Irony Bites Me On The Ass

Months have passed, and I have cycled back to more or less exactly where I was with the last post. A few things have changed – I have new hardware to play with, and some pressure coming from the imminent demise of google plus – but that core question of where to write is still largely the same.  That this site exists is a good argument for itself, but there is a temptation to move this off AWS (I think it’s currently running on a light sail instance, which is 95% great, but the 5% irks) and maybe just pay for hosting at wordpress.  Realistically, I’m paying $5 a month for this as is (the lightsail price) and if that really bugs me, I should just move it to a t2 micro and call it a day, but that would still have some maintenance overhead.  Alternately, I just spend the same amount on a wordpress private account and maybe just write.

(Aside: I think the thing that throws me most is that I really want to be able to trivially add imaged to posts on iOS, and every solution is actually pretty awkward.)

Wrestling With The Tech

Someone posted a lovely tweet about bringing back the “dumb internet” – the internet of blogs and weird websites and all those things that existed when it was motivated by interest more than profit. I admit, I really appreciate that thinking – it’s overly idealistic, but I support the thought behind it to an almost foolish extent.

So I’m taking it as a cue to blog a bit more. Right now, if I have a thought in my head it tends to end up on twitter which is extremely ephemeral and has a couple other issues as well. But it’s almost frictionless in its actual use, especially on mobile. I open the app and with one tap, I’m writing. Everything else (including wordpress) has hangtime and clickthroughs and other steps to hope through before the thinking turns into writing.

So, I’m going to take a little time to consider my options, and see if there’s a way to make it more frictionless. Might mean I end up paying for something like micro.blog or even squarespace if it gives the the tools I’d actually use. Or maybe I manage to get a workflow that lets me dump straight from drafts into a static site generator. I dunno. how it will play out, but I’ll update here as I go.

Meetings as a Forcing Function

There’s a good piece of advice out there to never call a meeting when an email would suffice. This is mostly true. It’s definitely true when you are the person calling the meeting and you are the person who should be sending the email.

But sometimes the problem is not yours to solve, but rather you need Alice to talk to Bob, and that conversation just hasn’t happened. A meeting shouldn’t be necessary, because Alice could just pick up the phone or write an email, but she has not, and there is only so much you can do.

At that point, the dreaded meeting to “talk about something” becomes the tool you need. Once you set it up, the clock is ticking for Alice, and she knows it. If she steps up and reaches out to Bob, you can cancel the meeting, but if she doesn’t, then the conversation is going to happen.

If you’re facilitating this meeting, you definitely want to keep it short and have a clear agenda. The latter may not be easy because if you knew everything you needed, we wouldn’t need Alice to explain things to Bob in the first place. So in the absence of information, focus on the questions that need answering. It is entirely reasonable (useful, even) to have an agenda that is the list of things that need to be known, rather than the things that need to be told.

Executive Function Reading List

A todo list

I have ADD. I was not diagnosed until my 40s because my family and I had some ideas about what ADD was and meant. This is not a problem, because frankly if I had been diagnosed as a kid, I would be genuinely worried about what they would do about it. But I was bright, and able to fake it, and over the successive years I have built up habits and infrastructure to shore up all the problems that ADD causes (and to leverage the advantages it brings). I have also been lucky enough to have a wife who gets this and is supportive beyond all reasonable measure.

This would be more or less the beginning and end of it, but as it turns out, I also have a son. He is amazing. He is clever, kind, creative, analytical and has a heart as big as all outdoors. He also very much has my ADD.

I am eternally grateful that he is growing up in a time where this is something that is much better understood and supported. There are resources available for him that I couldn’t have imagined as a kid, and more than anything I want to do the same things for him that I’ve had to do for myself – shore up the problem areas and leverage his strengths. I could write at length about all the things this entails (since a large part of it requires realizing that my solutions will probably not be his solutions), but this list is all about one specific thing I’ve done to this end, and that is buy a boatload of books, and I figured I’d share what I’ve found.

He is not yet 10 at the time of this writing, so I’m going to divide this list into 3 categories: books that have worked for him, books that I am hoping will be useful to him over the next few years and books that have been useful to me as an adult.

Books for the Kid

My Day is RUINED!, by Bryan Smith – This is a kids book, part of the Executive FUNction series, about flexible thinking and dealing with things that go wrong. It’s all very straightforward, and it’s something I picked up as an experiment because I wanted to get an Amazon order value up to improve shipping speed. I had not expected much, but the little dude glommed onto it. He devoured the book, and we immediately saw some behavior changes in line with the book. More critically, it gave him and us the words to talk about flexible thinking. We talked to the little dude about why he liked it so much, and his explanation was that it wasn’t telling him things, it was a story about a kid who had the same problems he had. This was such an overwhelming success that I promptly logged back onto Amazon and ordered every other Bryan Smith book I could. Spoiler: They make up a lot of this list.

Mindset Matters, by Bryan Smith – The focus of this one is on a growth/improvement mindset, which the book presents as a “get it done” mindset. Again, the lessons and the language very clearly stuck, and the little dude has stopped saying “I can’t do it” and instead been saying “I can’t do it yet”. That may not seem like a big deal, but the little dude is usually the person most likely to get in his own way when it comes to worrying about what he can and can’t do.

A small thing that I also appreciate – the protagonist of this one is a girl. To my son, this didn’t even merit comment, but he is more enlightened than I. To me, it was something I appreciated because the Executive FUNction series has a male protagonist.

What Were You Thinking? By Bryan Smith – Another Executive FUNction book, this time about impulse control. As with the other books, it follows the template of a strong example, modeling good behavior and giving tools to talk about it. That said, this one was well received, but this was less of a hot button for us, so its impact was not as noticeable.

If Winning Isn’t Everything, Why Do I Hate To Lose?, by Bryan Smith – I had not expected this one to be a big winner, since the little dude is not so much into sports, but WOW did this one make a difference (in retrospect, while he’s not a sports guy, he is 100% a gamer). Again, sympathetic example, good modeling, useful language. The little dude glommed onto it and we’ve been able to reference it on family game nights and it’s absolutely cut off a number of potential bad scenes.

Is There an App For That?, by Bryan Smith – The subtitle of this one is “Hailey Finds Happiness Through Self-Acceptance” and I was profoundly cynical about this one. The topic seemed a bit overly feel-good, and I utterly cringed at the tech-adjacent title, but it just goes to show how wrong I can be. While I can’t speak to impact, this one is absolutely one of his favorites to read.

It Was Just Right Here!, by Bryan Smith – We literally just got this one, so we haven’t read it yet, but I admit that with ADD brain, I am REALLY curious.

Other Books

I’m still exploring this space, and I am in the process of putting in an order for some books by Julia Cook because they seem to be in the same space. Also, Smith has one more book, Kindness Counts, which is the one I haven’t picked up because that is a theme that has been hammered on from many angles for the little dude (it’s a school theme) and I don’t want to burn him out, but I’m sure it’s probably pretty good too.

I also just ordered a copy of Franklin Covey’s 7 Habits of Happy Kids and I’m not entirely sure what to expect. The Franklin Covey organizer system is quite famous, but it’s never been my thing, and it feels like a very cynical product. However, Many years ago Franklin Covey put out a set of little books on business ideas that were targeted at little kids and were given out with Chick-Fil-A kid’s meals. And as preposterous as that idea may seem, I found one of them in a used bookstore and it was great. It was a little book about collaboration and teamwork that I loved, and if they were something that I could buy, I’d be hunting them all down. So, this order is an optimistic hope that this will be as good as those were.

Books for the Future

These are the books I’ve picked up that haven’t grabbed him yet, but I’m hoping will as he gets older. Some of them are technically at his reading level, but I frankly think he responds better to the “younger” books because they don’t feel like work to him.

Important qualifier: There are a ton of books in this space that are for parents, but I am not super interested in those. I am sure a lot of them are great and useful, but my focus here is books that are for my kid,

See You Later, Procrastinator and Get Organized Without Losing It, by Janet S. Fox – These were actually the book that got me started on this whole process, because it began with me thinking “Getting Things Done made such a huge difference for me, I wonder if they have useful things like that for kids” and these were the first/best ones I found. It’s practical, reasonable stuff, and lead to my picking up a few other books in the series, including How to Do Homework Without Throwing Up, Cliques, Phonies, & Other Baloney and Speak Up and Get Along!.

The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondō – You may have heard of the book this is based on (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) as it achieved enough fame to be adapted to a Manga. I fully admit that buying the Manga is a shameless ploy to attempt to capture the kid’s attention, so we’ll see how it goes. The book is decent – Clean Sweep (see below) is more to my taste and is a little more nitty-gritty, but the principals of not being owned by your stuff are ones I really hope to instill upon my pack rat of a child someday.

Other books I have picked up but have no opinion about yet
Books I technically should pick up but I have not because I am secretly convinced that they are car crashes (but would be happy to hear that I’m wrong)

Books of Mine

Getting Things Done, by David Allen – I cannot overstate how big a difference this book made for me. It is not flawless – the system as a whole can be too much, Allen’s corporate-speak can be grating, and this was really written for executives with no real grasp on technology. But despite that, it has given me mental and practical tools which I can frankly say are life-changing. If you’re leery, feel free to read some articles (there are lots) and grab the book if you want more depth. And, honestly, if you only read the first 3 or 4 chapters of the book, you will get most of what you need. Note: I linked to the first edition (blue cover) because it’s a better read than the new edition (orange cover). The new edition doesn’t change much, but in attempting to speak to technology and GTDs own success, it steps away from what made it great. It’s not bad, but the blue book is better.

Work Clean, by Dan Charnas – This book is amazing, then really bad, then amazing again. So, it’s a net positive, and it merits a mention on this list because it touches on things that I haven’t seen addressed in other productivity books. The gimmick for this book is that it takes the lessons of professional chefs and their idea of mis-en-place – the thoughtful arrangement of all the things you will need to do your work – and applies it more broadly to productivity. Some of the advice just misses the mark, and some of it comes across like a guy who has discovered “women’s work” as if no one has ever heard of it before. But the good stuff? It’s great, and it is especially great for situations which are more about throughput than creativity. Not to say things aren’t applicable to both, but a lot of productivity books are a little precious about creativity and don’t acknowledge that sometimes you just need to grind out the work. This is good for that.

Thinking in Bets, by Annie Duke – So, it’s a book about cognition by a professional poker player, but don’t let that deter you. This is a fun, compelling read that uses poker to illustrate a lot of well-known principles of behavior and cognition. This is a rich field, and there are absolutely other books that can provide deeper dives on the topic (Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Thaler’s Nudge or Ariely’s Predictably Irrational are all great) but Bets combines approachability and practicality with a wide overview of many topics, and it’s a great starting point for a lot of areas where you might need to come to terms with your own brain (it is also the reason that I a teaching poker to my child, because he excels at chess).

The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande – I can unreservedly recommend anything Gawande writes, but this one, in particular, is specific and useful in its focus on the things that checklists are valuable for, with the biggest lesson being that you can be super smart and super capable but may still want a system outside of yourself to check, specifically because you’re so smart and capable.

It’s All Too Much, by Peter Walsh – Ideally, I’d recommend Walsh’s TV show, Clean Sweep, but you cannot get that for love or money, so his book is a solid fallback. Lots of very practical tools for dealing with stuff.

The Goal, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt – This is the weirdest suggestion, and probably the easiest to skip because this is a business book about manufacturing. Yeah, weird, I know. But while that’s the topic, this is really a book about systems and improvement, and if you get this book, then a lot of modern business (especially anything labeled “agile”) starts making sense, and these tools are incredibly powerful for self-improvement. There is a similar, more modern book called The Phoenix Project, which is also quite good, but I don’t think it conveys the same foundation.

 

I expect this to be an ongoing list, so I’m also creating a permanent page for this. 

“I’m Not Available”

When you say you cannot do something, this is all you have to say. If you offer an explanation of what other thing you are doing, then you are creating an opportunity for the other person to argue for whether or not that other thing is more or less important than the thing that you’re doing, and there is never a situation where you want to have that conversation.

That said, sometimes the person you’re talking with a jerk will press. In that situation, you may explain that you had a “prior commitment”, and if pressed further, you may simply say “it’s a personal matter”. At this point, the other person has pushed well beyond the bounds of politeness, and you are entitled to end the conversation. However, since the other person may be someone with some power over you and can apply pressure that you do this, then the correct closer (at any point) is to propose an alternate time and move the onus back on them.

Build a Ramp

A RampThere are two things that every workable organization system promotes. The first is taking regular time to go over what you’re doing, such as a daily review. The second is to build your infrastructure (tools, habits, environment) in such a way that doing the right work is also the easiest path.

There are infinite variations of the latter, but it’s familiar to all of us in ideas as simple as “If you don’t want to eat ice cream, then don’t keep ice cream in the house.” It can easily be unpacked into tools like universal capture or inbox zero or whatever. The specifics are not very important but the idea absolutely is.

As important as this is when you’re trying to build your overall system, it’s also something to bear in mind when you’re trying to get specific tasks done. Sometimes you’ll find yourself with a big hair all of a task in your to do list that you’re just getting no traction on. Maybe it’s too big, or too scary, or too messy – whatever the reason, it’s just not moving and you need to do something about it1.

In those situations, I like to build a ramp.

That means I add a new task to my list whose purpose is to make it easier for me to address the hairball. The ramp’s purpose is not to solve the hairball problem, or even to work on it directly, but rather to address the things that are giving me the opportunity to not work on the hairball.

Simple ramp tasks might include things like “Schedule an appointment on myself to break down the hairball”,“Create initial hairball checklist”, “Create Dropbox folder for hairball” or even silly things like “Create a cool codename for hairball”2.

The right ramp for the situation depends on the reasons that I’m not making any movement on the problem. That’s important because while the ramp task itself should be helpful, the process of thinking through what I need to do to unfamiliar myself is invaluable. Especially when a hairball has sat on my list long enough that its inertia is more of a barrier to motion than anything intrinsic to the task.

It’s a simple technique, and you won’t need it in every situation. But the next time you find yourself staring at something you know you need to do but just aren’t, see if there’s a task you can pick up to build a ramp for that big task, so it maybe starts rolling on its own.

  1. GTD nerds will, of course, suggest that the right answer is to break it down into smaller, actionable steps. That’s good advice, and when it works, it’s another way to build a ramp, since the first action is (hopefully) much easier than the task a whole. Unfortunately, some tasks – especially hairy ones – can resist this. Sometimes the it’s the very task of breaking the hairball down that is daunting! In this situations, then that is what you build a ramp to. ↩︎
  2. Careful with these though. Start doing enough tangential tasks and sooner or later you’ll find you’re shaving a yak. ↩︎