Engesser’s Law


This article is part of 20in20, a series of 20 blog posts in 20 days to kick off the blogging year 2020. This is 20in20:05.

A good friend of mine, back when we were students, studied film, among other things. We’d go to the movie theater frequently. At some point, he jokingly pointed out a useful guideline to me, that I found can be usefully applied way outside of movie theater visits.

So today I present this back to you, paraphrased, as Engesser’s Law:

“If you notice you’ll need to go to the bathroom before the movie ends, the best time to go is when you notice, as the movie will be more interesting at any later stage going forward.”

Because movies are built, obviously, with a dramatic arc that goes up and up and up. So, if you know it’s necessary, now’s better than later. Any later interruption will be disproportionately worse. (If it’s a good movie, that is.)

So I’m taking the liberty to add two corollaries and expand this from the world of movie theaters into everyday life, both work and personal:

First corollary: If you know any task will become urgent later, the best time to finish it is right now.

Second corollary: If you delay finishing a task until it becomes too urgent to further delay, you reduce your own agency and may have created avoidable additional damage to yourself and possibly others

Always Be Experimenting with Your Daily Routines


Having been self-employed most of my life, and often been part of a peer-group that tends to be interested in experimenting with self-organization (cough did someone just say life hacks), I’ve had the privilege to be very much in charge of my daily routines for most of my adult life.

So I made a point early on in my career to experiment with them and see what sticks, what helps me be more productive, more aware, more awake, more creative—or simply be in a better mood.

After a period of experimentation, I tend to settle into a pattern that works well—for a while. The last few years, that has been a pretty steady, almost comically traditional day at the office, if with a somewhat relaxed schedule. I’d show up between 8:30 and 10, would have a lunch break (preferably without meetings), and try to leave between 5 and 7. At any given time the details would depend on the current ongoing projects: Higher workload meant longer and more intense hours, a lighter workload meant more time to read, write, and meet with folks. It was almost as if I had the most traditional routing because I didn’t have to. I got pretty effective and efficient with my workflows. This was pretty much a management schedule (as opposed to a maker schedule), optimized for conference calls and meetings rather than uninterrupted periods of deep work time that would allow flow.

Image: Public Domain. Image from page 517 of "Railway mechanical engineer" (1916)

But recently, especially since we had a baby, this has been a little less satisfying: I’ve been doing a lot more deep work (research, writing) that isn’t really all that compatible with a management-style schedule, so I’ve been needing more uninterrupted time to get into the flow. Also, I now need a bit more flexibility to take care of the little one or relieve M even while she’s on parental leave now (I’ll take a leave a little later, too). Still, it’s not like I need to simulate an “orderly” workday for anyone: There’s still no boss to convince I’m working if I’m not. Additionally to the deep work time I need more of, I also want to make a point of allowing me to put in more time to learn and develop new skills: It feels like I’ve been plateauing on my core skills and it’s time for upgrades in adjacent branches of the skill tree. (Yes, I’m nerdy enough that I used to play pen-and-paper role playing games.)

In other words, time for another round of experimentation.

I plan to read some more about opportunities and frameworks to optimize for combinations of deep work and learning new skills, and will seek out some the advice of friends who know more about this than I do.

In the meantime, here’s what I’ll be trying for a while:

  • Spend more time in offline, especially in the morning: No checking emails and social media for as long as possible in the mornings, and absolutely not before breakfast. This should help with mindfulness and to have more control over the way my day starts. I like to be proactive rather than reactive. The inbox is the natural enemy of being proactive.
  • Schedule time for reading, writing, learning. Especially I’ll set aside 1-2 longer uninterrupted blocks per week for learning or upgrading skills, like producing podcasts, Python, machine learning basics, or even notionally boring-but-important management things like better accounting/budgeting/leadership skills.
  • More walks. I often and frequently walk, it’s the best catalyst I know for thinking through challenging problems. Recently I’ve fallen short, I’ve walked less than usual. This will change right away. Walking is the best thing ever.
  • Cluster meetings and calls in the afternoon. Part of this will be to have calls and meetings in the afternoon as much as possible. It’s my least productive time in terms of focused input/output, but it’s perfect for conversations.

I hope that this might lead to concrete improvements and outcomes:

  • Stronger focus for longer periods of time, which should result in more long text output (essays, blog posts, maybe a book or two).
  • Less reactive scheduling, and more productive use of my time.
  • More flexibility to be present in my family as the better use of my time leads to less time-at-desk and rather to better-output-per-day.
  • Both new opportunities and improvements in my practice through new skills.

Are there any techniques or approaches you found very helpful yourself? Give me a shout, I’m curious!

Is Twitter the new Google?


Well, of course that title is slightly misleading. (Come on, what did you expect?) However, it’s not just there to draw a few more eyeballs. Let me explain what I mean.

Google is everywhere. But not just in a general, universal “oh my god they’re everywhere” sense, but more concretely: I work with Google all day, every day. The first few browser tabs I open in the morning are from Google (mail, docs, cal, feeds and, oh, right: search). I manage my calendar through Google and have it sync with my Blackberry. Most of the docs I work on with others live in Google Docs. What I’m trying to say is: I rely on Google much more than I probably should, and I’m not the only one. But at this point I have to say, for a freelancer like me Google provides the best solutions.

Enter Twitter: While it’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Twitter, I’ve always seen it as some kind of add-on service, something that’s nice to have and a little addictive, but not really necessary. But just today, I wrote three blog posts in which I pointed to Twitter, that dealt with some aspects of Twitter, and I tried to get in touch with a few folks through Twitter – unsuccessfully. Twitter has been really shaky all day. I’m increasingly relying on a shaky service. No good, is it?

Still: I don’t believe Michael Arrington is right when he says folks just move from Twitter to Friendfeed. Friendfeed is great, but Twitter has survived other great competitors like Pownce. Twitter is just so simple and fun that people (including myself) stay there despite the competitors’ better feature sets and reliability. Also, Twitter are working on improving their service, their blog is full of new hires.

And so I’m going to stay there as well. But I guess I’ll have to come up with a plan B so I’m not stranded if something really bad happens to Twitter. Like more users, or a major event that folks like to twitter about.

Writing email that gets answered


Chris Brogan summarizes how to write email so that it’s easy to process further:

Key points:

  • One Decision Per Email (so it’s easy to process)
  • Don’t Ever Say “Quick Question.” (Because it’s usually not. If it is, there’s no need to announce it.)
  • Your Signature File (it should contain your contact details, but be brief and concise)
  • Following Up (is important, but keep it brief)

Thanks, thanks, and thanks! Read the rest at Chris’ blog.

Social Media Noise vs Info Overload


Just stumbled over a series of posts on ReadWriteWeb I’d like to share with you. Without further commenting, there’s plenty of info there that I’m fairly certain are relevant to your daily life, too.

First, there’s a two-piece post on Info Overload (part one: the problem, part two: solutions). Solutions can be strategies, but also very concrete tools that reduce noise, like DarkRoom. Then, there’s a neat post on why social media noise might be good for you.

Social Media Consumption Differences, Image by Hutch Carpenter Social Media Consumption Differences: Image by Hutch Carpenter

Speaking of info overload, a new workgroup with pretty high-profile members researches just that. For more info check out the Information Overload Research Group.

This discussion is something a lot of us face every day, and I’m quite interested in the topic. If you have great tipps, links or ideas, please share in the comments!

How to create the best workplace? Ask 37signals


37signals and their smart & usable (translation: awesome) web solutions like the project management pack Basecamp have always been inspiring. That alone, said about office and productivity software, is an amazing accomplishment. But what’s more, the girls and guys at 37signals also try to figure out the best work experience for all involved, and share the process in their blog.

Among other things, they gave their employees credit cards to buy whatever they need, the default assumption being that this works on a trust basis. By itself, that’s not spectacular, but it sure is a nice feat. Also, they help their staff learning stuff they fancy, for example by paying flying lessons and the like. (Deal: You share what you learn, so everybody profits.) This is quite amazing.

But what really blew my mind is what they did to the traditional 5-day week: It’s gone. As simple as that. I remember talking about the idea of a four-day work week, or a general limit of six hours of work per day in a five-day week, with friends and colleagues. Some of us agreed that you could get the same productivity within a shorter timespan, others said no way. But according to 37signals, their experiences prove that the four-day work week does indeed work without productivity loss:

Last summer we experimented with 4-day work weeks. People should enjoy the weather in the summer. We found that just about the same amount of work gets done in four days vs. five days. (…) So recently we’ve instituted a four-day work week as standard. We take Fridays off. We’re around for emergencies, and we still do customer service/support on Fridays, but other than that work is not required on Fridays. Three-day weekends mean people come back extra refreshed on Monday. Three-day weekends mean people come back happier on Monday. Three-day weekends mean people actually work harder and more efficiently during the four-day work week.

When we were talking about that idea, I never expected to see it implemented anyplace real anytime soon. But there you go – this is great news. Hopefully other companies will take 37signal’s lead and start experimenting with their workplace culture, too.