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The Seven Habits of Moderately Successful Geeks

September 7, 1999
by Pat McClellan

For the last two months, I've been juggling five major projects: dealing with clients, lots of meetings and conference calls, on-site visits and the associated business travel, coordinating a production team, and of course, writing a bit of code in my spare time. Oh, and I also spend a little time writing a weekly article for this website. I provide the preceeding duty roster... not to brag, but to identify. I know that most of you, at one time or another, face similar scheduling pressures. It's simply the nature of production; we are typically project-based, deadline-driven, and when the job requires the hours, there's not much you can do about it.

I've often taken comfort in the fact that this sort of work schedule gives me lots of opportunity for excuses. I can't exercise today because: I'm on a deadline... my client needs to get the latest version by tomorrow... I've got people waiting for some graphics... my dog ate it. Pretty lame excuses, but I've used all of them in order to focus myself on my work, spending more hours in front of my CRT. You see, my irratic work schedule just doesn't allow for developing habits.

Pavlov Laughs

There is probably some deep psychological basis for the fact that we are all creatures of habit. Whether we realize it or not, we all fall into habits... hundreds of habits big and small, good and bad. Which shoe do you put on first, right or left? I'd lay money on the fact that you always put the same one on first. And when you open your favorite development application, where are your windows and tool palettes placed on the screen? Always in the same area, I'll bet. I could go on and on, but the point is that our work schedule has nothing to do with our ability to form habits. "To form habits." Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that habits form us; they form our patterns of behavior. And these patterns of behavior are precisely what we use to run our businesses.

I've been in production (first video, then software development) since the early eighties. I've worked on lots of high-pressure projects with tight budgets and strict deadlines. And I've worked with lots of people -- some highly effective and some not. So, here are some personal observations and the resulting habits I've developed.

You can't make time. We could get into a long philosophical discussion of the nature of time, but I'll leave that for another article. But the fact remains that deadlines create a finite resource to be applied to any project. The key is to be more productive in your use of that allocation of days and hours and minutes. Back in my business school Operations class, they taught that means organizing and scheduling all of your facilities and production equipment in the smartest logistical way so that you avoid bottlenecks in the workflow. For most of us, our facility is the computer sitting on the desk in front of you. And your production equipment is lodged between your ears, so let's start by assessing the maintenance needs and operation guide for that equipment.

Observation # 1: Old, poorly maintained, dirty equipment doesn't function well. When placed under stress, it can break down at critical moments.

That leads to habit number 1: when you're NOT working on a deadline project, take the opportunity to get yourself in condition. I'm talking about physically, mentally, spiritually. This is not a personal issue, it's a business priority and your financial future depends on it. Make the investment of time and money to take a vacation, join a health club, take up a sport, lose those extra pounds and mounds, journey to Mekkah, play music, take a class, create laughter, seek out enlightenment. Only you know what needs to be done. Only you can overcome whatever procrastination barriers you've built for yourself. Do it, because you must.

Observation #2: Equipment should be turned off at regular intervals, allowing for all moving parts to cool and rest.

Okay, we've all had to pull all-nighters. They're no fun to do, but they sure are fun to brag about later. Right? I worked on a job last year where one guy worked 3 solid weeks of 22 hour days. Honest. Then, 3 days before final delivery -- when we really needed him most -- he went to the emergency room where he was placed on IV fluids and a 2-week regimen of antibiotics. Crash and burn, lesson learned.

For everyone (you too), there is a point of diminishing returns on your time invested. The longer you work, the less you accomplish. And eventually, your work actually becomes counter-productive. This is when mistakes happen: bugs get written into code, you accidentally delete things you've worked hours to achieve. I won't presume that everyone has the same break point, but I can assure you that it exists. Find yours and don't ignore it.

Observation #3: When placing equipment under stress, it is essential to provide quality fuel and avoid pollutants.

It might sound obvious and motherly, but habit number 3 is simply to eat well. That doesn't mean eating a lot or eating expensive take-out! I don't need to give you a nutrition lecture, but I will hit on a critical point that most developers fall victim to. The enemy is caffeine. Yeah, I know. You live for it, you need it, you... love... it. And of course, you can't stay alert for all those late hours without it. Unfortunately, there are some side effects which you probably don't realize -- particularly if you've been doing your daily dose for years.

Caffeine may keep you alert when you need it, but it stays in your system and builds up. Even if it doesn't keep you from falling asleep, it does have an effect on how restful your sleep is. It keeps you from getting the rest you need when you need it most. In addition to these effects, caffeine can dry your system out. Dehydration is no fun. Finally, there's some evidence that caffeine prolongs inflamation; so those tired achey muscles stay tired and achey longer than they should. All that said, I'll grant you that getting off of caffeine is not easy. I went through about 2 weeks of withdrawal headaches. But I've now been caffeine-free for 4 years, and I can attest to the fact that I'm no less alert than I was with the caffeine pick-me-up. Plus, I can rest much better and get back to work faster in the morning.

Observation #4: Timing is everything. I'll dispense with the industrial metaphor and get right to the point. Different parts of the brain work better at different times of the day.

Most people seem pretty comfortable with the concept of right brain/left brain functionality. Right brain is thought to be more involved in broad creative, artistic and conceptual activities, while left brain is left to handle more logical, procedural tasks. Most of the time, there's a big bundle of gray matter (called the corpus collosum) that makes sure that both sides are working together. In my case, I think my left brain is dominant -- at times holding back the more free-thinking right brain. However, I've noticed that early in the morning, in the first few minutes after I wake up, my right brain seems to have control. So what?

Well, I schedule my work based on this observation. For example, let's say that I'm working in the evening and I'm faced with a big conceptual problem in a program. Rather than force this task into unproductive conceptual time, I will choose to work on more menial programming or graphics chores. Then, first thing in the morning, I'll get back to the conceptual work. I don't expect everybody to work like I do, but you should know what's good for you.

So, habit number 4 starts by recognizing time-based patterns in your own productivity and then schedule your day (and evening) accordingly.

Observation #5: The single most important skill of any producer is the ability to set priorities and goals.

It's easy to become overwhelmed by the volume of work expended over the course of any big project. Add to that the stress of a deadline, a tight budget, the unpredictability of technology, and creative personalities, and you've got a real nightmare. There's nothing more demoralizing that working on a project with no end in sight and too much to do. When you finally are forced by fatigue or hunger to take a break, you have no release from the stress; you feel like you're stealing time away.

Instead of that, habit number five is to use a checklist to set and prioritize many small goals. And I'm talking small. For example, let's say that I'm working on a project with 12 separate movies in it, and I've got to go through and change the sound effects on the buttons in each one. I create a checklist with the name of each movie down the side of the page, and then across the top, I create a column for each task to be done to each movie. As I accomplish each task in each movie, another checkmark goes on my matrix.

There are three benefits to this method. First, without a checklist, it would be too easy to overlook executing a routine task on one of the movies. Or even if I had done it, I might not remember doing it and I'd end up wasting time double checking it. Second, every checkmark is a goal achieved, a success. This is very important for morale. Third, I tell myself that when I get to the end of the checklist, it's time for a break. And when that time comes, I feel like I've earned it and the break is more stress-free and satisfying.

A checklist can help you manage distractions as well. My ideal day is one where I can work on a project without distractions; no phone calls, no requests for meetings, no questions from co-workers, no computer glitches. Unfortunately, days like these are elusive. I'm sure you all deal with lots of interruptions in your day. These can be exceedingly irritating when you're on a deadline and under stress.

When a distraction appears which asks to be dealt with, ask yourself two questions: 1) is it urgent? And 2) is it important? By answering these two simple questions, you can prioritize your time and attention. When time is tight, you want to expend your energy only on item which are both urgent and important. For anything else, delegate.

Observation #6: Under stress, you are likely to forget or overlook things.

You'll really drive yourself crazy trying to remember details on a project. Particularly when you need to devote so much brain power to programming, don't screw yourself up by focusing on retaining unimportant data.

This project that I'm currently working on involves a bit of travel. Last night, my wife asked me what time my flight was departing today and I didn't really know. She thought it was odd that I wouldn't remember something that important, but I explained that there's no need to remember it if it's on paper (or on my computer.)

Habit number six is to write down or print out or save to your Palm Pilot (etc) any data which is not critical to have in your brain's RAM. If you'll pardon the metaphor, why tie up RAM when you've got access to a hard-drive. The critical point here is that the information needs to be in a place where you will remember it exists, and that you will review on a timely basis. Once it's there, forget it and move on to thinking about more important stuff.

And finally, we come to

Observation #7: breaks away from work need to be "quality time".

I'll leave it up to you to determine what "quality time" means, but it does not mean sitting in front of the TV vegging out. When you take a break, you need to provide some positive rejuventation to your psyche -- and couch-potato-ing doesn't qualify.

Thomas Jefferson believed that the best vacation is other work. This concept also applies to breaks. So when you walk away from the computer, do something that will revitalize you: take a walk, go look for animals in the clouds, play the guitar, talk to someone about politics or religion, play some sports. Just do something that will force your brain to exert some effort toward something completely different than your work. You'll find that this is wonderfully beneficial to your creativity and your endurance for the project.

So there you have it. Steven Covey needed a whole book, but I got mine down in a single article. How's that for productive! Maybe these things seem obvious, but I see a lot of people ignore them to the detriment of their health and creativity. Work hard, be healthy, and have fun. You deserve it.

Patrick McClellan is Director Online's co-founder. Pat is Vice President, Managing Director for Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experiential marketing company. He is responsible for the San Francisco office, which helps major technology clients to develop marketing communications programs to reach enterprise and consumer audiences.

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