I’ve been mulling over a quote I wrote down in my notebook back in March, especially as it relates to my productive output at both work and for my personal projects:
“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” ~Paul Batalden
At the end of the day, I’ll look back at my lists of tasks and feel frustrated that another day has slipped by thanks to my monkey brain’s inability to focus. Of course, this is placing the blame on the wrong focus because it’s ignoring two important facts: it assumes I’m not in control of my behaviours when I blame it on my “monkey brain,” and it assumes that I’m setting myself up for success merely by sitting at my computer. Both of these are patently untrue. I have control over my environment and (to borrow a phrase from Jocko Willink) I should be taking extreme ownership over my work situation.
If I find myself frustrated with my lack of output, I have to look at the system that my productivity is set against. If I spend my day getting lost down YouTube video and blog holes, then it’s because my system is optimized for it.
If I’m allowing myself to give in to temptation or distraction, it’s because it’s easier to fall back on things that are psychologically comforting and there is too much friction to get started on the real work.
Motivation is a flywheel – I have to overcome inertia to get the wheel turning, and it takes time before inertia helps the wheel turn freely. If the system is optimized to prevent me turning the flywheel, then it’s important to look at the system for fixes, rather than bemoaning the outcomes.
It’s not a quick fix. It will take time, effort, and a direction to push towards that will start the flywheel. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. If the flywheel grounds to a halt, then it’s my job to stop, reset, appraise, and re-engage.
As with many other people right now, I have chosen to go back and re-watch favourite television shows. I decided that with Star Trek: Picard’s recent release, it would be a great time to go back to the beginning (of the modern era, anyway) and revisit Star Trek: The Next Generation. I had probably watched every episode in my teen years, but I had always watched it in syndication, so this is my first time going through the show in order.
Approaching the series in my 30’s has been a real treat. I have more life and cultural experience to draw upon as I watch these incredibly written episodes play out. I knew the show was amazing, but I never appreciated how well it engages with moral issues.
I want to highlight one excellent episode from the third season – episode 7, “The Enemy.” The characters provide us with a moral issue about autonomy, and a good lesson in leadership.
The story centres on the conflict that arises when the protagonists rescue an enemy officer from an out of bounds planet. The officer, from a race of people called Romulans, is gravely wounded and requires a blood transfusion. There is only one member of the crew whose blood could be usable, but that crew member, Worf, has a history with the enemy’s peoples – Worf’s parents had been killed during a Romulan attack when he was a child. Worf, still carrying his anger for their death all these years, refuses to give his blood.
Meanwhile, a Romulan ship is en route to recover the officer. There is a tenuous peace treaty that prevents an all out war, but the Romulans have a history of subterfuge and deceit. It is believed they will cross the border and assume an antagonistic stance to provoke a war. Worf’s Captain, Jean Luc Picard, is seeking any means that would avoid an armed encounter, and decides to plead with Worf to reconsider his decision.
In this moment, it would be expedient to Picard and his crew to order Worf to donate his blood. He is about to contend with an adversary whom has no issue with breaking a peace treaty by provoking an attack (whether or not his side is initially in the wrong). Picard is seeking to recover a still-stranded crew member on the planet below, keep his ship safe, maintain the territorial sovereignty of the Federation, and maintain tenuous diplomatic relations with a rival group. This is all threatened because the one solution to his problem, keeping the enemy officer alive, is being blocked by a crew member whose personal history and honour motivate him to not help the enemy.
There is a beautiful scene where Picard appeals to Worf for him to reconsider:
Picard: So, there is no question that the Romulan officer is more valuable to us alive than dead. Worf: I understand. Picard: Lieutenant, sometimes the moral obligations of command are less than clear. I have to weigh the good of the many against the needs of the individual and try to balance them as realistically as possible. God knows, I don’t always succeed. Worf: I have not had cause to complain, Captain. Picard: Oh, Lieutenant, you wouldn’t complain even if you had cause. Worf: If you order me to agree to the transfusion, I will obey of course. Picard: I don’t want to order you. But I ask you, I beg you, to volunteer. Worf: I cannot.
In silence, Picard slowly walks back around his desk and sits in his chair.
Picard: Lieutenant. Worf: Sir? Picard: That will be all.
We then learn from the ship’s Chief Medical Officer that the Romulan has died. Picard has lost the only bargaining chip he had to keep things peaceful with the approaching enemy ship.
Picard could have chosen to order Worf to allow the blood transfusion. Instead, he chooses to respect his crew member’s personal wish, and as a leader deal with the hand he’s given. He also knows that making an order against the personal rights of a crew member under his command sets a dangerous precedence – that anyone is disposable if the captain judges it. Instead, he accepts that this closes off options. He knows that this places him not just on the back-foot, but also with his arms tied behind his back as he prepares for the possibility that his ship will be destroyed. However, the burden of command requires him to take these realities as they come and make the best decisions that he can. Events are being shaped around him that are beyond his control, but he strives to make the best decision that he can. He’s not perfect, but he becomes a role model in striving to do the right thing.
Even if the right thing might mean the death of he and his crew.
It’s a wonder piece of science fiction that I’m glad to be discovering anew.
It’s taken me six weeks, but I think I’ve finally found a good system for working from home. Like many people who are fortunate to work from home during the pandemic, I’ve been struggling with keeping my normal routines while working from my computer at home. I won’t pretend that I had a perfectly productive system when I used to commute to the office everyday, but where I had the illusion of being productive simply by being at work and conversing with my colleagues, at home I am totally cut off from those signifiers of “work.” In the last few weeks, I’ve had spurts of productive time, but those were relatively few in number.
Late last week, however, I found a good combination that allowed me to really focus on moving my tasks along. I’ll share some of the tools that have been working for me.
First, using headphones to play noise while I work helps me make the mental shift in context from “home” to “work”. I have two sets of headphones at home, and both work well – a wired set of Sony headphones with noise canceling function, as well as a set of Philips Bluetooth headphones that also cancel noise actively.
I don’t just listen to music, however. I find most music to be distracting to my workflow – even lyric-less songs. My mind tends to pick up on the melody, and I’ll focus on that instead of the task at hand. I have two sources of noise I currently use – a pomodoro Chrome extension that plays fuzzy white noise (and conveniently tracks my pomodoro sessions), as well as a pomodoro video on YouTube that includes a visual timer and ticking clock. The white noise blocks out ambient noises that otherwise gets through my headphone’s noise canceling feature, and the ticking noise helps me focus.
Speaking of pomodoros, I use the pomodoro method to break down the tasks into manageable chunks. It also has the benefit of bypassing my motivation drive. Rather than committing to working an 8-hour work day, I commit to the next 25-minute block of work.
I have a lot of projects and tasks to keep track of, so I use two systems to prioritize and track my work. For long term, multi-step tasks, I have set up a dedicated board on Trello to manage where each project is in the pipeline. I have created buckets that I can move tasks through, from the general pool of tasks, to the planning phase, into an active phase, and if the project is put on hold, I can take notes on what I need to do to push things along while the task is in limbo.
For day to day task planning, I went simple and set up a text file that I number tasks as I think of them for the day, then I keep track of what I accomplish each day in a growing list. I usually would do this in my notebook, but I liked being able to cleanly re-order tasks. On paper, you can only order tasks in the initial stack you wrote them in, but if something changes during the day (e.g. a meeting gets scheduled on short notice), it’s harder to move things around.
Aside from the Microsoft Office tools provided by my employer (Outlook, Teams, Sharepoint, and OneNote), that covers my current workflow. Depending on how long the stay-home order is in place, I might update how this system evolves. It’ll also be interesting to see what of this system I port back with me to the office (I have a feeling I might bring the headphones to help me focus).
If you have any systems or tools you like, I’m curious to hear about it in the comment section.
Note – this is an experimental posting format. I’ve thought about increasing the number of posts I commit to per week, but I don’t want to add unnecessary work if I’m not willing to stick it out. Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s really hard to get a single post out each Monday that I’m satisfied with, so increasing my posting frequency just to for the sake of increasing my output is a terrible idea. I will run a short experiment to see how easy it is for me to get out a Friday Round-up for the next month. If the experiment goes well, I’ll consider making it a part of the regular rotation.
Many of the bloggers and thinkers I follow have some sort of curated list they share on a regular basis of the best pieces of content they came across in their weekly browsing. During this week, I came across a few thought provoking posts that I felt deserved to be shared.
Here is my round-up list for the week ending on April 24th:
We should be reminded that maps are not the terrain, and that models are predictions (read: guesses), not certainty. We rely on models to help us understand the world, but we should remember that they have their limitations.
Paired nicely with Seth Godin’s post above, Dr. Attia gives a good lay-primer on how a model is created, and what the limitations are when trying to model something like a virus when so little is known about it. The two takeaways I have from this piece are: we should be more willing to accept that good models gives us ranges, not fixed numbers (and we should be more comfortable with the ambiguity); and just because the worst case didn’t arrive, it doesn’t mean that the model was overblown – we need to find out more about why the model was off. It might be that the virus isn’t as dangerous as we initially thought, or it might be that physical distancing greatly impacted the viruses capacity to spread (it’s probably a little of both), but until we know which side maps to reality, we can’t be confident of what we should do next.
This is actually something I’ve used for some time, but wanted to share. When I’m trying to focus, I have discovered that I can’t listen to music (even of the lo-fi variety) because I find the melodies too distracting. However, I’ve found it helpful for me to listen to regularly repeating noises, such as white noise and ticking metronome sounds. I’ve experimented with a few options, such as a 10-hour “cosmic white noise” video, but while working from home during the pandemic, I’ve settled on this Pomodoro video that I also have paired with a Pomodoro Chrome browser extension that plays white noise (the ticking gives me focus, the white noise blocks out ambient sounds in my room). Forcing myself to focus in 25-minute spurts keeps me on track while I move through my to do list.
Let me know if you find any of these interesting or useful. Also, feel free to share your best round-ups in the comments below.
When it comes to posting for this blog, my goal is to have content ready to go live by Monday mornings at 9am. It’s largely an arbitrary objective, but I like to try and keep it so that the post is live by the time I get to work for the week and I can kick off work feeling a sense of accomplishment. As of writing these words, it’s 11:46am on a Monday – clearly I’ve missed my target.
Like many people, I’m finding it challenging to maintain productivity while working from home. I can try to claim that I’m in an adjustment period. Afterall, Wednesday will mark two full weeks of me being home from work. But I know in the back of my mind that while it might be true that I’m still adjusting to working from home (now that the novelty has worn off a bit), I also am keenly aware that my productivity habits are spotty at best.
Thanks to my wife, I’ve been able to keep a structured schedule for my days. I’ve also increased my excersising and have used the time at home to practice time-restricted feeding. I’ve brainstormed what I’d like to work on during this period of instability, and my relationship with my wife has grown closer as we’ve been forced to spend more time together at home.
But when it comes to actually doing the things on my list, I’m struggling with tipping over from plan to action. I’ve known for a week that a blog post needed to get done. I’ve even drafted a few ideas with some rough thoughts and structure. Yet, here I am, almost three-hours past my deadline, and I’m writing a vaguely stream-of-consciousness post. I recognize in me the same level of performance I see when students leave their assignments to the last moment to start (note: stream-of-consciousness is a typical strategy to fill space and sound smart).
Meta-blogging aside, the problem is that I’m still not a professional when it comes to many things in my life. I don’t mean ‘professional’ in the sense of being paid for my work, nor do I mean professional in the sense of being recognized as such.
In this case, I mean professional in the sense that Seth Godin invoked in a podcast episode I listened to recently (Seth Godin [Empathy] on the Creative Elements podcast). A professional is someone who shows up (often because they are being paid, though not necessarily) because that is what they do; it’s what’s expected of them. It doesn’t matter how they feel – they show up. Seth Godin notes that this can be hugely inauthentic. Sometimes, like this morning, you have a hard time feeling like you want to show up. You want to show up, and at a second order you want to want to show up, but no matter how much you desire to show up, you struggle with moving from thought to action.
There are tricks to motivating yourself. If I may be allowed to tap Seth Godin again, a recent blog post of his resonated strongly with me last week (React, Respond or Initiate on Seth’s Blog). Reacting is often the easiest route to overcome the motivation barrier – it’s visceral and immediate. It’s also unfocused and sloppy. Responding is more thoughtful and directed, but like this post is still intimately tied to someone else putting work into the field. But Initiate? That gives you maximum freedom of direction, but the hardest to push yourself through. The Resistance (hat-tip to Mr. Pressfield) is felt in direct proportion to how much ownership you have over the initial starting move. To React is to cede the initiative because you are unaware and flat-footed. To Respond is to acknowledge that you are going second, but you are at least aware and ready to make a move. But, to Initiate means you pick the time and place to move things into action, which can have all sorts mental barriers in the way.
I’m of two minds on the matter. On the one hand, I feel like not moving towards a goal is to waste an opportunity that has presented itself to me. Like with compound interest, the more small progress I can put in, the more it will pay off down the line. And if you fail to put in the work, you’ll struggle to rise to new challenges; you’ll end up hurting your future-self because you failed to practice and prepare. Or as Ryan Holiday notes, “you can lie to yourself, saying that you put in the time, or pretend that you’re working, but eventually someone will show up. You’ll be tested. And quite possibly, found out.”
But at the same time, I know I have to be kind to myself. These aren’t expectations that I need to follow, nor do I have to choose them. These are one version of a vision of success, but it’s not the only path or formula to follow.
Being afforded the opportunity to work from home is giving me space to be able to think and reflect. Within the opportunity, it’s important that I take the time to pause and listen to what my preferences are telling me – what do I find important and how do I leverage the tools I have to go where I want to go. Being a professional towards goals you don’t want strikes me as pyrrhic. Sure, you might gain measures of success as someone might define it, but at what cost? If we know that lunches are truly never free, then what is it we give up when we go with defaults?
Showing up doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Being a professional means being consistent and accountable, even if you are fighting to create progress by the inch. Chain enough inches together over time will still create progress forward.
My wife and I are fortunate to be able to work from home. I started working from home Wednesday of last week, and initially found the transition to be manageable. Thanks to my wife’s discipline, we were keeping our normal sleep schedules, and we are able to maintain our normal working routine from the safety of home.
One thing that really threw me this weekend was when I allowed myself the permission to completely relax my schedule. Because of the pandemic, a lot of my pressing obligations and scheduled social time have been put on hold, meaning I have more free time than is typical. During the work week last week, I kept up with work and tending to things around the house, but by the weekend I decided to jump into playing video games, reading, and podcast listening. I also enjoyed a few beers Friday and Saturday nights while exploring the Borderlands, so going to bed before midnight was quickly forgotten.
This had two interesting consequences. First, by Sunday I physically felt bad. Not sick, but my body felt sluggish, I was tired, I had a headache, and my motivation was sapped. While I didn’t drink to excess, I did wonder aloud to my wife if what I was feeling was a low-grade hangover from my general poor choices over the weekend.
The (amusing) second consequence was that my wife remarked that she now sees why I impose schedules and routines on my daily life. She normally encourages me to relax and play games, but this is the first time in a long time that she has seen me proactively partake in games. It was a little like a crash-and-burn by Sunday night – I don’t do moderation very well and her mock-horror was a good reminder of that.
In reflecting on the last few days of the self-isolation, I have learned that it’s important for me to keep regular routines and impose discipline on my otherwise chaotic whims. I’ve known this about myself for some time, but this weekend helped to reinforce why I prefer keeping routines and habits active. Like a child, I crave structure.
I was watching the dark comedy “The Death of Stalin” the other day and noticed an interesting scene that imparted some wisdom about relationship management. Early in the movie, Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi, has returned home at the end of a long day with Joseph Stalin and other politicians. As he undresses for the evening, he is listing off a series of topics to his wife, who is in bed and taking notes in a book. As he lists off the topics, he comments on which topics landed well with Stalin, and which he should avoid in the future.
Setting aside the bleakness of needing to make notes on things that will keep you alive around a dictator, it was an unexpected example of good relationship management in action.
I’ve done stuff similar to this. At first, I thought it was a sleazy practice, but after overcoming those initial thoughts, I realized it’s an entirely effective way of keeping track of important details either early in a relationship (here, I mean relationship in an extended sense, not in a romantic sense), or for relationships with infrequent contact points.
If it’s worth maintaining a good relationship, then it’s beneficial to reflect on your interactions and take notes on things worth remembering. Whether you use a book as in the film, or making notes in your phone’s contact cards, it can be helpful for refreshing yourself when you interact with a person again. I’ve made notes on business hours, names of employees at a shop, the names of a person’s significant others, and even early in my relationship with my wife I would note ideas for the future.
Far from sleazy, it’s a useful way of paying attention and making others feel special because you’ve taken the time to learn and remember details about them. And, instead of relying on your memory, you can have the confidence that you’ll get the particulars right and avoid looking like a fool.
I’ve hit a couple of milestones recently. For instance, last week I hit a nice big milestone in Duolingo when I hit 600 consistent days of doing lessons.
I wouldn’t say I’m particularly fluent in German, but during my trip in October of last year, I was able to follow some of the conversation going on around me and put into practice the lessons given by the app. I was able to manage thanks to small, consistent daily micro-lessons that expanded my vocabulary a bit at a time.
Something similar happened for this blog as well. From time to time I check-in on the site’s stats and analytics. I don’t have any plans or intentions to seek monetization, so I only check in on things out of a sense of curiosity rather than seeking optimization. I originally set up this blog as an exercise to see if I could keep a consistent weekly writing schedule. At the time, I had the aspirations to go back to school to become a paramedic, and so I also had intended to use this blog to apply the concepts I was learning to help me reinforce my learning. I’ve sinceabandoned that path, and so the blog largely remains a project to force me to come up with something to post on a weekly schedule.
I was looking at the stats last week and felt a sense of satisfaction for hitting a couple of milestones. First, it appears that I have not missed a weekly post in the last three years (I might be late posting, but I still get something up). Also, I’m happy to see that overall my words per post are trending upwards, though I hope this means I’m providing more meaningful, nuanced posts rather than just being verbose.
Then, I decided to check on how many words I had written for this blog.
Avg Words per Post
As it turns out, I had written the rough equivalent of a book in the four years I’ve been at this. Beyond the urge to create something and a desire to force myself to “write more,” the steady drip of a weekly schedule has now pooled into a large body of words.
I take a lot of inspiration from Seth Godin, and I learned from him the value of consistently showing up and putting in the work. It’s not about creating high quality giant pieces of work from fiat, but instead the slow, plodding, steady work of creating a little bit at a time. When you look back, you see the vast distance you’ve covered by forcing yourself to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Not everything is going to be good – in fact, most of it will suck. But, over time you get better at the work, and sometimes you can find the good stuff emerging from the mediocre.
Last week, I gave a highlight of the best books I read in 2019. Below, I present what I read in 2019. By comparison to 2016, 2017, and 2018, last year was a paltry year in reading for me.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The Bullet Journal Method
Trumpocracy – The Corruption of the American Republic
Daniel H. Pink
The Gift of Failure
Better – A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
The Graveyard Book
Built to Last
Right Here Right Now
Stephen J. Harper
Complications – A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science
J. Michael Straczynski
A Game of Thrones
George R.R. Martin
Scott H. Young
Reader Come Home
Andrew G. McCabe
The Path Made Clear
I have a few thoughts as to why my reading rate dropped off significantly last year and what I can do about it in the year to come.
Last year had a few significant pressures on my life that might have affected my desire to read. We started basement renovations early in the year, only to discover our basement’s foundation was cracked, requiring us to source quotes and opinions for repairs. This delayed our basement renovation, which didn’t finish until the summer. The protracted project weighed heavily on our minds throughout the year as we questioned whether we were making the right decisions for our home repairs, or whether we would need to make additional fixes later down the line.
Another big change for me was a change of my job at work. While I wouldn’t say it affected me as strongly as the basement renos, it disrupted my routine enough to impact my desire to focus on reading when I came home from work. Couple that with another full year as Board Chair for the non-profit I head up, and it left me with less cognitive bandwidth for self-improvement.
Podcasts and Music
If 2016 was my year of purchasing books, 2017 saw me start to utilize Libby to access the library, and 2018 was an all-out race for me to go through as many audiobooks as my brain could absorb, I felt a greater push away from books in 2019. Instead of working my way through 8-15 hours of content for one piece of work, I found the shorter format of podcasts more satisfying on my commutes. I enjoyed the variety in topics, shows, and voices.
However I also found I was drawn back to listening to music instead of information. With the sheer volume of books I’ve consumed in the last three years, it was nice to go long stretches without a goal of getting through books (or trying to learn new things) and instead allow the melodies, riffs, percussion, and lyrics sweep me away.
Overall, my rate for the year was a bit varied. I started slow in January and February, then picked back up in March. April only saw one book completed, then I found my footing again through May onward. However, October is when my wife and I traveled abroad for our honeymoon, and I never recovered my reading habit for the rest of the year.
Given that I spent most of the last three years focusing on business, personal development, and productivity books, I didn’t feel a strong desire to read those books in 2019. Even among the books I did read from that area, I found looking back that I don’t remember anything of note from those books. Neither the book’s theses nor the examples they offered have stuck with me as I enter the new year.
I’ve mentioned a few time the concept of the animated bibliography on this blog, and I think I’ve hit peak saturation for the genre. I’ve read the canon, and find that reading new books in the genre is resulting in diminishing returns; that is, I’m not really seeing a lot of new insights being offered that leaves me wanting more.
In my list last week, I commented that the books that I’m drawn to now is starting to shift away from business and productivity and more towards moral lessons found in fiction, biography/memoir, and journalistic explorations of current events. That’s not to say I won’t continue to be tempted to pick up the latest book that promises to fix my life, but it does mean that I’m intending to be more selective in what I choose to prioritize.
Assuming I continue to live a somewhat healthy life that is free from accidents, I figure that I have around 45-50 more years of life left. If I read around 3 books consistently per month, I will get another 1,650 books in my lifetime (4 per month is 2,208 books, and 5 books per month is 2,760 more books before I die). While that sounds like a lot, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of books that come out each year and the books that have already been written. There is more to life and learning than being more productive or seeking more meaning in one’s life. I’ve grown to appreciate the value of storytelling this past year, and there are a lot of stories out there to sink into. If I only get access to a few thousand more stories, I should make sure they count.