Jan 29

highlighter.jpg“then you’ve highlighted nothing,” as my friend Kobe used to say.

This is going to be a visually-painful way of making this point but hopefully it makes the lesson memorable. In college when I would study in a group I would notice that other students highlighted stuff from the chapters that they had read. Nothing wrong with marking up a text book – it generally facilitates greater recall – but the problem was that they would highlight 80% of the text on a page so that when finished, the majority of the book’s verbiage was bright yellow.

The obvious problem with this practice is that it doesn’t get you anything. The more detrimental side effect though is that not only does it not enhance your ability to process and extract meaningful associations from the text while reading, it detracts from your ability to review the text later. Like the fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, your brain eventually habituates the highlighting and stops assigning any meaningful significance- it becomes merely a distracting nuisance.

takeaway So how does this possibly relate to situations beyond highlighted textbooks? It translates directly across to how we manage our todo’s and assign priority to tasks. The main takeaway here is this:

However you express priority in your todo list, make sure that only a few items at any given time are prioritized.

I recommend the “dot-size” priority trick if you use a whiteboard or notebook. Anytime you have more than 20% of your items flagged as priority, I guarantee that your effectiveness on tackling any one item will be diluted. The mindset when assigning priority should be “what three things this week will have the greatest impact on advancing our cause?” Notice this is different than “what are the three most pressing items on my plate this week?” The latter is a reactive vs. proactive approach – you can get into reactive mode where you let your todo list drive you. Urgency is completely independent of Importance – but that’s a topic for another post…

Hopefully if you’ve ben able to tolerate the highlighting and have read this far, the message will have hit home and resonate with you. And the next time you find yourself escalating a bunch of todo items, you’ll remember the words of my friend Kobe and know that “when you’ve highlighted everything, you’ve highlighted nothing.

Dec 10


David Allen has a massive following with his “Getting Things Done” methodology for managing todo items. While it incorporates many good ideas, it’s troubling to see people expending a ton of energy to follow his system to the letter and wasting time wrangling their todo items into the "single trusted system" that he advocates. If it feels like you are contorting yourself for the sake of following the orthodox GTD methodology, consider using a "scattered" approach like this one. I completed GTD a year ago and took lessons from it but ended up with a homegrown approach that involves the above four repositories, each with its own function. I have been using this loose system now for the five months we’ve been running our startup and it has greatly simplified life and given me the "mind like water" state that David Allen proposes is achievable via GTD.

  1. Whiteboard – Whiteboards are collaborative tools that are good for brainstorming with others but they also make a perfect place to broadcast the current focus of each player on the team. This is consistent with Allistair Cockburn’s concept of the "" and serves as a single place where people can go to understand the current direction and focus of the team. I recommend the "dot size priority trick" for expressing priority of important items. Focus items should be established with input from each player and reviewed periodically to ensure they are not a mandate but rather an agreement.
  2. Ticket System – We use Trac extensively as our main hub for tracking tasks. Trac is the authoritative, multi-user system for all things important to your company. It integrates tightly with Subversion and there is a useful script that lets you close out tickets in Trac by entering "fixed #123" in the notes field as you commit files from SVN. We use Trac not only for development but for all facets of the business. We run Trac and Subversion over SSL and have both handled by the .htaccess for authentication. Both Trac and SVN can be driven by LDAP users. We currently use Skype for our office phone and record all important calls using Audio Hijack and then store the audio files in SVN. We also scan all critical business documents and put them in source control. Using a ticketing system gives you accountability and reporting so you know that nothing slips through the cracks and have a a way to see a "balance sheet" of the state of the tasks at any time.
  3. PDA – I have a Treo 650 and I use the Palm OS built-in todo list as "swap space" as I’m out and about thinking of new things that need to be done. If the todo is trivial and I can knock out in five minutes when I get back, I’ll do it and check it off without ever entering it into Trac. Otherwise, items get moved off the Treo and turned into Trac tickets once a day. I use Missing Sync and Bluetooth to synchronize everything in my Treo with my Macbook. The todos show up in iCal and you get a full backup of all the data in your PDA so you’re not hosed when it decides to take a swim.
  4. Legal Pad – Having a scratch pad on your desk is key. It’s the most frictionless way to take notes throughout the day and not give any thought to processing them into meaningful or actionable tasks. You are purely capturing the raw ideas as they occur in an unstructured (and ideally visual) fashion and minimizing the distraction from whatever it is you’re engaged in at the time. Mind mapping is a great technique to use with physical note taking but again, it’s worthless if you find yourself contorting your behavior just for the sake of using mind maps. Notes on the legal pad should be reviewed periodically and converted to either todo’s in the PDA or in the ticket system.

Nothing against GTD – it works for a lot of people and I’ve heard great things about Kinkless GTD. We should expect Omnifocus to be another solid app to come from the Omni guys. The point to consider though is that GTD has become a veritable religion when it should be thought of as a best practices framework of behaviors from which you develop your own system. Learn it but then synthesize it, chop it up and take the aspects you like piecemeal from it and other systems to create your own style. In the end it’s not how closely you can conform to orthodox GTD, it’s about how much you can accomplish while reducing stress and elimating the "open loops". I moderated a discussion yesterday on project management with Trac at the first ever Barcamp in Phoenix. If we get the video capture from that session, I’ll post it here in the comment field.

Jul 22

Del.icio.us is great. Here’s six ideas on how to get more out of it:

  1. pimpMyDelicious.jpgOffline browsing of your “toRead” items – Many people have a toRead tag they use to flag pages they plan to review later. Realistically with the massive daily influx of new info, I rarely get a chance to come back to these items when I’m on the computer.

    However, when I’m away from the computer waiting in a restaurant, having news feeds in my phone is perfect for killing time. Rather than read random news though, why not read what you already bookmarked? While most mobile phones support web browsing and you could do it that way, surfing over your phone’s connection sucks and this isn’t time-sensitive info we’re talking about since it clearly wasn’t critical enough for you to read it at the time you bookmarked it. Instead, use an offline reader like Avantgo to cache these items each time you sync your phone. Create a free account, download and install their client to your phone, login and get the autochannel bookmarklet here and then navigate to your toRead page. Use the autochannel bookmarklet to add this to your phone, set the link depth to “1” and check the box to “follow off-site links.” This will grab your latest list of toRead items and cache them to your phone each time you sync.

  2. Private saving for ubiquitous admin access – One of the advantages of using del.icio.us for your bookmarks is that you have access to them from any computer. You may have bookmarks to administrative features or sensitive info that you don’t want to share publicly though. Use the “private saving” feature in del.icio.us to conceal these bookmarks. You have to first enable it in under “settings > experimental > private saving.” Once you do this you’ll have a new checkbox on your posting interface in the upper-right that says “do not share” – this will make it so only when you’re logged into your account can you see these bookmarks.
  3. Mind read your mentors – If you’re reading this then we already know you read blogs. And odds are that you have a few people you follow regularly who are consistently on-point with their thinking and what they explore and write about – your mentors. Unlike reading their blog though (the things they explicitly tell you) you can find their del.icio.us account and monitor it via RSS to follow their latest bookmarks. There’s a link at the bottom of every page on del.icio.us that allows you to get a feed of things that change. In this way, you know not just what these alphanerds are saying but also what they’re thinking about.
  4. Expose yourself – The reciprocal thought to the above is that as an author of a blog yourself, you can expose your own bookmarks via your blog and make it easy for others to see what you’re thinking about. There are tons of options on how to pull this off. Personally I dislike the XML-RPC method of auto-posting del.icio.us links as blog entries – I prefer the linkroll javascript method of displaying the list in the nav as it keeps the most current ones on every page of your blog and doesn’t push them via RSS to people who just want to read what you write. They can always use the method above if they want to subscribe to your del.icio.us feed.
  5. Watch the watchers – Be a bit of a “del.icio.us voyeur” and find out who has bookmarked things you’ve written and see what else these people are reading. You achieve this by finding an entry of yours that has been bookmarked by others and looking under the posting history column on the right to see the linked usernames. Clicking through theses user names will show you their account allow you to see other stuff they follow.
  6. Create an open public dialogue on your site – Chris Pirillo proposed the idea of “freedbacking” recently whereby site owners encourage their visitors to tag their pages with the term “freedbacking” and make comments in the notes field to enable public feedback viewable to all. This is essentially what we’ve been doing on our Grid7 site since January via an iFrame on this page. You can do the same on your site and create this type of open public dialogue with your visitors. Keep in mind they may say bad things about you and it will appear on your site but doing it this way creates a “public whipping post” and forces you to deal with it immediately at risk of continued public embarrasment. Ultimately this creates an active community and more loyal following around your offering because people know you aren’t burying their criticisms and feedback.

It goes without saying that the Firefox extension for del.icio.us is a must if you post enough and as long as you’re at it, you might as well snag the FF Better Search extension so you have thumbnail images on all your del.icio.us links. If you’re new to del.icio.us and have a bunch of existing bookmarks from your web browser, you can use their nifty import feature to move all your bookmarks over and have it assign the most popular tags to the ones it already knows about. I don’t use their network feature because it doesn’t get me anything I can’t do via RSS. The people who I want to monitor I just follow individually via RSS by creating a “del.icio.us recon” folder in my bloglines and subscribing to each of their feeds. It’s better because they are now separated out by individual rather than being munged into one big list and they still have chronology.

If you have other ideas for how to get more out of del.icio.us, please share them in the comments section.

Jun 07

Disclaimer: I have zero scientific evidence to substantiate this theory. It’s subjective and anecdotal from my own experience and based in part on the concepts proposed by Tony Buzan in his Mindmapping book. Although I have no proof, I have seen it validated consistently through personal experience.

So why use a “tree-branching” style vs. a traditional outline format when brainstorming or note-taking? Very simply: because the conventional “indented outline” format of note taking imposes false linearity on your thought process . And what could be more important than having unbounded thinking when brainstorming or capturing notes on a new subject (I’m hereby banning the use the term “outside of the box” thinking). The Buzan book is the seminal work on mind-mapping and goes through a lengthy explanation of why and how to do it. I won’t rehash all that here but the main idea is that nature itself is not linear. Imposing a format on note taking which demands that we add new items sequentially to the outline funnels our thinking down to the last item at all times so that when we write this:

Outline: what you see

our brain is really seeing this:

Outline: what your brain sees

Using the alternative mindmapping technique, we can represent the same information like such:

Mindmap: what you see

And now our brain is instead seeing this:

Mindmap: what your brain sees

…which is good because we inherently like to fill in all the blank spaces and grow the tree so now rather than have the compulsion be to stop thinking about additional ideas, the path of least resistance is for our brain to continue to add to it. And once that spiral begins, tangential thoughts spawn from others and you start to get light bulbs. At least that’s the gist of why I believe it works. Granted for proposals and formal documents where the expectation is a more traditional representation, mind maps may not be appropriate. But at least the first time you begin thiniking about a subject for your own notes you should not be trying to cram the info into an outline. Doing so just because your fifth grade elementary school teacher told you it’s the proper way to outline a subject is pointless. Instead of getting hung up on where to use roman numerals vs. arabic vs. capital and small letters to ensure proper structure, we should be thinking how to remove the structure altogether from the notes and let them flow and grow organically.

The other benefit aside from improved creativity at the time of conception is greater retention and recall down the road. Try this test- look at the first outline above for 10sec and then go to a blank sheet of paper and write as much of it as you can remember. Now try the same experiment with the mindmap and see how much of it you were able to recall. The effect is amplified when you are the one generating the mindmap because you personalize it. The more doodles and weird stuff you make, the more visual your map becomes and we all know that “a picture is worth 1000 words.”

It’s one thing to read about mindmapping and say “hrmmm, that’s interesting,” but until you actually start doing it, it is just apriori book knowledge and you won’t fully appreciate the technique. As far as software, I can’t endorse any particular one as being better. I use one called Visual Mind and my friend Dave uses one called Mind Manager. There are no less than ten packages out there that all do the same thing and there are plenty of opensource options available and most of them can export the maps to XML and some integrate directly with wiki’s and pda’s. The best advice if you’re not mindmapping yet is to just try doing it and see if it doesn’t FEEL like “mentally cleaning the windshield” when you do exploratory thinking on a subject.

Apr 01

I used to have this picture hanging on the wall in my old office and one day I took it down because I realized why it resonated with me so much and why it needed to go. The hot topic now seems to be about how the daily barage of communications we receive is making us all A.D.D. and unable to concentrate intensely on one task – in order to be effective people have to force themselves into seclusion to get stuff done. Just the other day I was on the phone as messages were piling into my inbox, two IM windows popped up and my treo started vibrating as a text message came in. The person on the other line said "what the hell was that?" and I had to say "oh, don’t mind me I’m just weathering a tsunami of communications right now." No joke, I got a skype call about 5 minutes after I hung up and our fax machine ran out of paper later on that day and started beeping at my partner and I. Into this volley of exchanges mix in the constant temptation to tune into Bloglines to read the latest RSS goodness, or technorati alerts or to check up on the latest stats for your site are you can see that we’re dealing with a blizzard of distractions each day. So here is my advice for what to do:

Unplug. Literally remove your ethernet cable and disable the your wireless interface on your computer.Never in mankind’s history has an individual had so much access to knowledge and yet the stream of information has become a flailing fire hose out of control and the only way to to manage it is to occasionally "kink the hose." I know it sounds harsh and people say "how do I connect to the _fill_in_the_blank_service on the network i need to do my job?" If you rely upon remote resources during development then you’re pretty much screwed and you need to stay wired and handle each comm application individually by disabling them one at a time (IM, email, skype, IRC, gtalk) and then remove whatever shortcut you have on your desktop to your web browser and make it just inconvenient enough to browse so you resist the temptation to do anything but focus on what needs to be done. If you’re running VMware or VPC though, like I do, then you are already fully self-contained and it’s literally as simple as pulling the plug and doing your work. For those that rely upon things like livedocs and other hosted documentation, there are generally offline versions of this documentation you can get. For those that rely heavily on asking other people on lists how to do things, well maybe this is a well-deserved wakeup call for a little "RTFM" for you…

There are people like this and this that somehow thrive in this hyper-connected world and stay productive. Sean Corfield is, by today’s standards, a modern-day superman – he is seemingly omniscient and omnipresent, five places at once solving technology problems around the world and holding a steady full-time position for Adobe. How a human can be this multi-threaded is beyond me (Corfield you rock). This is the exception however and not the rule – the rest of us mere mortals are sadly only capable of devoting full attention to one task at a time and therefore need to make a conscious effort single-thread our work routine.

It may be a stupid analogy but the way I like to think of myself when I’m on critical path is as a submarine that comes to the surface occasionally to conduct communications and then submerges and goes silent. Depending on what projects, deadlines, etc you’re facing you can be more or less flexible at the depth you set. Right now, it’s crunch time for me on my ABC project so I’m only coming up to periscope depth about 3x per day at this point. When deadlines are loose you can cruise on the surface and run with fully-open communications. If you have a family that depends on you or are awaiting time-sensitive information and you need to make yourself accessible to certain people in real-time (ie. turning off your phone is not an option), there are ways to selectively let certain people through. There is Call Filter for the treo (an app actually written by a guy we know) that does for your phone what rules in Outlook do for your email. It lets you specify conditions based on contact categories, contacts, and time of day so that only certain people can call you during specified times. Very slick.

The other thing I recommend is going back to good ole audio CD’s for music listening during crunch time. Generally during an average day I have winamp tuned to some ambient channel on shoutcast streaming non-obtrusive chill background music without lyrics. But radio of any kind is by nature fragmented. There is something to be said for the musical contiguity of listening to a CD start to finish – one artist, one album, continuous musical theme throughout. Things like satellite radio, internet radio or (heaven forbid) traditional airwave corporate radio in my opinion seem to contribute to the scatter-brainedness one faces each day. You consciously or unconsciously absorb these 3min ala carte snippets from a bunch of different artists interspersed with commentary from various radio personalities (major oxymoron btw) and commercials. I have a rack of CD’s left over from college sitting in my office that I still have yet to transfer to my iPod and I find that popping in a CD while I’m submerged helps focus.

My friend Dave just launched his blog and is taking it further with an experiment that will potentially allow him to ditch his cellphone altogether. I’m not quite there yet – I still find the cellphone too convenient to toss – but I agree with the premise that we need to exercise periodic isolation in order to achieve our best productivity. If this whole thought of "yourself as a submarine" feels ridiculous, ask yourself what’s more ridiculous in a crunch deadline…

© 2005 Lights Out Production – All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Mar 03

Most self-improvement programs suggest that the first steps are to:

  1. write down a list of your short-term and long-term goals
  2. post them in a conspicuous place

Doing this puts several things to work for you: First, when you write something down, the act of writing itself causes your brain to use different neural pathways. Odds are you could care less about which neurons you use to get something done, but you’d probably be interested to know the effects that research has shown writing to have on memory, cognition and creativity. Additionally, when you write your goals down you are forced to quantify and qualify them in ways that do not occur when you simply think to yourself “it’d be nice if i could do xyz someday…” Writing out the goals generally requires that you to think through the path towards achieving them as well. It gets you 100% clear on your intent (the “why”) and that is the strongest motivator you can possibly bring to bear. Anything you want to improve, you must first be able to track- this exercise clarifies exactly what you’re tracking from now on. The last thing you enact by exposing your goals publicly is peer pressure- when you post them on your bathroom mirror or on your bedroom wall or even in your cube, you tap into the same advantages that come with having a workout partner at the gym (ie. thinking to yourself, “i can’t skip today because i’ll be letting so-and-so down”). Peer pressure is typically conceived as a _bad_ thing but in this context I would argue that having other people aware of your goals will compel you to take steps necessary to meet them that you otherwise would not have. Posting goals in your workplace is a start but there’s a better, more conspicuous place to post them…

So in a bit of a social experiment, I’m proposing a meme centered around exposing your goals publicly for the next year and beyond. At the very worst – it’s comedy, you miss the mark on everything and nobody remembers the post a year from now. At the very best – it’s a living post that changes as you attain goals, an exercise that is the catalyst for some greater focus, and a neat way to peer over the fence and see what is important to other people (and prod them towards reaching their own goals). If you choose to participate, this is what you need to do:

  1. post a list of your short-term and long-term goals on your blog and mention who tapped you for the experiment. The goals you list don’t have to be technology-specific or anything-specific really- just stuff you want to want to eventually achieve. Aim high here, really ponder what you want to achieve someday, what you want your life’s work to be, and then write it down. Try to make the list as close to the chronology as you see it playing out- make it so it starts with the most short-term/atomic/realistic goals and let it wander to the most ambitious / wacky / long-term dreams
  2. use the title “opensource goals meme” so that other people can do a search and find the other participants. copy these instructions somewhere in the post or refer them here
  3. tap 5 friends to do this exercise after you are finished and actually READ what they write and REFLECT how their priorities are similar and different from your own
  4. maintain this list as you go crossing off things as you achieve them and adding new ones as they develop

So my list is perhaps a bit on the exhaustive/ambitious side but it’s been building in my Treo over the past year:

learn decision tree analysis
get accepted to the 9rules network
learn how to kite surf
learn to paraglide
learn morse code
reconnect w/ old friends on working US roadtrip
down-size, consolidate and turn house and convert to performing asset
get back to single-digit bodyfat
organize barcamp phoenix
regain flexibility
work for myself
cook 90% of all meals- less eating out
grid7 retreat w/ core intellectuals @ tonto natural bridge
achieve 1000 WPM reading speed
write for a reputable publication
learn yoga
become an employer
learn krav maga
buy a beachfront condo somewhere tropical
play “Panama” live on stage w/ Van Halen
take the bob baunderant school of racing
hold summer “cabin codefest”
produce coldturkey’s next album
get scuba certified
build a home recording studio
create a revolutionary billion dollar company
make the homepage of slashdot
drive from alaska to chile (fireandicetour)
learn to surf
make the “backs of giants” mural
learn accounting principles & tax law
learn tai chi
publish a kid’s book
learn to fly a helicopter
liberate 100 people from shitty jobs they hate
take down a major bully
develop a highschool curriculum
learn handwriting analysis
do a wilderness survival school and survive 1 wk in wild
start a VC firm
study all the major world religions
read all the Great Books
travel to all 7 continents
launch VELA project in phoenix
serve abroad in the peace corps
learn feng shui fundamentals
summit large mountain
speak at a major conference
complete the chronos custom nutrition program
complete a marathon
earn para3 rating and fly torrey pines
make the cover of WIRED
earn a PhD in biomimicry
beat the champion level of scrabble
meet the Dhali Lama in person
raise a child
x-country paragliding trip in either chile or australia
win pulitzer
redistribute the wealth based on merit
visit outer space
find cure for a major mental illness like depression
earn nobel prize

Ok, so granted they get wildly ambitious towards the end ;-) but my friend Don always said “goals are dreams with a deadline.” Never stop dreaming big, right?
Kimbro Staken, Steven Harvill, Rob Brooks-Bilson and Chris Tingom – you’ve been “tapped” ;-)

UPDATE: a few more people I’m tapping on this meme- John Blayter, John Bland, Max Porges, Noah Kagan, Francine Hardaway, John Murch

UPDATE: 6/16/06 – Held Cabin Codefest in Munds Park.

UPDATE: 8/1/06 – Became an employer (hired Ben as our first full-time employee)

UPDATE: 10/15/06 – completed the PADI scuba class

UPDATE: 12/15/06 – Got accepted to 9rules and organized the 1st Barcamp Phoenix

UPDATE: 1/5/07 – Had my first kite surfing course – woohoo!

UPDATE: 3/9/07 – Published my first book

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