Smart Guy Productivity Pitfalls

Productivity is one of my pet topics, because it's always dogged me a bit, especially early in my career. I'd pull long days and nights and then realize I only actually worked (as in, typing in code, debugging stuff, and thinking about problems and their solutions) maybe 20% of the time. Upon talking to coworkers, this seemed to be normal, a part of the expected friction costs incurred working in an office environment. Meetings, shooting the shit with coworkers, lunch, email, and, er, stuff.

Eventually working around high-productivity professionals like John Carmack made me realize that if you want to excel, then you have to work hard and focus the whole time.

I remember Carmack talking about productivity measurement. +Editing is not the barrier in programming. While working he would play a CD, and if he was not being productive, he'd pause the CD player. This meant any time someone came into his office to ask him a question or he checked email he'd pause the CD player. He'd then measure his output for the day by how many times he played the CD (or something like that -- maybe it was how far he got down into his CD stack). I distinctly remember him saying "So if I get up to go to the bathroom, I pause the player".

You know what's pretty hardcore? Thinking that going to the bathroom is essentially the same as fucking off.

That level of work ethic and focus is rare, particularly with my generation of programmers who were raised with the vile "work smart, not hard" mantra, coupled with the sense that we were somehow significantly brighter than most of our peers. Combine those two notions and add the Scotty Principle and you

If my coworkers were grinding through stuff that took them 20 hours, I'd be all "I work smart, not hard" with accompanying snarky eye roll, and I'd assume I could bust through an equivalent work load in four hours and still look like a goddamn superhero.

And sometimes I could, so, hey, validation!

And you can skate by like this (God knows I did) for a long time before a couple things eventually rear their heads and bite you in your entitled face.

Productivity Deficit: Your Attitude Writing Checks Your Work Ethic Can't Cash

An overinflated sense of your own abilities creates a constant state of production deficit, because you assume that you can make it up with a burst of brilliance and/or crunch.  

But there is no countering surplus to offset the deficit.  The only way surpluses show up is when you finish a (presumably) hard task much faster than you anticipated.  But instead of banking the surplus (i.e. moving on immediately to your next task), you spend it relaxing and screwing off because, whew, you just earned a small vacation by busting shit out in an hour that you thought would take all day.  Hey, what's on Facebook and Twitter right now?  Do I have any new mail?  No?  I wonder if anyone has tweeted something recently since the last time I checked...what about Reddit?  Oh, an inspirational/funny/cool YouTube video, it's only eight minutes long, let me watch it now!  (Eight minutes later) Sweet...what's up Twitter?  Oh man, I have to make a snarky response, but first I have to Google for that XKCD comic that totally makes my point for me...

And before you know it, the day is done, and you're still feeling good because you finished in one hour what should have taken all day, so all good, right?

Trap of the Easy Task

And yeah, it's often all good, but when operating at a slight deficit things can go pear shaped quickly when you accidentally spring the trap of the easy task.  Tasks so trivial that they barely register as work.  Update an SDK?  Hour, tops.  Implement this feature that I've already done on every other platform?  Hour, tops.  This is all mindless grunt work that anyone could do, it's just clicking through dialog boxes, maybe changing a few lines of source, rebuilding, whatever.

In other words, an easy task like this is so easy that it's a constant time cost for everyone irrespective of ability, so there's no opportunity nor need for crazy overestimation since what could possibly go wrong?

Well, as with so many things, it's the unexpected things that screw you the hardest.  The things that should be trivial end up taking days because, shit, that SDK install required a new compiler install, and the new compiler install failed and I can't uninstall it, and now I have to fucking WIPE MY WHOLE GODDAMN HARD DRIVE TO RECOVER.  Or you need to implement something that was trivial on nine other platforms, and it should be 30 minutes on platform number ten, except it lacks a base feature that is present on everything else, the compiler is dying with an "Internal compiler failure 2033", the API call you need to use hangs the dev console immediately and, oh, the dev support site you use to get release notes is totally down for the foreseeable future.

So what should have taken less than an hour took a week.

It's like having a perfect monetary budget that assumes no crazy "one time" only bills, except life is full of crazy one time only bills and the only way you can keep those under control is by giving yourself a budgetary capacitor to dampen the fluctuations.

And now you're defensive about losing a week to something stupid because you budgeted an hour for it and waited until the last second to do it and now the schedule has gone to hell, but it's not your fault, because it could have happened to anyone!  But if you had banked your surplus hours before and/or worked at closer to your theoretical peak effectiveness then this type of thing would get absorbed in the wash.

And now you live in a state of mild panic because you're way smarter than all this but you're never actually getting things done on time.

Identity Recalibration Crisis

Which leads to a potential identity recalibration crisis upon landing at a company with high performers that work hard and smart.  And that will happen if you're good.  Now you're no longer at the top of the curve.  In fact, shit, you're in the middle or bottom of the curve, a situation your brain probably never considered as an option.

This dude was my wake up call with respect to my over inflated sense of skill
I went through this when I went to id software.  I had rationalized that John Carmack's success was just a factor of timing and luck since, hell, he was my age, and I was pretty smart, so what else could it be?  Upon my arrival I had a crash course in humility, because he was way smarter than me and way more productive as well. This took a while to sink in, because until then I was used to believing I was one of the better programmers at a company.  And then working with Carmack I realized he was not just a little better, he was orders of magnitude better.  And I couldn't dismiss it with a "But I write a lot of code" hand wave, because he also wrote like 80% of the Quake code base.

Sometimes it takes a while for this to sink in.  Sometimes it doesn't sink in at all, and you're let go because you're not very productive compared to your new team of high performers.  Sometimes it sinks in, and you panic and get depressed because your self-image has always been that of being the strongest swimmer in the school, and right now you're just trying not to drown, much less keep up with everyone else.

But ideally you shrug off the old counter productive mentality and habits and emerge as another one of the high functioning team members, but that can take a lot of work, particularly if you have to get over years of giving it twenty percent.

Killing the Underachiever

If my pithy advice were little more than "Be more like John Carmack" then I can imagine a lot of readers throwing up their hands and saying "Well, fuck it, I'm a lost cause, because that's not going to happen."  But what I can do is relate some of the things that helped me kill off some of my underachieving habits.  The point isn't to become a superstar, it's to become better, since that's always the first step. I don't believe in mechanical solutions ("Turn off the internet", "Listen to music", and stuff like that) because I don't think they address the core issues, which are psychological.  Instead I found that I had to do the following.
  1. Develop self-awareness.  It took working with John Carmack and other high productivity programmers and admitting that they were way more productive than me before I really understood how much more productive I could be.  In other words, if you don't admit it's something worth improving, then obviously you're not going to search for a solution, and if that's the case, you should go here or here.
  2. Give a shit.  Originally I called this "develop a sense of urgency", but really it's just about caring about getting your work done.  It doesn't even matter what you specifically care about!  It can be your professional image, your product, your team, your customers, whatever.  You just have to care about something that will drive you to getting things done, because if you don't, apathy will occupy that void.
  3. Minimize uncertainty.  In another blog article, Productivity vs. Uncertainty and Apathy, I talk about how poorly defined goals can lead to poor productivity.  If it's unclear what you need to get done today, then there's a reasonable chance you won't actually do anything today.
  4. Commit to getting something done every day.  When you show up in the morning have a well defined set of things to finish that day.  Stay as late as you have to in order to finish.  By committing to finishing that task other distractions will naturally fall by the wayside.  For example, I have jiu-jitsu training at 7pm.  If I screw off too much during the day, I don't get to train.  Also, by committing to a task, you avoid "being busy" instead of "getting work done", they're not the same thing.  
  5. Never say "I'll finish it up tomorrow" or "I'll make up for it by coming in early/staying late/working the weekend".  This is an easy trap to get into, where you keep incurring time debt until at some point you realize you're now three weeks behind on a task that should have taken two days.  This is like racking up credit card bills assuming you can pay them off later.  Which is fine, until "later" arrives and you've only accumulated more debt.
  6. Do not overpromise to make up for poor productivity.  There's a tendency when we're falling behind to try to overcompensate with future promises.  "When I'm done, it'll be AWESOME" or "I know I'm late, but I'm positive I'll be done by Monday".  By doing those things we just build more debt we can't pay off, and that will eventually lead to a catastrophic melt down when the super final absolutely last deadline date shows up.  Just get shit done, don't talk about how you're going to get shit done.
  7. Have an objective productivity metric.  This is a mechanical thing, but it acts as a reasonable backstop.  If you have changelogs you can reference, then it's easy to sit down on Friday and ask yourself "What have I done this week?"  And if you know that it's possible for others to check on you, then it makes you take each day a lot more seriously.  If you judge your value solely on output, not subjective things like "being smart", you will be more productive.
  8. Accept that "the grind" is part of the job.  A friend of mine's father has a great quote: "Son, i don't wake up every day and go to a place called fun. I wake up and go to a place called work"  You can't get irate or frustrated that the bulk of the day is typing in boring code and dealing with bugs and other people.  

I still screw off during the day.  I am not a code grinding automaton.  I read Facebook, chat with others, Tweet, shop on Amazon, get coffee, read forums, write blog posts like this one and I'm totally fine with that.  

Because I know I'm committed to getting things done as well.  So even though I'm writing  this right now at 3pm, if I have to work until 8pm to get my shit done and checked in, I'll do that, so that tomorrow is a fresh start, not a day of "Oh goddamit, let's try again to finish that task I started a week ago."

Once I developed that sense of daily urgency my productivity went up considerably.  And if I'm really productive in the morning and afternoon and feel like I can go home at 4pm with a clean conscience, I do that too, so I don't burn out.  

It's a push/pull between banking surplus and generating a deficit, just make sure you don't do just one or the other.