The First Page (a new notebook)

TLDR

  • Spend some time warming up before jumping into things
  • Your progress seems exponential as a beginner, but...
  • It takes time and effort to get reliably good at something

As a general rule, I try not to fill the first page of a notebook with something creative.  There's far too much pressure to produce something worthwhile -- and I find that I end up getting crippled by the thought that someone might open it up to that page and see my worthless, in progress, or abandoned idea.

There's also the aspect where I can get hung up on it too.  There are times when I can't move beyond that idea to a better one because I'm too busy thinking about how crappy that first one was.  It's easy to get discouraged.

Lately, I've been finding that the more I try to branch out in my work, the harder things become.  There are so many things I'd like to be able to do, and it never seems like I get better at any of them fast enough.

One of those things I'd like to get better at is programming.  I feel like I'll really be able to contribute something of value by being more technically proficient.  The funny thing though, is that in hindsight, I was probably a better contributor when I had very little technical knowledge.  I think the big secret was that I was willing to work hard to get things to work and I gave a damn.

It's getting harder and harder to put in extra hours to really build something spectacular.  When I lacked the technical skill, any small amount of learning produced a huge payoff.  Now that I know a bit more than I did when I started, I have to spend an even longer time learning to get what seems like an even smaller payoff.  The thing I need to continue to remind myself is that it's not going to happen overnight.  I need to take time and work hard at it.  It takes hours, weeks, and months.  Eventually, after spending lots of time on something, it will start to click and I'll begin to understand it.  I'm just starting to get to the point where certain programming fundamentals are starting to feel natural.

Cash, Money, and Retail Therapy

People are made of addictions. Each one of us is some kind of addict. This doesn't seem polite to say, but it feels right on many levels. Addictions can be minor or messy, and addicts can be obvious or obscured; we're all addicted to something and we're all addicted for different reasons.

Getting into it, this isn't so much a post about addiction as it is about how we define ourselves.

Two years ago, I decided to give up retail for Lent.

In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, Christians give something up for a defined amount of time in order to take on other things. It's basically fasting, even though it doesn't involve food. We've heard it said that saying yes to one thing is saying no to something else. This is the opposite. For a time, we say no to something so that we can dive deeper into the character of God and what it means to be a realized human being.

I've had credit cards since I was fourteen. I understand money. Investing. Saving. I know how to balance a checkbook and maintain a budget. Most importantly, I'm really good at finding great deals and still managing to spend a lot of money. With that said, I would be spending more on my credit card each month than I had in my bank account. And somehow, I would pay it off. I would make it work. Until I didn't... until it stopped working... and that's when I would begin the spiral. 

It wasn't knowledge that I was lacking two years ago. I was lacking an understanding of what had been defining me and where I was heading as a person.

When I started my first real job after college, I started making real money for the first time. When you're making real money after learning how to live on a lot less, it can come as a real shock. Your lifestyle choices don't increase as fast as your checking account balance. Suddenly, things that were out of reach are now available. This is not something I had been equipped to handle. You don't learn this while studying Sociology at a public university.

I replaced my entire wardrobe within three months of being hired. The following years brought carbon fiber bicycles, new guitar amps, a handful of vintage guitars, two top-of-the-line Macs, designer shoes, watches, videogame consoles, and a nagging sense in my stomach that something wasn't right. Even though I was becoming successful in all the ways that were supposed to matter to an aspirational, driven, ambitious, and typical Type-A personality, it wasn't cashing out the way I had hoped. I wasn't happy.

Lent rolled around right when I realized I was spending money and buying things to reduce the anxiety that spending money and buying things had helped nurture. That maybe I should do something about the way I filled the holes in my life with more stuff instead of getting to know myself.

And something you should know about me:
I believe that doing something is far more important than believing you should.

So I gave up retail for forty days. I could focus on finding satisfaction in the things I already had instead of chasing the next thing. It allowed me space to reorient my future spending in meaningful, positive ways. It may sound strange, but it was during that time I decided to stop giving money to charities -- something that will be covered in a later post, or you can ask me about it sometime.

After forty days, I was out of debt.  Instead of going out and buying guitars, it turns out that I found time to pick them up and play them. I spent time focusing on what I wanted to do at work... and how to get better at my job.

The best thing about following through?
Today, I still fall into old habits.
Sometimes, I forget what's important.
I chase the wrong things.
I lose the map.
I make mistakes.
And it's okay.

End rant.

Get Moving

What are you passionate about and what's stopping you from doing it?

I've had this question buzzing around in my head for awhile and recently heard it more succinctly. It makes a lot of sense to me, and I'm fairly convinced that if everyone asked it, a lot more people would be happier than they are.

It doesn't seem like people really think about what they want.  And if they do, it seems like people aren't willing to take steps to get there.  It's tough to start something. I think it's because it's tough to suck at something. We don't want to be bad at things. Especially things that we show each other people

I heard it put this way today about writing:

If you spend 5 minutes a day writing, you'll have more written at the end of the year than if you always told yourself you should be writing.

End rant.

Quit

People tend to have a problem clearing items from their plate. This is because we keep adding new things to take place of the old things.  I am no different.

We also have problems getting rid of bad habits that disengage us from the life we should be living.

Each week, I will quit something

I've been biting my fingers (yes, my fingers) since I was three years old.  As best I can pinpoint, this is a habit that comes from my parents splitting up.  This habit tends to disappear for the most part on weekends, and flares up as soon as I start work on Mondays.  It'll continue during the week, until Friday comes, then I'm off the habit until the following Monday.  It's vicious.  And the crazy thing about it is that I don't have to be anxious to bite my fingers.  The simple act of biting them triggers anxiety, which triggers biting, which triggers... you get it.  

Physical habits can elicit emotional responses.  It's similar to how smiling more can make you happy.  When I actually face this reality, I can't help but ask, "Why on earth would I continue to do this?"

This week, I'm quitting biting my fingers.  It's a deep-rooted habit that I know I won't immediately shake. But now, I've got the determination to quit.

What are you quitting this week?

I'd love to hear from you via Twitter (@steves99things) or through the comments below.

Header photo by Crystal

First Thoughts on iPhone 6

Apple really is an amazing company.  With every revision of their key product line, they become more and more desirable.  Proof?  They sell more and more phones.

This time, the iPhone 6 lineup didn't impress me initially like the others have.

When I watched the keynote, everything changed

They said that this is their best iPhone ever. It always is. It has to be. Imagine what would happen if they released an iPhone that wasn't an improvement!

I think the reason why I wasn't pumped about the iPhone when it was announced is because I don't really need a new one.  The past two iPhone upgrades I've had have been completely justifiable.  When I upgraded to the iPhone 3G from my old flip phone, it was time.  I was totally bought into the Apple ecosystem with an 2nd generation iPod touch, a 27 inch iMac, and a 15 inch MacBook Pro.  The iPhone was an incredible improvement over my old phone -- I was happy to use my upgrade.

Moving from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5 was nearly as big a jump as moving from my flip phone to an iPhone.  My iPhone 4 was sluggish and slow. Even with Instagram filters, the camera took awful photos. Compared to the new retina MacBook Pro I bought in 2012, everything else I owned felt like a snail.  Even the brand new iPad.  When the iPhone 5 came out, I couldn't imagine not buying it.  I upgraded the second I could.

My iPhone 5 still feels blazing fast.  

Since it came out, I've upgraded my iMac to one with 32 gigs of RAM, a stupid fast processor, and a solid state drive.  I also bought an iPad Air.  And yet, it still keeps up with my other devices.  I think it's because the jump from the 4 to the 5 was so huge.  The jump from the 5 to 6 in processing power and GPU performance is even larger.

As soon as I saw that graph that showed the uptick in speed between the iPhone 5 and iPhone 6, equipped with the knowledge of a better camera, promises for a new payment system, the extra processing power required from iOS 8, and a 7am wakeup call from Twitter saying that phones were still available -- I jumped on it.

I wasn't initially excited or impressed, but now I can't wait to have it.  That's Apple for you.

Rdio & Spotify

In case you need a little background, Spotify and Rdio are music subscription services. Their fully-developed product offerings (desktop & mobile applications) have been around for over three years at this point -- where they offer the ability for listeners to stream music to their personal devices. I have been extremely interested in each of their approaches to music from day one. In fact, their products and approach to music collections have been so differentiated at times that I've found myself subscribing to both services simultaneously.

Their premium tier subscription services, which allow you to download music into their app and listen while offline, fall far lower than the cost of purchasing and owning music.  While the music isn't actually yours, you get to bring it with you wherever you go, and listen to it any time you like.

They approach collections differently

Spotify is mostly concerned with organizing songs into playlists and music discovery through social interaction.  One of their earliest features linked the Spotify application with your Facebook, where it would post everything you were listening to.  It still does this, but they've introduced features where you can listen to your guilty pleasures without anyone else knowing for a few hours until your listening habits are made public again.  Playlists in Spotify are incredibly popular, and are curated and updated by tastemakers in their community as well as their discerning staff. It's a great strategy that has worked to keep users engaged and happy.

When Spotify launched their first iPhone app about three years ago, they forced a conceptual model on users that was different from the way albums and tracks were currently understood.  If you wanted to push an album to your mobile device, you needed to add that album to a playlist and sync that playlist with your phone.  They didn't support syncing albums.  Since then, this has changed, but Spotify still makes it easier to sync and find playlists you've added than it is to sync and find albums in your collection.

While Rdio had playlists at launch, it was clear that their focus was on the album and tracks within it.  Their interface was more simple to navigate than Spotify's, and they offered intuitive ways to browse and add new items to your collection.  Their application also handled syncing differently than Spotify's.  If something was synced to mobile from any device, it would appear on all of your mobile devices with the Rdio app.  Spotify's sync was not nearly as intuitive.

Their experiences are different

Spotify and Rdio target two different audiences.  Rdio seems to be appealing to designers, tastemakers, and otherwise-would-be iTunes users, where Spotify wants Facebook's user base. I'm sure Rdio would be content with that as well, but their experience is so well thought out and implemented it's clear they're targeting a highly-level customer. 

The issue with this strategy is that both services are offering a commodity product, and there's nothing to differentiate Rdio from Spotify in a compelling way besides the experience of using the application. Rdio is clear and focused: albums come first. Spotify hinges on sharing your experience with music socially. 

Spotify is winning

As of today, Spotify was 944 on the Alexa rank, which measures the overall share of commercial web traffic. It's a great indicator of popularity and usage for a web application. Rdio ranks 5258th and is dropping.

Why pick a loser?

Rdio offers a superior experience over Spotify to curate and listen to your music collection. It is a well thought out and refined application. It has nearly identical social features to Spotify, which largely go unnoticed because of the emphasis Rdio places on its more personal features.

They're not afraid to challenge the status quo with fresh ideas. Rdio just disrupted its core product to introduce an entirely new approach to your music collection, which is what finally spurred me to write this post. Instead of having a collection, you now have favorites. This model helps you get rid of that album you never listen to that's clogging up your library. Don't like something anymore? Pull it from your favorites. It's so simple, it just might work.

Try Rdio

If you haven't yet, give it a spin. For me. You get a month of unlimited service for free if you want to try it out.

Try Rdio Unlimited for free: http://rdio.com

Header photo by Blake Burkhart

 

Time Management

Reality vs Expectation

Most people struggle with the same thing: There isn't enough time to do everything they want to do.  A lot of people battle uncertainty with what they want to do too; that's another post.  I'd like to talk about something that comes up a lot for me where I'll be working on something and five more things come up.  And then five more things for each of those original things.

The first thing on my plate was a big thing.  The rest are smaller, but not insignificant.  Some of them will take a few hours, others might take ten to fifteen minutes. And then another big thing comes out of nowhere.  I find myself stuck in questions:

  • How do I plan my hours during the week to make sure I meet deadlines and get things done?
  • How do I even schedule a deadline for myself with so much on my plate?
  • How do I decide what I need to prioritize?
  • When should I multitask? e.g., work on more than one project at a time.
  • When is it important to just focus on one thing and get to the others next?

Setting Deadlines

Sometimes, even when I've planned fairly well, I'm not exactly sure how long something will take me to finish.  This is especially true when I have a lot to get done in a short amount of time. My judgement gets crowded when multiple projects keep crashing into each other and vying for attention, not to mention that I'm not the only person I have to consider when working on a project.  So, when someone asks me

When will this feature be done?

I set a deadline for the deadline.

I don't know right now, but I will let you know by the end of the day tomorrow.

This gives me the time and space I need to clear my head, get a few problems out of the way, make some honest progress, and provide them with a more accurate estimate.

Managing the List

If the problem is only ever in my head, it needs to get out.  Period.  There are tons of ways to do this, but I find that writing them down works best for me.  It's easier to see a problem on paper -- My task lists usually break down like this:

  • Get it done now
  • Get it done in the next hour
  • Work on it later
  • Never work on it

Get the stuff done in the first two categories and then revisit the list.  Once you've finished the immediate items, you can set deadlines to start the stuff you're going to work on later.  It can be easy to get caught up in being busy about managing your list.  It's not about the list.  It's about getting things off the list.  

Communication

This is the first thing that starts to go when we get busy.  That's when it becomes the most important!  Work hard to communicate clearly and with the appropriate frequency.  Providing updates for major milestones is important, along with honest updates if you think you're heading off course.

The most important person I need to communicate with on a project is myself.  My best work comes from times when I'm focused and honest about the reality of my list.

Header image by Carlos Mota Jr

Plans

Starting is the worst. 

I find that making a list, more often than not, is exactly the motivation that I need to work through an idea. This isn't the kind of list that you'd find in link-bait article titles though. These lists are a stream of conscious thoughts; usually riddled with questions I have in my head about a problem I'm facing. They push me toward a solution.

It's become obvious that I need to start writing more -- I'll probably share some of those reasons as I continue posting my notes... but first, a little insight into this concept.

I never know what to write. 

About a year ago when I confessed to my friend Matt that I wanted to start writing again, he immediately knew what I should do:  

Post pages from your notebook.

In reality, this would probably be an impossibility with NDAs and policies surrounding proprietary products, but the concept was there:  Post your thought process and talk about it.

I have no idea what I'm doing

Ok, that's not really true... but the reality is that I'm in the process of figuring things out.  And if you're willing to work with me, take advantage of the ideas that work for you, and provide helpful feedback, I think this is something that can really work.

Let's get started.

Header photo by Big Dave Diode