Mindful communication

With few exceptions, e-mail use arose organically within organizations, with little thought applied to how digital communication might best serve the relevant objectives.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/06/18/the-e-mail-productivity-curve/

As usual, this is an interesting article from Newport. He proposes a productivity curve for email—how productive we are without, with-some, with-more, with-too-much—which explains perfectly why some people love email and some people hate it.

The key point about email is to use it intentionally. Not simply one’s own use; not simply, “I only check my email twice a day,” or, “I’m always at ‘inbox zero.'” The key is to deploy email wisely, in a way which increases productivity of a team, (family, community, whatever.) If adding email into the mix is going to increase productivity, then do so. Then zoom out and look at all your other communication tools, and perform the same calculus. Email is simply one example of a tool which initially [hopefully] increases productivity, but too-soon becomes a detriment.

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ANTI-productive

These distractions aren’t just unproductive, they’re anti-productive. They create more work than they replace.

~ Mark Manson from, https://markmanson.net/attention-diet

I wish I had learned much sooner the idea that distractions aren’t just wasting the time spent on the distraction, but are in fact decreasing the value of the time I do try to spend on anything focused and productive. Alas, it took me decades of experimenting to deeply understand it for myself before I could truly learn the lesson. Manson’s article is, as usual, irreverent and explicit—but it has some terrific points in it about how to go about crafting an attention “diet” to take back your mind.

My mind does need a lot of down-time and relaxation. But none of that looks like distraction. I deeply love sitting down to some great science-fiction movie with popcorn. I also deeply love me some burly physical work where my mind can press the “body: do things” button and then wander out of the control room for a snooze on the terrace. (I imagine Homer Simpson’s sipping-bird left in the control room; but mine’s pressing the, “continue hard labor,” button rather than his nuclear reactor alarm reset.)

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2020

My touch-phrase for 2019 was, “no.” In terms of self-imposed stress and crippling depression, 2019 was the worst year ever; I’ve more than 10 years of journals and I’ve checked. 2018 was bad, but 2019—the year I set out specifically to reduce the problems—was definitely and significantly worse than 2018.

I remain convinced that it is not possible to optimize one’s way out of burn-out. If I have 500 things I want to get done and I’m burnt-out, the solution is to reduce the number of things, not get better at getting things done. I’m speaking from personal experience, not from theory.

2020 has to be the year of getting less done.

In 2019, the “no” touch-phrase was meant to guide me to developing the habit of saying no to things coming towards me. A huge amount of ideas and opportunities come at me, and I’ve gotten much better at saying, “no.” (I’m not quite ready to say I’ve gotten “good” at it; but I’ve definitely gotten better.) I’ve gotten better at evaluating Big Asks from the world, and saying, “no.” A textbook example of that is people/groups which reach out to me, asking for my input or participation.

“No, I do not have the time to do that well.”

“No, I cannot to do that the way it deserves to be done.”

…and so on. Note particularly the absence of the societal lubrication, (a.k.a., the usual lie,) “I’m sorry, but…” Because, I’m not sorry. I’m defending myself, and I’ve reached the point where if my candid, timely, and honest response feels like a wack on the head… Bummer. Life’s hard; get a helmet.

2020 has to be the year of getting less done.

In a previous post I mentioned the idea of leverage; positing that I should focus on asking myself, “how much leverage does this opportunity afford me?” This still doesn’t feel quite the right fit for 2020 because leverage per se isn’t a value I’m interested in maximizing.

So that leaves me where?

2020 has to be the year of getting less done.

GLD — Get less done.

Maybe that’s the touch-phrase for 2020?

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Some method for the trivial stuff

Here’s a problem I’ve faced recently: my obsessive focus on a small number of important project causes me to fall behind on the annoying little administrative stuff that pops up on a daily basis. I’m not talking about the regularly occurring minutia, like cleaning my apartment or working out: these can be easily handled with an autopilot schedule. I am referring, instead, to the random, unexpected productivity lint that regularly clogs my inbox and emanates a powerful aura of procrastination-inducing annoyance.

~ Cal Newport, from https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2008/11/18/the-stable-mucking-method-a-freestyle-approach-to-keeping-the-annoying-little-stuff-under-control/

The important point is that you have some intentional way of keeping up with administrative tasks. If you don’t, these little thorns will pile up until everywhere you look you find sources of stress. Or worse, to avoid the stress, you stop looking.

Newport’s post describes one method—one which I don’t personally use—and links to another post describing another method. The two posts give a good overview of the problem he’s trying to solve, and some thought-provoking ways of trying to tackle it.

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Sand through the hour-glass

I mentioned recently that I sometimes use a cheap little sand timer when I want to know when to stop, but don’t want to be directly interrupted by beeps or alerts. The sand runs out quietly. At some point later, I notice the time is up and I bring the work to a stop.

Except when the sand timer gets stuck. My half-hour timer—just that one—every once in a while, stops dropping sand. It’s a pretty teeny stream of falling sand that I can easily miss at a glance. So it’s not at all obvious if it stops. I get into the flow of work. I’m thinking, “yeup, in the flow state.” I’m tearing along, confident that my little sand timer will quietly let me know when to stop.

…and like two hours later I notice the room is getting cold because I haven’t fed the wood stove. Wait wat. *taps sand timer* oh.

I can’t decide if this is good or bad. It’s like deep work roulette. I think I’m going to do a half-hour dash, but maybe I’m going down the rabbit hole. I could easily replace the cheap little sand timer, but I like the randomness of it. The analog-ness of it. Not only is its time keeping approximate, but sometimes it’s totally not keeping time.

Too much planning and structure kills spontaneity.

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You can’t fool your mind

You can’t fool your mind.  It’s an expert on your current personal management system, and it knows whether you can be trusted to look at what you need to at the appropriate time.  It knows if you’ve decided what the next action should be. And it knows if there is a reminder of that action placed somewhere you will actually look, when you could possibly take that action. If you have not done any of that, your mind won’t let it go. It can’t. It will endlessly keep trying to remind you of what to remember. The mind is a loyal and dedicated servant, but it needs to be given the jobs it does well–not the ones that it mismanages.

~ David Allen, from Ready for Anything

…and yet I try all the time. Fortunately I’ve gotten much better at capturing my thoughts.

The important part, the hard part—one might even say, “the trick”—is to have regular and sufficient time to review all the things I’ve captured. Do I really want to read that book that piqued my interest? Do I really want to try that new recipe I found? Do I really want to go to the trouble of adding that new electric outlet in the dining room?

I see too many people with no way of capturing their thoughts, and I see very few people who have a habit of regularly assessing what they want to be doing.

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The humble sand timer

Over the years I’ve experimented with many forms of time management. One that works well for me—and I’ve heard this from others—is to work in a mixture of Pomodoro sprints, combined with open-ended deep work sessions. Combined, I mean, in the same day; A some-of-this and some-of-that approach.

Unfortunately, Pomodoro sprints don’t work for me with a “hard” timer. I’ve tried various timing apps on my computer and phone, and I’ve tried a digital countdown timer on my desk. (This cube timer is a nice one.) But I always find the firm interruption frustrates me. No matter how polite or subtle the alert, I’m annoyed by the interruption.

The solution is the humble sand timer. (Here’s a nice set.) Standing quietly, it is unobtrusive. Eventually, it has run out—but it remains patiently waiting for me to stop working. “No rush to stop Craig, but when you find a good spot, it’s time to move to the next thing.”

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Who wants to become a manager?

https://knowyourteam.com/blog/2019/03/20/do-i-truly-want-to-become-a-manager/

As a manager, this state of flow is less common, if not non-existent. You aren’t diving deep on a task during an uninterrupted block of time, as required in flow – you’re the one helping others dive deep on a task. You’re also not receiving immediate feedback about your progress in the same way you would as an individual contributor, which is another critical element of flow. As a manager, you might not find out until months later if a decision you made or a conversation you had positively or adversely affected your team.

~ Claire Lew

I think there’s a continuous pull to increase the total amount of work-output that we accomplish. Year by year, we improve our skills, learn new areas of interest, and even change careers entirely. We’re optimizing. The hard question is: Optimizing for what? Why?

I know I’ve been lured by the trap of thinking that if I just had help, then I’d be able to optimize. If I had more help, I’d be able to make more money, make more time, make more happiness for my myself, or make more happiness for the world. It’s taken me a long time to realize that, managing work and doing work are two different things.

I understand some people are drawn to—derive inherent pleasure from—managing others well and leading productive teams. But to date, I am not one of those people. This has left me in the unstable position of being pulled in opposing directions by two ideas: I would like to do fulfilling work. But to do more fulfilling work than I am currently, I need help from others. The key for me is to work with others in a spirit of collaboration; To not slip into my default mode of optimization, (specification, control, and micro-management.)

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Creative routine

https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/05/22/manage-your-day-to-day-99u/

It’s time to stop blaming our surroundings and start taking responsibility. While no workplace is perfect, it turns out that our gravest challenges are a lot more primal and personal. Our individual practices ultimately determine what we do and how well we do it. Specifically, it’s our routine (or lack thereof), our capacity to work proactively rather than reactively, and our ability to systematically optimize our work habits over time that determine our ability to make ideas happen.

~ Scott Belsky

Routine is great. Routine guides me to channel my pensive morning moods into reflecting on what I want to accomplish that day. Routine suggests that I create spaces which enable certain types of work. Routine saves me time by streamlining the vast majority of my chores. Routine ensures I make progress on the long-term projects that seem insurmountable at the beginning. Routine forces me to make time to encounter new ideas.

But rigidity won’t do. Sometimes I want to break free.

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Neutral

Neutral is a state where you are not jumping ahead too quickly or moving too slowly. Neutral does not mean being inactive, complacent, or passive. It’s about a calm poise that allows for new information and new possibilities to emerge before taking further action. When in neutral you actually increase your sensitivity and intuitive intelligence. Neutral is fertile ground for new possibilities to grow from.

~ Doc Childre