Dotting the I

I’ve been writing slower lately. Not that I’ve ever been a fast writer to begin with, but I suppose what I mean is I’m writing slower now with purpose.

I usually start every morning with an hour or two of reading and writing time. I’m up around 5:00 a.m. most days, and once I’ve got my coffee I’m sitting at the kitchen table ready to absorb ideas. Often those are the ideas of others from whatever book I’m reading, which I absorb by taking notes or annotating the text itself. Other times, often in that same morning block, I absorb my own thoughts and ideas by writing them down. The act of finding the words to express an idea—a thought or image or feeling—and then pulling those words into sentences is how I absorbing those ideas, moving them into my conscious mind.

Lately I’ve realized I absorb ideas best by writing them in longhand in my notebook rather than typing on a screen. Something about the physical motions of embedding my thoughts into the blank page with marks of dark ink feels like a rite, like something sacred. I like to use a fine-tip pen that flows cleanly and crisply, allowing me to write small and fit a lot on a page.

And here’s the thing about a good fine-tipped pen: it is precise. Which makes shaping letters and words feel almost delicate, and sloppy handwriting somehow more sloppy. Move too fast with a precise pen and the line may be too fine to read; write too small and the letters may be too close together to be legible.

So lately I’ve made a point of overcoming my worst handwriting habit by making sure I take the time to dot every lowercase letter that needs it—my “i” and my “j”—as I form the letter. Typically I would write out the entire word, then my hand went back to add the dot(s) over those letter forms as needed, or even more often, I would leave them undotted altogether. Overall the effect was messy and uneven. Now the results are neater and easier to read when I go back to it.

Just this one small change in how I physically write has made the act of writing more meaningful, and more effective for me. Now I am absorbing the letter and the word and the sentence more fully than before, and therefore absorbing the thoughts and ideas I’m writing more completely.

Taking the extra millisecond to add the final dot over a line feels slower than before, but it’s not actually all that slower. What moves slower is my brain, and that’s the real point of this. By being more mindful about the process and movement and actions of writing ideas, I am more focused on the ideas. I am more open to their message, more productive in their implementation.

When we talk about being sure to “dot our i’s and cross our t’s” we typically mean being sure that we have reviewed every detail of something important after it is nearly complete. But there is something we can gain by going slower in the first place, writing by hand, carefully and mindfully dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in the moment we make them, forming every letter and every word with a greater sense of purpose.

I am dotting my i’s to honor my i’s, and the meaning behind them. And by writing with awareness, I know I will absorb what I am writing much deeper than ever before.

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.

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 →

Taking Out the Trash

There are few things more satisfying than being able to identify stuff you don’t need/want/use anymore, gather it all up and get rid of it. All month long I’ve been taking out the trash and let me tell you, it’s been one of the most satisfying projects I’ve worked on all year. The only thing I regret is waiting so long to do it.

You know you’re an adult when an empty 22 x 8 foot, 60-cubic-yard, solid steel waste container being unloaded onto your driveway makes you feel like a kid on Christmas morning. To me, this container wasn’t empty—it was full of possibility.

I was so excited because I knew, at last, we would be getting rid of years worth of old, useless stuff that had been piling up, including a big pile which had been collecting since we first bought our house eight years ago. There was a big pile of wood scraps, old decaying cabinetry, shelves, rusted metal and other scraps from various minor renovations that was somewhat “out of sight, out of mind” in an old decaying potting shed that had been built off the back of our garage by previous owners decades ago, and that shed was itself now decaying and falling to pieces. After generating more scraps for that pile ourselves during a bathroom upgrade at the beginning of the month, we realized the time was right to put an end to all of the madness.

Continue reading →

All Hat and No Rabbit

This is the metaphor that comes to mind for how I’ve felt trying to get back to work after the holiday weekend: I step happily onto the stage in the spotlight, smiling energetically, promising something astonishing as I show my empty top hat. With confident flair, I reach into the hat to pull out a fluffy bunny—but it’s not there. I know it should be, I know it’s been there before, but for some reason this time I can’t find the rabbit no matter how deep I reach.

Still from Pixar's "Presto"“Presto” via Pixar/Disney

Long holiday weekends like the one we just had are always a welcome opportunity for rest, and stepping away from the office to not think about work for a while is healthy. It’s a forced reset of my brain, a chance to let things go for a while. But the downside is that it’s easy to lose momentum on building a routine, as new habits are hard to return to when work resumes.

Only a few days away from it, and suddenly I’ve lost my routine, but I feel the audience out there in the dark, waiting, and I’m holding an impractical hat with no rabbit. I had energy and confidence and felt ready to dive back in. But I’m not just re-acquiring a routine, I’m re-building it. I’ve been adding things, re-configuring the order and accommodating the changes in priorities, and it was working. And now I’m left feeling like the rabbit is just toying with me.

So what else can I do? I know I’ve got some other magic I can rely on, so maybe the best thing to do is forget about pulling a rabbit out of a hat today. Skip that trick, set it aside and come back to it when the confidence is back. Return to the basics, the card tricks I know backward and forward, like the one that’s so simple one of my favorite magicians can do it slogged on painkillers after having his wisdom teeth removed:

So I’ll do that, and prove to myself that I’m not completely lost. And when I’m confident again, and I remember where I left that rabbit, maybe tomorrow, I’ll be able to pull it out of my hat.

Aphorisms of Discipline

uncluttered desk with macbook computer

To be at the office and to be at work are not always the same thing.

As the prostitute once said, “It’s not the work, it’s the stairs.”

Discipline is the sum of habits multiplied by time. The stronger the habits, the less time one needs.

There are tasks and projects we do, and then there is our work. There is no harmony without all of these notes being sung together.

“You are the song you are learning to sing.”

A tool that makes work is no longer a tool.

Use your tools; don’t let your tools use you.

There will never be productivity tools or tactics that can actually put your ass in the chair and make you get something done.[*]

Self-discipline is the ultimate killer app.

Do not put off repetitive tasks; embrace the opportunity for mindful reflection.

Do it yourself, or delegate it. You can’t do both.

Sometimes the one you must delegate to is yourself in the future.

“Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Baby steps. One day at a time. Bird by bird.

Discipline is a life habit, not a life hack.

Freedom is completing the thing long avoided.

Good discipline requires practice; good practice requires discipline.

When the time comes, you should be there.

Discipline knows the color of the empty inbox.

Discipline is the sound of one hand clapping the laptop shut at the end of the day.


*(If there ever is, it probably means that humanity has lost the fight against the rise of the machines, and I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.)