Destiny Has No Beeper

Something about the arrival of spring tends to bring out thoughts of renewal. Of fresh perspectives and new beginnings. Of making grand plans for change.

I picture myself leaping out of bed like some kind of cartoon, throwing open the curtains on a new spring morning to greet the rising sun. I’ll stand before the window, sipping from a mug of coffee with both hands as I contemplate the dewy buds on the trees and listen to the joyful chatter of birds, and I think to myself, Yes, this is it; this is the year everything’s going to be different, and I’m going to finally do all these things I’ve been wanting to do forever. This is the dawn of my new perfect life.

But then eventually I go to work, and things happen, the momentum disappears, and the reality of spring being more about endless days of cold rain and mud begins to take hold. Even the best intentions succumb to forces of nature.

Stuff happens. Sometimes that stuff is distraction, sometimes it means we suffer a loss. But just as often that stuff is opportunity, and sometimes it is all those things at the same time. The question is if we’ll be too busy trying to make something grand happen that we don’t notice the opportunity when it appears.

I recently finished re-reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and this bit stuck out to me:

“Almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer.”

I think he’s on to something. Nobody goes looking for that trenchcoated figure in an alley, but we must be open to the interruption from certainty it provides.

Too much certainty is a dangerous thing. I’m going set goals, but I’m not going to overplan how I acheive them. My only plan is to work toward them, and let the path from here to there take its own shape.

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 →

Making Room for Ideas

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 my second entry in the series. You can find Part One here.

There’s something about the first of the month I’ve always found hopeful, so when I get the first day of the month and the first day of the week on the same day, like I did on Monday of this week, it always feels extra special to me. A Double First Day feels like the planets are in alignment (oh, wait – they actually are!) and the universe is telling me that this is a perfect day for starting something.

I chose this Double First Day to start focusing on a new goal: reduce my cognitive load as much as possible and give my mind more room for creative thinking. Because if I’m going to deliver the keynote talk I want to next month, I’m going to need all the creative energy I can get, not to mention all the time I can get to actually put it together.

Continue reading →

Revised

This blog post has been revised at least eight times over the past week. Today is Friday, and I’ve been trying to maintain the discipline of posting every Friday whenever possible. But sometimes the thoughts I think I have to share at the beginning of the week revise themselves.

This started out completely different; a bigger, more complex idea with links to examples and images to embed and some kind of vaguely witty structure to link it all together. Sometimes it’s hard to think small.

But the more I write, the more I discover what it is I’m really trying to say, and all of a sudden I’m writing something very different than what I initially set out to do.

So this post has been revised. Updated in a lot of little ways, mostly deletions or small changes in the word usements I structure. Most of them you’ll never see unless I point them out.

But it’s a post. It’s some new content, something out of my brain and onto your screen. And more importantly, I shipped on time. I overcame the resistance, figured out how to not overthink it in the midst of so much else going on with my life, with my job, with my plans for the future.

I shipped. I met my goal. In the end, the only one who really cares about that goal is me. And sometimes the goal is revised.

Just like this post.

Goals Let You Know If You’re Succeeding

Even though Summer is fading, I’m sticking to my #Constructive Summer reading goals. Sometimes projects take longer than you expect, but I’m still learning a lot and that’s what matters.

At this point I’m still working my way through Carson Tate’s Work Simply and here’s what I’ve learned so far: cultivating awareness of what distracts our attention is the only way to avoiding distraction and maintain focus; our ability to remain focused on tasks until they’re completed is the key to making the most of our finite resources of time and attention.

I’m thinking of it like exercising at the gym: cultivating awareness is your strength training, building a set of mental and emotional muscles strong enough to keep the force of distractions at bay; focused attention is your cardio workout, building endurance to keep moving forward at a comfortable pace with enough reserve on hand to sprint when we need to. Our muscles, heart, and lungs all work together, and the stronger they are, the more we can do.

So I’ve taken a look at my distractions, and I’ve begun to improve my ability to focus attention on the tasks at hand. But these are just the foundations to being more productive with our time, because we can have all the control over our attention and focus we want, but if we’re not putting that to a purposeful end, how do we know if we’re succeeding?

There is no measure of success without goals.

In general terms, we think of productivity as the number of tasks completed divided by the amount of time it took to complete them – widgets per hour, stitches per minute, etc. The higher the rate, the more productive we are. If we want to increase our widget productivity, we can set a goal that is a higher number than what we have and make adjustments until our output matches that goal.

But what if you’re not making widgets, but designing websites? What if you’re an editor or producer or photographer or accountant? What if you’re not making anything directly, but managing a whole team of makers? What you have now is project-based work, where the driving factor isn’t quantity but quality, and a deadline for when it should be done.

Here’s where goal setting becomes more complex and stressful for the modern “information worker” because we don’t have easily quantifiable quotas to meet (10 widgets per hour) but just a pile of tasks and projects that we need to complete by a certain time. In fact, that’s not even just how we work, but how we live, because the projects and tasks of our lives at home are structured pretty much the same way: there are always ongoing projects, chores, and needs of others to meet at home just as there are at work.

This is why we’re stressed out about getting stuff done. And this is where the latest lesson I gained from Work Simply gives me hope:

You can’t create an effective plan for getting things done until you know the goals you’re trying to accomplish, and the goals you set should be goals you know you can actually achieve.

In the book, Carson Tate calls these READY goals, because they should follow five basic criteria if you’re going to actually achieve them: they should be Realistic, Exciting, Action-oriented, Directive, and Yours. In other words, these are things you know you can achieve over time, that you’ll be engaged in, that can be broken into tasks, that keep steering you where you want to go, and that you have a personal stake in. These aren’t someone else’s goals for you, and they aren’t vague, unrealistic fantasies.

Defining these goals — actually writing them out on paper — is the first step to understanding the why behind how we’re spending our attention each day. It brings intentionality to our actions, and motivates us more strongly than merely wanting to get stuff done just so it’s done.

Tate recommends setting READY goals for an entire year at a time, right on New Year’s Day if you can. Her four primary categories for goal setting are:

  • Professional (career goals, team goals, improving skills)
  • Personal (strengthening relationships)
  • Health (improving how I feel, exercise, eat, and rest)
  • Spiritual (nurturing inner spiritual needs and values)

Once you have READY goals within each category, your priorities become clear. And that is when you can get to the hands-on work of investing time, building habits and scheduling your days to reach these goals.

That’s the next big step I’ve hit as I keep making my way through this book, and the part that I probably need the most. At the rate I’m going, it looks like that will be my big goal for September.

What’s yours?

Making a Resolution Long Pass

I love that New Year’s resolutions have become so ingrained in our culture as something doomed to fail, and yet we continue to make them. It’s hard not to see the start of each new year (or even a new month) as a time for renewal and positive change in our lives. Who doesn’t want to be a better person?

But I’ve learned that the resolutions that fail are the ones that weren’t made in good faith to begin with. I wasn’t being honest with myself about what I could accomplish or change, but merely what I was hoping I could change; I had vague goals, but no real plan for making them happen, and suffered little consequence if they didn’t happen.

So here’s to making honest resolutions, based on not just what I want to gain for myself, but what I want from myself.

I won’t resolve to run more if what I really want is an excuse to buy new shoes.

I won’t make resolutions just because I think they’ll make someone else happy. I will follow my gut, not my ego.

I will find my tribe and share my resolutions with them. I will change my surroundings/environment/context to reflect and support my goals.

I will make a resolution that means something, a resolution I can plan for, monitor its progress, and bring to a close by the end of the year in a way that feels like more than just accomplishment – it feels like victory.

My New Year’s resolution is a long pass to myself from today into the future, a throw from the end zone of last year so high and so smooth that I can watch it climb and arc overhead as I run forward through the year, dodging interference, leaping over tackles, and plotting my way to the point I know the ball will be landing at the end of the year ahead of me, and I’d better be there to catch it.

This website is a big part of that resolution – turning something I didn’t know I had into something more tangible I can share. I’m going to keep adding to it and expand the scope, and I’m not even completely sure how I’m going to do it. But I have a good idea where that pass I’m throwing is going to land at the end of the year…

Time to get those running shoes on.

Starting At One

It’s the beginning of a new month. Perfect time to finally get started on that thing.

Day One for December calendar

You know what I mean – we all have a thing. It’s that project or task we’ve been putting off and telling ourselves we’re too busy to start; we’re waiting to think about it more because we’re just not sure we’ve figured it all out yet, but at the same time it’s starting to bother us that we haven’t gotten started on it yet because it’s important or timely or we just need to get it out of the way. That thing that’s distracting us, a bit of psychic grit in our cognitive gears.

You know what your thing is. You’re reading mine right now.

Continue reading →