has run as many A/B tests as I have will tell you that it can be joy and frustration in equal measure. Not only because many tests will inevitably fail, and what you thought would help proves only to hinder; there are times that even the most successful tests are just as frustrating as the failures.

I've come to realise the reason for this. And it involves Dungeons & Dragons.

A brief D&D alignments refresher

For those unfamiliar with the concept of alignment as it exists within the D&D universe, a brief summary. To play the genre-defining roleplaying game, players must generate (or "roll") a character, writing down their details on a Character Sheet. Along with numbers representing their Strength, Dexterity, Willpower and so on, players must also choose an Alignment, representing their character's ethical and moral outlook on life.

The original edition of D&D only permitted a choice from three possible alignments: Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic. Lawful characters respected society's rules; Chaotic characters didn't. Neutrals lay somewhere in the middle because they were boring bastards.

The D&D Basic Set, released in 1977, spiced things up with the addition of a second axis, representing the character's position on a Good-to-Evil scale. Thus, characters could be played with one of a possible nine alignments:

D&D Alignments chart

This new system allowed for characters that were Lawful but Evil (such as a tyrannical overlord), or perhaps Good while still being Chaotic (Robin Hood). The Joker is Chaotic-Evil. Superman is Lawful-Good. You get the general idea. Players were expected to roleplay their character in a manner befitting his or her alignment, and make decisions that were not at odds with it.

Still with me? Good. Now, you might be asking yourself what in the name of Gygax this has to do with A/B testing. Well, I'll tell you; I have discovered that all A/B tests, the successes and the failures, fall squarely into one or another of D&D's alignments.

Lawful-Good A/B tests

The Lawful/Good tests are the ones that got you into A/B testing in the first place, lured in with the promise of easy wins and fat profit margins. They are the blindingly obvious, stupidly successful experiments that anyone, even the CEO, should have realised needed to be done; the ones that Jared Spool or Luke Wroblewski talk about in every presentation they've ever given. Remove the twelve-pane animated carousel on the homepage. Let users buy your product without completing a five page registration form. They are the most obvious things to do, the low-hanging fruit, and you should be doing them before you do anything else.

Neutral-Good A/B tests

Sometimes there are changes that just need to be made to any website. Minor rebrands, technical refactoring, commercial obligations -- all of these and more can be a reason for changes that aren't in the service of customer satisfaction. You argue for wrapping the change in an A/B test, "just to be sure it's not hurting us or we didn't introduce any bugs." Your logic is sound, the change is made ... and somehow the results, that nobody expected to be anything other than dead neutral, come out positive. Hey, we'll take the win.

Chaotic-Good A/B tests

And then there are the mistakes. Maybe your QA Tester gives you a call to let you know that there's something broken on the page, and it looks like it could be your test that is causing it. An unclosed tag, an orphaned file you somehow forgot to push to the git repository, a typo that turned an <h1> tag into an <hq>. It doesn't matter, somehow it made it live and in front of your users. You scramble to switch off the test, but the results give you pause. Those numbers can't be right, can they? Green across the board; engagement is up, conversion is up, hell, even NPS is up! Somehow you have stumbled upon a winning strategy without even trying, although in retrospect it now all seems so obvious -- of course that area works better without a background colour; actually that icon was confusingly ambiguous, no wonder the design works better without it.

Lawful-Neutral A/B tests

Lawful/Neutral are those ideas that seem like a good idea but just never seem to achieve the positive results you were expecting. All of your user testing might have pointed to making that change; when five out of seven participants all complain about the size of your prices, it's hard to argue that's not a clear signal to make them bigger. So you do -- it's going to be an easy win, I can't believe we didn't try this sooner -- and then ... nothing. It's not that the test fails, but all of the numbers are inconclusive. Everyone agrees it's a good idea, but without proof you reluctantly (and sensibly) pull the plug.

Neutral-Neutral (or 'True Neutral') A/B tests

D&D characters in the middle of both axes are referred to as "True Neutral"; they have no strong feelings in either direction, neither towards the laws and rules of society, or their moral obligations. Animals in the D&D universe were by-and-large 'true neutrals' (at least until the 5th Edition, released in 2014), and it's probably the easiest (or laziest, if you prefer) alignment to roleplay.

Neutral/Neutral A/B tests are those you never really cared about. Someone, somewhere thought it was a good idea, it wound up on your team backlog, and eventually you got around to doing it ... and, surprise surprise, it made no difference to anything at all. What. A waste. Of time.

Chaotic-Neutral A/B tests

Sometimes an idea will come to you that is entirely divorced from the history and data surrounding your project. It doesn't fit into the habits of any of your carefully constructed personas, and nothing indicates that it is something your site or app either needs or wants. But you do it anyway -- hell, every idea deserves a chance, even if it is a little off-the-wall. You come in early or work late, since it's not officially on the team backlog, and you kinda-sorta fudge the test description a little to give it a reason for existing at all. Maybe it succeeds, maybe not; without a solid hypothesis, it's going to be hard to justify similar changes on other parts of the site.

A segment of the front of the Red Box D&D Basic Set

Lawful-Evil A/B tests

Now we're entering the realm of anti-UX and Dark Patterns. Designers who intentionally mislead their users, obscuring information or bait-and-switching their way to increased conversion. Lawful/Evil tests are run by designers who no longer use their powers for good. Misleadingly ordered options, or primary and secondary actions that switch from page to page. Colour contrast and layout used to obscure important information rather than draw attention to it. Full-page advertising takeovers. Kill 'em all.

Neutral-Evil A/B tests

The Neutral/Evil test is somewhat of an oddity on this list, as it is the only type of test not generally run by a web designer. These tests come from on-high -- the Product Manager, the VP of Sales -- and their only aim is higher conversion. They have no commitment to user satisfaction, no comprehension of user delight; these tests are designed to elicit one thing and one thing only: more clicks on that "Checkout" button. Also falling into this category are the "my wife's favourite colour is purple; let's try that for our logo" type of suggestions that every freelance designer loves to hate.

Chaotic-Evil A/B tests

Finally, we reach the bottom-right square, the Chaotic/Evil class of A/B test. This is the home of both the truly randomised trial and the Multi-armed bandit approach to A/B testing. This approach says, let's just get rid of all the designers and let the computers figure out how to make us the most money. Why pick one shade of blue when you can test 41 different shades? What? Users? They're voting with their wallets -- what could possibly go wrong?

The final battle

Facing the final boss

In life, as in D&D, you get to decide what sort of person you're going to be, and the decisions and actions you are going to take. Whether you choose the path of the light or a darker hue will influence how others view you and whether they will want to help or hinder you in your questing.

A/B testing has become a powerful option for designers wanting to reduce uncertainty in their workflow, but it can be seductively tempting to simply try changing All The Things and let statistics sort out the mess. But, though tests can tell you whether something worked or not, what they can't tell you is why, or suggest alternative approaches or iterative follow-ups. For that, you need designers motivated by a desire to make things better for their users, by making Better Things. Good designers, in both senses of the word.

The Dungeon Master for Dummies book, by Wizards of the Coast's own James Wyatt, Bill Slavicsek and Richard Baker, has this to say about alignments:

Frankly, we've found that evil alignments are better left to the monsters and villains; player character parties work out better when the characters take on good alignments or stay unaligned. Motivations for adventures come together easier, character interaction goes more smoothly, and the heroic aspects of D&D shine through in ways that just don't happen when players play evil characters.

As in D&D, so in life; choose the Good side and your motivations will be purer, interactions with your colleagues easier, and as a designer you get to be the hero rather than the villain.

And who doesn't want to be a hero?