Jordan Koschei jordan koschei

Working

The Problem with Hill Charts

At Dwell, we use Hill Charts, a project management tool developed by the folks at Basecamp and built into Basecamp 3.

A Hill Chart in action
This image comes from Basecamp's blog post announcing Hill Charts in Basecamp.

What are Hill Charts?

The basic premise is this:

To-do lists are imprecise (what does it mean for a project to be “42% done?”), so we need a visual representation of progress. A Hill Chart is a subjective visualization of progress in which each to-do is a dot positioned on a hill. The left side of the hill is for figuring out the unknowns of a project; the right side is for implementing the knowns.

The left/uphill side is for problem-solving, consideration, and figuring out uncertainty. The right side is for execution, implementation, and confidently taking care of the knowns.

Note: For more about Hill Charts beyond my oversimplified explanation, you can read Basecamp’s article, or watch this video from Ryan Singer (also embedded at the end of this post).

What’s Good About Hill Charts

I’ve found it helpful to have a visual representation of where we stand with different tasks, even (especially) if that representation is subjective. Hill Charts maintain a history, so you can scroll back and see the progress that’s been made in different places.

I haven’t done this, but I suspect that if I looked at the history of all of my tasks and projects, I’d see overconfidence at the beginning tapering off into realism as the dots get closer and closer to the end. Lots of progress in the “figuring things out” phase, followed by the realities of implementation bringing me back to earth.

What’s Bad About Hill Charts

Okay, now the part that was promised in the post title. There are some things I don’t like at all about Hill Charts, and while I don’t have a proposed solution, I thought I’d list them here in case somebody has some ideas:

Equal horizontal movement ≠ equal work. Moving a dot 50px on the left side of the chart doesn’t necessarily equal moving a dot 50px on the right side of the chart. It’s possible to go up the entire left side of the hill in a day, but take weeks to go down the right side. The time it takes to figure out the implementation of a task isn’t necessarily the same as the time it takes to actually implement it.

A downward slope implies ease. The “Figuring Things Out” side of the chart moves uphill, making it look like a slog. The “Making it Happen” side goes downhill, making it look easy. “It’s all downhill from here.”

The difficulty slope of each project is different. Sometimes, the figuring-out process is more difficult than the implementation; other times, the implementation is harder than the figuring-out process. There’s no way to express this on a Hill Chart, since the slope is identical for every project.

Progress gets more granular as time goes on. I’ve noticed this in my own usage of Hill Charts, so it could be just me. At the beginning of a task I tend to be overzealous in moving the dot from left to right. I’m pretty confident during the “figuring things out” process, but then once the implementation starts I move the dot smaller and smaller distances. The last portion of a task usually has a bunch of moves of a few pixels each. Maybe I’m just using Hill Charts wrong, or not breaking my work into tasks that are granular enough, but I suspect Hill Charts unintentionally incentivize this kind of usage.

Hill Charts are deliberately subjective, so perhaps this critique isn’t entirely fair. But since they’re specifically paired with to-do lists, I think they should be a more accurate reflection of the actual work it will take to move through a task.

How to Fix Hill Charts

We need a visual representation of progress through a task list. Hill Charts are a start, but I think we need a solution that incorporates some additional attributes:

Variable difficulty slopes. The user should be able to set the slope of the hill. Some projects might have a lengthy, shallow Figuring it Out segment; others might a steep, quick left side but a shallow, lengthy implementation side. Let the user decide.

Sketches of Hill Charts with variable slopes

Flexible difficulty slopes, with history. The initial slopes might be inaccurate, so users should be able to change it on-the-fly. These changes should be rolled into the Hill Chart history, so we could visualize how it’s changed over time.

A sketch of a Hill Chart with a slope history

I don’t know exactly what this solution would look like, but I’m hoping someone on the internet (or maybe Future Me) can help flesh this out into something real.

More About Hill Charts

Basecamp’s excellent Getting Real channel has two videos on Hill Charts as part of a larger series on how they work. Here’s the quick primer:

And here’s a more in-depth explanation with examples:

A Note About Ryan Singer, Product Genius

Hill Charts were pioneered by Ryan Singer, who leads Product Strategy at Basecamp. If you’re interested at all in product work, you should follow his writing and videos — I’ve learned more from reading him than almost any other single product person. His work gives me the same feeling as Ben Thompson’s or Patrick “patio11” McKenzie; it’s like they’re seeing in four dimensions what the rest of us only perceive in three.

Ryan Singer is @rjs on Twitter, and his website is feltpresence.com.

Attention is the Resource We Treat Most Casually

All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Blaise Pascal, likely before compulsively checking Twitter

For knowledge workers — designers, programmers, writers, analysts, and desk jockeys of all kinds — our minds are our greatest asset. We get paid for our ability to turn our brains towards a problem, ruminate on an answer, and produce a solution. It’s how we create value.

Our attention is our most valuable resource, yet it’s the one we treat most casually.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but tell me if this sounds familiar:

I think long and hard before spending money. I hate to waste food or drink. I cringe at the thought of leaving a light on unused. And yet I’ll sink an hour into browsing TechCrunch or Hacker News and barely realize it.

Media Diets & Mental Junk Food

When it comes to our bodies, we understand intuitively that diet is important. “You are what you eat,” after all. Fruits and veggies in, your body gets stronger. Twizzlers and Twinkies, not so much.

We’re less attuned to the way our media diet affects our minds. We may know on some level that an hour of browsing Reddit isn’t the same as an hour spent reading a good book, but that doesn’t stop us from making the easier choice. The short bursts of Twitter are more enticing than the slow burn of literature; the driving beat and nursery-rhyme melodies of Katy Perry are more fun than the impenetrable riches of anything classical. Pull-to-refresh provides a stronger dopamine hit than ponder-and-fathom.

It’s irrational, isn’t it? If our livelihood is based on our ability to focus our attention, then we should flee from anything that weakens our attention span and flock towards anything that strengthens it. As the “knowledge economy” grows, we should see a whole army of voracious readers and dedicated meditators. Instead, we have a world of quick cuts and hot takes. It takes an addiction to make us act so irrationally against our own self-interest.

Junk food short-circuits our genetic predisposition towards sugar and fat to make us crave it more than any fruits or vegetables. Similarly, the mental foods that are bad for us short-circuit our cravings for information. We may know that John McPhee is better for us than The Bachelor, but that doesn’t mean we won’t pick The Bachelor every time.

(Maybe it isn’t The Bachelor for you; maybe it’s something else. Or maybe you have better self-control than I do and this isn’t a problem for you at all. Anyway, isn’t Demi the worst this season?)

Saving Our Attention

The mind is a clearinghouse for information. Information goes in, is processed by a set of particular filters and biases and mental models, and comes out as knowledge.

That’s what we should be preserving at all costs — our minds’ ability to focus well.

It seems like everyone in tech circles is talking about this. Daily meditation, tech sabbaths, internet detox retreats, focus-boosting apps… they’re everywhere. They feel a little like putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone. But, in the absence of a better solution (or the willpower to ditch Twitter and Reddit), they’ll have to do.

I’m admittedly terrible at following my own advice, but here are some resources I’ve found that have helped boost my attention, or at least mitigate my distractedness:

  • 📙 Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. A book by the guys who wrote Sprint about techniques they’ve found to focus better and remember more of their days.
  • 📘 The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s a few years old, but this book by Nicholas Carr explores how our brains rewire around the media we spend time with. The more time we spend with quick, shallow information (like Twitter and Reddit), the less capable we are of consuming deep information (like books). Scary.
  • 📙 Amusing Ourselves to Death. This classic by Neil Postman was written before the era of the internet, but its discussion of the effects of television on our brains feels as timely as ever.
  • Focus. A macOS app that disables distracting websites and apps for as long as you specify, with no take-backs.
  • 🔗 Liberate for iOS. Same idea as Focus, but for iOS. It blocks websites only (no apps), and unfortunately can be disabled, but still helpful.

Postscript

I like the idea of meditation, in the sense of sitting quietly and thinking deeply for a stretch of time. If we hold that deliberate practice is the single most effective way to get great at anything, than it makes sense that the best way to increase your focus and attention is to practice being focused and attentive.

I don’t like the pseudo-spirituality of apps like Headspace and Calm (yes, even the apps that claim not to have a spiritual bent seem to have a spiritual bent, whether they themselves realize it or not). I like the idea of having a meditation timer with soothing sounds and a bell to tell me when my time is up, but I’d rather have an app dedicated to that purpose than use a timer buried in a more fully-featured meditation app.

Since I haven’t been able to find anything like that yet, I’m building my own. It’s called Interlude, it’s an unguided meditation timer, and it’s my first solo iOS app. I’ve had a chance to do some work in Swift while working on Dwell, and this seems like a good way to flex my engineering muscles and create something of my own.

Interested in updates? You can sign up for the mailing list here.

Fighting Remote Work Distractions

The two biggest distractions I’ve found when working from home are:

  1. Housework. There’s always laundry to fold, dishes to wash, tables to tidy. It’s a great way to procrastinate without feeling like you’re procrastinating.
  2. The Internet. Yes, it’s distracting anywhere. But without anyone walking by or looking over your shoulder, it’s that much worse.

Here are some ways to combat distractions. Many of these have worked for me, and some come recommended from others:

  • Put your phone out of site. Out of sight, out of mind.
  • Use an Internet blocker. Focus is a good one. You can set a certain amount of time, and it’ll block distracting websites and apps.
  • Schedule a time for housework. Give yourself a set amount of time and you’ll be shocked how quickly you can clean.
  • Get a change of scenery. If one environment isn’t working for you, decamp to a coffee shop or similar.
  • Get up and move around to reset. Move around a little, make some tea or coffee, and stretch your legs before coming back to work. Sometimes that’s the reset that helps.
  • Turn on one song, album, or playlist on repeat. It works! Pro tip: try it with thank u, next by Ariana Grande.

Remote Work Rituals

Wake up. Shower. Eat breakfast.

Go upstairs: home office. Turn on computer. Wait for computer to boot up.

Go downstairs to kitchen. Start electric tea kettle. Fill up bottle of water.

Tea kettle taking too long. Check phone. Browse Twitter.

Tea kettle done! Pour water into mug, add teabag, add honey. Take tea and water upstairs.

Computer on. Open up email. Delete unimportant messages. Triage the rest.

Check in on communities — Dribbble, AIGA Upstate Slack, HV Tech Slack, friend Slack. Check Twitter.

Light candle — candle helps with focus. Turn on lava lamp acquired during wife’s cousins’ white elephant gift exchange. Candle and lamp essential pre-work rituals.

Open Basecamp. Wait for Basecamp to load.

Hands are dry — too much winter. Go downstairs, apply hand lotion. Go upstairs to office.

Click over to Basecamp notifications. Too impatient — hand lotion now on trackpad. Wipe off trackpad.

Check Basecamp notifications, figure out what happened at work since last check-in. Lots happened; work is one time zone behind, has whole extra hour in afternoon.

Open up Things. Look at personal items. Be realistic; move unpleasant tasks to tomorrow. Check work items. Move today’s tasks to Today view.

Start on first task.

False start — check Twitter. Check news sites. Check Hacker News.

Take two. Start on first task. Nope — Basecamp notification. Check Basecamp, say good morning to coworkers, return to task.

Encounter slight resistance in task. Pick up phone and check Twitter. Check news. Nothing changed in last ten minutes. Desk is messy; tidy up desk.

Remember to turn on Focus. Block distracting websites. Put phone on shelf out of sight. Ready to start for real.

Just kidding. Dog barks. Take out dog to go potty. Try not to be frustrated.

Come back inside. Walk upstairs, get situated. Try to remember first task.

Wait — computer desktop disorganized. Reorganize computer desktop. Keep going — reorganize Dropbox. Now all files have tags.

Drank too much tea. Go downstairs, go to bathroom.

Hands dry again after walking dog and washing hands. Re-moisturize.

Walk upstairs. Press button to put standing desk in standing position.

Never mind — too sluggish to stand. Lower standing desk back to sitting position, re-situate chair.

Remember first task. Don’t want to feel unaccomplished at end of day. Don’t want to let down self, company, coworkers. Time to get busy.

Take inventory. Candle lit, websites blocked, phone hidden, dog tended, email closed, hands moisturized.

Start work for real.

Read, Write, Communicate

I’ve always preferred to use different devices for production and consumption: I like to use the computer to create things and do work, and my tablet/phone to consume content (read articles, watch Netflix, listen to podcasts, etc).

I don’t like to muddle those two modes — it’s too easy to get sidetracked. If I use the same screen for production and consumption, it’s far too easy to start working and find myself on YouTube, or reading Hacker News.

Recently, I decided to divide up those tasks further. I don’t want to use my phone for consumption anymore, but just for communication. As I wrote previously, I want to embrace boredom, stay aware of my surroundings, and not feel compelled to spend every moment consuming information.

With that in mind, here’s the new division of labor between my devices:

  • Macbook Pro — Writing, design, code, etc. Anything industrial-grade related to work.
  • iPhone — Communication. I removed Tweetbot and Instapaper, and reinstalled Moment to remind me if I’ve spent more than 15 minutes using the phone for anything besides its intended purpose.
  • iPad Pro — Consumption. I’ve got Tweetbot, Reeder, and Instapaper installed (plus the usual video services). If I want to read, I’ll do it here.

It’s working well so far, but it’s only been a few days. Keeping the division sharp between those modes of thinking feels cleaner, somehow, than using every device for every purpose.

Do One Thing

Most of us live in a constant state of Continuous Partial Attention. Rather than focusing on one thing at a time, our attention is constantly scattered among a variety of sources, each of which only has part of our focus.

We’re at work, but we’re also keeping tabs on a text chain.

We’re reading a book, but we’re also checking Twitter or Instagram every two paragraphs.

We’re in a conversation, but our eyes keep flicking up to the TV on in the background.

Maintaining a state of Continuous Partial Attention is rarely a choice, but our current media environment seems specially designed to keep us in that state. We keep our phones in our pockets like a totem, our hands and minds constantly reaching for them as soon as we feel the mildest itch of boredom.

We can no longer bear to be doing nothing. We can’t just stand in line, waiting, without checking some other source of information. We’ve sacrificed solitude — not even true solitude, but just being alone with our thoughts — at the altar of being Always On.

Checking our feeds makes us feel like we’re in control. Really, they’re just making us scattered and docile.

We need boredom. We need to give our minds the chance to do one thing at a time. Boredom is a prerequisite for creativity. Multitasking is a myth.

Ironically, it’s this same media environment that’s connected to the massive upswing in jobs that are considered “knowledge work.” And knowledge work requires more dedicated attention than other jobs. It’s hard to write, or code, or design without reaching a state of flow. And yet the things we’re writing, coding, or designing seem best suited to preventing others from reaching the same.

A professor of mine used to say:

You can’t use a hammer without getting a callous.

What’s the callous our current tools are giving us?

###All this is to say:###

I’m tired of never being fully present. This week, I’m issuing myself a challenge: only do one thing at a time.

If I’m eating, I want to be eating — not reading or watching Parks and Rec or doing something else at the same time.

If I’m working, I don’t want Twitter on in the background. Or Slack. Or email.

If I’m watching TV, I don’t want to be on my phone as well.

That’s my plan. Feel free to join me.

Our Task Management Apps Won't Save Us

I’ve always had a hard time finding a task management system that clicks for me. I’ve tried plenty of them — OmniFocus, Things, 2Do, Todoist, good old pen-and-paper. Each of them has pros and cons.

My needs aren’t wildly complex, and I’m not a productivity nerd the way some people are. What I look for in a task manager is simple:

  • Nested projects/tasks, so not everything lives on the same level.
  • The ability to create a checklist without a due date, for tracking things like groceries and my reading list.
  • An aesthetically-pleasing interface.

It’s the third one that’s tripped me up the most. A task manager plays such a prominent role in one’s life — I don’t want to dread opening it up.

Unfortunately, the task managers that have the features I need tend to be ugly, and the task managers that are beautiful tend to lack the features I need.

I was previously using 2Do, which had everything I needed functionally, but it was unattractive and lacking in the UX department. It was also developed by a single person (as far as I could tell), so what happens if the developer gets hit by a bus? Or stops developing new features? It made me antsy.

OmniFocus 2 was ugly as well, and my brief couple of hours with Todoist were a wildly frustrating experience — their recent redesign still looks like it was optimized for a narrower and lower-resolution screen than my MacBook Pro, and adding new projects felt like pulling teeth.

Then, last week, Things 3 was released. My first task manager was Things 2, whose lack of nesting wound up being a dealbreaker, but the trailer for Things 3 was so pretty I decided to try it anyway.

It doesn’t have all the features I need, but it’s so pleasant to use that I decided to try shoehorning my process into its constraints anyway. Then I decided I enjoyed it, so I retooled my process to match Things 3’s proficiencies.

My grocery list is now a single task with a nested checklist. I’ve flattened some of my nested projects, and ditched some things I wasn’t really working on. And, thanks to Headings, some of my lists have actually gotten more organized since losing nested projects.

My reading list in Things 3

My one big frustration is the fact that Things 3 doesn’t support repeating tasks inside of projects, so my weekly “Compile newsletter” task doesn’t fit inside the Random Access Newsletter project. But the developers’ very-responsive Twitter account assures me this is coming soon.

All this brings me to the larger point I’ve been thinking about lately: your task management system can’t save you.

There’s something magical about that New Management App smell. Inputting your information into a new system, deciding you’re going to get your life in order, deciding that this one will actually work, I’ll stick with it this time. Like somehow your enhanced productivity will make everything better. I always feel like Liz Lemon after her trip to the Container Store, saying “I’m going to become wonderful!”

But productivity is just a tool. Efficiency and organization are meaningless unless they serve meaningful goals, and even the goals that feel meaningful don’t guarantee true satisfaction.

It’s easy to get caught up in the endorphin rush of feeling like our lives are under control. But the bigger question remains: Under control for what?

And that’s a question we each have to wrestle with for ourselves.

The biggest productivity hack is to care about what you're working on.

I posted this on Twitter the other day:

It’s true, isn’t it? All the to-do lists and schedule optimizations in the world can’t fix a lack of enthusiasm about what you’re working on. And a little bit of enthusiasm has a habit of cutting through all the busyness – you may not have time for the tasks you dread, but if there’s something you’re really looking forward to working on, it’s amazing how quickly you can find space in your schedule.

Whether it’s your day job, a side project, or just an activity you enjoy – I hope you have something that makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning and get to work. If not, don’t be afraid to find it or make it.

Whoops, I just realized that I lapsed into “rah-rah, do what your love” territory. It’s all well and good to say “find a job you love,” but that’s a luxury that not everyone has. There are plenty of people who are trapped by student debt or a tight job market, or who just aren’t sure what kind of work they’ll find satisfying.

As Austin Kleon says, keep your day job.

If you don’t have a job that you deeply care about, I strongly encourage you to find (or start) a side project that gets you out of bed in the morning. Here’s an off-the-cuff list of some possibilities that are free and available to anyone:

  • Start a blog. My favorite thing about the Internet Age is that anyone can publish their thoughts. (That’s probably my least favorite thing, too, but that’s another story.) You have thoughts. Why not start a blog through Wordpress or Medium?
  • Take up cooking. I have found more satisfaction in cooking — real, authentic, not-with-a-microwave cooking — than I would’ve thought possible. There are few things as magical as buying some ingredients, applying heat, and seeing them transform into something completely different. I recommend looking at New York Times Cooking for a well-curated list of recipes for a variety of skill levels.
  • Learn to code. Coding is easier than you think, and it comes with an awesome sense of empowerment – if you can code, you can take your ideas and make them real. Codecademy will teach you for free.
  • Make something. Seriously, anything. Could be digital, could be tangible. Just make something of your own, and share it with the world! Oh, and that little voice in your head saying it won’t be good enough or nobody will be interested? That’s self-doubt. Everyone has it. Just ignore it – it’s not real.

In a world that revels in cynicism, caring is a superpower. Find that thing you care about and embrace it. If you’re not sure what it is, don’t be paralyzed by indecision – keep trying different things until you know.