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.
Despite my promise to do better on the Friday before last, I did not get a post up this past Friday (largely due to a report at work that kept me occupied during the day) AND I had no post ready yesterday (largely due to not keeping a regular writing schedule).
I’ve found sense of pride in not missing a weekly deadline for the last few years, but things have ground to a halt recently. I’ve let my workflow dry up in favour of short dopamine hits (my distraction of choice being YouTube) to take the edge off of the anxiety around not getting work done.
Thankfully, I have some time off of work coming up, which will help with recharging the old creative batteries. I’ll be back next Monday with a real post.
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.
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.
In my first post on principles, I had an entry regarding problem solving – specifically, guidance on defining problems. That entry is actually a condensed version of something I have hanging in my cubicle at work:
I printed the post from a Lifehacker article, and have since annotated it with a few extra ideas. On the left, I stole a line from Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors to supplement the step for generating possible solutions to your problem. The simplicity of the question, “what would this look like if it were easy?” allows me to limit the choice pool by excluding unlikely scenarios while thinking about the positive outcomes.
When it comes to evaluation consequences and narrowing down the options, I have added three additional tools. First, I borrow again from Tim Ferriss where he uses “Fear Setting” to determine the worst case scenarios possible, and then he goes through each outcome and asks himself whether the cost is something that he could live with. By doing so, he reframes his concerns away from merely worrying about negative outcomes to only focus on the things that matter to him.
I also added a note to myself to ensure I’m capturing my assumptions. A lot of the time I start with my conclusions and assume they are transparent in their reasoning. However, if I ask a series of clarifying questions (usually the 5-why technique), I often end up drilling down to hidden assumptions or emotions that motivate the conclusion (rather than pure reason).
The final note I scribbled is in reference to Enrico Fermi who had an uncanny knack making stunningly accurate “guesses” off the top of his head. Fermi used probabilities and statistics to make educated guesses to solve problems, which could then be further refined. It’s a tool for quick and dirty estimates, and it helps to narrow down the choice pool.
My annotations aim at four tools I can use to supplement Kranz’s method: what is the best/easiest solution, what’s the absolute worst case, how easily can we figure this out, and what motivations are driving my decisions. I try to keep those considerations in mind, though I’m not nearly as rational as I pretend to be.
Since my last post on principles, I’ve jotted down a few more ideas in my notebook. I’ve transcribed my thoughts under the photo below.
6. Where appropriate, seek to reduce or limit choice pools.
a.) Too many choices is paralyzing.
b.) Extraneous choices impacts rank(ing) orders.
c.) Choice + paralysis will cause decision friction –> procrastination, and inertia will grind things to a halt.
d.) Time and resources get wasted in the decision process –> you trade off value.
e.) Most decisions can be whittled down by routine and quick preference (gut reaction) –> use 80/20.
f.) Invest time in deliberation for high stakes outcomes or decisions that interest you.
i.) Also invest when decision process is educative for you.
This entry largely captures what my behaviours are like when it comes to making decisions versus where I want them to be. By nature, I’m a risk averse and indecisive person. I tend to sit on decisions far too long, to the point where they can cause anxiety when it’s finally time for me to make the call.
I also tend to lack preferences in a lot of things. For instance, I usually don’t have a strong preference when it comes to picking a place to eat, so I’m terrible at deciding where to go but I’m perfectly happy to go along with choices made by others. There are many things I’m starkly black-and-white about (which is really annoying to my wife), but most of the time I sit in a middle state like Buridan’s ass.
Therefore, this set of principled notes captures where I want to be – to quickly narrow down extraneous choices (because too many options usually leads to diminished outcomes), and to automate where I can. Then, I can focus on the really important decisions or use the deliberation process as a teaching tool for myself.
Happy Labour Day! Things have been busy here at work while we gear up for the new academic year. Students are around, schedules are messed up, and people are scrambling to get back into the right mindset to kick off the new term. Things are bustling and busy.
I don’t intent to keep a post trend going, but I wanted to ride some of the wave from last week’s psych-out post and talk about another recent failure I experienced at work.
Last week, I had to give a short presentation to college faculty about the research ethics board I’m on. The purpose of the presentation was to remind faculty that the board exists, and to have them consider whether an ethics review is needed for their or their student’s projects. I had a 15-minute block of time and a slide-deck provided by our board coordinator.
After the presentation, I sat down and wrote out all the ways the presentation sucked. In fairness, two of my colleagues went out of their way to complement my presentation, and that they took away the two main deliverables (that student research projects should be run by the board, and that I’m available on campus to answer questions). I checked in with my boss and she, too, agreed that the presentation was not a failure as I saw it. I know that my perception of how things went will be dramatically different than how others perceive me. Nevertheless, I know that I am capable of doing much better and the main culprit of my failure was because I didn’t practice out loud before the talk.
Here is the list I generated:
Everything that went wrong (and why):
Didn’t practice the slides
Didn’t build the deck (it was pre-made and sent to me; building the deck would have made me more familiar with the content by necessity)
Unstable speaking patterns (rambling ticks)
Didn’t plan my transitions
Didn’t know how the transitions were set in the slide (i.e. need to click to reveal text)
Missed content from the page.
Had to look at screen to figure out where I was
Didn’t know I’d have to hold a microphone (I knew this from past All Faculty meetings, but I should have anticipated it)
I was holding the mic and the presentation remote – my hands were full
Didn’t pause to calm down or collect my thoughts
Bad presentation but saved with good will from prior relationships with faculty + my position (junior to the faculty)
finished in 8min or 15min.
Didn’t have a firm point in mind that I wanted them to take away from talk.
Didn’t edit slides to remove non-essential content
You can’t win them all, but it’s important to know where you go wrong so you don’t make the same mistakes again.
Yesterday I went to a climbing gym with my co-workers for our summer staff party. It’s been at least five years since the last time I tried rock climbing, and over a decade since the last time I actually climbed a rockface.
The experience was interesting. On the one hand, the venue is great, and the staff were awesome. My co-workers were all super supportive, and in no way did I feel like I didn’t belong because of other people. I did, however, felt like I didn’t belong because I’m a 325lbs mass of meat that doesn’t have the greatest cardiovascular system and a nervous suspicion of gravity.
I made two attempts to climb a fairly easy 5.5 wall. The first attempt, I chickened out about a quarter of the way up. A little while later, I made a second attempt and got around 80% of the way up before I stopped, thought about things, and promptly started climbing back down. In other words, I psyched myself out before I reached the top.
I was really bummed out about it afterward, because I knew that if I pushed through the mental barrier and went up the last 5-10 feet, I could have made it. Instead, I saw that I still had a bit to go and felt that I didn’t trust the auto-belay device to support my weight, and the hand-holds near the top would have been tricky to climb back down on. So, instead I decided to turn back and climb down until I was a safe height up from the ground where I could let go and still not injure myself if the auto-belay device didn’t arrest me.
It’s really stupid to let myself succumb to this kind of thinking. I know that the equipment is safe, and I know that I won’t injure myself if I slip. Nevertheless, I let my fear get the best of me, and I turned back before the end.
We can’t win them all. I’ll try to do better next time.