Manage Energy, Not Time

I remember reading the HBR article in 2009 called ‘Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time‘ and it really resonated with me as it’s something I’d felt for a long time but did not have a framework to describe it. I’ve since shared this article and this method of thinking with dozens of colleagues and friends.

I find that creative individual work or complex problem solving goes poorly when forced into a strict time slot. This this is much of what highly compensated knowledge workers get paid for and we are often forced to do this during 9-5 and in our office environment.

There are three main takeaways for me and how I’ve applied it to my own life:

  • Understand my own energy level before starting a task, and if I’m not in the right mindset switch the task to something that requires lower energy (e.g. submitting my expenses, or other administrative tasks) or take a break to restore energy.
  • Understand what drains energy and what generates energy – a nap, some exercise or a walk with a podcast are all restorative for me personally and so if I’m unable to get something done, instead of staring at my screen I’ll often do one of these and come back more refreshed and ready to complete the task at hand.
  • Work on creative or complex tasks during high energy times – I usually feel most creative and productive in the mornings and try and do most of my IC work during the mornings. In my current job it’s challenging as I work with many folks in Europe so I block out a few mornings a week without meetings.

When you’re a people manager or have meetings that you have to attend for the benefit of others and (not yourself) you often have to compromise on these principles because you’re optimizing for a larger group which is rational but not always pleasant if you’re low energy.

It is much easier to apply these principles a distributed environment (e.g. at Automattic where I work) as we can work from wherever (and mostly whenever) we feel most productive and, in my opinion, is one of the best advantages of distributed work over a traditional office.

Travel: Mount Kilimanjaro

Summit Day

In January 2018, my wife Tej and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do since I was a kid (at least since my mum climbed it when I was 16) and I’m really happy I was finally able to make it up the mountain.  Kilimanjaro is the largest free-standing mountain (not surrounded by a range) in the world and the tallest peak in Africa. Uhuru peak, the summit, is very high at 19,000 feet / 5900m.

I’m writing this to document my own experience and make it easy to share with friends. I’ve already shared some of my research with at least 3 people who’ve ended up doing a similar trip and all had a great experience.

Preparation

In preparation for the trip, the most important things to do are to reach a base level of physical fitness and to get good gear. The weather can be severe and the last thing you want on a tough day is to have the wrong equipment and make your day even harder.

A German guy on the mountain said to me on the mountain:

‘There is no such thing as bad conditions, only bad equipment’

In terms of gear for the trip, I put together this spreadsheet inventory with everything you need for the trip. I would go through it line by line and make sure you bring everything that is a must have. I pulled this gear list together from the following sources:

A couple of high level points:

  • Ski gear: I used my ski gear and it worked out great – merino wool base layers, insulation mid layers and waterproof outer layers are exactly what you need.
  • Snacks: Bring some tasty snacks – e.g. dried mango, nuts, chocolate, energy gels (especially good). As you get higher you will lose your appetite and snacks come in really handy as small energy bombs.
  • Wipes: This is how we ‘showered’ every day before changing and getting in our sleeping bags.
  • Leisure: I’d suggest bring a kindle and some cards to pass the time at camp.

In terms of training, the hike is not super physically challenging so I’d work on your general fitness and walk on a stair master or at incline a few times a week if you’re worried about it.

Operator and route selection

Tour Operator

We considered a number of tour operators including Zara Tours, Monkey Adventures, Popote and Kilimanjaro Brothers. We narrowed it down to Kilimanjaro Brothers and Popote and chose Popote in the end because they were better priced and still seemed to have a first class operation. I highly recommend Popote, they were great and we were really happy with the service they provided.

Tipping

Tipping can be a very stressful time for folks at the end of the trip, but it does not have to be. You build a bond with the people you helped you up the mountain and it’s a nice moment to appreciate them. I made this spreadsheet with the amounts we tipped each person (in 2018) on our trip in case it’s helpful for others. Make sure you bring cash and USD is probably the easiest.

We ended up sponsoring guide training for our ‘waiter’ who is now a guide with Popote as we really liked him and wanted to do something small to help.

Route

We ended up picking the 7 day / 6 night Lemosho route which was wonderful. The other option we considered was the 6 day / 5 night Machame route but ultimately decided to go for the longer more picturesque route to help us get better used to the altitude and increase our chances of summiting. We also figured that 1 day extra was not a big sacrifice given the time and long travel invested into the climb. I would not recommend any longer than 7 days though – by the last day we were pretty excited to get off the mountain.

Time of the year

There are two main seasons for climbing Kilimanjaro. January-March are the ‘warm’ (it was still -15C when we summited) but slightly wetter months and August-October are the colder and dryer months. I don’t think it really matters too much which block you choose.

Climb experience

The climb is a great out and back experience and we really enjoyed spending time with our guides and each other and enjoying the changing terrain as we made it up the mountain. Overall it was easy/moderate difficulty except the ‘Summit Day’ which is challenging.

On ‘Summit Day’, we started the ascent at midnight so it’s dark almost the whole way to the summit which we reached around 630am. It’s a demanding day mentally and physically because of how much you walk (50k steps walked, 3k vertical feet up and 6k feet down), the altitude (dizziness, nausea) and the cold (-15C and windy). Both Tej and I had moments where we felt like we would not make it but we helped each other through it – most of the actual difficulty on summit day is mental but you’re rewarded with all the endorphins when you make it to the top.

Here are some photos of our trip:

Day 1: On the way to the start of the climb with our crew
Day 3: Lava Tower (altitude acclimatization)
Day 4: Climbing the Great Barranco,Wall
Day 5: Our tent in Barafu Camp just before the summit day
Cheesy Summit Day Photo – a must!

Gamification for your product

I spent 5 years working at Pocket Gems, a free to play mobile gaming company in product management where I helped design, develop, and manage most of our products.

Nail the ‘Core Loop’ first

I often get asked by friends about how they can incorporate gamification techniques into their products. Most of the time, folks are asking about these tactics prematurely before they have a ‘core loop  established and before they’ve reached product market fit. 

The core loop is the set of actions that a user completes over and over again and this must be inherently satisfying and / or useful before applying gamification tactics. 

Some examples of core loops:

  • Instagram: Take Picture, Post/Share/Tag picture, Review / Respond to likes and comments
  • Uber: Request ride, Take ride, Rate driver
  • Candy Crush: Play level (consume life), Complete level, Progress to next level, Request/Buy life

Once you’ve defined your core loop and this is already inherently satisfying (or provides utility) to your users, then tactics from free to play gaming can be very helpful in improving core metrics such as retention and monetization which ultimately drive improved LTV.

Understand user goals and motivation

When designing products always start with the user goals (short, medium and long term goals) and design the meta-experience around these goals.  Once you understand user goals (and ideally map them to business goals) you can then design a set of tactics to help incentivize behaviors that help users achieve these goals.

Here are a few principles of player motivations in games that can also be applied to lots of other products:

  • Purpose: All great games have a meta-objective (e.g. Save Princess Peach in every Mario game) that players can easily understand. This gives players purpose, and these principles also apply to utility products where purpose is already clear and does not need to be manufactured.
  • Progression -> Completion: People enjoy the feeling of progression. The simple act of completing a level, or filling up a progression bar is very satisfying to many players and is a very tangible feeling of making progress towards a meta objective.
  • Mastery: People like improving at the core action in any skill based game. It’s important to communicate to players explicitly when they reach different mastery tiers as these are typically moments of great satisfaction.
  • Status / Peacocking: People like to show off their status to their community – I’m a VIP or important in some way and there are lots of examples of this both online and offline. Some examples include – Yelp Elite, Instagram Verified, League of Legends Platinum and Rank/Awards on military uniforms.
  • Expression / Creativity: People like to create and to express themselves with easy to understand constraints. Lego or Minecraft are both great examples of having some constraints but also allowing users to be incredibly creative within those constraints.
  • Collection: People like to collect things and we’ve been doing it for a very long time – coins, stamps, etc. They like to be able to see what they have collected and admire it, as well as identify what is missing and know how to find it. Loot drop mechanics combined with collection can be very powerful. A game like Hearthstone does this very well.

Not all of these principles or motivations apply to every player, and many of the best games pick a few and execute them very well vs. trying to be all things to all players.

Apply Gamification Tactics

There are a number of effective tactics in gaming that appeal to some of the player motivations described above.

  • Levels: Even a simple leveling up system allow us to hit a lot of player motivations – Progression, Mastery, and Status. It’s a relatively cheap way to reward behaviors in your product and incentivize continued engagement in the core loop.
Candy Crush leveling system is simple and clear
  • Ranks / Tiers: Ranks are quite useful to differentiate between players and allow them to also communicate to others that they have a higher status (either earned or purchased) in their community. In League of Legends, players rank up by playing competitive matches and it’s used to both signal skill as well as find other players with similar skill levels. This can be applied to users outside of gaming with ‘VIP’ Tiers or ‘Elite’ Tiers for customers who are either highly engaged or high spenders.
League of Legends Tiers
  • Rarity: Collectors, Expressionists and Status seekers all enjoy finding items that are exclusive and rare. When combined with randomness this can be a very powerful mechanic. Some of the most successful free to play games like Hearthstone allow rare items to be both earned through skill, purchased (usually through loot drops), or crafted (usually very expensive).
  • Randomness (loot drops): Packs or Boxes which have an unknown set of rewards are very appealing to players. Sometimes just the act of opening these packs as just as satisfying as the rewards. You can integrate mystery / loot drops into your products by running a mystery sale for example where players need to open a box to reveal their custom offer.
Pack opening / Loot drops in Hearthstone
  • Quests: Quests are one of the most useful tools in free to play games to incentivize user behavior. They allow us to guide the user in a specific direction for a clear reward. Quests are quite easily applied to lots of products outside of games – e.g. 3 blog posts in 3 weeks for WordPress.com for $10 of credit towards your next purchase or 10 rides in your first month for Peloton for a badge displayed on your profile.
An example of a quest screen from Clash of Clans by Supercell
  • Badges: Badges are a very quick and easy way to reward ‘good behavior’ from players. In the example below from Peloton, you get badges for beating a record, cycling with a friend, or working out 10 days in a row. I like to look at user behaviors that result in improved retention (or another metric) and then create rewards for those behaviors – badges are one way to do that.
  • Gating: Gating prevents users from accessing parts of your product until they have completed certain tasks. Level gating or item gating are a simple way to do this in games. For example, in Links Awakening, you can’t access any of the water areas of the map until you’ve found the flippers which allow you to swim. You could apply this tactics to many complex products where users need to have complexity exposed to them gradually.

I hope that folks find this useful – it’s not meant to be a playbook but talk about some of the principles and tactics that we use in games. Remember none of this is a substitute for having a product which is inherently satisfying or useful at its core but act as a multiplier instead.

Top 5 products of 2019

Last year, I wrote up some of my favourite new products of 2018 and I thoughts I’d do the same this year. For each product, I’ll summarize what it is and why I like it.

Nutzo Butter ($20)

Nutzo butter is a mix of different nuts, when all put together has a pretty delicious flavor. It’s made up of all natural ingredients as well, with no preservatives.

It’s good as a snack by the spoonful, in smoothies and with bread. Of all the nut butter varieties I’ve tried, this is definitely the best. Like all nut butter it’s super caloric though, so go easy 🙂

Outdoor Voices ($55-85)

Note: Referral Link (20% off)

Outdoor Voices make workout and Athleisure clothes. It’s a Direct to Consumer (DTC) brand founded by 30 year old Tyler Haney (How I built this podcast episode here). Outdoor Voice is a play on not using your indoor voice and being free / playful.

I’ve tried the cloud knit t-shirt, hoodie and track pants. They are stretchy, very soft and wick moisture well (but not as well as performance tees). They are very comfortable and have become my go to lounge wear and travel clothes. The tee is quite good for hiking, lounging and working out which makes it a pretty versatile piece.

Freshly ($10/meal)

Note: This link is my referral link (Give $40, Get $40)

When I’m busy during the week it’s easy to come home and order food instead of having a healthy meal. I always over-order or order something that is not healthy enough. I started ordering 6 meals a week from Freshly which take about 3 minutes to prepare in the microwave and eat them mostly for dinner but sometimes for lunch when I’m home.

They are the equivalent of outsourcing ‘meal prep’ with a bit more variety and range between 400-600 calories per meal. My favourite is the Cauliflower Bolognese but many of the chicken breast with veggie options are also really good.

1Password ($60/year for family)

1Password is a password manager that keeps all your passwords in a vault. This lets you have unique passwords for all the services you use and also share passwords with your family or colleagues.

I did not realize how many random products and services that I sign up for and try. 1Password let’s me try these without thinking about what password I should use and they have desktop, chrome and mobile apps so that you can access your passwords on the go – sometimes they are a little buggy, but overall this is a way better experience than remembering a few passwords and using them everywhere which is what most people do.

I also use Authy for all the accounts with 2-factor authentication – basically anything with lots of personal data or finance related which I like as well.

Buffalo Jackson Walker Satchel ($250)

I’ve been looking for a slim, casual leather satchel for a long time. Most of the ones I tried were too formal, too big or felt too cheap / or were too expensive. I wanted this satchel to replace my gym bag or backpack which I felt were both too big to carry when I literally just wanted to carry my laptop around.

I’ve had the “Walker” satchel for about 4 months now and really like it. It’s well made, feels good quality and has a low profile. I’m able to carry my laptop, charger and another item like my lunch or an umbrella without a problem.

Management Frameworks

As a manager or manager of managers of a product development team it’s hard to focus on the right things and to make sure that you’re making progress on your ever growing list. I wanted to share a few of my personal frameworks that have helped me focus better and be more productive over my career:

1. Understand Product and Team Health

I wrote a separate post about this here but one of the most important things you can do when managing lots of products/teams is to understand the health of both the products and the corresponding teams. I do this by asking the following three questions and tracking this over time.

  • What do the metrics say? Metrics are impartial measures of how the product is performing on an absolute basis and trending. Having valid, high quality data sources is essential.
  • What does the team say? Most of your insight will be from the team lead, but make sure and also talk to team members from time to time so you can further validate (or invalidate) the insight from the lead.
  • What do our customers say? Talk to customers, talk to customer support, get structured data on customer pain points.

Combining the insight from these three sources has helped me improve judgement around what we should build and also help with designing better teams.

2. Segment your work

I segment all of my work into three buckets:

  1. (10-20%) Set of things that only I can do (or want to do) myself
  2. (60-70%) Set of things I can structure and review
  3. (10-20%) Set of things that need zero oversight or someone else can do better

This allows me to spend time on the areas that I can have the most impact while making sure that I don’t drop the ball on all the jobs that need to be done by the organization.

Over time, if your objective is to make yourself redundant you should aim to move more and more tasks from category 2 to category 3. This is also a good sign of a team that both well assembled and performing well.

3. Track your time

Each quarter I write up my personal goals (Primary focus, Secondary focus, Observing) and share them with folks I work with very closely.

As part of this exercise, I reflect back on the previous quarter and break down my allocation of time and highlight anything in my list of goals that did not get done.

I then take all the tasks that I don’t think should be on my plate going forward (not the right priority, or someone can do better) and plan to transfer them to someone else for the next quarter as part of my personal planning process.

This has helped me be more deliberate and focus on the things that matter.

4. Get buy in for projects

People are the most important asset in any product development organization and high performers do not like to be told what to work on. One of the most important things that managers of product development teams have to do is get buy in from their teams on the projects they work on.

In the ideal situation a specific job to be done matches both the interest of a team/person and their capabilities. In other situations you’ll need to get buy in from teams to take on projects, and the best outcomes are always situations the team is motivated to work on the project (ideally it’s even their idea).

Depending on the person or team and their preferences, it’s important to phrase the project in the right terms:

  1. Do it for the Company: This project the most impactful thing you can do for the company’s growth – logic and long term thinking.
  2. Do it for your Team: This is the most impactful thing you can do for your peers or your team – community and selflessness.
  3. Do it for Yourself – This is the most impactful thing you can do for your development/career – drive and growth.
  4. Do it for Me: This is something I need you to do for me – strength of the personal relationship. This line should be used sparingly, because it can be relationship damaging and/or selfish.

These are a small subset of tools that I’ve found personally helpful as I’ve worked with product development teams over the last decade and hope you do as well!

Advice for my younger self

I really like Garry Tan’s 3 lessons that he posted in 2013 that he wished he knew when he was 16 – I often refer to them and it inspired this post for me.

Here are a few things I’d tell a younger me, some re-enforcing and some to change my behavior:

  • Compound learning: Optimize for learning per unit of time as early as possible in your career (read books, try new functions and industries). The earlier you learn the better this learning compounds over time and leads to better judgement and decisions. I did not read enough or take enough advantage of my educational opportunities. If you want to be a better investor, learn as much as you can per $ invested. When you invest small amounts you can still do big diligence (investment memos, models, post mortems etc) and you will make less expensive mistakes further down the road.
  • Keep a low burn rate: When you are earlier in your career you can take more risk because you have lower cash requirements and these risks could have potential upside but lower predictable cashflow. It’s very easy to have your lifestyle scale up (especially in fixed costs) as you make more money and these can ‘trap’ you if you’re not deliberate about increasing your spending. This could cause you to trade short term vs. long term to maintain your lifestyle even when it might not be the right choice and may prevent you from trying something that is more fulfilling.
  • Relationships are as important as outcomes: Don’t be completely (short term) outcome driven at work, at the expense of relationships. Don’t think that most important thing is ‘winning’ or shipping even if folks around you get burned along the way. When I was earlier in my career I made a number of mistakes here and thought I was making the right tradeoff at the time. Now I know this is is too short term-ist and you will benefit from building strong lasting professional relationships with high trust – over the long term this will allow you to have better repeatable outcomes with people you work with for long periods of time.

Predictions for the future

I was thinking about a few things that 20-30 years from now (our children) would be surprised that our generation thought was ‘normal’. I’ve broken this up into two categories – predictions where I have higher confidence and predictions where I have lower confidence.

Higher confidence

  • Driving cars: Much of the the research and data points to autonomous vehicles being the future of transportation. Lower rates of accidents (1m people die per year with 95% of deaths caused by human error), increased independence, reduced traffic, fewer parking spots and lower ‘wasted’ time from travelers makes this very compelling. I think our kids will think that we were ‘crazy’ to do something so dangerous every day. ‘Classic’ cars will still exist but they will be more focused on collectors and enthusiasts vs. a common mode of transportation.
  • Eating meat: I am a meat eater and enjoy eating meat. However, I realize that eating meat is inhumane, bad for the environment (deforestation, fresh water usage and greenhouse gasses) and an inefficient way of generating calories. We are much more likely to enjoy plant-based, lab grown ‘meat’ like the products from Beyond Meat (now served at McDonalds) and Impossible Foods – which are only going to become cheaper to produce over time.Like ‘classic cars’ it’s possible that consumers will still be able to buy meat but it will become much more expensive and rare and not a common mode of calorie consumption.
  • Mental health: As modern medicine allows us to extend life, cure disease and regenerate our bodies it’s entirely possible that (wealthy) humans will not die of natural causes in the next generation. As we live longer and longer, I think we are going to be more mindful of our mental health and not just our physical health. There will be better measures of overall mental health, preventative check ups with mental health specialists (like we do annual physical check ups now). We will also integrate time for meditation or reflection as part of our daily routine just as we do with physical exercise now.

Lower confidence

  • Owning a primary residence: Fewer people are buying homes (marrying later and higher student debt) and I think this trend is going to continue. Young people are spending more money on consumption and want optionality to move around. I also think that many people (in the US) have too much of their net worth concentrated in a single asset and would be better placed investing in a more diversified manner. I think there are lots of emotional reasons to purchase a home – e.g. roots in a community and family stability which is why I have lower confidence in this prediction.
  • Drinking alcohol: Drinking alcohol is terrible for you – we’re essentially poisoning our bodies. Studies have shown that alcohol is both more dangerous to individuals and to society than a number of illegal drugs. However, as humans we crave products that help us feel more relaxed, less inhibited, and facilitate shared social experience with others. Also many cultures all around the world have their own alcoholic drinks that are an important part of their history, and there is a massive $1.5 trillion global industry around alcohol production and consumption. Drinking might be too ingrained in society to go away, but I’ll follow how young people behave closely.

Thanks for reading – I wrote this mostly for fun and to capture my thoughts at a single point in time on how the world may change in the future.