Hack Retreat

IMG_5099I imagine most people are familiar with the concept of a ‘hackathon’ at this point: a semi-cloistered block of time dedicated to writing as much caffeine-soaked code as physically possible, by one or a few people, also usually in the context of other groups hacking on their own things.

I’d like to describe another time-boxed structure for focused productivity: the “Hack Retreat”. I did this during one weekend in November to focus on a specific project, and I’m easily two months of ‘nights and weekends’ ahead of where I was when I embarked on the retreat. (Full disclosure… this concept was initially inspired by an article I once read about Jon Carmack, so I can’t claim full credit.)

I booked an AirBnB in a sleepy little town called Lyons about halfway between Boulder and Estes Park, Colorado. Internet access, a view, a kitchen, and walking distance to coffee shops and WiFi-friendly bars were my shortlist of requirements when looking for a place to stay. And Lyons is just small enough a town and just far enough away from my normal beat that I was virtually guaranteed not to see anyone I knew, or fall into any of my standard patterns.

The most important phase of this whole endeavor was the pre-planning. I created a Workflowy sub-category called “Do List For 11/13 Retreat”, and populated it with the high level goals to be accomplished (“The big rocks” for you Traction nerds). This project happened to be a software project, and the focus of the weekend was to fully define the minimum viable product, so the actual development could be effectively managed later. Because of this, the goals were things like:

  • List all the components we’ll need
  • Define a data schema
  • Describe User attributes
  • Define screens / sketch UI
  • Write User stories
  • Build pitch deck for ‘customer development‘ interviews

This could be easily rewritten as the first steps in moving a board game from catch sheet to pen/paper prototype, pen/paper to print & play, or to reflect on and incorporate a large corpus of playtester feedback into a new revision. The important thing was that it felt like a lot, and I knew that without all of it, I wouldn’t have made it past the threshold I felt was necessary. (Kinda like Kickstarter in the good ol’ days… when funding goals were meant to be the least you needed to successfully complete the project… hence their ‘no partial funding’ rules.) Important to note, though, is that the list is carefully prioritized, just in case. An additional bonus to making this list as soon as I booked the trip — I was able to “focus-box” the project in addition to time-boxing. After booking the stay and building my to-do list, I forced the project from my mind in order to focus on other things that were more pressing. No context switching to it or daydreaming of details that I knew I had time to work on during the retreat.

Leaving straight from work on Friday, I drove up, checked in, and immediately got to work. The complete unfamiliarity of the setting was key for maximum focus: literally none of the normal distractions of home were there to subtly nag at my attention.

Attacking the list from the beginning, I first went over all the notes and work my collaborator had assembled over the previous few weeks. I mentioned I have a collaborator on this project, right? If not, it’s part of my new initiative to work with more people more often.  I had a few questions for him, so I did pop out of my retreat ‘bubble’ a few times to ping him with questions via txt.

Every time I felt focus slipping, even a little, I changed venues; AirBnB to bar, bar to AirBnB, sleep, AirBnB to coffee shop, one table at the coffee shop to another, coffee shop to lunch spot, lunch spot to AirBnB… rinse/repeat throughout the weekend.

Up front, I indicated that having the full list of deliverables defined ahead of time was of critical importance: the full import didn’t bear out until the final hours of the retreat. My brain was tired and it would have been all too easy to pack up and drive home. The final two list items still glared at me from the screen of my iPad, which gave me just the right amount of completionist pressure to finish them up.

The trip was a huge success, and I’ll be revealing more details of the project in question over the coming months, but the “Hack Retreat” is definitely going to become a staple of my productivity arsenal.