Saturday #3 of 52

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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 – 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:

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.

51 to go! (#1 of 52)

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I blinked and missed the first week of 2019 – it’s going to be a pretty short year, at this rate!

At the start of this year’s blogging adventure I figured I’d borrow a strategy from Charl’s personal blog, in which he (generally) does a weekly post to recap what happened during that week.

That’s usually the reason I wrote so little last year: I keep busy with a lot of stuff, so much so that picking one topic to write about causes analysis paralysis. So I end up writing nothing instead, a sub-optimal outcome.

The first week of 2019, for me:

Most of my customers came back online by yesterday, and I’m already planning out my workload for the year. Last year, my strategy was to just take on every piece of work I conceivably could – this year, I’m limiting my billable work and planning to take time off instead.

To that end, I mapped out the 2019 year in several different configurations, until I landed on the one that was optimal for my planning. And actually relatively sad:

The entire 2019 calendar year

That’s my 2019 tracker. It includes all 365 days of the year, marks out weekends (gray), public holidays that result in time off on weekdays (P) and my minimum-acceptable-leave dates (L) – calculated and distributed in such a way that I have sufficient capacity every month to hit my financial targets through billable work.

The sad part is seeing the year laid out like that. 250 weekdays, 104 weekends, 11 public holidays, and that’s 2019 all done!

Where the planning part comes in: If I have a really good quarter, and bring in amounts above target, that means I can “afford” to slow down later in the year and focus that time towards building my own products. It’s a mindset made possible by the insane amount of hours I worked last year, and the resulting cash buffer I built.

I’ll only feel confident once I go through February though. Bare minimum, SARS is going to take a full month’s pay away from me in one shot. Once I sort out my tax predictions for the next fiscal year I’ll actually be in a position to predict things.

Then there’s the minimum-acceptable-leave idea: I have to take time off. It’s an ongoing problem with me, so much so that I’ve sought therapy to help me manage the anxiety involved. I tend to overthink negative outcomes, and then to mitigate those I’ll work myself to death (literally) to compensate.

On top of those handful of [L] days, there’s the weekends (during which I absolutely should not do billable work), and public holidays (the same), meaning that of the 365 days in the year, only 250 (68.5%) should be productive.

It’s a nice plan on paper, for sure. Whether or not I stick to it will be a different story. One of the downsides of being a freelancer is that you’re 100% responsible for the opportunities you create, and sometimes that requires you to put in effort above and beyond what a regular 9-5 will require of you. So we’ll see what happens!

Other stuff of note:

Helderberg Dev Meetup: I’m giving the first talk of the year today (Progressive site enhancement using VueJS), which as of this post I still technically need to prepare for!

Laravel Quickstart: I’ve seen some early interest in the idea, even though I haven’t done much to market out the page yet. I’ll be doing that by outlining my first product, and publishing those details to a good-looking storefront – then there’s something more tangible to talk about in public. This indie-built daily habit tracker (hi Joan!) has already been very useful. Simply by replacing the home tab on my browser, it encourages me to review my habit completion status often!

Makerlog: I’ve signed up (@wogan) for one of these public to-do trackers, and I’ll be using it for Laravel Quickstart work (when I work on it). With any luck, the daily reminders from everyday will nudge me into making at least one update per day here, and progress will be made overall.

On to the next week of 2019!

#2019 SMART goals

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As I head into 2019 I want to keep better track of my medium-term goals. There’s a few things I want to get done over the coming year, and right now I’m working out a big-picture broad-strokes plan for 2019.

In my 2018 retrospective I listed the following 4 goals:

  1. Build and launch a SaaS
  2. Blog more
  3. Read more
  4. Develop routines

But of course, I know better than to just have vague, open-ended “goals” – they end up being wishlists that go unfulfilled. So instead, I’m going to reformat them as SMART goals, and then actually measure my progress towards them as 2019 goes on.

(Totally stole this idea from Cory Zue’s 2018 review! Then expanded on it a bunch.)

Goal 1: Build and launch a SaaS

I’ve given this a lot of thought (had to narrow down 16 ideas) but eventually picked one I think is the most relevant: A cloud-based reporting solution for measuring digital marketing effectiveness, aimed at small-to-medium businesses (and possibly white-labeled to agencies).

Yes. There’s a defined set of capabilities the tool needs to have, it’ll go up on a website, and it’ll either operate or not. The specific requirements will evolve as I go, but there’s a clear core function.

Yes. I’ll know whether or not I’ve actually launched the first version, and every element of its success will be measurable.

Yes. Data integration, reporting, APIs, charts and dashboards, KPIs and metrics, and making all of that noise business-relevant is something I have existing knowledge of. I’m not diving into this blind.

Yes. Building this sort of stuff is in line with the bigger picture I have for my future, and it’s pretty much the reason I quit my job in 2018 for, so I’d say it’s quite relevant.

Yes. Looking at my current and anticipated workload, I’m aiming to have the first version of this out by end-February 2019. Chances are I’ll have to work a few nights and weekends to make that happen, but a prototype in that length of time is doable. I’ve built similar solutions before, and usually it takes about 200 hours to get to something good.

Goal 2: Blog more

I’m kinda doing this already, but I need to (and will) keep going.

Yes. There’s a clearly-defined and repeatable action (write a post), and I’ve set a target of at least 3 posts per week for 2019. I’m hoping to exceed that though.

Yes. I can measure whether or not I’ve uploaded enough posts for a given week, and can plan out time to do more of them if necessary.

Yes. I’m not half-bad at writing, and when I’m warmed up I usually have at least one topic to write about, so I should be able to do this.

Yes. I need to write for two reasons: One, to practice writing. Building up the habit will be vital if I one day want to produce lots of training and educational content, and maybe even a novel or two. This is a skill I really need. The other reason is that constant writing over time is a good way to build up an audience, which is another thing I’ll need if I want my SaaS businesses to go anywhere.

Yes. I’ve set a goal per week (3 posts every 7 days), so there are repeatable deadlines to hit.

Goal 3: Read more

If you want to write, you should read. That’s some solid advice that’s followed me around, but my 2018 reading stats are abysmal.

Yes. There’s a well-defined action here, and no shortage of books that cover my range of interests (business, startups, innovation, finance, sci-fi, fantasy).

Yes. I can track my reading habits either via Kindle, or via something like GoodReads. I’m not going to track actual time spent reading (that’s psychotic) but so long as there’s some daily activity on this, I’m happy.

Yes. Not only can I read, I like reading.

Yes. The books will mostly be relevant to my interests, and I need to keep learning if I want to succeed in my 2019 adventure.

Yes. I won’t set a limit for the number of books to read, but I should at least spend some time reading every day. At least 30 minutes, which is not difficult to make time for – I really just have to cut out a bit of Netflix.

Goal 4: Develop routines

This one is admittedly open-ended. I’ve tried consciously developing routines and habits before, but they tend to fail when I get distracted with work, or take on more than I can handle (which has happened a lot these last 6 months, with good reason).

No, but I’m going to revise this until it is. I think the above 3 goals (work on a SaaS, write, read) will need time every day/week anyway, and so carving out that time and being able to rely on it will become the routine in and of itself.

Yes. There’s about a billion habit-forming apps out there, but I already have a very solid, health-driven habit (morning blood sugar and weight readings), so I can just use the same systems to record whether or not I’ve done my 3 things for the day.

Yes. There’s nothing in here that I don’t already do, it’s just about being able to do them predictably and repeatedly.

Yes. Developing good processes is vital if I want this all to go well for me next year, and developing the ability to develop processes is itself a valuable thing to do.

Yes. Every routine needs to be completed at least once per day, so that’ll be pretty easy to measure.

So those are my 2019 goals. At the end of 2019, I plan to refer back to this page and track how well I did against all of them. With any luck, this will help me stay focused through the year.