Brian Gilham

Engineering leader, husband, and father

procrastination

Perfection Is Just Procrastination

We all want to do great work. To pour 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.

We all want to do great work.

To pour 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.

Until next week,

-Brian


Beating Procrastination

When I sent you the Monday Mailer survey, I asked what’s holding you back, what your challenges are, and what you want to learn in 2017. Out of the 133 people who responded, an overwhelming number of you expressed a desire to improve your time management skills, feel more motivated to finish your work, and improve your focus. There’s one problem that crops up in each of those areas, time and time again: procrastination.

When I sent you the Monday Mailer survey, I asked what’s holding you back, what your challenges are, and what you want to learn in 2017. Out of the 133 people who responded, an overwhelming number of you expressed a desire to improve your time management skills, feel more motivated to finish your work, and improve your focus.

There’s one problem that crops up in each of those areas, time and time again: procrastination.

Beating procrastination is a tricky subject to discuss. Like most problems, it’s intensely personal. Your reasons for procrastinating are different from mine. But it’s an issue we all deal with, every once in a while.

When I’m procrastinating, it usually manifests as binge-watching old episodes of House, playing mindless video games, or simply staring off into space.

None of those activities are inherently wrong. We all need a break, sometimes. If you’re consciously choosing to relax and play video games, that’s great! Like I said last week; if you’re always working at 110% of your capacity, you’ll burn out pretty quickly.

Procrastination can be valuable; it allows your brain time to relax, calm down, and generate new ideas naturally. But sometimes you sit down, ready to crank through some work, and realize you feel stuck.

Here are some ways I’ve fought through those moments. Next time you’re struggling with procrastination, give one a try.

Find a Friend

It can be helpful to find someone you trust and walk them through your project. Explain what you’re trying to accomplish, how it’s been going so far, and where you’re stuck. Other people can provide advice and points of view you might not have considered. That discussion and feedback can be just what your brain needs to kick into high gear.

If you don’t consider yourself a gifted conversationalist, try sketching on a whiteboard or piece of paper as you go. Visualizing your thoughts can help you smash a mental block — particularly if art is a tool you don’t usually use.

However you approach it, find a way to get your project in front of someone else.

Take a Tiny Step

I’ve written previously about Activation Energy. It refers to the amount of energy needed to kick off a chemical reaction — which is always higher than the amount required to sustain it.

If your car broke down, you might be inclined to push it to the side of the road. You and your passengers would strain and grunt at first — struggling to push it even an inch. But, with a bit of effort, the car would begin to move a little. Then, a bit more. Eventually, thanks to the magic of momentum, it would take less and less effort to keep the car rolling.

The same concept applies to your work.

When I’m struggling to write an article, I know typing something — anything — increases the chances I’ll keep writing. So, I tell myself I have only one goal: to write 250 words.

It isn’t much if you think about it. This article passed the 250-word mark about 260 words back. Once I hit 250 words or so, my brain feels sufficiently warmed up. I often end up writing 1,500 words or more.

Next time you’re stuck, try taking just one tiny, little step toward your goal.

If you need to write 500 words, commit to writing 50. If you need to finish coding a new page for your website, commit to completing just one part of it. If you need to run 5km, commit to running just 1km.

You get the idea.

Once you start moving, you’re far more likely to keep going and meet — or exceed — your original goal. By reducing your commitment to something trivial, it feels silly not at least to try starting. And getting started is often the hardest part.

Make a Plan

There’s one big reason I keep talking about outlines and breaking tasks into tiny steps. It’s easily the most effective strategy I’ve found for improving my productivity.

I often start to procrastinate when there’s a task to complete, but I’m unclear on how to make it happen. It’s easy to focus on the big picture and start to feel overwhelmed.

Rather than saying, “I’m going to code the new About page for my website,” you might break the task down into:

  1. Creating a new document
  2. Coding the header
  3. Coding the sidebar
  4. Coding the main content section
  5. Refining the CSS for the various text styles
  6. Etc.

Don’t forget; planning is real work, too. If you’re honestly not feeling productive at the moment, just commit to finishing your outline. You’ll have made measurable progress and maybe, just maybe, it will allow you let yourself off the hook a bit.

Until next time,

-Brian


Activation Energy

There’s a chemistry term I recently learned: activation energy. It’s the amount of energy required to start a chemical reaction – which is always higher than the amount needed to maintain the reaction. It’s like trying to push a giant boulder. You strain and grunt at first, struggling to push it even an inch. But once it starts rolling, it takes a fraction of that initial energy to keep it moving.

There’s a chemistry term I recently learned: activation energy. It’s the amount of energy required to start a chemical reaction – which is always higher than the amount needed to maintain the reaction. It’s like trying to push a giant boulder. You strain and grunt at first, struggling to push it even an inch. But once it starts rolling, it takes a fraction of that initial energy to keep it moving.

It’s a concept that applies to our work, too. There are times I sit down to write the Monday Mailer and, despite the brainstorming and outlining I’ve done, the words just won’t come. But I know if I start typing something, anything, it’ll get easier.

Here’re some of my ideas for lowering the activation energy required to do your work.

1. Set a timer

I’ve recently become a fan of the Pomodoro Technique. I sit down, set a timer for 25 minutes, and focus exclusively on writing until it goes off. I don’t worry about sentence structure or proper grammar, I just write. More often than not, it helps my brain warm up, and I write for an hour or more.

2. Do a little bit, every day

A small, focused task – done daily – beats sporadic effort every time. It’s hard to gather the energy to start something new; especially after an extended absence. If I write a little bit every day, it’s a lot easier to publish the newsletter each week. But if I wait until Sunday night, it feels like an impossible task. I recently started dedicating two hours to writing every morning, and it’s made a huge difference in my output.

3. Be prepared

There’s a term from the culinary world I love: mise en place. It means “putting in place.” It refers to the work you have to do before you start cooking – organizing your ingredients and tools. It’s the work before the work. We can steal this concept for our projects. At the end of the day, take the time to clean up your desk, cross items off your to-do list, and make a plan for the next day. You’ll thank yourself, tomorrow.

This stuff works for me, but I’m curious: what techniques do you have for gathering the energy to start something new? Reply to this email and let me know. I’ll try to share some of the ideas in next week’s email.

Until next time,

–Brian


What's Your North Star?

On a clear night, with just the right conditions, there’s about 6,000 stars visible to the naked eye. As far back as the 2nd century, human beings have looked to those stars to help determine their location and heading. And none is more well-known than the North Star. The North Star has one unique property: it never moves. Okay, that isn’t strictly true. But for all intents and purposes, you can count on it staying put — right above the North Pole.

On a clear night, with just the right conditions, there’s about 6,000 stars visible to the naked eye. As far back as the 2nd century, human beings have looked to those stars to help determine their location and heading. And none is more well-known than the North Star.

The North Star has one unique property: it never moves. Okay, that isn’t strictly true. But for all intents and purposes, you can count on it staying put — right above the North Pole. If you were trying to navigate in the days before GPS, knowing which way was north turned out to be pretty handy.

When it comes to doing our best work, I think we all need our version of a North Star — something that reminds us where we’re going and what we’re trying to accomplish. My North Star is “Be Useful.” When I’m feeling lost, unsure of what to do next, or stuck, I know I can’t go wrong trying to bring value to someone else.

I’ve said before that procrastination is a byproduct of fear. Fear of failure. Fear of other people’s opinions. Fear of not being “good enough.” But I think there’s another angle.

Procrastination is forgetting our North Star.

When we get stuck on a project, it’s helpful to remember why we started working on it in the first place. Most of my early side projects were a response to a job I hated. The work was uninspiring, the clients were awful, and I wasn’t learning anything new. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a better job with the kind of work I’d been doing. So one night, at the peak of frustration, I said “fuck it” and started coding. I realized there was only one person who could change my situation: me.

You’d think that would be sufficient motivation to carry me through to the end of the project. But it wasn’t. There we so many nights where all I wanted to do was flop onto the couch and watch TV. But it didn’t take long before a tiny voice in my head spoke up.

“I thought you wanted more than this?”

Once I remembered my purpose — my North Star — it became hard to justify six hours of TV on the couch.

Your North Star can be anything that speaks to the heart of why you started a side project in the first place. Landing a more fulfilling job, satisfying the creative half of your brain, improving your skills, or creating a better life for those you love.

No one can tell you what your North Star is. It’s something you have to decide for yourself. So decide, right now. Write it down and put it somewhere you’ll see it every day.

And when those dark, tired moments happen — and they will happen — take a look at that piece of paper, and remind yourself of what drives you.

Until next time,

–Brian


Crossing the Finish Line

Before I dive into this week’s article, I want to extend a warm welcome to everyone joining us for the first time. After Be Kind reached the top of Hacker News, the Monday Mailer grew by more than 600 subscribers – in less than 48 hours. I’m glad you’re here! Have you ever found yourself close to finishing a side project, only to become stymied by one last task you need to complete?

Before I dive into this week’s article, I want to extend a warm welcome to everyone joining us for the first time. After Be Kind reached the top of Hacker News, the Monday Mailer grew by more than 600 subscribers – in less than 48 hours. I’m glad you’re here!


Have you ever found yourself close to finishing a side project, only to become stymied by one last task you need to complete? You have to figure out how to integrate Stripe payments. Or you’re futzing around with the landing page design. You know you should just ship the damn thing but, for whatever reason, you can’t.

It feels like running the New York Marathon. Except when you near the finish line, there’s a brick wall in your way. At that point many of us give up and walk away, promising to do better next time. But the cycle continues. We start the next project full of energy. Then, as we near the finish line, we stall. Again.

I’m as guilty of it as anyone. Here’s a gem Facebook surfaced recently. 

Facebook Screenshot

I never did ship that project, by the way. If I had a nickel for every side project I’ve abandoned, I’d be living large right now.

Why do we allow ourselves to get so far, only to succumb to procrastination? 

Often, deep down, it’s because we’re afraid. Afraid of failure. Afraid of what our family and friends will think. Afraid that, if everything isn’t just perfect, we’ll have wasted our time. Afraid that we’ve built something nobody wants. It’s safer to keep fiddling around – secure in the knowledge that, as long as the project sits on our hard drive, we don’t have to risk anything. 

It’s self-sabotage. And, for those of us trying to do our best work, build an audience, and make an impact, it’s a habit we have to break.

A lot of times people fall into this pattern because they put the concept of “Launch Day” on a pedestal. They think they get one shot to reach a huge number of people and impress them. They’re not only wrong – they’re limiting their audience

When I started working on Chronicons, my icon set for Apple Watch apps, I took the opposite approach. Instead of hiding it away from prying eyes, I shared what I was doing as often as possible. I wrote about it on my blog, posted updates on Twitter, and solicited feedback on Dribbble. I got valuable comments and advice from designers around the world and built up an audience of people who couldn’t wait to buy from me. And they stuck around once the launch had come and gone! It’s a process I’ve repeated a few times since, with similar results. 

I won’t lie – it’s hard to do, the first few times. But it gets easier with practice.

You side project could be a huge hit. Or, it could be a disappointing flop. But until you can set aside your fears and share it with the world, you’ll never find out. 

You – and your work – deserve better.

Until next time,

–Brian


Lose the Crutch

For the longest time I thought I needed caffeine to be productive. I needed a lot of things, actually. I needed the perfect time, with no distractions. I needed my favourite chair, at my favourite desk. I needed my coding playlist. I needed my giant monitor. I needed the right motivation or inspiration. I needed that jolt of caffeine. With everything in place, I could finally get to work. Conditions were perfect.

For the longest time I thought I needed caffeine to be productive. I needed a lot of things, actually.

I needed the perfect time, with no distractions.

I needed my favourite chair, at my favourite desk.

I needed my coding playlist.

I needed my giant monitor.

needed the right motivation or inspiration.

I needed that jolt of caffeine.

With everything in place, I could finally get to work. Conditions were perfect.

Except they weren’t, most of the time.

I didn’t need any of those things. Each one was a crutch. A tiny, perfect excuse to procrastinate.

Waiting for inspiration, motivation, or a “perfect moment” is for amateurs. A true professional knows the best way to accomplish anything is to sit down, shut up, and put in the damn work. Each and every day.

Want to get better at programming? Come up with a side project and work on it every day.

Wish you could improve your writing? Write 500 words every day.

Want to get better at cooking? Cook one meal – you guessed it – every day.

Doing great work is, in many ways, a numbers game. The more time you spend honing your craft and putting the work in, the better your odds of creating something great. You may not be the best in your field, but you can certainly work harder than everyone else.

So what’s holding you back? What excuses are you using to procrastinate? If any device, tool, setting, mood, or beverage becomes necessary to work, it needs to be jettisoned. Right quick.

Until next time,

–Brian