Truly Productive Gift Guide 2016

I love giving gifts just as much as I love receiving them, so each December I like to share my own Gift Giving Guide For Productive Humans. There have been a number of distractions this season that put me behind schedule on all of my gift giving preparations (more about that in future posts), so this entry comes a lot later than usual—too late to be useful, perhaps—but I still think it’s worth sharing with you. And since the most productive gift anyone can give is more time, I will keep it short.

As with previous years, my gift list consists of only one thing, and the only criteria for this is that the gift be inexpensive ($50 or less), simple to use, and most importantly, it is useful and enables or supports productive work. It has to be a tool that you want to use, not a tool that gets in the way. If it’s also well designed and well made, then even better.

So without further introduction, my Truly Productive Gift for 2016 is…

The Amazon Echo Dot *

Maybe not what you were expecting from this list, and honestly I wasn’t either. But I looked back on the past year and thought about what tools I find myself relying on every day, tools that improved or even changed how I work. That usually means a tool that helps reduce my cognitive load, something to get tasks or ideas out of my head so I can focus on doing high-value work instead, or help me keep better track of how I spend my time and energy. The Echo Dot is something that can do all of those things in some ways, and yet in other ways it does more than I ever thought I would need.

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Thank the Soil

In my family, as in so many American families who come together for Thanksgiving every year, there is a moment in the gathering where we are all seated around a table (or two or three tables), probably holding hands, and one by one share something we are thankful for.

For some it is a spiritual or religious moment of praise and thanks to a higher power for blessings on the family. For others, it is a more secular moment of reflection, of searching for the small good things we can focus on. Often we are just thankful for the food we are about to share, and the ability to share it. Sometimes it’s our health or success, ways that we’ve grown, battles we’ve survived.

This often ends up in the form of a list, and there’s certainly good in that. Sometimes we need to actually say these things out loud or write them down to realize just how long that list can be.

But the one thing everyone has in common when gather together like this is being thankful for the people they’re with. Whether it’s family, friends, or even strangers. The Thanksgiving tradition of a welcoming table and communal meal, of sharing something nourishing with others, is the heart of what Thanksgiving is about.

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Dear Eric

It has now been one year since you died. I’m not sure we’ll ever know what happened to you, only that you were alone when your car left the road late at night, hit something at high speed, and you weren’t wearing a seatbelt. You didn’t survive. You were only a little more than a year older than me.

In some ways I’m surprised it’s only been one year since the accident; so much has happened in the past twelve months it feels like your death happened in a whole different world than where we are now. But emtionally, this anniversary is touching something raw within me, this first loop around the calendar back to a date I had pushed away from my mind. I think it was the suddenness of it, the shock, the seeming randomness of your accident that knocked me off balance.

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Shedding Light

Yesterday was the equinox, one of only two days in every year (or in every orbit around the sun) when the amount of daylight we receive is basically equal to the amount of darkness. Where I live in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s our “autumnal equinox” because it signals the official transition from summer to fall.

This means that for the next ninety days or so—every day from now until the December solstice —the amount of daylight I see will be reduced. Soon it will be darker when I am up in the morning to write, and it will be dark when I leave the office at the end of the day. It will get colder, and trees will shed their leaves just as the Earth begins to shed off sunlight in exchange for a longer cloak of star-filled nights.

But yesterday, for one brief moment in this orbit, we were on a planet of equipoise, the sun directly at our equator, with both ends of Earth receiving an even balance of light and dark, warm and cold, energy and stillness.

For one day, in a moment that we could never really notice or feel, we all got an even share of something bigger than ourselves.

Work on Vacation

I am technically on vacation as I write this. I’m not supposed to be checking email, or doing anything related to work. I’m not supposed to be updating documents or spreadsheets or doing research. And yet I have done all of those things every day of my vacation within view of the ocean.

And you know what? It’s been an amazing vacation, and it truly has been restful and relaxing the whole time. So why am I “on vacation” but still doing “work” at the beach?

Because I’m only doing work I really want to do, and only for two or three hours in the morning. The rest of the day is devoted to being on vacation with my wife, playing epic games of miniature golf and skeeball, reading novels on the beach, and consuming copious amounts of fried and freshly shucked seafood and soft-serve ice cream. You know – vacation stuff.

Because the point of vacation isn’t simply about about “not doing work”—it’s about taking a break from the things you have to do and focusing instead on only doing things you want to do, and doing it all in as relaxed and leisurely a manner as possible. I asked myself, What is it I am taking a vacation from? and whatever the answer, those are the things I should not be doing.

Or to think of it another way: I choose to use my vacation time, “me” time, to finally indulge my energy and attention on all the things that I feel I’d rather be doing when I’m stuck doing work. What I’m taking a vacation from is the obligations to others, and focusing instead on just hanging out with my wife, being as leisurely as possible.

Did I bring a lot of material related to my work with me? Yes, because it’s stuff I really want to work on for myself. Lots books and notes to review for my upcoming conference presentations, but also my own beach reading material for kicking back on the sand under an umbrella.

Vacations for us mean leisurely mornings with few plans. Coincidentally, mornings are a peak time of energy and attention for me, a time when I’m most able to do productive work. By taking two or three hours every morning of leisure time doing some of the work I want to get done for myself, I am able to relax and use all my remaining energy and attention fully to enjoy the rest of the day free of distraction.

By allowing myself to indulge in doing the work I truly want to get done for myself, I am able to get rid of the nagging feelings of things left undone. It’s amazing how much even just a single productive hour can make on the rest of my day, all while still sleeping late and relaxing and enjoying the sights and sounds and cool breezes of Cape Cod in September.

So I won’t feel guilty about checking email or updating spreadsheets while I’m on vacation, as long as I’m honest with myself about doing it because it’s something I genuinely want to do, and will enjoy having done. The key is to keep it to a short, set amount of time, and then letting go of it for the rest of the day.

Scheduling a little time for productive work during vacation can be a wonderful thing as long as you’re smart and honest about it. Don’t work just to work, and don’t engage with anything you don’t feel drawn to. Vacation time is you time, and that’s what’s most important.

I’m happy I found this balance, and I’ve had a wonderful week because of it. In fact, thanks to fewer distractions on my mind during the day, I think my miniature golf game has improved – I’m almost making par for every course.

More importantly, I’m having a great time because I made time to work on vacation.

Doing Too Much

“You know, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this project right now…”

That’s not a phrase I hear often in meetings, and not a mentality I usually associate with myself or my hardworking colleagues. But until someone said it out loud, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that not continuing a project was ever an option. And it felt so good to realize it might be true.

We have been talking for months about a small upgrade project that could have a significant impact, focused on the benefits it could bring to our users and the new things it would help us learn about them. And technically we could get it done. Those of us involved would have just enough time that we could build it, test it, and launch what we need to have something running within a couple of weeks.

But it wouldn’t be a great user experience.

Back in May, it seemed doable. But things change. Other priorities appear, time and resources become scarce, and the requirements for implementing an upgrade that once seemed so doable suddenly have a lot of question marks next to them.

With so many other projects going on, and so many bigger things we need to focusing our time and energy toward, it’s clear that trying to do this well on top of everything else simply wouldn’t work. Or, at least, if we wanted to do this, it couldn’t be done the same ways we’ve done it in the past. Not with the same people, and not without training others.

So the questions had to be asked now, before we committed: Should we really be doing this right now if we’re not sure we can deliver a valuable experience? What do we lose if we wait a year? Maybe if we wait, the other big things we’re working on will teach us something about this project that can help us make it even better anyway?

I am so glad I work with a team who aren’t afraid to be human and imperfect. To question a plan in progress is a sign that someone is paying attention from a higher perspective and being willing to talk about that is a huge benefit.

So now we have a decision to make, and it will involve further discussion, but at least we’re talking honestly about our work and what it means for our audience, and we’re unafraid to speak up about it and admit there are things we can’t do. We’ve become unburdened, and feels like a weight has lifted.

We are admitting we are a human team, and figuring out together when to ask if we are really doing something valuable, or perhaps we are doing too much.

Time Passing

Sixteen years ago today, I married my wife here in the beautiful town of Ithaca, standing under cover of light fog and misty rain just up the hill from the college campus where our lives first entwined.

Just three years later we moved to Ithaca for good, and it was this week nine years ago that we bought our first home, our own little parcel of the city we love.

It’s the same home where I now sit beside my favorite other person in the world, typing out this little thank you to the universe for all of it.

Let me always be worthy of all of this.