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 →

Mt. Holyoke lecture hall - photo by Sven Aas

Time to Share

I’ve been sharing my process of preparing the keynote talk I’m presenting at the 2016 HighEdWeb New England regional conference on March 18—that’s today! This is the eighth post in the series; you can find an index of all previous posts in this series on my #ShareHuman page.

So this is it – the big day has finally arrived. No more tweaking of my slides, no more digging for photos online to perfectly express an esoteric idea. I’m about to be introduced, and it’s up to me to make a hundred people in a lecture hall care about something that has been churning and growing and evolving in my head for almost six months.

No pressure.

I wish I could say that I wasn’t re-writing and re-thinking just about every slide in my presentation during the 5 hours of solo driving I had to get here. I wish I could say that I wasn’t up past midnight last night finalizing all the details and last minute changes I could think of, and that I didn’t spill coffee on the keyboard of my laptop halfway through that, inducing a brief high-level anxiety attack.

I wish I could say that I didn’t have cartoonish and surreal anxiety dreams last night, that instead I slept for eight hours like an exhausted old man and awoke bright and fresh like a spring flower greeting the sun. I wish I could say that. But I can’t.

Because ultimately I’ve come to accept that this is just how I work, finishing even the longest marathons with a sprint to the finish. Try as I might, I can’t seem to change the way my brain works when creating something new. It seems to have to be forced into a corner or squeezed until it has no choice but to give up the ideas and solutions it held onto.

And the worst part of that is some of those last holdouts in my mind won’t reveal themselves until I actually start talking in front of this crowd of a hundred people whose time and talent and general awesomeness is very important to me. Of course, throwing in a healthy dose of pop culture references doesn’t hurt either. Mine include Harry Houdini, The Monkees, Doctor Who, Julia Child, Daft Punk, David Foster Wallace, David Byrne, Cher, George Burns, Douglas Adams, and Kurt Vonnegut, among others.

I will probably surprise myself just as much as I surprise my audience, and I may lose my train of thought along the way, but all I can hope for is that everyone leaves understanding something a little better than before, and takes away at least one little nugget in their tote bag of ideas that they can start to use in their work and in their lives beyond this conference.

I set the bar really high for myself as a keynote speaker because I know what I’ve wanted from keynote speakers in the past: knowledge, inspiration, and a touch of entertainment. I don’t just want to share my ideas—I want to make you feel something along the way. If you don’t feel differently at the end of my talk than you did at the beginning I’ll be disappointed.

But at this point there’s nothing I can do. The slide deck is locked and loaded, the introductory remarks have been rehearsed, and the butterflies are loose in my belly. There’s only one more thing to do and that’s start talking.

Let’s see what happens…

 

The People I Trust

I’m sharing my process as I prepare the keynote talk I’ll be presenting at the 2016 HighEdWeb New England regional conference on March 18. This is Part Seven; you can find an index of all previous posts in this series on my #ShareHuman page.

I work with a great bunch of people at Ithaca College, and I think I probably owe a lot of them apologies.

I’ve been more than a little cranky and irritable this week because so much of my attention and creative bandwidth has been taken up by the work we’re doing together in our teams—really big, exciting work, but in overwhelming quantities—and that makes the part of me that feels like I should be working more on my conference keynote really anxious that I won’t be able to pull it off.

I think I may have let that frustration slip through the cracks of my attitude in a meeting or two over the past few days. I’m sorry about that.

But it happens to everyone of us eventually. We are all humans with lives outside of work, with personal stuff we have to deal with. We’re adults and we figure out a way to get through it, and as our work lives become more closely knit, we also grow to understand how and when we can support each other through stressful times as well as joyous ones.

The people I work with are really good at this, and make me feel lucky to be a part of their team. They make me feel valuable, and at the same time I am in awe of all the special and effortless talents each of them possesses. That is exactly why my office colleagues are the first people I am turning to for feedback on my presentation.

Within a couple hours of this post being published, I will be presenting a dry-run of my keynote just for them in our conference room, and it will be the first time I have walked through my entire talk out loud in real time. In fact it will be my first time actually putting words to the slides, and trying to string together ideas and themes that have up until that point have really only lived in my head.

Honestly, I’m pretty nervous about this moment. I’m not even sure if the presentation I’ll have to share with them is complete enough to be coherent, let alone cohesive or valuable. But I’m also eager for this moment to happen, because I already know that my colleagues are there to help.

And I planned it all this way on purpose, knowing it would force me to get a full talk completed a week early so I could get the feedback I need from people I trust most. An audience who will be forgiving when I stumble, laugh when I need it, and give me notes that I can really use. People who know me and what I’m trying to achieve, and who want to see me succeed and represent them as best as I can.

Getting this presentation on its feet for the first time for people I trust might be the most important final step in this entire process, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I did this same thing the last time I was creating a new talk and it was a huge benefit for me and that presentation, because my colleagues helped me see clearly what needed to be cut, what needed to grow, and what was missing from the presentation I had, and cleared the path for me to make it into a presentation that succeeded beyond my greatest hope.

So thank you in advance to all my colleagues who will be there to help me this morning, listening and taking notes, being picky and being honest. Despite all the work we all have to do, you are taking time from your day to help me be better, and I can’t thank you enough. I only hope I make it worth your time.

And I’m sorry again if I’ve been cranky or anxious. I know you understand.

The Slide Deck Tango

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 Six; you can now find an index of all previous posts in this series on my new #ShareHuman page.

Giving a talk in the modern era means 99% of the time also preparing a visual presentation to go along with it. So it should be no surprise that, with only a couple weeks left before this conference, my focus has turned to getting my ideas out into a slide deck to support my thoughts. And this, for me, is really where I get the most stressed and the most intensely absorbed in the process, because these slides are really the final container for everything I’ve worked on. They are the structure and storyboard for the ideas and examples I want to share in my talk, and for anyone who isn’t able to attend my presentation, they may be the only way they get to experience this.

There is a lot I could say about putting together a slide deck, probably enough for another entire blog. I was originally titling this post as “How to Build a Deck” but the small part of me that pays attention to SEO thought that might end up disappointing people looking for details on how to build some kind of wooden platform off the back of their home.

The one thing I will share here that could apply to building slide decks or backyard decks is this: don’t take shortcuts. If you take shortcuts to save time—like say, taking something somebody else made and slapping your stuff on top of it—you may get a deck that meets your needs but it will also be obvious to everyone that you were lazy.

If you think of nothing else when creating a slide deck, remember that the software is just a tool you are using to convey an idea. They should not contain or repeat the idea itself, only reinforce it, enhance it, and make it stick. Seth Godin already wrote about this pretty wonderfully and I recommend reading that (you can also get a PDF version here). Continue reading →

The Panic

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 Five; you can now find an index of all previous posts in this series on my new #ShareHuman page.

And now is the part of the process when The Panic starts to settle in.

The more I start bringing all the pieces of my presentation together, the more I feel my mind trying to pull it all apart, seeding doubt into every choice I make.

Is that really what I’m trying to say?
Is this too much? Is it not enough? Is it too obscure?
Will anybody even notice? Is it too obvious?
Do I need to support this idea more?
Is this even an idea worth discussing?

The Panic wants me to question everything.

For every little note I’ve made, every scrap of an idea I think I can use, there are four others I don’t get to. There seem to be so many paths I can follow but I’m building the map as I go, and it’s unclear if all those paths intersect or lead to the destination I’m hoping for, or if anyone will even notice the details that stick out to me.

I think this is what I mean, but is that the right way to say it?
Why doesn’t that look right?
Is this font better?
Maybe this font? Or maybe this font?
What am I even doing this for? I’m no expert – who am I kidding?
They’re all going to see right through me…

So I stop.

Take a breath and walk away for a moment.

Deep down, I know that as long as I take my own advice and focus on being Honest, Unafraid, Mindful, Active and Nice with my work, then the work will reflect that and turn out right. And yet The Panic lurks, waiting for me to let my guard down, waiting until I am most vulnerable and doubtful that anything I’m working on makes sense.

Continue reading →

Archaeology

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 Four; you can now find an index of all previous posts in this series on my new #ShareHuman page.

For a few years, when I was about six through nine years old, I was really interested in being an archaeologist. At the time it probably came from a fascination with dinosaurs I shared with many kids at that age, as well as my general ongoing interest in Science! as a thing I enjoyed learning about. I was also excited by discovery, digging and unearthing pieces of a puzzle, figuring out how the pieces connect and learning the story they tell.

My interest in dinosaurs faded by the time I was ten, replaced by science fiction and space exploration (Lego!) and something in our new “computer lab” called an Apple II (Logo!). But my love for discovery and unearthing the bones of a story have never really gone away.

Which is a good thing, because now I find myself at the stage of putting together my presentation where I have unearthed a whole mess of bones, but I have no idea which ones actually belong to the skeleton I’m trying to assemble and which ones are part of a different beast altogether.  Continue reading →