Here is a note I wrote to myself watching a training video:
“While a lot of these (insights) are basics that I already know, I am doing a terrible job at following them (to use my time effectively during the work day). Yes, I’m procrastinating by watching (the) video as if it will be the magical thing that fixes all my problems. Still, I also believe in the need to repeat messages, messages resonating at different times, and new ways to view old problems.”
There is something to be said for shiny new toys distracting us from just sitting down to get the work done. It’s not a knowledge problem, it’s an application problem. As Derek Sivers points out, if it were a matter of knowing, we’d all have six-pack abs and a million dollars in the bank. I fully acknowledge that I don’t need another video to teach me how to be more productive.
As it is said, there are many paths up the mountain. Some are harder, some are more direct. I have to allow myself some space and grace to realize that I don’t know everything, that I’m going to make mistakes, and that each day resets to zero to try again.
Exercise teaches us that to become stronger (read: more capable), you must grow through a process of exposure to controlled stress, recovery, then adaptation, so that you can handle the same stress loads with less conscious, intentional effort. This is a useful metaphor for handing other kinds of stress in our lives. Therefore, to overcome, you must develop your stress-capacity beyond whatever it is that is creating your fear, anxiety, or pain.
There are limitations to this simplification, such as bodily ailments and chronic systemic issues, but as a general idea, this shows an empowering approach that allows you to take responsibility over finding paths forward to good outcomes. You don’t have to resign yourself to passivity; it is possible to be active in redefining what you are capable of.
I’ve recently been turned onto Van Neistat’s YouTube channel. Van, the older brother of Casey Neistat, is a true pleasure to watch – he’s the DIYer’s DIYer and his style is untainted by modern social media. He’s the best of the Gen X cohort without the pretension or cynicism.
In his video meditating on the nature of burnout, he described slow burnout in terms of a motor with the cylinders breaking down one at a time. I’ve never thought about burnout in this way, but the image struck me hard. I find it to be a very apt description, where a motor can lose a cylinder and still operate, but there will be consequences to continuing to run, such as damage to the motor, inefficiencies of fuel consumption, increased wear on other components in the chain, and vibration in the ride. From a mechanical perspective, if you choose not to fix the issue, so long as you reduce the load on the engine and cut the fuel going to the cylinder, you can get away with running down a cylinder. For a time.
Of course, this probably will be harder and costlier to fix later.
It’s better to fix the issue up front, but that usually is expensive as well – the time, cost to diagnose, and cost to repair.
Work and life burnout seems to function the same way – if you choose to ignore the problem, you can still operate, but you have to accept the knock-on consequences of operating out of balance. At some point, the engine will stop running. Or, you can pause and try to identify the problem up front and fix it then, which can be expensive and uncomfortable.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Sorry for the lack of posts these last two weeks. I have lots of reasons (the holiday Monday, work has been keeping me busy, feeling tired from childcare, and our family being sick the last week), but those are poor excuses for not carving out some dedicated time to put thoughts to screen. I have been doing a decent job of holding myself accountible with work, but knowingly allowing two weeks to go by unplanned without posts shows that my systems still have some issues with keeping me on top of everything.
I appreciate the grace you have offered in my absence.
As the saying goes from Heraclitus, you can’t step in the same river twice. There are two ways we can interpret this metaphor. The most common interpretation is that you cannot step in the same river twice because the river is constantly changing. The water is flowing past, the flux of the water is changing the boundaries and composition of the river, and so it’s impossible to step into the exact same river twice. But another way to interpret the metaphor is to place more emphasis on the you – You can’t step in the same river twice – whereby the you stepping into the river changes and is not the same over time. This can be taken as literally as when describing the flux of the river – your cells are changing, etc. But I like the more poetic version of the metaphor that speaks to us changing with our experiences through our lives.
When you return to a river (the river being a stand-in for any number of things), you are a different person, and your past experiences make the phenomenological event that you experience different. The first time I encountered this was retaking a course in high school. I was the kid that took a course called Writer’s Craft, loved it and the instructor so much that in the following year I enrolled in it again with the same teacher. However, the materials selected for the class by the teacher, and indeed my fellow students, were all different. It was different, less enjoyable this time around. I still enjoyed studying under my teacher, Mr. Steffler, but with it being a different cohort of students (students from the grade below me), I realized that the experience lacked the magic of when I took it with my original cohort. I tried to step in the same river twice and was surprised when it was different; that I was different.
There is also the case where you revisit a book you read previously and it speaks to you on a different level. Maybe your experiences help you connect with the characters on a different level, or you empathize with the characters differently. Your values might have changed. Or just that you are older and more knowledgeable, you understand more of the text and draw different connections.
This happened to me recently. My job promotion at work was approved, and I’m taking on management tasks as part of my portfolio. Maybe because I have mild imposter syndrome (I sometimes believe I am continuing to fail upwards), or maybe because I’m trying to be proactive, I decided to pull my copies of books by Peter Drucker off the shelf to learn what it means to be in management and how to do it well. I started with a short text of his called Managing Oneself, which I read back in 2017.
Something in the book landed differently this time, which I think breaks down to two differences about me now versus who I was five years ago. The first is I am busier now than I was then. This isn’t to say I was idle then – I was working three jobs, heading up a non-profit, in a relationship, etc. However now my life feels fuller with things that feel more critical – a higher stakes position at work with more responsibility, co-managing a household with my wife, the responsibilities of family and childcare, dealing with a pandemic, etc. I might have fewer work domains on my radar than I did in the past, but things have higher stakes now, and the idea of more effectively managing myself speaks to who I am as a person, where I’m trying to be mindful of others, plan for the future, and lay down a good foundation to support our family as we go.
The second thing that landed differently was the section about learning more about yourself and how you operate as you manage yourself/your life. I don’t remember this sticking in quite the same way (and based on my blurb from Instagram, it seems I was slightly underwhelmed by the text). For as much as I feel like I’m an imposter sometimes, I also know myself more now, am more confident in my skills, and have cultivated experience and expertise as I travelled along my career path from then until now. And so to revisit this section about managing yourself (that is, identifying what you should prioritize your focus on nurturing and developing) speaks to me. Rather than being frenetic and jumping on every opportunity while you are early in your career, it is better to slow down, be mindful, and think through what will add value to your life.
I don’t need to worry about losing out on opportunities by not acting fast. Instead, I can think about enhancing quality, enriching life, and paring down the things that no longer serve me.
I thought I was going to read the book a second time to remind myself of its content. Instead, I realized I was coming at the book afresh, for the first time, ready to learn.