Emails and Saving Mental Bandwidth

At the start of 2019, I wanted to conduct an experiment.  I had grown irritated with the volume of email in my personal account.  Each day, I would wake up to 10 or so new emails from various retailers with information on promotions, offers, and deals.  I had tolerated these emails for sometime because I liked to keep abreast of potential deals that I could take advantage of.

However, the emails weren’t just morning updates.  I would keep my personal email open at work and clear emails throughout the day, which forced me to continuously switch back and forth.  I wanted a better way of managing the inflow of messages without unsubscribing to emails that genuinely were bringing me information I would want when planning upcoming purchases.

I took some time and set up around 60 filters to automatically route messages from my inbox to a separate Promotions folder (I know Gmail can handle this, but I wanted to be intentional with the process).  I also unsubscribed to a bunch of lists where I never opened the messages.  It was a lot of front end work that took a few days to complete, but slowly my inbox got quieter.

emails
As of March 18th, 2019

Now, after 3 months of progress, I have seen between 1,500-2,000 messages get routed away from my inbox.  2,000 messages that I never read, and didn’t have to make a decision whether to open it or automatically delete.

I don’t think of this as some sort of productivity hack.  At most, I’ve saved maybe an hour of time in 3 months, so it’s not like it’s a quality of life adjustment.  Instead, the value I find is in the mental bandwidth saved from not having to constantly switch back and forth through email.

It’s a signal and noise ratio issue.  So much of my time is spent wading through a lot of noise that is distracting me from focusing my attention on what’s important.  On the best of days, I do my best to fight off my inability to focus on work and maybe carve out some meaningful time by avoiding things that have been designed to draw me towards them (I’m looking at you, social media and YouTube).  Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes my monkey brain gets the best of me.

There are two strategies to deal with this.  You can either intentionally focus the signal, or you can do what I’ve done in this instance and try to turn down the noise a bit.  Too much noise can interfere with the signals you are trying to pick up.  While email is hardly a signal-killing thing in my life, it’s a steady trickle of distractions that I’ve started intentionally cutting to make room in my attention for more important things.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

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Was My “Really Good Day” Healthy?

Last week, I discussed how I felt really good after a particularly productive day.  Just as I was drafting the post, I shared my thoughts with my wife.  She was happy for my sense of accomplishment and expressed encouraging words about the value of feeling fulfilled, productive, and useful.  But, I didn’t just marry her to build me up; my wife is also my best sounding board to check my intuitions.

In her wisdom, she asked if that kind of feeling of satisfaction is a healthy one.  I knew what she was getting at right away.  She wasn’t expressing skepticism about this one instance, but instead she was gesturing at a longer trend of mine.

I have a mindset and set of expectations on myself that are dangerously close to being unhealthy, to the point where I know I would never try and convince a person to adopt it themselves.

You see, I hate feeling like I’m wasting my time.  I don’t mean this in a hustle/grind sort of way, nor does this mean that I don’t waste loads of my time (hello YouTube; you are my true weakness).

I hate napping because I feel like it’s a waste of my time.

I should qualify that a little bit.  When I say a waste of my time, I don’t mean that napping isn’t good for me.  I know that sleep is good.  Sleep will rejuvenate you, help your brain work better, help you feel better, etc.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting and text
A friend conveniently shared this meme on Facebook while I was brainstorming this post.

When I say that napping is a waste of my time, I mean it in an existential sense.  When I sleep, I am unconscious, and when I’m unconscious, time slips past me faster.  It’s almost like time travel.  I go to sleep and wake up in the future.  All the time in the middle is gone, and I can never get it back.  I have done nothing, and made no memories.

This line of thinking extends to downtime.  I don’t handle downtime very well, often feeling guilty to take time to myself to mindlessly indulge in “non-productive” things (the aforementioned YouTube, movies/tv, videogames, etc).  When I give myself permission to focus on fun things, it’s always clouded with the knowledge that by taking time to do a fun thing, it’s time not spent on something productive, and no matter how much fun I have, I know that those tasks and projects I need to work on will still have to be done.  I’m not trading off tasks; I’m delaying progress because time runs linearly.

My wife (rhetorically) asked if this line of thinking is sustainable, and it is obviously not.  Indeed, she rightfully labelled it as a stupid worldview to hold.

The real problem is that while I would never advocate for anyone else to frame their worldview in these terms, I want to (and choose to) do it for myself.  I think this is largely because I’m so disordered in my productivity and I’m always battling against my akrasia (a fancy Greek term for making bad decisions due to weakness of the will).  It’s my way of punishing myself for not focusing when I want to focus.

The reason why I mentioned that this is an existential problem for me is because when I think about my mortality, I know that every moment that passes is bringing me closer to death.  Every moment that I spend watching YouTube videos instead of getting stuff done is non-renewable time that I can’t get back and exchange for time on more important things like my wife, my dog, family, friends, or leisurely pursuits.  Realistically, I have finite time, a finite number of heartbeats, and no way of buying more.  Instead, decisions like not going to the gym, not sleeping, or eating unhealthily have the opposite effect and are likely shortening my life.

I know this is stupid.  I know this is unhealthy.  And I don’t have a good solution to address it.  This isn’t a case of believing that hustling for the sake of hustling is inherently virtuous.  Quite the opposite, I think grinding away should be in service of something higher than itself.  This is, plainly, a different flavour of a fear of missing out.  I’m worried about missing out on things by not being productive.

I don’t have an adequate response to the charge that my worldview is not good.  At least I have some semblance of self-awareness and a great partner in my wife that calls me out on my shenanigans.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

A Really Good Day

I was reflecting on a day I had last week that I would classify as a “really good” day.  I’m not saying it was perfect, but when I think about it from a personal level, I was very happy with it.

And by a really good day, I mean it was a really good professional day.  It was a day where I went to bed, and I felt professionally and creatively satisfied.  Most days, I feel like I’ve wasted my day with either pointless tasks or active procrastination.  I look back over the day and think that I’ve let it slip away, never to be recovered, and I have nothing to show for it – no movement on any projects, I haven’t grown in any significant way, and I’ve let my base instincts drag me away from what’s important.

I’ve had many good days with friends and family, but I find good professional days to be rare – possibly because I spend so much time at work relatively to anything else in my life.

When thinking about this really good day, I suppose this is what Simon Sinek gets at when he talks about finding your “why,” or your purpose.  I still can’t articulate my “why,” but I feel like the elements that made up my good day somehow speak to what fulfills me.

Anyway, I’ve talked around the topic enough.  What was this day?

Here is a list of things I did that I felt fulfilled by:

  • I took a phone call to consult with a client about some ethics questions related to their project.
  • I secured some consent from industry partners on a development project I’m working on to create a new engineering degree.
  • I had a meta-discussion about working at the college with a boss.
  • I went home and got exercise by shoveling the driveway.
  • My normally scheduled board meeting was cancelled due to the weather, and I took the night off from working at the bar, which meant I had a free night that I’d normally not have in the week.
  • I watched some videos from a Udemy course I’m taking on how to record videos better (I enrolled to help me make better vlogs and possibly future courses).
  • I spent an hour or so reading 40-50 pages of a book on professional/career development while listening to ambient white noise.
  • I spend 30-45 minutes reading book about literary structure for fun.

I think what made these events so meaningful is I felt like I was either learning/developing through the process, or I was able to get good, positive reinforcement on tasks I was initiating.  It’s not about “winning” or succeeding, but in this case, it’s about drawing a line that connects an intentional effort to find a certain outcome, and reaching that outcome precisely how you intended to do it.

In other word, I think the day felt so great because it felt intentional.  I felt those elements that lead to professional satisfaction – I felt autonomous, a sense of control, and I was working towards mastery.

Now the trick will be to do that more regularly.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

A Solution to the Animated Bibliography

First off, I didn’t realize it, but last week was my 150th post!  It snuck up on me, unlike my 100th post in March of last year.  If all goes well, I should hit my 200th post in February of next year.

I was listening to a recent podcast episode from the Tim Ferriss Show where he interviewed author Jim Collins.  In the latter half of the episode, they discuss Collins’s latest publication, a monograph that expands on his flywheel concept that he introduced in an earlier publication, Good to Great.

What I found most interesting was his reason for releasing a monograph (which comes to a total of around 45-pages).  He stated that one option was to release it as an appendix to a future edition of Good to Great since it was material that has been expanded since the original publication.  However, he decided against this idea since it would force anyone who already purchased Good to Great to buy a second copy of it, which seemed unnecessary.

A second option would be to release it as an article, either in a magazine publication or online.  His reasoning against this, however, is that articles and blog posts are too ephemeral, and would likely not get the traction he was seeking.  He wanted something that wouldn’t be forgotten immediately in the wash of news and opinions that are put out there for consumption multiple times per day.

Instead, he opted for a somewhat outdated option of releasing a monograph.

What struck me most was his comments concerning idea mediums, which reminded me of a few of my rants on animated bibliographies.  His reason to avoid writing a separate book to expand on the flywheel idea is that he doesn’t see value in taking a relatively small idea and working to inflate it to 300 pages.

[Collins] “A piece of writing has a natural length. A symphony has a length. “Gimme Shelter” by the Stones has a length. You wouldn’t say, “Well we should make ‘Gimme Shelter’ a 72-minute piece.” It’s the wrong length for “Gimme Shelter,” and writing is like music. It has an appropriate length for what the music is trying to do, to be. What I realized back in 2005 was sometimes you could have something that is a powerful extension idea or an ideal, it really shouldn’t be a book. It’s not enough to be a book.”

~From the show’s transcript.

This is a good comment on the self-help book publishing industry’s trend to push out books that have a few novel insights and a huge amount of commonly-cited research studies that fit the narrative (and confirmation bias).  In fact, it reminds me of a video essay I watched recently which articulates (better than I) the problems with the self-help genre overall.

This certainly won’t stop me from reading self-help books, and I’m still knee-deep in many other animated bibliographies – I’m a bit of a glutton for punishment.

However, I think this insight is fantastic and expresses why some ideas don’t deserve to be turned into books (unless it’s a book of essays).  It makes sense that some ideas have a natural size, and the size should be commensurate with the number of pages devoted to explaining it.  While the industry does not incentivize these examples of smaller publications, I think it’s a great solution to the need to pad out books with the same sources and the same studies.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

KSE And A Visual Metaphor

And now for something lighter.  The last few weeks, I’ve been discussing some pretty heavy topics, so I thought for Family Day, I’d share something a little on the lighter side that makes me happy.

Killswitch Engage (KSE) is a band that I really like.  I think since 2012 I’ve seen them play every time they’ve swung through Ontario on tour with the exception of once, tallying around 7 or 8 shows.  A friend who accompanies me to the shows joked that it’s getting to the point where we buy tickets to KSE shows for an excuse to see the other bands they are touring with.

Six years ago this month, they released their lead track and video from 2013’s Disarm the Descent, In Due Time.

The video kicks off with some behind the scenes footage of the band and crew, interspersed with footage of the band playing their instruments.  While this is going on, the camera follows behind the band’s vocalist, Jesse, as he enters the space, walks up to grab the microphone, and launches into the song’s vocals.

If you know nothing about the band, you might not connect the visuals with the band’s history, but let me show you why this is such a cool visual metaphor.  I’m not entirely sure that it was intentional (I haven’t read anything to support my idea), but even if it was deliberate it’s a really cool way of visualizing the band’s history up until that moment.

The band, while going through a few member changes in its early days since forming in 1999, was made up of guitarists Adam and Joel, bassist Mike, drummer Justin (who joined in 2003), and vocalist Jesse.  In 2002, just as they released their sophmore album Alive or Just Breathing, Jesse announced abruptly that he had to quit the band for personal reasons.  It was a sudden departure that left the band hanging.  The band added Howard Jones to the lineup, and they broke it big with 2004’s The End of Heartache, which launched them into the charts and cemented them as one of the biggest bands in the genre.

Fastforward to 2012, and Howard announces his departure for the band.  There was some uncertainty at the time as to whether the band would continue and under what conditions, but it was quickly announced that Jesse would return to the mic.  Jesse was not a stranger to making music at the time, having worked on a side project with some of the members of KSE called Times of Grace in 2011.  KSE toured and completed their album through the end of the year and released Disarm the Descent in early 2013.

Now, if you take the history of the band into account, go back and watch the video from the start through around the 34 second mark, and what you see is a visual representation of the band up until that point.  You see the band playing, making music but without a vocalist to sing their lyrics.  Then, from outside, you watch Jesse walk up to the group, rejoining them in time to begin the first verse.  The band was an entity that was already out there, working hard, and Jesse gets welcomed back, fitting in naturally with the group.  The group had continued on without him, and Jesse returned to help give voice to their music.

It’s a beautiful representation, and something of an easter egg for the fans.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Self-Reflection: Fear of Rejection

***Note: to hear an audio reading of this week’s post, please click play on the player above***

In my post last week, I discussed my latest thoughts on interviewing and job-seeking.  As an update to that, my boss notified me that I wasn’t selected for the job (she told me early and said she owed me that courtesy instead of waiting for HR to contact me).  When she called me into her office to let me know, she provided some preliminary feedback on the process with a promise to sit down with me for a more substantial review of my interview in the future.

When she was going over some observations about my interview, she started off by commenting that I had a great presentation.  She didn’t get much out after that about my presentation because bone-headed me cut her off so that  I could comment on how bad I thought my interview was.

In reflecting back, I realize how dumb that was of me.  My boss was giving me unprompted feedback, and instead of listening, I decided to proactively cut myself down.

When I think about this moment, this is an example of my fear of rejection.

Prior to meeting my wife, my fear of rejection stopped me from putting myself out there for dating.  When I was rejected, I took it personally.  Not in a “lash out at the person for turning me down” sense, but in the “I guess there is nothing inherently desirable about me” sense.

It happened when I was rejected from jobs.  It’s hard not to take it personally when you start hearing that “we found a more qualified candidate,” and you start thinking that maybe the philosophy degree has taken you as far as it’ll go.

As a defense, instead of waiting for the other person to reject me, I proactively start rattling off reasons why I’m to be rejected, effectively cutting myself off at the knees.  Maybe I’m thinking that the display of self-awareness will somehow benefit me, but in actuality I’m just trying to soften the blow.  The faster I reject myself, the less harsh the ensuing rejection will be.

This is, of course, not a healthy way to view rejection.  Most rejections aren’t personal – it’s not about me.  I didn’t get a date with that person because they didn’t feel a click, or something about their interactions with me didn’t make them desire taking things in a romantic direction.  Or they broke up with me because they didn’t want to string me along.  Or we broke up because they were more interested in something else.

Or I didn’t get the job because there genuinely was a more qualified candidate.  Or maybe the boss thought it would cost more money to get me up and running, and they needed someone with a different skillset than what I could offer.

These things don’t mean that I’m lesser because of it.  It means I’m different in both degree and kind.

My fear of rejection holds me back because it closes me off to opportunities for growth.  It stops me from starting new and uncertain things.  It also stops me from listening.  When I’m afraid, blinders go on and my mouth begins to run.  I get narrow-visioned and I stop listening to what others have to say.  This isn’t a good strategy for success.  It’s really hard to pay attention to what’s important when you drown out the conversation trying to save face and protect yourself.

I know I’m not alone in fearing rejection.  Everyone feels this.  Everyone is a tight little ball of insecurities trying to keep the loose ends from unravelling under the most cursory of examinations.  We want to be liked.  We want to know that we are enough.  We want to know we have value as we are, not who we think we should pretend to be.

It’s a struggle to stay silent when you’re feeling judged, but sometimes keeping your mouth closed is the most important thing to help you do better next time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

(Update) I Didn’t Get The Job (Part 2)

As an update to last week’s post, my boss confirmed with me that I wasn’t being offered the position.  While technically I’m in the running since HR hasn’t sent me the official email to say they have selected another candidate, my boss gave me the courtesy of not making me wait for HR to seal the deal.  And so, here I am, posting again about how I didn’t get the job.

Reflections and Learnings

One benefit of this round of interviews is that I was interviewed by my direct boss and one of the managers I support.  This means that I have access to much better feedback than what HR can give me.  Both bosses have offered to sit down with me and go over their notes from the interview, with specific feedback on how I could do better.  They are both invested in my improvement.

My boss mentioned when she told me I wasn’t getting the job that there is still room to redefine my current job.  Since then, I’ve been doing a comprehensive deepdive into my job and mapping it out.  I pulled my last performance appraisal and am looking over what I do well (my strengths) and identify where I need to improve.  This will give me a good lens to look for courses or opportunities to grow and better demonstrate my experinece.

Both bosses commented that I delivered a good presentation.  This is good to note, because I can take stock of how I chose to research and present the information.  HR sent me links to resources, and one of my bosses said I was the only one to name drop them during my presentatiton and interview, showing I did the work.

The more indepth feedback will help me address one of my interviewing weaknesses – I tend to ramble because I haven’t adequately prepared canned stories that showcase my abilities.  With their specific feedback I can reflect and collect stories of how I problem-soved issues, which will help me articulate my value.

While it might be the case that I lost out on the job because I was in competition with a better qualified candidate, I need to remember to always express my value to the employer.  I need to answer important questions like “What can I do for the employer?  What problems will I address?  What money will I save?  What opportunities will I exploit?” etc.  I will need to reflect more intentionally on what I bring and give it a narrative that tells a story.

Most importantly, I need to prepare so I can have more self-confidence.  You can’t sell a product if you don’t believe in it 100%, and I sadly still lack confidence in my value.

As one of the managers and I were chatting afterwards, he said there is a saying in his home country of Romania, which roughly translates to “a swift kick in the butt is still a step forward.”  I think this is a good perspective to take.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan