Why Is Reading So Hard Right Now?

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

Right as the pandemic was shutting down work for us, some friends and I decided to start a book club. Last week, we met for our second session to discuss Gulliver’s Travels. I had chosen the book, largely because I was intending to read the book for myself and it seemed like a convenient way to pull double duty.

The book club’s initial pitch was largely for us to use audiobooks to read through non-fiction books since it was mostly what the three of us were doing in our personal lives. Yet I chose a fictional story because, as I mentioned in my overview of what I read in 2019, I feel largely burnt out of self-help, productivity, and business books and I want to broaden my reading a bit.

Not only did I choose a work of fiction, but I decided that since I owned a copy of the book I would try and read my physical copy. It seemed relatively straightforward, and I thought I would make my way through the book at a decent pace.

However, when we met last week to discuss the book, I had to admit in shame that I hadn’t finished the book. I barely made it out of the first of the four voyages Gulliver undertakes.

Truthfully, I’m finding reading (in all forms) difficult at the moment. I found it challenging to read the book since it was sometimes inconvenient to try and read it at night in bed, so I borrowed an ebook copy from the library to read on my phone or tablet. I didn’t elect to purchase an audio copy (but if my own audiobooks are any indication, I wouldn’t be making much progress there either).

So, why is it so hard to read right now? Three reasons have occured to me.

First, unlike when I used to travel to work, I don’t have 40-60 minutes each day where I’m stuck in my car. The lack of captive audiences is considered the biggest reason why podcast authors are noting a dip in listening time since the middle of March. Unlike a few months ago, it’s difficult to plow through a book when I’ve got nothing else going on during a commute.

Second, you’d think being at home all day means I would have plenty of opportunities to listen to podcasts and audiobook guilt-free. Turns out, this isn’t true for me. I feel guilty listening to books or podcasts during “working hours.” And aside from time when I’m running on the elliptical or out doing yard work, I feel guilty listening to my stuff when in shared spaces with others in the house.

But in this case, I had elected not to listen to the story but to read it. That posed a challenge because unlike time when I’m exercising, doing chores, or driving, you can’t multitask while reading. Instead, I have to carve out dedicated time away from my family, when there are no pressing chores, and when I’m not supposed to be working. I’m finding it challenging to eke out those quiet moments that I can set aside just for reading.

Finally, unlike when I was working from the college, my time is much more fluid now. Without context or code switching, the lack of liminality means I don’t mentally put myself in a head-space to read like I did a few months ago. But further than that, I find that I don’t hold fast to “normal working hours,” and instead I’ve noticed myself shifting later into the evening with my work. As work creeps later in the evening, I lose the demarcation of time, especially discretionary time for reading.

I don’t think this is a lost cause. I may be finding it challenging to read while working from home, but it’s merely something to be mindful of, and I have to be more intentional with my time if I want to give myself opportunities to read. The pandemic has forced us all to change how we live our lives, and it stands to reason that the habits I used before to find reading time during the day are not appropriate to expect to carry forward. Instead, if I want to succeed, I have to find a way to create new habits from our new circumstances.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Productivity From Home

Note – not my workspace.
Photo by Anna Auza on Unsplash

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.

Stay Safe and Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – April 24, 2020

Note – this is an experimental posting format. I’ve thought about increasing the number of posts I commit to per week, but I don’t want to add unnecessary work if I’m not willing to stick it out. Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s really hard to get a single post out each Monday that I’m satisfied with, so increasing my posting frequency just to for the sake of increasing my output is a terrible idea. I will run a short experiment to see how easy it is for me to get out a Friday Round-up for the next month. If the experiment goes well, I’ll consider making it a part of the regular rotation.

Many of the bloggers and thinkers I follow have some sort of curated list they share on a regular basis of the best pieces of content they came across in their weekly browsing. During this week, I came across a few thought provoking posts that I felt deserved to be shared.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on April 24th:

📖 Blog – All models are wrong, some models are useful | Seth’s Blog

We should be reminded that maps are not the terrain, and that models are predictions (read: guesses), not certainty. We rely on models to help us understand the world, but we should remember that they have their limitations.

📖 Blog – COVID-19: What’s wrong with the models? – Peter Attia

Paired nicely with Seth Godin’s post above, Dr. Attia gives a good lay-primer on how a model is created, and what the limitations are when trying to model something like a virus when so little is known about it. The two takeaways I have from this piece are: we should be more willing to accept that good models gives us ranges, not fixed numbers (and we should be more comfortable with the ambiguity); and just because the worst case didn’t arrive, it doesn’t mean that the model was overblown – we need to find out more about why the model was off. It might be that the virus isn’t as dangerous as we initially thought, or it might be that physical distancing greatly impacted the viruses capacity to spread (it’s probably a little of both), but until we know which side maps to reality, we can’t be confident of what we should do next.

📽 Video – BEST Pomodoro Timer on YouTube | Ticking Sounds … – Virtual Crickets

This is actually something I’ve used for some time, but wanted to share. When I’m trying to focus, I have discovered that I can’t listen to music (even of the lo-fi variety) because I find the melodies too distracting. However, I’ve found it helpful for me to listen to regularly repeating noises, such as white noise and ticking metronome sounds. I’ve experimented with a few options, such as a 10-hour “cosmic white noise” video, but while working from home during the pandemic, I’ve settled on this Pomodoro video that I also have paired with a Pomodoro Chrome browser extension that plays white noise (the ticking gives me focus, the white noise blocks out ambient sounds in my room). Forcing myself to focus in 25-minute spurts keeps me on track while I move through my to do list.

Let me know if you find any of these interesting or useful. Also, feel free to share your best round-ups in the comments below.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Extra Post – 4 Year Milestone!

I normally post on Monday’s, but today is the 4 year anniversary of my first post on this site (tomorrow if the 4 year anniversary of my substantive first post, but let’s batch them into this post for funsies).

With everything that’s going on, I wanted to pause for a moment to commemorate my “Hello World” moment on this blog. Even though I still don’t have any concrete plans for this site, I’m still going strong by committing myself to consistently putting in the work. If I’ve learned anything in 4 years, it’s less about the business plan and more about putting in the work. In this case, it’s better to focus on quantity, rather than waiting for the quality to start.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Ramble: Professionalism by the Inch

white measuring tape on white surface
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

When it comes to posting for this blog, my goal is to have content ready to go live by Monday mornings at 9am. It’s largely an arbitrary objective, but I like to try and keep it so that the post is live by the time I get to work for the week and I can kick off work feeling a sense of accomplishment. As of writing these words, it’s 11:46am on a Monday – clearly I’ve missed my target.

Like many people, I’m finding it challenging to maintain productivity while working from home. I can try to claim that I’m in an adjustment period. Afterall, Wednesday will mark two full weeks of me being home from work. But I know in the back of my mind that while it might be true that I’m still adjusting to working from home (now that the novelty has worn off a bit), I also am keenly aware that my productivity habits are spotty at best.

Thanks to my wife, I’ve been able to keep a structured schedule for my days. I’ve also increased my excersising and have used the time at home to practice time-restricted feeding. I’ve brainstormed what I’d like to work on during this period of instability, and my relationship with my wife has grown closer as we’ve been forced to spend more time together at home.

But when it comes to actually doing the things on my list, I’m struggling with tipping over from plan to action. I’ve known for a week that a blog post needed to get done. I’ve even drafted a few ideas with some rough thoughts and structure. Yet, here I am, almost three-hours past my deadline, and I’m writing a vaguely stream-of-consciousness post. I recognize in me the same level of performance I see when students leave their assignments to the last moment to start (note: stream-of-consciousness is a typical strategy to fill space and sound smart).

Meta-blogging aside, the problem is that I’m still not a professional when it comes to many things in my life. I don’t mean ‘professional’ in the sense of being paid for my work, nor do I mean professional in the sense of being recognized as such.

In this case, I mean professional in the sense that Seth Godin invoked in a podcast episode I listened to recently (Seth Godin [Empathy] on the Creative Elements podcast). A professional is someone who shows up (often because they are being paid, though not necessarily) because that is what they do; it’s what’s expected of them. It doesn’t matter how they feel – they show up. Seth Godin notes that this can be hugely inauthentic. Sometimes, like this morning, you have a hard time feeling like you want to show up. You want to show up, and at a second order you want to want to show up, but no matter how much you desire to show up, you struggle with moving from thought to action.

There are tricks to motivating yourself. If I may be allowed to tap Seth Godin again, a recent blog post of his resonated strongly with me last week (React, Respond or Initiate on Seth’s Blog). Reacting is often the easiest route to overcome the motivation barrier – it’s visceral and immediate. It’s also unfocused and sloppy. Responding is more thoughtful and directed, but like this post is still intimately tied to someone else putting work into the field. But Initiate? That gives you maximum freedom of direction, but the hardest to push yourself through. The Resistance (hat-tip to Mr. Pressfield) is felt in direct proportion to how much ownership you have over the initial starting move. To React is to cede the initiative because you are unaware and flat-footed. To Respond is to acknowledge that you are going second, but you are at least aware and ready to make a move. But, to Initiate means you pick the time and place to move things into action, which can have all sorts mental barriers in the way.

I’m of two minds on the matter. On the one hand, I feel like not moving towards a goal is to waste an opportunity that has presented itself to me. Like with compound interest, the more small progress I can put in, the more it will pay off down the line. And if you fail to put in the work, you’ll struggle to rise to new challenges; you’ll end up hurting your future-self because you failed to practice and prepare. Or as Ryan Holiday notes, “you can lie to yourself, saying that you put in the time, or pretend that you’re working, but eventually someone will show up. You’ll be tested. And quite possibly, found out.”

But at the same time, I know I have to be kind to myself. These aren’t expectations that I need to follow, nor do I have to choose them. These are one version of a vision of success, but it’s not the only path or formula to follow.

Being afforded the opportunity to work from home is giving me space to be able to think and reflect. Within the opportunity, it’s important that I take the time to pause and listen to what my preferences are telling me – what do I find important and how do I leverage the tools I have to go where I want to go. Being a professional towards goals you don’t want strikes me as pyrrhic. Sure, you might gain measures of success as someone might define it, but at what cost? If we know that lunches are truly never free, then what is it we give up when we go with defaults?

Showing up doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Being a professional means being consistent and accountable, even if you are fighting to create progress by the inch. Chain enough inches together over time will still create progress forward.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Reflection: Self-Isolation and Routines

person holding black game controller
Photo by Hardik Sharma on Unsplash

My wife and I are fortunate to be able to work from home. I started working from home Wednesday of last week, and initially found the transition to be manageable. Thanks to my wife’s discipline, we were keeping our normal sleep schedules, and we are able to maintain our normal working routine from the safety of home.

One thing that really threw me this weekend was when I allowed myself the permission to completely relax my schedule. Because of the pandemic, a lot of my pressing obligations and scheduled social time have been put on hold, meaning I have more free time than is typical. During the work week last week, I kept up with work and tending to things around the house, but by the weekend I decided to jump into playing video games, reading, and podcast listening. I also enjoyed a few beers Friday and Saturday nights while exploring the Borderlands, so going to bed before midnight was quickly forgotten.

This had two interesting consequences. First, by Sunday I physically felt bad. Not sick, but my body felt sluggish, I was tired, I had a headache, and my motivation was sapped. While I didn’t drink to excess, I did wonder aloud to my wife if what I was feeling was a low-grade hangover from my general poor choices over the weekend.

The (amusing) second consequence was that my wife remarked that she now sees why I impose schedules and routines on my daily life. She normally encourages me to relax and play games, but this is the first time in a long time that she has seen me proactively partake in games. It was a little like a crash-and-burn by Sunday night – I don’t do moderation very well and her mock-horror was a good reminder of that.

In reflecting on the last few days of the self-isolation, I have learned that it’s important for me to keep regular routines and impose discipline on my otherwise chaotic whims. I’ve known this about myself for some time, but this weekend helped to reinforce why I prefer keeping routines and habits active. Like a child, I crave structure.

Stay Awesome and Safe,

Ryan

Second Order Brother’s Keeper

person behind mesh fence
Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

I apologize for the late post this week. I had a few ideas kicking around in my head, but given the updates, I felt this ramble-post was a better attempt to capture some of the zeitgeist, rather than my usual attempt to feign some sort of authority on whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish on this site. Maybe I’ll rant another time about the scummy people who are profiteering through the COVID-19 scare.

Most of the information circulating concerns how an individual can help protect themselves from contracting the virus. Obviously this information is spread around not to protect any one individual, but because it’s the government’s attempt to flatten the curve and ease the economic and public health downsides to the current behaviours of people, from clogging up emergency rooms with sniffles to wholesale runs on items in the grocery store.

I’m heartened by some of the genuinely positive messages being shared around, from people finding clever ways to spend time with loved ones in lockdown, to our Canadian Prime Minister ending his recent public address with a message of watching out for each other, to care for each other, and reinforce this as a Canadian value.

I’m not entirely sure what I should write about this week. It’s pretty hard to form a coherent thought when the majority of my bandwidth is occupied with keeping up with the shifting narrative around what’s going on. Thanks to technology, information (or misinformation) spreads quickly, and we are seeing multiple updates per day as a result. At my place of employment, they took the unprecedented step of shutting down face-to-face curriculum delivery. Unlike the faculty strike from Fall 2017, the College is working to keep the educational process running. While it may be that in the School of Engineering it can be impossible to replicate lab or shop time, the majority of faculty are working hard to translate their delivery to an online format.

So far, our employer has done a good job, in my opinion, with taking prudent steps to a.) keep people meaningfully occupied in their work so that no one has to lose their salary, and b.) do its part to stop the spread of the virus. I’m not saying that things couldn’t be better, but given the circumstances they’ve done a good job.

I’ve been thinking about the purpose of social isolation as a pandemic response. As I said above, the point is less about protecting oneself and is instead about protecting hospitals from being overwhelmed. If we’ve learned anything from countries around the world that are going through the worst right now, it’s that it becomes impossible to protect our vulnerable when there is a shortage of hospital beds. Hospitals are having to triage patients to focus on saving those who can be saved, who have the highest chances of recovering.

It is because of this that I’ve been thinking about the concept of a “brother’s keeper.” It’s not necessarily enough that governments or citizens remain mindful about the well-being of our vulnerable populations. Oftentimes while we are focusing on immediate dangers before us, we tend to not anticipate higher-order consequences of our policies or decisions.

Closing schools is great in theory – children are rabid spreaders of contagions, whether they are actually symptomatic or not, which means they infect their parents (some of whom are front line medical workers). But when we close schools, you have second order consequences that parents struggle with childcare, or children living in poverty lose access to food that is supplied at school.

When you close borders, you stop carriers of the virus from entry. But it also means that our international students (who are in some cases being vacated from post-secondary residences as school’s work to limit social contact among students) have no where to go. Airports are limiting international travel and the cost of purchasing tickets are skyrocketing. By them being in a foreign country, these students are vulnerable and caught in difficult positions on how to keep themselves safe.

By shutting down public spaces, you are helping to keep people from accidentally infecting each other. But when you close down businesses such as restaurants, you cut off people from the economic means they need to support themselves. Sure, the government is offering assistance to persons and businesses alike, but that will provide little comfort to people who can neither travel for groceries, nor pay for the supplies they need.

And let’s not forget what panic purchasing is doing to our supply chain – leaving store shelves cleared out of supplies, which means folks like the elderly are left without.

The hardest part I’m finding in all of this is the feeling of being powerless. You can’t control other people, and so you are forced to anticipate their moves to ensure you won’t be left without. But it’s this kind of thinking that leads to more drastic measures being taken. The virus also makes you feel powerless because you feel like an invisible stalker is coming for you – you don’t know who will be the final vector that leads to you. And you aren’t totally sure if our ritualistic hand-washing and hand-sanitizing is actually keeping us safe, or merely providing comfort. You can’t predict the future, and you can’t be sure you’re doing everything you can; you always feel like there is more you could be doing.

This reminds me of the story of the tinfoil house and pink dragons. A person covers their house in tinfoil, and when asked about it they say it keeps the pink dragons away. When asked if it works, the person shrugs and says “I don’t know, but I haven’t been attacked yet.” Of course, asking “if it works” is the wrong question here because there are no pink dragons. But as Taleb tells us in his book about Black Swans, there are always those highly unprobable events with massive downsides that we don’t see coming. Public policy and budgets are created to deal with clear and present dangers, and those policies and budgets are eroded when it’s felt that the money is not being allocated optimally. Therefore, you run into problems where you are never sure if the resources you spend to prevent something actually works – it’s really hard to prove causality in something that never happens.

Instead, we often are left to scramble to try and get ahead of trouble when we are already flat-footed, which means that our vision narrows as we focus on the fires in front of us that needs to be put out. Fighting fires is great (even heroic at times), but often the measures we take to deal with crisis have unanticipated second-order consequences that become difficult to deal with.

I’m not sure how to deal with this, but it makes me wonder about being my brother’s keeper, and what I can do to protect them.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan