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The Way I Work

December 26 2009 – 11:33am

I recently saw a piece by Jason Fried about how he works, and I found it pretty interesting. To truly be yourself for a living, you have to find a work style that makes the most of your natural ways of operating. I think I’ve developed some eccentric but effective working habits over the past few years, so I thought I would be fun to share them similarly.

What it is – I DO here

That is definitely not my coffee.

First, just what it is that I do probably needs some explanation. I’m President and Owner of Kadavy, Inc., which is an S-Corporation that houses my web design consulting services, as well as media properties, such as, Flatmate Meetup, and my share of The ultimate path of this company is not to be a web design consultancy, but I do enjoy that part of the business. Over this past year, Kadavy, Inc.’s revenues have been almost entirely from the web design consultancy, but I project that to change drastically over the next few years.

I choose my web design clients very carefully. My specialty is working with startups because that’s what I get connected with most through my network – and they tend to have progressive work styles. Thus, oDesk Corporation is one of my best clients. I prefer clients who are well-versed at communicating remotely, and are good at collaborating on written thought processes through collaborative documents such as Google Documents, or text-based communication such as Instant Messenger.

I find most meetings to be unproductive. I am many times more effective when I’m able to think independently in an environment that is within my control, than when trying to labor through a thought process with other people on the fly. I find that meetings and discussions have their place when it comes to exploration, but that really making decisions happens more effectively when all of the stakeholders get a chance to process all of the influencing factors and make an informed decision – or better yet, just respect one another’s roles and powers of judgement. This is of course the exception rather than the rule, but I manage to find clients who work this way once in awhile. Those clients, I cherish.

Kadavy, Inc. HQ

I work at home, by myself. I have a small one-bedroom apartment (plus sunroom) in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. I use the tiny sunroom as my bedroom. The bed barely fits in this room, and that’s fine with me. It gets a little chilly, but I have a heated mattress pad. I use what is supposed to be the bedroom as my office so I have more space for working. I used to rent an office space with some friends who have their own consulting businesses. It was valuable early on when I needed the mentoring, but the utility eventually wore off, and it got expensive.

I have an IKEA Jerker desk and Aeron chair because together, they can be adjusted to an ergonomic setup for me. My MacBook Pro sits on a laptop stand – again for ergonomics. I mouse with my left hand (more on that later), and use my Wacom Tablet with my right hand. When I’m at my home office, I hook up my laptop to a 20″ Dell Monitor. I bought the desk, chair, and monitor used on Craigslist, mostly using notifications.

I thought that working at home alone would get to me mentally, but it hasn’t yet. It makes it all the better and more motivating to get me out of the house once in awhile, and since socializing is part of my business model (more on that later), that is a good thing.

Starting the day

On a typical morning, my alarm is set on my iPhone timer for 8:18am (setting my alarm for an unusual time is more than a decade old tradition for me). I hit the snooze bar numerous times, and try to really make it out of bed before 10am. In a perfect world, I would meditate first thing in the morning and do some yoga; but I’m unfortunately not quite that disciplined. So, most days, I immediately go into my office and do some work for an hour or so.

The work I’ll do depends upon what I have going on. If I’m in the middle of a billable project, I’ll try to hit that for a bit before I check any e-mail at all. More often, I’ll process e-mail first thing. I immediately archive as many e-mails as I can, and mark as unread the ones that are actionable that it isn’t appropriate to get to at that moment. I loosely subscribe to the Inbox Zero system, and at any given moment, I’m unlikely to have more than 7 e-mails in my inbox. I use much more than the web version of Gmail. As great as it is, I don’t get how people can live in the web version of Gmail. Mail is so much more nimble for searching and managing e-mails with keyboard shortcuts for me.

If it hasn’t been determined for me already, I’ll try to get a clear picture of what the day holds for me and write it down on an index card, or write it up in VooDooPad. I practically live in VooDooPad. I’ve heard good things about Evernote, but haven’t gotten around to checking it out because VooDooPad works so well for me. I have a separate document for every project, and every property within Kadavy, Inc. I use it for brainstorming, record keeping, and project management. I find loose text to be the most agreeable format with which to plan, and I can fortunately get away with it since I usually work pretty independently. Even when I work on collaborative documents, I write in VooDooPad first. I often do the same for e-mails. This blog post was drafted in VooDooPad.

Once I have a good idea of what the day has in store for me, I’ll start eating some breakfast. By this time, my AntiRSI has probably already kicked in. It’s a program that monitors my computer usage to remind me to take breaks. I’ve been in some employment situations where I didn’t have the opportunity to take breaks, and I paid the price with RSI bad enough that I now mouse with my left hand. That’s cleared up since I started being more disciplined with taking breaks, but I don’t want to be in that situation again. As an added benefit, the program usually reminds me to take breaks just as my temples start to tense up, and I’m not thinking as clearly anyway.

Kadavy, Inc. is what it eats

Eating right is very important to my business since I’m the only employee. It has a huge effect on my mood, my ability to focus mentally, and since the Kadavy, Inc. health insurance plan sucks, that’s extra incentive. I’ll usually have some granola, some plain yogurt (or rice drink), and some fresh fruit for breakfast. Additionally, I’ll have some whey protein shake (by far the most processed thing that I eat), some Omega-3 pills, and Dr. Weil multivitamins.

Overall, I have pretty unusual eating habits. I discovered a few years ago that I’m better off without wheat, and that really opened up my eyes to the connection between what I eat and how I think and feel. So, I don’t eat bread, I only eat gluten-free pasta. I go easy on the meat and dairy, but have determined that it’s pretty tough to have a balanced diet without at least a little of both of those. I eat almost no processed or sugary foods. I quit drinking soda over a dozen years ago. I don’t drink coffee (I’m too sensitive to caffeine, and “just don’t want to get involved”). I don’t drink juice (too much sugar). I pretty much just drink tons of water, and quite a bit of tea. I have been on a big Chamomile tea kick because I tend to have quite a bit of energy, and it makes me more calm and focused. I’m interested to try this gyokuro tea that Jason Fried has written about because it has an amino acid that synergizes with caffeine to increase focus.

So what do I eat? I try to buy as much as I can from the Farmer’s Market that I live nearby. The food tastes amazing, you can really feel the better nutrition, and I like knowing where my food is coming from, and where my money is going. I also occassionally order nuts such as raw unsalted almonds or cashews, in bulk, from When I cook at home, I eat lots of vegetables and brown rice or quinoa. When I eat out, it’s lots of Thai, or Mexican (tacos, since they are corn, rather than flour, tortillas).

Back to work

After (or while) I’m eating breakfast, I’ll do a little more work. I’ll act on what e-mails I can, or if I’m not super busy, I’ll check out what’s up on Twitter. I really love Twitter, and when I get a chance, I actively seek out people whom I can help on there, because I certainly get lots of help from the Twitter ecosystem.

My favorite work is pouring over Analytics, analyzing CrazyEgg clicks, or running and analyzing Google Website Optimizer tests. I also love messing around in Google’s Keyword tool, where I often find keywords that I can use to improve the traffic numbers on my web properties, or to get ideas for new content that I can compete on. I have to be careful with myself on this, because it’s very easily to burn hours on this that don’t wind up being effective. I try to keep myself in check, making sure that I progress towards decisions that will make a real difference for my business.

Thanks to Jelly - I don't have much of a bald spot.
Thanks to Jelly - I don't have much of a bald spot.

Play and exploration are a huge part of my business model. There are such huge changes afoot in the way we do everything, that you’ll surely get left behind if you are too goal-oriented and don’t exercise your creativity and invite serendipity into your business. A critical component of this exploration is socializing. On most Mondays and Wednesdays, I head to a nearby cafe called Noble Tree to casually cowork (or “mowork” as I stubbornly call it) with a group called Jelly. We have several regulars, and a pretty steady stream of newcomers. Every time I go, I have some sort of “ah-ha” moment from a conversation I have with someone there. There are a bunch of entrepreneurs that come and we really help each other out. It’s almost as if we have equity in each other’s companies simply by virtue of being in the same community. I’ve made more authentic and rewarding business relationships through Jelly and other informal social interactions than I could ever have in an office, where relationships are tainted by false incentives.

I’ve melded this socializing component with continuing education in a group called DIYMBA. We initially formed as a group to read (real) business books, and discuss them; but soon realized we shared good resources in the contacts that we had. So, once a month, we gather for brunch and have a different business person join us. It’s very casual. We pick their brains, then we discuss our challenges with our own businesses. The best part of the group is that we’ve limited the number of members, so we’re comfortable discussing stuff that we wouldn’t be as comfortable discussing if the group changed month to month.

I can’t stress enough how important social capital is to me and my business. It sounds silly to talk about it that way, as if I was saying the word “networking” (a word I can’t stand). I really get a rush out of talking to people who have made a sustainable living out of their passions, interests, and experiences – or who at least have the courage to try. I can actually feel the blood in my veins pump harder just when I think about it. I’ve seen lots of people grow and become successful in this way, and it excites me to no end to imagine how many more of my friends will have done so in 5 or 10 years. Social capital takes a long time to appreciate; but when it does, it’s explosive.

Play and exploration also includes obeying my curiousity in endeavors that don’t have any clear immediate purpose. As Steve Jobs says “you can’t connect the dots moving forward,” and I heed this wisdom, because started on what seems like a whim, and has brought me more enjoyment and success than I anticipated. Lately, I’ve felt very compelled to create video content on my YouTube channel. In pursuit of my impulses – which has incidentally improved the quality of this content – I’ve taken improv classes, script writing classes, and acting classes. It seems like most video bloggers are more likely to spend $1000 on a great video camera, rather than on an acting class; and I think this is a mistake. I challenge myself in my video content to produce it with the simplest tools possible (iSight and iMovie). I’ll upgrade if and when someone gives a shit – which, at about 50 channel subscribers, is not currently the case. If I can’t produce content compelling enough for this to happen, then I can’t justify the upgrade.

Into the night

Some nights, I am abducted by UFOs
Some nights, I am abducted by UFOs

Whether it’s a day I go to Jelly or not, I continue to work until I go to bed. Now, I don’t mean non-stop: usually, I’ll have dinner with a friend, and we’ll discuss our work, or I’ll have a class. If I am not working or doing one of those things, I may take a break to cook, or to play my guitar (I’ve been writing some music – another exploratory endeavor); but I’ll usually continue working afterward. If I feel like I need some relaxation and am doing work that’s compatible with it, I’ll put 30 Rock or The Office on Hulu while I work. I listen to different music for different moods, but nothing beats soft lighting and Ryan Adams’s “Gold” for a late-night work session. Occasionally, I’ll read some fiction before I go to sleep, which is usually around 2 or 3am. I really prefer biographical fiction because real experiences are more interesting to me. I’ve enjoyed David Sedaris, Dave Eggers…other authors who aren’t also named David.

I do all of the work for my business. If there is something very technical – like writing a web app from scratch – that I can’t handle, I may hire someone out; but other than that I do everything. Client relations, design, coding, bookkeeping, SEO, writing, tweeting. I’ve tried outsourcing for some small tasks before, but I couldn’t justify it. If money is pouring in and I’m swamped, then I’ll definitely be hiring help. Such is not currently the case. I do hire a CPA to help with my taxes, though.

My work style goes through some intense seasonal changes. The social component of my work is stronger in the summer, and in the coldest and darkest winter months, I’ll usually get really intensely involved in learning new things. I lived in and around San Francisco for three years, and while it was a tremendous period of growth for me, I really missed the inclimate weather, which I have to thank for the majority of any technical skill or knowledge I have. Growing up, going to school, and working in the midwest before SF, I was very productive in the winters. It feels strange to admit, but there’s also something I get out of feeling like I have to survive something – like I have something to fight against. Because that’s the reality of it when you’re in the early stages of entrepreneurship. It’s as if California has too much optimism for me at this point. Not enough reality.

Along with eating well, getting exercise is also important to my work. It’s as much for my mind as it is for my body. When the weather is nice, I get a good deal of exercise from riding my bike around town. I know it’s dangerous, but transportation in America is just absurd enough to make it worth it for me; and I gravitate toward an integrated lifestyle (transportation & exercise at the same time = good). I try to get to Yoga class once a week, which does incredible things for my mood and mental clarity – I really should go more often. If I haven’t managed to do either of the aforementioned, I’ll go jogging. I set my iPhone timer for 15 minutes, use the timer to keep my heart rate in the right range, and when the timer goes off, I set it again, and start jogging back home.

Your write

Writing is my most important activity, which is ironic to me, because my whole career started with wanting to get paid to draw for a living – and I had no interest whatsoever in writing. Writing allows me to express my thoughts and ideas, yet at the same time, acts as a compass because of the rapid feedback that the internet provides. I write about a thought or solution, and if my Analytics, blog comments, and Twitter replies tell me so, I’ll consider digging deeper on that topic. It’s as much a medium of discovery and self-definition as it is of expression.

Even if I am designing something, I can hardly bring myself to do so without writing a great deal about the project first. I need to know the business objectives, brainstorm approaches, collect competitive data, before I design anything. I do this for internal Kadavy, Inc. projects as much as I do for client work.

I also write just to organize my own thoughts and feelings. The medium that I use depends greatly on the nature of the writing. Cursive writing in a Moleskine for more personal writing – or for critical thinking away from the computer, VooDooPad for more business-oriented writing, VooDooPad again for spewing random thoughts that aren’t likely to see the light of day. I also have a whiteboard I made out of tileboard in my office for when my thoughts call for sketching to accompany my writing. I find that using larger muscles in my body to write and draw alters the way I think about an approach.

So, that is the way I work, which could probably also be entitled “the way I live,” but as you can see, there isn’t a huge difference. Somehow this reached over 3,000 words, so if you read all the way to here, you get a cookie.

Photo of Kadavy, Inc. at a cafe is from a Chicago Tribune article on Foursquare, as syndicated by Lakeland, FL’s Ledger.

Photo of Kadavy, Inc. being abducted by a UFO is by Ryan Halvorsen.

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This post is filed under Creative Productivity.