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.

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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.

Farewell 2015

Today is the first day of a new year, but I feel I’m still saying goodbye to the year that just ended. There have been a lot of changes in my world over the past year, and along the way I’ve had to say goodbye to some people who had an influence on my life in one way or another. So before I get too far into a fresh new year, I want to be sure I put out some final words of thanks to those I’ll be missing.

Thankfully, there have been a few I was able to actually thank personally, like the boss who hired me. She was a major anchor in my work life and career. Losing her set me somewhat adrift, but also gives me new freedom to grow and build on my strengths in the year ahead.

Another anchor many of us lost this year was that of Jon Stewart when he left The Daily Show, which seems odd to say because he didn’t die or completely retire, and I didn’t even know him. But like many of his TV audience, I still felt I knew him and I didn’t realize how much I really appreciated him being there throughout my week. It’s going to be a very different election year without him around, but at least there is hope that his sharp, smart, comedic voice will return someday in the future.

Same goes for David Letterman, who officially did retire this past May. Late night TV is definitely different now without him, his voice, his point of view, his connection to the old-school tribe of broadcast TV pros. I’ll understand and be okay if he doesn’t reappear in some way — he’s earned the right to disappear from view just like Johnny before him. But there will always be a small part of me that will hold out hope to see him reemerge, well-rested, full-bearded, and with something worth saying.

Sadly, there are others we lost this year that we won’t be hearing from again, but the work they left behind in our culture will continue to be discovered and influence other humans just as they influenced me with their creativity, their skills, and their dedication to making art, music, films, and even advertising that used those forms in new ways that hadn’t been done before. Continue reading →

Truly Productive Gift Guide 2015

There are so many gift guides out there this time of year, so I don’t like to add the the noise or piles of choices. The last thing the world needs is one more person pushing products in the spirit of commercial giving.

But this giving season is also an opportunity to offer something simple and thoughtful to someone we want to thank for being awesome, for being helpful, even just for being part of our life. And if we’re honest, sometimes it’s just a good excuse to treat ourselves to something a little special as a reward for our own achievements, or to help us accomplish our goals for the new year.

So in that spirit, and in the tradition of my first Truly Productive Gift Guide post from last year, I bring you a new recommendation for “one thing” that anyone who wants to be more productive should be giving or receiving this year.

My only criteria for this is that the gift be inexpensive, simple to use, and most importantly, that it be a tool that enables productive work. Ideally, it’s also well designed without being overly adorned. I like my tools to be useful and purposeful, with minimal decoration. Something that can develop a unique personality the more it is used.

Drawing on my own experiences over the past year, I’ve looked at all the tools that I have found the most useful on a daily basis, and realized that there was one tool that I’ve been using and loving every day more than anything else. This is something that’s almost been an extension of my brain ever since I picked it up, and I can’t think of a nicer gift for yourself or anyone else this year:

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Thanksliving

I am thankful for every day.

Thankful for being alive and being aware of the world.

I am thankful for backyards in summer. A full moon in the snow of winter.

For dreams. For the ocean and the clouds. I am so thankful for clouds.

I am thankful for New York City. Chicago. Paris. London. Tokyo. Boston. Ithaca, NY. Deerfield, NH.

I am thankful for books. For lemons. For bicycles. For birds and squirrels. For apples. For yogurt. Chocolate. Popcorn. Bacon. Gravity. Baseball. Buster Keaton. The Muppets. Ice cream sandwiches. Iron Giant. George Carlin. Woody Allen. Nichols and May. Bill Murray. David Letterman. Peter Jennings.

For all the things I can’t remember, and everything I’ll never forget.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1996, standing in the back of a hushed theatre and watching Mikhail Baryshnikov dance to the amplified sound of his own heartbeat. Standing in a tent in Battery Park watching Zingaro dance with horses.

I am thankful for infinite knowledge at my fingertips. A computer in my pocket. Crossword puzzles. Rivers. Mountains. The Beatles. Bach. Moby Dick. Blood MeridianInfinite Jest. Autocorrect. Portal 2. Maple trees in March. Shakespeare. Jacques Tati’s Playtime in full 70mm on a huge screen on a Saturday afternoon.

I am thankful for the these words that let me be thankful.

I am thankful for my tribe.  Thankful for my wife. My friends. My families. For those who have left, for those who have died. For those I have yet to meet. For those I will never know who endure war, poverty, injustice, starvation, disease, and all those dedicated to helping them.

I am thankful for those who have fought for my country, for their country. Those who are smarter than me, stronger than me. For those who excel and those who strive to do better. For those who listen. For those who nurture.

I am thankful for teachers. Thankful for farmers. For makers, artists, builders, creators, explorers, storytellers, musicians, thinkers, editors, dancers, comics, athletes, chefs.

I am thankful for libraries, and for people who share. For procrastination. For poetry. For freedom. For the feeling of slipping on a freshly laundered shirt straight out of the dryer.

For hot water. Cold water. Clean water – anytime, anywhere. The first cup of fresh coffee. The last sip of old whiskey.

I am thankful for pockets. For paper. For pencils. For language. For learning. For learning to be thankful every day. Learning to give thanks and receive thanks.

I am thankful for my eyes, my ears, my nose, my tongue, my fingers, my toes, my lungs, my heart.

I am thankful for love. Thankful for being human with you. Thankful for our human-ness.

I am thankful for you.

Everything With Moderation

Things have been a little crazy at the office lately, especially since the college I work at became part of national news trend pieces for a few days last week. It’s a situation that has continued to build tension on campus over the past month and, for me personally, as an employee and alum of the college, it’s been sad to see how much the negativity and anger that has arisen from the situation quickly became louder than voices looking to find solutions and make change.

Of course, just walking around you’re only mildly aware of the level of frustration people are feeling. Public demonstrations, posters, and signs from the many voices vying for attention have ebbed and flowed across different public spaces on and off campus, but nobody’s camped out on the quad in protest, and most classes and schedules have continued as usual.

But things are much different if you pay even a little attention to social media. One quick search for our school on Facebook, Twitter, or YikYak and you’ll see just about every opinion people have, often followed by flame war comments going back and forth about who’s more ignorant or why people want to see our president resign. You’ll see individuals sharing moving stories of their own experiences as targets of racism, marginalization, or violent speech. And you’ll find posts filled with passionate opinions, arguments, and links to all kinds of longer rants that all seem to be strongly for one thing or strongly against another thing.

Sadly, few of these are kind to the people they see as against them. In fact, several posts or comments have been messages of outright hate, and that has been the most disturbing part of this whole experience for me.

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Made of Soylent

I have consumed Soylent for lunch almost every workday for over a year now, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. In fact, I think it may be the best lunch solution I’ve ever found.

Because for me, lunch is a problem.

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I realized a long time ago that eating a meal in the middle of the day is really difficult for me. Lunch is the one meal that most often feels like a chore, something I’m obligated to do more than something I want to do.

And it’s not because I don’t care about food—quite the opposite, really. I love to eat, and sandwiches—the archetype form factor of lunchtime fare for almost a century—are one of my favorite kinds of food. If I’m in a more leisurely situation like an outing with co-workers or on vacation with my wife, maybe a Saturday brunch with friends, I enjoy that lunch, too. But in the middle of a busy weekday, or even a weekend filled with errands, the idea of having to stop whatever I’m doing to eat something just causes me stress.

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