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Posted on: Thursday, May 21, 2020 by Rajiv Popat

The other day someone was talking about pair programming at work, and someone said, "I already pair 5 hours of my day every day helping others".

Help Time - is a time in your schedule that is usually not accounted for. It's really hard to plan for and it usually begins any time someone walks to your desk and says, "Got a minute? I need your help."

And that's paid help. One of my bosses believed that as seniors we get paid to help. His belief was simple:

It's a silent part of our work profile. We are paid to help, mentor and train others. You should have an open door and an open heart when someone walks up to you for help specially at workplace.

To an extent I agree, but when your entire day goes in helping others put out the same kind of fires, it's often time to introspect philosophically if helping folks is really helping them? Or just making them dependent on you and boosting your self ego? Is that what you are really getting paid to do? When it comes to professional life, help without training and mentoring usually harms both the giver and the taker.

Then there is unpaid help. Someone, somewhere, who is remotely related to you, whose laptop just broke down and merely by the virtue of the fact that "You are in IT" you are expected to replace their RAM.

NoIWillNotFixYourComputer

You know, the kind of help we all know about.

A lot of folks and self help gurus speak at length about the power of No. 'Just say no' is what almost every book out there says. But no is not always an option. Specially for people who are reluctant at saying no. As a regular nice guy (or girl) your chances of being exploited using the help bait are much higher than a jerk who can say no and get away with it.

There is nothing wrong with helping, but there are a few simple things you can do to not bite into the help bait more than you actually want to. Here are some:

#1: Help using advice, direction or artifacts: Advice and direction are easy to provide. A five minute conversation which says 'look at this' or 'google that' and you give the seeker a general direction he or she should go towards. If you want to be a little more involved give them an artifact which others can reuse. Scott Hanselman has an excellent post on the topic of building reusable artifacts while helping others, so I won't repeat that material.

#2: Help but in a timeboxed duration: Sometimes advice, direction or artifacts aren't enough. There are times when takers will seek for explicit customized help. For example that uncle of yours's who wants a full blown accounting system and he is expecting you to build it for free. This is where you don't have to say no to helping, but make it very clear that you would love to help but you're busy (see point #4 on excuses) and so you're only going to be able to do X.

This X, could be as simple as - "I won't be able to design an entire application for you but I can connect you with someone who does this really well and at a reasonable price. I'll also be there in the first half hour meeting to connect you two and then you guys can negotiate a rate and take this forward. It's the only person I know so I won't be able to connect you to others but you can look at others online if you don't like this guy."

Whether you are helping your fellow developers or personal acquaintances, time boxing your help time is a good idea and when that time runs out, schedule for a different day in your calendar. The other day a school friend called for a help he needed and I told him I'm completely booked (again, see point #4 on excuses) but, "let me get that done for you by Friday late evening". There was a slight awkward silence because he just needed an hour of my time and he was probably expecting immediate help, but he was finally ok with Friday late evening and we both were happy with the arrangement. As much as I wanted to help him on the same day, I couldn't help it. My help time quota for the day had already run out. When you run out of money you can't spend more. Time is no different when you budget it.

#3: Recognize Patterns: If the same person calls you from help regarding the same kind of thing over and over he isn't seeking help. He is just exploiting you. For example I had an acquaintance who had a habit of visiting strange sites and getting his machine loaded with malware ever couple of months.

The first time it happened I showed him how to reimage his machine and a couple of weeks later he called me again, stating his machine was infected again, how he wasn't feeling confident reimaging it himself and would 'prefer' I do it. I told him I wouldn't mind doing it but in that case it would have to wait for two months since I am badly tied up with this huge project I had taken up and may have to fly out next week.

Next day he called me about a small question when he was stuck trying to do it himself. I answered the question and he was able to get it done.  Win-win.

Recurring patterns for same kind of help isn't someone seeking for help. More often than not it's someone exploiting you and sucking your time to feed their own agendas and their own laziness. They aren't bad people but when you help them with the same problem again and again instead of empowering them to fix it themselves you are feeding their laziness.

#4: Plan our excuses ahead of time and practice with loved ones: I have a collection of excuses predefined for all occasions. A few of these are ones that can be pushed back or questioned, which lets me validate how serious a person is. For example, "I've got  a meeting during office hours but can we sit at 10 in the night and work at it?" - If the person' isn't serious he would usually refuse that offer. If he accepts the offer I can always tell him I got another call at 10 and help him the next day. Win-win.

Then there are excuses in my quiver that just cannot be challenged or negotiated with. For example, "I can't, I'm doing a course on machine learning and have my exam scheduled on that day". I've researched into which course, which exam and have rehearsed this excuse a thousand times over so I don't feel reluctant using the excuses. Be careful when using this though, since in most cases you aren't even obligated to give an excuse. Just saying "I have other important work (or personal) commitments" convincingly should be enough.

As geeks helping folks who are stuck is second nature to us. We see something broken and want to fix it. A lot of folks actually thrive on this weakness of ours. Practicing excuses and having a pre-planned list of excuses for each occasion in your repertoire helps a lot, especially if you are not great at saying no assertively. That's a skill I need a lot of work in.

Helping someone is a noble act and there is nothing wrong with helping people. It's a form of altruism. And like every charity, when it impacts your own well being it becomes dysfunctional. You can only give a small portion of what you have, and when it comes to time, it's really important you put a stake in the ground and pre-decide what percentage of your time you want to dedicate to helping others.

If it's a loved one you can give them a lot of time, if it's acquaintance who is a perpetual taker you may choose to give him nothing. There are no right answers but whatever you do, you should be doing it deliberately. Every time someone requests for help you shouldn't be taken off guard and end up providing hours or your precious life just because you were guilted or emotionally arm twisted into it.

Timeboxing help and picking who to help and how much to help, is an art you master and as you master the art you actually get better at helping people you really want to help and providing help on things you really care about. Go on, plan your help time deliberately and provide help that really matters to people who really matter to you.

posted on Thursday, May 21, 2020 8:16:40 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Tuesday, March 31, 2020 by Rajiv Popat

I'm incompetent. On days I feel like a absolute looser who is unable to focus and get anything done. On other days when I am productive, I see others around me being incompetent and I get urges to tell them to snap out of it and get them to get some real work done.

In my entire life span, I can count the consistently productive people I've worked with using fingers on my one hand. And just to be absolutely clear, I'm not one of them. Oh and when I'm not productive, I've got thousands of excuses about why I'm unable to give my best.

officespacemotivationposter

The other day I downloaded a version of ionic and out of the box and it wouldn't compile a hello world project I stubbed out using it's own CLI. I felt angry at the incompetence of developers who were building the ionic framework and had the audacity to throw a crappy build out there under the name of iterative development!

Then I went looking for some help and someone had already whined about it on the ionic git repository, where someone else had given them an ugly patch to unblock them. So I applied the same ugly patch myself and life moved on.

On a different day, I was trying to get .NET core 2 application migrated to .NET Core 3 and it was just annoying. Were the developers at Microsoft incompetent? Or was I just having a bad day? Or, was I incompetent for not going through all the breaking changes between two version and writing planned code rather than doing reactive development every time something broke? I told myself I was just having a bad day and pushed on applying one fix after another and migrating the code over to the newer version of the framework. This was defect driven development but I got a lot done. Maybe I was incompetent but I was productive.

Then, the other day, I got on an elevator, and pressed the button to go to the sixth floor, the elevator literally bounced around a bit, then went to basement at full speed, then shot up at full speed all the way to fifth floor instead of sixth, came to a screeching halt, opened it's door and stopped. All of us in there were shit scared and spell bound.

Then the maintenance guy shows up and tells us he had no idea what just happened but 'guarantees' it wouldn't happen again. My nerd brain is screaming to tell him that he cannot theoretically give us that guarantee till he knows exactly what happened. But as per him, 'for now' everything 'seems' fine and we could go ahead and use the elevator again. I took the stair case instead.

Like it or not, we live in a world where everything is broken. I don't know how we got there. Maybe it was materialism or maybe it was just our desire to move fast or be agile, or maybe it was just our animal instinct to win races, but we're here. And like it or not everything is either broken or will break down soon. The only question is how badly will it break down and how soon?

This also means that as much as you want your work to be reliable it is just as reliable as the underlying frameworks you use, and most frameworks you use are going to be broken at some level. Add to that, our inherent incompetence, our laziness, all the distractions, the work culture most of us are working in, the interactions you're having at work, the number of meetings we're expected to attend  and the amount of grunt work that we're expected to do. On any given day if you can get anything done, you should give yourself a pat on your back.

We live in a world where incompetence is the norm. Everyone around you is incompetent. You are incompetent and so am I. And there are only two ways to deal with this incompetence:

Embrace Incompetence and Design for Resilience.

Start your day with realizing the potential of incompetence you have and set smaller goals and turning productivity into a game. If you have a todo list that expects you to do more than 2 hours of real work on any given day you are just going to be disappointed end up feeling like a piece of crap.

Know that you are incompetent, the frameworks you work with are unreliable, your work culture is broken and above all the folks you work with are going to struggle with these exact set of issues of incompetence as you are struggling with and they too will have mood swings and productivity cycles like you and you have to deal with all of that; not to mention your phone buzzing and email streams to distract you. So just aim to get less done without feeling guilty about it. You'll be happier.

If you want any mental sanity in today's world have really low expectations about your own productivity and productivity of folks around you.

Then when you get 3 hours of work done in a day you feel good about it rather than feeling like crap. And then when your dopamine circuits kick in, instead of being being constantly depressed about being non productive you can be happy and slowly push the two hour check list to a higher hour count because you are now gaining self confidence and control.

Put simply, design your life around unreliable things and build resilience into your work routines, the quality of work you do and even your social interactions. Life today is literally a game of inches and instead of hoping to walk a focused yard, it all boils down to your ability to grab and collect those little wins and inching forward. Embrace incompetence and grab whatever tiny inches of productivity you can grab out of your own life.

Draw Incompetence Boundaries

An elevator bouncing and going to the basement when you press 6 on the dials is acceptable. The same elevator crashing and killing people isn't. They told me that the elevator has a safety mechanism in place and it could dance around all it wanted but the likelihood of us dying in an elevator crash are very low:

The only known occurrence of an elevator car free falling due to a snapped cable (barring fire or structural collapse), was in 1945. A B25 Bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, severing the cables of two elevators. The elevator car on the 75th floor had a woman on it, but she survived due to the 1000 feet of coiled cable of fallen cable below, which lessened the impact.

The elevator manufacturers have clearly drawn a line on what's acceptable level of incompetence.

My general rule is, incompetence is fine as long as it's not costing someone their life, a physical injury, mental trauma or their hard earned money. That's where my boundaries are at. Anytime there is even a remote chance that any of these are violated, I have to shake my incompetence off, get some serious work done and take extra measures to try my level best to ensure that this doesn't happen. Absolutely, no excuses allowed. Fortunately most of us work on CRUD apps where the bugs we introduce are such that we can just go "Oops! Sorry!" - fix them and move on.

Also, It's good to have boundaries around just how much incompetence you will  tolerate from yourself. For me those boundaries are pretty relaxed but every once in a while I'll snap and will send a virtual check of hundreds of dollars to my mom stating that if I don't complete this task by a specific time and send her proof of it's completion she is free to encash the check and just take the money. She is not supposed to give me a chance to produce any excuses or explanations. Do you know how many time's she has had to encash the check because of me not fishing the task on time? Zero.

Suddenly, I've taken my incompetence which was causing me some minor annoyance and turned it into incompetence that's going to cost me enough money to make me uneasy. Lo and behold, things get done. Not in months or weeks, but in days and sometimes hours.

The other important thing to realize is that the only incompetence you can address or fix is your own. Trying to fix anyone else's incompetence is a recipe for becoming an as$hole. Every loud obnoxious jerk at your workplace believes that his or her coworkers are incompetent and he / she is just trying to help them get rid of their incompetence when in reality he / she is just being an as$hole.

The other day I was watching a video about a mass murderer who was being put on the electric chair but it was taking some time. This dude got so annoyed at the incompetence of his executor that he yelled something to the effect, that his executor was incredibly incompetent and in that much time he himself would have killed half the city! Once you start looking at incompetence of anyone other than yourself and start acting on your urges to 'fix them' you have taken your first step towards being a prick because now you're seeing someone as a lesser person.

Long story short incompetence is all around us and we live in a world where there are very few people or things that work consistently. You can either bitch about it and use it as an excuse to get nothing done, brood over it and be an arrogant pompous prick who thinks every else is incompetent; or embrace this incompetence and ship anyways. I don't know about you, but I prefer the later.

posted on Tuesday, March 31, 2020 8:25:20 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Tuesday, November 22, 2016 by Rajiv Popat

Productivity as a topic has been very near and dear to my heart. Unlike most people my obsession with productivity tools, tips and techniques doesn’t revolve around the fact that my productivity allows me to squeeze a couple of hours worth of extra work into my regular workday. For me productivity is a way of life, and a way of doing more of what you want to do (or what you were meant to do) and less of what others want you to do.

Chris Bailey, as an author caught my attention because he had the courage and conviction to take an entire year off from his prime years and study productivity. The Productivity Project chronicles his learnings in that one year. The book is filled with experiments (some scientific, but most others self-applied) where  the author makes himself a guinea pig and tries out some sane and some insane productivity tips and tricks.

The book begins with practical advice and claims to be able to take you from here:

BusyDay

To here:

WellManagedDay

<stupid_grin>The book was a validation that I’m not the only one who is crazy enough to try and measure every single waking hour of their life! Other, sane authors have done it too. </stupid_grin>.

Where the book started grabbing my attention was the moment Chris laid out his definition of being productive. Chris describes productivity using a simple idea of living with deliberateness and intention. He explains:

I think the best way to measure productivity is to ask yourself a very simple question at the end of every day: Did I get done what I intended to? When you accomplish what you intend to, and you’re realistic and deliberate about the productivity goals you set, in my opinion you are productive.

If at the beginning of the day you intend to write a thousand great words, and you do, you were productive.

If you intend to finish a report at work, ace a job interview, and spend quality time with your family, and you do, again, you are perfectly productive.

If you intend to relax for a day, and you have the most relaxing day you’ve had all year, you were perfectly productive.

An idea the likes of David Allen have been trying to propagate for years. The book is also full of real world practical advice ranging from simple advice like Emptying your brain, using the Pomodoro, the importance of exercise, the importance of food and the perils of Attention Hijackers like mindless surfing, but the real power of the book lies in how simplistically Chris describes some of the complex things that end up affecting your productivity. Take for instance this passage on how Sugar effects your productivity:

On a neurological level, you have mental energy when you have glucose in your brain. When you feel tired or fatigued, more often than not it’s either because your brain has too much or not enough glucose to convert into mental energy. Research has shown that the optimal amount of glucose to have in your bloodstream is around 25 grams—about the amount of glucose in a banana. This exact number isn’t all that important, but what is important is that your glucose levels can be either too high or too low.

Since unprocessed foods (in general) take longer to digest, your body converts them into glucose at a slower rate, which provides you with a steady drip of glucose (and energy) over the day—instead of a big hit of energy followed by a crash. In a way, processed foods are predigested for you by machines. This is why your body converts them into glucose so fast, and why a donut doesn’t provide you with nearly as much lasting energy as an apple.

We all know processed foods harm and effect our productivity and health, but simple explanations like these go a long way in understanding what foods to pick and provide the much needed nudge to make the right decisions. The book is also filled with surprising and mind-blowing passages which are fascinating (and somewhat philosophical) to read. Take for instance this passage on the history of time itself:

If you were around before the industrial revolution ended in the early 1800s, you wouldn’t have measured time down to the minute, not only because you didn’t have the technology to do so, but also because you didn’t need to. Before the industrial revolution, measuring time wasn’t as important, and most of us worked on the farm, where we had way fewer deadlines, meetings, and events to sequence than we have today. In fact, until the first mass-market, machine-made watches were produced in the 1850s, timepieces were unobtainable by pretty much anyone except for the super rich, and most of us charted the day’s progression by looking at the sun. Because we didn’t measure time with a clock, we would speak about events relative to other events. In the Malay language, there is even the phrase pisan zapra, which roughly translates to "about the time it takes to eat a banana."

The book of goes on to describe how in merely about 150 years, we went from not caring about time to having a huge industry and pretty much most of our lives run around set timings. The book covers productivity from more aspects than any other productivity book I’ve read thus far does. Even for an avid reader of books on topics like time management, neuroscience and psychology, a lot of the concepts the book explains (e.g. removing triggers to change your habits, exercising your focus mussel etc.) are not new at all but they are explained with a unique personal insight that I enjoyed thoroughly.

After David Allen’s GTD, if you have room for one more book on productivity, this is the book you should definitely pick up. I would give it a 5 on 5!

posted on Tuesday, November 22, 2016 2:13:56 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]