Defaults

I’ve been thinking about habits lately. It mostly started when I would reflect or review on my weekly productivity output – or more specifically the lack of output – and realized that I tended to procrastinate a lot in fairly predictable ways. My behaviour of choice to avoid work is to allow myself just a small indulgence on YouTube in the morning before I get started on tasks for the day, and then I look up and it’s been hours.

It’s not that I’m unaware of the time passing me by. I fully accept that it’s a choice I’m making. It just so happens to also be a choice that is hard to make to stop yourself from continuing when the cost to switch to work is so high (objectively less enjoyable than watching a video).

Somewhat coincidentally, I just read BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits. I didn’t choose it with the explicit purpose of fixing my work productivity; it just happened to be a happy coincidence. I have read a fair number of the self-help books centering around habits. In 2016, I read Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, Deep Work from Newport, and 7-Habits from Covey; in 2019 I read Atomic Habits from Clear, Mastery from Greene; and in 2021 was The Practice by Godin. At this point, I think I have a pretty good grasp on the common understanding of how behaviour works in the mind, at least as distilled by pop-psychology.

Having said that, I thought Fogg’s book was pretty good. It’s been a while since I read Duhigg and Clear’s books, but while I finished those books feeling like they laid out a decent explanation of a process for changing habits. I felt that Fogg covered the topics in greater depth with more actionable steps. On top of that, Duhigg is a journalist and Clear is a motivational/productivity writer, whereas Fogg is a behavioural scientist. It was super refreshing to have a book entirely based on his work. He avoided having an animated bibliography of summarizing all the work of other people and rehashing old ideas. The anecdotes he included were samples from his own students, which helped give context to the topics he covered.

Finishing this book (especially his section on replacing habits you want to discontinue) made me think of something Ali Abdaal discussed in a recent video on intentional defaults. A lot of my bad habits seem to stem from poor default choices. For instance, when I don’t want to start work, I’ll indulge procrastination by seeing what’s on my YouTube feed. Or when I have a night off, I’ll default to watching television.

Despite these not feeling like a choice, I am still making a choice to do these activities because they are the defaults I have set in those instances. ~When I feel the anxiety associated with work, I default to soothing myself with YouTube.~ Same with downtime at home. Rather than doing something productive, I passively consume because it feels better.

I don’t mean to say that we should maximize productivity at all times. That is a toxic attitude to take.

What I am suggesting is that I should question the process by which I choose to fill my time. When I want to do something productive, say knock off small tasks on my to do list, I approach it as something that needs to be scheduled. That is, I have to think about my time as something I’m earmarking to get stuff done. For instance, my Saturday is free, so I’ll do the laundry, bake some banana bread, etc. I fill that time intentionally.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I can flip it around and think “I have free time until the next planned thing to do, so what small thing could I do that will help me out?” It might be the case that sometimes I just want to zone out and not think about anything. However, when I do this every time I have free time, it suggests that I’m not choosing how to fill my time but instead am just falling into whatever action will make me feel good in the moment.

I should take the time to reflect meaningfully on my defaults and see if there are better, more fulfilling ways I can occupy my empty time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Food For Thought – Illusion of Safety

Last week, I shared the insight that brakes enable a car to go faster. This week is a reflection on the issues inherent in progress. I generally assume progress to be a good thing, but it’s important that we critically examine the consequences when we break through barriers.

Brakes allow us to go faster, but this increase in speed means that accidents are likely to be more severe due to the increased forces of collisions. Even when not driving recklessly, the instances where collisions happen means the damage is amplified as a result of speed.

Brakes, and other safety measures, provide an illusion of safety. Because we can brake at greater speeds, we feel safer going faster. Because seatbelts save lives, we are more willing to trust them in a collision. Because helmets protect heads, we are less concerned with impacts during collisions.

I’m only referring to legitimate features that make things safer – there is a whole other conversation to be had around safety theatre (measures that pretend to make us safer but have little actual effect relative to the cost). Things like brakes, airbags, seatbelts, and helmets, are all real ways we can increase safety when we go faster. They are all valuable guardrails to impose to allow us to leverage progress to scale added value. But we must also be mindful that the increases in speed (or other benefits of progress) have commensurate scaling of harm when things go wrong.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Food for Thought – On Self-Discipline

Michael Sugrue recently posted a series of one-liner observations on his YouTube Community page; one of them grabbed a hold of me, and I wanted to share it.

“Brakes make a car go faster: self-discipline produces freedom”

While it reminded me of Jocko Willink’s Discipline Equals Freedom mantra, it still gave me pause to reflect on this quasi-koan. There are two paths for speed – you either are able to control it, or you give over to speed for its own sake. Unless you disregard all safety and practicality, there is little benefit to unrestrained speed or freedom. It is through imposing limits (or the ability to control the forces at play) that you are truly able to take advantage of what speed (or it is a proxy of) has to offer. It is narrow-minded to believe in absolute freedom without guardrails. To believe we should live without restraint is to place yourself and your needs above everyone else. You might win on a few games, but it is a poor strategy in the long term that hurts everyone.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Identifying Areas of Growth

I had my latest performance appraisal last week. I found I had a much easier time identifying areas of growth this time over last year after having gone through an accreditation visit for one of our programs. In the past, I would look at my current skillset, look at the friction points I was experiencing, and project forward a better future based on picking up some new skills or experience. This process is fine, but I realize the flaw is that the path you choose to develop in is not based on experience. It’s a guess about what might be helpful.

Contrast this to going through the accreditation process. To prepare for the performance appraisal, I reviewed the last year’s worth of information (my calendar, my one-on-one meeting notes, and notes I’ve taken about my job) and saw patterns of missed opportunities and under-performance. In these areas, I can reflect and see how if I had more skills or experience in these particular areas, I would have had a better time navigating the issues we faced.

Based on this backwards reflection (rather than guessing or projecting forward), I could more clearly articulate what I’m weak in and where I would gain the highest value in focusing on.

I think this marks for me the formal transition from the “start of career” phase to a more mature “middle career phase.” I have enough work experience and self-knowledge to draw meaningfully from, and that allows me to make smarter choices moving forward.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Long Absences

You never intend to step away for very long. A week goes by, then another. Without realizing it, a month has passed.

It can sometimes be hard to keep up a weekly blog. I don’t know how the daily folks do it – Seth Godin says it’s just consistency, but does that mean it’s easier to show up everyday than once per week? Maybe… It’s harder to push off to tomorrow when the deadline is always midnight. I’m not impressed by the folks whose job is to churn out multiple pieces of content per day. Creative burnout aside, there is a difference between being paid for the content and doing it without pay.

Excuses are easy, especially when they are real. Yes, I didn’t set time aside to write, but I also had a major deliverable due at work. I even set up auto-responders on my emails to manage people’s expectations while I was in focus mode. These are reasons, but they do not excuse the absence when you know what you are getting yourself in to.

And when you return to the notion of an update, you feel the need to write something profound to offset the time away, but the ideas feel crusted and not worth sharing. Instead, you hide away, and figure you’ll get back to it next week, meanwhile the feeling of panic and dread increases at the thought of delivering that perfect post.

But next week comes and goes.

There is no magic solution beyond showing yourself compassion, resetting the clock or counter, and shipping the next thing by trying again.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Advice from Col. Chris Hadfield’s Keynote

At my college, there is a yearly multi-day event for employees to deliver PD workshops to each others to teach skills and share experiences. The college invites thought-leaders to delivery keynote addresses to kick-off and close-out the event.

This year, the closing address was delivered by Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield. After his inspiring talk, he fielded a few questions. I was one of the lucky ones whose question was posed to him. Here is a summary of his key lessons to my question:

“How do you and fellow astronauts handle coming back to Earth? That is, the depression that comes after the high of achieving your goal/mission. “I just did that… now what?””

  • There is a misperception about going to space. It’s not just a random good thing that happens to you out of the blue – the mission has been an endeavor that is decades in the making (26-years for him from the time he decided to become an astronaut to his first mission). Even if he wasn’t chosen to go to space, he still enjoyed his job. Going to space afforded him unique experiences that honed his skills. He was gathering experiences and capabilities, then after coming back from space he could take those skills to support others and apply them in other areas of his life. He sees it as a tremendous set of gifts, tools, and new abilities to tackle the rest of his life. If you try to measure your life by one or two shiny peaks, then by definition you’ll make your life dismal. (As a side note, I read his book “An Astronaut’s Guide To Life on Earth” after his speech, and in it he goes into greater detail of what happens to astronauts after they come back. The experience doesn’t end; the job of being an astronaut has succession plans built into it that keeps astronauts useful. They spend months debriefing the mission to identify best practices that will keep future astronauts safe. They help train others, and handle mission control duties. They also help support the families of other astronauts when their loved ones are away on mission. The impression I got is that the job is designed to be a.) in service of others, and b.) purpose-driven).
  • Don’t spend a lot of time looking backwards. “If you spend a lot of your life looking backwards, you’re going to bump into your future. That’s not where things are coming from; they’re not coming from the past.”
  • The most important decision you’ll ever make is “What am I going to do next?” Some of your opportunities and skills will diminish as you age, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be vital, important, interesting, or challenging to you.
  • There are cool things happening to you everyday. Allow yourself to succeed everyday, it doesn’t have to matter to anyone else. Celebrate it. Recognize that yeah, there is crappy stuff happening, but there are cool things happening to you too, so try and choose to focus on them. There are compulsory things you have to do, but like in figure skating there are freestyle points. Try to revel in the freestyle. That leads to a life well-lived.

I’m so glad I got a chance to hear him speak and that my question was selected for response. I devoured his book and dropped many bookmarks in to return to so that I can absorb his experiences. It really drove home the problem with many self-help books that are released today – the books are written by people who are telling the stories of others. The purpose of the book (aside from sales) is to collect stories from the deeds of others in order to fit a narrative or thesis. There is an assumption that because someone else made things work that the author has the borrowed authority to provide advice to others.

I’ve learned that it’s much more instructive to turn to the primary sources and read the undiluted message from those who’ve actually been “in the arena.”

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Workplace Weakness

I’ve been thinking about personal weaknesses I have in the workplace – besides missing my regular posts for this blog…

Focus and persistence are two things I think I am weakest at. On a macro level, I have poor focus to stay on task. The consequence of poor focus means I either flit from project to project, or I self-sooth to avoid the pain of friction (typically by going on YouTube).

Poor day-to-day focus leads to poor persistence, which means I don’t carry things to completion. I stick in the ideas or early implementation phase. I chase the next shiny distraction. This would be somewhat remediated through better habits and intentional prioritization of my tasks and time. It would also be partially addressed through better task management, where everything is organized and resurfaced at the times I need them.

Solutions:

Focus
– short work sprints (pomodoros)
-discrete tasks (break projects into small, well-defined, finite steps)
-block out the world (headphones and white noise)
-block out distractions (website blockers)

Persistence
-organized task management system
-calendar blocking
-show up each day with focus habits (see above)
-project and tasks planning
-recognize that progress is made in small steps

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Optimizing, Values, and the Right Answer

Engineers love clear problems with delineated right and wrong answers. Data, especially quantified data they think, is objective and clean. Without painting too strong of a stereotype, they don’t like to muck around with soft skills, or social/political factors in problems. They like to keep engineering pure.

The problem with this view is that it’s not correct – it makes an underlying assumption about what makes something a right or wrong answer to a problem. Most problems that engineers deal with when designing a solution are not value neutral. When we think of problems with clear right or wrong answers, we think of problems that are purely mathematical or having discrete binary solutions (e.g. “will the object handle the forces that it will be subjected to under normal conditions?”). The secret is that all problems have “right” and “wrong” solutions based on the underlying values you are trying to optimize for.

An engineering problem that is optimizing for maximizing return on investment might have different solutions than one that optimizes for addressing systemic inequity for particular people. The tradeoffs are not just opportunity costs, but instead are tradeoffs on which values inform the vision of the final outcome of your solution. When you seek to return on investment, to maximize profit, the answers are pretty clear – drive down expenses, raise prices as high as the market will bear, communicate the value proposition to the customer, and produce enough goods at the right rate to meet demand without excess goods sitting idle. When you seek to address systemic inequity, your solutions will have decidedly different considerations – your expenses will go up as you pay fair wages, prices might not maximize your margins, you will be more candid with your customers, and your manufacturing and distribution will be likely slower and more intentional as you make ethical considerations in your processes. You will also consider all sorts of other externalities that pop up as a result of your solutions, boosting the positives while capping the downsides.

This is not to say that all solutions will be equally easy to implement under any one set of values systems that you choose. However, it’s fallacious to believe that the same answer will always be given for “can we build this?” and “should we build this?” if you aren’t also examining the underlying values that you set in your assumptions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Getting the Need for GTD

I seemed to have hit an inflection point in my job recently that I’ve been struggling to overcome. While my work has had multiple buckets of concern, I’ve been able to managing things fairly well using my memory and jotting notes and to-do’s in my notebook. However with moving into a position that requires managing complex, long-term, and poorly-defined processes, I’ve been increasingly finding it difficult to keep everything straight in my mind. My tasks aren’t are clearly defined, and I’m required to be more independent in how I manage both my own personal workflow and the various areas under my responsibility.

Simply maintaining a to-do list doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. There is too much to keep track of, too many legacy pieces of information that has accumulated over time, and the pace at which things are added or change is steadily increasing in velocity. Add to this the need to keep on top of things in our personal life at home, volunteer work, and activities that I find gratifying, and I’m feeling slightly paralyzed in knowing what I should fix my attention to.

In an effort to get a handle on things, I’ve picked up David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It’s the first time in a while where it feels like the text is speaking to me. I went into the book a little leery of going after yet another gimmick or shiny new toy. GTD is a seminal system in the productivity space, and so it sometimes carries with it some baggage from some of the more problematic areas of the space. Yet, I’ve found it helpful so far in thinking through my problems. At its core, my problem is in two areas: the meaningful transformation of input, and in execution.

I suppose GTD will eventually help me with the latter (I don’t know – I haven’t finished the book yet as of writing), but it’s been incredibly insightful in tackling the former. I tend to take notes and capture to-do items all over the place. However, what I’ve been lacking is examining each of these pieces of input and doing something with it; processing them into their buckets. The list has grown so large and unwieldy that I am having trouble finding stuff when I need it. I have tried popping items into information systems like Notion, Trello, or using tags to help me find it later, but most of these systems have lacked the context to help make the inputs useful later. Instead, they sit in whatever capture system was used to grab them at the time – physical notebook, email inboxes, Trello, tags in OneNote, calendars, or tasks in Teams.

I’ve found GTD helpful in suggesting organizational structures and parse out what will be meaningful later and what can be archived out of mind. I’m still working through developing a system, but so far embracing ideas from GTD has helped keep things more readily at the top of my mind, which has translated into less general anxiety as I go through the work day.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan