14
Sep

Credo: I don't know their story

I am a geek, so I follow Will Wheaton. Much as I like Will Wheaton, I am no longer fond of his catchphrase "don't be a dick".

Don't get me wrong. I agree that dickishness is more than plentiful and less would be better, but DBAD seems to be something that is only said to other people. That is not really the problem. In most of the situations where I would apply DBAD, I am involved. I am often even a contributor. Despite my best efforts and those of my beloved wife and upbringing I am sometimes a dick. Sometimes people and things Rub Me the Wrong Way (pause for double-entendre) and I am a nasty, judgemental, sarcastic meany-trousers. It's not very often, but sometimes my dice land that way.

Stil, even when people are not being very nice to me, I have the opportunity and even obligation to take the better path and higher ground and sometimes I do. That is the heavy lifting. That is when a gorilla get it's wings, I get a year off purgatory and extra shiny karma.

The greatest challenge is that moment of judgement. The moment when I decide that someone is wrong, bad and a drain on the species: "cut me up in traffic!", "took it without asking!", "got in my way for no reason!", "looked at me funny!". That is when I could say "don't be a dick" to them and skip away secure in my own perfection, but it is harder, but I think better, to say "you don't know their story". You don't. I once sat in a very intensive coaching session with twelve ordinary-looking, well-paid professionals and discovered how much sadness, grief and suffering lurked in their lives. There is a lot of suffering out there that people who look no different to you are just dealing with. You have no idea, I certainly didn't.

The rude guy in the supermarket had just had a hell of day with his abusive boss. The dithering lady in the car ahead is dealing with the death of a friend but still has to pick up her children. The kid that pushed in front of you got humiliated in front of all his friends and maybe Will Wheaton's power-mad flight attendant can never have children, is facing redundancy, or  just got out of bed the wrong side this morning.

Judgement without information is just stroking off my ego and licencing me to be horrid. If we know the story, see at a real person in the wrack and fury of their world we might feel differently. We might get it, show compassion and let it ride. Life is too short.

It's a short ride on this spinning globe sweethearts: no one gets out alive. You may bump into me on this whirligig and I may be a complete dick at that time, so please remember: you don't know my story and I don't know yours. Until we do, judgement is not ours.

with Love, Tim

18
Apr

Mind like Tomatoes

After an interesting exchange with a fellow blogger I feel the need to map out a bit more thoroughly than last time the pragmatic mashup of GTD and The Pomodoro Technique that is the method of my current madness. This is then a post about methods...aargh  and I am (strange to say) not much of a method wonk. No really. It is all too common to see productivity methods and the tools that go with them (generally software) become precisely the kind of mental tar-baby that we were trying to avoid by adopting them : goofing around with new software is probably less mentally challenging than dealing with you piles and files. The thing that has always endeared and adhered GTD to me is just that it works for me. Other methods, Covey et al, bounced off my polished procrastination, leaving me feeling guilty. GTD allows me to do things that would otherwise not happen. It sticks with me despite my ability to go haring off after any gaily apparelled concept that trots past. It is just fierce enough to make me do the thinking I need to do but not so grim that I despair of satisfying its constraints : hence the affection and enthusiasm.

GTD evolved out of the kind of busy commercial middle and executive management environment Peter Drucker wrote for. Its bones and brains were honed against a deluge of inputs and interrupts, lack of clarity, moving targets and the pressing need to remain sane while keeping an ever increasing number of plates safely spinning. It is indeed about "getting things done" and the unsaid follow-up is "despite your screw-ball environment". The assumption is that the (for me unsung) rigourous process of defining a Next Action will automatically chunk things into a size you can focus long enough to handle. That is mostly true, but not always. Read more...

12
Apr

Of Tomatoes and Discipline

Discipline. Now that's an old-fashioned word. It conjures up images of strict parents, being stood in the corner, being unable to do what you want; but there is another side. Any skill that takes dedication and focus is also called a "discipline". The image there is of perfecting a movement, refining your understanding, excluding distraction. The common theme is focus, excluding one thing so that another can be successful, pouring your energy into one bright spot, rather than dissipating it over a wide field. Read more...

27
Mar

Uses of the truth

I got used last week.

But that's ok. Here is how it happened.

At the moment I spend part of my time in an environment were there is fear and lack of candour. People feel threatened and powerless and unable to connect to each other. Such situations are anathema to me, they dampen down our fire and life and infect us with secrecy and doubt. Anger and complaints do not counter this. Bitching around the coffee machine does not help. The only cure for fear is truth: gentle, unremitting personal truth. So I told the truth about what was happening to me (I am going to leave) but that I was fine and would be happy to talk to anyone about my situation. This undoubtedly helped the manager concerned to avoid a confrontation with his staff. He used what I said to paper over growing concerns. So he will probably not properly resolve the situation. That is a shame, but I stand by my principle. I knew that I would be used and did it anyway because, as I tell my sons very often, I wish to behave according to my own best principles rather than responding to other's worst actions. I hope that some of my co-workers will feel a little easier, a little stronger and less alone. It was for them. I was a small thing I could do.

So what am I telling you? For me, it does not matter if others would put your actions to bad use. Tell the truth. It really will set you free.

3
Mar

Why do we fall?

As Bruce Wayne's father says "So that we can learn to pick ourselves up."

It is a hard thing to do, perhaps the hardest thing. Coming back for something that really hurts you, really makes you doubt: very hard. But if you can do it, you will be stronger, simply because you know that you can. You will have done something that you will remember every time you get knocked down. I do not believe that suffering ennobles people. But surmounting it does. It opens up possibilities.

I recently read a blog post by a creative writer who fell on his face, was utterly incompetent in front of a group because he was not properly prepared. It almost crushed him, but he summoned up from somewhere the anger and spirit to "get back on the horse" and try again. As I wrote to him, I believe from the bottom of my heart that such moments are magnificent, they are triumphs of the human spirit and beautiful in the eyes of God. I do not wish you adversity, but I do wish you the strength to surmount it and a long and powerful memory of having done so.

Why do we fall? So that we learn how to pick ourselves up.

25
Jan

Thymer and Remember the Milk

I have a pretty strong distrust of anything that claims to automate your GTD process: most of them claim more attention than they relieve and become jobs in themselves. Nevertheless I do need somewhere to park my next actions at home. Work is wall-to-wall Outlook and I synch it down to my smartphone, but at home I use gmail for email and a low-tech wall-calendar for agenda items because the children can use it too. I looked at both Thymer and Remember the Milk as candidates, please do not write in to tell me that there are others...

Thymer has a very elegant interface, uncluttered and fluid and I found it very pleasant to use, but it is not quite my GTD cup of tea: tasks get hung on a timeline, there is an emphasis on timing activities (great if you charge time) and the ability to bump a task onto a later date is a way of setting priorities. You are basically loading a day with tasks off your inventory and pushing back everything you do not regard as urgent and important. That is rather like Michael Linenberger's approach, not incompatible with GTD, but priorities play a bigger role than I like. Projects are nicely implemented and Thymer makes it easy to share a project with someone else. I suspect that Thymer might work very well for time-driven project groups working from a bill-of-work, but it did not suit me. I also missed the ability to synchronize, Thymer is expecting to be your desktop and does not talk to anything else. Thymer is freemium, there is a very basic version for free and you pay a monthly subscription for the full product and group usage.

Remember the Milk has slightly clunkier tabbed interface, orientated around an inbox. It lets you set up task groups any way you like and synchs reliably with my Windows Mobile smartphone and reputedly also with iPhones. Cute, but currently not very necessary for me is the Twitter interface: a well-aimed tweet will insert a to-do into your RTM account. RTM is definitely less fun to use than Thymer, the interface needs two clicks to complete a task for instance, but they win on synchronisation ability:  I like to have the same task list at home and work.

24
Jan

Sorting by shape

Whenever I give a Getting Things Done training course I start with a funny little exercise I developed. I spread out a pack of "e-mail" cards on the table, labeled "urgent", "from your boss", "from a colleague you do not like" and so on on the table. On the other side of the cards is a money amount representing the value of handling the e-mail. People home in on the Boss and Urgent e-mails and find tiny or even negative amounts on the reverse of the card. Naturally, some of the least appealing cards have very high values. , making this a game that is hard to win.

Once a couple of people have failed to "score" by picking random e-mails I show them that the only way to truly win is to turn over all the cards. You cannot choose what to do until you have Once you have found out what something means, to you, you can decide about priorities.

Back when my beloved wife and I were DINKs (Double Income No Kids) we had a cleaning lady called Norma. She was a smart and capable lady but had a tendency to store anything we left lying on a surface in any random, nearby place into which it fitted.  This made things so hard to find that even now, years later, we  we call any situation in which something has been carefully put away in the wrong place "Normalized".  Norma was no dummy, but of course did not know where to put our random items because she did not know what they meant, to us. To give an example, nobody could know where to put the cinnamon away in my kitchen, unless you know I like cinnamon on my raisin-toast in the morning (habit I picked up in Australia).

The point of this is that if you do not know what something means, what action it demands of you, you will be unable to store it correctly, let alone attempt to prioritize it with respect to other things in your world. 

5
Sep

GTD Unplugged

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What goes around comes around and one of my hobby-horses has come around again. My personal approach to GTD coaching is to emphasis the mental game. It is not about having a particular set of macro's or a specific tool. It is about how you think. For me this is very basic, but I keep having to prise people away from a technology of some kind and demand they do their own thinking.

It is a  great human weakness to wish for a magic wand, the device, glistening and replete with hard-coded wisdom, that will fix your wagon for good. It should dovetail itself to your psyche without actually needing any kind of conversation with your conciousness or change on your part whatsoever.

No dice.

This applies in many fields of effort. I remember consulting with a company which insisted that only the promised following version of a particular bit of call-center software would enable them to do their jobs properly. One of my other clients had the same job to do. For that client is was executed by an experienced and painstaking man with a bunch of file cards and an excel spreadsheet.

This particular train of thought was sparked for me by a course I gave recently, my super-fast half-day GTD intro, in which a lady sat who, without being difficult about it, had already implemented the behaviors I was describing with simple tools. This was for the good and sufficient reason that she had what Dutch people call a Duo-Baan or shared job. She and her job-partner rarely met, but remained in absolute synch with each other by exchanging lists. She had knife-sharp Next Actions, well-defined Waiting Fors and a complete project list all set up in Excel and paper files. Her partner could walk in and pick up everything that was relevant immediately.

The tools are not important. Clarity is important. Completeness is important and above all Thinking It Through until it is blisteringly explicit is very, very important. If you can get those things right you could probably use trained rats and parchment to run your life.

13
Aug

GTD and the Pomodoro technique

I have been working seriously with the Pomodoro technique recently. I find it genuinely useful for achieving focus on a single extensive task. I used it to plow my way through an extensive e-learning trajectory (3 hours of material) and to focus on writing documents.

Engaging with the Pomodoro technique made me realise that GTD offers relatively little in the way of strategies for executing, so Pomodoro fits nicely into the DO layer of GTD.

If you want to integrate GTD with pomodoro all you need to do is use the work inventory aspect of GTD, look carefully at your Next Actions and select any that you want to move on that need a substantial effort (30+ minutes). These you can block into your diary as pomodoros. I tend to label tasks as "Review course training material 2PD" which means that I should block out 2 pomodoros worth. I do use a pomodoro sheet to record my progress on pomodoro tasks, but I process the "urgent and unplanned" part of the sheet back into GTD.

An unexpected and not totally welcome effect of Pomodoro-ing is that you suddenly realize quite how little focussed intensive effort you manage in one day. My current record is six Pomodoros, though it should be said that I am currently only 60% available as I am recovering from an eye operation. The technique also makes it very visible when you under or overestimate the time needed for a task.

If you have some kind of standard block of intensive work (perhaps a regular report to write) I recommend blocking it out in Pomodoros and seeing how your estimate of the time needed matches up to reality.

Where GTD conflicts a little with Pomodoro is the handling of interruptions. In GTD the emphasis is on flexibiltity: you snap round, handle the interruption and then return to the inventory of your work, perhaps with a different focus as a result of the interruption. Pomodoro emphasises remaining focussed on the task at hand, straight-arming incoming interruptions to handle after the pomodoro has expired. Both have their advantages. As I gain more experience mixing the techniques I will post further thoughts.

3
Jul

Burning up your will-power

I got very interested recently in experiments being done in the field of "ego depletion". The theory proposes that humans have a  limited quantity of "ego" or willpower. When you exercise self-control you use up this resource and will then be less able to persist with other tasks. In the classic experiment of this field hungry subjects were left with plates of radishes and chocolate-chip biscuits. Half of the subjects were allowed to eat the biscuist and the other half were asked to only eat radishes and ignore the biscuits. The subjects then had to try to complete a difficult puzzle that was, unbeknownst to them, impossible.

The "biscuit-resisters" gave up much earlier than the people who were allowed to eat biscuits and they were more tired at the end of the experiment. Later experiments with tasks that were not impossible showed that people who had not had to "burn willpower" resisting a normal impulse were much better at the task. They got better results. I looks as if "ego" is also needed for complicated thinking, like a sort of mental jet-fuel.

It is of course dangerous to glibly apply a limited experiment to the complexities of everyday life, but the image of will-power being drained away by resisting temptation is very appealing and aligns with many experiences we all share: the fatigue of resisting an impulse, a bad habit, the catastrophic results of trying to adopt several "good habits" at once.

If we do accept these results, what can be do to use them in ordinary life?

  1. Allow for reduced performance
    If you are resisting a bad habit you are depleting your willpower and will be less able to keep going in other areas needing persistance or higher level performance. If you are having to keep yourself to a strict diet you will not be as sharp as you might otherwise be...
  2. Don't try to do everything at once
    If willpower is being use for five different things there will be less of it available for each of them, so you risk failing to complete anything. This is very like the classic advice on goals: one or two give you focus, twelve is a recipe for failure.
  3. Limit the time you spend exerting willpower
    If you stay in the room with the chocolate-chip cookies too long you are burning will-power all the time. Stay there too long and you may "snap" and grab a handful! The whole point of exerting willpower is to create a success, to visibly, tangibly and emotionally succeed in controlling your own behaviour. Mark that moment very conciously, reward yourself and then back off to give your will-power a chance to recharge!