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My Productivity Goes to Eleven

I'm often asked about my personal productivity strategies, and the number one tip that I like to give out is the benefit of making habits of the things that you find valuable. It is said that it takes 21 days for form a habit, and that one must be committed to establishing it. I could argue that if you can remember to do something for 21 days, you've already made it a habit. If the habit I want to create is eating delicious cake every day, I suspect I could do without help. When it's remembering to floss, on the other hand, I might forget if I'm in a hurry, or even blow it off. In this case, I find that checklists help.

My habits checklists on TodoistApplications like Todoist work for me, as they let me make a checklist of tasks and set them to repeat daily (or in some cases, on weekdays, weekends, or whatever schedule works for me). Initially, I had a single checklist, but I found this difficult to work with. Sometimes there are tasks that are expected on a given day but just aren't going to get done, often for very good reason. For example, one task I have is to make a daily journal entry about a particular topic. The problem is that the topic doesn't generate activity every day, so checking off this task when there is nothing to journal about is perfectly okay - but I get "credit" in the app for actually doing it. There is no way to mark it, as we'd say in the betting world, "no action."

My solution was to split out my list into two categories and then split those into two more. The two categories are health habits and all other habits. I treat health differently because many of the items are non-negotiable. Take my blood pressure medication, for example. That goes into the second split of "maintenance," which means that it's a "no excuse" task.

Tasks that aren't maintenance are improvement, and those are the ones that, more often than not, wouldn't get done if I didn't hold myself accountable. Improvement health tasks like working out or meditating (though that's becoming more attractive the more I do it). Improvement habits like committing to writing at least one sentence a day (hat tip to Stephen Barnes for this one).

In all cases, checking them off provides the dopamine reaction I'm after. I want to see, every day, 100% on maintenance tasks, and as close as I can get on the improvement tasks. If something can't be done regularly, I re-evaluate it to see if it must be dropped from the list or if I need to make adjustments to make it possible.

Bonus List: I have one for "Memorize." This is, obviously, anything I need to commit to memory. I put the text in a task and read it once per day and then check it off. After a time, the every-day repetition gets the job done and I can remove the task. Ask me to do some Shakespeare for you some time - this is how I memorized Dogberry's part in Much Ado About Nothing ;)

Do you think this would work for you? I'd love to hear thoughts and refinements! What would you add/change to this?

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The Ultimate Counter to the Exposure Pitch

There are a decent number of stories going around the Internet, many of them recent, about how artists should push back on being asked to work for free. Let me state up front that I agree with this position to the tune of about 80%.

There are times when working for free makes sense - if you're doing a favor for a friend, for example, or you're donating your time to a good cause. I've done some artistic work as a gift and I know some photographers who regularly shoot weddings as gifts (and that's an expensive gift!). I've shot bands that I love in exchange for being let into the venue for free and the necessary front-row stage-side access. I can be a fanboy like the next guy. This isn't about those times. This is about the times when someone who can and should pay for your artistic talent and time still asks that you do/perform their gig for free.

The latest, describes how Oprah Winfrey asked an artist to attend and perform for no compensation (and, after pushing back on the issue, offered a little gas money before revoking the offer completely). The artist rightly points out that while "exposure" was dangled as the draw, her landlord won't accept rent payments in whatever quanta "exposure" uses for measurement. I'll stop using quotes around exposure now.

That outlined, I have found a sure-fire, ultimate counter whenever someone promises you exposure in exchange for your time, work and talent. The conversation goes something like this:

Promoter: Hey, Chris, I have this fantastic project I'm working on, and I need a photographer. I immediately thought of you because I love your work. You'd be perfect for this gig!

Photographer: Wow, thanks, I appreciate that! Let me read over these requirements... okay, yeah, that's a lot, but I can nail this for you. Let's talk fee and usage - what's your budget for this, and let me see if I can exceed your expectations.

Promoter: Well, there's the thing. The budget is zero for photography. We're spending a lot on everything else, and, well, we're just out of money. But look there are going to be hundreds of people there and they'll all see your work. You'll get tons of exposure out of this that should bring you lots of paid gigs.

Photographer: Oh, really? Well, hey, you know your stuff, right? You're pretty confident about this?

Promoter: Absolutely. 100% certain.

Photographer: Well, not to get stars in my eyes, but let me outline this. My normal fee for something like this would be on the order of $2000. If I do this for you for free, that's $2000 I'm not getting. But you say hundreds of people. Do you think I could get three paid gigs out of this?

Promoter: Easy. Do a good job and sure, I could see three people hiring you based on your work. Maybe even five!

Photographer: Let's say three, just to be fair. That means by giving up $2,000, I could make $6,000. That would be a profit of $4,000. That's not bad.

Promoter: Now you get it! I'm totally jazzed, man!

Photographer: Great! So here's my proposal - since you're so sure that I'm going to make this money, I want to cut you in. You pay me my normal fee of $2,000. In exchange, I'm going to split everything I book from this gig with you, 50/50 as a thank-you for giving me such an incredible opportunity. If I book three gigs, that means that you paid me $2,000, but I immediately turn around and give you $3,000 back. You actually make $1000 just for hiring me! And if I book five gigs like you said, that's $10,000 in bookings. You get $5,000, minus the $2,000 you already paid me, meaning you profit to the tune of $3,000 on this deal. The sky's the limit, my friend! Exposure!

Promoter: (crickets)

And that, my friends, is how you use math, science and common sense to take down the myth of exposure.

If you ever do this and it works, I'd really love to hear about it - share in the comments, any time. And feel free to share and repost this advice. It's free (as in beer) and I hope it helps someone spread the message.

PS: Any aspiring web comic who would like to take this conversation to a set of panels, get in touch. I'll trade the text for the art and we can both publish it. That's not exposure, that's barter, if both parties believe they're getting value. See how easy that part is?

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You're Only Getting Half of the Lesson

My friend Rick shared a story with me this morning, about a seminar and a lesson. I quote it here:

Once a group of 500 people were attending a seminar. Suddenly the speaker stopped and decided to do a group activity. He started giving each person a balloon. Each person was then asked to write their name on it using a marker pen. Then all the balloons were collected and put in another room.

The people were then let into that room and asked to find the balloon which had their name written on it within 5 minutes. Everyone was frantically searching for their name, colliding with each other, pushing around others and there was utter chaos.


At the end of 5 minutes no one could find their own balloon. Then, the speaker asked each person to randomly collect a balloon and give it to the person whose name was written on it. Within minutes everyone had their own balloon.

The speaker then began, "This is happening in our lives. Everyone is frantically looking for happiness all around, not knowing where it is.

Our happiness lies in the happiness of other people. Give them their happiness; you will get your own happiness. And this is the purpose of human life...the pursuit of happiness."

Ferris at the CBOENow, what does this tell us about happiness? Well, the concept is pretty well-known, if you help others, often that help will come back as help to yourself. A rising tide raises all boats, as they say. Selfishly, if you do nice things for other people, they're more inclined to do nice things for you.

I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.

So let's examine the actual events here, instead. Initially, everyone looked for their balloon, and had a 1-in-500 chance of finding it. Let's say ten people managed to do so and that they even helped a little by getting out of the room when they accomplished that goal. That still leaves 490 scrambling people. Clearly this demonstration, at this point, works. Chaos is bad. Random searching is the wrong protocol to solve this problem. The leader of the seminar deliberately picked the wrong algorithm to make his point.

A better algorithm is then described. Clearly, on its face, this makes more sense. But we can't leave it there. I asked Rick, "Okay, by what protocol did people call out the name of the person on the balloon they selected?" Rick answered, "The Starbuck's Protocol." Sure, everyone has their order. As they're ready, the barista calls out your name and you pick up your double cafe latte and go about your day. But in this story, there is no barista - there is no leader.

Trading PlacesIf this were played-out as described, the exercise would look like a rough day in the pit at the Chicago Board of Exchange (that wild place Ferris and friends visited on their tour of Chicago and the setting for the payoff of one of the greatest movies of all time, "Trading Places."). To make this work properly, you need a leader to coordinate the protocol. The leader could tell everyone to quickly and quietly pick a single balloon. Then the leader could say, "If you know the person, please immediately walk to them, swap balloons with them, and then if you have your balloon, please exit the room. Start this now, while we continue. Now, we'll move quickly: if the name on your balloon starts with an 'A,' please raise the balloon up high and, as I point to you, say the name. Then follow the previous protocol - if you hear your name, go get your balloon, swap, and leave. We'll move as quickly as we can through the alphabet. Someone bring me a double cafe latte."

That's just one possible protocol. As a software architect, I immediately can think of some pretty interesting optimizations that I'd love to try. But for a quick "teach you a lesson" exercise at a seminar, if someone stepped up and took the lead and made this work, I'd keep my eye on them and find out if they're looking for a new job.


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Help Me to Help You

Dr. Gary Chapman’s book, “The Five Love Languages,” is a well-known tome on five ways that humans tend to express and experience love for one another. Of the five, one is “Acts of Service.” That is, doing things for other people. As it is in life and relationships, so it is in business. Often, helping others through actions can provide benefits not only for the recipient, but also for the helper.


I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

One challenge, however, is in knowing what one can do for someone. Sure, it’s possible to just come out and ask. “What can I do for you?” is probably one of the most used phrases in the English language, after all. “How can I help you?” is the opening salvo in almost all customer service conversations (don't get me started on the grammatically frightening, "Can I help who's next?"). But what about the business partner or colleague? Would you just ask, unbidden, what they need? And if they told you, would you be ready to lend help then and there? My suggestion is that there are better ways to build a knowledge set of what your friends and associates might need such that you’re prepared to lend help if and when the ability or circumstances dictate. And you can do this in a way that doesn't create an immediate expectation or obligation that you may not be able to easily fulfill.

Here’s how I do it – ask open but probing questions, often on social media where the time to think and answer doesn’t prohibit a good, candid response. One of my favorites is to simply ask, “What are you working on right now that’s got you really engaged?” Of course nobody is going to spill the beans on their secret project, but even just a hobby activity will give me insight into what I might be able to aid.

Another go-to question: "What is your current achievable goal, and what is your current blue-sky goal (whether you think you can achieve it or not – aim high)?" You’d be surprised how many people have goals that they feel are unachievable that, with your easy help, might be within reach. And often, your help is no sweat for you, but you would have never known if you didn’t ask. And your friends and associates would never think to ask you most of the time.

Yes, sometimes you run the risk of “butting in,” but I would counter that if they liked your question and put the time into giving you an answer, no matter how short, you run very little risk in offering help.

And in helping others, you often help yourself. Remember, I’m selfish that way.

So what is your current achievable goal, and what’s your blue-sky goal? Seriously, use the comments here and spill! Someone else might be able to help.

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He Knows, You Know...

Donald Rumsfeld was the United States Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006 under President Bush. He is known for many things, but will always be remembered for his statement of an old truism, as quoted -

… as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

In any field of human endeavor, there is a range of knowledge and competence that runs from the absolute beginner to the acknowledged expert. When starting, everyone is new, with a compliment of “known knowns” that is, generally, empty. For example, when I decided I wanted to learn about investing, my “known knowns” consisted of knowing what money was and that something called “stock” existed.

Given time, I started to develop a set of “known unknowns.” What was stock, really? How did one acquire it? How did one choose which to buy, and then how much? The questions started accumulating and my to-do list for learning grew at an alarming pace. As I learned more, I started shifting items from the second category (the “known unknowns”) into the first category (the “known knowns, “ or my knowledgebase). My second category grew at a slower pace as I learned more, but it still grew. Eventually, my first category was larger than my second, and I felt that I had a decent grounding in the field of investing.

I was wrong.

The Dunning–Kruger Effect

There is a fascinating study from 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. In a nutshell, the Dunning-Kruger effect happens when someone thinks their competence in a skill or knowledge set is high simply because they don’t have the knowledge to know just how much they don’t know. As a result, incompetent (or simply poorly-skilled) individuals tend to overestimate their skill level, whereas skilled individuals are aware of their limitations.

These limitations are Mr. Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.”

At the point where I thought I was starting to really get my brain around investing, I had a set of unknown unknowns that was much larger than I could have ever imagined, all of them hidden to me. I thought I was doing pretty well until one day someone asked me if I traded options. I had no idea what options were. One, huge, “unknown unknown” just made a thunderous noise as it revealed itself and immediately made the move into the second set. I now had a huge “known-unknown” and months of learning ahead of me.

Was I a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect? Likely so. If someone had asked me if I knew about investing, I probably would have replied yes and been proud of the knowledge I had acquired, having no idea just how much I didn’t know.

The Taxonomy of Breadth

First Category

Known Knowns

Your depth of knowledge. Everything you know that makes up your primary skill set.

Second Category

Known Unknowns

Your breadth of knowledge. Everything that you know exists and some basic information about those things, but nothing more.

Third Category

Unknown Unknowns

Your ignorance.

Based on this realization, I’ve come to classify people and behaviors based on which set is their primary focus (whether they realize it or not).

Those who typically live in the third category, often without realizing it, have a huge compliment of unknown unknowns. I should be clear, these are people who have this huge compliment and don't realize it. They may think that their focus is on the first category, but the third is actually the focus. These people are living the Dunning-Kruger effect. They believe they know the sum and total of a subject and often find that things simply don’t work out the way they expect they should. These people are surprised when events don’t unfold in the most obvious way. They often find that their plans are foiled not by others but by simple chance. “I had no idea that could happen!” is a common phrase heard from such people.

Those who typically focus on the first category are the second-tier experts in any field. They have a large set of knowledge and can usually accomplish any reasonable task that requires that skill set, but they’re rarely innovators. They may realize that the third category exists, but they don’t put much thought towards that fact. They have their skill set and they’re comfortable with it. They will learn new things only as needs arise. These people make excellent engineers as you can give them a task and they can immediately apply their skill and knowledge to complete the task. You can rely on these people to almost always demonstrate competence, but not always insight.

The true experts, however, are the people who typically focus on the second category. They have, by necessity, a huge first set of “known knowns” as a result of consistently replenishing their second category from the third. This person is the senior architect who can not only bang-out the engineering task from her skills, but also knows the “lay of the land” from her breadth of knowledge. She may not know how to use all of the technologies available to solve a particular problem, but in having the breadth of all technologies in her "known unknowns," she knows what’s available. She can evaluate a problem against possible solutions, even those in which she isn’t currently conversant, and select the best or most likely one. Then, if need be, she can put in the time to move that skill from the second category to the first. If the decision doesn’t work, she has the breadth to realize this fact and make a course correction from other available options.

People who focus on the second category are constantly trying to find items in their "unknown unknowns" and get them into their "known unknowns" as quickly as possible. And in doing so, they acknowledge that their third category will never be empty, and they will never never presume it is. They avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect by simply realizing it exists. These are the people you see reading industry trade magazines and web sites, picking up an introductory book on the latest technology just to get a quick grounding, and always asking, “What’s new? What are you working on? What’s cool that I’ve not heard of yet?” You meet these people at industry conferences.

And when they mention that they’d heard of the cool technology years ago, you mutter under your breath that they’re a hipster and just showing off. But that’s a different article entirely.

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© 2014, Christopher Ambler

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