Atomic Habits by James Clear

I recently picked up the audiobook version of “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. While I’ve only just started my second listen through, I already think it will become one of the most influential books I’ve read: right behind “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, and “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand.

The basic premiss of the book is that while goals are great for setting a direction, they are really lousy as a means to achieving anything. Instead, success comes from changing your daily habits—sometimes in very tiny ways—so that they accumulate, inevitably, and almost without effort, into success. This is accomplished by dissecting the life-cycle of a habit, and taking specific actions for each stage to ensure a new habit sticks. The same applies to habits you’d like to break: just apply the opposite actions for each stage to break the habit.

What impresses me the most about this book is its specificity. A lot of self-help books do a great job of laying out some interesting ideas or principles, but then fail to help the reader make the jump to practicing what is written. Not here. Every chapter starts with some motivating anecdote, then describes the principle involved, and then works through several different ways to put things into practice. Each chapter includes various kinds of mental exercises, checklists, and specific actions to take.

Another thing I like, is that the author fully understands how challenging it is to jump in at the deep end of creating some complex new habit (or breaking a very familiar one). He talks through various ways to simplify the process of easing into the new habit so that it doesn’t require tremendous willpower to accomplish it. Just a slow process of continuous improvement from very easy steps to more complex ones.

It’s not a long book at all, just 5½ hours in the audiobook version, and it’s caught my brain on fire with future possibilities. I highly recommend giving it a read.

Learning and Knowledge Retention

This is a guest post by Joe Wilding, the CTO and Co-Founder of Boom Supersonic.

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I was asked by someone recently: “How do you know so much about your field?”  My short answer was, “I read a lot.” To that he replied: “Yeah, but how do you retain all of that knowledge?” I didn’t have a crisp answer at the time.  But, as I have thought about that question since, I have come to realize I have developed a pattern over the years which has allowed me to retain much of the knowledge I have read.

While I have to admit this method requires additional effort, I’m personally convinced it’s required for long-term retention.

The Method

The method consists of two elements. The first is ensuring that you deeply understand the content when you first read the material. The second element is making the content sticky by refreshing your memory of it in a deliberate recurring process.

Deeply learning the topic

There are many ways to fully understand a topic when first exposed to it. If the topic is simple enough, the act of reading it, watching a video, or hearing it explained may be sufficient. For more complex topics, other tactics may be required. For me, they all come down to forming some sort of a model of the concept that makes sense to me. This model can be mental, or something that you actually sketch or turn into a diagram. Good books or other sources will do this for you, but not always.

I prefer to understand how the concept works based on the fundamental governing principles, whether that be physics, math, psychology, economics, etc. If math is involved, I do not gloss over the formulas. I pay attention to the inputs, the units, and the exponents on each variable. I try to deduce why each variable is there, and why others are not. I try to get a feel for how the answer would change based on different values of the inputs. If it is a topic i really want to understand I will enter the formula into a spreadsheet, plot it, and watch how the results change with different inputs. This “live feedback” method can increase your understanding tremendously and very quickly.

I also tend to formulate an understanding of the topic such that I can explain it to someone else. Often, I will literally do that: either out of necessity, or because I am typically surrounded by others who love to learn. It is very powerful to express a concept in your own words and to be prepared to answer questions or explain the parts that are not obvious.

Making it stick

A very unfortunate drawback of the human brain is that the knowledge it contains tends to fade over time. This is particularly true for concepts that are learned and then not accessed again before it is evolved into long-term memory. This means that all of the time and effort you put into learning a new topic could be lost if you don’t take action to make it stick.

This is less of an issue if the learned topic is something you will be using frequently for an extended period of time (such as in your daily job). However, much of what I read is a little more obscure, or something I will need only on infrequent occasions. To ensure this knowledge is not lost, I employ a method I read about many years ago called the Super-Memo Model, developed by the Polish researcher Piotr Woźniak.

The following graph shows how this works:

The graph shows that as a new topic is learned, but then not used again, the brain starts to lose that information on a decaying curve called the “curve of forgetting”. Nearly all of the knowledge on a topic can be lost in a few months. For example, try to remember something you might have heard on the news or read in a paper from a few months ago.  If you didn’t have a direct connection to it, you probably can’t.

The happy side of this story is that if you refresh your memory of the topic, not only do you quickly get back to the 100% status, the rate of decay on the curve also decreases. If you can remember to do this three or four times, the decay curve becomes very flat and the information will be accessible nearly forever.

At this point you might be saying: “Great, I have to read everything four times if I really am going to learn it?!” Not at all. If you fully understand the topic the first time—in the way I talk about above—the refresh effort can be very quick. You just have to have a method of making the information quickly available and developing the discipline to actually go back and review it.

My favorite method for easy future accessibility is to take notes when I am first learning the topic. I summarize the key concepts, keep the sketch or diagram if there is one, hang onto the spreadsheet, and list all the references on where the knowledge came from. After that, it is just going back and rereading it a few times in the future. You could schedule these in your calendar, but I usually just keep the notes file on my desktop and then go back and reread it from time to time until I feel like it is fully committed to long term memory. At that point, I usually file it away in a folder for future reference.

There are other methods for reviewing material, including: reading other sources on the same topic, teaching it to others, or using the knowledge on a recurring basis. It doesn’t really matter what the method is. It is just important to refresh your memory routinely until you’ve really mastered it..

I’ll admit that this method requires effort, and I certainly don’t use it for everything I read. But if I have a topic that I really want to master long term, I have found that this method works every time.

Being Helpful While Still Saying “No”

A while back, I was a team lead at Amazon.  At the time, Amazon was organized into lots of small teams, and each lead was expected to run their team pretty autonomously.  When a team wanted to tackle a project which required the help of some other team, the lead of the one team would generally go talk to the lead of the other team and ask for their help.

This all seems very sensible on the surface, but it frequently happened that certain teams who were at the cross-roads of a lot of systems would be inundated, and, in frustration, would flat-out reject requests.  Naturally, this aggravated the people making the requests, and it turned into an unpleasant spiral.

I had the good fortune not to be running one of those teams, but my team certainly got plenty of requests which weren’t feasible for us to accept.  However, instead of flatly refusing requests, I employed a technique taught to me by one of my mentors at Amazon:

Instead of refusing what you can’t do, offer what you can do.

In one particular incident, I recall the lead of another team calling a meeting with me and a few of his most senior engineers.  They had a scheme in mind which I knew my team wouldn’t have time to handle.  However, taking this advice to heart, I heard him out.  In the end, I told him that my team definitely didn’t have to do what he was asking, but I offered instead to help him brainstorm other options.  At the end of our meeting, we’d managed to work out a different approach which was less work for his team, and none at all for mine.  By offering up a little over an hour of my own time, the lead of the other team walked away happy and thinking well of me despite my refusal of his initial request.

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Of course, this advice has served me well in many aspects of my life since then.  Whether it’s a friend needing a favor, or my spouse wanting help with a project, or anything else, the key insight I’ve taken away is to look for ways to turn a “no” into a “yes”, even if its not the “yes” the person was looking for.

There are two extremely helpful side effects I’ve noticed with this approach.  The first is that it’s a lot easier to offer an alternate “yes” than to say “no”: especially to someone you like.  Using this approach helps me protect my own time instead of allowing my feelings of compassion or guilt trick me into over-committing and regretting it later on.  The second is that it helps me clearly communicate that I do want to help the person, even if I can’t do the exact thing they’re asking.  So, rather than stressing a relationship by a flat refusal (or even more so by a failure to deliver later on), you strengthen it (or at least break even) by showing your eagerness not to refuse them: at least in some capacity.

The Interview Schedule

This is part 3 of a series on interviewing.  Check here for part 1 on setting up an interviewing team.

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It’s important that every candidate be treated like you’d treat a VIP customer.  Even if you don’t wind up making an offer, they will have a deeper interaction with your company and your staff than the vast majority of the general public, and you want them to go away wishing they’d gotten an offer.  They are going to tell people about their experience with your company, and you want the story they tell to be about how awesome a place it seems to be, rather than how they dodged a bullet by not getting an offer!

There are a long set of interactions which happen prior to a candidate coming in for an interview loop which I’ll talk about in other posts.  Here, I want to focus on the in-house interview.  For that, he first step of that is to make sure the candidate has a full  schedule of their visit.  This should be delivered to them along with all the initial travel arrangements.  Ideally, it should include:

  • an initial meet & greet / tour segment
  • a list of each person they’re going to meet along with their role and email
  • a schedule of when important events are happening throughout the day (e.g., each interview, lunch, happy hour, etc.)

The first part, the meet & greet, serves two important purposes.  First, it’s important to always bear in mind that most people find interviews extremely nerve-wracking.  A short tour of the office, and a chance to chit-chat with a few people helps the candidate unwind a bit.  Second, it gives you a time buffer to absorb any unexpected delays in the candidate’s travels.  Whether it’s traffic, parking, a flat tire, a late subway train… whatever.  It’s easy enough to just cut this period a bit short so the candidate can get started on time, and you can avoid messing up the rest of the day’s schedule.

The second point, giving a list of interviewers, deserves a bit more explanation.  For a mediocre candidate, this information won’t matter.  However, for an exceptional candidate, it’s an opportunity for them to show their enthusiasm and their diligence.  Really exceptional candidates will do some homework on their interviewers, and will often have some interesting question, anecdote, or topic to discuss with each interviewer.  Such candidates will also generally avail themselves of the opportunity to individually follow up with each interviewer to thank them for their time.

Finally, providing a schedule allows the candidate to mentally (and perhaps physically) prepare themselves for the expected duration and expectations for the full day.  I’ve had a number of candidates comment to me over the years at how unexpectedly rigorous / lengthy an interview was.  I’ve also had experiences as a candidate where I wasn’t able to make some other commitment because the full extent of my time commitment wasn’t clear.

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At the end of the day, you want your candidate to walk away thinking well of your company, the people they met, and how they were treated as a guest at your office.  One of the easiest things you can do to ensure that happens is to avoid surprising them, and by giving them a chance to do their homework up front.  And, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by your best candidates when they actually do.

Avoiding Us vs. Them in Problem Solving

I can’t count the number of times when I’ve seen two people trying to solve a technical problem where the real conflict is anything but technical.  Often, this starts when one person brings an idea to the table, and is trying to promote it to the group.  Then, someone else proposes a different idea.  Each goes back and forth trying to shoot down the other person’s idea and promote their own.  Perhaps there was a pre-existing rivalry, or some political maneuvering, or private agenda.  Whatever.  Sides form, and before long, the debate isn’t really about a technical solution anymore… it’s about who’s going to “win”.

Of course, no one “wins” such a contest.  It’s stressful to be part of.  It’s stressful to watch. And, worst of all, it kills the collaboration which could have produced a better solution than either “side” was proposing.  Fortunately, I’ve run across an excellent way to avoid the problem nearly 100% of the time.

The Technique in Theory

The key is to get everyone involved in the process to bring multiple ideas to the table.  This seems too simplistic to possibly work, but it does.  It could be that they come with these ideas ahead of time, or that they come up with them in a meeting.  That part doesn’t matter.  What matters is that each person comes up with more than one.  The reasons this works have a lot to do with how it forces people to approach the whole brainstorming / problem-solving process.

The Opened Mind

The first thing that happens if you insist on each person bringing multiple solutions is that it opens up each person’s mind to the possibility of there being multiple solutions.  If you, yourself, brought three different approaches to the table, it’s very hard to imagine there’s only one way to do it.  And, if you’ve already formed favorites among your own ideas, you’ve probably started to develop some criteria / principles to apply to making that judgement.  At that point, it becomes a lot easier to weight the pros & cons of another idea you didn’t originate, and fit it into the proper place among the rest of the ideas.

Breaking Up False Dichotomies

The second useful trait of this approach is that the decision is no longer an either-or decision (a “dichotomy”).  Instead, you, yourself, have already thought up a few different approaches, and your thought partners probably came with a bunch of their own.  With that many potential solutions on the table (even if some of them are obviously very bad) it becomes a lot easier to see the complexities of the problem, and how there are a whole range of ways solve it to a better or worse degree: or even solve parts of it to a better or worse degree in a whole variety of combinations.

Cross-Breeding Solutions

Another handy aspect of having a lot of potential solutions, and seeing the many different aspects of the problem they tackle, is being able to mix and match.  Perhaps you grab a chunk of your solution, throw in a little bit of someone else’s, and then add in a piece which neither of you thought of ahead of time.  And again: but with a different mix.  And again… and again.  Before long, you’ve all moved past the original set of ideas, and have generated a whole bunch of new ones which are each better than anything in the original set.  At this point, the question of “us vs. them” is impossible to even identify clearly.  And… you’ve got a much better solution than anyone generated alone.

Goodwill Deposits

In my last post about “goodwill accounting“, I talked about how fun experiences strengthen relationships.  The process of brainstorming with an eager partner who isn’t defensive, and who is eager to help is extremely exciting and fun.  This makes substantial “deposits” for the future.

 

The Technique in Action

In practice, the technique is dead simple.  Guide your problem solving with three questions:

  • How many ways could we do this?
  • What does a good solution look like?
  • How do these potential solutions stack up?

 

When I find myself in a brainstorming / problem solving context, I’ll often start out by literally saying: “Okay… so how many ways could we do this?”  Then, I’ll start to rattle off, as quickly as I can, every different solution I can imagine: even really obviously bad ones.  Sometimes, I’ve come with a few I already thought of, but very often not.  Others soon join in, tossing out more ideas.  I keep pushing everyone (especially myself) until everyone has given 2–3 solutions.  At this point, we really do want all the possible ways: even the ludicrous or impossible ones.

Once everyone is mute & contemplative, I’ll echo back all the ideas.  At this point, the order is so jumbled, it’s impossible to tell who added which.  Then I’ll ask: “So, what does a good solution look like?”  Now that we’ve had a chance to see some proposed solutions, it’s a lot easier to figure out what we like about some and not others.  This rapidly crystalizes into a set of criteria we can use to rank the various options.

At this point, I start pointing out how various solutions match up with our criteria.  Some get crossed off right away, and others take some discussion and even research.  We might even loop back to re-consider our criteria.  The major difference is that everyone is focused on the problem, and not on the personalities or politics.

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I use this technique a lot.  Early in my career, I was (embarrassingly) often one of the pig-headed people at the table insisting on getting my own way.  Now, I jump in with my “how many ways…” question, and I’m almost never even tempted.  My own relationships with my teammates are better, and I’m often able to use this technique to help smooth over difficulties between other members of my team.  I find it invaluable, and I think you will, too.

Staying Productive Working from Home

When I was a solo founder, and I would tell people what I do, their first response would nearly always be: “Oh, I could never do that.  I’d goof off all day.  How do you keep from getting distracted?”  The answer I generally give is that I’ve developed a routine which works for me, and I’ve made it a habit to stick to it.  When you think about it, it’s really not that different from what most people do in their 9–5 jobs, except as a solo founder, you need to be disciplined enough to set up your habits yourself.  And, now that I’m back to working at a company again, I find that I really benefit from all of these things: especially when I’m working from home.

However, it would be a lie to say it wasn’t hard at first.  There are a few things which changed when I started both working from home, and working for myself.

 

I needed an office

This is for two reasons.  First, and most obvious, is that I needed a quiet place to work and talk with my colleagues.  It just isn’t reasonable to expect even the most accommodating family to keep silent all day while you work.

Second, I needed a gentle way to let my family know when I was working and didn’t want to be disturbed.  It’s hard on everyone if you’re constantly saying: “Not now, I’m working” all the time: especially for kids.  Even my wife, though with the best of intentions, found it irresistible to ask for my attention far too often for my ability to concentrate.

Having a separate room with a door gave me a clear signal that I’m working now.  It made it possible for me, then, to come out and interact with the rest of the family when it was a good time for a break.  It also gives me a clear distinction between being “at work” or “at home”, which is indescribably necessary when you spend nearly 100% of your time in the same building.

 

I needed a schedule

Of course, long hours are startups are proverbial.  However, that’s not my problem.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Without a schedule, I find that I feel relentlessly increasing pressure to work more and more hours.  And, after a few weeks or months, I completely burn out and lose all motivation for two weeks.

For me, the schedule is about being deliberate about the use of my time.  If I grant myself a certain amount of working hours for a given day, then I can feel good about having finished what I could reasonable do and giving myself a break.  On the other hand, on days where I’m distracted (e.g., a dentist appointment), I know when I need to work a bit later to get the job done.

 

I needed a organizational system

It feels like, as a solo founder, my job jumps back and forth between long stretches where I’m pounding the keyboard building my product, and briefer stretches where I’ve got ten thousand little things to check off (e.g., incorporation papers, creating bank accounts, finding an accountant, etc.).

I’ve long been a strong proponent of the Getting Things Done methodology and the Things or OmniFocus products as a way to implement it.

Suffice to say, having a place to record all those little things is invaluable for two main reasons.  First, it’s a way to keep me from forgetting them.  Whenever something pops into my head which need to get done, I stick it in Things.  Second, it it’s a way to let me forget them.  Once they’re in my system, I absolutely trust that I’ll get back to them when appropriate, and I can simply stop thinking about them.  This makes it possible to focus on something else without getting stressed when there are too many things to keep track of all at once.

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Between those three things, I feel like my job kept the same structure built into it that most people’s jobs do. I get up, eat breakfast, go to work, eat lunch, do some more work, and then go home. I just didn’t have to commute.

Landing on Both Feet in a New Industry

I recently started a new job in the aerospace industry at Boom Supersonic as a Software Engineer.  For those who don’t know, we’re trying to revive supersonic passenger travel (i.e., think: a modern Concorde).  Before starting at Boom, I’d never worked in aerospace, never worked with mechanical or aerodynamic engineers, and pretty much knew next to nothing about what the company has to do in order to be successful.  Given that, you’d have to think me a bit crazy, and the folks who hired me even more crazy.  Except, everything has gone great; let me elaborate on why.

The first part has to do with the company I joined.  Boom specifically looks for people who are excellent at their specialty, and are good at explaining it to other people.  This means that a new person has a ton of people around who are very happy to answer questions at length, and don’t consider any question a stupid one.  This has made making the jump a lot easier, but, of course, not everyone will be so lucky.

The second part is to deliberately study materials which provide an introduction to the field, and never gloss over anything.  Since there’s so much I didn’t recognize even in the introductory material, the temptation to allow it to just wash over me was constant.  However, allowing that to happen means that nearly everything I would learn afterward would be “floating”; that is, I wouldn’t be able to really explain it all the way back to something I could see and touch.  The difficulty, is that avoiding that trap is a ton of work.  As I progressed through that particular gauntlet, there were a number of techniques I used to help.

First, each time I ran across a term I didn’t understand, I paused in my reading to look it up.  As I was reading the explanation, if I saw another team I didn’t recognize, I’d pause again, and look that one up.  In getting into the aerospace industry, it would be common for me to get 3–4 layers deep before I’d get back to the original topic.  The benefit here is that by the time I did get back to the original subject, I’d be in a position for the reading to actually register with real understanding, instead of a vague notion of having seen certain words before.

There were a lot of times when even that didn’t help, because the term as used in the aerospace world was buried by search results of how the term is used outside the aerospace world.  In those cases, I needed to fall back to my second trick: write down questions as I go along. Then, when I’d finished a section of reading, I’d find someone (often multiple someones) who could answer my questions.  And, as before, I didn’t let their answers swim past me.  I’d challenge them to explain in terms I could deeply understand.  Not surprisingly, some people were better at this than others, and I quickly picked out the people who I found I could learn most easily from.  Then, as they were explaining, I’d try to echo their answers back my own words so that they could correct any misconceptions I had, or areas where I was fuzzy on certain ideas.

Finally, as I was going along, I’d write down the things I’d been learning in a document aimed at my fellow novices.  This extra pass through the material is where all the hard work of learning really got cemented.  First, it required me to go broad on what I’d learned in order to organize it into some coherent form.  Then, it required me to go deep into each of the subjects I’d been learning about to explain it clearly.  Since it’s a written document, I could take time to look things up again to refresh my memory on those things I’d forgotten, or never did completely understand.  I then went back to the same people of whom I’d asked my questions in the first place, and asked them look over my document.  This allowed them to clarify any points I’d gotten wrong and/or add extra details I had forgotten.  In the end, I’d created a resource for all my fellow aviation newbs who will followed in my footsteps.

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At Boom, I followed this advice and created a combined glossary of aerospace terms and FAQ about general aerospace topics.  Not only did this help me rapidly get up to speed on this difficult and complex new industry, but I’ve gotten complimented—from both novices and veterans alike—that the document was very helpful in learning something new.  Best of all, the document has since been added to by nearly every new person who’s joined the company from outside the aerospace industry.