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.
Previously, at the start of the notebook I would collect a running series of to-do items. Most of the items at the top of the list would be things that had been carried-over for multiple months, with a few small items at the bottom that likely were first jotted-down in the previous month. I found that I was continuously copying out the same items month-over-month and the list was growing. On the one hand, if the thing isn’t important enough for me to complete in a reasonable amount of time, it could be the case that it’s not important enough for me to carry-forward and that I should just drop the task all together.
Yet, I felt that some of the tasks were things I’d want to complete “one day” in the undefined future, but that I had lots of other pressing things that needed my attention first. Or, some tasks would require a fair amount of planning or coordination, and so I would tackle it after an adequate amount of lead time.
Some time ago, I created an account on Trello, but it was sitting unused as I didn’t know what kind of boards I would find useful. This seemed like the perfect experiment to help me remain flexible.
I set up several columns (buckets) of items. In the far left, I labelled the list “Pool” and dump in all to do items. Within each of the cards I can make notes or sub-lists to help keep me on track of things. At the start of each month, if there is something I don’t want to carry forward into the new book, I put the item into the bucket.
Next, is the “Planning Phase” bucket. The beauty of Trello is I can drag cards from one column to the next, so when I’m ready to move stuff from the Pool to another phase of activity, I can easy drag-and-drop. Items in the Planning Phase might require me to do research or make purchases in preparation to work on the project.
If no further planning is required, I move it into the “Active” column. When a task is active, it’s something that I’m placing priority on and is meant to remind me to carve out space in my schedule to address.
Sometimes, a project needs to be put on hold. I created a bucket to put tasks that are underway but I’m not making active progress on. Items in this bucket might require someone to get back to me on some action of detail, or maybe I need to wait until a future date to complete the tasks. Whatever it is, if I don’t want to move a task back into the pool column, I place it here and make a note of why the tasks is in limbo.
“Completed” is my win column – it gives me a chance to see what I’ve crossed of my list and as the column grows, I can take satisfaction in my accomplishments.
I created an “Abandoned” column because sometimes I will choose not to complete a task but I don’t want to delete it outright. Maybe it’s something that’s still important, or maybe I missed a window but I want to be reminded of it.
Finally, for tasks that occur regularly but infrequently, I have a column so that I can see when the last time was that I finished a task, and remind myself that it will need to go back into the active column (e.g. changing my tires, changing the furnace filter, etc.).
I’ve been using this revised system for a few months and it seems to be satisfying my immediate needs. It both cuts down on the number of items I need to manually copy from book to book while allowing me to indefinitely store things in a user-friendly format – effectively marrying my love of analogue with the convenience of digital.
It is sometimes amazing how cyclical social and political problems can be. While I am not pessimistic in our ability to move forward in something that can be recognized as “progress,” I do have some cynical attitudes towards our collective habit to backslide. I realized some time ago that while we espouse enlightened positions, such as “never again,” people as a whole tend to by historically myopic and prone to letting fear get the best of them – or to quote Agent Kay “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”
As of writing, I’m working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Around ten-hours into the audiobook, Chernow is discussing the political maneuvering between Hamilton and New York Governor George Clinton over trying to get the newly-drafted Constitution ratified in 10 States in order to bring it into force. The two sat on opposite sides of the federal government question, with Hamilton believing a strong central federal government was the key to sustaining the American experiment, while Clinton was distrustful of a central government superseding the power of the States. Hamilton had a poor opinion of Clinton, believing Clinton to be only concerned with consolidating his own wealth and power, and only pandering to the populace when elections rolled around.
Chernow gives a striking description of what Hamilton feared, and in a single line spells out a looming threat we are seeing anew in our own modern political discourse. Hamilton worried that “American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populace shibboleths to conceal their despotism.”
Chernow penned those words some fifteen years ago. Whether it’s 1788, 2004, or the dawning of the neo-20’s, the fears expressed in those words caution us that we must remain vigilant against those who seek to exploit our fears to manifest their vision in reality.
Last week I shouted from the rooftops about reaching zero unread messages in my inbox. This feels like a good opportunity to geek out a bit on some cool digital tools I use for my process flow. Below are a handful of applications and services I use to keep on top of things, which supplement any physical systems I use to stay organized (like my notebook, for example). None of the referenced products below are sponsors and I have no business ties with them.
I was introduced to Boomerang for Gmail a few years back and made use of their free tier for quite some time. However, last year I made the jump to unlock some additional functionality and allow me to boomerang more messages per month.
Seamlessly integrated into Gmail, Boomerang allows me to kick messages out of my inbox and set to return at a predetermined time. You may have noted in a caption that I mentioned “boomeranged messages;” this is what I was referencing. If I have messages that I want to come back to, but I don’t want them to clutter my inbox, I use Boomerang to remove them temporarily without me forgetting about it. Boomerang has other features, such as being able to append notes to myself or asking a message to return if no one responds within a certain time frame. All in all, a great little service that doesn’t cost much for the year.
I use both Evernote (free) and OneNote (Enterprise). I don’t really have a preference one way or the other at the moment, but I tend to use Evernote for personal items (saving notes, planning blog posts, etc.) where I use OneNote for Board work and my main job. I was urged to go paperless by my boss, so I slowly adopted the services and moved away from extra notebooks and loose papers on my desk. Especially within OneNote, I can use the attach document feature to put “print outs” of documents within a notebook page, then use my tablet’s stylus to annotate the document with handwritten notes.
Speaking of embedding print outs, I started using Scanbot for Android to capture paper documents and port them into my digital notes. I like Scanbot over the regular camera because the AI recognizes the page and will use algorithms to digitally morph distortions of the page. Instead of requiring perfect lighting and standing perfectly over the page, I can capture documents on camera and Scanbot flattens out and crops the image for me. I’ve also found it handy for taking pictures of overhead presentation slides, and whiteboard writing.
Pushbullet has a lot of features for pushing documents across devices, but I mostly use it as a way of preventing myself from always looking at my phone. Instead, I can avoid temptation and quickly reply to text messages from my wife before jumping back into my task. I know myself well enough that picking up my phone is inviting a trip down the rabbit hole of distraction, so Pushbullet really helps keep my monkey brain in check. (Note: if you’re wondering about how I avoid distractions on my computer, I use the StayFocusd extension to block website during certain hours of the day)
Month over month, I will have lots of To Do items that are left incomplete. I used to copy them over manually to the next notebook, but over time the list grew. Out of laziness, I started porting those tasks over to Trello for longer term storage. Yes, I should either discard those items I’m not doing or clearing my plate by completing the tasks. However, there are items that are not urgent and not important enough to do at the time. Instead, I’ve set up a kanban board that allows me to move tasks from a pool to an active list, then to a complete, abandon, or hold list, depending on the status of the task. It’s a handy way of keeping on top of tasks that are not immediately pressing and allows me to use my notebook for day-to-day pressing concerns.
There are a few other tools I’m trying out, such as Toggl, RescueTime, Microsoft Teams, and Notion, but I’ll save those for a future post.
The five-ish tools above are a few things that makes it easy for me to keep on top of several process flows for work, my personal projects, and my volunteer work. Without them, I would be drowning in trying to keep everything fresh in my mind. Let me know what kind of tools you use (digital or analogue) in the comments below. I’m always interested in learning what different people have set up for themselves.
I had a strange realization last week. I am now at a point in my career where I need to make “give business card” a default action for when I’m out and about, but not for the reason you may think. Under normal circumstances, I feel it’s relatively rare that I have to give out a business card. In most instances, my role has been too small and insignificant to warrant it, but also because I don’t really buy into the culture of swapping business cards with people in an effort to ‘network.’ I have been promoted to a new role, which entails more responsibility and autonomy when it comes to business meetings, but I’m still getting used to the idea of thinking of myself as an administrator or a manager.
Last week, I was in a coffee shop to grab a quick bite to eat before a meeting. The cashier saw that I was wearing a jacket with our school’s logo, and he excitedly asked if I was a student or employee. I let him know that I work at the college, and he asked in what area. When he heard I work in the school of engineering, he proudly told me that he received multiple acceptances into our mechanical engineering diploma programs. Since the coffee shop was dead, he then launched into a mini history of his background – he was born in east Africa, immigrated to the Middle East, did secondary school in the US, and now has his visa to study in Ontario. He told me some of his education, that he had top marks in design in high school, and even has a portfolio.
His energy and enthusiasm was infectious, and he left a strong impression on me. He sounds like a great kid, and I have no doubt that he will be successful in his studies. I told him where he could find me on campus, and he said he’d find me in the future.
I realized as I was driving away that I had missed the perfect opportunity to give him my card and promise to follow-up if he had any questions. I want to see him succeed, and if there was anything I could do to help, I’d gladly try.
Rather than seeing the business card as a way of helping myself, I should put more emphasis on seeing the business card as a way of helping others.
At the time of writing, I’m assisting faculty with processing the grades and academic standings of students from the last academic year. All of the grades for the Winter are in, but for the engineering degrees we are in the long, tedious process of reviewing all the grades and courses delivered over the last twelve months and making notes on ways the delivery can be improved for next year. This is an important process for us to follow, not only for our continuous improvement requirements for accreditation, but also because it’s important to pause periodically and reflect on the reasons students perform they way they do – especially when they fail.
Because people have a tendancy to shift blame away from themselves, reviewing student failures can be challenging. If you ask students why they fail, you’ll likely hear something that reflects courses that are too challenging, professors who are unreasonable, or circumstances they had no control over. Faculty, on the other hand, think students are unwilling to put in the hard work needed to be successful. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. In my opinion, I feel that faculty sometimes forget what it’s like to be a student, and I feel that students don’t see the bigger picture to help them understand how they should be prioritizing their work.
Despite the fact that students are legally adults when they come to school, we forget that the depth of their experience is often pretty shallow. It’s the first time they are away from home, the first time they are having to manage their day-to-day lives, and often higher education is a large step-up in academic expectations compared to their secondary school experience. I’ll chat a bit more about this next week, but I think the takeaway is that we often take for granted the experience we, as professors, draw upon to manage ourselves and our work, and instead we shake our heads when the students perform poorly in their work and seem to ignore the opportunities we extend them for extra support (office hours, anyone?).
A valuable skill faculty need to develop and practice is empathy for students. We as faculty have a responsibility to both apply high expectations to the students, but also be willing to place ourselves in their shoes and see the world as they do – a world where everything seems important, everything is competing for their attention, and crucially, students think everything carries dire consequences.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve been onboarding my replacement at work. On the one hand, it’s great to finally offload the extra tasks that I’ve been juggling since assuming my new position. On the other hand, I’m having to experience a new world at work in the form of management and performance coaching. It’s one thing to do the tasks yourself, but it’s an entirely different thing to anticipate another person’s tasks, teach those tasks to the person, the follow-up on the progress with feedback.
While I am not the direct manager for the new program assistant, I share some of the responsibilities for ensuring she’s successful in her new role by virtue of me being the last person who occupied the role. I suppose I’m over-thinking this a bit, since employees move on all the time and are not accountable for the new person’s performance. Nevertheless, between me still working in the same office and me being a team player, I feel that it is my duty to help the new employee succeed until she can run under her own steam. Afterall, the program assistant position is a job that was developed over the course of four years, so it’s a lot to take in all at once.
I knew prior to her starting that I would need to reflect intentionally on how I could teach someone to do the job that I have built over time, and figure out how to deconstruct the tasks and portfolios so that it makes sense to a fresh set of eyes. Since this is my first time doing this, I took a stab at it and realized that there was a lot more I could have done to prepare for onboarding her.
One example is at the end of her first day. I met with her to do a mini-debrief on how she felt her first day went. She admitted it was a bit overwhelming, but was confident that she would learn more as she did the tasks. She then asked for my input on what she should do the next day. I hadn’t anticipated this question, so I floundered a bit, suggesting that she should take some time to read through the relevant policies and procedures I’ve got stashed away in a binder, as well as reviewing the committee minutes from the past year for an upcoming meeting she will need to plan.
After work, I reflected on this and realized that I didn’t do a good job of setting her up with concrete tasks for her to fill her day meaningfully. Don’t get me wrong – at some point she will need to read over all of that stuff as it will be important to her job. However, I realized there are better ways she could be utilizing her time. Instead of reading over abstract documents, I need to get her working on tasks that are directly related to what she will be doing over time.
The next day, I jotted some ideas down and met with her in the afternoon to discuss how things are going and give her concrete tasks to start figuring out, such as responding to program-based email inquiries, learning where to find reports, typing up committee minutes so I could critique them, etc. I also coached her on setting up meetings with the program Chairs to 1.) introduce herself more formally, and b.) to learn from them what their needs and wishes are. I seeded some questions with her on topics she ought to cover, and left it to her to arrange the meetings. In the background, I also spoke informally with some of the Chairs to let them know she was doing this, and to suggest ways they could help onboard her to their program areas.
This was a much better way to onboard her, and she was busy over the rest of the week learning various systems. She would stop by my office a few times a day to ask clarifying questions or ask advice on how she should approach a certain task. She was learning by doing, and seems to be adjusting well to her new role. I’ll leave it for her actual boss to determine whether she is meeting targets, but at least I know she’s able to work with us as a team behind her.