This late post is a nice springboard into something I’ve been thinking about throughout the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, when I was still commuting to work, I had a fair number of systems to help me get stuff done. My commute to work helped me film daily vlogs, listen to books, and think about big ideas for blog posts and Stay Awesome vlogs. When we started working from home, those outputs began fading. Now, I feel behind on my blog posts, I *maybe* film a personal vlog once every two weeks, and Stay Awesome has been put on an indefinite hiatus until Jim and I get some extra headspace bandwidth to devote attention to it.
I was also known for my notebook. I carried a Field Notes notebook everywhere with me, and was constantly scribbling notes into it. Then, around 4 months into working from home, I found myself abandoning the monthly notebook and appropriating a disused larger notebook to jot down tasks, lists, and random thoughts. The Field Notes book was small, portable, convenient, and had many systems to track things I found important, such as exercise, health, habits, etc. Now, my notebook is largely devoted to task management, because when every day feels the same, you can quickly find yourself several weeks down the line having nothing to show for your time.
In a sense, I’ve fallen through my systems. The various “systems” I implemented succumbed to inertia when I both lost the cues that triggered them and lost the will to keep putting effort in the system to power the flywheel, and friction has ground them to a halt.
James Clear has a pithy phrase, that “you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” This is a riff on an older Greek observation from Archilochus: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
Regardless, the question I have is whether I truly had a system if it was a fair-weather operation that wasn’t robust enough to adapt to these kinds of radical changes. When I lost the external liminal cues that came from commuting to work, or from even leaving the house on a regular basis, the things I called systems disappeared as well. Is it charitable to call these things “systems”? In virtue ethics, you aren’t said to possess a virtue if you only exercise it some of the time – you aren’t considered courageous if you don’t act courageously in a moment that requires it. Does this apply to systems as well?
Part of me says yes, but that’s not very helpful. Perhaps I should reframe my thinking and consider the quality and attributes of the system. Borrowing from Taleb, some systems are fragile, some are robust, and I suppose some are antifragile. I understand antifragile systems in the context of biology (e.g. stressing muscles can allow them to get stronger over time), though as of writing I can’t think of any productivity system that get stronger under pressure.
Regardless, it’s clear that much of my productivity was built upon what can now be labelled as fragile systems. They worked under certain conditions, but outside of that narrower band they are less able to withstand fluctuations or variance. In my reflections over the last few months, I’ve been seeing the value in understanding the causes of system failures so that I can create new processes to help me in work and life. For now, the first step is to acknowledge that I’ve fallen through my systems, and having acknowledged this, I can stop spinning my wheels and start seeking traction.
In March, I will have been working from home (WFH) for a full year. You’d think that with my experience being employed pre-pandemic, I’d know how to manage my time and motivate myself. But, I have to be honest that working from home has had its challenges. Every time I think I’ve got it figured out, I somehow end up reverting back to a less productive mode of work.
You’d also think that after working from home for a year that I’d have a handle on the situation, yet there, too, I’m finding it difficult. I could attribute it to having a child and the challenges that come with that level of life adjustment, but I feel that would be a disingenuous excuse for my poor integrity.
I know I’m not alone; many people are feeling this. In the beginning, the articles were about learning to draw boundaries in work/life balance. Then came the articles urging us to dress for the office, trying to capture the liminality inherent in a structured schedule. Then came the posts lamenting the late nights with alcohol and doom-scrolling. We all are feeling the anxiety of trying to remain in the present while our focus is pulled towards thoughts about a dimly lit uncertain future.
The best I can do is continue to experiment and see what sticks for me. At the moment I’m trying to be more intentional with my work calendar. I set up to three priorities for the week, block off time in my calendar to work, and spend the first moments at the beginning and the last moments at the end of the day to plan, reflect, plan, and review.
One thing I’m enjoying with this approach is that I’m having an ongoing dialogue with myself in my work calendar. At a high level, I’m leaving a paper-trail of my thoughts, and with that trail I can autopsy where I’m successful and why I fail. But in the day-to-day moments, voices from the past come to help my present understand itself, then I leave little notes for the future to pick things up after rest.
I’ll keep practicing this approach and write some comments in the future, if it sticks.
I took a new step today in the evolution of my personal giving. For Giving Tuesday 2020, I finally set up my first set of recurring monthly donations. Now, every month the The Food Bank of Waterloo Region and the Brantford Food Bank will each receive a deposit of $10 from me. It’s a small, almost embarrassing amount to type (when I think of charitable giving, I’m thinking of impressive amounts with more than two zero’s to the left of the decimal point), but the important thing to keep in mind is a.) it’s my initial amount that I expect to grow over time as my circumstances allow, and b.) the total for the year will actually be higher than what I would normally have given.
I’ve been growing more intentional over time with my charitable giving. Many moons ago, I was involved with a program created by the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation called Engage. The program has since ended, but the experiences have stuck with me. If I want to live in a vibrant and thriving community, it’s important that I take the benefits and privileges I’ve accumulated to help others in different living circumstances than my own.
In philosophy, there is a thought experiment called the veil of ignorance, where if I were to be placed randomly in a society, I would obviously want to choose a position that afforded me a degree of wealth, freedom, security, and privilege. To me, this translates into a moral imperative that we should actively work to raise the living situations for all persons in our community to promote flourishing and happiness. I don’t want to live in a world where people have to rely on charity, but it’s an inescapable reality and therefore it must be confronted.
If we are being technical, charitable giving breaks down into three kinds of support, known as the three “t’s” – time, talent, and treasure. Time and talent were my first introduction to giving back to my community. It started in my various youth groups, where I would exchange my time to support a cause: raising money for Beavers/Cubs/Scouts/Army Cadets/swim club, marching in Remembrance Day parades, highway cleanups, and building a library abroad. Later, when I was but a poor student, I volunteered my talents to support causes for school and to help fundraising efforts for the HopeSpring Cancer Support Centre (and eventually I became the minute-taker for their Board of Directors). I also supported my friends with their charitable causes, such as helping with my buddy’s Headshots from the Heart videogame marathon event. As I started to transition out of my student phase of life, I began exploring the third “t” – treasure.
My history of charitable monetary giving started in my mid-20’s. I created an elaborate birthday ritual for myself in an attempt to imbue the day with significance (after 21, there weren’t any milestones I cared to look forward to). One ritual I set for myself was to make a donation to a cause I was interested in. When I was a student of the Engage program, I reflected that I wanted my charitable giving to go to “feeding bellies and minds,” and so I would make a yearly donation to the local food bank. Despite having never used it myself, I recognize the value they bring.
My first donations were in physical goods. I would save up rewards points from the grocery store, then buy as much food as I could for a few hundred dollars, and bring all the canned goods in for donation. Then I found out that their purchasing power was much higher than mine, so I switched to monetary donations once a year on my birthday.
The next evolution in my charitable giving happened a few years back when I wanted to help support the preservation of our environment. The Bruce Trail is a massive network of linked trails that allows one to hike 900km from Niagara to Tobermory in Ontario. Despite having never hiked on the trail myself (though I have ambitions to take up the activity), this seemed like a good cause to support, so I started purchasing yearly memberships. This year, I switched from a buying a membership each year to an automatic renewal system.
Switching back to the Food Bank, my next evolution in giving started in January of this year. I emailed to follow up on the Christmas drive and to ask what kind of shortfall the KW Food Bank saw. They kindly shared their yearly report, but what stuck out was a throwaway comment that they were successful with the campaign, but that the regular commitments were more important to ensure meals throughout the year. So, I decided I would eventually switch to small monthly donations that would increase over time as my circumstances allowed.
It was accelerated this summer with the BLM protests. I wanted to do more than empty social media posts, so I started to think about how I could contribute financially to important causes. A close friend of mine has created a line in his budget for philanthropy, which I took some inspiration from.
But in the Canadian context, I thought I should find a way to support Indigenous causes. Truthfully, I haven’t yet made that commitment – I’m still on the lookout for an ongoing support cause that resonates with me. I value the input of my peers, so if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear your input.
That brings us to today. I decided to finally set up my regular payments to support these organizations that do so much good in our community. While I don’t live in KW anymore, I still feel called to help them in their mission. And since I support KW, I thought it appropriate to also give money to support the same cause but for my neighbors. The $10 per month I’ve committed is indeed small, but over the year will amount to a higher giving than my one-off donations. Also, it’s important to note that these campaigns help to raise awareness (and it feels good to help feed people at Christmas), but the need is felt year-round. The reality is that these campaigns serve as a funnel to bring donors into the organization.
This isn’t to say that I will stop giving one-off donations. A lesson I took from Engage is that it’s ok to say no to charitable asks that come your way. You do it each time you decline to contribute a few dollars at the cash register when you check-out at the store. Rather than having to give to every cause, it’s important to determine how much you feel you can give, then to be selective with where you allocate your funds. During Charitable Tuesday today, I also made one off contributions to my alma mater’s Arts student fund because I value the time and experiences I collected when I was a student. I also made an additional donation to the Bruce Trail’s latest campaign to purchase and preserve additional land in the Niagara region for the trail. I doubt I’ll ever get out to see that portion of the trail, but it’s important to enable the organization to leverage its resources to improve access for everyone (include some of my friends who I saw posting to social media from the trail this summer!).
My birthday is coming up, and I plan to give another one-off donation to the Food Bank to keep with tradition. And in time, I’ll find new ways to offer support. There is no one right way to give, but regardless of the type and degree of your impact, there will always be needs that go unmet in our communities. In addition to my monetary donations, I still volunteer where time allows, such as on the two ethics boards I serve.
Both Stats Can and Imagine Canada are seeing that while average donation amounts are trending upwards, the average donation rate is holding-to-declining over time. I hope to do my part in reversing this trend.
Thank-you for reading my story, and perhaps it might inspire you to reflect on your giving history.
Something that I’ve started taking more seriously as of late is the idea that there is a seasonality to learning some things in life. In this case, I mean “seasonality” not in the calendar sense that we experience during the year (Spring, Summer, etc.), but more in a broad metaphorical sense, such as seasons of life. I think there are seasons of our lives where certain lessons are easier to learn than others. This is not to say that you can’t learn them outside of the “right” season, but that some lessons are easier to learn at certain points in your life.
For instance, I’ve heard complaints about the secondary school system’s curriculum not teaching useful skills. Where the modern high school student is wasting their time learning about Shakespeare, the argument goes, they should instead be focusing their attention on more practical matters such as learning how to budget.
I’ve long been skeptical of this criticism for two reasons. First, I don’t think it should be the job of the school to teach every skill that’s deemed important. When people complain that they didn’t learn useful things in school like how to do laundry, how to eat properly, how to do taxes, etc., I place the blame of the lack of skills on them and their parents. Those bits of know-how are readily searchable online now, and short of an accessibility issue with being able to use technology, I see no reason for being ignorant. No, instead, I see school as the domain of more specialized knowledge that would be challenging to teach in the home environment by your parents who otherwise might not be skilled in teaching subjects like the maths, sciences, and humanities.
However, the second reason why I don’t find those arguments persuasive is that there are some concepts that are not easily absorbed at that time of your life. I can only speak from my experience, but when I was a teen, I wasn’t earning an income to support myself, nor was I carrying the bills and debts that would require me to keep a budget. I didn’t have the frame of reference, experience, or need to learn those kinds of skills. Instead, I understood what it meant to set up a budget, but not how to actually keep it.
I’m finding the same for home repair during this season of my life. Prior to owning my own home (where I am directly responsible for its upkeep and my family’s comfort and security), I didn’t feel an incentive to invest time and energy into learning how to maintain the home. Growing up, I would help with the chores and some light maintenance, but otherwise my parents largely were the ones who did the important stuff with troubleshooting problems. Now, those responsibilities fall squarely on my shoulders, and I’ve had a number of instances where I’ve had to pay costly invoices to tradespeople for repairs and work that largely could have been handled by me had I possessed a better understanding of how my home worked.
This is not to say that people don’t learn these skills when they are young. Whether it is through personal interested, a keen disposition, or a patient and knowledgeable parent/mentor, plenty of people know how to do amazing things by hand that puts my simple repairs to shame. Nevertheless, I have now reached a season where I’m more receptive to these lessons, and I’m embracing them with an open mind and a willingness to try.
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.
I had planned intended to write a post over the weekend. No plan survives contact with the enemy, as Helmuth von Moltke quipped, and between the Canadian long weekend and a new baby, my intentions are still not getting turned into plans or actions. It’s all part of the learning process, and I have a ways to go.
As I continue to adjust to my new life, I will have to continue to adapt and learn new ways to get things done.
I have this bad habit of coming up with thoughts for blogs as I’m trying to sleep. I promise myself I’ll remember to jot it down in the morning – that it’s not worth staring at my screen in the darkness when sleep is so close by.
And yet, here I am – kicking myself over the n-th missed idea that never came to fruition.
Perhaps there’s not a lot I can do when inspiration strikes me other than keeping a notebook on hand to capture transient thoughts. However, if the pandemic and working from home has taught me anything about creative activities, it’s that I shouldn’t wait for inspiration to take hold, but rather inspiration should find me already hard at work at the process of making. That is to say, it’s more important that I build regular practice and development into my routines so that I increase the chances of inspiration catching me as I work.
I’m not the first person to suggest this strategy. It’s common advice from many creative folks. What’s new is that I’m seeing the advice in action in my own work: the more I write and practice, the more ideas flow out of me.
If I do this, if I do the work in between the deliverables, I suspect I’ll capture a lot more of those posts from the ether.
There is no formal round-up post this week. I’ve done a poor job with staying on top of things, so I don’t really have a curated list to share. Don’t get me wrong – lots of stuff happened this week both awesome and thought-provoking, but I didn’t do a good job of carrying those items forward into a coherent post. I noted in my journal this week how disappointed I’ve felt with my output recently, and I narrowed it down to a lack of consistency. When we first entered the isolation period, I was coasting on the momentum of my regular systems. However, those systems have atrophied over the last month, and the content funnels aren’t getting filled like they used to.
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.