Advice from Col. Chris Hadfield’s Keynote

At my college, there is a yearly multi-day event for employees to deliver PD workshops to each others to teach skills and share experiences. The college invites thought-leaders to delivery keynote addresses to kick-off and close-out the event.

This year, the closing address was delivered by Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield. After his inspiring talk, he fielded a few questions. I was one of the lucky ones whose question was posed to him. Here is a summary of his key lessons to my question:

“How do you and fellow astronauts handle coming back to Earth? That is, the depression that comes after the high of achieving your goal/mission. “I just did that… now what?””

  • There is a misperception about going to space. It’s not just a random good thing that happens to you out of the blue – the mission has been an endeavor that is decades in the making (26-years for him from the time he decided to become an astronaut to his first mission). Even if he wasn’t chosen to go to space, he still enjoyed his job. Going to space afforded him unique experiences that honed his skills. He was gathering experiences and capabilities, then after coming back from space he could take those skills to support others and apply them in other areas of his life. He sees it as a tremendous set of gifts, tools, and new abilities to tackle the rest of his life. If you try to measure your life by one or two shiny peaks, then by definition you’ll make your life dismal. (As a side note, I read his book “An Astronaut’s Guide To Life on Earth” after his speech, and in it he goes into greater detail of what happens to astronauts after they come back. The experience doesn’t end; the job of being an astronaut has succession plans built into it that keeps astronauts useful. They spend months debriefing the mission to identify best practices that will keep future astronauts safe. They help train others, and handle mission control duties. They also help support the families of other astronauts when their loved ones are away on mission. The impression I got is that the job is designed to be a.) in service of others, and b.) purpose-driven).
  • Don’t spend a lot of time looking backwards. “If you spend a lot of your life looking backwards, you’re going to bump into your future. That’s not where things are coming from; they’re not coming from the past.”
  • The most important decision you’ll ever make is “What am I going to do next?” Some of your opportunities and skills will diminish as you age, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be vital, important, interesting, or challenging to you.
  • There are cool things happening to you everyday. Allow yourself to succeed everyday, it doesn’t have to matter to anyone else. Celebrate it. Recognize that yeah, there is crappy stuff happening, but there are cool things happening to you too, so try and choose to focus on them. There are compulsory things you have to do, but like in figure skating there are freestyle points. Try to revel in the freestyle. That leads to a life well-lived.

I’m so glad I got a chance to hear him speak and that my question was selected for response. I devoured his book and dropped many bookmarks in to return to so that I can absorb his experiences. It really drove home the problem with many self-help books that are released today – the books are written by people who are telling the stories of others. The purpose of the book (aside from sales) is to collect stories from the deeds of others in order to fit a narrative or thesis. There is an assumption that because someone else made things work that the author has the borrowed authority to provide advice to others.

I’ve learned that it’s much more instructive to turn to the primary sources and read the undiluted message from those who’ve actually been “in the arena.”

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Workplace Weakness

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.

Solutions:

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

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Forced System Growth

It’s been a busy few weeks between work and a sick kiddo at home. Sorry for missing the last two posts.

The changes I’ve recently experienced at work has inspired some thinking on this post’s topic. While I typically have a good mind for keeping track of projects (with some liberal use of a notebook), the updates to my job and the sheer scope of accrediting an engineering degree has proven to be more than my current organizational and productivity systems are capable of managing. Tasks were rapidly multiplying and open-loops weren’t being migrated for tracking; there was no translation between meeting notes and what was getting scheduled into my calendar.

I functionally hit a crossroad. One path was to keep trying to do the same thing and fall further behind, and the other was to force a systems growth to accommodate my new workload. What got me here won’t get me there, if you will. Put another way, my outputs were optimized to how I managed my workload, so if I wanted to change or improve my output, I would have to change the system. Changes in work forced the system to grow.

On one level, I want to deny this – why do I have to constantly adapt the system to new work? Can’t I find one universally applicable approach to managing my workload? Sadly, no. This is the pipedream sold by productivity wizards who claim their one system will take care of everything. The reality is that those systems are often tweaked to meet the unique cognitive needs of the person. If you want to use those prescribed systems (GTD, Building a Second Brain, etc), you will need to adapt it to how your mind processes information. And it makes sense that as you grow in your career, you will need to grow the systems that you use to keep on top of things.

Most of my systems have developed “organically.” I would implement new features on an ad hoc basis in response to specific needs. This is one of the first times that I’ve had to make large changes by first thinking through what I needed and how I wanted things to play out. As weird as it is, it reminds me of Stephen Covey and seems to combine two of his principles – begin with the end in mind, and sharpen your axe. By knowing where you want to go, and by spending a lot of front-loaded work setting things up, you have a better chance of dealing with bumps as you go.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Getting the Need for GTD

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.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Cross-Domain Knowledge

I’m a huge fan of cross-domain knowledge. Coming from an academic background in philosophy, I feel my greatest strategy for creating and building a career is leaning in hard to knowledge and skills that are learned in one domain or context, then applying it to a unique area. You get a large confidence boost when you make connections by spotting patterns and connections that map analogical cases to each other.

The first time I truly appreciated this was in my days working for the university gambling lab. We were collecting data on slot machine players by recruiting participants into our study to measure the effects properties of the machine user-interface had in gambler’s cognitive awareness. In other words, did how the graphics and sounds play on the screen help the gambler understand their relative wins and losses over time. In one study, the simulation we were using for participants to play on during the trial had been modified, but on some of the laptops the wrong version of the software was copied over, and we didn’t realize the mistake until the end of the day. Of the three laptops, two had the right software, and one did not. At the end of each session, we uploaded the user data to a secure repository and deleted the local files, which meant that once we were back in the lab, there was no way of knowing which participant file batch came from the defective software.

We thankfully caught the issue early and limited the damage, but afterwards we had an issue with figuring out which files to exclude from analysis. On the face of it, there was no way of knowing from the participant’s biometric data which simulation they used. So instead we had to dig into the debug files that were spit out by the machine to verify that the simulation ran successfully.

All the files were generated in an XML format, however I had neither experience in basic coding nor reading XML files. I had to figure out a way of showing whether the version of the software was correct. To me, the XML files were largely gibberish.

But, I was able to spot a pattern in the files that reminded me of my formal logic courses from undergrad. While I did poorly in the courses at the time, I did retain some of the strategies taught for understanding the structuring of the syntax of formal logic arguments, specifically how nested arguments worked and how assumptions were communicated. I started to see the same structure in the XML code, how sub- and sub-sub arguments were written to call different files into the program, and where those files were being drawn from.

And there it was. At the bottom of one of the debug files, was a list of the files being called on by the simulation. In the broken simulation, the file path to a certain sound that was meant to be played was empty, meaning that when the simulation was supposed to play and auditory cue, there was no file name to look for, and so the simulation moved on.

I compared this with the files we knew came from the working simulators and saw that this was the main difference, giving us the key for finding the bad data points and justifiably excluding them from the overall data set. By finding this, I saved an entire day’s worth of data files (a cost savings that includes the some-30 participant files, their remuneration, three research assistant wages, per diem costs, travel, and consumable materials on site).

I grant that computer programming is entirely built on the foundations of formal logic and mathematics, so it’s not that I was gaining a unique insight into the problem by bringing knowledge from one separate domain into another. However, this was one of the first times I encountered a problem where I lacked the traditional knowledge and skill to address it, so I came at the problem from another angle. It was a case where I gained confidence in myself to be resourceful and tap into previous learning to address new/novel problems.

As I noted above, being trained in academic philosophy has pushed me in this direction of career development. On a superficial level, relying on cross-domain knowledge is a career survival strategy because philosophy doesn’t always teach you skills that are easily applicable to the working world. I have sadly, never once, had to use my understanding of Plato’s arguments in my workplace. But on a deeper level, I think training in philosophy naturally pushes you into this kind of problem-solving. Most of my experiences in philosophy involves approaching a thought experiment or line of thinking, considering what it’s trying to tell us, then testing those arguments against counter-factuals and alternative arguments or explanations. To do this well, you have to reduce a problem down into its constitutive parts to tease out relevant intuitions, then test them out, often by porting those intuitions from one context into another to see if they still hold as both valid and sound.

It’s not all that dissimilar to the processes used by engineers or designers to gather data and accurately define the problem they are intending to design for. Whereas the engineer will apply the tools they’ve been taught fairly linearly to create a design for the problem, my strategy is to adopt cross-domain knowledge to make connections where they might previously had not been apparent. The results can often be solved quicker or more efficiently if I had the relevant domain knowledge (e.g. an understanding of coding), however when I lack the specific experience to address the problem, as a generalist thinker I have to rely on analogical thinking and a wider exposure to ideas to suss out those connections. What I lack in a direct approach, I make up for in novelty and creative/divergent thinking, which has the benefit of sometimes opening up new opportunities to explore.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Blocking Distraction

For as much as think I am in control of my impulses, the reality is I am buffeted around by my whims far more than I wish were true. The biggest bane to my daily work is the mighty well of distraction that is YouTube. I’ve lost hours of time in a day allowing my subscriptions to serve me fresh content. I try to justify it to myself – “I’m just going over for a quick mental break,” or “I just need to see a tutorial on how to do x-action in Excel.”

Then, I look up and hours might have passed without me consciously knowing it.

Some time ago, I used a browser blocker to prevent me from accessing the worst offenders for distraction (all social media, YouTube, and Reddit specifically). I’m no stranger to signing an Odysseus contract, which I’ve written about before. However during the pandemic, I relaxed it a bit since, hey, we are all going through a rough time.

As of late, I’m forced to conclude that enough is enough, it’s time to hold myself to a higher standard. I went back in, and toggled StayFocusd back on, and so far have done a better job of accounting for my time. Between blocking distractions, using pomodoro sprints, and writing down what I do in my time blocks (quick estimates, nothing too detailed), I’ve done a pretty good job of limiting distracted time.

It’s not perfect, but it’s more than a 1% improvement, which will hopefully compound over time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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

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