Working on features with no value – frustrating

Few things on a project are as frustrating as being forced to work on a feature that adds no value to the immediate goal of releasing a product. When project managers who are new to product development confuse product ship date with the project deadline, you end up being forced to deliver features that will not be used for weeks or even months to come. Perhaps, not ever. That’s when you sit staring, with a twitch in your eye, at the most basic story. Those “I’d rather be <fill in the blank>” license plate holders immediately come to mind.

As a startup, perhaps, you harbor visions of grandeur, thinking of the time when you’ll be a billion-dollar company employing several hundred people in your back-office operations. But on day one, month one, even month two or three — you are not. Building features and interfaces designed to make the lives of your potential future employees easier is probably not the best use of one’s time when you’re close to launch and your current employee count is at zero.

Focus on your product. Make sure it is appealing and easy to use. Make sure that it will attract that first million-dollar customer and will enable him to do business with you. And if in the mean time your initial staff of employees has to jump through a couple of hoops and push a few too many buttons to service this million-dollar customer, well — attribute that to growing pains.




Productivity in 33.33 minutes

There’s so much to do every day: email to be checked, blogs to be read, IMs to be sent and answered, news to be read, tweets to be read, and tweets to be posted.  But you also have some very specific tasks that need to be accomplished.  Unless you’re a social media maven, you probably don’t get paid to tweet.  You get paid to work, to meet deadlines, and to accomplish those specific tasks, tasks that include writing: code, documentation, copy, presentations, and proposals — things that are not as much fun as Twitter or even Ed Brill’s blog.  How do you get your popcorn brain to focus on a single task?  How do you put all those other non-productive distractions away?

Do it in 33 minutes and 33 seconds.  You can focus on 1 thing for 33 minutes and 33 seconds, right?  It is hard to believe but even I can.

Get yourself a timer or a stopwatch.  Any old timer will do.  I use Aptimac Timer on my Mac.

Set your butt in a chair.  Open Word, Keynote or whatever program you will use to write whatever it is you have to write.  If you’re a coffee or tea drinker, get a mug of your favorite hot beverage.

Set the timer to 33 minutes and 33 seconds.  Hit the start button.

For the next 33 minutes and 33 seconds you can do one of the following things:

  1. Drink your beverage
  2. Stare into space (wall, window, blank sheet in MS Word)
  3. Do absolutely nothing
  4. Or…  you could actually write.

For those 33 minutes you can’t leave, you can’t check email or do anything else other than the 4 things above.  Doing nothing and staring into space eventually gets awfully boring and, slowly at first, then with more gusto as ideas take shape, you start to write — to do the actual task you set off to do.

When the 33.33 minutes are up, stop.  Stop in the middle of a sentence, if it happens.  Give yourself a break of 10 minutes, during which you can do anything else, even tweet.

When the 10 minutes are up, it is back to the 33.33 routine.

It works.  That’s how I got myself to write this very post.  (Hey, what can I say?  I’m a slow writer.)

And, of course, like most of my productivity tips, the idea is not mine.  The credit for the system goes to the legendary copywriter Eugene Schwartz.


The scourge of email

Somewhere I read or heard about a guy who would check his email twice a day: at 8 AM and 4 PM.  He had an auto responder set to reply to all emails that he will check email and respond in one of those time slots.  I want to be that guy.

At some point along the way, during the evolution of electronic communication, email ceased to be a collaboration tool and became a distraction tool.  Like a Pavlov’s dog, at that ding, buzz, popup, vibration, the ever famous “You’ve got mail” notice of a new email we drop everything and grab our mouse, keyboard, laptop, mobile device and spring into action of reading and immediately replying to that all important email.  “I get email therefore I exist”, said Dilbert in one strip.

If you sent me an email, that means you really need an answer from me, like now.  And if I don’t reply in 5, 10, 15 minutes, you start getting antsy.  You may even call me, “Hey, I sent you an email.  Did you see it?”  After all, you know that I’m there, you can see my online status in your IM app.  You know that I have a BlackBerry.  So there should be no excuse for me not to reply to you, right?

Well, wrong!

This modus operandi may be fine if your job is to answer email.  But if your job is to complete a task, to prepare a document, to run a meeting, then email is nothing more than a distraction.  The message they sent you is certainly important to the sender, and someone else’s priority is upsetting your priorities.

Email is a documentation tool and it’s a good communication tool when used properly with respect and appropriate expectations on both sides.

It is NOT an instant messaging tool.  IM is the instant messaging tool, that’s why it is called IM.  And it is not a substitute for face-to-face or phone-to-phone communication.

One of these days I may become important enough and be able to afford an auto-responder “I check email twice a day.  I’ll respond to you then.”  Until then, sadly enough, I’ll continue to be a victim of the email scourge.  Although, my Mail client is set to not alert me of new messages with popups; the volume on my laptop is turned off and I don’t hear those beeps; and my BlackBerry is set to to a Phone-only profile, remaining silent and stone-faced when emails arrive.

And in conclusion, a real life story…

My mother likes to forward a great deal of all those cute, humourous and various “educational” emails.  In a moment of a lapse in judgement I confessed to her that I summarily delete 99% of these emails without ever opening them.  She took it as a personal affront: if someone [my mother] took the time to put together and sent an email, it is disrespectful of them and the time they spent to not read it.  “And what about my time?  The time it takes to read it”, I asked.  She disregarded my question.