Hey, it’s 2020 now! Cue things about resolutions and intentions and bettering selves. This year I intend to drive for more clarity and intentionality with what I put out to the world and how I spend my time doing it.
At work, most of us try to optimize how we spend our working time using a tool called Clockwise. It enables you to set preferences for how & when you like to work, automatically scans everyone’s calendars for meetings, and automatically reschedules those meetings to give each participant as much “focus time” based on their own preferences. On the surface, it’s wonderful for creating meeting block periods without having to think about arranging my day, and some of my colleagues thrive in long periods of deep focus.
But I barely use the focus time as Clockwise probably intends. Being at home, even in a relatively bare spare room / office space, I’m constantly distracted by my personal life: my wife, our things, my new puppy, my Nintendo Switch, my Apple Music library, Wikipedia, trees, cars driving by, a lightning strike of an idea, snacks.
For a while this frustrated me. I had thought working from home was the ultimate path to deep focus and productivity: no commute, no distractions by coworkers, no proverbial watercooler to seek out gossip (though I do enjoy my kitchen), no weird internal IT rules that prevent me from running my work computer the way I want. But I still find myself distracted, often by my own bullshit, which results in a very fits-and-starts style of work through much of the workday. Twenty minutes of deeply focused writing or backlog admin might be suddenly interrupted by my own desire to update my near-perfect playlist to cook to. Alicia might suddenly be having an awful symptom flare-up and I now suddenly need to make lunch and find her medication. Having a puppy isn’t quite like having children, but it’s certainly tested my ability to context switch on a dime to avoid pee stains all over the house.
I’ve very recently learned to accept this reality of working. It’s okay to get distracted by life. It’s okay to feel a little bored trying to improve how teams design products after hammering away at a product requirements document for a bit. It’s okay to stop and cuddle with my wife or a dog because that provides me so much more joy and fulfillment than how much time I can put into staring at a laptop screen.
I can still be quite intentional even if I’m bouncing between the many things in my life in fits & starts. An optimally-placed three hour block of time to write a song or a strategy document won’t solve for me being clear in what I’m looking to do and why; I can be comfortable working ten minutes here, ten minutes there, as long as I know why I’m doing it.
Following up on this, which was dead on. In the words of indie darling Courtney Barnett, sometimes I (want to) sit and think, and sometimes I just (want to) sit.
I’m a product manager, which means I spend virtually every weekday (and some weekends) doing two things: solving problems and making things happen to ship good, need-fulfilling products. Anyone who does product management can obviously break this up into many more buckets of duties, glorify it, debate its role in larger business culture, whatever — but that’s essentially what we do.
Sometimes I think I want to build something on my own — I wouldn’t be surprised if most PMs also get this urge. Thanks to a handful of tools that now exist, virtually anyone with Internet access and some spare time can build anything in a matter of hours or days. There’s a lot of people who create their own products on their own these days, using free or cheap existing tools, then publish them on sites like Product Hunt and write about them on Medium. When I read all these posts about “makers” making “products,” I react in a few ways.
First, curiosity, then a little bit of envy.
I love that we now have technology and platforms available for anyone to turn some idea into a packaged product in a matter of hours. Some of the problems people have solved are incredibly niche — I would never have thought of them. Sometimes I wish I had.
Then, jealousy-fueled anxiety.
Why aren’t I identifying those problems? Why can’t I be making those things? What do those people have that I don’t? What do I need in order to build amazing profitable things myself? WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE??!!?!!?!!!
Then, a ramble.
Hours and hours on Product Hunt. More things made by more people. Curiosity and anxiety on subsequent repeat.
Then, I’m tired.
I burned myself out worrying about other people’s problems instead of solving my own or those problems which I care about.
Why did I do that?
We used to have information overload. Then people rebranded this as #content in an attempt to legitimize it. Now, if the content wasn’t enough, we’re in maker overload. New startups and new people announcing new products being announced almost every hour on the hour. Call it a lovechild of social media and freelancer culture, both powered by the good ol’ Internet — now everyone can have their own voice, so there’s millions more voices, all yelling incessantly over each other for top placement on your Twitter feed. All so you try the hot new products they each built on their own.
What is the impact of all those new products? Sure, it’s huge in aggregate — if anything this is proven by how much pundits are talking about Product Hunt. But what value does each individual new solution to a problem have in the scheme of things?
Product management is really all about solving (the right) problems and enabling the people around you to solve them. Some of the “products” I come across solve problems that aren’t relevant to me at all, but because everyone is posting and writing and tweeting and retweeting about them I run into them anyway. Some of these products don’t solve any problem at all — they generate a problem of their own and attempt to solve it, even if the average person didn’t even need to recognize that as a problem in the first place. Some of those products are really just repackaging the exact same #content that other products already contain, only presented in a slightly different way. Just this year there were 50 products launched, all featured on Product Hunt, that repackage existing tools and content that already wasn’t too hard to find with a bit of Googling. Some of them are totallyredundantwitheachother.
I’m not saying this is inherently a problem —and definitely not the fault of Product Hunt — after all, competition makes the world go ‘round. But is this really what makers want to be known for?
Maybe so, or more likely those makers are just trying to make some money or followers. This isn’t new — companies have been making redundant products for the sake of staying competitive a long time — but now that the Internet has enabled for a product to get noticed and hyped in a matter of hours, there’s too much noise to be continuously making products that don’t matter in the scheme of things. It only adds to the information overload, except under the guise of something meant to solve a problem — so people who read about this product (especially those who religiously follow communities like Product Hunt) are inclined to take them more seriously than your standard clickbait. When they do, the maker gets noticed for a day, then just like clickbait, it usually gets lost in the ether of the Internet. Some makers then keep trying to optimize their offering and market fit until something sticks.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not suggesting that people stop building things for my own sake. Eventually you might happen across a brilliant solution to a truly challenging problem. Making things to satisfy urges or curiosities, make money, or to grow a personal brand is not inherently problematic — it does, however, create envy within others who aren’t sure they have those same needs. Especially when some of the most “popular” of those products made are redundant with each other or debated incessantly as to whether or not they’re dead.
I thought building my own things was what I should be doing with my life, but it turns out all the product overload is toxic for me. I get into a vicious cycle of anxiety and regret and forced ideation around problem spaces that really don’t need solutions at that moment. I don’t personally build things constantly to satisfy some inner need, but I also don’t want to build a career out of making things that follow trends.
I solve problems all day, some of which are incredibly rewarding (like those that make my fiancée happy) and some of which are incredibly dull or frustrating (solved typically between the hours of 9am and 5pm, but even those are sometimes challenging and/or rewarding). In a world where an app can launch and die in a matter, and much of the writing about said app is about whether or not it’s actually dead, I don’t want to come home every day and keep doing the same thing — it only stresses me out more. My catharsis is writing songs or posts (like this). Sometimes I want to just watch something mindless or live vicariously through someone else.
And that’s probably why I go on Product Hunt for hours on end. Now I understand the appeal of reality television.
I came into 2016 thinking that I wanted to launch a product, and now that I’m understanding myself better in 2016, the less I feel a need to do that. I have a day job, I better satisfy my curiosities via music and writing, and I don’t have any immediately-obvious solutions to problems I care about. It’s more important to me to be with the people I love and be reflecting and thinking about those problems I do want to solve. If you think you need to be launching products for the sake of launching products, take a minute to think about the merits of doing so. Don’t be a maker just because everyone else is.
Did you enjoy reading this? Feel the same way about maker and product overload? Nice. I’d love a like or share if you do, or you can follow me on Twitter. Thanks!