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Introduction

Hi. My name is Eran and I’m a software consultant since I can remember myself. But this blog is not about me. It’s about something I care deeply about and want to share my experience of with you.

This blog is about how I’m endeavouring to optimise my life. Hopefully some of my experiences will apply to your life as well.

So, what do I mean by optimising my life? Quite a few things, really. I mean automating menial tasks so that I don’t have to spend time and the cognitive drain that ensues. I mean improving my experience when menial tasks are unavoidable. I also mean improving myself so that I can do things better, both at work and at home.

Now, these will be my personal experiences I’ll be sharing with you. I don’t believe there’s a one-fits-all solution to our daily problems. I’m hopeful some of my advice will be relevant to yours. If any of it is – I’ve achieved my goal.

Enjoy your read!

Want to reach out? You can find me on LinkedIn.

Will We Ever Learn

Companies rise and fall. Nothing is forever. This isn’t a cliché. The largest companies in the world gave way to other companies. Giants have gone bankrupt. It’s a fact of life.

What I find extremely frustrating is when great companies fall over easily foreseeable errors. When the red flags were waving, the alarm bells went off, people were waving their hands in the air to warn of the imminent crash, yet the ship kept on straight into the glacier.

An amazing book was published in 1975. That is over 45 years ago now. Every professional heard of it. Not as many read it, I am sure. It is called The Mythical Man-Month.

The Mythical Man-Month explains in painfully simple detail why throwing more bodies at the problem won’t solve it. How faced with an unrealistic deadline you are bound to fail. How scope and deadlines should be managed, not the workforce.

The idea is simple: hiring incurs overhead. From interviewing to onboarding, you spend your existing workforce on tasks that don’t get you any closer to delivery. Then, you start paying the real price: the communication matrix becomes so complex that even critical information gets lost. More people also means more resources – whether it’s money, space, computation power or support.

Before you know it, you’ve thrown money at the problem like there’s no tomorrow and are still no closer to meeting your goals. The board of directors is fuming. The investors are furious. Where has all the money gone? Why hasn’t the company delivered on time?

I am writing this in 2022. If you’re reading this and it sounds familiar, please, please get a copy of The Mythical Man-Month and read it. Then get everyone around you to read it. Let’s not make the same mistake again. Not over 45 years after we’ve learned better…

I may get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

With a Little Help…

It is with great pleasure I bring to you my first guest post.

This one was written by Igor Wojda. Igor is a Senior Android Developer I’ve had the opportunity to discuss this blog with. We started discussing life optimisations, and he shared with me a recent optimisation he made to his life. I am now in the process of adopting it myself. Igor was kind enough to suggest writing the post below. I hope you find it as useful as I did!


Friday evening, it’s 5 o’clock and I finally closed my gray Apple laptop lid. I made it to the weekend! Right? Time to start relaxing, right? No… The nagging voice in my head objects: “I am busy…I don’t have time to go out! Friends? How will they help you get through that to-do list? So many urgent things need my attention…”. And then, on top of that… think about all that  “life-related stuff” I have to do before my life turns to chaos. This was the moment I realized that I needed to change something, I needed to claw back my time, I needed to stop doing things, or at least get a handle on things…

Should I be doing all these things?

At some point in my life, I have realized that there are things I like to do and things that I have to do. I have also realized that some things provide (usually long-term) value in my life, while others are just a waste of my time.

Working on personal projects or reading personal development books excites me (I like it) and allows me to learn (provides value). However buying groceries or throwing away garbage is on the other side of the spectrum – I have to do it, but it is simply so that the more worthwhile activities can be enabled and these things don’t really provide (much) value. These things simply must be done. 

The above examples are from my life, but you will easily recall your own. Consider these 4 zones:

I like to do (internal drive)I have to do (external drive)
Provides value1 YOU WANT TO BE HERE2 MAYBE
Does not provide value(or provides minimal value)3 MAYBE4 AVOID IT

It’s best to do only things from zone 1, avoid things from zone 4 and keep zones 2/3 optional – you may do it, but you may choose not to. There is very little point in doing things that you have to and provide zero value. The only exceptions are the tasks that are impossible or hard to delegate.

It is important not to confuse doing things you have to do yourself, with things that have to be done. Don’t get me wrong, I can do the things that do not provide value. I just choose not to do them anymore. I have better things to do. I have many things that excite me and that I am eager to do. I need some time to live and work meaningfully!

Losing precious time, by doing “nothing”

Many of us have this unfortunate tendency to underestimate the length and complexity of tasks. Look at these tasks – wrap a present for your friend – 10 minutes, buy groceries – 15 minutes, pick mail from the office – 25 minutes, fix a bike – 2 hours – … every single one of these tasks looks easy in isolation. If you calculate all of the above tasks then all you need is 2 hours and 50 minutes to make all of this happen (in theory). It is quite easy to fool yourself and get the false impression that these tasks will not eat more of your time

In practice, every one of these tasks may have a different twist that is not always obvious upfront. It may be an upstream dependency (to wrap a gift you have to buy the paper), constraint (grocery shop is now closed), multiple interactions separated over time (call a bike repair shop, schedule the visit, drop a bike for repair, pickup bike later), may have unexpected side effects (bike was not fully fixed), may involve waiting time (bike is being repaired) or involve asynchronous interactions (send multiple email messages to agree on something). It is quite easy to be overwhelmed by all of this and lose productivity especially when you are dealing with many tasks in parallel.

Every one of these tasks is simple in isolation, but when you consider these hidden aspects and combine all of them together, then you will realize that they may be eating up a much bigger chunk of your precious time and drain your cognitive battery.

Can someone help me?

The above realization blew my mind – I have to delegate tasks or I will not be able to keep my own pace. At this time in my mind, a personal assistant was a person reserved for rich people and leaders and mostly within the work/business context (wrong mindset). After all, none of my close friends hired one and none of my friends even considered this option, so I had no one close to discuss this solution with. This was something outside of my comfort zone and I had many internal objections:

  • It will take me a long time to find such a person
  • I will not have enough work to delegate
  • It will be expensive
  • No one will want to work for only for few hours a week
  • No one will want to work an undefined number of hours
  • People will not want to do these simple tasks
  • Do I really want to spend money?
  • What will my family and friends think about this?

How to pull this off

I have decided to look for help – take advantage of my salary and payback to regain some of my precious time back.

The first step was to define the needs and decide what I wanted to delegate.

The first step was to review all of the tasks I was dealing with. I made a list of things I could delegate and over the next few days I was reviewing all of the ongoing tasks carefully, asking myself a single question: “would it be possible for someone to do it for me?”. After a few days, I have drafted a list of tasks that I could potentially delegate:

  • Pick a package from an automated post terminal
  • Help me unpack boxes (I was moving in)
  • Buy groceries
  • Buy stuff from a physical store
  • Check my mailbox
  • Fill up my car with petrol
  • Repair the bike

Value is defined at a personal level, so everyone will have a different list, different hierarchy, different things on this list – for me the top things are learning new things, becoming a better person, and experiencing positive vibes. I am sure you can craft your own list.

I realized that most of the tasks I had on the list required interactions with and visits to my flat. This meant that a remote personal assistant was not an option for me. I needed someone who lived nearby, someone who would be there when needed without any commute hassle. I also realized that most of the tasks were not day/time specific – they just needed to be completed anytime within the next few days. Flexible work time would be a pro for a personal assistant.

I did some quick research, set a budget, and wrote an advertisement:

Hey neighbors. Recently I have had a lot of work and I would like to focus on my career because I have an amazing opportunity to follow. I am looking for someone who could help me with daily things for a few hours a week (groceries, picking packages, etc.). If someone has free time and wants an extra job please let me know (in a private message). Work time is quite flexible. I am looking for an honest, reliable, self-sufficient person who lives nearby. Cheers

Notice that I mention only two simple tasks. The goal here was to communicate that these things can be done by anyone who wants to work. I decided to provide more details later. No salary info as well (this is culture/country-specific) – I wanted to attract a person who wants to work. My mindset was that if a person really wants the job and I really like the person we will likely reach an agreement. 

Two days later I got the message from the first candidate…

Making sure that work will go smoothly

We scheduled a chat (informal interview) for the next day in a pizza place next to our building. As with every interview the goal was to verify if this is the right person for this job. 

I have explained to her my current situation, so she could have a better understanding of my needs. I gave her more examples, discussed them in more detail, and asked her if she would be able to help me with each one. Quite quickly I realized that this is the right person. We have quickly aligned on her availability, skills, salary expectations, workflows, and communication channels and decided to do a 3 months trial run.

To make sure our interactions would go smoothly I decided to use very simple tools:

  • A shared Google sheet to keep track of work time (task/time/desc columns). 
  • Todoist app to delegate the tasks

We are doing this

I was quickly able to delegate some tasks like getting groceries, switching the electricity provider, or getting something from a remote store (fortunately my personal assistant has a driving license and owns a car). 

I have noticed that many (flow breaking) interactions were required and I had to be in my flat. This was not good enough for me. I wanted to mentally “forget” about these delegated tasks. 

I have decided that we should focus on the result and keep these tasks happening silently in the background with as few interactions between us as possible. Ideally, there should be only two interactions – the first where I explain what the desired state is (personally or by adding a task to the todo app), and the second when I was being informed that the task was completed. Some tasks still require decisions to be made, but I am trying to predict them and communicate upfront to mitigate unwanted interactions.

To move things two levels up I have decided to give my personal assistant keys to my flat and a bank card (with a reasonable limit). This is where the honesty trait plays an important role. These two changes have enabled additional, previously impossible workflows: 

  • Each day my personal assistant checks if there are packages to be picked up from the automated post terminal. If packages are there they will be picked, unwrapped, packaging will be thrown away and the package content will be waiting for me at my kitchen table. One day I am buying something online, another day it “magically” appears at my kitchen table – this beats the Amazon 1-Click Ordering 😉
  • The personal assistant can come to my place, grab the car keys, fill up my car with gasoline, wash my car, and put the keys back (fortunately in Poland insurance is issued just for the car, not for individual drivers)
  • I asked my personal assistant to take care of my flat, so she empties the garbage and occasionally deals with things like unpacking the dishwasher or cleaning a glass – all of these simple things that may be out of place (I have a cleaner, so the flat is usually in order).
  • I have bought a new bed, so my personal assistant was responsible for the whole assembly process. She found the assembly crew, scheduled the assembly, was keeping an eye on them, made sure packaging was thrown away, and withdrew cash from the ATM to pay for the service. On top of that, she made the bed (without me even asking or knowing) and moved the laundry from the washing machine to the drying machine.
  • The personal assistant has nicely wrapped all of my presents before Christmas.

Many of the above tasks just “magically” happened while I was working with my noise-canceling headphones in my room behind closed doors.

Few other aspects to consider

Some of these tasks like dealing with laundry are quite personal in nature, so I am making sure that the personal assistant does only the stuff she is comfortable with. This is new to me, so I am still figuring out where this should work and where these boundaries are.

I am always teaching her that mistakes are a natural element of the learning process, so she should be making some decisions by herself. For me, it usually means that she may work more when a bad call is made, but I am 100% fine with paying for more hours of her time. Over time she is learning and she is getting a much better understanding of my needs, even predicting some things ahead. 

Time-wise she works 20-30 hours a month for me, so this is much less time (and money) than I had initially anticipated. This “extra” time helps me to have a better work-life balance and boost my mental health.

Finding a pay rate was a bit tricky because this is not a common job. I decided to use remote personal assistant rates as a reference. This was just a guideline. My goal was to do a 3 months trial run, so my initial budget was higher, but I knew what a reasonable rate was. In the end, the personal assistant has proposed the hourly rate – it was the same rate I had in mind.

My friends are fully supportive of this idea, yet very curious. They are mostly asking what exactly is she doing for me? At first, I was saying that she is doing all of the things I don’t want to do but got a bit of a negative vibe, so now I am communicating that she is helping me with daily things because I want to focus on my career and learning (I am keeping it simple, no value & drive lectures). My friends also often ask how much am I paying her. My brother’s wife said that she was already doing all of these things for my brother and now my brother has to pay her for last the 10 years of her service 😂 Some of my friends want to know “how did I found her”, but you already know this.

Summary

Hiring a personal assistant was a successful experiment that had a significant, positive impact on my life. Most of the obstacles I had in my head turned out to be imaginary.

By using delegation I have a clearer head and can spend more time on the things I like to do. I already crossed a few things from the “I will do it one-day” list. At the same time, I have a feeling that everything that should be done is done. This is priceless.

Just to be clear, having a personal assistant does not mean that I have a few hours free a day…I am still busy, but I am busy with things I like doing and I am busy because I choose to be, not because I have to.

Agile? We Are Doing It Wrong

Whatever your line of work, I’m sure you noticed companies constantly want to earn more. The intuitive way to earn more is to work faster. Produce more in less time, and you earn more for the same time window, right?

As a contractor, I’ve worked with many companies of varying sizes. From start-ups to scale-ups to international corporates, I’ve worked with them all. One thing most of them had in common is they bought into the Agile promise.

The problem is, the name chosen for Agile is unfortunate. It has nothing to do with agility. And so, when companies adopt it, they buy into a fallacy. Agile isn’t about moving faster at all.

To fully understand what Agile was all about, I went to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. In his book, Clean Agile, Robert C. Martin (Uncle Bob), one of the people behind the Agile Manifesto, takes us back to when a group of passionate software engineers came up with the idea of Agile.

I strongly recommend picking up the book, as it’s a great read. There’s no point in me repeating everything already written there. I will say this, though: every company I’ve worked with that adopted Agile – was doing it wrong.

The key idea behind Agile is predictability. It’s not about delivering as much as one can in a sprint. It’s about producing high quality code over time. The higher the quality, the easier it becomes to maintain the same pace over time. This is invaluable for the business, because it can now plan forward.

Predictability also improves trust and respect between the Agile team and the rest of the business. Estimates mean something, and promises are consistently kept.

To achieve high quality, Agile advocates for some methodologies. I have to say, I’ve not seen those adopted by those same companies who think they adopted Agile. I don’t see enough pair programming, or I see too much pair programming (ahem, I’m looking at you, unnamed car manufacturing company).

I don’t see test driven development (TDD) followed at all. The common excuse is that the implementation is temporary. Of course it is. That is the nature of software. Surely this can’t be an argument against writing tests that will evolve with the code. This usually suggests the mindset is of tests being second-class citizens.

Not following core Agile ideas leads to lower quality code. Combined with a misunderstanding of what Agile is and what it’s there for this leads to unpredictable results. The business looks at these results, and declares the Agile experiment a failure. Everyone loses.

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but Agile is not about moving quickly, despite its name. This does not mean it’s not valuable. It’s just different value from what you’d expect.

I may get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

You Get What You Give

If there’s one thing I could probably never get enough of it is good books.

Since I got my Kindle, I stopped buying paper books. I have gone full digital. There are many advantages to digital books. Being free is not one of them.

Imagine my joy when I found a way to get bundles of excellent books for a great price and give to charity while at it.

If you aren’t familiar with the proposition, I am referring to HumbleBundle.com. HumbleBundle offers regularly changing bundles of books (as well as apps, games and other digital content) for a fraction of the market price of their contents. Not only that, but a portion of your payment goes to charity. How great is that?

I got plenty of my technical books that way. HumbleBundle exposed me to topics, writers and publishers I had no earlier exposure to.

If you read E-books, I urge you to pay HumbleBundle a visit. There’s something for everyone there.

I mean, giving should be a reward in its own right, I know. But getting something extra back isn’t bad!

Consumer Power

Every once in a while, I am wronged by a company. It is a very frustrating feeling. Once you’ve gone through every possible support channel, escalated to managers and complained publicly about it, there’s little left to do but pursue legal action.

A legal move is very time consuming, and can be quite costly. In many cases, it is just not worth it. The situation makes me feel quite helpless. The only thing left is to swear the company will never see another penny from me.

This is when things get tricky. It turns out if you really don’t want a company to get your money, you have to boycott quite a wide range of companies.

Take Meta (formerly known as Facebook). Let’s say you are offended by their policy and want to boycott their services. Did you know they own Giphy since May 2000? When you use animated GIFs on iMessage, Snapchat, Slack, Signal, Telegram or Mailchimp, to name a few, you’re using a Meta service. Of course, Instagram, Oculus VR and WhatsApp are all Meta owned companies, too.

How about Coca-Cola? Let’s say you got a bad product and couldn’t get any compensation or even a proper apology. If you want to boycott Coca-Cola, you will end up cutting a lot of companies off. For example, did you know Costa is owned by Coca-Cola since 2019? Of course, that’s just a drop in the ocean.

And don’t even get me started on Disney

My list of boycotted brands and companies keeps growing. John Lewis wouldn’t refund me on a faulty belt without an original receipt, the owner of Wetherspoons actively promoted the divisive Brexit, Apple and Dell both turned out to be such huge disappointments I’m never coming anywhere near them again. With Apple comes a ban on Beats, with Dell comes a ban on Alienware.

Standing by your principles isn’t always easy. On the other hand, it beats feeling utterly helpless in the face of injustice. It’s also encouraging to see you may be able to cut your spending with offensive brands to a greater extent than you initially thought.

If only there weren’t so many reasons to boycott so many companies.

Fix It

Stuff breaks. I can’t begin to count the times my phone screen broke. Laptops stopped responding.

I used to just replace any broken product. Unfortunately, this was both expensive and not so great for the environment.

Then, just once, I thought I’d look up ways of fixing my broken stuff rather than replace them.

The latest thing that ran its course were my Bose headphones. If you are following, you may remember I mentioned them before. Unfortunately, the earpads wore down to the point of me considering throwing the headphones away.

However, saying goodbye to such an expensive product wasn’t easy. Plus, turning a perfectly working product into waste felt like a… Well, waste. So instead I searched Amazon for a replacement. What do you know. With only a minor setback, I managed to get a replacement.

Two days later, my headphones are as good as new. I didn’t generate much waste (only the old pads, but they were hopeless). I didn’t spend a fortune. I didn’t even spend much time. This feels great!

I replaced everything from phone screens to memory cards and laptop batteries. I saved so much money bringing old appliances back to life. I paid £12.95 for the replacement pads instead of £199.99, which is the price of my headphones on Amazon at the time of writing. I saved so much waste. And every single time, it feels like I got a brand new product.

You’re welcome, pocket. You’re welcome, planet. Did I mention this feels good?

I may get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

On A Positive Note

I once read somewhere that smiles (much like yawns!) are contagious. I found that observation interesting. I had to see it for myself.

I started consciously smiling to people. What do you know. It works. It gets better. It seems that smiling actually makes you happier. So by spreading smiles, you’re actually making everyone around you a bit happier, too.

But it isn’t just about smiling. Positive thinking goes a long way, too. As a software consultant, I am often asked to do the impossible. Or, I’m asked to do things which are simply not smart.

Instead of saying no, I try to suggest better alternatives. This often works. Even if it doesn’t, it leaves people with a feeling of collaboration, rather than resistance.

These habits make my life a bit less stressful. It also helps people around me feel better, which is an added bonus. It’s great that it is so simple to feel better. And hey, if all else fails – there’s always chocolate.

Mix And Match

I used to spend a lot of time choosing what to wear. In all honesty, my choices were not great. They’d often clash, and weren’t always appropriate for every situation.

My wife came up with a great solution. She took me shopping. Now, to make things clear, there are few things I dislike as much as I dislike shopping for clothes.

The reason I played along this time was that this was a part of a plan. This was to be the last shopping I’d have to do for a long while.

What we bought was:

  1. A few plain t-shirts. All were of neutral colors that go well with anything: black, shades of grey (one or two, I don’t need 50), olive green.
  2. A couple of long-sleeve denim shirts.
  3. Two or three button-down shirts (plain colors again).
  4. A few trousers. These were all elegant black and dark grey jeans.

Now, when I go out, I can just mix any shirt with any pair of trousers. The button-down and denim shirts also let me work with layering. This arrangement saves me time, and it always looks as if I spent time deciding what to wear.

If your time is too expensive to spend choosing clothes, want to always look tidy and dislike shopping as much as I do – commit to a similar one-time shopping session like I did and you’ll be sorted.

I still love my playful t-shirts. They just don’t fit every situation. Some situations don’t seem to call for Optimus Prime.

My Long Term Relationships

Every once in a while, I buy something that should serve me for years. Whether it’s a kettle, a TV or a smartphone, picking a specific model is hard.

My goal is to find the best product I can afford. How do I find it?

One way is to google for reviews. However, I find these are often biased or very superficial.

Another way is to stick to brands I trust. Sadly, it seems to me no brands are consistent enough to trust blindly.

That leaves me with my preferred option. I compare specs. For smartphones I usually use GSMArena. They have a great tool for comparisons. For other product types, it usually takes a bit more work.

Once I am down to a couple of options, I look for online reviews. Whether it’s on Google or Amazon, you can usually see what other people’s experience is like.

So, if you want to borrow my strategy, follow these steps:

  1. Find a handful of potential models, potentially by different brands.
  2. Try to find a good comparison site that had all your candidates.
  3. If you can’t find such a site, list all important features in a spreadsheet or on paper. Write down the appropriate information for each model.
  4. Pick a couple of models that look best to you.
  5. Find customer reviews for your top models.

You should be able to end up with the best possible model.

Oh, just one last thing. Avoid the gimmicks. You don’t really needs a toaster that plays music (yes, it’s a thing).

One For The Ladies

I’m glad I wasn’t born a woman. Life seems hard enough as it is being a man. Wiser people said it before. John Lennon comes to mind. I don’t want to cover the pay gap, the differences in working conditions, or even the relative absence of women in IT despite their clear added value. These are all known issues.

I want to focus on a small bit that may interest you, especially if you are a woman. I want to talk about the pink tax. The pink tax is the tendency of companies to up the price on feminine products. What does that have to do with optimising my life, you ask. Well, I’m glad you asked.

It turns out that the pink tax often applies to gender-neutral products, too. Take the shaving razor, for example. 8 blades for men cost £12.00. 8 blades for women cost £15.49. How about this set of DIY tools in pink (£26.99) vs the same set in black and red (£25.99, also available in blue with an extra tool for the same price)?

These products are virtually identical. You won’t get better results with the feminine blades or hammer. So why pay the pink tax?

The next time you are about to buy a product, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is this product targeting girls or women?
  • Is there a male-targeting equivalent?
  • Does the alternative satisfy your requirement?

If your answer to all of the above is “yes” – don’t throw your money away. Buy the cheaper product. Then let others know, and maybe the pink tax will eventually go away.