Vacation Work

Apparently, I’m not good at taking enough time off throughout the year because it took me until last week to realize that I have ten days of vacation time banked that I have to use before this month is over or I lose it. But now that I’m being forced to use it, I intend to make the most of it.

For starters, I’m taking a full week off from work at the office to stay at home and do work instead. That is, I’m leaving behind my office email and calendar and meetings so I can retreat to bigger, deeper projects; pulling myself away from the demands of others to focus on the demands of my soul.

And I really do mean that. This is time off to feed my soul, my larger self, what makes me me. It is time indulge my creative hunger, dive deeper into the ideas I want to research and explore, and fill in the gaps of home projects that I’ve neglected for too long.

I will probably use some of this time to work on stuff related to my job as well, and that’s okay. We often think of that as a bad thing – we tell each other not to do “work stuff” while we’re away. But I’ve been in my job long enough now that so much of my “work stuff” is also “me stuff” that I care about. There things I want to learn and practice for myself during vactation time because I know they will make me better at my job when I return to the office. Why would we ever discourage that?

We understand the benefits of semi-annual offsite retreats for a leadership team or organization to focus on in-depth discussion and exploration of big ideas, long-term plans, and get to know their colleagues better. So why not use personal time away for the same purpose? Paid vacation time away from the office alone is a perfect opportunity to catch up on reading and research that has piled up; to explore my own creative ideas, make long-term plans, build skills, and find clarity.

I realize it is a priviliged situation to be in at all, to even have a job that offers paid time-off in the first place—I’ve had jobs in the past where this wasn’t the case. And to be able to have enough that I can spend this on my own, and still have real vacation time available later to spend with my wife traveling and not thinking about anything but the experience of being away.

It’s not like I don’t get alone time already. I’m usually up early enough to get an hour or two for daily reading and writing. And that morning focus is good, but it’s limited. It only allows for short writing sprints, iterating and editing blog posts like this, thinking out an idea as I go and redrafting, rewriting for a weekly goal.

A full week off for myself allows for something bigger, a chance to cast my net into much deeper waters and pull ideas and connections to the surface that for now I only sense are there, waiting to be found. But I am not setting any expectations, either. I have no specific goal of what I expect to find. The discovery process itself is the only goal I need.

At the end of this week I may not have much to physically show for it—no thick reports or manifestos, no charts or presentations—but I will have a more detailed map of the terrain than I had before. I will have a better sense of where I’m going, what the obstacles are, the challenges, and the opportunities, and I’ll be able to take my first steps on a path through it all.

I’m leaving the office for a week to work for myself from a fresh perspective. When I return to the office, I plan to bring some of that fresh perspective with me, wrapped in shiny foil swans like choice morsels from an indulgent feast of ideas.

Chaos Practice

I feel bad for chaos. It’s such an important part of the universe, yet nobody seems to want it around. We live in a world that values order, or at the very least, predictability. Whenever the systems or environments we rely on behave differently, and chaos starts to emerge, we feel we must exert our will to make it stop, to impose a sense of order once more. But we can never actually be rid of chaos, and I’m glad for that.

Chaos may be messy and unpredictable, but that’s also what makes it reliable. It’s what makes me grateful for chaos—I know I can rely on it to keep me from getting too comfortable.

In the core mathematical concept of chaos theory lies a simple, observable phenomenon: that small changes in the position or composition of a chaotic system make a big difference over time. That’s a pretty good explanation for what happened to me over the past six weeks or so, as I made slight deviations from my normal routines and habits to focus on big project deadlines and a conference presentation; suddenly a little pile of lower priority work I couldn’t give attention to has grown into digital and physical mounds of information like something out of a “Hoarders” television special.

There are piles and lists and notes and folders and sketches to be sorted, magazines and books and stacks of reports to be read. In a nutshell, my office is a mess, and all my productive habits have fallen apart. As of this writing, I have 2,026 unprocessed work emails in my account—unprocessed meaning they are either in my inbox or in one of a few different “action” folders waiting to have actions performed that have not yet been performed. Among these messages, 456 are marked un-read and 83 are flagged as important. And that’s just my work email. I’m afraid to even look at the numbers in my personal email accounts right now. Continue reading →

Get Ur Mise On

I’ve been working from home for the last four out of five days this week while a small swarm of contractors, clad in combinations of denim workshirts and white Tyvek coveralls, have been shuttling back and forth above and below me into attic and crawlspace, upgrading our modest 1950s home into an more energy-efficient, climate controlled living space. It’s fantastic to finally see all this much-needed work happening around me and observe how these practiced trade crews approach their jobs.

It’s also been a huge distraction.

In the abstract, working from home for most of the week seemed like it would be rather easy to do: I filled my sweet heavy-duty HighEdWeb tote bag with all the paperwork and files I thought I might need and brought it home. All that plus my laptop and wifi and I could do all the work I need to do from the comfort of my kitchen table. Or so I thought.

I did okay for the first day, catching up on email, and even participating in a meeting via phone. But by day two I was losing serious ground, and going a bit stir crazy. There was something about the change in environment I wasn’t used to at all, and it became almost physically difficult for me to stay focused on work for more than 10-15 minutes at a time.

Sure, part of it was due to the fact that there were workmen noisily installing ductwork in the space below me for much of the day, coming in and out of the house with tools and listening to rock radio at a modest volume—nothing I couldn’t block out with my own headphones, and hey, whatever they need to do their best work I’m not going to tell them to change.

And if that had really been the core of what was distracting me, it would have made me anxious or agitated, but instead my lack of focus was more like a listlessness, an inability to move from one task to the other without getting up to rummage for snacks. I got really good at that part.

start-being-more-productive

It wasn’t until midway through Day Three that I realized what was missing, the one thing I have in my office that didn’t and couldn’t pack in my tote bag to work from home: my mise-en-place.

If you’re familiar with my “Human At Work” talk  you know that this was a concept I learned from chefs; mise-en-place is French for “put in place” and in professional kitchens (where it’s often just referred to as mise) that means to having a workstation that is clean and organized, with all your tools within reach, and all the ingredients you need prepared and ready to use. NPR did a great exploration of this a while back if you want to learn more, but the takeaways for me have always been the importance of optimizing your workstation for the work at hand, and then cleaning as you go.

I have really good mise at my office. I had zero mise working at home, and it took me too long to realize it, but once I was able to set that up I found my workflow moved so much better. Suddenly I didn’t have to keep getting up to look for something, which inevitably led to distraction chain reactions. Instead I got all my pens and pencils and charging cables where I needed them; set up my notebook and folders in the right spot to review while I typed. Coffee mug on my right for fueling through my database building, Rubik’s cube and deck of cards on my left for deep thinking.

And the “clean as you go” part of mise-en-place can’t be forgotten either. Part of what really makes the whole philosophy work is to be continuously cleaning up your workspace between tasks. Now, working electronically may make that seem less important, but I like to think of it not so much about cleaning away debris as it is about resetting the workspace for what’s next. Sometimes just taking a few extra breaths, a quick stretch, walking to the kitchen for a coffee refill, makes doing what’s next easier and more efficient over time.

And that’s the real goal: not neatness, but efficiency. In fact, mise-en-place doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have to mean your entire working environment is organized. You can have a really messy office or desk, but your “workstation” will still run really efficiently if you make the prep part of your routine and set yourself up to get stuff done in the way that works best for you.

Since I got my mise on at home, the work is getting done again. I’m lucky enough to have a job where I can actually do my work from home with just a laptop and an internet connection, no matter how many workmen in heavy boots are clamoring above my head removing old insulation. Okay, it helps to have headphones, too.

Doing any job well takes focus on the task at hand, but it also takes having the right tools at hand as well. Just like the men working in my house can pull the exact screwdriver or pliers they need from their toolbelt behind their back without looking. There is far less distraction when you get your mise on.

Thank You, HighEdWeb NE

This is the final post in my 10 week narrative about the creation of my keynote talk for the 2016 HighEdWeb New England regional conference,  held at Mount Holyoke College on March 18. You can find an index of all the posts in this series on my #ShareHuman page.

So that went well, all things considered. Not bad for a first time keynote speaker, and I am so glad that it was for a room full of peers and mentors and friends that made me feel very welcome and comfortable right from the moment I arrived at Mount Holyoke College last week.

(Of course, you’ll never go wrong surprising me with a basket full of custom playing cards, fresh coffee, beer, books, and a gift card for my favorite purveyor of local meats—this HEWebNE planning committee did their homework and knew just how to make someone who’s naturally bashful about receiving gifts feel really special.)

And as much as being with all these people at this conference made me want to give my best, especially with so many great presentations before and after my talk, I could also tell that even if I had problems they would be there to support me. I could have failed spectacularly in front of this group, and it would have been hard to deal with, but I know they would have boosted me through it.

But it never came to that. As soon as I was able to start talking (and get a boost of good ol’ Moxie in me to help make up for only four hours of sleep) it all started to flow, and I entered The Presenter Zone… Continue reading →

Inspiration Takes Perspiration

I’m sharing my process for preparing the keynote talk I’ll be presenting at the 2016 HighEdWeb New England regional conference on March 18. This is Part Three; if you prefer chronological order, start with Part One and Part Two.

If you ever find yourself in need of a social conversation starter, here’s one of my favorite questions to ask:

Where do ideas come from?

That question has been on my mind this week as I thought about the developing my talk for HighEdWeb NE, because it gets to what I struggle with most when creating a presentation: how to focus in on exactly what it is I want to share that I feel is unique to me.

The way I see it, whenever I’m given the opportunity to speak to an audience—and even more so if I’m being invited specifically to inspire others—I need figure out exactly what key insight or point of view it is I think I have to share about a topic. I can’t just coast in and deliver the repackaged ideas of others; I want to make sure that when I leave people at the end with a tote bag of ideas, I know that those ideas and perspectives are my own.

So where do those ideas come from? I think they come from scraps and slivers of the ideas and voices of others that we absorb everyday, often without us even being conscious of it. In fact, I doubt real insight or direction can ever be traced completely to a single source or experience.

Continue reading →

Resolve to Evolve

I’m not making any resolutions for the New Year; I want to make evolutions instead.

A resolution is a short term goal, often about breaking bad habits and starting better ones: do more of A, less of B, stop doing C altogether. But I’m old enough now that I’m basically satisfied with all with the big choices I’ve made about my personal As, Bs, and Cs, and all the rest.

I’m no longer concerned with making or breaking habits; I want to evolve the habits I have into being the most effective habits for my future. I want to do more of what I’m already doing, do it in a more mindful, practiced way, and get better at it day by day.

I want to evolve my health habits. I’m already exercising regularly – how can I exercise better? I’m already eating healthy – how can I improve the quality of the healthy food I choose?

I want to evolve my money habits. I’m already saving – how can I save more? How can I improve my shared financial responsibilities? How can I improve my spending?

Now is the perfect time for me to evolve my career. I’ve had so many new opportunities appear around me, and shifting responsibilities for myself and others in my office creating challenging opportunities for all of us. I’m finally understanding what skills I bring to my job, what I do best and what others do better. I finally have a vision for the future I want to evolve toward. How can I level up in my work, take on more of a leadership/ownership role, and better put myself in a position where I can enable and empower others to be awesome?

The most tangible evolution I’ve made so far is that I’m writing and blogging regularly (and you may notice I’ve even evolved the design of this site a bit). But there is still more evolution ahead. How can I evolve my voice as a writer? What knowledge and insights do I have to share that is of value? How can I expand my ideas beyond a blog? What am I going to do about that book I keep thinking about writing?

Last year I wrote that my resolution would be “a long pass to myself in the future,” and I’m confident I caught that pass and ran with it. I didn’t get too far down the field with the ball, and certainly didn’t get any touchdowns, but sometimes a completed pass is all the victory you need.

Every completed play after this is just an evolution of the larger strategy, and evolution is the only resolution I want to make.

A New Year of Glad

Winter has officially closed its grip upon us here in the United States, making this the perfect time of year to catch up on reading that really long novel you’ve been meaning to read for so many years. If you’re an avid reader, you undoubtedly have one of those; a literary mega-tome that you keep hearing you should read, yet you just haven’t gotten around to it for one reason or another. Maybe it’s something classic by Tolstoy, or Proust; perhaps a more contemporary voice like Knausgaard.

For me, that “big book on my shelf I keep meaning to finally read” for years was Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. But that changed in 2009 when I finally made my way through the entire 1,000-plus pages thanks to a wonderful online reading group called Infinite Summer, which supported a community of readers making our way through the book all at the same time. Thanks to their combination of social media, community forums, and guest blog posts guiding readers through the book week by week, a novel that I may have left unfinished a third of the way through suddenly became a lot easier for me not only to finish, but to understand and become engaged with all the way to the end.

InfiniteJest cover

Now that we’re in book’s 20th anniversary year, I was thrilled to discover that a new group of talented and dedicated readers who appreciated Infinite Summer as much as I did are reviving the community for another go, this time as Infinite Winter.

I’m in for a second go at this, and I hope you will join us.

The plan is simple: read Infinite Jest with a few hundred of your closest friends with a goal of 75 pages per week from January 31 – May 2, 2016.

Of course, it’s not really quite that simple, because Infinite Jest is not a simple novel. But as I discovered the first time through, it’s the complexity of the book, and the mechanics involved in reading it, that actually make it such a great reading experience.

Continue reading →