Grounded & Steadfast

The journal of Chris Bowler, a collection of thoughts on faith, business, design, and the creative process.

Time, Spent Wisely

Why do we have such a fascination with systematizing the every day, the mundane? We seem to be in a societal shift where we all fall into a caffeinated haze and ponder how we can trick our brains into doing something it doesn’t want to (your’s truly included).

And although it sounds trite, there is validity to the idea. Welcome to the life well hacked.

Finding Time

Brian Lovin is experimenting with what’s possible in terms of sleep. He’s shooting for 4 hours a day. This is a perfect example of this shift in thinking in our comfortable western culture. In the abundance of more things to do than time to do them, people are looking for more time. In this case, we gain time by cutting out sleep.

To be fair, my experiment involved little to no science, I had no idea of the concept of polyphasic sleep, and I did not nap during the day.

Again, I’m also guilty of this. A few years back, after the birth of our 4th child, I experimented with my sleep as well. How much does someone actually need? For me, it turns out more than 5 hours a night … go figure!

I highly doubt my ability to get by on 4 hours of sleep as Mr. Lovin is attempting. But I could see myself adopting a biphasic pattern where my sleep occurs in two large chunks. Something like this would fit well with my current habits:

As described in the myth of the eight hour sleep, this type of pattern can be common and fighting it in order to sleep normally may actually be causing problems for some:

The idea that we must sleep in a consolidated block could be damaging, he says, if it makes people who wake up at night anxious, as this anxiety can itself prohibit sleeps and is likely to seep into waking life too.

The article discusses the possibilities of how people passed the nights in centuries past. Although there is a lack of references in high volume, there is enough to suggest that a period of wakefulness in the night was the norm:

Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

Looking back even further, there may be more evidence. I’ve often thought of how the habits listed in many of the Psalms could be real. King David himself often wrote about the night watches

My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips. When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches

Similarly:

I will bless the Lord who has given me counsel; My heart also instructs me in the night seasons

I’m purely speculating here, but I’ve wondered what these phrases indicated about the culture of David’s time.

Overall, this type of pattern I listed above would still result in 7 hours of sleep and is not such a stretch from the habits of most people. Besides, I often find myself awaking in the hours of 2-4am and it takes a while to get back to sleep.

Might as well put some of that time to good use.

The Routines: Making the Most of the Time

A second aspect of our culture’s fascination with time is the systematizing of how we use it. We love to think about how to best structure our time, schedule our days, build habits, and essentially, hack our brains.

This is the reason why sites like My Morning Routine exist.

But once again, although it can be tempting to poke fun at our collective navel gazing, there is good reason for our fascination. Primarily because mindfulness can bring change. Shawn Blanc sums this up well as he describes how a couple of small changes resulted in a huge increase in his primary creative outlet.

Before I made this habit change, I was usually writing 500 to 1,000 words every day. But I didn’t have an exact time for when I’d do my writing, nor did I have a clear idea for what I’d be writing about. It was hit or miss, honestly. Some days I didn’t write at all. And I certainly wasn’t making daily, iterative progress on my long-term writing goals.

However, since I made this change a month ago I’ve written over 40,000 words.

His change? Write for 30 minutes at the beginning of every day. Every day.

Sounds simple, right? But he — and you and I — have built up other habits that have to be replaced with the new one. For Shawn, that meant not checking stats, Twitter, and the like until the writing was completed.

Weeks later, the effects of the change are evident. So while it’s certainly true that we can waste the time away constantly reviewing our workflow, this does not mean reflection is not helpful. A healthy, balanced amount of reflection, when paired with intention and discipline, can be a good thing.

GTD: The Beginning?

As someone who once focused his energies on productivity and the systemization of how we work (enter in the dreaded three letter acronym from hell aka GTD), I can’t help but wonder if this all started because Merlin Mann shared all his hacks about his hipster PDA on 43 Folders. Those of us in the apple, design, blogging world have been thinking about this type of topic for quite some time.

Was our desire to tinker with notebooks and applications the gateway drug to bigger things? Now instead of folders, pens, and egg timers, we’re prone to tinker with the essentials (sleep now, food next, then what? Oxygen intake?).

And although I spend far less time writing and thinking about productivity, and relatedly, tinkering, I'm still prone to snap my head around whenever someone mutters the word, "System". Is this focus a problem of how we view our self worth? Is our identity so tied to what we accomplish that it leads to a focus on how to do more? Some think so, especially after spending time in other cultures.

So the question to ask is not whether this is all useful. Rather, the question to ask yourself is this: how much of all this is useful for me? Like most things, it’s a matter of moderation. The dose is the poison. If you find yourself spending more time reading about life hacks than making change, you’ve gone too far.

As alluded to at the top, a part of this fascination is simple luxury. We have so much extra time and resources that we’ve constructed a society that teaches you to fill each waking hour. So much so that we all feel the strain of more to do than time to do it. In other cultures, survival can be where humans put all their energy … and people in these situations often strike me as more content and satisfied with life than us life hackers.

Nevertheless, I find myself pondering the question: can I put my time to better use? We all have the same amount of time each day, but whether we spend it creating, sleeping, or meditating on deep things is up to each of us. Whatever hacks or tricks we employ, if they result in a wiser use of the great equalizer, time, we’re better off for it.

As long as action is a result.

The Iterative Life

In design circles, iteration is our mantra. Start small, start now, learn as you go. Rinse and repeat. Tis better to start with imperfection than to never start at all. And this thinking often leads to success, so it’s popular for good reason.

But this approach should not be resticted only to the products and experiences we build for others. Indeed, it’s a good approach to life in general.

Failure Repeats Itself, Often

I fail daily. I’d even venture to say hourly. I fail my children by being short tempered at the end of the day. I fail my spouse when I care more about getting time to read that book on my shelf than checking in with her at the end of the week.

And relationships are just one aspect of life. We can fail in our work, with the project that is unsuccessful (or, in many cases, never completed), or the job that didn’t go as planned. We fail when we choose to try something new; no one crafts a masterpiece with a new habit.

But it doesn’t matter. We’re humans … we will hurt others and ourselves. We’ll fall short of our goals. Failure. It’s like death; inevitable. The important question to ask is this:

What are you going to do about it?

Again, we talk about this aplenty in the design industry. Startups pivot, corporations kill planned features, and plenty of designs never see the light of day. With the right mindset, we understand this is a vital part of the process. As Sean Sperte recently stated:

Designing is deciding

Learning requires failure. And I love to learn.

I spent the past week on a workation, spending my days in a cowork space filled with small startups and agencies. The following list is on the wall in the front room:

This is my life as a parent, as a spouse. This is your life as a friend, a neighbour, and a coworker. The question is not whether you’ll fall — you will. The question is your attitude after the fall.

Learn, everyday.

Defining Customer Success

What does it look like for you to have a successful customer? The answer often looks different from one business to the next, but you need to know the answer as soon as possible. For if your customers are successful, most often so is your business.

How does this affect your company?

Your goal as a business should be to make your customer look as good as possible.

That’s it. It’s as true for web design and software development as it is for many other industries. Kathy Sierra says it best:

People aren’t using the app because they like the app or they like you. They’re doing it because they like themselves. What are you doing to enable more of that?

So, exactly what is customer success for you?

A Definition

The most obvious literal meaning? Your customer is successful in their business or work. For many of us who run design agencies or software companies, the method with which you enable your customer’s success may be different, but the goal should be the same.

At Harvest, helping their customers create beautiful invoices for their clients can enable success. For Wistia, enabling their customers to quickly add closed captioning to existing videos in their library makes the customer look badass. For each Saas company, the means may be different, but you should be helping your customer do their job better.

What This Means For You

But what does this look like as a function of your business? For 4 months on the job as Director of Customer Success at InVision, I’ve been mulling on this and watching the approach of other companies. There seems to be a wide variety.

Customer success can often be tangled in with customer support. But truly, one is proactive (success) while the other is reactive (support). Both are necessary, but the focus is different.

In many organizations, success is tied closely to marketing and sales. Marketings draws ‘em in, Sales converts ‘em, then it’s up to the Success team to keep 'em happy. While I can understand that approach, the focus is on your success, not that of your customers. The Success team in companies fashioned in this manner are often focused on renewals and upselling.

We have a slightly different approach at InVision, for which I am very glad. On my first day, Clark introduced me and my position to the team in this way:

My job is to make sure each person who signs up for InVision gets the most out of the platform

That is something I can get excited about each day!

When you combine this mentality with a tool or service that can truly better someone’s ability or experience, it’s a powerful thing!

What Does This Involve?

How do you help people “get the most out of your platform”? That’s the fun part … it can look like many different things. You’re only limited by your imagination.

Here, my team focuses a lot on education. This can include webinars, private demos, tutorial videos, and some aspects of the onboarding experience. We focus on relationships. Caring about the people who use your tool takes you a long way, gives you motivation.

It also involves understanding your customers. What are the different personas (types of users) who make up your customer base? What are their needs and how do they differ from one persona to the next? What features are the most important to them?

Most importantly, our focus is on helping our customers grasp the full extent of how our platform can enhance their design process. Nothing beats the days where I get to talk to a customer, find out where they experience pain or frustration in their current process, then show them how they can remove that pain with InVision.

When we walk away from that conversation, I want to feel confident that this person will look smart and capable to their clients, their team, their executives. Badass (as Kathy puts it).


We talk a lot in our industry about user experience. Customer success (and support) are vital in this regard. The experience is much more than an intuitive UI, a clever, cheeky onboarding process, or a robust feature set. For the customer, it’s about how they feel when using your product or service … and it’s about how they feel about themselves.

Customer Success is focused on just that.

Are You Ready to Teach?

Like many others, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks in reflection. On the year past, plus what’s to come. Or rather, what I hope is to come as I plan for the coming year.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a special one. It’s the afterglow, the time when the preparations for celebration are over, your visiting starts to subside, and you don’t have to cook because you're eating leftovers for the 5th day in a row. And yet the New Year is not yet rung in, so you have this golden opportunity to sit back, savour the specialty coffee and double chocolate stouts you received for Christmas, and ponder how your past will shape your future.

This is not a new thing. In fact, the name of the current month is steeped in this mentality. In our Julian calendar, January gets its name from the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions. His name is based on the Latin word ianua, which indicates a double door, one that opens both ways. Janus was often depicted as having two faces, one looking forward and one looking back.

With that mindset, I’d like to share something I’ve been pondering the past two weeks.

The Web is About Learning

The rise of the Web brought about many opportunities, but none so great as the increase in knowledge. Pre-Web, a person interested in an unfamiliar topic had to talk to an expert, visit a library, own an encyclopedia set, or buy a book to increase their knowledge. Today, a couple of keystrokes will get you the basics of a topic in seconds (this type of knowledge is often surface level, leading to an increase in generalists who know a little about a lot of things … craftsmanship is another topic entirely).

And that availability of knowledge, of published facts, was just the beginning. Now you can enroll in online classrooms, join online communities, sign up for email courses … the options for education are vast and growing every day. When I have a problem around the house with an appliance, my first resource is YouTube. Chances are, someone somewhere has created a video showing how to the change the auger belt on the model of snowblower I own …

What started as personal blogs with people sharing ideas or how they solved a particular problems has blossomed into dozens of different formats.

The Web is about learning.

The Flip Side

Conversely then, it’s also about teaching. There is a person (or team of persons) creating the online classroom, the community, the email course. People are keen to share their knowledge.

Here’s the crux of what I’ve been thinking about: we’re all teachers. Do you think this doesn’t apply to you? If you're creating something and putting it online, chances are you're a teacher. Whether your educate people on the top products in a certain category, or you help them get the most from your favourite piece of software, or you simply share what you're learning as you increase your own knowledge, you are in essence, teaching.

I consider myself a teacher. When I worked in IT for a healthcare organization, I tended to help people understand the issue they were having rather than just fix it for them. When I started Fusion Ads, it was a way to let people know about the great products and services available to them. At Campaign Monitor, I helped designers and marketers understand how to get the best results from their email campaigns.

And now at InVision, teaching is the heart of what I do. Focused on customer success, my purpose is to help designers understand how to make design the heart of their product development, and how to reduce the friction that inevitably comes.

If you work for a Saas company, you are most definitely a teacher: it doesn’t matter what team you're on. Design, engineering, customer support, marketing — all need to be teaching the customer how your tool/service can help them complete the job they need to get done. They have a need and your job is to show them how you can enable them to meet it.


The question to be asking yourself as you stare down 2015 is this: how well am I teaching? Again, if you are creating content and sharing it on the web, you're teaching. If you look at what you do through that lens, you may find ways to improve your work, as well the benefit your audience gets from it.

Happy teaching!

Ulysses

It’s been quite a while since a new writing tool has found its way onto my devices. Writer has been my tool of choice for quite some time (unless you include my dalliance with Writer Pro … but that was short lived and I almost lump the two together). Happily. It always met my needs and I was never tempted to try the favourites of other people (Byword for example).

However, I finally took the plunge on Ulysses. And I’m glad for it!

What’s good about it?

A lot!

This is not a full fledged app review, but a collection of things I like about the app. First, as mentioned above, it’s very flexible, yet also very powerful. You can easily configure it to be a very sparse writing environment by hiding the additional panes.

Or, you can use the full screen view for an even more immersive experience.

Beyond that, the way you manage your articles appeals to me. Where as Write (the Notes app I’ve mentioned lately) keeps everything available in a sidebar, but truly never feels like a comfortable Mac app, Ulysses seems to get the details just write.

Beyond that, Ulysses feels like a Mac app and Write does not … long time Mac using software fans will not this feeling.

Even as I typed that, I recognize it’s hard to describe why one feels right while the other does not. For me, it’s most likely because the sidebar approach in a Notes app needs to allow me to see the details of each note, otherwise I end up clicking around to try and find the correct entry. Whereas with a writing app, I don’t need to see the details, usually just the title, and I can find what I’m looking for.

I am able to save files locally, or in iCloud. I can group articles in the sidebar, but that grouping is not reflected in the OS X file system. At least, not that I could find. This means I can organize my writings for my blog, plus my notes for work, in their own groupings. If one were to write a book, this would also make a great way to organize your chapters and research easily. Flexibility!

One thing: Ulysses calls each “article” or “file” a sheet. Sheets can be stored under a parent group.

What about writing?

Now, an app like this has to nail one thing: the writing experience. Ulysses does, whether in full screen or not. Like iA Writer, Ulysses does a great job of highlighting Markdown items.

The colors look great and allow you to easily distinguish different content. Links are nicely highlighted and the URLs hidden. The spacing of the text is spot on and you can choose the font you desire. Full screen mode takes the current sheet and displays it full screen with a dark background. The nice touch here is that you do necessarily not need to exit full screen mode to navigate to another sheet. You can scroll to the top of bottom to move to the previous or next sheet in the current group.

All in all, there is a lot to like!

Desktop only?

My first thought was to try this on my iPad as well. But it turns out there is no Ulysses for iOS. Instead, they have an app called Daedelus Touch. I haven’t heard much about this, nor have I given it a try yet. I may though — it would put the iCloud Drive aspects to the test (I’m not sure I trust Apple with this yet, not like Dropbox).

Currently, if I were to start an article on my iPad, I would have to create it in Writer, then copy and paste the content from a Dropbox file into Ulysses on my Mac. But honestly, my iPad continues to evolve into a device most used by children. I rarely put it to use myself these days.

Update: I was kindly informed that you can add External Sources in the Ulysses sidebar. Fantastic — articles started on my iPad are available for editing at a later time.

The Kitchen Sink

Apart from the primary features, there are some other interesting options available for this app. Again, these are not features everyone would need … but they can add value.

One item I like is the easy access to the stats for a given sheet. You get a nice overview of the characters and words in the sheet, as well as an estimated reading time. Beside the button for stats is a button that allows you to quickly move from section to section in your sheet. A great option for longer pieces.

As well, there is a sharing button that makes it easy to perform various actions with other apps on your computer. For me, setting Droplr as the default app or service makes it easy to share a piece I’m working on. Truthfully, the Export options for this app are the best I’ve seen. Ulysses seems to have been created with the understanding that your words are your words and getting them into another app, service, or location should be as easy and as painless as possible. Smart move!


To finish, what would make me switch from using one writing app to another? Look and feel are important to me when writing. Ulysses and iA Writer both do this well. But I must admit I like that Ulysses allows me to organize my writing, as well as write. Where iA Writer has to be used in tandem with Finder, Ulysses works on its own.

Scrivener has long been the tool that people recommend for writing long content on the Mac. We’re talking novel length work. But seeing as Scrivener is a bit odd in terms of UI and seems to be updated infrequently, I can see Ulysses challenging in this arena. Ulysses nails the Markdown experience and gives a very solid document management toolset as well.

Although I switch tools far less often than I used to, it still happens. In this case, it feels like a change for the right reasons.

Hard Work is Hard

This article is an expanded version from my weekly newsletter.

There are so many things to take up our time, so it can be very tempting to do the tasks that are easier. More well known. Things that keep us busy, but do not directly get us closer to meeting our goals.

Why do we default to this kind of activity? Simply because doing the hard work is hard.

Doing something difficult requires us to hit the wall that feels uncomfortable, causes uncertainty, and makes the sweat pop out on our forehead. Sometimes the hard work requires us to do something we haven't done before. Other times we’re using skills we already have, but the nature of the work requires decisions to be made as you build, and decisions are hard (what if I make the wrong one!). Having to make many decisions even harder.

Whatever it involves, a part of our brain kicks in and tries to distract, tempts us to do busy work. “I don't have enough time to dig in to this, so let's answer those emails instead.” Suddenly, a couple of weeks have gone by and you have made no progress. Discipline is required to get past those moments.

It can be hard to accurately recognize these habits we form, or to articulate them to ourselves and others. Oliver Reichenstein does as an admirable job:

Life and work would be so easy if a lack of quality could be explained in a sentence, and fixed with a better technique.

When asking the question, why do web projects fail, he rhetorically states the answer:

Or is it because we have 22 drawers full of of comfortable tools, fantasies and excuses to avoid the pain of sitting down and thinking?

Add the Internet, with the new things for you to think about every .027 seconds, and his list is complete. This is it — the thinking is hard.

Over time, we can learn to enjoy the process of fighting through that discomfort and coming out with something worthwhile on the other side. When you are able to see those results, you can even come to embrace the hard stuff … because the results are so very satisfying. But that is something to be learned.

I'm reminded of this every week with our homeschooled children. As young people, they face much more often than us adults. It might be learning to read, doing algebra for the first time, or finally riding without training wheels. But each skill is essentially learning to solve a specific problem. And once they have that experience, the next challenge is a little easier because they know they've come through before.

It should be the same for us adults. Sadly, we have built up these habits around busy work that we allow to distract us from the important things. Guilty as charged, right here. But I'm learning.

As I've spent time learning my tendencies and how to deal with them, several practices have stood out. Friction is involved. The less friction between myself and my work, the better. The easier it is to get up and running (whether it's reading, writing, designing, or developing), the more I'll complete in the limited time I have available. And the more friction I add to the distractions, the less likely I am to waste time on the activities that do not get me closer to my goal.

Purposeful friction can sound like a lame crutch, but I've learned the results show the worth. Sometimes the crutch is needed first, then the healing can take place.

Desires is another. Truthfully, it goes hand in hand with the friction. If I focus enough on my goals, entertainment loses it's flavour.

Watching a movie or show at the end of the day is too easy when you have a Netflix account, a huge collection of DVDs, and a cable TV subscription. So I removed those options from my life. Over time, my wife and I have both come to highly value our evening time for reading (together and apart). Our desire to learn is greater than our desire to be entertained.

Habits, whether removing bad ones or adding good ones, come from small decisions, consistently made.