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Don't. Waste. Time. (humbledmba.com)
323 points by malomalo on Nov 20, 2011 | hide | favorite | 71 comments

When it comes to efficiency/effectiveness, I prefer to focus on "Do" instead of "Don't".

Richard Hamming (from "You and Your Research"):

  1. What are the most important problems in your field?
  2. Are you working on one of them?
  3. Why not?

Paul Graham's (from "Good and Bad Procrastination") generalization of Richard Hamming:

What's the best thing you could be working on, and why aren't you?


edw519's generalization of Paul Graham:

Work on the most important thing until it's not the most important thing any more.

I have developed this excellent/horrible habit of not being able to focus on very much of anything if there was something more important hanging over my head.

Excellent in keeping me from trivial pursuits. Horrible at meal time, bed time, other people time. I'm still a work in progress.

One thing I've always wanted to ask PG is: does he think that helping smart people to get rich flipping companies (usually not by doing the "coolest thing") is cooler than making a great Lisp? One answer to why not, is: "No money".

The really cool thing about money is that it makes an excellent points system. It's neat that you can trade green paper for physical things, but more importantly money is a way to keep score to two decimal places.

Often times when people talk about money they are talking about resource gathering. At some point the resource gathering turns off and the money becomes an easy proxy for points.

So I'm not sure that creating another Lisp is less cool, but it can't be easily measured. What if IBM uses your Lisp for everything they do, how does that compare to another guys Lisp that has 6.5 million downloads. Who is cooler?

Money is not a good point system, except if you think a big mac is more valuable than a book by Jane Austeen.

What does this even mean? I assume that you're talking about in a moral sense because of the value judgement you appear to have made.

Of course, when I say 'good' I don't mean in the moral sense. Imagine you were to design a way for people to keep score and they had to use tangible things. What would make one tangle item better than another? Here's a quick list I came up with...

1. Easily transferable. Money fulfills this because it can be transferred electronically. The physical good need not even exist. Money when talking about it as a point system is strictly an abstract. Put another way it is a stored value that can later be redeemed for big macs or Jane Austeen books.

2. It must be difficult to acquire. Money you can't just print (Well you can, but it is mostly worthless). The difficulty makes it more of a way to keep score in the game of life. There needs to be a way to prevent someone from adding to their score arbitrarily.

3. You must be able to keep score at small enough intervals. Keeping score by buying big macs becomes unproductive when you get into the millions of dollar range. At the same time keeping score in the form of luxury cars becomes impossible in the thousands of dollar range.

That's why I said money is good. Not in the moral sense that those who have more money are better people or some form of Prosperity theology. Just that money has many of the traits needed to provide a way to keep score.

> in a moral sense

No, not really. You said money is "an excellent points system". I inferred that if it was the case, the price of current products sold on the market should reflect well their inherent value, which I think it doesn't.

Money is is too ductile and doesn't involve enough the "donor", a bit like "vote by SMS for your favorite star". The voting system itself is still not involving enough the person giving the vote.

My favorite "point system" is "feet-voting": the best city is the place where people move to, the best country is the one that people want to go to live, raise their kids, etc. This evaluation was used during the Warring State period in China, and it induces the kings and feudal lords to enforce justice and proper retributions. If not, their administrate will move away. Trying to force them to stay by forbidding expatriation will push them away even stronger. And this voting-with-your-life thing is such a deep decision from the voters that we can trust them to ponder long-term consequences.

Granted, this evaluation cannot apply to each and every case, but in the web services it has a clear equivalent in how many users stay on a site and use it.

> if it was the case, the price of current products sold on the market should reflect well their inherent value, which I think it doesn't.

Money is good since it provides a reference point, a solid ground for measurement and comparison. Although often you need to take into account some non-obvious stuff when you compare two amounts of money (esp. prices), it still does work.

For ‘inherent value’ each person would see their own price tag. And I'm sure my tag would reflect smaller amount for Jane Austen's book than yours.

And feet-voting is good if you can judge on a large scale, which is not always applicable. Edit: by the way, most people would feet-vote for a big mac rather than a book (that is, if we were able to conduct a really unbiased experiment with random selection of people).

> most people would feet-vote for a big mac rather than a book

Seriously? If you had to be thrown on a desert island and bring only one thing, would you bring a short term belly chemical satisfaction asset like a big mac, or a long term spirit satisfaction asset like a Classic book in your mother tongue?

Don't forget that most people on this planet reportedly are a) poor and b) not having English as their mother tongue (probably not even speaking it).

It is a mistake to think that poor people don't value cultural assets. And I used Jane Austeen as an example, obviously.

This is a straw man argument. Very, very few people will ever be in such a situation.

However, what is unfortunately much more common is day to day hunger. I'm willing to bet that most people (myself included), after a few days of not eating, would rather have the Big Mac than the Austen book.

I love literature, but it won't keep me alive.

"Inherent value." How do you decide that? I mean how do you say that a Jane Austen novel is a more valuable than a Big Mac?

How I say it? Well, in plain English I say it. Do you mean How do I prove it? or How do I know it?

It means that money isn't a good point system. The simplest way to reason this is that many people around the world make tons of money for selling something that isn't useful/valuable. Scams are probably at the bottom of the 'point system' but pull in tons of money.

For money to be a good point system, everyone with a wallet would have to be sensible and make good market choices but unfortunately the case is, for the most part, the exact opposite.

On top of that I would argue that (for example) Khan Academy is much more valuable than most of the investment firms, but investment firms are worth more $$$ than Khan Academy will ever be.

I may be mistaken, but it appears that noahc's point is about ‘keeping score to two decimal points’. There's no way we can detect some true absolute value in things or deeds, but we can at least have unambiguity.

Let's be constructive: what would be a better point system?

Ahh, I missed that very subtle point. Most of my experience with business comes from a taste of the music industry and reading on (most) bands struggling to make a dime, so my bias says that a good point system is the amount of fans you have, but! this clearly doesn't work for most things in life. I think the point system depends on what you are talking about, so perhaps for startups $$$ is the best point system we have available right now.

This is correct. My point was never about who has created the best life or even who added the most value. It was about a way to keep score.

Better way to value something: count how many people would want their kids to have this thing.

Again, this goes to a moral basis. Or at least a value judgment. The original question asked about which was cooler and supposed that money had a factor.

My point was that money is a factor, but not because it can be converted into signed limited edition Jane Austeen books for your private island. It is because it serves as a point system when you play the game of life.

Sure, we should think about how someone got the money. But that isn't what the question is about. The question is about how does an individual judge that something is cool. For many, it's about keep score. For a large subset of those money serves as a valid point keeping system.

I posted this as a reply to Goblin, but I missed the subtle point about it being a point system to 2 decimal places. I also made a point that I think it really depends on what type of thing you are trying to measure, as for bands a good point system is the amount of fans you have. With that said I think it's totally awesome to say that the best point system for startups is $$$.

Actually, a given copy of a book shouldn't be worth much since it's not difficult to get another copy. The last surviving copy of an Austen novel would be worth millions.

One of those can keep a starving man alive.

That is a real benefit on the big mac side, but in my current value scale it can't compete with the hours of delight, the self-improvement, the aesthetic pleasure, the deep insights in human hearts, etc. I am rewarded with when reading, say, Pride and Prejudice.

That's not inherent to the book, it's the value you put on the book. To my 8 year old brother, you can be sure the Big Mac will provide much more pleasure

The value system you are pitting against money is completely subjective and therefore somewhat useless as a points system.

A big mac would only keep the starving man alive for a few more hours. At least the man with the book could get some good entertainment before he starved to death.

One might define a meritocracy as one in which the coolness signalling aspect of money is no different from the resource gathering aspect. You also raise the interesting point about the granularity of money: if IBM makes more money than the Lisper for her Lisp, does that make IBM cooler? It could.

I think you can see this in real world. Look at Linus or David of 37 Signals. They have created at least millions if not billions of dollars worth of value (uncollected).

As a quick experiment with my girlfriend:

Do you know who Linus is? => Uh, No.

Do you know what Linux is? => Yeah, it's your system.

Do you know what IBM is? => Yes, it's a computer company.

It's pretty clear to me that outside of our nerd/geek bubble at the society level those that make more money are cooler.

Talking about 'How much someone is rich' without talking about 'How someone became rich' is so plainly wrong.

You have to work in order to make money. And to make a lot of money you need to work a lot, or at least harder. To do that you need to know how to use your time well.

Understanding some meta aspects of work is very important. And sometimes studying nerd lives can give you how they manage those meta aspects which affect the actual aspects which make them money.

Everything you've said is true, except for your first sentence. What we're talking about here is money as a proxy for an actual score board. At this resolution the score board is all that matters because we can't see the game being played.

I venture that PG knows at some level that he'll be best remembered for the creation of YC rather than for the creation of Arc.

Focusing on what to do is fragile. Removing negatives and learning what not to do is often more valuable in a general sense.

Health is a good example of this. "Doing" could include, for example, taking a drug. It may solve the surface problem, but its side effects are unknown and could have negative consequences that are harder to correct. On the other hand, behaviors can be removed (i.e. remove carbs, remove soda, remove sugar, etc.). Maybe their immediate effect is less apparent but they are systemically more valuable for everything and far less is open to going wrong.

i think that's a pretty bad metric. there's absolutely no reason that working on the most important problems in your field won't end up being a complete waste of your time, because you are ill-equipped to make any real progress on them. i prefer feynman's philosophy, as expressed in a letter to a student who felt that the problem he was working on wasn't "worthwhile" enough:

The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. ... No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

-- Richard Feynman

read the whole letter, it's very inspiring: http://scienceblogs.com/thescian/2008/03/what_are_worthwhile...

So basically drop everything and start working on cancer research? Or maybe interstellar travel is even more important?

Just saying that even this simple heuristic doesn't seem to help me :-(

I think what edw519 is getting at is that you should focus on the most important thing in the context of your business/goals. If you're a cancer researcher then, yes, get on top of that cancer research.

But if you're doing a software product, focus on building out a great feature or talking to your customers before you start wasting time on a pretty logo.

I think you are talking about a variant of task priority management.

All this at the end boils to down to do managing a todo list well.

The key is to identify how you can best contribute, so you know whether or not you're wasting your time. If you're a small team, everyone's time might be best spent coding to deliver the product. A slightly bigger team might mean your time is best coordinating. The overhead of a "meeting" might be worth making sure everyone's aware of the design instead of creating isolated pieces of great code that doesn't work well with each other.

I might be wasting time writing code when I can best contribute by taking care of 'overhead' so my team isn't blocked - there's an anecdote here somewhere of the PM who would buy coffee for the team so the team can focus on producing code - or i might be wasting time taking care of 'overhead' that doesn't matter yet (planning the optimum office layout) when I can best contribute by writing code.

To know whether or not you're wasting time, you have to know what makes one work "fake" and the other "good", and my list may be vastly different from yours.

Opened up HN. Saw this headline at #1. Posted this comment. Now I'm closing HN and going back to work.

You talk about (on topic of why you need 500 karma to downvote) understanding the community and not posting contentless posts 5 posts ago and now you post this. The irony levels are off the charts!


There is some truth to this but doing things like paperwork quickly can lead to a lot of trouble. Read Anything You Want by CD Baby founder Derek Sivers. He recommends not worrying about having Terms and Conditions on your website, and all kinds of other "formalities". Then he says breezing through some paperwork on a loan from his father accidentally cost him, I think, $2 Million. Letting his employees handle their stock option plan resulted in a profit sharing plan that gave every dollar to the employees. When he rescinded it, they hated him moving forward.

Good article. "Outsource all over the place" is so important. Pay some expert for a few hours of work that would take you a week (ie: healthcare).

The one thing that I do think is important though is business cards. We got business cards before we even got 1 line of code written. It just seems like an established way to exchange info at events more so than using "bump", I think.

Pay some expert for a few hours of work that would take you a week (ie: healthcare).

Note that communicating with such expert sometimes can take more time and be more frustrating than if you did this yourself. It's not all black and white.

True, but one of the things an expert is expert at is knowing how to communicate with new clients and ask the right questions.

The expert often knows how to communicate more effectively than a non-expert would anticipate, because she has seen all the common issues before. That's what expert means. When a non-expert encounters a problem for the first time it always feels like a uniquely strange and complicated new thing. But more often than not an expert will listen to you describe your problem for two minutes, reach into a drawer and pull out a standard design that fits 85% of your use case, adjust the settings on the five standard knobs to cover another 10% of your use case, and then focus on the remaining five per cent... or, perhaps, just deliver the solution to you and let you tinker with the remaining five per cent.

It's hard to appreciate this process until you've been through it several times in different contexts. Because one of the things that non-experts are not expert at is: Knowing what the experts can do for you. Telling the difference between a problem that benefits from lavish amounts of personal attention and one that can be solved in ten minutes by someone for whom your problem is a daily routine and who knows just what to ask.

Yes, I agree it's not black & white. It's just trying to find that right balance of knowing when you're time & money spent talking to an expert is far less than talking directly to reps.

I have to disagree on using a broker for healthcare. From experience it is a lot easier to just call up Kaiser Permante than to use a broker who gives you a gazillion of things to choose from.

Most blogs on time-management pale in comparison to The Ultimate Productivity Blog: http://productiveblog.tumblr.com/

  >> Founder equity splits
The time to do founder equity splits is before you make a product that delights customers. If you think that is something you can work out after, you don't understand human nature.

Also, if you have problems working out founder equity splits, you probably have the wrong team.

Great tips. I've had the fortune of working with enough diverse freelancers over the years that most things that we don't have time for (design, for example), we can get done quickly and cost-efficiently. I really recommend sending small jobs out to people you can establish long-term relationships with over time, who will work with your budget. It pays off immensely.

He mentions that one shouldn't care much about business cards: I disagree. The small details, after you ship your major product, are the most important. They're what truly delight your users after the first 'wow'.

I would suggest a startup to, yes, first focus on the product. Once the product is done though, they should focus on the small, "trivial", details.

I think he means the entire article to apply mainly to pre-product startups. He would probably agree that after that is the time to work on business cards and stuff.

I think this is incorrect. The business card is the first deliverable of every startup, and whether or not you have a well-designed card is one of the strongest signals that your first prospective customers will use to decide whether or not you can ship what you say you are going to. Trying to save a couple hours and a couple hundred bucks by using one of the templates at Kinkos instead of working with a designer is a huge mistake.

Clearly you are going to be meeting tons of people and telling them about your startup if you are really serious about it, so not having a well-designed business card from day one is just throwing away tens of thousands of dollars worth of leadgen.

This might be good advice in some sectors I'm unfamiliar with, but I can categorically say that for 90% of startups, your advice to procure professionally-designed business cards as an early priority is simply bollocks.

Zuckerberg didn't get his "I'm CEO bitch" business card until he was rich, so why should I?

In all seriousness I'm 100% sure people care more about the product/idea of your startup more than the gold lettering on your business card. If you can prove me wrong than I'm going to get gold lettered business cards to get people to invest into my (fake) startup.

I agree with you that business cards are a prerequisite for talking to anyone you don't already know well about your startup. "We don't have cards yet" sends a very strong negative signal.

Another useful thing: Stick to deadlines. Otherwise, there is a tendency to take as much time as time is available. Don't assume that time is infinite. Give yourself short deadlines all day long and you'll get a lot more things done.

Thank you for this article. I coincidently read this quote earlier today and I think it relates really well:

"Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing" -Thomas Edison

What I take from this is that time is more important than money; exchange money for time whenever possible. In many situations you have the option to exchange X dollars for Y hours of freed time - it's important to think about these situations in these terms, because it doesn't always look that way.

Just to touch on the essence of this article for interested parties: this concept is also known by the Japanese as "Gemba" and was popularized in industry (among many other lean principles) by Toyota's production system.

I think lean methodology goes best with this. What matters in initial stages is working prototype, validation and then MVP. Most of the initial time is supposed to be dedicated to this than spending it with operations.

Read his link about Series F stock; in order to implement such a plan it seems that you would have to disregard his advice to just pick simple defaults when incorporating.

Great article. The other most important thing which should be avoided in the startups is "Premature Optimization"

Couldn't agree with you more. As long as the frontend works and appears fast to the end user, you'll most likely have the time to play around with the backend before you have to worry about optimizing and scaling.

Where does "blogging" and "submitting your own writing to HN" fall on the wasting time list?

Under marketing and recruiting. Note that the submitter is a two-time cofounder with OP.

This article was a waste of my time.

Here's a calculator for founder equity split: http://foundrs.com/calculator/index.php

(I think its faster than reading the whole QA session linked to in the original post.)

Wrong post?

Good post; nirvana is referring to the link about equity splits at the beginning of the post.

Sounds like common sense but you'd be amazed by how many people don't get it! I'm working with 2 startup organizations (my own business and I'm on the board of a charity) and I've seen a ton of time wasted on meta meetings (meetings about the next meeting), and getting paperwork exactly right when it just needs to be okay, etc.

Through my experience in my business I've been able to point them in the direction this article suggests. Basically, we only spend time on things that clearly get a goal achieved. The rest we just leave until we absolutely need it. There are things that need to be finished correctly right now that don't have an obvious impact on later success but those things are far fewer than one might think.

Why can't I learn what 42 floors is without putting in my email? Really annoying.

Even if you do they won't tell you anything more than is on the website. Contact jaf12duke if you want details at this time (see http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3188969 )

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