Overcoming challenges and micro-obstacles to accomplish our daily tasks

Wouldn’t it be easy if we could show up to work, immediately get productive and just start accomplishing things? In many environments getting such traction, early in your day, or at all is difficult. This tends to separate the two types of people, those who adapt, improvise and overcome and those who just sit there and wait for the “all clear” signal to do anything. Note: Many times this signal never comes

I’m writing this blog post now because

  • LinkedIn has so many bugs and problems with posting jobs, that I have decided to port my job to this blog instead and try to direct people here but to do that I’ll need to make a new blog post.
  • Ooops – I can’t do that because I have to install four different plugins on WordPress. How long will these updates take?

It is a miracle, somedays that we can accomplish anything with the complexity, failure points and blocking items in our way, regardless of our profession, but some manage to, while others don’t.

I call these micro-obstacles. Although frustrating, if you relentlessly push forward, the law of averages dictates that you will eventually begin to get some traction and overcome these many obstacles. If you continue to push forward day after day, your traction will pick up speed and it will become velocity, even though you will still suffer periodic setbacks. And if you have managed your work in such a way, that it is clean, organized and relatively free of technical debt, your work will begin to scale. That is when you can begin to see success. So I know it is frustrating when you are spinning your wheels and feel like you haven’t accomplished anything, but keep at it and with some perseverance the universe may someday part to allow you to casually stroll through with little friction or resistance, at least for one day 😉

I benefitted from two sources of inspiration, in my approach to handling such micro-obstacles, from two uncles

Uncle Sam

One was the US Army, where I trained as an infantry officer. Something that I remembered to this day was that one second into a battle, your carefully laid plan will go to Hell. You can stand there and start to cry or quickly improvise.

So much of our training was not in what to do, or how to do things but in how to think so we can could figure out how to do things on the fly when we encountered scenarios not covered in the manuals. We often heard the term “field expedient” or “jerry rig” which meant creating solutions to whatever problem faced us using available materials, whatever they may be e.g. “bailing twine and chicken wire”. It is easy to do a repair in the shop, but what if you are in the field? That is when things get interesting. You may not have the parts, the proper hoists and lifts and to boot, you may wind up conducting your repairs while people are shooting at you.

The US Army must train people to succeed in non-optimal environments where you simply can’t wait for the perfect conditions to move forward in your mission. So the concepts of not-waiting, pushing ahead with any and all available solutions, thinking on your feet and relentlessly pursuing the mission were drilled into our heads. Frankly, I took these lessons for granted because I thought everyone understood this. I was in for a rude awakening in the civilian world where it looked like most people preferred standing around endlessly discussing problems or otherwise waiting vs actually doing anything. I promised myself that if I had the chance to form a company, we’d put an emphasis on action and forward progress vs meetings and talking. And we did.

Uncle Jim

My other source of inspiration was my uncle, Jim. He ran a bare-knuckle trucking company in Albany, NY (North of NYC). One night, when I was visiting from college, he “asked” (He really didn’t ask. He told) me if I wanted to go into the office with him, as he had to do something. So we head out at about 8 PM on a Saturday night … Wait, people work past 5 PM? They work on a Saturday? Yeah, if you run a small business, you do. In fact, your work never stops. Anyway, we get to the office and he needs to get into an area in the loading dock but for some reason he either has no key or the key doesn’t work. Oh well, heading home, right? Wrong. Instead we head downtown and start looking for a locksmith. It is now approx. 9 PM on a Saturday night. I’m like “Uncle Jim, I don’t think anyone will be open …” He ignores me 😉

We finally come up to some shop and even though the office is closed, it looks like there is a light on somewhere in the back. So my uncle starts banging on the door. A guy comes out with a WTF look on his face, but Jim is so persistent he finally shrugs his shoulders, opens the door to let us in and cuts the new key!

Now it is about 10 PM and we head back to the office to start what we were going to do at 8 PM, which I don’t really remember. Anyway, an hour or two later, we are done doing what we wanted and arrived back home at midnight.

I’m thinking to myself that there is no stopping this guy. What would he have done if the locksmith hadn’t opened the door? He probably would have kicked it in! Whenever I encountered problems and obstacles in my life, from that point forward, and wanted to roll over and give up or just wait until tomorrow, I’d think “What would Uncle Jim do?” and invariably I would find a solution no matter what doors I had to kick down.

As I finish this, I note that my plugins are installed. Back in business!


Coffee – your once a day power perk. Don’t blow your buzz

I remember a good friend of mine once remarking, “The first beer always tastes the best” and it is the thing that pops into my head every time I have one.

But the same is for your cup of coffee. It will give you a powerful pickup that gives you a boost that you can use to power through “Eating the frog”. Think of Popeye and his can of Spinach. For me, my first cup is a power up that allows me to cut through most challenging tasks like a hot knife through butter, even though a few short hours later, I might be staring at these same tasks like they were mission impossible.

So when I stumbled on this article, it really resonated with me. I would strongly recommend you read it as well

Your First Cup of Coffee Does These 5 Surprising Things for Your Brain Each and Every Day

Aligning work and energy flows

Managing your energy flow during your day is critical. You need to align your energy levels with your most powerful tasks and use perks (forgive the pun) like coffee to power-up, when you need them most. What reminded me of this article was that I took a shower after my coffee this morning. I was extremely meditative, but by doing so I squandered some precious value from my limited-time power up. But this was a good reminder to evangelize this article, at least


Most people are high energy in the morning. That is also the best time to Eat the frog, which means to do your most difficult task first. Add some coffee into the mix and you can power through the most challenging task and put it in your inbox, setting your day up for satisfaction and success

Morning meetings are death to productivity, which is one reason why daily SCRUM standup meetings should be 15 minutes only, not one second more. In this way they won’t eat into your most productive time.


Don’t check email when you first log in. It will distract you, taking up valuable time and energy that you will need for proactive tasks. Reactive tasks like responding to email can be done in lower energy cycles along with the bulk of your remaining tasks, after you have Eaten the frog.


As you go to the end of the day, if you worked hard you will begin to tire. It becomes difficult to make decisions and even process simple tasks. This is the perfect time for those mundane chores that need to be done, but don’t take a lot of mental energy. In fact, in a lower energy state you may actually be more proficient at these types of tasks and less likely to miss things by going over them to quickly.

During my low energy cycles I love to do Quality Assurance. I would block off 15 minutes every day to review things like our website, templates etc. People thought I QA’d all day because I constantly found bugs and issues, but the majority of them were during this low energy period of my day. This demonstrates that you can maximize your results even when your input is minimal

Some other things I would do during my low energy cycle, that you could as well

  • Re-read inbound emails. I guarantee you have missed some details and perhaps even important ones
  • Engage with your company’s internal discussion forums to catch up on topics of the day. Also it is a good time to nurture your reputation on Stack Overflow, Slack, Experts-exchange, LinkedIn etc with comments, shares
  • Read one article the will help with your professional development
  • Organize your desk, office, documents, file folders etc and generally prepare yourself for tomorrow
  • Take care of work related errands, tasks etc like upgrading to a new version of a software program

Working naked

The good news is that when we are allowed to Work naked, we can freely align our work day with our natural energy flows, however they may exist for us vs being forced to adhere to a schedule that works against our natural bio-rhythms

For example, if you are a really early morning person, you can work to your peak productivity before anyone else comes in. You may instead be a night owl who does your best work after hours. Often, people find a segmented work day works well where they can step out of the office to do some regenerative activity i.e. taking a walk, going to the gym that keeps productive time aligned with peak energy but can also maintain and even boost energy levels. When you work naked, you are empowered to work when you are most productive. A frictionless, Work naked environment offers no barriers to team members disengaging during low productive states.

Captive employment

Captive employment (e.g. fixed location, fixed schedule) tends to work against allowing team members to work to their own energy cycles by herding people into meetings and other shared activities. Forcing someone to take an early morning commute can waste up to an hour or more of their most productive time. It can corral people into work cycles and timeframes that force them to work when their energy is ebbing. These same environments tend to discourage, limit and even restrict stepping away, which is a great way to stem, and even reverse, energy loss.

People in captive work situations can drink coffee too, of course. But I see it being used often/mainly to reverse low energy flows aka get through the day, make it to 5 PM etc. This approach is not something that will generally lead to great achievements at work.


If you see a snake, kill it


If you see a snake, just kill it – don’t appoint a committee on snakes.

– Ross Perot

Throughout my career I’ve followed this simple rule

  • If you get an email, respond to it
  • If you get a task, do it
  • If you get a call, answer it
  • If you see a social mention, respond to it
  • etc

To many times people sit there looking at something, or scheduling a meeting, when they can just simply, and quickly, complete the task. When you have 10’s, 100’s or more people doing this, your entire organization grinds to a halt, while more efficient and nimble competitors begin to run circles around you.

We scaled an organization to 100 people with phenomenal productivity, all delivered cost effectively. We produced over 30 software products and fixed more bugs per month than the next 4 competitors combined. We did this by relentlessly eliminating waste, waiting, meetings and other forms of sand in our gears to allow us to work efficiently and productively, at scale. Part of what I did was evangelize some simple concepts of prioritization, personified by the quote above about killing a snake.

Shoot first, ask questions later

We were in a training exercise in the Army, some years back. I was the patrol leader and the mission was to move from Point A to Point B. We encountered an enemy patrol, and as I spotted them through the woods, I immediately raised my rifle and began shooting (blanks). The instructors whistled the excercise complete and gave me, as the exercise leader, the highest rating.

They explained that what I did was exactly what they want infantry leaders to do. When you see the enemy, in such situations, don’t think, wait, plan, analyze – just be aggressive and decisive … and attack. They said 9/10 of new leaders stand there looking around, wondering what to do. In most cases, the enemy has time to spot them and seizes the initiative

I didn’t stop, wait, set up a meeting on how to deal with the situation; I killed the snake. In life, it is often the same way, particularly for small tasks. When you encounter them, quickly and decisively deal with them so they don’t pile up. It seems simple but most people don’t do this and it drives me nuts

Lockwood rule

It shouldn’t take more time to discuss a task than to do it – Brian Lockwood

If it takes more time to discuss something than do it, it may indicate that a task of such short-duration, should just be completed, not discussed

Empower people

The people closest to the problem are the best ones to solve it. So empower your people to make decisions (and mistakes) so they can take action to complete tasks without having to discuss them, get approval etc. If you need 3 levels of approval to sharpen a pencil, then your organization is going to calcify. Again, this seems intuitive but many organizations are simply too hierarchical to allow people to work at any level of independence and velocity.

5 minute rule

I’ve never spend a lot of time detoxing my email inbox. It is amazing how clean you can keep it if you respond to many short and simple requests quickly.

Respond to everything in 5 minutes. Not 15 minutes or 30, not in a couple of hours, but now. I used to get emails from customers and have a response out sometimes sub-minute. The responses were amazing

Want to elicit a positive reaction from a potential customer? Respond to their email in less than a minute

In addition to great customer satisfaction, the 5 minute rule is really efficient. By responding to, and closing out a lot of emails, you simply have less to manage.

The biggest advantage is that when you respond to things immediately, you don’t forget them. 99% of the time, when people drop an email, the excuse is “I forgot to reply”. Then they forgot to prioritize it, flag it etc. Why not just respond to the damn email so you don’t have to worry about it?

Most of our emails were customer facing. If you are using email for an internal communication system, I’d encourage you to catch up with the times and implement an internal discussion forum like Slack that is more opt in and less intrusive. You can have email forwarding, but I strongly discouraged that

1 hour rule

Often you can’t create a thorough answer in 5 minutes, so we had the 1 hour rule that stipulated all requests, internal and external, should be addressed fully in 1 hour. You should still respond in 5 minutes, but you can set expectations that a more detailed email will be forthcoming in an hour or less. If you couldn’t resolve or respond in an hour, reply in 1 hour anyway to set expectations of when you would be able to.

Imagine if you had a task that had to flow through 5 people, or 10. Now consider that each person was allowed to sit on that task for a few hours, up to a day or two before replying. Now compare that to a task that flows through 5 people with the 1 hour rule. In the former, even the simplest, multi-stakeholder task would take weeks to complete. In the latter, it could often get done in a single day

Email abuse

These rules can fail under the assault of too many emails. That is why I spent the last 5 years of my time in my company fighting back against email.

First, I strongly discouraged anyone from sending me emails. If you sent me an email, you would be introduced to a level of pain that would discourage you from doing so again

Was I unapproachable? No, I was on our discussion forums 16 hours a day engaging in a variety of conversations, but I did not like getting emails. I don’t think emails are effective or helpful for internal communication

We reserved emails for customer facing interactions and really important things like certain memos, communicating about big problems etc.

Enter bureaucracy

I think the definition of bureaucracy is when additional rules and regulations starts to make your organization less efficient instead of more. If there are 50 rules related to how you interact with a customer that elongates your response time or even results in some correspondence not being responded to at all, then that is a sign that you perhaps once agile and responsive organization has begun to calcify. Any rule that prevents me from doing any of the things I mentioned at the top e.g. responding to an email immediately, is counter-productive in the context of customer experience and general productivity and should be revised or removed. Otherwise, you will have more rules and fewer customers.

Use case

I once sat down with an employee who seemed to have a hard time completing tasks. I asked her to show me a a list of all the things she was working on.

  • Respond to this
  • Forward this
  • Delete that
  • etc

In 5 minutes, we had totally reduced her backlog simply by triaging some tasks – completing the important ones and deleting some others, responding to some emails and forwarding some tasks to others so they could work on them. This person had become a big backlog in our organization, but we were able to quickly break through it just by decisively dealing with her tasks, vs sitting there looking at them all day


Your inbox is filled with snakes. Don’t sit there looking at them. Don’t waste everyone’s time setting up meetings to discuss them. Take the self-initiative to kill them and get on to your next tasks


Control by exercise

“Continue to invest in your physical temple. Through our aches and pains there are some worthy dividends.”

– Jimmy McMillian, Retired Air Force General and member of our local gym in Chapel Hill, NC

One of the common denominators of people who go to the gym (consistently), all the way up to professional body-builders [1] is a desire for a sense of control. Sometimes, in our lives, there are so many events that are outside of our control, that we feel constantly buffeted and helpless. Even activities that we may enjoy or people we want to spend time with are dependent on external variables i.e. will they show up, will we have a fun time, etc?

I was the CEO of a software company for many years but I couldn’t control if we released a build that day, whether a prospect would purchase or not, if someone would quit or I would get sued, etc. Even though a single line of code will do exactly what you program it to do, 10 million lines will often (or always) result in unexpected and unpredictable behaviors. Often, I would wake up, check email, and then just start going through all of the unexpected events that would hammer us that day. Rather than being the driver, I often felt like I was just along for the ride.

Going to the gym provides an opportunity, for however brief of a moment in your day, to control everything you do. When you push the weight, it goes up. When you run hard, you sweat. Your body will respond exactly as you will it and can be shaped exactly as you intend.

In times of challenges, I do find solace and sanctuary in the gym and find myself bouncing out of bed in the morning, in eager anticipation of an activity I generally hate e.g. could you imagine having fun lifting up and putting down heavy rocks for an hour?

There are many reasons to exercise, whatever form that may take. My form has always been weightlifting at the gym. And there are many benefits like endurance, heart health, strength, weight loss, etc. For me though, the more ethereal aspects, including a sense of control that really improves my mental health, is ultimately is the most important benefit.

You often can’t take full control of your life, but you always can control some aspects of it which includes scheduling time to exercise and committing to it. The sense of control you will gain will improve your emotional and physical resilience to tackle those issues you can’t control. Those issues will come. You can’t prevent that. But you can learn to manage and deal with them more effectively.

You can’t control what other people will do, unexpected events and circumstances, etc

  • You can control switching off-screen time and going to be early so you can get out of bed in the AM
  • You can control setting a time to wake-up in the morning
  • You can control not checking email or social media before leaving for the gym
  • You can control what exercises you do, how many and the duration of your workout
  • You can control whether you will allow for distractions and interruptions, during your workout, or whether you will focus

In doing so, you can control the success of your workout regimen and how you will look and feel physically, over time. And in the process, you can improve your emotional and physical resilience and the sense of control that you have over your own life.


[1] From my readings, such a sense of order, control, separation etc is particularly helpful to women who’s lives can often be much more complicated than men’s. It is a common thread in the motivation of female bodybuilders.