Brian Gilham

Engineering leader, husband, and father

productivity

"The best productivity hack is getting 8-9 hours of sleep every night. Second best is exercising 30-60 minutes each day. Both are obvious and overlooked, and yet make a more meaningful and immediate impact on the quality of your thinking than 99 percent of productivity tips."
James Clear

Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure →

Dr. Aisha S. Ahmad, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, shares some advice for adapting to long-term crisis:

Understand that this is a marathon. If you sprint at the beginning, you will vomit on your shoes by the end of the month. Emotionally prepare for this crisis to continue for 12 to 18 months, followed by a slow recovery. If it ends sooner, be pleasantly surprised. Right now, work toward establishing your serenity, productivity, and wellness under sustained disaster conditions.

None of us knows how long this crisis will last. We all want our troops to be home before Christmas.


Thank You

Over the last 52 weeks, I’ve published over 70,000 words on topics like productivity, time management, motivation, and doing great work as a programmer. Much to my surprise and delight, over 1,200 of you have stuck around to read them. This week, I’m going to keep my message simple: Thank you. Thank you for reading what I write. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and critiques. Thank you for your support during hard times.

Over the last 52 weeks, I’ve published over 70,000 words on topics like productivity, time management, motivation, and doing great work as a programmer. Much to my surprise and delight, over 1,200 of you have stuck around to read them. This week, I’m going to keep my message simple:

Thank you.

Thank you for reading what I write. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and critiques. Thank you for your support during hard times. Thank you for allowing my work into your life, each and every week.

I can’t say with any degree of honesty that everything I’ve written for the Mailer has been a home run. But I genuinely hope, on the whole, I’ve brought some value into your work and your life.

I won’t be publishing the Monday Mailer on a weekly basis, going forward. But this isn’t the last you’ll be hearing from me. I’ll still be writing new articles on my blog, creating new side projects, and maybe — just maybe — finally be finishing a book.

Thank you, again.

Cheers,

-Brian


When Shit Hits the Fan

I have something to confess: I haven’t written a new article for the Monday Mailer in more than a month. A new article has landed in your inbox each week, as usual. But each was written weeks ago. Life has been a bit of a rollercoaster, over the last few weeks. Our family has been dealing with health issues, unexpected expenses, flooding (thanks, spring in Toronto!), and various other problems. I haven’t had much energy for writing.

I have something to confess: I haven’t written a new article for the Monday Mailer in more than a month. A new article has landed in your inbox each week, as usual. But each was written weeks ago.

Life has been a bit of a rollercoaster, over the last few weeks. Our family has been dealing with health issues, unexpected expenses, flooding (thanks, spring in Toronto!), and various other problems. I haven’t had much energy for writing.

Thankfully, I haven’t had to worry about the newsletter — I’ve simply published articles I’d already written.

There are two tips I give to aspiring writers and bloggers:

  1. Never make promises.
  2. Write more than you need to.

Both are good advice, for the same reason: you never know when shit will hit the fan.

Take advantage of productive periods in your life, when you have them. A while back, I was really on top of my game; cranking out a handful of new articles a week. When life went a bit sideways, as it does, I was glad to have those pieces banked up.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, I broke one of my other rules. I made a promise I couldn’t keep.

When I announced my book, Finish Your Damn Side Project, my work was going great. Planning had gone well and I was writing at a prolific rate. I felt confident I could keep that pace going indefinitely.

I should have known better.

It’s a project I know I’ll complete, but I’m done talking about it until it’s ready. I love sharing my writing process and the progress I’m making. The problem is, there isn’t any progress to share. The irony of failing to work on a book about completing projects is fairly obvious, I think.

When the work flows easily, use it to your advantage. And while it’s happening, stay quiet about it.

Until next week,

-Brian


How to Unfuck Your To-Do List

You probably have a long list of things you’d like to get done on your projects. The type of tasks that will push things forward. Move the needle. Take things to the next level. Open the kimono. (Sorry, I confused my clichés for a second there.) But I’d be willing to bet you, like _most people, have times where you’re feeling stuck, or distracted. You procrastinate and play video games, rather than tackle the work you know you need to do.

You probably have a long list of things you’d like to get done on your projects. The type of tasks that will push things forward. Move the needle. Take things to the next level. Open the kimono.

(Sorry, I confused my clichés for a second there.)

But I’d be willing to bet you, like _most people, have times where you’re feeling stuck, or distracted. You procrastinate and play video games, rather than tackle the work you know you need to do. You’re feeling the resistance, and the resistance is winning.

Don’t fret. We all have those moments.

In my experience, developers start procrastinating when they haven’t taken the time to think through their tasks deeply enough.

Open up your to-do list. How many items does it have that sound like, “Finish project X” or “Figure out how to do Y”?

Those types of vague, enormous tasks are productivity killers. If your to-do list has more than a couple of them, there’s a good chance you’ve been procrastinating on them for a long time. Or just freaking out inside. That’s usually my approach.

Are you ready to unfuck your to-do list? I am, too.

Here’s a few steps you can take to banish those uber-tasks forever and get back to work.

Break each task down three times

When you’re working on any project, it’s easy to imagine the end product and start feeling overwhelmed.

Let’s say I’m your boss. I’m not sure how I got that particular promotion but stick with me here. If I point at a fancy SUV and say, “Build me one of those,” there’s a good chance you’d start procrastinating pretty damn hard. That’s because “Make an SUV” is a terrible request. Where would you even begin?

But things start to look a lot more manageable when you break it down into smaller tasks. Instead of “Make a car,” you might start with “Learn how a car engine works.” Then you could hit up Google and search for, “How to assemble a car engine.”

After that, you might move on to finding the parts you need, ordering them from Amazon (or wherever you can order car parts from), and — finally — assembling the engine.

Hard tasks, all. But certainly a lot easier to handle than “build a car.”

It’s a silly example, of course. Most of us aren’t building a car from scratch. But you get the idea. Big tasks become easier the longer you spend breaking them down into tiny, tiny chunks.

Next time you’re staring an enormous task in the face, ask yourself what it will take to complete it. Do this three times. Each time you have a new answer, it’s a new task.

If you’re building a chat feature for your product’s website, for example, you’d ask yourself, “What do I need to do to finish the chat functionality for the site?” Maybe the answer would be, “I need to create a new table in the database to store chat messages.”

Awesome. What do you need to do to create a new database table?

“I need to decide on an appropriate schema for the table.”

Okay, cool. I’m obviously skipping some steps here but, by breaking that tasks into tiny pieces, it’s become a series of actionable steps that feel achievable. Working on small tasks is great — once you know the plan, you can quickly gain momentum.

Please don’t assume you’ll be able to keep everything organized in your head. It’s almost never true.

Clear out the bullshit

Often, we add tasks to our to-do list that we have no intention of ever doing. Ever. I’m really guilty of this one.

Take a moment, spin through your list, and ask yourself one question: “Why should I do this?”

If you’re going to do productive work, you need to know what your ultimate goal is and — just as importantly — why you’re striving for it.

When I started working on side projects, it was a way to get out of a job I hated. That was my North Star; improving my career & job prospects.

You need your own North Star. Something to keep you on track. A phrase, idea, or person that speaks to the heart of why you started working on your project in the first place. It could be to land a more fulfilling job, satisfying the creative half of your brain, or improving your skills. Anything.

Without a clear, well-defined idea of why you’re doing the work you’re doing, you’ll just aimlessly wander from task to task. And that’s when procrastination really starts to set in.

Prioritize like a general

Most tasks fall into one of two categories; important or urgent. They’re rarely the same thing.

Take a page from Dwight Eisenhower, who said:

“I have two kinds of problems; the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

In the “Eisenhower Method,” described in First Things First, tasks are broken into one of four quadrants:

  • Important & Urgent: Do it now.
  • Important & Not Urgent: Plan when you’ll do it.
  • Unimportant & Urgent: Delegate it.
  • Unimportant & Not Urgent: Don’t do it all.

When you’re prioritizing your tasks, take a page from Dwight Eisenhower and ask yourself if each task is important, urgent, or neither. Cut appropriately.


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


Making Time for Side Projects

This week’s article is as much a reminder to myself as it is advice for you. I haven’t done a good job of managing my time, lately. Instead of writing or pushing my side projects forward, I’ve been binge-watching Netflix, reading blog posts full of productivity tips, and playing copious amounts of Pokémon Go. Time to re-focus. Here are some tips for making more time for your side projects. I’ll be re-implementing a bunch of them myself, this week.

This week’s article is as much a reminder to myself as it is advice for you. I haven’t done a good job of managing my time, lately. Instead of writing or pushing my side projects forward, I’ve been binge-watching Netflix, reading blog posts full of productivity tips, and playing copious amounts of Pokémon Go.

Time to re-focus.

Here are some tips for making more time for your side projects. I’ll be re-implementing a bunch of them myself, this week.

Control your schedule

Do everything you can to control your schedule, free of interference from other people. When you do creative work, you need extended periods of uninterrupted time to focus. It’s up to you to create that time.

If someone walked up to you and asked for $100, you’d rightfully have questions. But we rarely apply the same standard to our calendars. Don’t blindly accept every meeting request you receive. Figure out when you’re most productive and schedule around those times.

Granted, this can be difficult if you work at a full-time job or have family commitments. Those hours are accounted for already. But there’s lots of wiggle room if you’re intentional about how you spend the rest of your time.

Stop consuming, start creating

I know it’s a bit ironic for me to suggest this, what with running this mailing list and all. But, at a certain point, you have to stop consuming other people’s content and start creating your own. Articles full of tips & tricks, productivity hacks, and other bullshit can be helpful – for a while.

But every second you spend learning about productivity is a second you aren’t, well, being productive. How often do you apply what you’ve read to your work? Almost never, if you’re anything like me. It’s a trap.

Once you’ve read something valuable stop, think about how you can apply it to your life, then close your browser and go do it. Favour action. You’ll learn more that way, anyway.

Stop doing shit you hate

Often, out of a sense of obligation or guilt, we commit to doing things we hate. It doesn’t just eat up your time; it erodes your overall happiness and satisfaction. Derek Sivers put it best: “If you’re not saying ‘HELL YEAH!’ about something, say ‘no.’”

Cancel any commitment you aren’t 100% invested in.  

Prepare for tomorrow

Sometimes the hard part isn’t making time for your work; it’s getting started once you’re staring at a blank page. It isn’t always easy to turn free time into productive time (see: my Netflix binge-watching). The more you can reduce the effort it takes to get down to work, the better.

As you’re wrapping up your day, ask yourself one question: “What’s something I can do – right now – to make it easier to do my work tomorrow?”

It could mean cleaning off and organizing your desk. Or writing a to-do list. Or deciding on your next writing topic. It will be unique to you and whatever you’re working on right now. It’s a habit you’ll have to work on developing, at first. But once you do, you’ll thank yourself each and every morning.

Until next time,

–Brian


Be Boring

I’ve become known as a prolific doer of side projects. In the last few years, aside from my responsibilities at TWG, I’ve released six apps, served as technical reviewer on a book, published a weekly newsletter about Apple Watch development, designed and sold the first icon set for Apple Watch apps, spoken on a variety of topics, and published more than 40 blog posts, articles, and tutorials. Phew! That list isn’t meant to impress you.

I’ve become known as a prolific doer of side projects. In the last few years, aside from my responsibilities at TWG, I’ve released six apps, served as technical reviewer on a book, published a weekly newsletter about Apple Watch development, designed and sold the first icon set for Apple Watch apps, spoken on a variety of topics, and published more than 40 blog posts, articles, and tutorials. Phew!

That list isn’t meant to impress you. If anything, it might just illustrate an unhealthy disregard for rest and relaxation. I’m not here to shout HUSTLE MORE! at you. I’ve been that guy before. That guy sucks. If you’re happy with your output, by all means, you do you.

But I get asked about my productivity a lot, and if you’re like me – always looking for the next project, never able to sit still, always wanting to do more – I have some advice.

Focus

Work on one project at a time. Work on one task at a time. You probably have a list of 50 different ideas you’d like to work on. And another 10 or so rattling around inside your head. It can be tempting to jump from one task to the next, particularly when things get hard or boring. Resist the temptation. The more you focus on a single task, the faster you’ll get it done.

Set a deadline

Release to the App Store in April. Put the sales page up by the end of June. One blog post, every week. No matter what. Set an ambitious deadline. If it feels like you won’t make it, cut scope. Then cut it again. A deadline is a little promise we make to ourselves. And it feels like shit when we break that promise. Wanting to avoid that feeling helps me get stuff out the door. 

Schedule it

The idea that you’ll magically “find” the time to work on your side project is silly. Between your day job, friends, family, and just plain ol’ crap-hitting-the-fan moments, life has a way of eating up every spare second. By scheduling time for your side project – in your calendar, along with all your other commitments – you protect it from being overrun by something else. Even if it’s just 15 minutes on Saturday morning.

Most of my productivity advice is pretty boring. Focus on one thing at a time. Set deadlines. Have a schedule. I don’t mean to undersell passion or excitement – those are important too. But, in my experience, what ships side projects is time, dedication, and a little bit of practice each day.

Be boring in your life, so you may be fearless in your work.

Until next time,

–Brian