Productivity, the Quantified Self and Getting an Office

This is yet another blog post by some “info-preneur” on how it’s challenging to work out of your...

Jun 30 2014

Productivity, the Quantified Self and Getting an Office

TThis is yet another blog post by some “info-preneur” on how it’s challenging to work out of your garage. There’s nothing to learn here, but perhaps this will give budding entrepreneurs out there some things to consider.

Some use the phrase “working out of your garage” as a metaphor for being a shoestring startup. I, however, really *do* work in my garage. I converted it several years ago. Its bold colors were intended to provide an interesting visual appearance in my videos. It wasn’t all that expensive, and it is a good office … most of the time.

Garages have weird electricity requirements. For example, all of the plugs are GFC and it will pop under too much load. That doesn’t happen often, but once in a while when there’s a surge inside or outside it can pop and everything goes quiet — except for the cries of a man deep in anguish who was working on something important when the power dried up.

However, the biggest challenge to working from home is that it is my home. I’m pretty good about avoiding distractions, avoiding the urge to take a nap in the middle of the day, avoiding television, etc. Yet despite my attempts self discipline, I still have challenges with “getting things done”. More about this in a moment.

A few months ago I said this to someone and I was surprised it came out of my mouth. However, I’ve repeated to myself hundreds of times since: “If you’re not tracking it, you’re not serious about it.”

And so, I set out to track exactly how productive I really am. That’s difficult to measure, however I settled on RescueTime for this purpose. (Yes, that’s a referral link. If you click it, I get credit towards my next bill. Also, I pay for this service myself without any promotional consideration.) Since my work is primarily on a computer, I figured that while it may not be 100% accurate and may not categorize things the way I always want them, it does a really good job of watching me and keeping track of my productivity.

RescueTime also sends out this handy little email each week. It’s like a weigh-in at Weight Watchers. Some weeks I see the score and think “Wow, I did great this past week.” Some weeks I cringe.

A good example is the past two weeks.

Here’s a report from the week of June 15th:


Here’s a report from the week of June 22nd:


I’ve been told that the average office worker has a productivity rating of somewhere around 20. So, 70 isn’t so bad.

If you’re not tracking it, you’re not serious about, Bob Tabor, just now

Yet, I was upset about last week — there were extenuating circumstances. We had a massive toilet / plumbing issue in our upstairs bathroom that leaked onto the ceiling of our downstairs kitchen / breakfast nook area. We had a second and third unrelated plumbing issue — all in the same week! Furthermore, my mother-in-law and father-in-law were moving in with us temporarily since their house sold fast and they are desperately in bidding wars on houses near us (it’s a great sellers’ market in Dallas Texas right now, apparently). Wife pressure to get cable, especially since Aereo was shut down by the Supreme Court (grumble) so naturally I spent 4 hours researching whether I should go with Verizon Fios or DirecTV (my bad … I got sucked in). Kids are home from school. Dog needs to potty. Cats want food (despite the fact that the bowl is always full).

So yes, extenuating circumstances … but there are *always* extenuating circumstances.

In our house, the garage is the main thoroughfare to where our cars are parked. Therefore whenever someone is leaving or coming home — distraction. As I write this, I just heard my wife pull in the driveway. It’s all I could do to type this sentence in a coherent manner. (Interruption #1)

And therein lies the challenge. There’s always movement at home. There’s always exceptional circumstances at home. There’s always someone who needs something at home. Sometimes I need to be … unavailable until later.

(Interruption #2 … she just came over to my desk and started talking. I love my wife, couldn’t imagine life without her. We’ve been married for 23+ years since I was 21 and she was 19. I want to be accessible to her and my boys, but finding boundaries with those you love is hard — I certainly don’t want to offend, I love that my family can feel like they can talk to me, but I need to balance that with being heads-down for long uninterrupted stretches of time.)

Now I have statistics, quantifiable proof that I’m not getting things done as I ought. I have hard evidence that I need to spend both “more time” and “more quality time” working. I’m not saying I have to always work 60 hour weeks, but my challenge is eking out long stretches of uninterrupted time to read, think, write, record video, etc.

Had I NOT tracked how I was spending my time, I would NOT have come to the conclusion that working from home — especially in the summer — especially since we have my in-laws living with us — is NOT going to work.

I needed to get out of the house, if for only the next two or three months.

So, I asked my friend / accountant / management consultant …

(By the way, my wife just asked me if I had an extra mouse … her dad wanted to use her laptop. Interruption #3.)

(The phone just rang, I let it go to voicemail, but that’s Interruption #4.)

(The cat just meowed for no apparent reason. That’s interruption #5.)

So, I asked my long-time friend / accountant / management consultant Mark … to help me find a short-term lease. 3 months, somewhere quiet. I didn’t need a lot of square footage … 150 square feet maybe? I would be ok with one of those executive suites. I had an executive suite 18 years ago with a failed venture … it was nice. I told him my budget was $500 / month. $500 is a big sacrifice to me. But I justified it because I really want to work on and finish my new 2014-2015 Curriculum as quickly as possible.

Then I got a dose of reality. You cannot find decent office space with a short term lease in Dallas (and I’m guessing in most parts of the country / world) for less than $1000 / month.

And so I swallowed hard. Quiet. Short-Term. Sacrifice. Curriculum. $1000. 3 Months. Get Things Done.

He called around, negotiated, and found me something that (I hope) will take care of my needs.

Here’s the new temporary offices of Learn Visual Studio.NET. (I know that link’s got a weird strike-through thing going … can’t figure out why this is and I don’t want to waste the time figuring it out.) It is located in a cool part of Dallas called Uptown (just north of downtown, obviously). It has a cool vibe … neat restaurants and buildings and lots of character.

I have a small office (150 square feet) which should be sufficient for my needs. I won’t need to spend every day there, but when I need / want to be heads down for a long stretch, it will be a blessing.

Here’s a bad pic … you can see that it has a good view from the sixth floor towards the east:


I’m going to use that as the backdrop for my videos, assuming I can get the lighting to work well … sometimes it’s hard when you have a light to your back to get the computer’s web cam to compensate correctly. They’re removing the furniture in there and I’ll be replacing it with my crank stand-up desk.

Here’s just the frame … I put a simple desktop on it from Ikea:

(Yep, another affiliate link to Amazon … and here’s the last one:)

I finished reading the “The War of Art“. It’s quite a read; short, simple, authentic, powerful and a little flakey. But mostly powerful. It personifies everything that gets in your way as Resistance (note the capital ‘R’). Resistance is the sworn enemy of the Professional (i.e., you). The Professional realizes the only way around Resistance is through Resistance. In other words, regardless of your surroundings you must produce work. You cannot let anything stop you. Resistance is insidious in all its forms … from procrastination and writer’s block to plumbing emergencies.

There’s no real moral to the story other than …

(Another interruption … #6. I’m painfully reminded our dog needs her nails clipped.)

There’s no real moral to the story other than … it’s hard to work from home. Everyone who works from home faces this. As a professional, you have to fight it, fight through it, create a Fortress of Solitude where Superman (i.e., you) can “get things done”. Don’t apologize for it. Don’t over-do it. Set boundaries, explain your boundaries and needs as nicely as you can to those who have a propensity to interrupt your thought process, and even open the coffers if you must.

How do you handle these sorts of things, whether at home or at work?

13 Responses to Productivity, the Quantified Self and Getting an Office

  1. Andrew Lawrence June 30, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    I feel ya, I miss having a place to go to “work”, whether it’s a place you have yourself or a traditional work environment. Working from home is just chaotic, and that’s part of what makes it great, I guess, but it’s hard to keep on task or generate content when people are busting in the room asking where the Oreos are.

    I quit my IT job at a hospital in Utah so I could move to Virginia where my family is and after a year of not finding any similar work, I decided to just work part time and do my own thing instead of trying to get the degree and whatever other papers employers seem to value more than actual experience. Plus, I got sick of working for “the man” and not being appreciated. So far it’s just difficult staying on task with animals running around, easy access to stuff to eat, lawns needing mowed, relationship drama, etc.

    Probably my biggest struggle was waking up at a decent time and actually working for the majority of the day. I’m a sort of musician head banger guy who also loves video games and other slacker activities, and that’s probably the worst combination ever, but I’ve found that just building habits and sticking to them, however painful, has worked for me.

    My current struggle is just the craziness of learning everything on my own rapidly while trying to do the stuff I’m learning. Right now I focus on the easy stuff like fixing computers, phones, helping people troubleshoot and set stuff up, but eventually I want to do graphic design and websites for the local places here and maybe branch out from there. It’s worked out because I generally do that stuff with more attention to detail than anyone here that tries it, but I need more marketing going, so time to learn that too! It just goes on and on, but it’s fun.

    What works for me to stay productive is this: I throw on some headphones or turn my speakers up, start an album, and when its over, I go do something unrelated or take care of what needs attention and come back, repeat. If I’m in learning mode, I skip the music, and just segment my time or go by chapter or modules of whatever I’m learning and switch tasks again when it’s done. Basically just back and forth most of the day, and this usually helps me, but it’s easy to get distracted by that “in between” time.

    This works for me because I’m a really music driven person, so I’m not sure if it would do other people any good. I also listen to really scary music, and the scarier and more complex the easier it is for me to stay focused, haha. I’m weird like that.

    I try and make sure I don’t rebuild my habit of working late into the night on this stuff, most importantly. That just wasn’t working.

    Looking forward to the new stuff!

  2. Daniel Curtis June 30, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    Great post! Speaking of distraction…as I was reading this my two year old pooped in his diaper while in bed, then proceeded to take it off and drag it around the room. I don’t work from home, but I do try to study as much as possible while at home and find it difficult to even concentrate for over 10 minutes without a distraction (cat, dog, kid, wife, etc…). Great idea with the office – unless you’re lucky enough to have a completely quiet place at home, an office is the way to go.

  3. Jackson June 30, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    At work, my task list helps me recover from interruptions. (Outlook Tasks)
    I get a lot of “interruptions” that are really part of my job, but they still distract me from the project I am working on. Once I get several interruptions in a row it can be difficult to remember what I was doing before all the interruptions started.

    You’re right. You should track things (like tasks etc.) if you are serious about them.
    RescueTime looks like a great recommendation. Thanks!

    At home, I’m a newbie at managing interruptions. If you get more recommendation they’re appreciated.

  4. S. Nikolic June 30, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    It’s kind of nice knowing the ever-clear and focused Bob Tabor is just like me, a flawed human! Seriously, sometimes it’s easy to look at the mountains of material people produce and display on the internet and not see the false starts, the wasted days, the inner-doubts,etc that likely led to the finished products. And, in light of this, it’s easy to think everyone else is always moving so much faster, but no we all have peaks and valleys. As inspiring as your teaching material is, sometimes my heart sinks when I try to grasp, oh I don’t know, delegates and think, “how screwed am I, there are guys like Bob Tabor who knew this YEARS ago.” And then I realize that is just defeatist thinking and it’s not a race. So, I’m trying to pace myself and take the longview.

    I personally don’t use any objective measurement tool for my productivity, but instead rely on my subjective sense of if I accomplished my goals for the day. I’m naturally kind of hard on myself so I tend to try too much rather than too little. For me, the main challenge is pacing, not burning out, and realizing it just takes time to get anywhere worth getting to. I try not to get greedy and expect everything to happen too soon. That helps my ride out the high highs, and low lows, and generally keep on track.

    • Bob Tabor June 30, 2014 at 9:32 pm

      My friend, you described it so so so very well … your whole post nails *my feelings exactly*. “the false starts, the wasted days, the inner-doubts,etc that likely led to the finished products”… goosebumps as I write this. If you only knew the anxiety, worry, heart-break, frustration, anger, depression, sore muscles (it’s 9:30 pm … I’m a lefty, so my left shoulder is aching as I type this), head aches, light sensitivity, weight gain, feeling like a failure, not knowing what I need to do next, paralyzed by fear, discouraged … I’ve run out of things that come to mind quickly.

      And yet, I’m still plugging away.

      No matter how good you think you are, you can look around and find someone better than you.

      When you’re heads down on a project too long, you look up and realize that the world has fundamentally shifted out from under you.

      I’m going to tell the real tale of what it really took to build LVS by myself. I’ll describe the successes, the failures, etc. I’m just not ready to go there yet.

      So, for me, it comes down to taking baby steps. Every day, consistent, tiny baby steps. You’ve got to keep moving your feet no matter how hard, how short the step.

      • S. Nikolic July 1, 2014 at 1:33 am

        The grass always seems greener on the other side, doesn’t it? Your post struck a chord with me, so I thought I would offer my thoughts in kind. In sure we share many of the same battle scars being self-directed types (lift your head only to witness the world has fundamentally shifted? CHECK)

        It’s actually quite valuable (for me anyway) to hear a bit of the personal stories around otherwise abstract & antiseptic concepts such as programming. Just hearing about struggles, funny anecdotes, and the sort, humanizes an oftentimes seemingly non-humanlike pursuit.

        What excites me about programming is the creative potential and the fact that the future is being shaped by this tool more than any other tool humans have at their disposal. And, to me anyway, the creative process is always so messy (which often yields the least expected, yet most satisfying rewards). So, it’s nice to peak over the shoulder of all of the button-downed ‘Spockyness’ and see a bit of that mess. It allows me to identify with it and not get hung-up on every logic gate I’m stalling at.

        Now that I know you’re blogging about such things (don’t know how I missed this section but I did until you tweeted it) I would be very curious to hear more ‘behind the scenes’ stories. How did you get started in all of this? Was the spark immediate, love at first site, or did you come to this point unexpectedly after many forks in the road? Those kinds of stories are always interesting.

  5. Stephane Devouard July 1, 2014 at 3:12 am

    Very cool post.
    I have been working from home since 2008, after 19 years working in an office.
    It’s quite unusual here in France, but I am actually working for a canadian company where the Vancouver Head Office only holds about 20 people — all other employees working from home offices through RDP and communicating using MS Lync.
    The first 3 years, I installed an office in my in-laws house basement to separate home from work. It was quite nice as I was able to drive my younger son to school in the morning, and drive him back home at the end of the afternoon.
    Then my wife was laid off, and I moved the “office” (laptop & monitor) to my home so that she would not be alone while searching for a new job. I found it also nice as at the same time my younger son started junior high, which happens to be located 100m from our house, so I was not required anymore for morning and afternoon driving.
    My wife finally found a fixed-term work that has been extended for the last 2 years, so I find myself alone at home 10 months a year, and able to focus on work, with the added benefit of being able to take some time whenever I want for things like doctors appointments.
    The only time the productivity goes down a bit is the summer holidays period, where the kids are at home and there is more distraction, as I’m short of place and actually work in the living room. But headphones and Spotify playlists isolate me from the sound of Mario Kart 8 as I’m typing this 😉
    So all things considered, working from home is a rather positive experience for me.
    Anyway, keep up the good work.

    • Bob Tabor July 1, 2014 at 8:06 am

      Yes, the greatest blessing of working for myself the past 12 years has been being available all the time for my kids. I’m proud of the work I’ve done with this website and Microsoft, but it doesn’t even come close to the pride I have in the two young men I’ve invested myself wholly into. I’ve spared no expense of time or money on them, their education and their character. All this other stuff is a means to an end. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. But you have to keep it in perspective. Often times that perspective becomes clouded or there are immediate needs that drown out family / one-on-one father-son time, but en totale they are my life’s work.

      re: music … I don’t usually listen to music. I have a “noise fan” running constantly. I prefer no audio whatsoever. Actually, that changes from time to time. I’ve listened to Yo Yo Ma’s “Inspired by Bach” at least 1000 times. After the first minute I don’t even hear the music any more. However I need that type of familiarity with the music before I can use it as a tool for productivity. Otherwise, I guess I’m too OCD to listen to new music and work on new problems at the same time. 🙂

      Thanks for the nice note! Good luck on your side of the world.

  6. Carl Fraser July 4, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Great post Bob and completely agree. I’ve been freelance for several years, and while I love the flexibility it gives me, I have struggled with the work/life balance and the isolation that working from home can sometimes bring. We live in quite a rural location, so if I’m at home all day, I often don’t see anyone other than members of my family.

    As you say too, there is ALWAYS a distraction at home.

    Via a friend of a friend, I managed to find an office with a ‘spare’ desk about 6 months ago. I’ve been there ever since and love it! I’m only 10 minutes from home, but it really does feel like i’m properly going ‘to work’ every day. There’s a very clear distinction between the office (which is work), and the home (which is not). The office is in the beautiful historic Sussex town of Rye, complete with castle and cobbled streets, and I love spending lunchtimes walking around town.

    Being in the town every day, i’ve got to know lots of the people working in and running the shops in town, and it’s a really nice chatting to them, and gives a great break away from ‘the screen’.

    The marvels of technology means my requirements are very simple; I just need a desk and an internet connection. My phone is VOIP based, and my work is done on a laptop.

    Having done both, I MUCH prefer working from an office, and the small amount it costs to rent my desk is more than covered by my increased productivity, and other things that you can’t put a cost on, such as much better-quality family time.


    PS – Many thanks for a great site – your videos have helped me immensely and continue to do so

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