How I optimised my life to make my job redundant

If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed a rather major job change on my behalf recently. The day to day office grind has gone and corporate life is now well and truly behind me, where it will firmly stay. One of the things that amazed me most when I finally wrote about this is how surprised so many people were that I actually had a normal day job:

I want to write about how I did this. This is not just about how I managed my time to do so much, but how it enabled me to get to the point where I could no longer justify working in the corporate world. I made my job redundant long before Pfizer did and by good fortune (and admittedly some good management as well), I exited in the best way possible. Here’s how I managed to do so much in the lead-up to that so that when the time finally came, I was in better shape than I could have ever imagined.

I multithread and task-switch frequently

I’ve obviously had a lot of parallel stuff on the go at once; multiple blog posts, speaking events, community interactions, HIBP then naturally all those Pluralsight courses and a full time job. I regularly switch between all of them which means I might be bang in the middle of doing something in HIBP then have a great idea for a blog post so I’ll go and churn out a para or two there then jump back. I get an itch that I want to scratch but am happy then flicking back over to the other context maybe 15 minutes later.

I’ll also tackle multiple things at once. That might mean being on a conference call and also responding to emails (I’m happy listening and writing at the same time) or doing the social media bit while waiting for an HIBP deployment to run. Rapid context switching and multitasking have been extremely useful in many scenarios. I’m fully conscious that this way of working isn’t for everyone, but I find it very effective for me.

I would say however, that there are definitely times where 100% of focus needs to be directed at one thing. Recording courses, for example, means that all the buzzy things get turned off and all alerty things closed. That’s not just for the sake of clean audio, but it’s for my own concentration. The trick I find is knowing when I can juggle multiple things versus when I need to focus and that’s determined both by the task and my mood. Mood in particular really determines what I’m working on and that’s a benefit of having so many simultaneous interests; I can be creative, analytical, conversational or reflective depending on what I feel like at the time.

Tip: Diversify your interests and the mediums you work across such that you always feel like doing something of value.

I tailor my work environments to maximise productivity

Being as productive as possible in the time I have available is enormously important. Many years ago now I wrote about Building the ultimate virtual office and I talked about things like having a good chair; a Herman Miller Aeron costs some cash but it’ll last a couple of decades and I spend a huge amount of time sitting in it so on a dollars-per-hour-of-arse-on-seat scale, it’s about the best ever use of cash. Same again with multi-monitors and these are dirt cheap these days, particularly if you buy standard DPI ones like I have.

My home office with *many* screens

I also bought a fast Lenovo W540 last year because maximising productivity while I’m travelling is massively important. It’s not just that, I often lay on the couch and punch out emails and as nice as machines like the Surface Pro 3 are (I actually bought my wife one), they just don’t cut it for working on your lap and they suffer from a distinct absence of screen real estate for the things I like to do.

Tip: Make the places you spend your time working as effective as they can possibly be; invest in this.

I have a really good sense of what my time is worth (and I’m willing to pay for it)

Time is money, right? Ok, that gets cliché sometimes but when it comes to figuring out where to invest energy, knowing what that time is worth to me has really helped me to focus on how I spread myself across so many different things. It’s also really helped me in deciding where it’s worth spending money to effectively buy time. Let me explain.

There are endless things I could do with my time both professionally and personally. On the former that might be blogging, speaking, writing Pluralsight courses, doing workshops or simply meeting with people and building relationships. On the latter that’s obviously spending time with family, watching a movie, going snowboarding and so on and so forth. Every activity draws down on my time and every one has its own reward. Some are monetary and immediate (running a workshop), others have longer term financial upside (Pluralsight courses), some build profile (blogging and speaking) and others reward in ways that are very hard to measure, such as playing with the kids. But each costs time and each pays something back, the trick is recognising this and prioritising appropriately. I’ve often sacrificed family time such as playing with the kids in order to work on the professional side because that provided higher value at the time. That may sound ruthless, but it enables me to spend more time with them in other ways such as hitting the snow together for a week and focusing almost exclusively on them.

In terms of buying time, I happily pay housekeepers to visit, dry cleaners to take care of shirts (at least back in the day when I needed to wear them!) and people to wash the car. It’s a low cost compared to what my time is worth, particularly if I’m paying for something that’s tax deductable. A good example of this is that I’ll pay for good seats on planes (or use my frequent flyer points) because it means I can do this:

Editing a Pluralsight course in a business class seat

I’m 6’5” and there is simply no way I can fit myself and my laptop in an economy sized seat. If I travel to Europe and back, there’s 40 hours where I’ll get zero work done (or very close to it) versus probably 20 hours of work and that’s not including recovery time from not getting a good sleep either. That has a value and knowing what my time is worth helps me work out if there’s an ROI in spending the extra money. I haven’t always been able to justify that, it was only once there was sufficient reward on the effort invested that it made sense. There are times where it still doesn’t make sense, for example when ticket prices go astronomical or when I’m travelling with family and not working – I don’t get the ROI on the ticket price then.

Tip: Figure out what return you’re getting on your effort and use that to invest, prioritise and remove things that distract you from those priorities.


I optimise all the things

I used to spend a lot of time in racetracks trying to eke out every little bit of performance of the car. Brake a little later there, get back on the throttle earlier here and basically whatever it took to cut what usually amounted to no more than tenths of a second off a lap time. I’d incessantly analyse the repeatable things I did and look to optimise everything which in hindsight is a very agile-retrospective way of approaching things. It’s also what I try to do in my daily life.

A while back I read a piece on why Zuckerberg always wears the same clothes. Here’s the crux of it:

I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community

Mark is optimising things to the extent that he’s even trying to preserve the few brain cycles that would otherwise be devoted to picking his daily wardrobe in order to focus on the things that actually matter. Perhaps that’s a bit eccentric, but I get it – I mean I get that the guy is making all these little tweaks and that they all add up to contribute to allowing him to focus more on what he does best.

A perfect example is using all available periods that are otherwise non-productive to do something useful. If I’m in a queue then I’m doing email. If I’m driving on my own then I’m listening to podcasts (the family aren’t too keen on .NET Rocks!). If I’m walking back from taking the kids to school I’ll try and make phone calls.

I’m also very aware of when I’m becoming unproductive. For example, when a tweet or a notification distracts me. There’s something that triggers and says “Hey, you’re going off track, this is keeping you from what’s important” and I try to adjust accordingly. Doesn’t always happen of course, but at least I’m conscious of inefficiency.

Tip: Continue to perform self-retrospectives; how can you do this better? What worked? What should you do differently in the future?

I multipurpose absolutely everything I can

This one is a significant part of how I’ve done what I’ve done and I’m going to give you a heap of examples. When I wrote the You’re deploying it wrong series on TeamCity, I was actually building out Pfizer’s CI infrastructure. Writing the blog was the way I learned the ins and outs of TeamCity; it made me more effective in the office because I was publicising my views on the CI approach and opening them up to public scrutiny. I had to get things right in a way I didn’t have to within the corporate environment. Partly that’s because people were usually too polite to disagree (remember, it was the APAC region I looked after and culturally, you’ve very unlikely to be told if someone disagrees with you) and partly it’s because I was the smartest guy in the room. Let me caveat that to try and avoid sounding conceited: pretty much everything at Pfizer was outsourced and the internal technical knowledge was gradually carved out (including with my departure) so bar one or two notable exceptions, there just weren’t people there with the experience to voice an opinion. It’s hard to debate the merits of build agents and MS Web Deploy with people who live in PowerPoint and Outlook! Incidentally, when I left and handed over management of the CI environment, it was that blog series that was my documentation – “Here you go guys, here are the server names and everything else you need is on”. So I got public recognition for CI expertise, Pfizer got a great build environment, I made the handover a heap easier and I later got consulting work in the same space because of my public profile on it.

There are many, many other examples. A more recent one was the Azure PowerShell blog post I wrote earlier this year. Same deal as above in terms of the value of public scrutiny, but this time it was all part of trying to move 80 odd websites from a traditional hosting model into the Azure website and DB PaaS offerings. Not only did I write the blog post, but I also turned the whole thing into a Pluralsight course which mirrored exactly what I’d implemented in Pfizer – Modernizing Your Websites with Azure Platform as a Service.

In fact Pluralsight has been an excellent means of multi-purposing everything I do. Hack Yourself First was built based on many blog posts I’d written in the past and it remains one of my highest-paying courses. I’ve also done lots of conference talks by the same name and it’s provided the framework for a very successful workshop I now do over and over again. The initial effort that I invested once to build the shape around that content has paid off time and time again in both a monetary way and in terms of expanding my profile and my influence.

A suggestion for anyone interested in following my approach: write a blog and write about what you’re doing. That doesn’t mean talking about the sensitive internal bits of your organisation, it means demonstrating knowledge about the stuff you’ll have in your CV anyway. This is also relevant to my Ghost who codes blog post: by writing about what you’re doing you’ll do it more effectively, you’ll help other people with the same challenges and you’ll build your own profile. See how all that ties together so nicely? Oh – and don’t let fear of corporate wrath stop you, there’s a way to do this in a very mutually beneficial way and it would be a very rare case where there’s a valid reason that can’t be done. Check out The Best Thing You Can Do for Your Career on “side gigs” as well.

Tip: Work once, use many. I cannot over-emphasise this: Using the knowledge you gain to create multiple things is massively important to productivity.

I plan the order in which things happen to maximise their effectiveness

A significant portion of what I produce happens in a well-planned sequence. I need to write something in order to have a baseline to refer to in something else or to form the basis of a new course or a talk I’m about to do or similar. I plan these things in order to maximise the value of each whether that be through more public exposure or improving my own knowledge.

I do also mix it up and that goes to that earlier point about task-switching between things that I feel like at the time. The post this week about disabling password managers was just a spur of the moment thing because I got an itch I needed to scratch. This post here has been in the works for months and it’s going live now because it times in with my wife launching her blog yesterday (more on the significance of that later).

I also plan the timing of communications. I know the periods that are quiet on the web and I’d never post on the weekend or on an American holiday because both of those events take massive slices out of my audience. I re-share things at certain times of day because they maximise impact and all of these little things compound and help me extract more value out of the things I do.

Tip: Have some semblance of a plan in order to maximise the return you get on your effort.

I use a lot of hours each week to actually produce things

There are 168 hours in a week and I could never have done what I’ve done by using only a quarter of them for professional pursuits. It’s not always a very palatable idea, but I had to use a big chunk of “non-work hours” to get to this point. I say that in quotes because the reality of my Pfizer job often meant early mornings and late nights courtesy of the time zones I worked across, so I had to make the time to pursue my aspirations outside of this.

The problem I often faced (and it’s certainly not unique to me), is that most of my day job wasn’t actually spent producing anything. I ran RescueTime for a while and found that I blew more than two hours a day in Outlook. That’s just reading and writing emails too, it doesn’t include all the time spent in other apps in order to respond to them. This wasn’t actually producing anything, it was merely oiling the corporate wheels so that far enough down the chain somewhere somebody else could actually get something done. And it was enormously unfulfilling which is a large part of the reason I had to create my own things.

I often worked until 1am. I’d usually start at 6am. I always worked on weekends, albeit with leaving time for family activities as well. The laptop came on every holiday and I had to work very hard at balancing productivity with time out. Like I say, that’s not very palatable to many people but this is what it took for me to get this amount of stuff done.

The bottom line though is simply this: I worked a hell of a lot of hours for many years and as much as all the previous points made a big difference to my productivity, I absolutely had to make dedicated time to work on these pursuits.

Tip: Time is an amplifier of the practices above. The more time you make to apply them, the more effective they are.

I get a lot of exercise and watch my health carefully

This industry I’m in (and you probably are too) is not a healthy one. It’s sedentary, it’s bad for your posture and there’s a good chance you’ll cop a whack of RSI at some point. Particularly when there are high workloads like I’ve had, you’ve got to look after yourself. That means being both really cautious about what I eat and making sure I get plenty of exercise. I talked to John Sonmez on his Get Up and Code podcast last year and wrote about some of the things I do to stay active then.

I find certain types of exercise help me focus in different ways. When I windsurf, I’m often just out there for hours on my own and the mind wanders to big picture stuff. On the other hand, I regularly play high-intensity tennis by way of an hour and a half of non-stop drills in an evening and after coming home and getting cleaned up I can go to all hours of the night in ways I don’t normally feel inclined to. Maybe it’s endorphins helping things along, I don’t know, but I do know that it contributes massively to my focus.

Even if it’s only very mild, exercise is a great way of regaining focus. I’ll regularly get up and go for a brisk walk to the shops just because it gets me away from the PC. Many problems have been solved just by changing context and clearing the head.

Tip: Take time out and do something as non-“sitting at the PC” as you possibly can – you need the mental break.

I have a supportive wife with a shared vision

I just can’t emphasise this enough and I’ll illustrate it by talking anti-patterns for a moment. So many times I hear people who want to get more involved in the sorts of things I’ve been doing say “I can’t, my wife / husband / kids would go nuts”. That’s a perfectly fine position for the significant other to take and by no means is that a bad thing when that’s your shared vision. It’s when one party continually wants to head in a direction that the other doesn’t support that things get tricky.

I had many years of working my arse off at all hours in order to reach this point and that put a lot of pressure on my wife. We have two small kids and she was working in a pretty high level job until recently too; my drive and ambition became her responsibility as well. And she supported me – almost unquestioningly – because ultimately, we share the same vision of how we want to live. It took many years for that effort to bear any fruit beyond my own personal sense of satisfaction which whilst important, doesn’t do a lot for the family as a whole. It’s only been over the last 18 months that she (and the kids, for that matter) have seen a return in a way in which we all benefit. Obviously an important part of that is financial, but it also translates into flexibility which means more time with the kids, more holidays and more generally just doing what we want, when we went. It’s been her sacrifice as much as it has been mine.

And now I’m helping her to do the same, at least insofar as focusing on her public profile and building independence from corporate life in the way we’ve both previously known it. Just yesterday she’s launched and will now start to be a lot more active on Twitter via @kyliemhunt and other channels that will probably be familiar to many of you. If you appreciate what I’ve been able to do over the years, tweet her a quick thanks because boy does she deserve it!

Tip: Talk to your significant other about where you want to invest your time and how that benefits you collectively. Don’t not do this and don’t let it come between you; agree on where you’re heading together.

Final thoughts

I’ve been as candid as possibly could in this post because many people were curious and I hope that it will actually help others to focus on doing wonderful things. This is not “the one true way” and much of it won’t work for everyone; there may not be the same return on money spent, time may not be available and partners may not be as understanding. It’s what’s worked for me, make of that what you will and adapt accordingly.

I’ll end on an observation that’s really resonated with me:

85 percent of your financial success is due to skills in “human engineering,” your personality and ability to communicate, negotiate, and lead. Shockingly, only 15 percent is due to technical knowledge.

- Carnegie Institute of Technology

Whilst there’s debate about the origin and accuracy of this statement, I‘ve no doubt that my technical ability is but a small contributing factor to my success. Don’t get me wrong – without it none of this would have happened – but the ability to communicate and influence others has contributed significantly to building the independence that I now have. Techie people are not renowned for these skills and if you can work on building those up, it’ll put you at an enormous advantage.

That’s been my story, I hope you found it valuable.

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Hi, I'm Troy Hunt, I write this blog, create courses for Pluralsight and am a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP who travels the world speaking at events and training technology professionals