Guiding principles

We rarely take the time to capture these guiding principles—even though recognizing them can help steer our actions, lead us to better decisions, and let us live more in alignment with who we are.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/my-6-guiding-principles/

As with Bailey, I don’t think I have a clear set of guiding principles. I’m not sure if I’m okay with that. I am sure that I do not want to spiral off and spend my entire day—that’s what would surely happen to me if I begin—thinking about this. Instead, I read his list and spent some time letting my thinking happen spurred by his principles. Just as he described, I did have one principle spring immediately to mind: Curiosity. To be powered by curiosity. To be passionately curious. “Curioser and curioser”, said Alice.

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Surface area of concern

Our “surface area of concern”—the number of events we pay attention to on a regular basis—has expanded alongside technology. This is not an inherently negative thing, but becomes one when it adds chronic stress, leads us to burnout, and affects our mental health.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/your-surface-area-of-concern/

This is a precise and powerful way to describe something which lies at the root of many other phrases: Information overload, multi-tasking (as a way to fail), and spreading our attention too thin (as another way to fail), are just three examples. I’ve long since decided that I do not need to have an opinion on most things, and that frees me from feeling I need to notice as many things as possible.

For many years—but explicitly I have 3 years of journal entries where this is glaring—I’ve lamented wanting to spend more time on some specific things. And yet my days slip past doing other things. I’m not talking about things which get planned—a day at the beach, dinner at someone’s house, or weekend work in the yard. No, I’m talking about that, “where the hell did today go?” stuff. If you like visuals: The glass jar that I filled slowly all day with the sand of small things, only to realize at day’s end that there’s no way to put these larger rocks in. Ever. Because every tomorrow is like today. Dammit.

About a week ago I decided—memento mori, ya’ know—it’s time to flip that shit over. For several years now, I’ve been starting with pretty consistent morning routine. After that, I have four things that I want to do, and I’ve been doing those next. Sometimes that means I don’t touch anything else—not my phone, not my email, not other people, not bills, not even voicemail from roofers—until 4 in the afternoon. It sounds crazy, I know. Guess what? Every day I look at those four things and go: Shazam! Progress! …and it turns out that I then go on to pour in a ton of sand too—return that call [from yesterday], mow the lawn, run an errand, interact with people, etc..

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12% battery remaining

Productivity hacks are fun, but they don’t always produce the greatest returns on your time. If you care about productivity, be sure to invest in your energy levels.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/dont-forget-the-basics-of-productivity/

I don’t do productivity “hacks.” I do productivity. My aversion to “hacking” anything runs deep. All of my productivity comes from doing things which return, the way compound interest returns. Whenever I can, I try to do the hard work up front. I am literally trying to pass gifts, (of time, energy, money, sanity,) to my future self.

It’s wise to occasionally erase the whiteboard to see what something could be like if built from scratch. It never ceases to amaze me when absolutely nothing happens nor changes when I entirely stop doing things. I recently removed an entire project—no one has even noticed. I recently was completely unreachable, (by everyone other than my wife,) for four days—no one noticed. If you started from a clean slate today, what would you choose to do?

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Cost per use

Second, and maybe more practically, I now think about what I buy on a cost-per-use basis, which lets me account for the replacement cost and lifespan of a product when comparing between products.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/basically-everything-is-a-subscription-service/

Bailey presents some interesting way of thinking about purchases. One idea he presents is that you can think about anything as a subscription service— if you imagine it will be recurring. Toothpaste? …that makes sense; it’s silly to consider the cost of my “subscription” to toothpaste, (but it makes intuitive sense since we know we’re going to buy it over and over.) I’ve often heard about lifestyle creep, where the money we spend expands to meet our paycheck. And one way that happens is by habit development.

I get a pay raise—HA, yeah right… sorry. And I try this new Thai restaurant. It’s a little pricey, but I start going there occasionally, then more often, then… I’m suddenly the largest-by-purchasing-total customer of that business. doh. If instead, I had considered: This $30 meal is a subscription… wait wat. I don’t even get to the part where I try to wonder-out how often I want to eat there. I’m on the maybe-don’t-purchase-it brakes as soon as I combine “$30” and “subscription.”

Bailey also mentions the good old “cost per use” idea, which I use all the time. But just in case that’s new to you, you really need to click through.

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Thhhhpbt

Burnout research shows that cynicism is an easy way out when we don’t have the mental resources to cope. It’s no surprise that cynicism is a core attribute of the burnout equation: during a time of ongoing stress it’s much easier to be pessimistic than it is to mobilize and make a difference.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/remember-burnout-and-cynicism-go-hand-in-hand/

That short blog post is about news-from-the-Internet and the pandemic, but it’s perfectly applicable to any source of chronic stress. For me, the chronic stress is entirely self-inflicted and the cautions remain the same.

I’ve gotten relief from myself over the years through journaling and blogging. Journalling gives me some perspective. (But it is difficult to do it well, since it can degenerate into subjectivity, navel gazing, or whining.) Blogging gives me the chance to regularly work with the garage door up; showing my work by exposing my thinking. Even if mostly no one calls me on anything, knowing that people are looking calls me to a higher quality of thinking.

Yesterday and today I’ve been thinking about taking another look at cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A couple years ago I made a pass at understanding it—specifically wondering if one could “do it” to oneself. (Yes.) I’ve dusted off a small volume for a re-read to see what I can tune in my existing self-care routines, and hopefully find some new ones to settle into for a while.

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Why and how

Your ideas are worth less than you think—it’s all about how you execute upon them.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/your-ideas-arent-that-unique/

The pull-quote says it all. I recently had a pleasant conversation, wherein the idea of the “why” and the “how” came up. Thanks to Simon Sinek, we all know to, “start with why,” (that is to say, start with the idea.) The idea is important, but it’s literally worthless without the execution. Because anything, multiplied by zero, is zero.

To my 20-something-year-old’s surprise, knowing Al Gebra turned out to actually be useful. Take, for example, evaluating some idea and its execution: The total value could be calculated by multiplying the value of the idea by the value of the execution. (Note my use of, “could be.”) Great ideas are represented by a large, positive value, and terrible ideas by a large, negative value; Similarly for the execution. Great idea multiplied by great execution? Huge total value.

This simple model also shows me how I regularly ruin my life: Terrible idea, (represented by a negative value,) with great execution… Or, great idea, with terrible execution, (represented by a negative value,)… either leads to a large negative total. Interestingly, the slightest negativity—in either of those cases—amplifies the magnitude of the other parameter’s greatness.

This leads to an algebra of idea-and-execution. If you’re going to half-ass the execution, (a negative value,) or you’re concerned that you cannot execute well, it’s better to do so with a “small” idea. Only if you’re sure you can do the execution passably well, (“positive”,) should you try a really great idea. If you work through the logic with the roles flipped, the same feels true. This leads to a question that can be used in the fuzzy, real world: Is this pairing of idea and execution in alignment? Am I pairing the risk of negative-execution align with a “small” idea, or pairing the risk of a bad idea with “small” execution. That to me is a very interesting “soft” analysis tool, which falls surprising out of some very simple algebra.

What I’m not sure about though is what to do with the double-negative scenarios. (Which I’ll leave as an exercise for you, Dear Reader.) Perhaps, I should be using a quadratic equation?

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Calm

Information competes for our conscious attention: the web of thoughts with the greatest activation is usually the one where we direct our attention. The calmer our mind, the fewer thoughts we generate in response to what happens in the world—and the greater the odds that intuition will speak to us.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/the-science-of-how-to-get-intuition-to-speak-to-you/

I’m not sure if I truly remember the following story, or if I simply heard it told so many times and subsequently retold it so many times that I believe I saw it first hand, but here it is in first person regardless.

Sitting in an enormous church service early one morning, two parents down front where having increasing difficulty with a precocious young child. With each noise, question, request, and pew kicking, the parents were taking turns playing the, “If you don’t be quiet…” game. The massive church was known by all to have a well-appointed “cry room” at the back complete with a view of the proceedings, amplified reproduction of the goings on, double-pane and mostly scream proof windows, games, rocking chairs and so forth. Meanwhile, in the main hall, everyone could hear the “if you don’t be quiet…” game escalate to defcon 5: “If you don’t be quiet, I’m taking you to the cry room.” The opposing forces countered with a volley of indignation at being forced to… “That’s it!” And the patriarch hoisted the youngster and performed the mandatory “excuse me pardon me excuse me…” incantation across the pew, and started up the aisle with a writhing 3-year-old in Sunday’s best. From the moment of hoisting, the winding-up siren of shock and horror got up to speed until said child was screaming. “I’LL BE QUIET! I’LL BE QUIET!!” The minister had paused, as the father strode briskly for the doors at the back. Hundreds of people sat silently as they passed through rear doors—the child’s screaming dropping instantly in volume as the door swung shut. “I’LL BE QUIET! I’LL BE QUIET! …i’ll be quiet!” At which point, as far as I could tell, everyone collectively giggled at the humor of it all.

While one part of my mind wants to be touring the facility and taking up slack, the petulant child is not to be taken on by main force. When it’s in the mood, the child part can be a source of great power and inspiration. (Apropos, the quote sticking up from the Little Box today reads: “Genius is the power of carrying the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood.” ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge) The inner-child mind has its own agenda and demands its outlets too.

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‘Think’ breaks

Conduct shorter think breaks. Even a few hours can be extraordinarily helpful. This can be as simple as leaving the office at lunch in order to have a phone-free reflection period at a nearby coffee shop.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/how-to-take-a-think-break/

The quote is a from a list of “Do’s,” so it may feel a bit odd. If you don’t immediately know what a think-break is, stop and go read that short article. (Which also contains a link to a longer article. :)

Some people famously take week-long, totally-disconnected (from people, technology, routine, everything,) think-breaks. I suppose I could do that—I mean I know it would be possible, but I feel that I don’t need an entire week to think.

All I do is come to a stop and start thinking. After a few minutes I’ve 11 new ideas—or worse, ideas that have been rattling around in my head—that I can either decide to outright kill immediately, or work into things that need to be done. I don’t need to spend more time thinking, I need to spend more time anti-doing things. Do one thing, cross off two, or better yet, three things from my literal or ephemeral lists.

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Pidgeon holes and simplifications

Something beautiful happens when you develop and build a close relationship and friendship with someone. The closer you become with someone, the more you can zoom in past their story to the person they really are, and see them as someone just as complex, vulnerable, and rich as yourself.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/when-a-person-becomes-an-idea/

This is a great way to sneak up on a mistake I make all the time.

In order to keep track of so many people, I have to distill them down to some sort of narrative; where are they? what do they do? in what context do I normally interact with them? …and so on. This leads to me summarizing people, and that’s good because it enables me to push my monkey sphere to a much larger number. The problem comes when I then expect (or worse, require) that the person also fit into that summary that I’ve created.

I’d like to say I learned to not make this mistake through years of thought and self-reflection. But that’s not how it happened.

I learned about this when I slowly, finally managed to make some HUGE changes in myself — and people kept jamming me into the same story. This was— well, “annoying,” would be a polite way to put it— “pushing down on my head while I feel I’m already drowning”, would be another way.

…and then, as with pretty much everything, I looked into my self-perception and realized, “oh crap! I too am doing this to everyone else.”

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How can I help?

These are questions this manager has homed in on during his decades-long career at a high-tech company. Here they are…

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/the-3-questions-managers-should-ask/

A short article listing the 3 questions managers should ask in every one-on-one meeting.

Meanwhile, separately, I have recently realized that I’ve started frequently asking, “How can I help?” (It seems to be my version of the advice to ask, ‘Why?’ five times.)

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