Treat yourself like a Computer Athlete and excel in your career and life
I first heard about the term Computer Athlete from Marshal from Ultraworking. He didn’t get too deep in the definition but the general idea is that anyone that is using computers to do their work, can be considered a Computer Athlete. These days this is most of us: programmers, designers, writers, entrepreneurs, video editors etc.
The purpose of this article is to dig deeper into the parallels between professional sports athletes and us intellectual workers as computer athletes.
We will go over the foundation for any athlete, taking care of the body and the mind and then get into specific skills for Computer Athletes like Speed, Focus, Communication and more.
Each athlete is trying to optimize their body and mind for peak performance. Computer athletes should be no exception.
As our foundation I’m including three things: Body, Mind and Schedule.
We don’t have predetermined schedule for games, as professional athletes do. Our games are our working days and we have the freedom to schedule them for ultimate performance.
Optimizing the Body
Most of the stuff here could be similar to sports athletes, except that we are going for general health instead of specific physical skills.
Exercise has many benefits, we all know that. It influences the performance of the mind, it keeps us from burn out, it helps us feel better while working and is essential for our longe term health and longevity.
In general, I think everyone should be doing some type of strength work and some type of cardio.
For me personally, I like to do weight training and occasional running. But there are a million ways to keep yourself fit. However going to the gym is very convenient and you can be very consistent with it, you don’t depend on the weather or other people, like in outdoor or group activities.
There are a lot of good diets and people are getting good results from all of them. But almost all diets include fresh vegetables and avoiding processed foods as much as possible.
I think 95% of the benefits of any diet come from eliminating processed foods and eating more fresh produce.
Personally, I perform better on lower carb diet, my mind is sharper and I can stay focused for longer periods of time.
Get some good sleep folks, at least 4 days per week. Could be 6 hours or 8 hours but you need to feel refreshed.
Few things that mess up your sleep are too much caffeine, alcohol, eating too late, make sure to have at least 3 solid hours of no food before going to bed.
Optimizing the Mind
I’m putting only three things here that are general enough to be beneficial to all professions. If you have any other strategies let us know in the comments.
Distractions can be external and internal.
External distractions are obviously initiated by other people. They’re usually notifications from apps like Slack and Email to social media like Instagram and Facebook.
I just turn off the wifi on my phone and disable all notifications on my laptop. I do this during my deep work periods, not all day of course.
Internal distractions come from our own weaknesses, we decide to procrastinate by watching Youtube or scroll Twitter.
The best thing to do here is to schedule when you are going to take a break and when you are going to work, more on that in the Scheduling section.
Also important is to make it harder for you to procrastinate by using a website blocker. I’m using a browser extension that blocks Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit and Twitter.
Focus on one thing
Multi-tasking is a myth, unless you are ok with doing lousy work. In the best case scenario you can do two lousy jobs at the same time.
So do yourself a favor and focus on one thing at a time.
Another important thing is to avoid context switching as much as possible.
Context switching is when you move from one project to another. If you have 2 projects running, arrange your schedule to work on one project during the morning and the other one in the afternoon. This way your brain will be focused for 3-4 consecutive hours on one project, that’s how progress is made.
But to be honest, almost any app can keep you organized. The important thing is to get your tasks out of your head and onto paper or an app.
Just get into the habit of writing things down and that is all that’s needed to stay organized. Of course it wouldn’t hurt to organize those things you’re writing down by project and/or priority. Here is my productivity system.
Optimizing your Schedule
With almost everyone working from home, we can all experiment with our schedule and optimize it to our productivity rhythm.
With that said, here are some suggestions to help you get started.
Schedule deep work
The term Deep work was popularized by Cal Newport. The main idea is that we need around a 3 to 4 hour block of uninterrupted time to do our most important work. Most of us schedule this time somewhere in the morning, but there’s no rule.
Do what works for you, but make sure to have a longer block of time for your most important work. For tasks that move the needle on your most important projects.
Of course you don’t need to actually sit in your chair for 4 hours, short breaks are encouraged during this period. Which ties in to the next point.
Equally important to deep work are breaks. Often times we get too deep into something and forget to take a break. We might think we don’t need it at the time, but skipping on breaks will hurt our productivity in the long term. It’s the same as athletes taking time outs in the middle of the game to be able to perform better in the end when it matters most.
Chunk shallow work
Contrast to deep work is shallow work. Things like emails, meetings, organizing things, scheduling, doing invoices, writing documentation.
An example of chunking is you answer emails between 11am to 11:30am and from 3:30pm to 4:00pm. Instead of answering emails as soon as you receive them, you take control of your time and answer them on your own time.
Similar with meetings, you can schedule all of them in the afternoon when your focus is starting to wine down.
Core skills of computer athletes
How fast can you program, design, write, edit. Quality is more important than quantity but here I’m talking about how fast are you performing the tasks that you know you should do. Things that increase your speed are:
What is your typing speed. Is it 40 words per minute or 140 words per minute? Is your accuracy good enough?
Both speed and accuracy can be trained and should be at a certain professional level. You can’t call yourself a professional if you’re still typing with two fingers.
The speed of professional gamers is measured in apm, actions per minute. And they’re all using shortcuts because that is the best way to increase speed.
Professional apps have shortcuts for almost every action, use them.
Shortcuts are like mini automations, they save you few seconds here and there but they add up very very quick if you keep making a conscious effort to use them.
I think of shortcuts as sharpening the saw, it takes some time to learn them, but once you do, the change in speed is more than obvious.
Plus you look like a total badass compared to your colleagues or manager or anyone that doesn’t know the shortcuts.
The biggest speed improvements are when you can find an app that completely automates certain part of your workflow.
These days, basically anything that you need to do repeatedly is already automated, you just need to look for it and then be willing to learn that new tool.
Focus is the most important variable for your productive output.
Your results depend on the time you put in a project and the amount of focus and concentration your have during that time.
Focus can be trained, just like your touch typing or technical skills.
The simplest way to train your focus is with focus sessions. Simply start by focusing on one task at a time for 20 minutes, then take a small break.
Divide your working time into small focus sessions with small breaks between them.
Start with the classic Pomodoro structure of 25 minutes work and 5 minutes break. After 4 sessions take a longer break.
Tomorrow, increase your work session from 25 minutes to 35 minutes, the next day even more and so on. In my experience the longest I have done is 50 minutes of focused work, there’s not much benefit beyond that, you’re better of taking a break at least once per hour.
Over time you will naturally become the type of person that always focuses on the singular task at hand and you’ll notice your productivity skyrocket.
Holding your attention and focus on a single thing is one of the most important skills in this day and age.
That is the secret to breakthroughs on hard problems. It’s not really a secret, it’s the only thing you can do, invest your attention and time into your most important tasks.
If you’re a programmer, do you know the best features of your favorite programming languages, their advantages and disadvantages?
If you’re a designer, do you know about color theory, composition and layout?
First, you must have a solid understanding of the fundamentals and then start following the industry and keep improving. You can do so by reading books, blogs and taking courses.
On the other hand you need to apply the new things you learn by experimenting on your own personal projects.
Your success on a project will largely depend on how well you can understand the domain you’re working in. Domain is the overall industry that will be used in, and considering the domain will make you focus on the important things related to that industry.
If you’re developing a social network, speed will be very important to the end user. If you’re developing an accounting application, security and reliability will take precedence.
This is where you are stepping up from your role as a worker and you’re actively involved in making the project a business success. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that are outside of your current responsibilities, your manager or clients will appreciate you wanting to understand the big picture and contribute more than is required of you.
It is no coincidence that many successful entrepreneurs and businessmen recommend writing. Writing trains your your brain to communicate efficiently. That is what we’re trying to do in our jobs most of the time.
Good communicators can explain their thoughts, arguments and ideas in simple terms that are easy to understand.
This way you can get your ideas heard and understood by more people and increase your influence.
Writing is not specific to Computer athletes, it is important for any professional.
On my last project as a freelancer, both the project manager and the client were most impressed by my Trello board. I am being serious.
They were impressed that I had written all tasks in a clear manner and divided them in logical groups by features.
By spending only 30 minutes to organize these 20-30 tasks I was able to impress the client before writing a single line of code.
I think they felt like this will be an easy project for them to manage and that is a great way to leave a good impression and get recurring work from them, if you’re working as a freelancer.
The Way to Success
Athletes have 90 to 120 minute games and those games have clear outcomes: winner, loser or draw.
Their total success depends on the total outcomes of those games over their careers.
Our games as computer athletes are our projects. And they could take weeks, months and years to complete.
But our work is not public by default, it is not broadcasted on TV and there is no direct competition, there is no obvious winner most of the time.
We could build dozens of projects throughout our career all behind the curtains of a corporation. No one in the world would know of our skills and expertise if we don’t make the effort to show them, on our own terms.
This is the main reason people decide to join startups even though 90% of startups fail. Startups allow you your results to be closer to the surface, to the spotlight.
On the other hand, we could build a few personal projects in public and showcase our skills without even having a job.
That’s why one of the biggest trends online right now is building in public.
You are hitting two birds with one stone by showcasing your expertise and promoting your product. Doesn’t matter if your project is a success, you are increasing your reputation regardless.
The benefit in our field is that we control our media exposure, we can choose what to share. If a project fails (by some standard), we can choose to not say anything and move to the next one, no one really cares.
Or we can use the failure for even more self promotion by writing an article about learning from our mistakes. Often times people appreciate a failure story even more than a success story, it feels more real, we’ve all been through it.
Take care of the foundational aspects first: body, mind and schedule.
Then on to of that, start improving your technical skills, and don’t rush this, but rather try to make it part of your daily routing. Because this requires constant learning and improvement, like you’re supposed to write regularly or you decide to read 10 technical books this year. All of these are long term habits and so think long term, think marathons instead of sprints.
Make everything fit your schedule and start slowly, start by writing or reading for 30 minutes per day, that is sustainable long term.
And finally, start thinking of yourself as a professional that needs to be marketed and promoted, build side projects in public, share your thoughts on your blog and social media, start a newsletter or a podcast. Self promotion is an essential component to the success of any professional.
Until next time,
By the way, you can follow me on Twitter for byte-sized productivity tips and strategies.
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