At Freedom, we love our users – not just because they use our product, but because they’re cool – cool people working on cool stuff. Academy Award-nominated screenwriters, best-selling authors, editors, developers, star TV actors and writers, academic researchers, explorers, and entrepreneurs – the Freedom community is packed with curious, creative, and efficient go-getters. We love to share their stories and advice, because how better to learn about productivity than from the productive?
Meet Ash Furrow.
Ash Furrow is a Canadian iOS developer currently working at Artsy in New York, a company whose mission is to make art as popular as music. He is an advocate for compassionate software development and has a passion for teaching. Although his focus over the last 5 years has been on iOS development, he has also published a number of books, built many apps, and is a frequent contributor to the open source community. His generous open-source guides and research has even helped some of our developers here at Freedom! When he’s not coding or contributing, he’s writing books, taking pictures, or hanging with his two cats.
So this week we sat down with Ash to learn a little more about how he fights distraction and FOMO to do the things that matter.
How did you come to be a software developer and author – essentially, how did you get started and where are you now?
Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher, but when I discovered computer programming in high school, I was hooked. That desire to teach never went away, though and throughout my computer science degree, I did a lot of TA’ing and tutoring on the side. By the end of my degree, I had even developed and delivered a three-day workshop on writing iPhone apps. I’ve continued that habit of teaching – for selfish reasons as well as selfless ones – and eventually I began writing books and giving conference talks on how to build software.
As a developer and writer, how do you stay productive, motivated, and focused?
It’s difficult, because there are so many distractions. I’m fortunate to work at Artsy, whose vision of a world where art is as popular as music aligns so well with what intrinsically motivates me. But focus on day-to-day tasks has been a real challenge for me. I’ve been using the Getting Things Done framework with an app called OmniFocus for years now, which has helped me coordinate my many ongoing projects.
When/where are you most/least productive, and how does this shape your daily working routine?
There’s a real push in the software industry to move to offices that are friendly to remote work, and I think that’s a good idea. But personally, I find myself most productive when I can go into a physical space with other people working towards the same goals I am. I noticed last year that even though I have fewer distractions on days I work from home, I also have less motivation to stay productive. Maybe it’s a discipline problem, maybe it’s just a personal quirk, but having face-time with my colleagues helps me stay productive in a way that large uninterrupted blocks of working time doesn’t.
At what point did you realize that tech/apps/sites were taking a toll on your productivity and time? Or, when did you know that you had to do something about it?
It’s been pretty obvious to me for a few years. I would routinely delete my social media apps from my phone and computer when I needed to get a lot of work done. That didn’t work in the long run, because so much of my work as a software developer depends on social connections with other technologists. I can’t isolate myself from the open source community if I want to contribute to it.
Then 2017 happened. I got sucked way too far into Twitter and its political discourse. It’s not a rewarding place to spend time, and eventually I felt a bit addicted to it. Mornings were particularly difficult – it was just too easy for me to look at my phone, which would make me late for work and send a ripple of negativity throughout my entire day. I felt relieved when I discovered Freedom because of its recurring sessions. Looking at my phone in the mornings is still something I do, but I’m focused on productive tasks like reviewing my day or answering emails.
What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your productivity and/or working process?
Well, I mentioned OmniFocus earlier, which has by far had the most significant effect on my productivity over the years. I’ve also been exploring more specialized tools to improve the experience of developing software itself. I come from an iOS developer background, but lately I’ve been branching out. The developer experience writing software for the web is light years ahead of the developer experience for iOS, and I’m trying to bring the ideas and tools that make developing for the web such a joy back to my home community of iOS developers, so we can all benefit from their hard work.
How do you prioritize the things that matter most to you?
Um, poorly. When you live with depression, long-term planning becomes very difficult, and often impossible. OmniFocus helps, and monthly check-ins with my mentor (a colleague) also help me keep perspective.
What project are you currently most excited about?
Hmm! Right now I’m gathering information on team dynamics and structures. I believe that the quality of a software team helps determine the quality of the products they build, and I want to explore that relationship in detail. I’m reading books and research papers on psychological safety, compassionate workplaces, and open source communities. Then, I’ll try applying what I learn within Artsy. I’ll refine different approaches until I find what works, and then share it with my industry in conference talks and on my blog.
What are your biggest distractors?
Oh, definitely Twitter. It sucks me in and brings down my mood. The human mind needs distractions, and the more I replace Twitter with constructive distractions (learning the guitar, writing, helping others) the happier I become.
How do you find a balance between being connected and overwhelmed?
I don’t know if one can achieve a balance if they strive for balance. Instead, I’ve let go of the idea that I’ll ever be appropriately connected entirely. I miss out on things, and that’s okay. Letting go of my “fear of missing out” has ushered in a shift in my mood away from my toxic desire to know everything. Because there will always be things I miss out on, and I’d much rather be disconnected than overwhelmed.
What do you do outside of your work routine that helps you stay productive and focused on the things that matter most to you?
There are a few things I do to help me stay focused. For three years, I’ve run a Saturday morning meetup of developers to work together and learn from each other; a place to learn but not to be taught. It’s a big commitment, but helping foster an in-person community of software developers in New York has been very rewarding.
I’ve recently restarted my meditation practice, which also helps me stay productive and focused. That, and reconnecting with music (I played as a kid but put down my instruments for over a decade). Oh, and I really enjoy my walk to work. A walking commute is very difficult to come by in New York, and it does take a little over a half hour door-to-door, but I use the time to unwind, release some physical tension, and listen to some audiobooks.
To learn more about Ash and his work, blog, or photography – visit his site at AshFurrow.com