Saturday #3 of 52

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

2019 is officially back in full swing – it’s been a rollercoaster of a week, and looking at the work that lies ahead of me I’m legitimately worried I might be working too much again. As it stands, I need to put at least a half-day of effort in tomorrow (breaking my own no-work-on-weekends rule) if I want to stay ahead of my current workload.

This is reflected in my habit tracker for the last week, where I was only able to stick to one of them reliably!

Captured from everyday.app – highly recommended!

The worst part: I wasn’t nearly as productive as I’d have liked. I lost a lot of time with constant context-switching, being knocked off-course by incoming requests, and proper analysis paralysis. In other words, the back-to-work blues.

As my work’s gotten back to full swing, I’m having to re-engage my planning brain (to make sure I don’t go crazy), and I’ve had to adopt two strategies to stay on top of things.

A daily Inbox Zero habit

An inbox is basically a task list of indeterminate length. Until you actually go through the emails in there and map out the time it takes you to do things, there’s no way you know how much work you’ve really got on your plate.

So for that reason, I’ve focused on reducing both of my inboxes (work and personal) to zero every night. It’s become my new ritual for closing out a day, since it usually results in a list of to-do’s for the next morning – meaning I don’t have to think about how to start my day.

Even without Inbox Zero, it’s usually a good idea to end your day with a brain dump of everything you know you need to do the next day. It saves time and maintains momentum between “breaks” (ie eating and sleeping for the night).

I’ve found that most useful when paired with the second strategy:

Task Time Planning

Task lists are sweet little lies we tell ourselves – potentially days worth of work hidden behind one-line items. They get much more concrete when you do two things:

  1. Estimate how many hours a task will take you
  2. Add all of them up and try to fit them into your workday

So that’s what I did on Wednesday evening. I took a few hours to go through my inboxes, and eliminated everything in there:

  • Archived any emails that I didn’t need to respond to
  • For tasks, I noted down the task outside the email, then archived the email
  • For meeting invites, I made sure they were either on my calendar or rejected with an explanation

And then for each task that came in, I gave some thought to the hours it would take. I ended up with around 60 hours worth of work planned out (a solid week of effort plus overtime), and that was before I factored in all the other work I had planned elsewhere!

Most of my work runs in cleanly-defined contracts (I call them “obligations”), which mean I get to put together a table like this – charting hours per project per workday, with weekends hidden:

Freelancers can be really busy people!

And now it becomes really clear how busy I am! After I sat and charted out all my obligations (retainers, contracts, ad-hoc work, internal allocations for product development, marketing and admin) I found that I’ll only be back to “normal” at the end of February!

But I also felt relieved that the situation had been managed. Just having a plan – and some visibility into your immediate future – makes things a lot more manageable.

And then, finally, there’s the Eisenhower Matrix, an idea which has genuinely helped make the world a better place:

Borrowed from Develop Good Habits.

Urgent is usually pretty easy to discern: Things that have to be done right away, or a bad thing might happen.

Important is a little bit harder – it implies that there’s a reason beyond the completion of the task itself, which is undertaken as part of a larger plan. Developing a good sense of what’s important is, itself, quite important 🙂

In my case, I have a relatively clear idea of where I want my working life to go. I know that long-term, the sustainable path is to develop and market products (not services), so that I can generate value without constantly investing effort. I’ll likely always be doing some sort of consulting work, but it would be nice if I didn’t have to do it – that would let me pick the best projects and truly do my best work within them.

So even though they don’t address any burning needs at the moment, spending time working on “unprofitable” product development is really the smarter move over the long term. The work won’t be urgent for a while, but it’s important to do it every day.

Between those strategies, I finally felt like I had regained control over my workload by Thursday morning. Consequently, those were the two most productive days of my week.

Then there were another few wins, thankfully unrelated to work:

The Noscript Show is now syndicated everywhere
We’re finally on iTunes, which also means we’re on Pocket Casts – apparently making the show even more accessible. I also managed to put up a basic website with all the pertinent info in one place: noscriptshow.com

Laravel Quickstart has backup!
I think there’s been enough idea validation here to move on to the next phase – designing the prototype and outlining the functionality for the first Quickstart. That’s begun with the help of a frontend developer, who I won’t name in public without approval 🙂 Between us, we’re hoping to get the first version of this out a lot quicker!

Planning a podcasting info resource
Moving even further away from software, I’ve been looking at putting together a podcast learning center of sorts. The idea would be to offer once-off flat-rate access to all the information (with the price increasing over time as more info is added), and the focus would be on getting first-timers to the point where they’re producing their first podcast successfully.

It turns out there’s a lot to know – and even more questions you don’t think to ask until after you’re in the thick of it, so I’m hoping I can put something valuable together that will save everyone some time!

Finished Ghost in the Shell season 1 again
I rarely count shows as a win, but there won’t ever be a day where I don’t recommend Ghost in the Shell to people. Just skip over ARISE, that was an unintentional mistake.

Next week will be a proper grinder of a week, so I’ll probably get a head start on it by clearing up some of the smaller work items during the day on Sunday. All things considered, it feels good to be back in the driver’s seat again.

It’s time to talk about charts

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

Have you ever felt annoyed that someone tried using a world map chart to visualize country-level data?

Or is that just me?

(It’s probably just me.)

Over the last few weeks I’ve been picking up more books to read (as part of my drive to write more), one of them being Content Inc – recommended to me as a good introduction to content marketing, and how powerful it can be.

The book vacillates between content production at the individual level, and the corporate level. Some of the stories focus on single-person startups, and how they tested ideas and built businesses off the back of content production. The rest of it, haphazardly, deals with how to maintain that within a larger organization (team structures, responsibilities, and so on).

What struck me about the individual stories though was the relative simplicity of the focus. One person wrote about writing – another, about real estate. A third simply wrote about how to get more value out of your camera. All of those, over time, became profitable businesses – the key ingredients being effort, and no small amount of passion for the target subject.

It got me thinking about an idea I had years ago, when first starting to work with Domo. Without going into too much detail, one of the things that intuitively clicked for me during the first few weeks was the brightline relationship between business management, and data visualization.

Borderline-buzzword sentence, I know.

The practice seemed to hit at the intersection of a few of my interest areas – complex systems, data and numbers, and visual communication – and it wasn’t very long before I was already planning out an enormous series of content on how to get the best value out of different data visualization options.

That content never materialized. I had put it on my internal roadmap; to develop “added value” in the form of training content that our consultants could use to help plan best-practice dashboards.

In the end, Domo themselves reached a new level of maturity on their operating models, and that filtered through to the training we got. For that (and quite a few other reasons) that content was never built.

Reading Content Inc made me dust that idea off again. I know for a fact that I can produce useful, actionable content on this topic, having done it before. I’ve also learned, somewhat accidentally, that this is a passion of mine.

In retrospect it might be obvious, but the revelation really came to me on a recent customer project. We were planning out a series of dashboards, and someone wanted to include a world map chart where there didn’t need to be one. That led to a long (and I want to use the word “vibrant”) discussion on whether or not we should include it.

Afterwards, reflecting on that conversation, I realized how deeply I had internalized the principles I had been learning since 2013 – and how naturally they seemed to fit in with the rest of my thinking.

So between that, and my desire to write and publish content more frequently, I’ve decided to take a stab at maintaining a data visualization blog, with a specific focus on practicality: There are amazing interactive visualizations out there (Jer Thorp in particular will always be in my pantheon of data deities), but most of the visualizations we use in daily life are much more basic.

Software has, I think, tricked too many people into thinking charts are easy. I’ve seen so many presentations, Excel workbooks, and “professional”-level reporting that ends up being hard to get any sort of good understanding from.

Simple rule: If your chart is accompanied by a “how to read this chart” helper, you haven’t built a good chart.

And I think this might be the thing that I tackle next: A bit of theory, but mostly practical advice on how to construct good charts. And there are a lot of scenarios to consider – more than enough to build a solid resource for the “everyman” visualization work.

So I’ll be building out plans and content for this over the next few weeks, and hope to launch a new site before the year is out. If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, is that good data visualization is timeless.

1786_Playfair_-_Exports_and_Imports_of_Scotland_to_and_from_different_parts_for_one_Year_from_Christmas_1780_to_Christmas_1781.jpg
In particular, we’ve had stacked bar charts since as far back as 1780.

Once it goes live, I’ll be posting about the site here. If you want to be alerted when that happens, consider subscribing to my blog – widget’s on the top right.