Ryan Martinsen

The Day I Became a Productivity Legend

It was a day of legend. I fixed all the bugs. I closed all the tickets. Everything was easy and straightforward. My fingers flew across the keyboard, converting chaos into beautiful creations. Everyone was amazed. The air conditioner turned on and money rained down from the air vent. The doorbell rang. It was a donut delivery person with a dozen red velvet cake donuts. A gourmet gelato truck stopped in front of the building and gave free gelato to everyone.

Ding. A message from a coworker. Whoa, 15 unread messages. Huh. Adam is asking about ticket #1345. Didn’t I already fix that today, to much rapturous applause?


Right. I’ve been starting at the screen in a Water Mitty style daydream. There is no gelato. There are no donuts.

The air conditioner is not raining money.

I’ve tried everything to boost my productivity and nothing is working.

I’ve tried eating donuts.

I’ve tried eating ice cream.

I’ve tried eating chips and salsa.

I’ve tried complaining to coworkers or friends about how what I’m working on is wrong and if the company only did X it’d solve all problems and I’d find it magically easy to work.

I’ve tried listening to podcasts, audio books, or TV shows. This may work for some people1, but it doesn’t work for me.

Falling asleep with my head on the desk surprisingly doesn’t help with productivity.

Email, Twitter, Facebook, RSS, telegraphs, faxes, checking bank accounts, paying bills, upgrading servers, upgrading libraries, upgrading software on every computer I own, organizing photos, ripping DVDs, reading books, cleaning my desk, cleaning the monitor, vacuuming the house, more ice cream, better go wash the ice cream bowl, I’m cold I better put on socks, oh I better shower before I put socks on, time for lunch, dang I have too many tabs open I better clean those up, oh man check out this article I left open in a tab months ago, oops I should brush my teeth today, oh crap I have 2 hours left I better do all the things, but first I’m going to refactor this ugly method over here.

I’ve tried a lot of things to motivate myself at work over the years (the above is not an exhaustive list). Of all the things I’ve tried I’ve only discovered one reliable method.

Here’s my method in all its brilliant and simple glory:

Have a very small starting point.

Having a small starting point keeps me from becoming overwhelmed. It means I can get started without having to load too much contextual information into active brain memory. Once I have the small start it’s easy to move on and do more.

It also helps a great deal to accept that I sometimes procrastinate. There are days where I check Twitter an awful lot. That’s okay. No guilt. I’ll eventually find my small starting point and go nuts from there.

I’ve spent a lot of time agonizing over productivity and motivation, but at the end of the day none of the fancy stuff has ever mattered.

  1. I don’t actually believe them, but I had to try it.

The Solar System to Scale (videos)

On a dry lakebed in Nevada, a group of friends build the first scale model of the solar system with complete planetary orbits: a true illustration of our place in the universe.

I am reminded of this old clip from Bill Nye the Science guy:

And another. This one also demonstrates the distance to the nearest star, Alpha Centari.

I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of demonstrations of our solar system’s scale. I love it all.

How Donuts and Ice Cream Revolutionized My Work

A blinking cursor. An empty form. It’s that time again. You need to test the feature you’re writing. Maybe it’s a blog editor, or a single input field for changing an image caption. You need to write something. It doesn’t matter what it is. You just have to make sure the text is saved.

asldkfja lkjasldkfjasdf kjasdf

It works. It saved your changes. Your feature works.

But you feel empty inside.

Time to write the automated test. Another blinking cursor.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet.

Nope. Still empty inside.

Everything is so dull. So boring. You question your existence.

What you need is a revolution.

Here’s how I revolutionized my work and how you can too:

Stop writing boring words.

Okay, since I am a programmer I still write boring things like “deleteTaxonomyConfig,” but when it comes to testing out features or writing tests for those features I’ve given up on the boring and mundane.

Recently, I was writing a unit test for an Angular directive. I needed to write some words to test a thing. Here’s what I came up with:

There once was a honey bee named buzz. She disliked her parents for their lack of creativity. Also, the government does not allow bees to change their legal names. So she hated everyone and everything. Except ice cream.

I’m not going to win any prizes for my literary genius, but for a few minutes there I was a little less bored than I was before. And who knows, maybe another programmer will see those words someday and feel less bored, too.

Here’s another one:

donut_lover4000: i really like ice cream more than donuts. this is my dirty secret. this is my shame.

A lot of my test writing has to do with food, specifically desserts. I like to pick a theme and stick to it for a test suite, or maybe the whole project.

I also like to use this sort of stuff while developing the features themselves, not just for tests.

For example, say I’m building a way to tell users about errors or warnings. Instead of using boring or even real error messages like, “file not found,” I’ll temporarily use something else like this:

  • All out of ice cream.
  • Oh noes! You are all out of donuts!
  • donuts-are-gross.com does not, and should not, exist.
  • Peanut butter ice cream will make you popular and happy.

Testing an image upload feature? Instead of uploading the same picture of the same stock photo of a person happily eating a salad over and over again, mix it up a bit. Upload a picture of the Slothstronaut, Severus Snape, cookies, or puppies. Puppies and kittens have the added benefit of endearing you to animal-loving coworkers.

Maybe other programmers will say this is a bad idea. Maybe it violates some unknown-to-me code of testing ethics. Me? I’ll just keep writing things that make life a little more exciting.

Join the revolution1.

  1. Real engineers like the women and men designing things like cars, bridges, aircraft, spacecraft, medical equipment, or the software to safely run them should not follow my advice.