Rob Levin
Rob Levin
Jun 21, 2017 · 7 min read
Getting Out of the Building—illustration by Rob Levin

While there are many common and effective forms of self organizing — task lists, pen and paper by your side as you work, prioritization, etc. — this article hopes to address some you may not have considered. While we’ve trained ourselves not to hit our heads against the wall and to move mountains, sometimes, perhaps counterintuitively, we need to step back, relax, and make things more fun … more enjoyable. Sometimes, “less gas more brakes” might, in fact, get us to our destination faster!

Here are some hacks that might help you avoid procrastination, laziness, and just plain ‘ole getting stuck on an inopportune but difficult problem.

1. Get out of the building

Sometimes, it’s effective to “get out the building” — either solo, or, as a team. Let’s face it, seeing the same old office scenery day after day is hardly inspiring. Try heading out and working from that local Shangri-la garden at the park down the street, or hitting the local coffeehouse for a couple hours.

I once worked on a team where the most skillful developer who had, essentially, architected the majority of our system, was in constant meetings. These meetings were of course important, but they prevented him from getting in much coding himself, not to mention transfer important and low-level technical knowledge to the other engineers on the team.

One thing we periodically did, which was incredibly helpful, was to do a team offsite, where only the developers were invited. We rented a conference room and got catered lunch. Inevitably, it would pay dividends. The team would return from this offsite more knowledgable, with engineers being able to be more self-sufficient and less reliant on the aforementioned architect’s feedback on code submissions. It was also fun and great for team building.

Obviously, this scenario doesn’t just work for a team of engineers. It works for marketing teams, design teams, etc. Also, it doesn’t require the rental of an expensive conference room if that’s out of budget — hit a coffeeshop, park, or even the beach if your company culture permits.

2. Manage up

When I was quite early in my career, I worked at a start up. We got a new manager and he immediately started driving my nuts. It felt like he was asking for the world and I had no possible way to succeed. As I continued to “kill myself” to meet his demands, eventually, I’d had enough. At a one on one meeting I told him how I felt and that he was being absolutely unreasonable with his expectations. He very calmly told me that this was just his style, to ask for as much as he could get, and, that it was my job to manage up. He further explained, that if there was something he was asking for that was too hard, unreasonably allocated, etc., I need to manage up and let him know it was going to be an issue. He simply didn’t know if these things were a stretch or not…it was my job to let him know.

I listened to his notion of managing up, and tried to better inform him: “So…I’ll definitely be able to do that, but, just so you know, it’s going to take N-days and here’s why…”. Our working relationship improved greatly as a result.

Related, is the notion of pushing back. There are times, when it’s healthy to tell a manager (or a cross department peer) that something is going to prove to be difficult and/or take more time then you know they think it will take. Of course, you want to preserve your “can-do” spirit, so do use words like “I just want to mitigate risk and provide you with some visibility…”, or, “I can totally get this done, but with ROI in mind we may want to consider…”. You get the idea.

3. Go distraction free

Distraction Overload—illustration by Rob Levin

We’ve become so used to checking our smart phones for alerts and social media updates that it’s become a norm in our daily lives. Hover, invasive alerts, blinking notices, and untimely reminders can really have a negative effect on your productivity. Working without interruptions is how you get past the hard problems.

Obviously, this is easier said than done. Perhaps your team expects you to be available at all times on Slack or some other IM system. Also, your manager my be in the habit of assigning you a kitchen sink of tickets in big sweeping batches. Yes, it’s hard to go completely distraction free, but, you can always let folks and/or your manager know, that, “hey, I’m going to be heads down on a difficult problem until lunch today … if you absolutely need to contact me before then, do you mind either calling me or just coming over in person?”

Likely, your colleagues and manager will appreciate that you have a certain way you prefer to work, and that you’re probably taking on big problems that will make life easier for the whole team.

4. Document everything

The point here is to keep your moral high by not letting yourself get tied to unreasonable deadlines without having at least expressed your concerns.

My colleague at Mavenlink, Kevin Lai, cleverly describes the effective use of documentation (aimed at Developers) as the Dexter Rule, asking you to imagine that the next person who has to collaborate on your work is a serial killer and will come back to get you if you don’t explain why you did things the way you did!

It turns out that, you yourself, will need clues of the “what and why” in just a few weeks time if you’re like most of us mortals. Personally, I like to keep Evernote notes for this sort of thing, but you could use any tool you see fit. Having a link to any research findings you found useful as you initially tackled the problem, instructions for how to set up the use case or scenario, an overview of the problem, etc., will all yield dividends later on when you’re scratching your head trying to restart a problem you thought was already solved.

5. Trick yourself in to starting

Somedays you’re just not “feeling it”. Maybe you haven’t had enough sleep the night before, or perhaps your task list has grown to an insurmountable number of items, or, possibly you’re “psyching yourself out” on a dreadfully challenging problem who’s solution simply eludes you. Sound familiar?

Getting started is often the hardest part of all this, so, here’s an idea…trick yourself. Tell yourself, “Ok, I know I’m not feeling it today, but I’m going to really give it my all for 15 minutes and see where it takes me”. A lot of the time, a little spark like this is just what you need to get you past your little bout with homeostasis.

6. Blocked? Move on…

Are you stuck on a problem which requires some input from a colleague? Or, have you realized you can’t make progress until someone else finishes a prerequisite task? If this sort of thing happens, leave a note to the pertinent parties how and why you’re blocked and move on. It will likely be natural to feel some sense of frustration that you weren’t able to check the item of your list — after all, we’re task completers and, as such, we prefer to get things done — but don’t let it down. Simply grab the next item off your list and move on.

7. Take short breaks

Video Game Break—illustration by Rob Levin

It’s been proven that taking periodic breaks can keep us from getting bored, help us to retain information and make connections, and even reevaluate our goals (ever solved the wrong problem? Yeah, it’s worth taking a step back sometimes!). Gaming, playing an instrument, getting a short exercise session in — all great ways to relieve stress and get your mind off the immediate problem.

The challenge for some of us, is that we get ourselves in this sort of “focus frenzy” state where we must forge ahead at all costs or risk complete failure. But what this sort of mindset doesn’t take in to account, is we’re really working against ourselves when we hyper-focus for long periods without breaks. Additionally, taking breaks gives you a chance to remind yourself that, hey, it’s gotta be fun. If you’re enjoying your work you’re engaged, your open, and your ready to think outside the box.

8. Use a different medium

Here’s a productivity hack which Maggie Sheldon—Senior Director of Product at Mavenlink—gets the credit for: working with a different medium then you generally do, such as paper or whiteboard. The idea is to build early momentum by doing loose sketching and/or brainstorming activities before arriving at your final medium (be it Adobe Illustrator or your favorite coding editor). Keeping things analog and creative early in the process, as well as not overly committing to a single idea before going “high fidelity” is a great way to think outside the box and get that magic idea.

9. Dare yourself to take an adventure!

Taking the road to adventure—illustration Rob Levin

Sometimes you need to shake things up and take the road less travelled. Take on that adventurous project you know will provide value but can’t get properly road mapped (a.k.a. “Ask for Forgiveness, Not Permission”) Your passion will come through in the work, and management will recognize. Consider maybe doing it at 20% time and time box it to a week.

Wrapping up

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed reading about a handful of hacks to boost your productivity. Obviously, there are others we might have missed — we’d love to know what’s worked for you, so please do leave a comment…I’ll add any particularly good ideas to this article!

Article and Illustrations by Rob Levin

Mavenlink Product Development

Musings from the Engineering and Product Design team at Mavenlink

Rob Levin

Written by

Rob Levin

Senior UIUX Designer/Developer at Mavenlink. Also Illustrations—see:

Mavenlink Product Development

Musings from the Engineering and Product Design team at Mavenlink

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