Nicola McDermott’s Notebook

As my wife and I were watching some of the Olympic coverage, we caught a recap of the finals for the women’s high jump event. I was always terrible at high jump as a child, but I stand at around 191cm (over 6-feet tall), so watching the athletes jumping heights that would clear my head instils a lot of awe in me. One jumper in particular caught my eye – silver-medalist Nicola McDermott from Australia. After each of her jumps, the camera would catch her diligently writing in a notebook.

Screencap from video: https://youtu.be/tYFV02xldbE

I have heard of athletes who meticulously journal to help with performance psychology, but this was the first time I caught it live. You can learn a bit more about what she records after each jump in this Guardian piece. One quote from the piece caught my eye:

“The 2.04m – I gave myself a 10/10 for that jump, the execution,” McDermott explained. “I felt the clearance in the air. But the lack of experience with the timing meant that it just didn’t happen today.”

I like that she framed it not as a failure of her abilities, but instead a lack of experience with the execution. Instead of seeing it as “I can’t do this,” it’s “I haven’t done this yet.” The productivity sphere labels this as an example of growth mindset, and given the stakes of the Olympics it’s inspiring to see an athlete have such an upbeat, positive attitude that would likely cause me to beat myself down in defeat.

While mere mortals like myself typically go through the motions of any given action, Nicola’s journaling habit and mindset is worth modelling as a method of providing yourself with immediate feedback and a view from without – one that gets you out of your own head. It also takes ownership over the process, because it forces you to break the activity down into discrete parts that you can focus on and improve.

Congratulations to Nicola on her personal best, and the example she sets in performance excellence.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Shrinking the Change

In recent weeks, I’ve built reading time intentionally into my work day. I’ve had it “in my calendar” for quite a while as an intention, but I haven’t meaningfully engaged with that blocked-off time since I first put it into my calendar. The intention was to recognize that my skills and career path would require me to commit time to learning and personal development, but I quickly got lazy and found other less productive things to occupy that time with.

I was annoyed with how I’d allow the whole day to slip by without getting a good start to my tasks (my vice being YouTube’s algorithm), so I thought I’d redirect my attention a bit. I reasoned that if my brain wanted to fight engaging with work (because it’s hard), then I could use that time to read. I set the timer and once I finish the sprint, I would start on some task for the day.

Surprisingly, I’m having some success with the process. It’s not perfect, but on the days I start with reading, I’m more likely to resist temptation and tackle items on my to do list.

Coincidentally I’m reading the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. One of the chapters discusses the concept of shrinking the change, which is just a fancy way of expressing the idea that we should break big scary tasks into smaller, more manageable bites. Committing to something that is long and ill-defined is hard for my lazy brain to comply with, but it will comply with an easy edict, like “read for the next 25-minutes,” or “spend the next 25-minutes downloading course information files to be processed.”

These tips and hacks are not new – everyone has some flavour of it as part of their productivity system. But like losing weight, it’s not a knowledge problem. Learning and reading about how to lose weight won’t make you shed the fat, nor will it help you amp up productivity.

The challenge for me is tricking myself into not being lazy. If the only way I can do that is making an Odysseus pact, or treating myself like a child, setting a timer, and promising to do a little bit before I get a reward, then so be it.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Decent Day

My productivity has been garbage recently. Maybe the lingering effects of working from home during the pandemic has finally ground me down, but I’ve been struggling with staying on task. I’m failing to prioritize my work, I’m failing to follow-through on intentions, and while I’m keeping up with some deliverables, it’s a real slog to turn stuff around. Even this blog consistently goes up days late.

I try to not take this to heart, because it genuinely wears me down. On a good day, I cross items off my list and stick to the pomodoro timer, letting its ticking provide a meditative soundtrack to my flow. On bad days, it feels like the whole days gets past me with nothing of substance to show; time that’s gobbled up by the Past forever.

On the days when I catch myself heading towards an abysmal performance by 5pm, I tell myself to just get one thing done. It doesn’t have to be huge or complicated, but get at least one important thing done and shipped, and you’ll have had a decent day.

It’s not the best day, it’s not a great day, but a decent day is better than nothing. And it’s easier to chain decent days together to push forward in your work.

Aim for decent days, when you get at least one thing done, then give yourself permission to be satisfied with that.

If you aim for perfection, you stall yourself out. If you aim for decent, you get at least this blog post out.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Visualizing Time

In an effort to tamp down on my procrastinating and get back on a Pomodoro system, I bought a desk timer.

I elected to go with a physical device rather than using my computer or phone to track time because I’m trying to remove the temptation to get distracted if I’m curious about the time left in the period. But I also had some other criteria.

In addition to wanting to avoid distractions, I wanted: a.) a visual representation of time, b.) something that made audible ticking, and c.) I wanted to avoid batteries if possible. The device above fit all three requirements. You wind-up the dial, set the desired duration, and the timer ticks away until the bell rings.

I’m still struggling with getting started (I usually give in and watch YouTube videos in lieu of starting my work), but once I get going, I find it easy to work through 25-minute sprints.

Let’s see how long this lasts.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Return to Normal

Well, I certainly was optimistic in my last post about when I’d return to normal. The move proved to be a bit more onerous, so I missed last week’s post, as well as this week’s deadline. C’est la vie. We press on.

As we start getting our vaccines rolled out to younger folks in my part of the country, we are beginning to have virtual watercooler chats about what the return to normal will be. The gut-reaction is that our higher education institutions will kowtow to pressure to return to face-to-face delivery as soon as possible – whether it’s students looking for the ol’ college experience, administrators looking to address gaps in the bottom line, or employees desperate to escape working from home.

It’s tempting to think things will return to normal, back to the pre-pandemic status quo. We, as creatures of habit, like to slide back into what’s comfortable and expend the least amount of energy that we need to.

But knowing what I know about people, a “return to normal” is going to smack straight into the loss aversion wall – people don’t like to lose benefits once they have them. It switches to an entitlement mentality. I don’t mean this in a negative sense. Entitlements are good! When we talk about entitlements, it carries a negative connotation of something not earned. But to the contrary, I think “unearned” entitlements are the point of society, culture, and government. Rather than everyone being forced to create everything for themselves, we can leverage divisions in labour, experience, technology, and collective action to ensure that benefits get spread around. The metaphorical tide should raise all ships.

So, what does it mean when we are rushing back to return to normal – what do we think we are missing, and what would a return to normal cost us?

A return to normal means hours of commuting per week, instead of going upstairs to work.

A return to normal means rigid schedules and limited campus space, instead of blending the flexibility of synchronous and asynchronous delivery.

A return to normal means bringing back flu seasons at work.

A return to normal brings back all the issues around inclusion and accessibility for those who don’t fit the “normal” not built for them.

Here at home, a return to normal means less time with our infant son. It would also mean less quality time with my wife.

I haven’t packed a lunch in a year. My office dress clothes have been hanging untouched in my closet. I’ve fueled up as many times as maybe months we’ve been working from home.

Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to still be working from home. Many employees at my institution still have to go on campus to work because they’re essential, so their current normal differs from mine. However, we must question whether we want the consequences of having the rest of us join the essential few. I sincerely doubt it is automatically a return to something better.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

WFH Observation – Novel Environments

I’ve been working from home for a year now, and I’m still surprised when I discover something about how I work that I had overlooked previously. You’d think I’d have stuff sorted out by now, but alas here I find myself.

Over the last week, we’ve been away from our house as we prepare to sell it. With COVID ramping up in the province, we thought it would be easier with a baby and a dog to be out of the house full time while prospective buyers came by to look at the listing. We stayed with family, which has required me to adapt my working conditions.

Typically I work in the home office at my desktop. For the last week, I’ve been working off a laptop and a borrowed computer monitor that functions as my second screen. For comfort, I’m using my peripheral wireless mouse and keyboard, along with my wireless headphones to block out noise. While working out of various bedrooms this past week, I’ve noticed an increase in my focus.

Granted, the increased focus coincided with a series of long meetings I’ve been attending, so perhaps I’ve been tricking myself into thinking I’m more productive. However, as I reflect on the situation, I also feel it’s worth mentioning that working in a new location helps to provide a sense of novelty for me.

This isn’t a new insight in the world of remote work – early in the pandemic, I used my company’s access to LinkedIn Learning to complete a few micro-courses on the topic of remote work to help me adjust. Many of the instructors noted that traditional remote work is done in many locations, both inside the home (dedicated workspace) as well as at favourite places out of the house (e.g. the local cafe). Because of COVID, I haven’t placed much stock in this piece of advice because we are dissuaded from working out of the house for long stretches of time (that is, sitting indoors at a coffee shop) if we are not required to do so.

This mini-experiment in remote work has given me some insight into my working style – I am not immune to the novelty that comes from environmental changes. When things relax a bit more, and if I continue to work remotely in my position, this will be something I’ll give consideration to.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Editing with Rapt Attention

Last week I discussed how I created a video training series for one of the ethics boards I serve on. All told, I’d estimate it took me around twenty hours to sketch, film, edit, and publish the series (this is an ad hoc estimate; sadly I didn’t do any time tracking to appreciate the effort). While I’m comfortable with the filming, I noticed a particular period of the work that created a bit of a flow state for me.

On the last day of editing, I was up against a bit of a deadline to finish the videos and push them out to the trainees. I admit that the deadline helped me to focus more (or at least resist the temptation to get distracted), but I noticed that when I was editing the videos, I hit a bit of a flow state. It’s not that I found the tasks particularly challenging, but there was something about the rote, somewhat monotonous task of watching and cutting footage that helped me move through the videos fairly quickly. It was almost 4-hours of editing before I felt like I should take a break to stretch and shift my mind to something else – the time seemed to go quickly. Then, after my break, I returned for another multi-hour stretch to finish off the last of the videos for the rendering queue.

It’s not often that I feel myself working in this state, where time gets away from me for hours at a time. In fact, most of the time I feel somewhat disengaged with my work, and I have to apply discipline in order to work on tasks. This was a rare example of working on something that felt right.

I joked with my wife that I wish I found a job as an editor, but I was only half joking. The lesson I take from this is to be mindful with how I engage with activities that trigger flow, and find a way to go back to that state in other areas of my work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

1000 Days of Language Learning

On the weekend, I hit my 1,000th consecutive day of language lessons in Duolingo for German.

One hundred days ago, I gave an update and reflection on my experiences at the 900th consecutive day of learning German. I noted that a large part of the competency I felt was attributable to pattern-matching, and I feel that is largely still the case. I am reasonably adept at visual pattern-matching based on context when reading the language prompts. I am less adept at auditory matching due to me often using the app with the sound off. I can’t comment on my skill at writing, though I pair that with my skills in speaking, which is hard to judge because I’ve had so little practice at speed. There are a few prompts from the app to attempt speech, but outside of my trip to Germany in 2019, I’ve had no practical exposure to speaking German in a way that provides immediate feedback.

There is one other note in my use of the app over the last few hundred days that I would like to share. Once I reached the end of the new lessons in the app (that is, I completed all language levels and earned a level ranking at least once) I stopped most of the novel practice and switched goals to improve my ranking on the weekly language league board. This changed my interaction with the app dramatically – I optimized for experience point accumulation rather than language mastery in order to earn a high enough ranking on the language board to progress through the various levels until I sat in the diamond league for a few weeks. I will fully admit that this was not language learning but instead gaming the system. I would only practice low-level lessons where I maxed out my level to earn experience point (XP) bonuses for the lesson. When the app was updated and new (more difficult) lessons were rolled out, I switched to completing the same language story each day to reliably hit my XP requirements. Eventually, after sitting in the diamond league for many weeks, I felt no motivation to maximize my weekly XP grind, and so I allowed my league ranking to fall, and instead focused on the bare minimum maintenance of maintaining my streak.

Obviously, this is not language learning as was intended by the development of the app. Thus remains a question: if I’m not intending on using the platform as it was intended, is there any reason to keep the streak? The short answer is yes – I’ve built up enough of a pride in the raw number that to break the streak I’ve built over the last 1000 days (almost three years of consistent work) would make me feel terrible. So I plan to keep plugging away at the streak for the time being.

But I do feel it’s important to return to the intent of the app – to practice the skills and develop better fluency in the German language. I’ll keep with German for now so I can continue to impress my wife’s family overseas, though I should probably also devote time to learning French as it’s an official language of my country.

If my streak were to end today, I would feel happy with what I’ve accomplished. Even if I haven’t reached a point of truly feeling conversational, I had learned enough through the app to be able to contribute somewhat meaningfully when I was speaking with family overseas. That alone justified the investment of time I made.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Falling Through My Systems

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.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan