Responsive diagrams and photos

April 6, 2015

Responsive design is critical for a high-quality, well-designed site. Many layouts are fairly straightforward; there are decisions to be made, to be sure, but you can accomplish a lot by stacking things up in one long column, especially on informational sites.

But if you have complex images, such as diagrams, or even if you have photos, it’s a lot less clear what to do. Simply shrinking what you have down to a mobile device width might make it unintelligible.

What are some solutions to this problem?

Pan and zoom widget

You could write some Javascript that allows users to mobile devices to pan and zoom your content. The major advantage is that once the code is written, you don’t have to make any other changes. The implementation is perfectly uniform across your site, and easy to test. It’s also probably the appropriate solution for e.g. online stores, where visitors want to inspect your images in detail.

Responsive photos via icons Responsive photos via icons.
Responsive photos via pinch-to-zoom Responsive photos via pinch-to-zoom. Note the icon in the middle.

But I’m not sure users use these widgets.

Why? Users don’t even read on the web. And given that visitors are barely paying attention to your text, why would they take the time to notice, learn, and then use, a widget on your site? Especially since images are often meant to enhance the text, rather than containing the main message of it.

Compounding the problem is that there’s no standard widget for image pan and zoom (unlike say a dropdown or radio button). So a user will be learning from scratch on every single site they visit.

Different images for different screen sizes

This solution is the most respectful of varying screen sizes. For all the diagrams on your site, you provide a much simpler version that hits the important parts, and for all photos, you do some intelligent cropping so that the most relevant parts of the image (for what you’re illustrating) are always visible.

Lautrec Lautrec medium Lautrec small Cropping for a smaller screen size. What you crop out really depends on context.

In some cases, this approach will dramatically increase the amount of time it takes to produce image assets. For photos, this might not be such a big deal.

For diagrams, though, you essentially have to produce two assets (the simple and the complex), whereas before you would only have had to produce one. The puts an additional burden on your graphic design team, as well as on all the people requesting the images. “What are the most salient points of this diagram, so we can convert those into a simplifed version of what we already have?” Not to mention that in some cases this might not be possible.

Technical implementation is also not straightforward. David Walsh does a fantastic job of going through all the options here. There are many to choose from. I’m not covering responsive data tables in this article, but some of the approaches there are also helpful; CSS-tricks has a great roundup of those.

Changing your approach to images

One question to consider is whether the image actually adds anything. If it doesn’t, conisider hiding it for small screen sizes (though ideally you probably should omit images altogether, if they don’t add anything). As Jakob Nielsen points out,

Users pay close attention to photos and other images that contain relevant information but ignore fluffy pictures used to “jazz up” Web pages.

So, simply reducing the amount of imagery on your site might be one approach, which makes producing targeted assets more practical.

Another idea might be to make your diagrams more vertically-oriented for all cases. This isn’t as nice for laptop and desktop displays, but looks much better on mobile.

If the images are truly valuable and also truly massive, you could also implement one of the simple approaches above, but offer to email the asset to the visitor or get it to them on some other channel that’s convenient for full-screen viewing. This could be a helpful way of collecting email addresses, too.


Why does enterprise software look so bad?

April 2, 2015

I’ve become a big user of enterprise software in the past couple years. The design of most enterprise software ranges from unattractive to hideous. Color schemes don’t make a lot of sense. There’s no whitespace. Interfaces are busy and unintuitive. There isn’t any sense of fun, either.

I’ve seen a few explanations for this. All of them seem like they’ll go away pretty soon.

“Enterprise vendors have no taste”

A recent post on Hacker News speculated that enterprise software looks bad because enterprise software vendors have no taste. That’s probably true. Certainly it’s easy to point to lots of examples of bad-looking and difficult-to-use enterprise software.

But if the vendors have no taste, or at least don’t have the resources to be tasteful, why is that? There are plenty of great designers and UX people out there; why don’t enterprise software vendors hire and listen to them?

Vendors are motivated to create software that sells. So why doesn’t design sell?

Enterprise software has to do a lot

This argument was also advanced in a Hacker News thread. The idea is that because enterprise software is essentially a construction kit, and because it has to work across so many types of businesses and use cases, it’s harder to make it look nice.

This would make sense as argument if it were purely about usability. Building powerful software that also exposes many powerful features in an easily-comprehensible way is indeed difficult. And enterprise software tends to have more features than other types of software.

However, it doesn’t really explain the more design-oriented aspects of this problem, especially when non-adminstrative users are dealing with the software. It also doesn’t explain some of the truly egregious design decisions that are made. Check out the front page of Marketo’s software, for example. It presents almost no functionality, is badly designed, and isn’t customizable.

Marketo front page

Also, there are lots of enterprise-y software packages that are intended for less sophisticated users, that are still designed reasonably well. Compare Microsoft Office, for example, to SuccessFactors.

The users aren’t the buyers

Jason Fried’s explanation seems like a plausible one.

The people who buy enterprise software aren’t the people who use enterprise software. That’s where the disconnect begins. And it pulls and pulls and pulls until the user experience is split from the buying experience so severely that the software vendors are building for the buyers, not the users. The experience takes a back seat to the feature list, future promises, and buzz words.

In enterprise software, there’s a disconnect between people who will use your software, and the people who buy it. That there are some great-looking enterprise software products, like Slack, actually reinforces this idea: those products are almost invariably purchased by the end-user, or are at a relatively low price point. Having an end-user that is also the buyer doesn’t guarantee good design, but it allows for it.

This doesn’t make sense over the long-term

This doesn’t seem like a stable equilibrium, though. There are a bunch of hidden, but very quantifiable, benefits to good design (and good usability):

  • Reduced reliance on help desks. Well-designed software makes it easy to remember how to do things, and makes errors more difficult to make and easier to recover from.
  • Increased productivity. Software that “gets out of the way” and doesn’t present the user with obviously bad design allows tasks to be completed faster, and are less cognitively taxing for users.
  • Increased feature finding. If features are laid out in a sensible way, and thought is given to presenting options and related tasks carefully within each view, more of the software can actually be used. According to this infographic, about a quarter of SaaS churn is caused by poor onboarding.
  • Reduced training costs. More intuitive software is easier to learn.
  • Decreased abandonment rate. Avoiding user frustration means that there are more advocates within the organization for your software.

It seems as if these factors, and others, would eventually influence economic buyers. Users who are getting more out of software, and are more productive with it, mean that the software is more valuable. My guess is that over the long term, enterprise software won’t have the luxury of looking bad anymore.


Accepting error to make less error

April 1, 2015

If you accept that you will make some errors, you’ll probably make fewer errors overall.

In this post, I wrote down some ideas about why people don’t trust algorithms (by which I mean sets of decision-making rules). I speculated that people don’t trust algorithms in part because of a desire to maintain control over their lives; we want our decision-making to matter.

But the research pointed to the idea that people don’t trust algorithms because they hope for perfection in their decision-making. If you accept a set of rules, it’s likely that they’ll be wrong at least in some cases, and the whole point of accepting rules is that you don’t change them in order to compensate for their defects. So almost any algorithm will inevitably be wrong, at least sometimes.

Here’s a paper by Hillel Einhorn, “Accepting Error to Make Less Error”, that talks more about this. Einhorn breaks decision-making into two approaches, the clinical, and the statistical.

  • The clinical aims for perfect prediction, and seeks to develop a causal model of what is going on in order to predict perfectly. Imagine using data about a car to tune its engine, based on a detailed understanding of exactly how an engine works.
  • The statistical model doesn’t aim for perfect prediction, and doesn’t try to develop a model of why things happen the way they do. But in many cases it will predict better, because a reasonable causal model may not exist. Imagine trading stocks. It’s impossible to explain (or to predict) many moves in the market. But a simple algorithm, such as investing in an index fund, will work well over the long term.

Einhorn says that both approaches have their merits, and they depend on your model of reality.

  • If nature is a system, and we can know that system, it’s better to make predictions, based on developing and refining a systematic understanding (clinical).
  • If nature is random, or unknowable, it’s better to pick an algorithm in advance (statistical).

Gerd Gigerenzer puts this a different way.

If risks are known, good decisions require logic and statistical thinking. If some risks are unknown, good decisions also require intuition and smart rules of thumb.


Why don't people trust algorithms?

March 28, 2015

Here’s an interesting article: “Why People Don’t Trust Algorithms To Be Right”. (The actual title is “Why People Don’t Trust Machines To Be Right”, but algorithms don’t always run on machines, and the article also conflates algorithms with data).

Anyway, it’s an interesting problem. A good algorithm can be an extremely efficient way of making decisions.

Gerd Gigerenzer, a German psychologist, talks more about this. For example, in his book Risk Savvy, he spends several pages talking about the 1/n stock market portfolio, which basically just means that you allocate your money equally to each of n places.

This performs really well as an investment strategy. It beats a bunch of alternative strategies in most measures of investment performance in this paper by DeMiguel, Garlappi, and Uppal. The “buy an index fund and hold it” investment strategy boils down to this strategy.

But there are whole industries based on making continuous, non-algorithmic decisions about how to invest. Decisions based on consistently re-evaluated human judgment. This doesn’t really appear to work, but people do it anyway.


No algorithm’s perfect [and] that little error seems to be a real problem for an algorithm to overcome…

Once people have seen an algorithm err they assume that it’s going to keep making mistakes in the future, which is probably true to some degree.

The bad assumption is that the human won’t keep making errors and the human could even improve, which probably in a lot of contexts isn’t true. The human will keep making worse mistakes than the algorithm ever would.

When an algorithm has made an error, you know that it has made an error. There’s no illusion of perfection. So you know you can expect it to continue making errors, even small ones, whereas with more deliberate decision-making, you have the hope of reducing the number of errors.

In the stock market, if your index fund strategy has a bad year, you’re tempted to sell out of it altogether, under the illusion that you can stop that from happening next time.

The kind of strange solution that the article suggests to this problem is to let people meddle with the algorithm anyway, but in ways that don’t effect the outcome dramatically.

So, for example, the algorithm puts out a number and you can adjust it up or down by five. And we found that people like that much, much more than not being able to give any of their input.

And actually, when that method errs and people learn about it, they don’t necessarily lose confidence in it. So, as long as they had some part of the decision and they got to use their judgment, that might actually help them use the algorithm.

The interview doesn’t say what the results of these changes are. Presumably, the human second-guessing of the algorithm doesn’t actually improve it. But if it makes people more accepting of the algorithm, that should still improve overall decisionmaking.

To me, this solution points to another reason why people are biased against algorithms: fear. If a set of rules can replace your human judgment, then that decision isn’t yours anymore. People like having control over their environment and over their lives; an algorithm replaces that. And the success of an algorithm also means that our judgment doesn’t matter as much as we’d like.


Styles of translating Ancient Greek

March 23, 2015

One thing that I reliably get huffy about is modern translations of Greek and Latin classics. (Yes, really.) I can’t remember exactly why, but I was recently reminded of the Fagles translation of the Odyssey, which I’ve never really liked, and I wanted to compare it to my favorite, Richmond Lattimore’s.

Reading Lattimore is about as close as you can get to reading Ancient Greek, without actually reading Ancient Greek. It helps that that each of Lattimore’s lines is exactly 14 syllables, approximating the meter that the Greek poem is written in. But mostly it’s his extremely faithful, and yet still poetic, word choices that make reading his translation so close to the experience of reading the original text.

Some examples from the first five lines of the Odyssey:

Line 1

Greek:           ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς  μάλα πολλὰ
                 andra moi ennepe, mousa, polutropon, hos mala polla

Lattimore:       Tell me muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
Fagles:          Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

“andra moi ennepe”, is quite literally, “tell me, Muse, of the man”, which is what Lattimore renders.

Compare Fagles’ “sing to me of the man”, which isn’t really true to the Greek since “sing” isn’t actually present there.

“Polutropon” is a tough word to translate. Literally “much-turned” or “much-turning”, (poly-trope-ic), it could mean “versatile” or “wandering” or perhaps “tricky”, or lots of other things. Lattimore picks “the man of many ways”, and Fagles picks “the man of twists and turns”, both of which seem OK.

Line 2

Greek:           πλάγχθη,  ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν  πτολίεθρον  ἔπερσεν:
                 plangthe, epei Troies hieron ptoliethron epersen:

Lattimore:       far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's sacred citadel.
Fagles:          driven time and again off course, once he had plundered / the hallowed heights of Troy.

“Ptoliethron” is a poetic version of the word “polis”, which just means “city”, and “hieron” means “holy” or “sacred” (like hieroglyphics, which are sacred writing). So really what you would want here is “sacred city”.

Lattimore gives us “Troy’s sacred citadel”. I’m not sure how much closer you could get to the Greek, since “Troy’s sacred city” doesn’t make complete sense in English.

Fagles gives us “hallowed heights”, which sounds nice but gives you a sense of how much license he is taking with the language.

Line 3

Greek:           πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων  ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
                 pollon d' anthropon iden astea kai voon egno,

Lattimore:       Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
Fagles:          Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,

This line is another great contrast between Lattimore’s and Fagles’ styles.

Fagles’ rendering is technically incorrect, since πολλῶν, “many”, modifies “men” and not “cities”. So it has to be “he saw the cities of many men”, not “many cities of men”.

It’s interesting that both Lattimore and Fagles render νόον “noon”, which is “mind” in the singular, as “minds”. (“noon” can also mean lots of other things as well.)

Line 4

Greek:           πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν  ἄλγεα ὃν  κατὰ θυμόν,  
                 polla d'ho g' en ponto pathen algea hon kata thumon

Lattimore:       many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
Fagles:          many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,

Again, while “heartsick” has an emotional charge to it, κατὰ θυμόν definitely means “in his heart”. Lattimore has to add an extra “wide” here, I assume for metrical purposes, but neither “wide” nor “open” is actually in the Greek.

Line 5

Greek:           ἀρνύμενος ἥν  τε  ψυχὴν   καὶ νόστον  ἑταίρων.
                 arnumenos hen te  psuchen kai noston hetairon.

Lattimore:       struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Fagles:          fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.

Lattimore renders νόστον, “noston”, as “homecoming”. This is the standard meaning of the word as it shows up in lots of Greek literature and related scholarship; Odysseus is fighting for the homecoming of his friends.

Here again, Fagles gives us the much less literal “to bring his comrades home”.


Entertaining yourself is a key part of learning

March 21, 2015

If you like to learn — and I certainly do — you might fall into the trap of believing that learning is always fun. It often is, but not always.

At least part of true learning is what I’ll call schlepping. (I was inspired to use this term by Paul Graham’s essay about schlep blindness; I’m using this term in a similar, but not the same, way.) Schlepping is all the non-creative work that’s involved, usually to build basic skills. Some examples:

  • Running laps is really boring, but you need to do some of that to become great at almost any sport.

  • Speaking a foreign language is fun, but you have to memorize a bunch of rules along the way; in German, the future is die Zukunft, feminine, not der Zukunft, masculine. And there are tons of these rules.

  • To negotiate billion- (or even million-) dollar deals as an investment banker, you in many cases need to have spent years in the trenches as an Analyst or as an Associate, developing an intuitive sense for corporate finance but not really talking to clients. One of the best bankers I worked with at Citigroup was known for printing out and checking financial models by hand; he did this, at least a little, for several acquisitions that he managed in the tens-of-billions range.

Knowing how to make schlepping fun is an extremely useful skill.

I try to do this whenever I can. Instead of running laps, I run intervals instead. (Still not fun, but more interesting than running laps or long, slow distance.) When I learn a new language, I use flash cards to make learning into a game, and increase my efficiency. Listening to music at the gym is a widely-practiced way of making lifting weights more interesting. But you have to think to come up with these painkillers.

Since being able to schlep is valuable, I would also argue that there’s some value in doing stuff that’s really boring occasionally, for its own sake. That value is: the practice you get in making boring things interesting. Improving your tolerance for schlepping, I suppose I would say.

The huge risk, of course, is that in getting good at schlepping, you lose sight of making sure that you are, in fact, learning. That the non-creative stuff is leading to something that’s more engaging, and intrinsically rewarding. You wouldn’t want to study flash cards, or run laps, all the time.


Writing good email copy

March 19, 2015

Here’s a set of email guidelines I’ve been putting together over the past couple of years. There are many great, similar, guides all over the internet. This one’s mine!

While these are good for marketing emails, they’re also extremely good guidelines for your personal correspondence as well.

General guidelines

Be a real person

  • Send from a personal email address that accepts replies and has a name. Obvious for your personal correspondence, often not done by businesses.
  • Be conversational, and write as if you’re emailing only one person.

Let recipients know what’s in it for them

  • Have a very clear reason for sending the email, reinforced (possibly several times) to the recipient.
  • Emphasize benefits, not features. For example, instead of sending “The Class Starts Tomorrow!”, try “Want to [x]? Class starts tomorrow!”
  • Consider whether you would want to do whatever the email is getting the recipient to do, based on what’s in the email.
  • Use social proof. This could mean testimonials from previous attendees, tweets from previous events, photos, etc. Or it could mean information about who you are and why you’re credible.
  • Send emails at the right time, thinking about when it’s most convenient for your audience to act.


  • If you have the volume to test them, write 5 - 10 different subject lines and headlines initially.
  • A/B test templates, tones, content, sending times, etc.


  • If you understand the audience you’re sending to, break it up as much as possible into sub-audiences, with tailored messaging and offers.
  • Send followups to people who were interested in your offer but didn’t actually do what you wanted them to. For example, if someone clicked on a sale item in your email, but didn’t finish their purchase, follow up with a coupon.
  • Find ways to re-engage people who weren’t interested in your offer at all, depending on how much other email you need to send.

Subject Lines

  • Don’t be mysterious, vague, poetic or clever.
  • Don’t use exclamation points or all caps.
  • Use your name and possibly company name in the From line. For example, “Justin at JustinCo”. Be a real person!
  • Keep it short (< 50 characters).
  • Consider:

MailChimp also has a great Subject Line Research Tool that you can use to gauge effectiveness:

Body Copy

  • The headline should immediately say what’s in it for the reader. A majority of readers only read the headline before deciding whether to click or not.
  • What you want the recipient to do should be very clear, and a very easy action to take. Have a single call to action, and repeat it.
  • Keep the message scannable. For example, convert paragraphs to bullet points where possible.
  • Cut as much as possible.
  • Short paragraphs (fewer than 5 lines), short sentences (fewer than 10 words) and short words.
  • Sentence fragments are fine. Even good.
  • Use “you” (the recipient) as much as possible rather than “we”. What’s in it for them?
  • Keep the reader moving to the next sentence (“So…”, “That’s why…”, “And…” etc.).
  • Use images. Preferably ones that add interest to the email and fit with your message (not stock photos).
  • Have a single call to action, clear and repeated.
  • PSs are highly read and could be used for a sweetener (e.g. PS: If you register now, this good thing will happen)
  • Don’t use “maybe”, “hope”, “wish”, “try”, “could”, “perhaps” or the passive voice. Be bold!
  • Consider repeating your call to action.
  • Read copy out loud before sending it.
  • Consider:
    • Asking questions
    • Adding a personal touch
    • Showing what readers will miss if they don’t take you up on your offer
    • Telling a story
    • Presenting a deadline
    • Pulling the main message or call to action completely out of the content into its own area
    • Using the same “action verbs” you might use in resumes, e.g.

PS: This is good advice for web copy in general, too.

What Constitutes Success?

You should have a strategy behind every email you send. In most cases, that’s a specific action you want the recipient to take. That’s how you measure sucess.

More generically, here’s some selected MailChimp data on opens, clicks, bounces, and unsubscribes from early 2014 (from their excellent Email Marketing Benchmark report). This is a useful guideline for figuring out what is achievable:

Industry Open Click Click to Open Soft Bounce Hard Bounce Abuse Unsubscribe
Business and Finance 32.6% 3.1% 9.51% 1% 0.9% 0.041% 0.198%
Computers and Electronics 32.4% 2.7% 8.33% 0.9% 0.8% 0.041% 0.202%
Consulting 37.1% 3.4% 9.16% 1.6% 1.3% 0.038% 0.271%
Education and Training 36.1% 3.4% 9.42% 0.9% 0.7% 0.036% 0.171%
Entertainment and Events 25.4% 2.1% 8.27% 0.5% 0.5% 0.04% 0.175%
Software and Web Apps 32.6% 2.7% 8.28% 1.3% 1.2% 0.058% 0.342%
Average 32.70% 2.90% 8.83% 1.03% 0.90% 0.04% 0.23%
Min 25.40% 2.10% 8.27% 0.50% 0.50% 0.04% 0.17%
Max 37.10% 3.40% 9.51% 1.60% 1.30% 0.06% 0.34%


Workout journal formatting

March 16, 2015

Journals are an incredibly valuable tool. Mostly because they help you honestly assess how much progress you’re making, and insofar as they do that, they also help you figure out whether what you’re doing is effective.

Since I often like to figure things out myself, even if I’m doing things the wrong way, my journals are a vital way for me to actually make progress.

This is a quick post about my workout journal. It’s tiny, which is great, because I can put it in my pocket when I do exercises, and easily protect it with a ziplock bag. I use a Field Notes notebook, with graph paper pages, to make it easier to keep my writing organized.

It has three major areas.


The first page is a workout calendar. It sometimes takes me a day or two to keep this up to date, but most of the times, this reduces my anxiety by helping me realize I’m doing more than I thought.

Things in parentheses are my lighter workouts. Each row is a week, and each column is a day.

Weightlifting tracking

The second page, and on, is the most important part of my journal, which is where I track weightlifting. (Please don’t look at the numbers too closely, I’m not all that strong!)

Along the side are the exercises I do, and along the top are the dates, as well as the start and end times; timing my workouts helps me take a consistent amount of rest between exercises.

As a time-saving technique, I do the exercises in an order that depends on which machines are free. So, for example, if the shoulder press machine is taken for 10 minutes, I do floor exercises and then grab it when it becomes available. This format helps me make sure I get everything done, even out of order, and of course that I do the right amount of weight and reps.

In order to track my progress over time, I go across the pages, and the leftmost column is folded over so I don’t have to rewrite it when I start a new page.


I also have a little reference area of exercises I like to do if I am not in the gym. It’s short right now, but over time I’ll add all the things I can do when I’m traveling, to keep everything interesting.


Workout strategies for new parents and other busy people

March 11, 2015

I don’t love the articles that are out there on getting a good workout when you’re a new parent. Or any other sort of busy person!

A lot of them give very nonspecific advice about priorities or time management. “Put in the effort” is an actual heading I’ve seen, for example.

The is a guide to some specific strategies I use to stay in reasonable shape when things get busy.

1) Exercise without a gym

Gyms are useful, but they really restrict your freedom to work out when (and of course where) you want.

Learning to enjoy exercises that you can do outside of a gym, particularly if they also require no equipment, is extremely helpful in staying in shape when you don’t have control over your time.

  • Running is the obvious example, and see below for ways to run so that it doesn’t seem so boring.

  • Bodyweight exercises, like push-ups and sit-ups, are helpful. There are hundreds of them, targeting almost every area of the body and letting you get some good cardio in as well.

  • Jump rope is an even more efficient cardio and upper-body workout than running, and speed rope like this or this can fit in your pocket.

  • Consider taking a parkour class or reading up on it. Not only is parkour fun, it’s really useful because it makes you look at your surroundings as an obstacle course. For example, I’ll sometimes go for a run and then climb around a little on some scaffolding. Stairs are a gym in themselves since you can run up and down them in interesting ways, crab-walk or go on all fours, jump from stair to stair, and so on. Even hills can be useful for built-in interval training.

  • You can also buy home equipment, like pull-up bars, and kettlebells, and even weights (light ones, if you’re starting out, are cheap and easy to store). I sometimes save my chin-ups for when I get home, and then do them on the chin-up bar in the kitchen.

2) Break up your exercises in time and place

You don’t have to do your workouts in one chunk.

Let’s say you have a 45-minute weight routine you like. Including the time spent getting to and from the gym, you end up spending over an hour on your workout. But it might not be easy to break away for over an hour, especially if the only time you have is at lunch or just after work.

To solve this problem, do your machine exercises in the gym, jump in the car or run home, then finish your bodyweight exercises at home. I’ll sometimes do this if I mess up my schedule and only have half an hour at the gym: do my weight exercises there, shower if necessary, get on a call or go home (or both), then finish up later on.

This can actually lead to better workouts, since by resting your muscles for a while you can push through more work later on.

3) Combine activities

I joined my local chapter of the Hash House Harriers, which describes itself as a “running club with a drinking problem”.

“Hashing” is insanely fun and in and of itself and could easily be the subject of another post, but one major advantage of hashing for me is that is combines socializing and working out.

(Not working out very hard, mind you, in this case. But it’s usually at least a 3-mile or 4-mile run, with a fair amount of hard running in there if that’s what I want.)

A much more typical example of this is biking to work. When the weather’s nice, I get a decent workout commuting by bike. When I lived closer to work, I used to run home. Since the bike to work takes me about an hour, and the commute takes 45 minutes, net time spent working out is 15 minutes.

You should also combine activities during your workout as well. For example, jump rope is a full-body workout. So are push-ups and chin-ups. If you’re a busy person, it may not make sense for you to focus heavily on just one muscle group, or work out at a low intensity. Challenge yourself during the time you have available.

4) Vary workout types, and intensity. (But find things you enjoy!)

In addition to not having a lot of time, busy people are often exhausted, or overwhelmed. This can deplete your motivation, or you just get tired more easily.

One solution is to have a lot of different workouts available, to keep things interesting. I love to jump rope. But it’s not always possible; I need a space where I won’t be disturbed (my worst nightmare is hitting an unsuspecting bystander with my rope!). I can’t find that near where I work in New York.

Fortunately, I also love lots of other things. I can always go for a run, as long as I have appropriate clothes with me. Or, I can go to the gym and lift weights.

Or maybe I know I lifted weights yesterday, and I have time for a moderate workout today, but I may not have time again for a couple more days. In that case, I’ll do another hard workout that emphasizes some other groups of muscles, so that I can get some work in and recover in the following days.

Have workouts ready for those days when you’re not feeling the energy, or when you’re tired because you were just on a plane for eight hours, for example. Let’s say I can’t find a good jump rope spot, and I go for a run. If I’m tired, I can take an easy 3 miles, or I can do a 7- or 8-mile run with lots of hills, if I want a challenge.

If I don’t feel like doing a steady run at all, I’ll find a hill and run intervals on it. Intervals are much more entertaining than long, slow distance runs.

Swimming is a go-to workout for me when I don’t feel like I can sustain an intense workout, though if I change my mind, I swim one fast lap, and then a slow one, until I get tired out.

In general, interval training is a key type of workout that will be very helpful in staying flexible. Just do any workout you like, but break it up into short periods of high and low intensity. You need to do enough to get your heart rate up, but intervals allow you to get a great workout in as little as 20 minutes.

Emotionally, you also have to accept that some days you won’t be able to do everything you want to. That’s a big part of this, too. The important thing is to go out and do at least some work, and feel good about that.

5) Get organized

Organization is key for being able to take advantage of whatever circumstances present themselves. You should be able to grab your gym bag, and go.

At all times, my gym bag contains:

  • A set of clean clothes (in a plastic bag for protection)
  • Running shoes, sweatbands, and my iPhone armband
  • Swim gear, including goggles, a swimsuit, and flipflops
  • Other useful miscellany, including a padlock and a snack
  • My workout journal and a pen (also in a plastic bag)

I bought a mesh backpack to keep all this stuff in, which helps all my sweaty stuff dry out when it’s in there.

I also keep some bike gear, like a very small pump and headlamp, in my work bag with my laptop.

Lastly, I have a workout journal. I keep a small workout calendar in there, and I also have a section to keep track of my progress in the weight room.

The journal gets you a few things. It does give you motivation to stay on track, though for me, it also has the opposite function: it reminds me of all the good work I’ve done, so I don’t get too discouraged if I can’t get out for a few days.

It also helps me keep all my different exercises in balance, and when I’m in the weight room, it saves a lot of time otherwise spent trying to remember what I did the last time I was there a few days ago.