Taking Breaks, Exploring Unknowns, and Pitfalls of Multitasking

Taking vacations to explore other interests, as well as breaks throughout the day, are good ways to recharge so we can maintain product focus and avoid burnout. However this can be hard to put into action and easy to forget when we are deep “in the weeds”, resulting in a vicious cycle.

I’ve noticed a few times where I would feel particularity stressed out because I was stuck on a problem with a deadline. I would get bogged down with trying the first thing that came to mind instead of analyzing the problem fully. I would forget to take breaks or skip them in hopes that this would give me more time to solve the problem.

However in hindsight I realized that this approach is naive and unhealthy. It actually took longer to try to brute-force the solution which was why there wasn’t any time for breaks. One behaviour I am trying to do more of is to spend a bit more time brainstorming possible explanations of a problem before confirming which is the correct one.

Here are some ideas I’ve been trying out that I hope others would find helpful.

Explore the unknowns first

Planning the features of a product and delivering them on time is key to its success. However, as products become increasingly complex involving many teams, one challenge is accurately estimating the amount of time required for each phase in advance without having access to all the required information.

There might be dependencies that fall in one of two categories: something you have seen before and can provide a good time estimate, or something unknown and thus requires an investigation before an estimate can be reached.

In almost every case the investigation should be tackled first because it can uncover additional dependencies and unknowns which can stall the project. Finding this out earlier in the product lifecycle increases the chances that an alternative solution can be found or additional resources can be allocated.

From personal experience, discovering the unknowns first provides a greater peace of mind that the project can finish on time.

Consult tribe knowledge

Stackoverflow is one of the first places I check because it provide a wealth of suggestions from others, but I found that this is mostly true only for common questions and environment setups; when it comes to questions that are highly specific, there usually isn’t an answer available or there’s no question altogether.

I found that internal wikis and bug trackers are often an overlooked resource and can be a treasure trove of information for obscure and highly-specific questions. And as always, you should consider updating the page if you discover more information or discrepancies to help fellow travellers!

Multitasking is bad

Computers are great at solving problems in parallel but personally I’m finding that for humans the opposite is true for complex tasks. The biggest reason is that constantly switching contexts takes time and is a mental burden.

For example, it can take a significant amount of time to recompile a project, even though the change is trivial. This makes it easy to get sidetracked into looking at PRs or checking email, only to forget what the difference between the previous build was that you are trying to test. Instead, use the time waiting for the build to further analyze the problem or verify your solution.

Writing down the current task

We still need to keep track of all the tasks that we need to accomplish. I like to keep a daily list of top priority items. Everyday I would bring over any remaining tasks, add new new ones, and reprioritize the items.

This frees up my mind, allowing me to focus solely on the current task without having to recall future tasks. I can also estimate the size of each task and see my progress throughout the day. And of course there is always the satisfaction of crossing each task off.

The One Dollar Incentive

Some retail and grocery stores equip shopping carts with a device that requires a deposit before the cart can be taken out. This increases the cost of a shopping cart and is a hassle for shoppers to remember to bring change. So why bother?

Humans are lazy and like free things. There’s the natural tendency to abandon the shopping cart instead of walking 10 meters to return it (hopefully you are better than this). People might also take the cart home but never bring it back the next time they go shopping. Sometimes it takes a little incentive for people to return their shopping carts, but is a dollar enough?

In this situation I think the deposit works most of the time, but not so much because there is money involved per se. Convenience is something we want and it is a lot more convenient to return the cart so you can reuse your coin. Of course, there is still a minimum value for this to work (if all it took was a penny this might not motivate as many people).

There are some downsides to this system in that it is a hassle for shoppers but I think in practice if someone regularly visits a store, they will always come prepared. For one-off shoppers they probably won’t be buying much so there’s no need for a cart anyways. Thus this solution helps keep the carts tidy without much overhead.

‌‌Why don't all stores have these devices then? For one, market segmentation plays a difference here. Most often, stores that offer premium products don’t install these devices because in a way it is part of their brand image: Companies don’t want their customers to think the company is stingy. Yet, another possibility is that this group of customers is less likely to be socially irresponsible in abandoning carts.

‌‌However is there some better solution to this problem? Deposit devices and anti-theft systems costs more but unfortunately society has forced companies to employ these devices. Instead if people simply returned their carts this wouldn’t be a problem. Even better, people can take a cart from the parking lot return area into the store, then return it to the parking lot when done, making the usage of shopping carts net neutral. This also removes the need for employees to return carts, making the whole process more efficient. Sadly that is just some utopian dream.

Decisions, Decisions

Continuing the adventure of my move, I did a lot of furniture shopping. During university I never had to worry too much about furnishing a residence as I only spent at most a few months at a given place. However signing a long-term lease and purchasing furniture requires a lot more thought and responsibility. Furniture is expensive not only in terms of money, but also convenience since it is a hassle to deliver, install, and move. Mattresses and pillows are essential creature-comforts considering we sleep on them for a third of our lifetime which is why I believe thinking long-term is key.

Picking rooms

Houses are built with different layouts and features, making it difficult to split costs and assign rooms. Here is one solution to aims to provide a fair split: Everyone bids on a room in round robin fashion (if they skip then they cannot bid on that room anymore). The highest bidder gets that room and the process continues with the remaining rooms/people. This works well since the sum of all the rooms should equal the price of rent, so when bidding on any room, you are able to know how expensive the sum of all the remaining rooms are. Thus the price of a room will continue to rise as long more than one person thinks that price a good deal.

Amortizing furniture

Furniture can be expensive and the price tag by itself does not provide enough information to make a good decision. A different way to view the price is amortization, where the cost of an item is divided over several periods to better align the cost with usage. For example, an $800 couch can also be thought of as paying $80 per year, for the expected lifetime (say ten years). Putting it this way, wouldn’t you pay a fraction of a dollar per day to have a nice couch?

Sharing furniture

If multiple roommates are sharing furniture, what is the best way to also share the price? One idea is to have one owner per piece of furniture. This way it is clear who will be taking what when moving day comes. If costs are skewed, for example someone buys a $800 couch but the other only buys a $400 table, each person can pay the other a 15% “usage” fee for using each other’s furniture. This brings everyone’s expenses get closer to the average cost while maintaining the clear ownership.

At the showroom

Getting what you want

A common way for salespeople to greet customers is by asking “What brings you here?” This provides the salesperson valuable information about how likely they can make a sale, or the types of offers that might appeal. My initial reaction used to be to limit the amount of information I gave because I would then be the one holding the cards. However, after some experimenting and thinking, it is better to give clear specs of what I have in mind because now they have a better understanding of what I am looking for (who would have thought huh?). Nonetheless it is still important to verify the facts provided, for example asking rhetorically “New as in unopened?” can help ensure it is indeed what you think the salesperson meant.

Source of knowledge

Most people don’t shop for furniture very often so we don’t bother keeping up with the latest technologies or even the basic definitions. For example, what’s the best mattress for me, spring, latex, foam, or memory foam? Thus you should take advantage of their knowledge, getting immediate answers instead of wasting time scouring the Internet.

Sales (FOMO) tactics

The root of these tactics is how people react to uncertainty and deadlines. Even if a customer understands the different types of mattresses, how can someone determine for a given mattress whether it is right for them? Are you going to walk in a showroom in your PJ’s? How can anyone sleep with the lights on? How do you know if a mattress can maintain its original quality after a few years?

Difference in experience

One thing to be wary of is the difference in knowledge and experience of a salesperson. It is their job, they are probably good at it, but most importantly, they have all the time in the world. You don’t. I suggest noting down key facts, taking pictures of sales tags, and reading reviews/prices from online.

Pressure

Salespeople get a bad rep for using pressure tactics like “i would be surprised if this remains in stock by the end of this week” to invite doubt and FOMO. Stores also use flash sales to create this urgency. Yes, you should definitely try to take advantage of the offer, however be wary as to whether the prices were first hiked up so that it looks like you are getting a good deal. Just remember that ultimately you are the one making the purchase and will be sleeping on it for a long time, so don’t settle for less. There are definitely salespeople who care about the customer, but at the end of the day they still need to meet their target and you need your sleep.

This requires a separate post but in short I think they are really good at marketing the product at the right audience online through a variety of targeted mediums. Their website is informative by highlighting individual features with simple graphics. Gorgeous pictures give light to what your life could be like by purchasing a Casper. The high prices in whole dollars provide the impression of respect and prestige. All of this is contributes to the branding and conveys a sense of quality and luxury.

Then, distinct market segments are targeted through different channels. For example, an ad on a podcast might be purchased where the host, whom the audience already has a connection with, reads an excerpt explaining the product and provide a promo code. Promo codes are important because it makes the audience feel special and provides FOMO because they don’t want the code to expire before they have taken advantage of it. This higher chance of purchase with a promo code is worth the slight decrease in margins and also means one more customer who can provide testimonials to friends.

I think they have done a really good job at marketing the product and I hope my analysis (not endorsement) doesn’t come off as being negative or judgmental.


Footnotes

1] DON’T FALL FOR PRESSURE TACTICS An old article yet still has some good tips

2] Boiler Room movie about pressure tactics. At least buying a mattress is tangible and offers a good night sleep

3] Did you know BOO stands for Boo October’s Over? Yes, it’s recursive

Driving in San Francisco Bay Area

I recently moved to California from Toronto and wanted to share some of my experience with the roads and driving conditions.

Driver’s license

California driver’s license has two tests: a written knowledge and a road test. Be sure to book an appointment or line up very early because the lines get packed real fast. Enterprise seems to be the only car rental company that allows their cars to be used for road tests (ask them to provide you a letter stating their car can be used). Instead of a parallel park (as with Ontario road tests), here you will be tested to pull beside the curb within a feet or so, then backup for a few car lengths. There’s no highway component and only one road test (Ontario has a two-stage graduated system).

Driving conditions

San Francisco and the South Bay have some of the worst traffic I’ve seen. The traffic lights seem to be optimized for major arteries, staying green for up to a minute or more. This helps alleviate rush hour traffic (it’s also possible to drive many blocks at night without ever stopping).

This does require some adjustments to the roads. Many roads have concrete dividers in the center so cars cannot simply turn left onto small roads (since this will block traffic). Thus U-turns are very common and major roads usually have two long stretches of left-turn lanes to deal with the buildup. These left-turn lanes have their own designated lights (whereas in Ontario the majority of intersections allow cars to turn left on a green light when it is safe). Overall it does seem like both systems work well for each cities’ own specific set of traffic patterns.

Many highways in California use meters (essentially a traffic light) to ensure sufficient gaps between cars while merging during rush hour. The on-ramps are usually very short and sometimes several merges are required before actually entering onto the freeway. One difference I’m still getting used to is when the rightmost lane merges into the one beside it. In California, the dashed lines between these two lanes just disappear, whereas in Ontario the lane markings make it obvious that the right lane is about to be merged.

Future

There’s a lot of room for improvement for any road infrastructure because no one wants to be stuck in traffic. A zipper machine is useful when the direction of traffic alternates depending on the time of the day. There’s a lot of unused space underground and above ground for cars to travel, but this solution is likely more expensive.


Footnotes

1] Here’s a totally unrelated video about driving

World of Salad: Specialization and Being a T-Shaped Person

Normally when eating out I don’t venture into salad territory because it doesn’t seem filling to me. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the world of salad bars - being able to add edamame, beets, carrots, grapes, fresh croutons, and more - was a game changer. Although it can be a bit daunting at first, the number of possibilities makes it hard to get old.

Salad is basically a regular dish except the veggies are raw.

When I had salad at home it was a side dish and, since we don’t prepare on the scale of a restaurant, this usually consisted of plain lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers — and maybe some walnuts when we felt fancy. This is not to say we don’t eat veggies, just that we never could make a salad that could stand up as a meal on its own.

Specialization

Food is no longer just a means of survival; it is a way to celebrate culture, tradition, and creativity. Recipes are passed down generations, some relentlessly refined, others persistently preserved. New recipes are always being developed and even the definition of what constitutes a meal is always evolving (although not always for the better).

How did we get restaurants that specialized in salads? One possible explanation is that entrepreneurs experiment with new ideas and see whether it sticks. Salad bars weren’t a thing until only a few decades ago which mainly catered to the health-conscious population. Recently there has been a surge in supposedly healthy foods (remember the kale superfood?) but in a way, whether these foods are healthy or not isn’t important. Instead, the fact that people are making a conscious effort of trying to live a healthy lifestyle means they are more likely to pay attention all aspects of their life1. This trend has allowed more restaurants to offer their own take on the salad bar concept.


Specialization also occurs in companies. Early-stage startups must be competitive with only a handful of people. Co-founders often split the work with one focusing on business development while the other in technology. As the company grows, new employees are hired to further specialize in each area: salespeople, marketeers, mobile engineers, data scientists, etc. These new hires are more knowledgeable, experienced, and efficient at their specialization. Working together, they can build products that the same number of generalists cannot.

T-shaped person

I first heard about this term a few years ago at Joist as a way to describe the depth and breadth of knowledge that someone has (vertical and horizontal lines of a T respectively). Here’s one description: being a domain expert (depth) means you can teach a whole university course, whereas having a lot of foundational knowledge (breadth) is like being able to give a hundred 5-min lightning talks.

You might be wondering "Shouldn't the foundation be at the bottom?". Welling Falsum⊥Shaped Person doesn't sound as good, now does it?

It can be satisfying to be the domain expert as there’s a feeling of accomplishment and mastery. However being knowledgeable in a variety of areas makes it easier to communicate with others and can make it easier to grasp new concepts by relating to previous knowledge.

This article does a good job of explaining how the t-shaped concept is applied to teams. However, understanding our own self and determining the best way to improve can be challenging. We are all constrained by time and energy when deciding where to focus. One helpful tip is to only concentrate studying topics of personal interest because curiosity and passion is what keeps us going through challenges. On the other hand, trying new things, even just briefly, helps broaden your view. This might sound like a lot of commitment but remember, breadth of knowledge can be just dipping your toe in the water - at least now you know whether or not it is for you.


All of this is just to say that the base for a good salad starts with lots of greens, but it’s crucial to have a good mix of additional toppings for colour, texture, flavour, pizaz.


Footnotes

1 ↩ And now we can get special blue-tinted glasses because we look at our screens too much because we are so focused on specialization.

Special thanks to Jonathan Truong, Sneha Patel for reading previous drafts and providing feedback.