In the days when Sussman was a novice, Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.

“What are you doing?”, asked Minsky.

“I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-tac-toe”, Sussman replied.

“Why is the net wired randomly?”, asked Minsky.

“I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play”, Sussman said.

Minsky then shut his eyes.

“Why do you close your eyes?” Sussman asked his teacher.

“So that the room will be empty.”

At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.

Source

The Future Log

Sometime in mid-2013, my cofounder Roshan Choxi went on a well-deserved week-long vacation. At the time, Bloc had perhaps 8 total employees. The Monday he departed, everything he had been handling was suddenly redirected to me, on top of everything I normally handled.

In essence, my workload doubled overnight. And it was intense.

If I recall correctly, I got very little done that day. I literally spent the entire day fielding requests, emails, and chat messages, each one containing either a bit of important information for me or a decision that needed to be made. It was overwhelming.

Then, I stumbled upon the Bullet Journal. It claimed “The difference between being busy and being productive”. And it was not digital.

Now, I’ve been a geek since early middle school. I was the first person I knew to buy a Sony Microvault (64mb capacity). I was a hardcore advocate of a paperless world, at least as much as you can be in middle school.

But I figured I’d give this a shot. I bought a moleskine and dutifully set up my new bullet journal. I won’t bore you with yet another blog post about how to bullet journal, I’ll let you watch the video yourself.

Conclusion: it worked for me. It worked extremely well.

I was capturing todo items, events, and notes from people rapidly. I was prioritizing them. And I was checking them off. I even began using the Reminders app in iOS as a sort of rapid-entry system when I was on-the-go, and copying them by hand into my notebook when I had the chance.

The most important aspect of bullet journaling is the fact that everything is hand-written. I even built an open source bullet-journal web app and I can confirm that even when an application adheres to all of the same rules, it’s not as effective.

Being forced to copy, by hand, everything you didn’t accomplish today seriously hammers home which things you postponed or procrastinated. It’s also a fantastic mechanism for demonstrating which things are utterly unimportant. There’s so much that happens day-to-day that feels urgent. And when you have more to do than you have hours in the day, those urgent item don’t always get done.

And guess what? The sky doesn’t fall. Nothing fails.

2016

So, now it’s 2016. Bloc has grown to 90+ employees. How am I going to handle the constant whirlwind of requests, tidbits of information, decisions, and opportunities for nudging folks in the right direction? Without losing my mind, sacrificing my health, and still finding time to have fun?

I’ve decided to set some annual goals. I have one page in my notebook for items I want to accomplish by the end of 2016. And, as I tend to set ambitious goals (as Michael Dearing taught me, 60% attainable is a good number), I likely won’t accomplish every goal this year. However, having them all hand-written on one page forces me to reframe my thinking. How would I do every one of these things? For example:

  • Go on 10 backpacking trips
  • Re-learn Moonlight Sonata on piano
  • Gain 15 pounds of muscle
  • Finish ripping, splitting, and labelling the 90+ DVDs containing family videos
  • 1 new KIVA loan each month
  • Read 50 books
  • Run a 5k
  • Re-establish a meditation habit
  • Take sailing lessons
  • Upgrade snowboarding gear, get my money’s worth on my season pass
  • Become an exceptional CTO
  • Finish 2016 with a world-class engineering team
  • Go to one symphony

Add to this a weekend trip to see my family in Florida, a bachelor party in New Orleans, 2 weddings.

After I put these goals onto paper, I back out which things I’d like to accomplish in which month. Enter the future log.

I sketch out topics for the first 6 months of 2016, and quasi-randomly place the goals into different months.

Some of them are simple. Sailing lessons get put into June. I put 1 new KIVA loan as a goal in each month. I split up the number of backpacking trips and snowboarding weekends across the months within reason, and then place the known travels in their respective months.

Goals like running a 5k get pushed out, and I add monthly goals (run 5 miles / week by end of Feb, 10 by end of March, etc).

Everything else is randomly thrown into months that seem reasonable.

Lastly, the super high-level goals (become an exceptional CTO, end the year with a world-class engineering team) get pushed all the way out, and I put goals starting immediately that amount to “define exceptional qualities”, “define world-class engineering team” into January.

I now have a 6-month outlook on my goals. So, what now?

Productive

Over the last several months I set up a sophisticated set of recurring reminders in the Reminders iOS app that would alert me at various times to revisit my goals, go for a run, or whatever.

Then I downloaded the excellent app Productive. It’s a habit-tracking app that does exactly what I want. For example, I have a reminder to “Check your future log” every Tuesday morning (Mondays are no good for me, I’m usually recovering phsychologically from the weekend). Some of the recurring items from the future log become habits in the app.

Here’s an example:

  • Meditate twice a week in the morning
  • Go for a run once a week in the evening
  • Limit beer every weekday
  • Do code review every weekday during the workday
  • Review your finances twice a week in the morning
  • Sleep by 11pm Monday → Thursday
  • Review your future log Tuesday mornings

You get the idea.

Habits

I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I read somewhere awhile back that the reason most folk fail to establish a new habit (or fail to break a bad habit) isn’t because they have trouble with discipline. The thing that makes us fail is that we feel guilty when we fail.

If, however, we go into the endeavor knowing we’ll fail occasionally (and probably a lot in the beginning), and don’t feel guilty when we cheat occasionally, our odds of success drastically increase.

So, I’m going to ignore the “momentum” that many folks like to track. I know I’m making a concerted effort to not drink as much beer, but if I give in every once in awhile because an old friend invites me out, that’s no big deal. It makes no sense to have a zero tolerance policy on this stuff.

Looking back

I used the future log method last year, and this is what I accomplished:

  • Keep my piano out, in an attempt to encourage myself to play more
  • Buy a superdrive and begin ripping old family DVDs
  • Donate more to KIVA
  • Do 1:1s consistently with each engineer on my team
  • Stick to my budget
  • 2 weekend outdoor trips
  • Move to cross-functional pods at Bloc and iterate on them as necessary
  • Read more

And, here is what I wanted to accomplish and didn’t:

  • Play more piano
  • Identify a group to play serious poker games with, and play 4 games
  • Gain 15 pounds of muscle
  • 10 backpacking trips
  • 30 minutes of cardio 3x per week
  • Build a hackintosh

As you can see, I didn’t meet all of my goals. And that’s OK. Some of them became unimportant (just like those daily urgent tasks). And some of them were tweaked and added to this year.

I can confidently say that setting more and more ambitious goals, choosing measurable ways to make progress on each of them, and revisiting the goals every week has made a significant impact in my life. My hope is that this braindump will help you find a system that works for you.

Good luck in 2016!

We tend to massively underestimate the compounding returns of intelligence. As humans, we need to solve big problems. If you graduate Stanford at 22 and Google recruits you, you’ll work a 9-to-5. It’s probably more like an 11-to-3 in terms of hard work. They’ll pay well. It’s relaxing. But what they are actually doing is paying you to accept a much lower intellectual growth rate. When you recognize that intelligence is compounding, the cost of that missing long-term compounding is enormous. They’re not giving you the best opportunity of your life. Then a scary thing can happen: You might realize one day that you’ve lost your competitive edge. You won’t be the best anymore. You won’t be able to fall in love with new stuff. Things are cushy where you are. You get complacent and stall. So, run your prospective engineering hires through that narrative. Then show them the alternative: working at your startup.

– Max Levchin & Peter Thiel

(Seen on the wall at Google HQ)