Your Priorities Might be Total Bullshit

I’m not sure if it’s a real phenomenon, or just something put into my head by countless television shows, but it seems like turning 30 is a problem for most people. Looking back on it, hitting the big 3-0 didn’t feel like the end of an era or anything. Some view it as the end of partying or having fun. It’s when real responsibilities begin. You’re 30 now, time to start acting like an adult. I’ve never been one for partying, so I guess I didn’t feel like I had much to lose.

I’ve always just focused on work. Whether programming or writing, it’s been a constant in my life for the last 20 years. 

Programming started out as a hobby, right around the age of 12. I discovered HTML, CSS, and PHP and I was hooked. In my last year of high school, I started freelancing; doing websites for coworking spaces, car dealerships, political figures, and more. I took on new work every chance I got. Two things drove me: becoming the best programmer I could be and making money.

I wasn’t poor but there always seemed to be a far-off amount of money I needed to earn. Don’t bother asking me what number I had in my head. Looking back on it now, I realize that number was, “more.” Always more.

I hated my first job. The work was uninspiring, the clients were awful, and the pay barely covered my rent. But I have to give it credit for one thing; it inspired me to start doing side projects. Once I learned I could — without input from anyone else — brainstorm, create and promote my work, I was addicted. No matter how bad my day job got, I knew I could count on doing work I loved at night.

And that’s when a switch flipped in my brain. Previously, work was something that existed between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm. Sure, I had freelanced in my spare time through school, but this was different. I was doing work I chose to do. It was inspiring, fun, and fulfilled me in a way other projects couldn’t. 

So, I started working all the time; every spare moment I could find. Fuelled by caffeine and cigarettes, I coded long into the night. I released something new every few weeks, and always took the time to promote it.  I even became pretty well-known for my work. My projects got coverage in the newspaper, nightly news, and on local blogs. That drove me to work even more — I enjoyed the attention.

I can’t complain about that period of my life too much. Through all that work, I landed a couple of great jobs, built a reputation for myself, and got introductions to lots of really great people. I met some of my best friends and colleagues through those side projects. But they also instilled a lot of bad habits in me.

I was always tired. There wasn’t a car, bus, streetcar, plane, or train I couldn’t fall asleep on. I was miserable when I wasn’t working. I let relationships with my family, friends, and loved ones slip. My priorities were completely backward.

Thankfully, I’ve been blessed to have people in my life that stuck with me. They’ve understood when, rather than spend time with them; I’ve spent time alone with my laptop. Often, I think they’ve chalked it up to “needing time alone,” or, “being passionate about work.” And both those statements are true. I do need time alone to recharge, and I’m very passionate about what I do.

But focusing so heavily on work wasn’t a personality quirk, it was a choice I made. And it caused me to miss out on a lot.

Thankfully, halfway through my 31st year on this planet, I think I’ve started to get my priorities straight.

If you’d asked me last year what my priorities were, I likely would’ve said:

  1. My wife and family.
  2. My friends.
  3. My work.

But when I sat down and started to examine the things I did on a daily basis, I was a bit shocked. My typical day looked something like this:

  1. Get up early and work on one of my projects.
  2. Go to work.
  3. Come home & eat dinner.
  4. Hang out, briefly, with my wife.
  5. See her off to bed.
  6. Stay up way too late, working on one of my projects.

That’s not even counting bullshit like browsing Twitter, playing dumb games on my phone, or watching TV.

When I imagined my priorities, work came lastBut it’s obvious, looking at that first list, that wasn’t true. Our real priorities are the things we give our time and attention. I had just one real priority: work. 

I cared more about making progress on my latest app than making a real connection with someone else. I cared more about staying at the office than taking my dog for a walk. I cared more about being successful — whatever that means — than taking care of the people I love the most.

I’ve realized that I need to make a change. And I’ve been working to make it happen. 

I’m not perfect. I still occasionally spend more time working than I should. I still lust after gadgets, rather than experiences. I still, sometimes, have to make a conscious effort to spend time with people, rather than code. Now, though, I’m aware of where my priorities should be — and I’m trying to make the changes required to support those priorities.

I still care, deeply, about my work. I still want to write articles that help others, write code that solves interesting problems and work with people I admire each and every day. I still want to make money doing things I love. But I’ve realized the people in my life must always take precedence, no matter what. Otherwise, what’s the point?

As Todd Brison so eloquently put it, your desk will not attend your funeral.

I’ve decided to stop telling myself things like:

  • I should have a deeper connection with my wife.
  • I should work on cultivating real friendships.
  • I should spend less money on crap I don’t need.
  • I should eat better, and get more exercise.

So many “shoulds,” not enough, “musts.”

Often, I write about how to work more. How to be more productive. How to squeeze every last drop out of your free time. And there are seasons of life where those topics feel authentic to who I am. But now, I’ve learned that there must be other seasons — time for rest, relaxation, love, and caring for yourself and others.

What are the “shoulds” in your life? What changes do you need to make, but keep putting off? Are your priorities aligned with what you say you care about?

Take the time to ask yourself those questions and, like me, you might be surprised by the answers.

Perfection is Just Procrastination

We all want to do great work. 

To pore over every detail, tweaking and tuning until everything is “just right.” And with good reason — it’s those little details that help a project stand out, stick in people’s minds, and provide value to users. By caring about everything, we can be proud of our work.

But, taken to the extreme, sweating the details turns quickly into perfectionism. And there’s one big problem with perfectionism; you’ll never achieve it. Perfection exists solely in the mind’s eye. What’s beautiful to you might be complete garbage to someone else.

Don’t even get me started on evaluating your own work. Take a look at a project you “perfected” 10 years ago. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Are you cringing yet?

The timeframe doesn’t even really matter. I’m willing to bet you’d have the same reaction if you went back five years. Or 2 years. Or — if you’re anything like me — just a few months.

So, the question you need to ask yourself is this: Why the heck are you spending so much time and energy “perfecting” your work, when you know it eventually won’t matter?

There’s a well-known quote from Ira Glass I love:

“And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”

That’s the secret.

While you’re fiddling around, trying to make everything perfect, others are getting on with publishing their work, gathering feedback, learning, and improving.

I’m not suggesting you stop caring about the quality of your work. Far from it. But you need to realize that, while your career may be long, your time today — at this very moment — is limited. Don’t waste it.

At a certain point, perfection is just procrastination.

The Tao of Gordon Ramsay

I don’t watch much television these days, but one of my guilty pleasures is old episodes of Kitchen Nightmares. Each episode, through the power of cursing and walking around in dramatic fashion, Gordon Ramsay works to turn around a struggling restaurant.

After a quick look around, Gordon inevitably finds a laundry list of problems — everything from dirty fridges to undercooked food, to terrible service. But there’s one problem that crops up, time and time again: large, unfocused menus.

Frequently, chefs and owners think the surest path to success is to overwhelm their customers with hundreds of options, spanning multiple cuisines. Their menus are confusing, wait staff are overworked, and the kitchen is chaotic. Each time, Gordon has to sit them down and explain the value of doing a handful of dishes well. Often, he ends up cutting their menu in half.

The result? Customers are less confused, wait staff can recommend their favorite dishes, and cooks aren’t forced to run around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to cook everything under the sun.

I’ve started to recognize the problem with large menus at the restaurants I visit. More often than not, it means poor food and service. It’s almost a universal truth.

A similar problem pops up in failing side projects.

Often, developers worry they’ll “blow it” by cutting features from the first version of their product. Driven by fear, and lacking real feedback on their ideas, they delay launching while they add “just one more feature” or spend three days pushing pixels on the home page. 

They try to cram their app’s menu full of everything that pops into their head — both figuratively and literally. Then, they wonder why they never seem to launch anything.

Gordon would be disappointed.

In my experience, shipping something half-finished hurts a lot less than never shipping it at all. 

It’s easy to look at someone else’s work and marvel at how polished it is. But remember, every side project could have been better or included more features. Those developers, the ones who consistently ship? They’ve embraced an important idea — at some point; you have to stop.

You have to ship.

Sorry, Most of Your Fears are Made Up

I often think about fear and how it relates to consistently doing great work. I’ve learned the biggest thing holding people back isn’t a lack of time or money. 

It’s fear.

Fear of failure. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of letting themselves, or someone else, down. Fear of not matching up to other people. It’s almost universal.

We’re a fearful bunch, to be sure.

But it’s important to have some perspective. We’re building software, not bridges. If you make a mistake, nobody going to die — not even you. More often than not, if you screw something up, you can easily go back and fix it.

Most of us live in relative comfort. Heck, I’m writing this on an expensive laptop, with nice Bluetooth headphones in my ears, drinking an incredible coffee. I don’t have much to complain about. Or fear.

Most of us don’t need to worry about bears, falling down a mountain, or dying from a simple cold. Our ancestors had those — very real — things to worry about. 

Today, though? We’ve moved on to worry about things like meetings, public speaking, or being criticized by someone else.

Our fears have no basis in reality.

Modern society is full of guardrails. Fall and break your leg? A quick trip to the hospital and you’ll be all set. Can’t get to the hospital? That’s okay; we have cars designed to pick you up and take you there.

(Depending on where you live, those services might bankrupt you. But that’s another article.)

If you think about it, the potential downside of any action you take is pretty damn small. It’s almost never going to be fatal. And there’s a good chance you’ll be able to bounce back, with a bit of time and effort.

Rational fears keep us alive. Irrational fear keeps us frustrated, demoralized, and depressed. 

Unfortunately, in modern times, most of our fears are irrational.

The Apps I Use to Stay Productive

I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly tempted to hunt for new, exciting tools to incorporate into my work. The latest and greatest; something that will surely supercharge my productivity. The missing ingredient.

I often hear from readers who want to know about the tools I use. They ask which editor is my favorite, how I edit my work, or what I use to track my to-do list.

Part of my wants to shrink away from those questions. The real answer, of course, is that tools don’t matter.

Mostly.

Tools matter a great deal. But it’s far more important to make use of the tools you have available, rather than always looking for something new. In the right circumstances, a new app might make you 5% more productive. But, if you spent 10 hours — or more — looking for, finding, and learning that tool, have you gained anything?

In my experience, the problems most developers face have nothing to do with their tools.

But I keep getting questions. So, I thought it might be fun to share a few of my favorite apps. Maybe — just maybe — you’ll find something you can use in your work.

Just don’t spend too much time on it.

Ulysses

Mission Control for everything I write, from outline to the finished article. I’m typing this sentence on it, right now. Ulysses offers more features than I can count. It provides top-notch Markdown support and more options for exporting your work than I've seen in any other app.

Deckset

I use Deckset for all of my presentations. It allows you to edit a Markdown document, while it automatically produces slides for you. Stop worrying about fiddling with slide transitions, and start worrying about your content.

Alfred

The first app I install on a  new machine. Alfred can help you launch apps, do math, search the web, and so much more. Thanks to Workflows, it also allows me to make phone call, switch my audio source, shut down my laptop, or search Giphy. All from my keyboard.

Todoist

I’m giving this one a try, after being a fan of Omnifocus for many years. It’s working well, so far.

Hazel

I hate organizing my files. With Hazel, I automatically delete old downloads, clean up my desktop, and moves files based on the tags I give them.

Grammarly

As someone who writes thousands of words a month, my subscription to Grammarly is worth every penny. It checks my writing for issues with grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. I’ve also used their proofreading services, from time to time. Highly recommended.

Trello

I publish the newsletter every Monday and the occasional article during the rest of the week. I also contribute guest posts to other sites, from time to time. I manage all of my writing tasks through Trello. My writing board has a lot of lists on it — 17 in total. They cover everything from the latest newsletter drafts, to guest posts I’m writing, to tracking where I’m publishing & promoting my work. I couldn’t keep everything straight without it.