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I'm Daniel, from Whitesmith.
I write about optimising our lives for happiness, integrity and success.

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Screenshot 2016-03-27 18.23.11

My framework to deal with email efficiently

04/05/2016

People receive a ton of emails nowadays, and there’s a good reason for that – email is actually one of the best communication services we have. Its end was (and is) many times mentioned, but the truth is that still is one of the most prevalent communication protocols and, more importantly, your main id in the internet.

Anyhow, I’m not going to neglect that email has its pain points – it’s easy to get overloaded with messages to read and respond to. And that’s why I’ve developed my own framework to deal with email. It’s actually very simple (which is part of the secret), and this has resulted pretty well for me. Here’s how it works:

Use different inboxes to isolate

I have two email inboxes. No, really, I use two inboxes in two different services – Outlook and Gmail. I use my Gmail inbox for all communications with real people (personal/profissional), and my Outlook inbox for every kind of service – every app that I register, every newsletter, home utilities, store member card, etc. (The only real exception here is Github and other few Whitesmith services, which activity I need to be alert of in almost real-time.)

This gives me already a great level of abstraction and filtering – I know what inbox matters, I know which one I should be more attentive to, I know which one I should bother to answer. I usually only check my Outlook inbox at the beginning and end of the day. Plus, and this is a big plus, I’m not afraid of having the Outlook email captured by spammers, since this is for non-important email already.

It’s true that I may be able to achieve this using just one GMail account and proper labelling. But labelling emails is itself a pain – I need apply a label each time I receive an email from a new source. I could use GMail’s tricks as adding the plus sign, for semi-automatic filtering: `danielfortherescue+newsletters@gmail.com`. But: 1) Some services don’t accept those addresses 2) It may be hard to remember which address I use for certain service (“Was it +newsletters? Was it +services?”) 3) It’s easy for spammers to remove the + filter from the address.

Take action and archive

All my emails arrive on my inboxes’ main folders – they’re not filtered or placed in special folders. Then I try to treat them in a very First Come First Served approach – I read and answer to those I need to, and then archive.

Naturally, some emails will depend on external factors, or extra time to analyse. But currently, is very rare to have, at the end of a day, more than 10 emails in my GMail inbox.

Keeping up with email is not the easiest thing, and sometimes taking care of email cannot have the priority I normally give to it (every few hours). But today it has, and this framework has helped me maintain a sane life.

Applying it to other communication services

This framework as worked so well for me, that I’m thinking of applying it to other communication services too. Namely to my phone: Lately I’ve been noticing the increasingly effort from sales and marketing departments to get in touch with people through SMS, and even phone calls in some specific cases. Not only your number is added to their database many times without your consent, but it’s also hard to remove it (there’s no unsubscribe link).

Said this, I’m thinking of getting a different phone number for these cases (when I create Store Membership cards, etc). I’m still not sure if I should acquire a new sim card, or use services as Virtual Phone Line (suggestions for alternatives are welcome). This will mimic the level of abstraction I have for email.

As an extra tip to deal with SMS and phone call spammers, I will leave this app suggestion: True Caller, which has been a great pal blocking them.

What about you? What framework and tricks do you use to manage your email?

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Why I’m ditching read it later apps

03/24/2016

I’ve been an avid user of Read It Later, and then Pocket, for years.
In the case of Pocket, I’ve frequently been on their annual top 5% of users (based on number of words read).

I’ve been a big fan of these apps, and have really appreciated their usefulness: they let me, well, save things to read later, from wherever I am, as long as I have a mobile phone. This is really useful for me because, during the day I tend to be focused on my work at Whitesmith, and don’t even have the patience to read them at the moment.

My ritual has always been to save the articles and later read them during the weekend. This often resulted in me spending a good amount of my Saturday and/or Sunday swiping through my reading list. Not to mention the fact that I always had more articles than I was capable off reading, which I refused to delete (also known as FOMO) – a pretty common symptom from users of these apps.

In January I decided to experiment ditching Pocket and Read it Later. Now, every potentially interesting article I found is opened and stays in a tab in my browser, until I read it or realize it isn’t that valuable. When I start having too many tabs open, I’m forced to close some. If my whole browser needs to be closed for some reason, they are all gone, and that’s fine. Because if it’s something very important I’ll probably remember to search my history to open it again.

This has resulted pretty well for me – my articles usually get read at the end of the day, one or two days after, or forgotten forever. And naturally, I’ve been having more time on the weekends to spend on other things, and without the annoying monkey in the back telling me that I have so many things to ready.

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Photo by Jon
Yoda and Sky Walker

You don’t need a mentor, you need constant feedback loops

12/06/2015

In the startup world is frequent to hear about the importance of having mentors. But the truth is that getting a mentor is hard:

  • The goal is to have a person that is considerably more experienced and successful than you at a particular subject. But unless you live in an environment with a big number of success cases – for example Silicon Valley, NY, or London – the pool of people will tend to be very narrow.
  • The mentor and mentee relationship shouldn’t be a formal alliance – you shouldn’t email someone asking to be your mentor because you know he’s an expert on a determined topic. Instead of something planned, I believe that this relationship should come up naturally after getting along for a while.
  • Since mentoring takes time, which everybody has lack of, some potential mentors prefer to not compromise to that task.

Ask for feedback

What people often forget is that there’s a more reachable tool to get better at what you do: feedback. More specifically: negative constructive feedback. Feedback that focuses on how to improve what you’re doing wrong.

Giving this type of feedback is very uncommon in our culture – people tend to just say nice things, which don’t result in much learning. Per contrary, it just tends to make you feel good about what you’ve done, and thus not aim for improvement.

To contour that, one of the best approaches  is to be yourself asking for feedback, AND using certain questions to get people specifying what you can improve. You should ask people questions such as “What I could be doing better?” or, “What you don’t like about this?”.

Quite often, what you’ll hear will tend to make you defend or justify yourself. But avoid it, and just listen. Plus, note that if you want them to give their thoughts again in the future, you shouldn’t make people uncomfortable with what they’re saying.

Think critically

There’s one other way to help you get continuous improvement, and that’s by being yourself responsible for your own feedback loops. This requires you to have a critical point of view over what you do.

This is easier said than done, because it’s difficult to know what and how you could be improving on, and that’s why you should chase external feedback nevertheless. But constantly reflecting about what you could be doing better will raise your awareness over certain aspects. You should be frequently asking yourself “What I could be doing better?”. If you make an effort to ask it every day, week, or every time you finish a task, you will start noticing aspects that you didn’t before.

About giving feedback

When you’re on the other side of the coin,to avoid common errors there are some good practices as:

  • Depersonalize –  you should focus on the behaviour, not on the person:
     You are a quite bad speaker.” VS “The presentation was quite bad.”
  • Make it constructive by focusing on the improvement:
    “You could make the presentation even better by showing some examples.”
  • Be specific:
    “I didn’t like your presentation.”  VS “Your presentation could be more useful if you gave better examples such as …”

In my opinion, constructive (negative) feedback is one of the most underrated tools. It’s a habit that seems to not be ingrained, and sometimes even not well accepted in our culture, but which can give great results. If you can do this and still have a mentor, perfect.

Screenshot 2014-06-28 23.47.17

No one knows what they’re doing

06/29/2014

“There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations. There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making a series of hit songs; […] That’s the hard thing about hard things — there is no formula for dealing with them.”

Ben Horowitz, in The Hard Thing About Hard Things

This just nails it down.

We tend to look at people at high places  – as TV Super-Stars, Music Super-Stars, CEOs, Nobel Prize winners, etc – as if they were very privileged people. As if they were so smart and so knowledgeable that they really knew what they were doing now, and what they were going to do next.  As if these people, besides being hard-workers, also knew what was the exact recipe for their success.

Or at least that’s what it seems when we see them in front of the cameras, receiving their prizes, while in the interviews, and when presenting the company’s quarterly results.

This may be slightly true for some who have decades in their fields. But it isn’t for most of the people.

Let’s use chess and science to help me get my point through:
Studies have shown that the best chess players aren’t the ones who actually stop to think rationally about the different possible plays on the chess board, to decide their next move. Instead, the best chess players are the ones who’ve played thousands and thousands of times, letting them exposed to so many different scenarios that now their brains intuitively tell them what’s the best next move, while on a blink of an eye. The more they’ve played, the more plays they could see ahead.

The same applies for people with a great number of years of experience in their field of expertise – they were confronted with many different scenarios and problems, which they overcame (or not), making them knowledgeable about the numerous possible plays available on the “chess board”,  and their respective consequences.

What we forget is that these people also were first-timers once. They, like me and you, once didn’t knew what they were doing. They were constantly being confronted to make decisions about completely new challenges:
TV Show producer – “How should the main character be? How should this series be filmed? I don’t have a single idea…”
Music artist – “What’s the best way of promoting this type of song? Where should we tour first?”
Startup CEO – “Should we go for full privacy or sell the user’s data to advertisers? What kind of partnership is best for us? Should we go IPO this year?”

Of course that, on contrary to the super-fast moves on a chess board, these decisions usually are made only after gathering enough information – each move is pondered. But at the end, even after studying our options, none of us is one hundred percent certain of the outcomes. Not even the most experienced – life is much more complex than a chess board after all. The only difference is that the Jeff Bezzos, Oprah Winfreys, and Beyonces of our world, are usually less in the dark than the other little experienced ones. But that’s just because they already explored their world more than the majority of us.

The sooner we realize this, the sooner we’ll lose our fear of uncertainty and just go for it. Successful people aren’t by necessity any smarter than the rest of the world.

Image Source: Tony Brooks
Screenshot 2014-06-07 01.09.39

A slight twist to our days can make a big difference

06/09/2014

It’s been 1 month and ~15 days since I’ve written my last blog post. According to what I’ve promised to myself some months ago, I should have written two additional blog posts by now, and I didn’t.

This doesn’t seem to be a big deal. And actually, it isn’t – even though I really love to write here, and even though I want that you, reader of this blog, to know that you can count on a post very ~15 days, the truth is that blogging isn’t my life’s biggest priority.

So, when things go wary – when there’s an increase of work, or other life issues come to the fore – I’m lead to decide what should be left back. And blogging, naturally, is one of those that need to be left behind.

That’s reasonable for most people like me because, even though it’s always nice to see a good number of readers flowing into your blog, I only write for the pleasure. And, on contrary to some people who write, my income doesn’t come from this blog (aka, I do not depend on this blog to eat a good steak).

But why am I talking all about this? Because this lead me to realise, again, that there’s so much months where you can keep up your motivation without wearing out. And I reached that point – not only did my writings have decreased, but my workout routine, radio practices, and toastmasters speeches also also did in some way.

From year and year again I’ve noticed that there’s a certain amount of months where I’m able run the same routine with a big smile in my face – around four or five. After those, I’ll start becoming tired and needing a change.

But I’m not talking about a drastic one. I’m talking about giving a little twist to our daily lives, like: choosing a different sport to play or a new gym routine, start working from a different place and/or schedule, to try new extra activities and stop the old ones, and even start watching a new set of good movies (Stanley Kubrick’s may be next. Other suggestions?).  That has been usually enough to give me an extra battery to the following months, sometimes together with a trip somewhere.

I’ll do an extra push for this month –  where I’m specially dedicated to finish some projects and finals for my Master thesis – to still deliver what I promised to myself for these months. Then I’ll figure out what twist I should give to my days. As I always do, after a few great days of reflection in the woods.

listen

Hearing only one side will make you blind

04/21/2014

I have this post in my head for a long time now, but recently seeing the trailer of the new Fed Up documentary made me finally write it.

Fed up talks about some of the gimmicks inside the food industry, and how what we once thought it was ok for our health is now considered a considerable demon (sugar). But this post isn’t about food, gimmicks, or any documentary of this kind. This post is about how easy it is to accept a biased opinion, and how deeply that affects our lives.

We all have our opinions about a big range of topics – every now and then we argue about things such as: that astrology works, gay couples should be able to adopt, or that the Paleo diet is the best one for our health, just give a few random examples. When someone ask us why, we tell them that’s because we’ve read about it in some articles, a friend told us, or because that’s what we learned in college. And actually, that’s reasonable; specially when most of the time we have some pretty good arguments to prove our side.

But if someone ask us if we read or heard someone endorsing the opposite – that Paleo is bad, gays shouldn’t adopt, or that astrology is fake – most of us will answer negatively. And that’s a mistake.

For example, is common sense that skipping breakfast is bad for us that doing it makes us fat – a  statement that’s backed by large epidemiological studies. [1]

This seems to make perfect sense for most of us. Actually, that’s what everyone has told us since we were kids. The problem is that we’re hearing only one side of the story, making it very easy to become partially blinded:
By looking into other details of that study, what some other specialists noticed was that people who were not taking breakfast were also the ones who had other bad eating habits. i.e., they’ve mistaken correlation with causation. [1]

In other words, even though the first argument was pretty credible, with the second we’ve seen that it isn’t the unquestionable truth we’ve thought it was. Actually, a lot of things in our lives will seem unquestionable truths – but they aren’t.

If that’s a good example or not, that’s not important. My point is that hearing only one side of the story is what most of us do everyday. And that’s bad. That’s how we build most of our opinions that are later used for much of our daily decisions – to decide what we eat, what car to buy, to believe or not in Tarot cards, and so many more that trying to give a list of examples it’s, to be honest, quite absurd from my part.

Anyhow, with this I don’t mean that we should, from now on, spend several hours a week reading scientific articles before making each decision about our lives – probably we don’t need to read every development about health research, or every internet forum discussing the veracity of Astrology. Finding the best sources for your case, that advocate opposite sides, should do the job – like looking for the best health blogs, or asking on Quora for the truth of pseudo-sciences.

That’s why I’m surely going to watch Fed Up, and why I’ve seen other sensationalist documentaries before, as Sycko, Zeitgeist, Capitalism, and The World According to Monsanto. Not because I agree with everything they advocate in their taglines. I do it because I want to hear the other side of the story, and to be challenged to see things from a point of view I didn’t before. I do it to hear both parts.

 Photo credit: Rozanne Hakala

 

Screenshot 2014-04-07 21.28.49

To get great results: Always be Shipping

04/08/2014

When it comes to building – be it software, an article, a painting, just to give a few examples – we all oscillate, between these two ends:

  • Caring more about delivering what we build as fast as we can, without caring much about the quality of what we release.
  • Being a perfectionist, and never be satisfied with what we build. Always tweaking every detail, and so be constantly postponing the delivery of our work.

Neither of these extremes are good.

For example, if you just ship for the sake of shipping, you’ll probably end up producing an ever-growing mountain of mediocrity (bad software, bad blog posts, bad paintings). In other words, you should push yourself to do something better. On the other extreme, if you become too immersed in your own perfectionism, you’ll likely let a lot of more important activities pass as you featherbed your undelivered masterpiece.

I’m constantly looking for the balance between these two – I’m always trying to find that sweet spot that gets the best results. To help me reach that, I use two methods in conjunction.

Method #1: Don’t Break the Chain

Pick an adequate frequency to work on your product or task, and stick to it. It can be daily, weekly, or whatever you find to be good. Just make sure you fulfil it – Don’t break the chain! This will force you to be constantly pushing your work further.

Method #2: Just ship it

Pick a deadline to deliver your final work, and strive to accomplish it. This will force you to release whatever you’ve done so far. And, since you frequently worked on your product, you’ll (more) probably have something worth to deliver. Don’t wait until it’s perfect – just ship it!

 

Woody Allen is known for using these two pillars to combat the two extremes I mentioned. He’s also known for directing 46 movies in 48 years, and for earning 24 Academy Award nominations – so, I must say he’s a good reference when about delivering good results.

 

But here’s the greatest part of using these two methods in conjunction:

If you become good releasing a constant stream of projects – for example,  in case you’re a designer, to be frequently participating in design contests:

1 – You increase the odds of making it thru. Because success is also about luck. The more you play, the higher are the probabilities of winning. That’s because there are variables that you can control – as your skills, the quality of the work delivered, and how hard you work – but there also are variables that you can’t control – like the opportunities that arise in your environment (as the jury or even the theme of the contest).

2 – You’ll learn a lot with the feedback you’ll get. If you did a lot of design projects but never showed them to anyone, how would you be sure that they were good? How would you know if people liked it and which details you had to improve?

That’s why, to have good results, you should always be shipping. Be constantly delivering new work, showing it to the world, and iterating it taking into account the feedback you receive. Always be shipping!

 

Here are some examples of how I’m applying this to the present semester:

1 – I’m taking a radio course at Radio Universidade de Coimbra. To guarantee that I improve my radio skills, I promised to practice one hour every Sunday, and publish the recording to the world to listen (except when I want to try some hardcore experiments). This forces me to practice as if I was live, raising the bar of my session. And people can listen to it whenever they want, being free to give me some advice.

2 – To become a better communicator, I’ve been learning and practicing at my local Toastmaster club. I established to myself that I must prepare and present one speech per month. (Actually, they are all booked already.) And fortunately, Toastmasters works hugely around feedback – everyone that listens to any speech is invited to write down their thoughts. This helps me get better at every speech I make.

3 – At my blog, I’m striving to write and publish one blog post every 15 days. (I know, I know. That didn’t happened as much in January or so. I’m trying to catch that up.) Everyone is free to write down their opinions on the blog comments, or even on Facebook and Twitter. Shares and visits also count as a way of feedback.

When for some reason I have to break the chain, I’ll try compensate as soon as I can. For example, if I miss my hour radio practice on one week, I’ll try to practice during two hours in the next.

 

Summarising:

Choose a frequency, and don’t break the chain + Pick a deadline, and just ship it = Always be shipping!



This will help you deliver great work, increase your odds of success, and improve the ability to become better at what you do.

Photo credit: found in love
surf

Don’t waste life

03/24/2014

On new year’s eve I wrote a blog post titled “In 2014, if you want happiness, choose work“. I knew there were some strong thoughts written with an incisive language. What I never thought was that it would cost me 10% of my subscribers, and that asking on Hacker News why that may happened would generate such heated discussion.

So I decided to write my ideas in a different way. That’s what this post is about.

 ***

In our adulthood we spend on average 8 hours a day on our job, 5 days a week,  for most of the year – that’s around 1/3 of our day. Knowing that most people sleep around 7h per night, this  left us around another 1/3 of the day for other activities. And if we acknowledge that most of that “free time” is spent on feeding ourselves, household activities, and commuting, we notice that there’s not much time left for leisure, spending time with others and personal growth. Around 4h at most.

Doing the math we can see that, if our job doesn’t fulfil us, we spend only around 16% of our working days’ time doing stuff that do. So, more than 80% of our day isn’t really that meaningful! Ouch.

I can’t accept this. Our time on earth is scarce – most of us will not become imortal anytime soon – so we must spend it on something that’s meaningful and makes us happy – on something that’s aligned with our life goals and values. I don’t want to spend 1/3rd of my day waiting for the end of it to come! I want to spend that time on something that fulfils me.

In my last post I called this time window “Work”. But this lead to some misconceptions, because of the depreciative meaning that the word has. The right description would be: what you spend time on that can at the same time fulfil you and make it possible to sustain your life style. (This last one means money, for not all, but most of world.) A simple example can be a nurse, that does what she does because she truly loves to help debilitated people, and receives money in exchange so that she can maintain her life style – food, family, house, etc.

When this happens – when you know that you’re spending your time on something that makes you happy and that is aligned with your life goals and values, –  you (almost) stop feeling the need to take time from it! 

When that happens, you even stop feeling envy of your friends that are taking vacations on the Caribbean Islands. Maybe you’ll also go there take a dip someday but, now you’re not, and you’re ok with it. Because you know you’re doing the right thing.

You may argue that working on something you don’t like to have money (or something else) to spend on what you love (like travelling), it’s a good reason for your lame job. But I disagree. That’s too much wasted time.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you should neglect every other part your life, as family and friends. Or that you shouldn’t play a good video game or watch a nice movie every now and then. That you shouldn’t enjoy concerts, cooking, mechanics, gardening, reading novels, learning about art, botany, physics, camping, hunting, and so many more things, just for the sake of its pleasure. But you’ll not feel the need to do it as much. You’ll be happy with what you’re already doing. You’ll feel good thinking about it “all the time”.

Now, does this mean that you’ll enjoy every minute of your day when working on what you love? Sorry, but no. And actually, a lot of people tend to believe that if you don’t, then it means it isn’t your passion. But that’s not true. Every passion is made of hard things, that will make it feel like a drudgery every now and then. And that’s why I don’t like to use the word passion very much, why I didn’t use it in that post, and why it isn’t on this post’s title (even knowing that it would generate much more post views).

What if surfing was your job?
Same waves, different day.

The risk of skin cancer. The falling. Sand in your socks. The people hassling you for your spot on the wave. The pressure to do more sets. The other guys at the beach who don’t appreciate your style. The drudgery of doing it again tomorrow, when the weather sucks. And then every day, from now on, never ceasing.[…]

by Seth Godin

At the end, in my opinion happiness and fulfilment come from two main sources: people and the process of building something. “It comes from setting big goals and meeting them. It comes from the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” It comes from every tiny meaningful connection we make with everyone we cross paths with. So, don’t waste 8h+ a day doing what doesn’t fulfil you. Choose the right passion, choose the right work. Don’t waste life.

Photo credit: Vince Troniec

retro_kid_board

My pieces of advice for how to not regret your 20s. I’ll come back in 10 years to say if I was right

03/06/2014

My second biggest fear in life resides in the lost of potential – the gap between what I could experience, accomplish and give in life, and what I actually did.

Actually, I believe this is a very common fear. As Oliver Emberton puts it:

Tragedy is the space between our potential and our reality. […] We’re more moved by the death of a promising young teenager than an elderly drug addict. Potential matters.

And that’s what motivates me to wake up everyday and go to work on something that matters to me. That’s why I want to explore the world more than I did so far, why I try to take care of my family and friends, and why I worry about making sure that I use my time in the wisest way possible. That’s why, everyday, I make sure that I will not do (or actually do) something I will regret in the future.

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