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.
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.
This week’s post is late. The proximal cause is that because of the Tech Shabbat experiment, I was shutting my computer down for the weekend. Weekends are the most common time I write and prepare to publish my posts. Therefore, an unintended consequence of the Tech Shabbat is that I didn’t have a post ready for Monday.
However, that is a poor excuse when we consider the distal causes of why the post is late, because the Tech Shabbat was a known event in my calendar. It wasn’t something that was unanticipated, and I knew roughly what participating in the Tech Shabbat would entail. I knew, for example, that I had to get my course marking done before the Shabbat if I wanted to give my students their feedback with sufficient time for them to use my feedback in their next assignment. I was able to always get my grading done before the Tech Shabbat began each week of the experiment, so why did I not do the same for the weekly blog posts?
The Tech Shabbat became a convenient excuse to blame, when really the blame lies with a poor writing habit. Maybe I would have finished the posts had I not participated in the Tech Shabbat, but instead of dwelling in a possible else-world, I should focus on fixing the things I have control over, such as my schedule and how I set my priorities.
Proximal causes are easy to fixate on, and are often more expensive to address (it’s why we spend lots of money on shiny new toys that promise to fix our problems). Distal causes can be harder to spot and require longer, steady investment to overcome.
After a bit of a hiatus, it’s time I dust off my keyboard and get to work.
I attended a digital summit last week organized by a reputable platform. I’m going to deliberately keep this post’s detail vague because I’m not upset by being upsold to the point of it changing my opinion about the platform or the purpose of the summit. On the other hand, it clarified a few things about the nature of online business that I thankfully only paid a few bucks to learn.
The summit was meant to bring together content creators to discuss the business of making money online. I’ve flirted with this idea, and I have some project ideas for online content that I intend to provide for free for the ethics boards I serve, so I thought learning about some of the business and strategic best-practices would help me think through the project steps.
The three-day event brought together a few creators I’m familiar with, and I bought in at the early bird pricing, so I thought even if I attended the equivalent of one-day’s worth of sessions, I wouldn’t feel bad having put down some money for the access.
The first session was about creating an online course using the best practices used on the platform. Since I work in academia, I’m aware of some of the work that goes into creating a course. I would charitably say that I’m not the best fit for the target audience of the course, but I took notes and found some of their insights useful.
But just after halfway through the scheduled event, they switched from presenting about the tools and tactics of content creation to discussing some of the exclusive perks that could be available for a limited time to the summit attendees. As I sat watching, I was amazed that a lot of the various tactics they discussed in the previous 40-minutes were being applied to the session attendees in an effort to upsell a package. For a limited time, if you bought into a $100+ monthly subscription, you’d have access to a half-dozen pre-recorded courses, a half-dozen 2-month trial access to software, a more in-depth set of lessons about all the topics we just learned about, and a few other odds and ends (like unlimited replay of the summit sessions).
I don’t blame the platform for choosing to go this route, but I was shaking my head when I thought that I paid to be given a reduced-value presentation of a larger set of courses, and was being upsold on it. I paid to be sold to. I was even interested in one of the keynote Q&A’s and was disappointed that it was a twenty minute video call. The guest speaker has put out more value for free on his various social media channels than what I received at the summit.
Again, I’m not above this – I think there is some value in what I learned, and I’m not necessarily the target audience, so it’s wrong of me to complain about not liking the content. I just hate that I had to pay a small price to learn this lesson about the nature of online content creation. It’s a series of remixes of content (a cousin of the animated bibliography, it seems), trickled out slowly to optimize the conversion rate of your mailing list.
I understand that in order to make money online, you have to play the game. The problem is I hate that the game is mostly concerned with optimizing for views, rather than genuinely trying to help solve problems. Perhaps it’s a signal that I should heed. If I don’t want to play the game by the rules, I either have to get out of the game, or be so good that I invent a new category. Either way, my main takeaway: creating content online is going to remain a side initiative for me, rather than my main source of income for the foreseeable future.
I am guilty of buying into the world of self-help. The vast majority of my reading over the last five years has been variations on the self-help genre (to the point that I’ve coined the term animated bibliography to describe its form). I know that the returns on investing in self-help diminishes quickly, and I am aware of how dubious the promise that self-help sells is, but I constantly find myself getting sucked into it. This video doesn’t necessarily say anything new that I haven’t realized myself, but it pulls it together nicely with many examples of how dark this world can be for the copycat authorities that use the same tactics in different domains. This video is a good summary and reminder to myself the next time I’m sold the promise of a better life through tactics and strategies for sale.
I covered a different interview with Jon Stewart in my last published Friday roundup, but I wanted to link these two different podcast episodes along a similar theme, despite the shows being wildly different. I noticed that both Dan Carlin and Jon Stewart remarked on the difficulty that comes with being a voice that people turn to when making sense of the world. Stewart noted that towards the end of his time on the Daily Show, he sometimes struggled to be the person to go on television and say something smart or comforting after a tragedy struck (it might have been part of the reason why he burned-out and needed to retire). Similarly, Dan Carlin has not put out an episode of his podcast Common Sense in a few years, but he released this episode earlier this year. In it, he notes that he’s tried recording an episode multiple times but felt he was adding nothing of substance to the conversation. He struggled to, like Stewart, be a voice for people (like me) who turn to him to help understand the world we find ourselves in. I listened to both of these episodes in the same week, and gained a new appreciation for those like Carlin and Stewart who make livings giving me monologues to pre-digest current events. It must be tough to strike a balance by being both insightful and non-inflammatory, where you avoid stoking the audience against “the other side” (whatever side that happens to be at the time). A YouTuber I follow recently commented on folks like Tim Poole whose sole purpose is to inflame the left/right hostility, rather than adding anything of substance to the discourse. It’s causing me to slowly evaluate what voices I allow in and whether they’ve earned their place in my attention.
I have some deeper reflections that this article prompted, but I wanted to capture this here first. Varol has been a law professor for 10 years now, and with the success of his recent book, he’s decided to move on from his teaching duties to pursue other endeavors. This reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s idea of via negativa. Varol specifically invokes this idea (though not by name) by reflecting that decisions he’s made in his life that had the greatest positive impact were often decisions that “subtracted” from his life. It’s a reflection I applied to my own circumstances and still need a bit more time to process.
Watch: Every Race in Middle-Earth Explained | WIRED (YouTube)
Because we all need to have some fun once in a while, here is an informative half-hour from a Tolkein scholar who covers the history of Middle-Earth through its inhabitants.
Despite my promise to do better on the Friday before last, I did not get a post up this past Friday (largely due to a report at work that kept me occupied during the day) AND I had no post ready yesterday (largely due to not keeping a regular writing schedule).
I’ve found sense of pride in not missing a weekly deadline for the last few years, but things have ground to a halt recently. I’ve let my workflow dry up in favour of short dopamine hits (my distraction of choice being YouTube) to take the edge off of the anxiety around not getting work done.
Thankfully, I have some time off of work coming up, which will help with recharging the old creative batteries. I’ll be back next Monday with a real post.
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.