WFH Observation – Novel Environments

I’ve been working from home for a year now, and I’m still surprised when I discover something about how I work that I had overlooked previously. You’d think I’d have stuff sorted out by now, but alas here I find myself.

Over the last week, we’ve been away from our house as we prepare to sell it. With COVID ramping up in the province, we thought it would be easier with a baby and a dog to be out of the house full time while prospective buyers came by to look at the listing. We stayed with family, which has required me to adapt my working conditions.

Typically I work in the home office at my desktop. For the last week, I’ve been working off a laptop and a borrowed computer monitor that functions as my second screen. For comfort, I’m using my peripheral wireless mouse and keyboard, along with my wireless headphones to block out noise. While working out of various bedrooms this past week, I’ve noticed an increase in my focus.

Granted, the increased focus coincided with a series of long meetings I’ve been attending, so perhaps I’ve been tricking myself into thinking I’m more productive. However, as I reflect on the situation, I also feel it’s worth mentioning that working in a new location helps to provide a sense of novelty for me.

This isn’t a new insight in the world of remote work – early in the pandemic, I used my company’s access to LinkedIn Learning to complete a few micro-courses on the topic of remote work to help me adjust. Many of the instructors noted that traditional remote work is done in many locations, both inside the home (dedicated workspace) as well as at favourite places out of the house (e.g. the local cafe). Because of COVID, I haven’t placed much stock in this piece of advice because we are dissuaded from working out of the house for long stretches of time (that is, sitting indoors at a coffee shop) if we are not required to do so.

This mini-experiment in remote work has given me some insight into my working style – I am not immune to the novelty that comes from environmental changes. When things relax a bit more, and if I continue to work remotely in my position, this will be something I’ll give consideration to.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Editing with Rapt Attention

Last week I discussed how I created a video training series for one of the ethics boards I serve on. All told, I’d estimate it took me around twenty hours to sketch, film, edit, and publish the series (this is an ad hoc estimate; sadly I didn’t do any time tracking to appreciate the effort). While I’m comfortable with the filming, I noticed a particular period of the work that created a bit of a flow state for me.

On the last day of editing, I was up against a bit of a deadline to finish the videos and push them out to the trainees. I admit that the deadline helped me to focus more (or at least resist the temptation to get distracted), but I noticed that when I was editing the videos, I hit a bit of a flow state. It’s not that I found the tasks particularly challenging, but there was something about the rote, somewhat monotonous task of watching and cutting footage that helped me move through the videos fairly quickly. It was almost 4-hours of editing before I felt like I should take a break to stretch and shift my mind to something else – the time seemed to go quickly. Then, after my break, I returned for another multi-hour stretch to finish off the last of the videos for the rendering queue.

It’s not often that I feel myself working in this state, where time gets away from me for hours at a time. In fact, most of the time I feel somewhat disengaged with my work, and I have to apply discipline in order to work on tasks. This was a rare example of working on something that felt right.

I joked with my wife that I wish I found a job as an editor, but I was only half joking. The lesson I take from this is to be mindful with how I engage with activities that trigger flow, and find a way to go back to that state in other areas of my work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Meaningful Actions

Over the weekend, I attended a virtual board meeting for engineering education. One of the reports pertained to a working-group’s findings and recommended actions to support the aims the 30 by 30 Campaign to address low representation of women in the engineering profession. This is a great initiative and I’m looking at ways we can improve our own processes to support women in STEM in our programs at the college. There was a comment that made me think, and it’s worth considering.

One of the board members expressed support for the report, but also commented that she had provided input as early as the 1990’s on this very initiative. Her comment was not meant to cast doubt over the process, but instead highlighted two important things – that this is not a new issue, and that many people have tried to make sweeping changes for the profession, which clearly hasn’t been entirely successful. Her advice was to be cautious about taking on too much scope with the recommendations, and instead to support a “divide and conquer” strategy for making targeted, meaningful actions to promote change.

I don’t hold any illusions that we will solve systemic issues overnight. If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that my hopes for reform are likely to fail and that instead of refinement, we should be aiming at transformative changes.

There is also another tension – on some level, this line of thinking suggests a teleological progression of progress for society and culture. I want to think that our culture is aiming at progress (“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is a powerful vision to work towards), but a skeptical voice reminds me that, like our misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution, there is nothing inherent in the progress of change that aims towards a higher, final form. A kind of defeatism can creep in when one thinks that meaningful actions do not contribute towards progress, but instead are just the spinning of our collective wheels.

I reject this defeatist view and want to aim towards a higher vision. I grant that the universe is largely amoral and unconcerned with our progress. So, instead, we must clearly define our values and principles, and take actions towards achieving these ends. The actions are neither good nor bad in an absolute sense. Rather, we mark progress with how close we come to realizing the values we want to see manifested in our lives. Meaningful actions are measured not against morality, but instead on efficacy for the outcomes. There are trade-offs and consequences along the way, and so we must be prudent. Both history and mythology have given us plenty of examples of why hubris should be avoided.

I don’t have a good answer on what meaningful actions we ought to settle on as part of our agenda. As noted, this issue has been discussed far longer than my tenure in the employment game. I’ll defer to folks much smarter than I, and try to learn from their efforts to do my part.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Falling Through My Systems

This late post is a nice springboard into something I’ve been thinking about throughout the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, when I was still commuting to work, I had a fair number of systems to help me get stuff done. My commute to work helped me film daily vlogs, listen to books, and think about big ideas for blog posts and Stay Awesome vlogs. When we started working from home, those outputs began fading. Now, I feel behind on my blog posts, I *maybe* film a personal vlog once every two weeks, and Stay Awesome has been put on an indefinite hiatus until Jim and I get some extra headspace bandwidth to devote attention to it.

I was also known for my notebook. I carried a Field Notes notebook everywhere with me, and was constantly scribbling notes into it. Then, around 4 months into working from home, I found myself abandoning the monthly notebook and appropriating a disused larger notebook to jot down tasks, lists, and random thoughts. The Field Notes book was small, portable, convenient, and had many systems to track things I found important, such as exercise, health, habits, etc. Now, my notebook is largely devoted to task management, because when every day feels the same, you can quickly find yourself several weeks down the line having nothing to show for your time.

In a sense, I’ve fallen through my systems. The various “systems” I implemented succumbed to inertia when I both lost the cues that triggered them and lost the will to keep putting effort in the system to power the flywheel, and friction has ground them to a halt.

James Clear has a pithy phrase, that “you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” This is a riff on an older Greek observation from Archilochus: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

Regardless, the question I have is whether I truly had a system if it was a fair-weather operation that wasn’t robust enough to adapt to these kinds of radical changes. When I lost the external liminal cues that came from commuting to work, or from even leaving the house on a regular basis, the things I called systems disappeared as well. Is it charitable to call these things “systems”? In virtue ethics, you aren’t said to possess a virtue if you only exercise it some of the time – you aren’t considered courageous if you don’t act courageously in a moment that requires it. Does this apply to systems as well?

Part of me says yes, but that’s not very helpful. Perhaps I should reframe my thinking and consider the quality and attributes of the system. Borrowing from Taleb, some systems are fragile, some are robust, and I suppose some are antifragile. I understand antifragile systems in the context of biology (e.g. stressing muscles can allow them to get stronger over time), though as of writing I can’t think of any productivity system that get stronger under pressure.

Regardless, it’s clear that much of my productivity was built upon what can now be labelled as fragile systems. They worked under certain conditions, but outside of that narrower band they are less able to withstand fluctuations or variance. In my reflections over the last few months, I’ve been seeing the value in understanding the causes of system failures so that I can create new processes to help me in work and life. For now, the first step is to acknowledge that I’ve fallen through my systems, and having acknowledged this, I can stop spinning my wheels and start seeking traction.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

WFH: Struggles in Focus

In March, I will have been working from home (WFH) for a full year. You’d think that with my experience being employed pre-pandemic, I’d know how to manage my time and motivate myself. But, I have to be honest that working from home has had its challenges. Every time I think I’ve got it figured out, I somehow end up reverting back to a less productive mode of work.

You’d also think that after working from home for a year that I’d have a handle on the situation, yet there, too, I’m finding it difficult. I could attribute it to having a child and the challenges that come with that level of life adjustment, but I feel that would be a disingenuous excuse for my poor integrity.

I know I’m not alone; many people are feeling this. In the beginning, the articles were about learning to draw boundaries in work/life balance. Then came the articles urging us to dress for the office, trying to capture the liminality inherent in a structured schedule. Then came the posts lamenting the late nights with alcohol and doom-scrolling. We all are feeling the anxiety of trying to remain in the present while our focus is pulled towards thoughts about a dimly lit uncertain future.

The best I can do is continue to experiment and see what sticks for me. At the moment I’m trying to be more intentional with my work calendar. I set up to three priorities for the week, block off time in my calendar to work, and spend the first moments at the beginning and the last moments at the end of the day to plan, reflect, plan, and review.

One thing I’m enjoying with this approach is that I’m having an ongoing dialogue with myself in my work calendar. At a high level, I’m leaving a paper-trail of my thoughts, and with that trail I can autopsy where I’m successful and why I fail. But in the day-to-day moments, voices from the past come to help my present understand itself, then I leave little notes for the future to pick things up after rest.

I’ll keep practicing this approach and write some comments in the future, if it sticks.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I Read in 2020

Here we are at the dawning of a new year, which for me means it’s time to post an update on my reading over the last year. For my previous lists, you can see them here: 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. It’s hard to believe this is my fifth reading list!

TitleAuthorDate CompletedPages
1Creative CallingChase Jarvis22-Jan304
2The Age of Surveillance CapitalismShoshana Zuboff25-Jan704
3Animal FarmGeorge Orwell27-Jan112
4Alexander HamiltonRon Chernow02-Feb818
5RangeDavid Epstein12-Feb352
6The Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan29-Feb384
7Call Sign ChaosJim Mattis12-Mar320
8The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyDouglas Adams19-Mar208
9The AlchemistPaulo Coelho22-Mar208
10Guns, Germs, and SteelJared Diamond06-Apr496
11UpstreamDan Heath16-May320
12SymposiumPlato18-May144
13Gulliver’s TravelsJonathan Swift25-May432
14Anything You WantDerek Sivers11-Jun96
15Extreme OwnershipJocko Willink & Leif Babin18-Jun384
16The Code. The Evaluation. The ProtocolsJocko Willink 23-Jun93
17How Will You Measure Your LifeClayton M. Christensen28-Jun236
18The Last WishAndrzej Sapkowski05-Jul384
19The Expectant FatherArmin A. Brott & Jennifer Ash06-Jul336
20The Coaching HabitMichael Bungay Stanier14-Jul234
21The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksRebecca Skloot23-Jul400
22WorkingRobert A. Caro08-Sep240
23Crime and PunishmentFyodor Dostoyevsky15-Sep544
24Every Tool’s A HammerAdam Savage18-Sep320
25Love SenseDr. Sue Johnson20-Sep352
26NaturalAlan Levinovitz22-Sep264
27The Kite RunnerKhaled Hosseini06-Oct363
28My Own WordsRuth Bader Ginsburg10-Oct400
29Kitchen ConfidentialAnthony Bourdain20-Oct384
30Stillness is the KeyRyan Holiday06-Nov288
31The Oxford InklingsColin Duriez07-Nov276
32The Infinite GameSimon Sinek14-Nov272
33The Ride of a LifetimeRobert Iger21-Nov272
34As a Man Thinketh & From Poverty to PowerJames Allen26-Nov182
35Medium RawAnthony Bourdain06-Dec320
36A Christmas CarolCharles Dickens06-Dec112
37The Little Book of HyggeMeik Wiking12-Dec288
38Nicomachean EthicsAristotle30-Dec400
Total12242

Overall, I’m happy with how the year went for reading. In reviewing the list, a few things stood out to me. First is that I surpassed my total books read for the year over 2019 by 13 entries. While we can certainly have a discussion about the merits issues of using the number of books read as an accurate key performance indicator of comprehension or progress, it was nice to see that I stepped things up a bit. I was fairly consistent in making my way through the books, with only a dip in April (likely because of the life-adjustment that came from working from home) and the silence seen from mid-July to the start of September thanks to the birth of our son in early-August.

I’m also happy to see that I read fewer self-help and business books last year and instead dove into more fiction, memoirs, and books about history. In my previous roundup, I had commented about wanting to be more intentional with my reading after feeling burnt out on certain genres of books.

One significant change in my reading habits this past year was that I joined a reading group/book club. A friend organized it just as things went into lockdown in March. We meet online every few weeks to discuss books selected in a rotation by the group. I commented earlier that I read 13 more books this year than last, and I’d attribute the book club to being the single biggest reason for the boost in completions (we cleared 12 by year’s end). Here are the books that we read:

  1. Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis
  2. Symposium by Plato
  3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  4. How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton M. Christensen
  5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  7. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  8. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
  9. The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez
  10. As a Man Thinketh & From Poverty to Power by James Allen
  11. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  12. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (finished in the final days, though we haven’t met to discuss it yet.

I’d normally create a separate post about my top reads for the year, but I’ll include it here for simplicity. In chronological order of when I finished, my top 5 reads of the year are:

  1. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (among my top reads ever; I was fortunate to see the stage play before the shutdown in March)
  2. Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis (the first book I chose for the book club; I was struck by how Mattis talks about self-education and reflection)
  3. The Expectant Father by Armin A. Brott & Jennifer Ash (since we were expecting this year, this book was a nice roadmap to know what to expect, and it provided some comfort along the way)
  4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (I recommend everyone read this book; it reminds me of the important work we do on the research ethics boards I sit on, and why we must be critical of research)
  5. My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsberg (I started this collection of writings and speeches before RBG died, and was sadly reminded after finishing of what we lost in her death).

This was a pretty good year for reading. It felt good to get lost in more fiction, and I’ll have things to say in the future about the value I’m finding in reading as part of a group. In the meantime, Happy New Year, and it’s time to keep tackling my reading backlog.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Class Dismissed

I received some sad news last week – my time as a teacher has (for now) come to a close. The Chair has decided to take the course out of the general education elective rotation and will offer a different slate of courses to ensure students have a variety of electives to choose from.

This is not entirely unexpected. I taught my first section in September 2016, and am currently in my 13th straight delivery. In this time, I’ve had a little over 300 students, meaning I’ve graded some 3,000 assignments and 600 essays.

Back in 2016, I snapped this photo of my last day in the classroom for my very first semester of teaching (all the rest of my deliveries have been online).

It has been a great experience and has taught me a lot about empathizing with students and overcoming my biases and assumptions of how one ought to teach. It was also humbling to see some student work come in that, frankly, was better than anything I could have written.

I appreciate the patience my students have shown me these last four years as I have moved cities, gotten married, graded while on my honeymoon, and when welcoming our child into the world.

I’m looking forward to a bit of a break from teacher life, but I hope to get another opportunity in the future.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A History of My Charitable Giving

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

I took a new step today in the evolution of my personal giving. For Giving Tuesday 2020, I finally set up my first set of recurring monthly donations. Now, every month the The Food Bank of Waterloo Region and the Brantford Food Bank will each receive a deposit of $10 from me. It’s a small, almost embarrassing amount to type (when I think of charitable giving, I’m thinking of impressive amounts with more than two zero’s to the left of the decimal point), but the important thing to keep in mind is a.) it’s my initial amount that I expect to grow over time as my circumstances allow, and b.) the total for the year will actually be higher than what I would normally have given.

I’ve been growing more intentional over time with my charitable giving. Many moons ago, I was involved with a program created by the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation called Engage. The program has since ended, but the experiences have stuck with me. If I want to live in a vibrant and thriving community, it’s important that I take the benefits and privileges I’ve accumulated to help others in different living circumstances than my own.

In philosophy, there is a thought experiment called the veil of ignorance, where if I were to be placed randomly in a society, I would obviously want to choose a position that afforded me a degree of wealth, freedom, security, and privilege. To me, this translates into a moral imperative that we should actively work to raise the living situations for all persons in our community to promote flourishing and happiness. I don’t want to live in a world where people have to rely on charity, but it’s an inescapable reality and therefore it must be confronted.

If we are being technical, charitable giving breaks down into three kinds of support, known as the three “t’s” – time, talent, and treasure. Time and talent were my first introduction to giving back to my community. It started in my various youth groups, where I would exchange my time to support a cause: raising money for Beavers/Cubs/Scouts/Army Cadets/swim club, marching in Remembrance Day parades, highway cleanups, and building a library abroad. Later, when I was but a poor student, I volunteered my talents to support causes for school and to help fundraising efforts for the HopeSpring Cancer Support Centre (and eventually I became the minute-taker for their Board of Directors). I also supported my friends with their charitable causes, such as helping with my buddy’s Headshots from the Heart videogame marathon event. As I started to transition out of my student phase of life, I began exploring the third “t” – treasure.

My history of charitable monetary giving started in my mid-20’s. I created an elaborate birthday ritual for myself in an attempt to imbue the day with significance (after 21, there weren’t any milestones I cared to look forward to). One ritual I set for myself was to make a donation to a cause I was interested in. When I was a student of the Engage program, I reflected that I wanted my charitable giving to go to “feeding bellies and minds,” and so I would make a yearly donation to the local food bank. Despite having never used it myself, I recognize the value they bring.

My first donations were in physical goods. I would save up rewards points from the grocery store, then buy as much food as I could for a few hundred dollars, and bring all the canned goods in for donation. Then I found out that their purchasing power was much higher than mine, so I switched to monetary donations once a year on my birthday.

The next evolution in my charitable giving happened a few years back when I wanted to help support the preservation of our environment. The Bruce Trail is a massive network of linked trails that allows one to hike 900km from Niagara to Tobermory in Ontario. Despite having never hiked on the trail myself (though I have ambitions to take up the activity), this seemed like a good cause to support, so I started purchasing yearly memberships. This year, I switched from a buying a membership each year to an automatic renewal system.

Switching back to the Food Bank, my next evolution in giving started in January of this year. I emailed to follow up on the Christmas drive and to ask what kind of shortfall the KW Food Bank saw.  They kindly shared their yearly report, but what stuck out was a throwaway comment that they were successful with the campaign, but that the regular commitments were more important to ensure meals throughout the year.  So, I decided I would eventually switch to small monthly donations that would increase over time as my circumstances allowed.

It was accelerated this summer with the BLM protests.  I wanted to do more than empty social media posts, so I started to think about how I could contribute financially to important causes. A close friend of mine has created a line in his budget for philanthropy, which I took some inspiration from. 

But in the Canadian context, I thought I should find a way to support Indigenous causes.  Truthfully, I haven’t yet made that commitment – I’m still on the lookout for an ongoing support cause that resonates with me. I value the input of my peers, so if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear your input.

That brings us to today. I decided to finally set up my regular payments to support these organizations that do so much good in our community. While I don’t live in KW anymore, I still feel called to help them in their mission. And since I support KW, I thought it appropriate to also give money to support the same cause but for my neighbors. The $10 per month I’ve committed is indeed small, but over the year will amount to a higher giving than my one-off donations. Also, it’s important to note that these campaigns help to raise awareness (and it feels good to help feed people at Christmas), but the need is felt year-round. The reality is that these campaigns serve as a funnel to bring donors into the organization.

This isn’t to say that I will stop giving one-off donations. A lesson I took from Engage is that it’s ok to say no to charitable asks that come your way. You do it each time you decline to contribute a few dollars at the cash register when you check-out at the store. Rather than having to give to every cause, it’s important to determine how much you feel you can give, then to be selective with where you allocate your funds. During Charitable Tuesday today, I also made one off contributions to my alma mater’s Arts student fund because I value the time and experiences I collected when I was a student. I also made an additional donation to the Bruce Trail’s latest campaign to purchase and preserve additional land in the Niagara region for the trail. I doubt I’ll ever get out to see that portion of the trail, but it’s important to enable the organization to leverage its resources to improve access for everyone (include some of my friends who I saw posting to social media from the trail this summer!).

My birthday is coming up, and I plan to give another one-off donation to the Food Bank to keep with tradition. And in time, I’ll find new ways to offer support. There is no one right way to give, but regardless of the type and degree of your impact, there will always be needs that go unmet in our communities. In addition to my monetary donations, I still volunteer where time allows, such as on the two ethics boards I serve.

Both Stats Can and Imagine Canada are seeing that while average donation amounts are trending upwards, the average donation rate is holding-to-declining over time. I hope to do my part in reversing this trend.

Thank-you for reading my story, and perhaps it might inspire you to reflect on your giving history.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What Is “Creative” Work?

One thing I love about reading Seth Godin is how he tends to reframe how I think about things. Like many other people, I’ve been feeling in a bit of a rut with work. Without the context shift of going to work in an office, the days start to blur, and working from a distance keeps me detached from my colleagues. Instead, my work is largely done on documents and spreadsheets, and the tedium easily sets in. It feels monotonous and largely procedural.

However, the first page of Seth’s new book forced me to reconsider how I view my work. When reflecting on my work, I realized that I was defining “creative” narrowly.

“The Practice” by Seth Godin (2020), page 3

Were you to ask me whether my job is creative, I would probably take a view that conforms to my notes on the left. My job has some elements that I have “artistic” control over, but largely “no” because it’s process driven. However, if I define “creative” more broadly, it’s easy to see how my job is creative. I create tools and process flows. I define problems and find creative solutions, then teach them to others.

We often bind our thinking about “creative” to notions like innovation and novelty (divinely given?), when instead we should think of “creative” as deriving from “create,” which is more process driven than outcomes driven.

This doesn’t solve my tedium with spreadsheets, but it helps me frame my work within a different context. I am not just a cog, but instead I have the ability to adapt the cogs I use to suit my needs.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan