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

Pandemic Career Development

I was reminded today of one thing I missed in the two years we worked from home. When carrying out your duties from home, in isolation, your interactions with your colleagues has two defining features: it’s mediated, and it’s pragmatic.

It’s mediated for the obvious reason that it’s done entirely remotely. You see your colleagues, but through a screen. You work hard to not talk over each other, because doing so makes the conversation stilted. The interactions are just more screen time you are seeking to limit, and it’s artificial in the conversational decorum that’s needed to make the medium work.

And it’s pragmatic in that your interactions are always deliberately chosen. Unless you intentionally sit on an open call, waiting for people to come in as they please, all interactions with colleagues are done by appointment and with a specific purpose in mind. The two of you “connect” virtually to discuss, then disengage to carry on with your day.

The office is different. There is something to be said for serendipitous conversations that pop up when passing each other in physical space; when you wander into someone’s office or cubicle and strike up a chat. The conversation has a tendency to float from topic to topic, because unless you booked a meeting into their calendar, your interaction doesn’t have the same constraints. Once the purpose of the chat is over (e.g. your question is answered, or the message is conveyed), you then move on to whatever adjacent topics are on your minds.

In the time I’ve worked here at the college, I’ve found a lot of opportunity for career development in the casual conversations I’ve had with people around the office. The conversations aren’t even about my career development explicitly, but instead are lessons learned through osmosis. Lessons learned when a manager is describing an issue they are dealing with, and you gleam from them insights into the skills you need to develop to meet similar challenges. Or where they share stories from earlier in their career that’s relevant to something being experienced in the present. It’s not a traditional mentorship, but if you listen closely, it can come close.

During the time I worked at home, my career development came through the projects I worked on, reflecting on skills I lacked, and seeking out ways to train into what I needed. It was always reactive and “just in time.” I didn’t realize how much I missed what happens when people are sharing a space together, and you as a colleague seeking wisdom get a chance to learn proactively with “just in case” wisdom that gets filed away for future use.

I miss the freedom of wearing shorts at home, but I’m glad to be back for the water cooler discussions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Slipped Time

Sorry for the lack of posts these last two weeks. I have lots of reasons (the holiday Monday, work has been keeping me busy, feeling tired from childcare, and our family being sick the last week), but those are poor excuses for not carving out some dedicated time to put thoughts to screen. I have been doing a decent job of holding myself accountible with work, but knowingly allowing two weeks to go by unplanned without posts shows that my systems still have some issues with keeping me on top of everything.

I appreciate the grace you have offered in my absence.

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

Drip By Drip

A reminder to myself –

I have a tendency to measure progress according to leaps forward in productivity. I block off my calendar with large swaths of time, which gives the illusion that the time spent in a labelled block of time will be proportionate to how far the needle is moved.

But these are just that: illusions.

There are only two kinds of progress I make – the last minute panic against the deadline, and the lesser used but more sustainable drip by drip of micro-steps. The former is very cathartic, but we have to remember that catharsis means to purge, and so in the end you are left drained and must recover.

A focus on small steps, in the 1% change, is harder to track without perspective, but ultimately is an easier trek if you have the focus to stay on the path.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Post #302

I uploaded my post last week without much thought. When I went back to draft some ideas for a future post, I saw that Beachhead was my 301st post. I missed the opportunity to both celebrate the milestone and reflect on its significance.

Earlier this year, I missed the 5-year anniversary of this blog. I let the milestone pass by, unlike years past. I think part of the lack of enthusiasm for these significant milestones is due to general pandemic-induced apathy (we’re all feeling it). But the optimistic side of me also thinks that these milestones are less important than the work itself. I used to be more metrics-driven with my blog, excitedly noting the passing of the first year or the first 100-posts. However now I’m not concerned with reaching a future target but instead focus more on ensuring I’m keeping up with the weekly schedule and trying to come up with decent thoughts worth publishing.

That’s not to say that all of my posts are worth reading. I wouldn’t say I take a lot of pride in the final product of what goes up weekly; I’m not ashamed either. It’s just that the quality of the final draft isn’t as important as sitting down to do the work. Of taking an idea from brainstorm to coherent narrative. I find more satisfaction in putting in the work than the bragging rights of the final product. I try to think of it as more of a craft-mentality rather than creating a masterpiece corpus of writing.

Each post is an exercise that stretches the muscles, practices the movements, and gives me an opportunity to learn and develop slowly over time. At present, this blog operates at a loss (no income is generated to offset the nominal fees I pay for the site and URL). And I’m completely fine with that. At one time I thought about turning this into a brand and trying to monetize it. I’m not opposed to scraping money out of the endeavor, but it’s not the primary focus of this blog.

When I shifted away from the blog being an exercise in becoming a paramedic, it merely became a place to publicly share my practice of writing to meet a deadline. That’s good enough for me. It doesn’t have to seek to achieve anything grand – not everything has to be epic or monetizable. It’s still fun and I feel good shipping the work. As the mass of posts grow, I can look at the incremental progress and take satisfaction in what it represents – time well spent.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Beachhead

A friend who recently was appointed CEO of a company called me this week looking for a soundboard to sort out ideas he had in his head about how to proceed with company operations and strategic direction. The company is looking to shift strategic priorities, and he was looking for an outside voice to make sense of the new direction in relation to the legacy systems he’d need to grapple with.

One of the topics that came up reminded me of a concept I learned about while reading Susan Eisenhower’s book about her grandfather’s time during World War 2 and his subsequent Presidential years.

At two times during Dwight Eisenhower’s tenure in significant leadership roles, he had to create a beachhead to establish his forces (literal and metaphorical) to push towards his objectives. During the war, Operation Overlord’s first phase was to establish a beachhead in Normandy to create a defensible position to allow Allied Forces to work their way into Europe to push back Germany’s army. Establishing a beachhead is critical to success, but is often difficult for offensive forces to complete as the defending force usually has the upper hand in terms of resources and strategic positioning. While the offensive forces need to both set up a foothold and protect its lines to allow more troops to arrive, the defending forces merely have to reinforce it’s occupying positions to clamp down on fresh troops from joining the beachhead. Once the effects of first-mover advantage wears off, the offensive force must contend with protecting supply lines, fighting active defense from the opponent, and pushing past inertia to avoid grinding to a halt in order to win. Once established, a successful beachhead serves as a ratchet for the offensive force – the location of which all future offensives are launched from, and from which the troops need not backslide past. Traction is gained, and the army moves forward.

Similarly, during Eisenhower’s presidency, he saw the importance of passing civil rights legislation, but saw the difficult uphill battle that would needed to both move the country towards accepting civil rights AND enshrining those rights in law (turning both hearts and minds of the nation). While he would have aspired to complete civil rights equality in his time, he knew that if poorly planned, then history, culture, and opposing interests would ensure that forward progress towards equality would halt. Instead, he sought to establish a kind of metaphorical beachhead for civil rights, working on government programs and legislation that would lay the foundation for future leaders to take up and ratchet their work – allowing the movement to progress forward without worrying about losing traction and backsliding.

In listening to my friend, I noted that he also needed to take this lesson from history and focus on his own beachhead. While we think that a CEO is all-powerful in terms of exerting their will over the company, we must also face the reality that comes with working with legacy systems and people. Change is difficult and slow, and when poorly executed either stalls from inertia or alienates your workforce. And so I suggested he take a leaf from Eisenhower’s example and focus on what his core objective is that is reasonable within the timeline he’s being given, and focus on establishing a beachhead to deliver value back to the company president.

Since reading about Eisenhower, I’ve thought about my own beachheads – what are the areas of my life that I must focus on to ensure I’m moving forward with my goals, whether they are family, work, health, or passions. It is still very much a work in progress, but I want to find those areas that I can carve out and secure so that when it’s time to take risks towards my goals, I have a safe space to launch from.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan