How to Find the Time to Accomplish Anything

Guest Post By William Hertlingwilliamhertling.com (Author)

William Hertling is a web strategist, programmer, father, short-order cook and the author of two award-winning and best-selling techothrillers: Avogadro Corp: The Singularity is Closer than It Appears and A.I. Apocalypse. You can follow him at @hertling or on his blog, williamhertling.com.

Maybe you want to write an app or a book. Maybe you want to start a business or learn to play the piano. Maybe you just want to kick butt in your day job. If there’s anything at all that you’ve wanted to do, but struggle to find the time and energy to do it, the tips below will help.

In the last five years, I’ve managed to find the time to write, publish and promote multiple books, including two award-winning bestsellers, develop a web application, maintain a blog, and present at conferences. I did all that while still excelling at my day job and actively raising three young children.

I’m not here to brag, but I do want to emphasize that if I can do all that while raising twins (twins!), then you too can find the time and drive to accomplish something big, whether that’s starting a business, developing a mobile app, or writing a book.

I’m going to share a bit of my own personal path as well as nine key techniques to making time, creating personal drive, and prioritizing activities that you enable you to accomplish anything.

Enter the Craziness

In 2002, I met Libba and Gifford Pinchot, cofounders of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, at a retreat. The two tried to convince me to enroll in their new MBA program focused on sustainable business. I protested, saying that I was too busy. Libba said something similar to, “You can be busy for the next two years, or you can be busy for the next two years and get an MBA.” I ultimately chose to be busy and get the MBA.

Life may seem busy, but it always seems busy. That alone isn’t a reason to avoid taking on a new project. (I ultimately finished that MBA program while working full-time and with a newborn child, whom I brought to class with me.)

Once I was enrolled in the program, I grew to become friends with Libba and Gifford, frequently staying at their home. I noticed that Gifford worked all the time. Other than short breaks to play disc golf or to participate in drumming circles, I never noticed Gifford partaking in what I then considered relaxation activities: watching television or just sitting around doing nothing. I asked him about this. He told me that when he was doing what he loved to do, then it was enjoyable. The joy of accomplishing something worthwhile exceeded the joy he received from more mundane activities like passively consuming entertainment.

I should also mention that Gifford did take summers partially off: he would work only a third or half of the day, and spent the remaining time outdoors, chopping wood, kayaking, going on hikes, or doing woodworking projects.

The Nine Principles

Accomplishing something is a combination of having a goal (e.g. finishing a novel), making effort toward that goal (e.g. sitting down to write for an hour each morning), and making the most effective use of the effort (a combination of efficiency and priorities).

There are many techniques I use, but I want to share the most important.

The Only Person I Have to Cheat is Myself

Purpose: Fostering motivation and focus

When I was writing my first novel, Avogadro Corp, I would spend my most productive time writing in coffee shops. I developed a rule for myself: I imagined that if anyone in the coffee shop saw me surfing Facebook or the web, they’d laugh at me: “He doesn’t have anything better to do than surf Facebook.”

The sad truth is that on a moment by moment basis, it was vaguely satisfying to check in on Facebook and see what my friends were doing. But the time I had in the coffee shop was precious: carefully carved out of my daily schedule, limited to an hour or two at most. I could spend that time on Facebook, but at the cost of not writing. Or I could write, which might be painful on a minute by minute basis, but was immensely satisfying as I saw my novel take form.

In effect, I was using willpower (as facilitated by imagined peer ridicule) to exercise self-control to work on what was most important to me.

The notion that willpower is an exhaustible resource, also known as ego depletion, has been much discussed regularly. However, a 2010 study found that “reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people’s beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion”. (My emphasis added.)

In my own experience with weight loss, I found that the trick to avoid exhausting my willpower was to decrease the amount of time spent thinking about it. When trying to lose thirty pounds in 2011, I found myself thinking at length about the cookies, cake, and ice cream I was passing up, trying to rationalize whether I could have a small piece, what the effect might be, and whether I even wanted to lose weight. After many days of agonizing over my desire for sweets, I realized that no one else cared whether I ate those sweets or if I was fat or thin or somewhere in between. No parent, teacher, friend or spouse was going to tell me what to do, and quite frankly, I was exhausted debating it with myself.

I developed a simple mantra: “The only person I have to cheat is myself.” Instead of spending a great deal of mental energy over every sweet craving, I shortcut the process.

The phrase embodies three ideas: That your goals are important to you, you’ll disappoint yourself if you don’t focus on achieving them, and you can’t escape responsibility by expecting someone else to step in.

This simple mantra works for any goal you’ve decided is important to you.

Prioritizing the Three Most Important Actions

Purpose: Free up time and increase effectiveness

Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek is loved by some and reviled by others. Part lifestyle choice, part time management, part promotion and marketing, and part entrepreneurship, the book advocates minimizing the time invested in traditional jobs.

One of the techniques Tim recommends is to start the day with a list of the top one to three most important actions for the day that lead towards your higher goals. Focus on those actions until they are complete. Then you’re free to spend the rest of the day however you want.

I believe that without clear priorities on what will achieve the most, most of us will fritter away the day on email and menial tasks. All that busy work is procrastination that avoids the most important tasks.

I used this principle while working at Hewlett-Packard. Each morning I’d spend ten minutes thinking about the most important things I could do that day to achieve my higher level work objectives. I‘d do the first before I’d check email for the day. Then I’d work on the second and third.

By remaining truly focused on the few most important things, we can be far more effective than we are otherwise. During this period, I helped Hewlett-Packard save on the order of ten million dollars a year on customer support costs, roughly a 100x return on my salary.

This principle not only helps you be more effective at what you’re doing, it helps you free up the time to do more. If I finished the three most important things I needed to do, and it was only two o’clock in the afternoon, I felt that I earned the right to choose how to spend the rest of my day. I might choose to fritter it away on menial tasks and email at HP, or I could choose to invest it in new interesting projects at HP, or I could leave early and go work on my own projects.

Stacking Functions: The Permaculture Principle

Purpose: Task efficiency

There’s a permaculture principle known as stacking functions, the notion that everything you plant in a garden should serve at least three functions. For example, an apple tree might provide fruit to eat, shade for another plant, and beautify your landscape.

This principle can also be employed towards work. As a blogger, I’m always looking for good content. If I need to research something for my job, or write a forum response to a question, I leverage that content and turn it into a blog post. My blog posts, in turn, get repurposed into books.

When I surf the web to read about the latest developments in robotics and artificial intelligence (fodder for my scifi novels), I use bufferapp to schedule out tweets to articles of interest. I’m researching at the same time I’m engaging with readers.

In my day job, I’m the first to volunteer to take on challenges like learning CSS and javascript, skills that I can then apply to refining my own website.

Anything can be stacked. With three kids and full work and writing schedules, I don’t get much time for social outings. So when my writing critique group meets, I bring a flask of bourbon.

Avoid Time Sinks (aka Why All-Clad is better than a Nintendo DS)

Purpose: Free up time

In 2006, I’d gotten a check for my birthday, and was wondering what to spend it on. My friend Gene Kim, cofounder of Tripwire and author of When IT Fails, suggested I get a handheld gaming device. (This was before smartphones.) He promised that it was not only a ton of fun, but that the games were playable in five minute increments. But as I had three kids in diapers, I couldn’t possibly imagine having even five minutes.

That’s when it hit me: I couldn’t bring anything into my life that consumed more time. No matter how awesomely great the handheld game console was, I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy it if it required a new investment of time. I could only bring things into my life that either reduced an existing time investment or replaced time spent.

I pondered this for some time, and eventually decided to spend my money on an All-Clad pan. I already spent time cooking. An insanely great pan would improve my quality of life doing something I was already doing.

Although I don’t have kids in diapers any more, I still think about the stuff and activities I bring into my life, and consider whether they require a time investment, create time savings, or are a one for one replacement.

Outsource

Purpose: Free up time and maintain focus

Gifford and Libba Pinchot ran a consulting business, authored multiple groundbreaking business books and founded an MBA school, all while raising three children. They were smart, passionate, hard-working people, but at some point, that’s not enough.

Guess what? They hired someone else to wash the dishes and clean the house.

Outsourcing household work (cleaning and yardwork) is often one of the first steps. But it’s sometimes harder to figure out the next step.

After I published Avogadro Corp, I knew that I wanted to send review copies to newspapers, bloggers, and other folks in the tech industry. At the same time, I needed to be blogging and engaging online. And I needed to work on the sequel. I simply could not do all this in the time I had.

I was able to hire a friend to work about ten hours a week over the course of a month to research outlets, draft cover letters, and send out review copies. For my second novel, I hired someone to research Amazon’s top reviewers for me.

The trick to outsourcing creative work is to have a clearly defined goal (e.g. send a copy to each person in this 150 row spreadsheet, with a cover letter customized to them), and to set up a review point part-way into the work (e.g. “Draft all the material for the first ten rows, and let me review it before you go on.”)

Are you concerned about the investment? Are you wondering how you could justify spending money on an activity that might only be a hobby? In my experience, once I’m investing money, I’m even more motivated to ensure that I’m using my own time wisely. If I’m going to spend $15 an hour to have someone else do something, I want to be using my own time to do something worth way more than $15 an hour.

Don’t Wait for the Perfect Idea

Purpose: Increase kung fu and avoid procrastination

Gifford Pinchot used to say “early learning beats better planning”, and in some ways, this is the entire mantra of the startup movement. Tech startups succeed so often because they excel at doing and learning from their doing, while big corporations excel at planning.

There’s a relatively famous quote from Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Jason Glaspey used to give a talk called Build Something, Build Anything. Jason, who has built multiple successful businesses from scratch, also emphasizes that every new project is a learning opportunity. He interviewed me a few months ago, and we discussed how I’d ping-ponged back and forth: Competing for the Netflix Prize taught me about recommendation engines, which led me to create a customer support recommendation engine at HP, a wishlist recommendation engine for Facebook, and finally led me to write a science-fiction novel in which recommendations engines lead to the first sentient computer software.

If you were to judge it by personal financial success, competing for the Netflix Prize, the Facebook app, and the HP project were all failures, because none of them netted me anything. (OK, I drew a salary while at HP.) But they did lead to expanding my social network, new technical expertise, speaking opportunities at SXSW Interactive, freedom to pursue new projects at HP, and the idea to write a best-selling novel.

Build something, build anything. Cultivate a maker mentality, and improve the quality of what you do.

Cultivate a peer group of similarly driven people

Purpose: Increase motivation, focus, and personal skills

It’s been shown in dieting, exercise, and smoking and alcohol cessation, that the most important group that will either help or hinder you to make changes in your habits is your peer group.

The most important relationship you can cultivate is with your spouse or partner. Fortunately, my spouse, Erin, is also a do-er: competing in triathlons and half-marathons, founding the band Ruby Calling, and recording music. We support each other in our goals and accomplishments.

Having friends like the Pinchots, Gene Kim, and Jason Glaspey is also inspiring, challenging, and educational.

Friends who do things inspire and challenge you to do more. Keeping up with the Joneses has a whole new meaning. And, of course, they can help you.

Gene and I get together at least monthly to share our objectives and talk things through. Occasionally we can offer direct help (I edited a scene in his book, he’s critiqued much of my writing), but the real help comes in the form of advice: “Are you sure that’s the highest priority? Have you considered X? Here’s how to calculate break-even point in sales.”

Telecommute

Purpose: Free up time and increase focus

If you have the option to telecommute, it can be a great productivity enhancer. I telecommuted three or four days a week for eight years. By doing this, I gained about ninety minutes back per day that would otherwise have been spent commuting to work, transitioning between spaces, and other inefficiencies. That’s about six hours a week: nearly an entire workday of gained time.

But more importantly, I could maintain a higher focus on the most important priorities, which both increased my effectiveness (because I only worked on the things with the biggest impact) and freed up more time (because once I was done with the highest priority tasks, I could decide how to spend my time.)

Some question the effectiveness of telecommuting. I don’t. It was during this time that I contributed the most to my employer. I had the freedom to imagine what would make the biggest impact to my organization and then to implement without the distractions that come from the office environment.

I still enjoyed my one or two days a week in the office, and used these mostly as networking activities to connect face to face with coworkers.

Minimum Viable Product

Purpose: Avoid procrastination and increase efficiency

Don’t do more than necessary. I could write about more techniques. But the more time I spent writing this, the less time I have to edit my next novel or spend with my kids. When you’ve reached the minimum viable product, it’s time to stop.

Defrag 2014 Is Happening in November

A little over eight years ago, Eric Norlin and I decided to start Defrag. It all started with an email exchange, wherein Eric thought one of my posts would make a good conference, I told him how much I disliked tech conferences, and we resolved to go build one that was done the right way.

Since that point, Defrag has grown into what I think is one of the most influential conversations in technology. Several years back, we consciously decided to limit Defrag’s size (number of attendees) because we were afraid of losing the intimacy of the networking. The result has been the growth of a community that gathers every year at the Omni Interlocken for two days plus of really amazing ideas, relationship building, and conversations.

Along those lines, just take a look at some of this year’s speakers:

Chris Anderson, 3D Robotics (ex-editor of Wired)
George Dyson (author of “Turing’s Cathedral”)
Amber Case (Esri)
Penny Herscher (FirstRain)
Helen Greiner (CyPhy Works)
John Wilbanks (Sage Bionetworks)
Shireen Yates (6Sensor Labs)
Paul Kedrosky (Bloomberg)
Kin Lane (API Evangelist)
Laura Merling (AT&T)
Danielle Morrill (Mattermark)

In short, drones, robots, APIs, big data, mobile, and history all coming together in one compact place.

Defrag is a unique experience, and if you’re local to Colorado, it brings some of the most influential names in tech into your backyard.

Lastly, I’d like to recognize how much work Eric has put into achieving some level of gender parity on the agenda, especially at the keynote level. Far too many conferences these days are doing a horrible job at this. Defrag has been out in front of this issue for a long-time, and I know that we work every year to get better at it. And, if you’d like to apply for a “Women in Tech” scholarship to Defrag, you can do so here.

Don’t miss out. Register now. Use the code “brad14″ to get $200 of the registration.

Mentors 7/18: Be Responsive

Techstars Boulder Demo Day was last week and it was the best one yet. As I got up on stage to close things out, I was incredibly proud of all of the entrepreneurs, but even more proud as I looked out at the audience and saw many of the mentors who make Techstars the experience that it is.

Element seven of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto is Be Responsive.

Yeah, it’s obvious, but it’s remarkable to me the number of people who don’t internalize this.

Being responsive means more than just responding to email and phone calls. It means more than being on time to meetings, closing the loop on things you commit to doing, and being intellectually and emotionally available to your mentee. These things are “hygiene issues” – if you can’t at least do this you aren’t going to be an effective mentor.

Being responsive means to be present. To engage with the mentee. To put yourself in her shoes and try to really understand what is going on.

Ponder some of the synonyms for the word responsive:

  • quick to react to
  • receptive to
  • open to suggestions about
  • amenable to
  • flexible to
  • sensitive to
  • sympathetic to
  • aware of

Receptive, amenable, flexible, sensitive, sympathetic, and aware. This requires real emotional intelligence on the part of the mentor.

Everyone has different ways of prioritizing their time and different modes for engaging with others. Understanding this about yourself, and then being clear and consistent about it, is important if you want to be an effective mentor.

You get to define your approach and what you mean by being responsive. While my approach is simply one way, I’ll use it as an example. I focus on three dimensions – a people hierarchy, interaction dynamics, and baseline expectations.

My people hierarchy is well-defined and has been for a long time. In descending order of importance (and responsiveness), I have me, Amy, my family, my partners, our staff, close friends, our investors, the CEOs of the companies we are investors in, the founders of the companies we are investors in, the employees of the companies we are investors in, our co-investors, service providers (lawyers, bankers, accountants) we work with, and then everyone else. I think of this as concentric circles with Amy and my family at the center, then my partners, then staff / friends / investors / CEOs / founders, then employees / co-investors / service providers, and then everyone else. I rarely rank individuals ahead of others within one of the circles, but I do plenty of short term prioritization based on whatever is going on.

My interaction dynamics are fuzzier. I hate the telephone so I reserve it for use with people I have a close relationship with. For everyone else, I’d rather interact via email. I used to travel constantly, but I’ve cut that down substantially in the past year, so I do a lot of video conferences. I don’t like having sitting meetings – I’d rather go for a walk, so I have 15, 30, 45, and 60 minute routes around town. I’m fidgety when I’m in a meeting that lasts longer than an hour, but I’ve trained myself to be in the moment for the meeting however long it takes and, if I can’t hang in, excuse myself for a little while and regroup. Overall, when I’m with another human, I’ve tried to shift away from multi-tasking and instead concentrate on one thing at a time, focusing on whatever is going on. When I’m not with humans, but in front of my computer, I shift into a “cover a wide range of things” mode, where I do a lot of short tasks switching between them.

My baseline expectations are straightforward. I respond to every email I get. I return all the phone calls I get – although often by email. I try to close the loop on anything someone has asked me to do. When I’m with someone, I am with that person.

Now – I don’t get a A+ on all of this, nor do I view that as important. It’s as not static – I expect that these will change over time. But by writing it down and committing to it, I define the structure in which I am responsive. But remember, these are the hygiene issues. This is the framework in which one can then be responsive.

If I did all of these things, but never listened, wasn’t receptive, flexible, or sympathetic I’d be a crummy mentor. By having empathy, being able to engage emotionally with a mentee, and being aware of what the mentee is going through, one becomes responsive to them and their needs.

Book: Product Design for the Web

I read a lot – somewhere between 50 and 100 books a year. I prefer long form (books) to medium form (articles, blog posts), although I read plenty of that as well. I’m a visual learner, so I learn a lot more from reading than I do by listening to a lecture or a video.

I’m always curious what my friends are reading and often grab books they recommend. Last week Fred Wilson wrote a post recommending two books including Randy Hunt’s Product Design for the Web: Principles of Designing and Releasing Web Products. I grabbed them both.

I read Randy’s book yesterday while procrastinating working on my next book, Startup Opportunities. Randy was the Creative Director at Etsy for a number of years and has written a strong, easy to read, and very accessible book for anyone interested in better understanding how to design web products. And, he does a great job of defining a “web product” as much more than just a web site – think Etsy, Pinterest, Facebook, or Twitter – and all the corresponding pieces including the APIs, native apps, mobile apps, and website.

I love the way this book starts off – with a quote from Paola Antonelli, MoMA Senior Curator of Architecture & Design + Director of R&D.

“People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.”

If that sounds a little Steve Jobsian, and it resonates with you, then you will enjoy this book. Randy treats the subject simply and clearly. He does it in a way that anyone who is not a natural designer or developer will understand. It’s not about UX, UI, IxD, or any other initialisms or TLAs. It’s about product design.

Thanks Fred for the recommendation. While short, I learned a couple of things, which made my time with this book worthwhile. And, for the zillions of entrepreneurs out there who think they grok how to design things, I recommend this book as you’ll learn something that will make you even better at what you do.

Why Do We Still Have Airplanes?

I’ve been listening to the Hyperion Cantos on my iPhone while I run/bike (it’s amazing – I’m almost done with book two) and I’ve been wondering why we still have airplanes.

We’ve already figured out how to go from analog form to digital form back to analog form. Consider the telephone.

We’ve already figured out how to go from atoms to bits to atoms. Consider the 3D printer.

We can transmit energy and information, so why can’t we yet teleport?

Who is working on this?

In Hyperion, the machines (the AI) ended up figuring this out for the humans. It feels like we are on the cusp of this as a species.

Ponder that as you board your next plan. Wouldn’t it be better to farcast to where you are going? Or would it?