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Redesigning – Part 9

This is part 9 of the 9-part series on Redesigning


Getting the website from beginning to launch took a lot of patience. From late October 2015 through the final launch on April 1st, 2016, I often felt that I could wrap up and launch the site within a week if I wanted to. And that was probably true, but the more I worked on the site, the more I raised my standards for what I wanted to achieve before the launch.

A key lesson learned from my years as a software developer was to get a project to a shippable state as early as possible and then keep it there as you continue to improve it. This boosts confidence and motivation and increases progress visibility. Some software companies have a daily build process, whereby the software in development must be fully compiled at least once a day, and no one is allowed to make changes that break the build (and if they do, they must work late to correct it).

In applying this to web development, I worked quickly to complete a first draft where every page looked decent enough to put online as-is. I did the critical steps like finding a theme and adding the content, so I had something visual to work with for the rest of the project. Once I had something halfway decent to look at, I could show it to people to get early feedback, and I could iterate through rounds of refinement with constant visual feedback. I never liked going to bed if some aspect of the site was broken, so I largely maintained the standard of keeping the site looking launchable at the end of each day.

If this was a brand new site, I think it would have made more sense to launch it much sooner, so I could start building traffic. But since this was a redesign of an existing site with substantial traffic already, there wasn’t as much urgency to get it launched right away.

When I created the original site in 2004, I raced to get it online quickly. This time I enjoyed taking my time, favoring quality over speed. I still worked hard, and I often worked quickly, but my priority was to do the job right however long it took.

Sometimes I had to take a few days off from the project, so I could return to it with a fresh pair of eyes. I took short 4-5 day trips in December, January, and February, and a longer 2-1/2 week trip in February as well. When I returned from the last trip on March 1st, I knew it was time for the final stretch to get the site launched.

It’s difficult to say when a project like this is launchable since you can always keep improving it after it goes live. There are seemingly endless ideas to research, plugins to consider, and features to add. I felt like I was carving a path through a field of infinite possibilities. There was no obvious launch point, so I relied on my own feelings to decide when the site was ready to launch, as opposed to some objective standard. This worked out fine.

While I definitely had help and support from other people along the way, including Rachelle, a few friends, the Las Vegas WordPress Meetup Group, and various software support personnel, this was a solo project at its core. I think there were more advantages than disadvantages to that approach. By working alone I could make decisions and implement them quickly without discussion or debate. I could iterate through experiments rapidly, assess results immediately, and iterate again at any time of day. I never had to schedule meetings or reviews. It was an efficient way to handle a project of this size.

In Steve Wozniak’s bio iWoz, he recommends that engineers work alone if they want to do something fresh and creative. I can definitely see the advantages of this mindset if you’re self-motivated and can learn quickly. It’s really nice when you can work flat out and not be slowed down by other people getting in the way.

Even after the new website launched, I didn’t feel that the project was actually done. A major milestone had been achieved, but there was still more work to do, such as the speed optimizations that I did later.

My Attitude

When I first began this project, I felt overwhelmed by all the details. It was clear from the outset that the project was going to take months and that I’d have to develop new skills to complete it. My attitude improved when I reframed the project as a personal growth experience instead of a mountain of tedious work. I thought about how the challenges ahead would help me grow as a person. I love learning and growth, so connecting the project to something I already loved made me feel more optimistic. I began feeling excited by the new skills I’d gain along the way.

This growth mindset shifted me from thinking to doing. My initial actions were to learn, study, and understand, not to implement anything right away. Of course once I’d learned enough, it was only natural to start experimenting with what I’d learned. Pretty soon experimenting became implementing.

I also believe that I couldn’t go wrong with redesigning a site from 2004. There were so many obvious improvements to make, such as adding mobile responsiveness, that even if I made some mistakes along the way and even if some people didn’t like the result, the new site was sure to be a significant improvement over the old one. Even so, I felt that it was best to approach the project with a beginner’s mind and not wrap my ego into it. That wasn’t difficult since I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was trying to build when I started.

The explorer’s attitude served me well throughout the project. By treating each part of the project as an exploration, and especially by not having a deadline for those explorations, I kept the stress and pressure mild and stayed in the sweet spot of positive motivation. I worked long hours on many days because I wanted to, not because someone was pushing me. I think that was really important.

Much of the work I did was unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t know how long it would take. Some tasks that I thought would take a day ended up taking a week. Other tasks that looked like they’d take a day were done in an hour or two. I’m really glad I didn’t have a boss asking me for time estimates along the way since that would have only slowed me down and annoyed the hell of out me. One thing I really, really, really hated about working with publishers when I ran my games business was their constant pestering for time estimates and their need to hit specific launch dates for business reasons, which developers know is ridiculous for unpredictable creative work. I can understand why keeping tabs on progress is important when you’re funding a project, but I love, love, love being able to work at my own pace without such an annoyance. I’m so glad I now have the sense to avoid letting someone else dictate my schedule.

Personal Growth Journey

For me this project was a beautiful journey with numerous personal growth benefits.

First, I finally confronted a personal weakness: my lack of web design skills. Now I feel reasonably competent and empowered in this area. I have enough functional knowledge and skill to make good design decisions and implement them. This alone has given me a tremendous sense of progress.

I picked up a variety of other useful skills along the way, such as implementing good typography, writing my own WordPress plugins, creating custom post types, and optimizing a website for speed. I also upgraded some existing skills, such as CSS and SQL, procuring good WordPress plugins, and diagnosing and fixing bugs. I even submitted an official bug report for a minor bug I found in WordPress along the way.

It’s gratifying to look back on this project and reflect on how much I gained from it. It’s great having the new website online, but that feels more like the frosting, with the cake being the new knowledge, skills, and perspective shifts I internalized.

I believe some of the key factors that made this project a success include:

  • Embracing the project as a growth journey, not so much as a goal to build or create something
  • Not having any deadlines, so I could learn, experiment, and implement ideas at my own pace
  • Continually raising my standards throughout the project and not settling for what was okay in the past
  • Getting advice from more experienced people and testing their suggestions immediately
  • Keeping my ego out of the way and learning like a wild-eyed beginner
  • Coding ideas quickly and getting them onto the screen where my eyes could see and evaluate them
  • Getting into the flow of action and staying there for hours at a stretch, even if it meant delaying or skipping meals
  • Obsessing over the project and not trying to do much else during this time
  • Taking breaks and vacations when I started feeling less productive and needed some time off
  • Breaking the project into small pieces, so I always had something manageable and specific to work on
  • Doing extensive online research when I didn’t know how to do something
  • Improving my diet along the way to sharpen my focus, concentration, and mental endurance

Working hard on this project had a systemic effect. I felt compelled to raise my standards in other parts of my life too.

Early in the project, I’d often feel a little foggy and tired after working only 6-8 hours. My ability to concentrate would decline as the day went on. If I tried to keep working beyond that point, I’d catch myself zoning out and staring at the screen blankly, or I’d succumb to distractions.

My motivation was sky-high though, and I wanted to go faster, so I began making some dietary improvements, such as dropping processed foods and eating only whole foods; dropping stimulants including coffee, tea, and chocolate; and doing several rounds of detoxification using liposomal glutathione, liposomal vitamin C, zeolite, nascent iodine, and several other substances that pull toxins out of the body. I also did liver, kidney, and colon cleanses.

These health improvements made an absolutely stunning difference. By the end of the project, I’d been caffeine-free for months and was eating 100% raw, whole foods. For a two-week period, I thrived on mostly coconuts and avocados, which allowed me to work for many hours at a stretch without feeling hungry or fatigued. Some days I felt like I had almost limitless mental endurance, focus, and clarity. I could work multiple 14-hour days with ease whenever I wanted to, and the drop-off in concentration was usually negligible. I’d feel just as sharp and alert at 9pm as I did at 6am. I had to go to sleep because I got sleepy, not because my mind was getting foggy. What a world of difference a clean diet makes!

I’ve eaten 100% raw many times before, going as long as six months at a stretch, but this time I’m doing it differently than before. I’m keeping the sweet fruits to a minimum and getting most of my calories from high-fat foods like coconut, avocados, cold-pressed oils, and really raw nuts (not the falsely labeled “raw” almonds from California that are pasteurized). When I eat more fruit, I have lots of physical energy, but I can barely go 2-3 hours before I feel famished and have to eat again. On a high-fat raw diet, however, I can work for 5-7 hours at a stretch without being distracted by hunger, and a few times I’ve worked for 10+ hours straight without eating. When hunger does come on, the signal is mild and gradual, so if I want to ignore it and work a few more hours, I can easily do that.

One counter-intuitive but powerful lesson is that it’s easier to maintain a strong work ethic. When your work ethic is weak, it may seem like your life is easier because then it takes less effort to satisfy your standards. But working with low standards kills your motivation in the long run. It drags you down when you know you could have done better but didn’t. You’ll procrastinate a lot because you’ll wonder, What’s the point of doing this work anyway?

When your standards feel unreasonably high, then you’re confronting a real growth challenge. If you can get past the childish phase of whining about not being good enough, you can accept the challenge and start acquiring some tremendous learning and growth. It’s a great feeling to look back on a mountain of completed work, knowing that you did your best. It doesn’t matter if you measure up to someone else’s standards. What matters is pushing your own standards forward and staying in the sweet spot of growth.

This project was a labor of love throughout. It especially reminded me of how much I still enjoy programming and creatively working with technology, which is a skill set I haven’t used much since my game developer days. I love being so engaged with my work that the hours just fly by, and nothing seems to exist but the current problem to be solved.

I hope you learned something useful from this series and that it encourages you to tackle your own beast of a project, especially for the growth lessons that project will teach you. đŸ™‚

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