September, or fifteen minutes
I am obsessed with time.
It’s a fascinating notion, time. I used to start stressing out if my web applications took longer than 300 milliseconds to respond to an incoming request, which is about as much time as it takes for you to blink your eye. I know that taking one of the 50-series buses back to my house will take about ten minutes longer than one of the 60’s (but there are less frequent 60’s), so I will recalculate public transportation options based on when each bus is coming at the time I arrive at the bus stop. I am constantly re-evaluating and optimizing how I spend my day, because certain things (commuting) are a waste of time, others are a necessary evil (cooking, laundry), others are valuable and enjoyable (writing), and some are just plain fun (watching Doctor Who, a show about a time traveler that I’ve been binging on this year).
I find large chunks of future daunting to evaluate. I tend to optimize for minutes, not days or weeks, and so I struggle to truly focus on the long term and am constantly going for short-term victories. Yet I want to accomplish so much - I want to build things, I want to create great ideas, I want to develop wonderful relationships. I want to do a lot of things that aren’t accomplished in minutes, they’re accomplished over weeks and months and lifetimes. For years I’ve struggled to reconcile my desire for big things with my tendency toward little thinking.
An idea to resolve this conflict began to take root in my mind when I stumbled upon a Reddit post about 15 push-ups. It’s a simple idea:
“LPT: There is a visible difference between not working out at all and doing 15 pushups every day. Make 15 push ups your new ‘not working out’.” - source
I originally started chewing on this idea from a purely fitness-related perspective, and I liked it. If you’re doing 15 push-ups a day, you’re not going to turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you’re moving the needle forward. You’re doing something positive in a short window of time that will train your body into something stronger than it would have been otherwise. That step forward is important mentally and physically.
Now, fast forward a few weeks, and I’m reading the book Founders at Work while on a trip to Charleston, SC. In Founders at Work, Jessica Livingston conducts a series of interviews with business founders to discuss the early days of their businesses. The results are fascinating. There are some archetypal stories in there (Apple, PayPal) as well as some slightly off the wall ones (Hot or Not). But one of the ones that really stuck with me was the tale of the early days of del.icio.us, the social bookmarking site that eventually sold to Yahoo for an undisclosed amount.
When Joshua Schachter founded del.icio.us, he wasn’t trying to become a startup founder. He was working as a quant for Morgan Stanley full-time: a job notorious for long, stressful hours. But here he is with del.icio.us, a hack project that was realized to the world and was getting some 30,000 users. Here was how he described those early days:
**Livingston:** When you were doing this in your spare time, did you ever say, "Ugh. This is too much work"? **Schacter:** Not really. I was always very careful...to structure the code...such that I could come in and look at it, figure out what I'm doing, do it, and be done for the day in 15 minutes. So if I could get one thing done a day, I was happy. A lot of stuff, if I could spend more time, I did, but as long as I could get one or two things done a week total, if I didn't have time, I didn't have time. So it moved pretty slowly. I worked on it for years.
That passage is fascinating to me. Fifteen minutes a day! While working as a quant for Morgan Stanley!
So this month, I started tinkering around with fifteen minutes. When I’m feeling daunted by the scale of a task, I set my timer for fifteen minutes and crank. I’m moving the needle forward. I’m getting my fifteen push-ups in.
There’s a surprising amount of stuff you can do in fifteen minutes, like:
- Work out
- Fold your laundry
- Straighten your room up
- Write a single code function
- Pay your bills
- Purchase and initialize a server
- Learn how to send a custom HTTP method in Python
- Read a few pages of a book
- etc., etc.
You keep stacking those fifteen minutes up and up and suddenly you’re staring at something you’re proud of. I built an app called “FutureSelf,” which plays on my obsession with time and allows me to send picture messages to myself in the future. I wrote a Python library that lets me analyze log files in Spark. I set up my own personal, hosted version of Dropbox.
These are things I wanted to accomplish, and the principles are the same for anyone out there reading this. Set your time for fifteen minutes. Crank. Move the needle forward just a little bit whenever you can. You’ll be shocked at what you can get done.
- Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston
- The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport
- FutureSelf [non-public]
TV shows watched!