email life Organization

Guerilla Ruthlessness

Sneaking cat
Credit: Flickr / Hans Pama

I used to be very into “productivity”, but I’m somewhat over it lately. Whilst I still favorite the articles on twitter to read later, I’ve stopped buying books about it.

There’s a lot of advice out there, keep a todo list! Keep a done list! Keep a don’t list! Various ways to arrange, and schedule, and avoid, and ACHIEVE. But find your way through this, and then there is the problem, productivity doesn’t mean effectiveness. If you’re getting a thousand things done but never the most important thing, you’re gonna have a bad time.

For me, given what I do, I distilled everything down to an idea that has not changed in the past year:

You get 4-6 hours of good coding time a day. Be ruthless about finding it.

Of course, my execution has evolved and changed and will continue to. I used to be more overt about it, I would tell people I only checked email once a day. And it’s been easier and harder at times – easier when I was working on my own thing, mostly by myself and just sending stuff out for code review. Hardest it’s ever been now, when I have two engineers fulltime sending me codereviews, another part time on my section of our project, and then two more on another team wanting the occasional code review or advice. It’s easy to feel pulled in so many directions and scattered, like a day has gone by and at no point did my thoughts follow the track they were on to their natural conclusion.

And it’s hard to be ruthless. We know that guy who is ruthlessly selfish, and gets a lot done but never helps anyone else, who’s always achieving his own thing but anyone who needs his input needs to fit in around him. We don’t want to be that guy. And we know it’s harder for women too, who are punished for being selfish – I remember I once got feedback saying “6 months ago you were a bit slow at this, for this understandable reason” and thinking would you have said that about a dude? Really?

But it’s necessary. I look at people who are successful, and I see them finding a way to be a little bit selfish, carve something out for themselves so that they can keep having impact. And people who are just as brilliant but who seem to be stalling, they’re not managing to do that. There’s a big difference between the successful person finding a way to be a little bit selfish and the jerk. The jerk, it’s a way of life, they don’t realize they are doing it and that we’ve noticed means we’re probably safe from becoming them. The successful person is just carefully carving out a little bit of time that isn’t dictated by other people to do their thing. And it looks like it pays off.

So now I carry out what I am calling “guerilla ruthlessness”. Which means I’m carefully picking off the ways that I can keep my focus without inflicting that goal obviously on other people and annoying them.


I don’t have it open all the time. I don’t check it that frequently. I just don’t tell anyone not to expect a reply from me. It turns out, I don’t need to tell people to IM me if it’s important, they just know. And they do, or they speak to me. Normally I open it up between tasks, which is probably more often than really necessary, but people feel like they get a decent response time whilst I’m never interrupted by new mail.

I get the digest for everything. This means I get the day’s messages for that group (e.g. my team) I get it in 25 message batches. Then I skim the headings, read anything that stands out (it’s amazing how much doesn’t) and archive.

I don’t send it. Seriously the #1 productivity tip of all time. STOP SENDING EMAIL. It’s amazing how much less you get if you don’t send it in the first place. There’s some thing where I can’t reply to messages in our team group because I get the digest and it’s turned off in the web interface. So I haven’t responded to one of these emails in over 3 months, and this has not been a problem.

Headphones, all the time.

I have these great chunky purple headphones. They look like they keep the sound out. They don’t, really. Unless I’m in the zone and someone sneaks up behind me. It just means I can ignore people without seeming rude until I finish my thought or what it is that I’m doing.

“Just let me finish this…”

I do things in small increments. It’s less to load in my head, less barrier (intimidation) to starting, and it doesn’t take hours. So when someone says “Hey Cate, do you have a minute?” or “Cate, can you do this code review”, I say “sure, just let me finish this” and then I finish it, or at least to a part where stopping is no big deal (like the code is written but I need to write the tests). Turns out, if someone is asking you to help them, they won’t usually mind waiting 5 minutes and will just go and get a drink, or do something else. And then whilst I’m reviewing their stuff, or whatever it is, someone will often be reviewing mine…


Often you’re in a position of responsibility because you take responsibility, you feel responsible. You make other people a priority because you never want to be that jerk who thinks of noone but himself. But taken to it’s ultimate conclusion, it would drive me mad and leave me feeling wrung out and miserable. And these little bits that I keep back for me, not always but mostly, they add up to my 4-6 hours, and I still leave work at a reasonable time.

Not today though. Today I had constant interruptions, was distracted by the election results, and I’m waiting on a new computer and it felt like every time I approached “the zone” mine froze. And so it took me over 12 hours in the office to carve out my 4-6 hours and achieve my Most Important Task. This is not something that happens often, and I so I was reminded why.