Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Oldies but goodies

I don't do much for Autism Awareness month.  I'm sure I miss many great opportunities to build awareness... but as Simonne commented, "We're always aware of autism".  Nonetheless, as hard as it is to believe, there may be some people who aren't aware, or not as aware as we are.

I was browsing old Belief Makers posts tagged autism and found some goodies.  On this, the last day of Autism Awareness month, I'll share 3 with you.  Enjoy! 

Oh, by the way, what's the point of awareness if we don't do something with the awareness we've gained?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Baskets, balls and boxes - What's urgent? What's important?

A few years ago, I decided to work on mono-tasking.  An erroneous belief about efficiency and self worth often tries to lure me into a frenzied pace.  I can juggle many balls.  Nothing will drop.  The problem with this idea (aside from impending nervous breakdown) is that the quality of what I do can drop, others don't get to carry some of the balls that I'm struggling to carry, and the people around me learn that Faith carrying many balls (and baskets and boxes) is normal.

I remember being in a session with a life coach a few years ago and after looking at my constrained time resources in contrast to my seemingly limitless set of demands.  He said "Send out an email telling .... that you aren't available to accept calls between 10 am and 3 pm." I never did.  I continued to struggle until I stopped taking the calls.  I decided people would figure I couldn't talk to them if I didn't answer the phone.  Still, it took me years to just tell them I wasn't available.

I simplified my day, had chunks of time assigned to the major issues I wanted to attend to, and all was well.  I wasn't rigid, and could switch comfortably to deal with the urgent, important things that arose, but I had a good balance of what I'd do when.  Then, as Jaedon started to demand more attention, and I started to respond them on the fly "Oh my god! Don't drink the water from the fish tank!", my days started to get screwy, haphazard, disorganized and I was again wiped out by the end of the day, not sure what I got done, but exhausted nonetheless. 

I became good at reacting, moving from interruption to interruption.  It became my habit.  Soon, a phone call, a text message, Jaedon letting birds out of the cage all blurred together.  They were all interruptions, and I responded to them all.  Of course, I would hit the breaking point "Mommy?" "WHAT?  Do you see what I'm doing right now??".

So it's about my priorities.  When I'm cooking and listening to a podcast, a higher priority task ("Mommy!") can get my attention as I monitor all my priority tasks.  After I verify the priority of the interruption and determine the level of need, I can make a choice about how to respond (turn off the stove/redirect the child).  I'm realizing that I miss this priority assessing step for many of the interruptions that come my way.  When a text message flashes up on the screen, I read it and think I can respond quickly and before I know it, I'm switching between homeschooling and a slow text conversation.

My experiment today:
  1. Decide on priority tasks for the various time chunks in the day
    • 11:30 - 2: school and food prep (only higher priority interruptions allowed, i.e. those that have to do with my family's safety and critical needs)
    • 2-3 :Travel Prep (ditto on the interruption)
    • 3-4: Travel (accepting calls)
    • 4-6: Work
    • 6-7: Anything
    • 7-8: Travel
    • etc
  2. Respond to interruptions with the priority question: Is this urgent and important right now?
How do you handle interruptions and manage your priorities?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Let's Do It (Multitasking, Part III)

The other day in Multitasking? we talked about the mythical multitasker: a person with the ability to simultaneously undertake several activities without compromising any of them.

Yesterday in Multitasking! (Part II) I described ways that one could begin to effectively multitask (even if not actually multitasking) through a technique called resource management.

Today, we're going to look at doing the real thang.

NOTHING is Ever Used
After reading yesterday's post, you might have recognized a key implication of resource management, or more specifically about resources managed. Statistically speaking, most resources are never used. They sit idle 99.999% of the time waiting, aging and deteriorating (consider the household piano or a silver dinnerware set or the brain).

Even those resources that are used spend 90% of the time idle (consider your car or kitchen stove).

Seeing this and understanding it is a key to true multitasking.

You go on vacation. You rent a car for the week. You drive from the airport to the hotel. You park the car intending to use it throughout your stay.

The hotel is on the beach. It has a bunch of restaurants and shops.

A week later, you get in the car and return it to the airport. You reserved the car for a week. You drove it for an hour. A resource reserved for 168 hours was used for just one. It sat idle 99.4% of the time.

Perhaps you're thinking, "OK, but that would be exceptional. When not on vacation I drive my car much more frequently."

Let's go with that and consider the car that you drive more frequently.

Say you put the average 12,000 miles per year on the odometer. Driving at 30mph, it would take 400 hours to cover 12,000 miles. There are roughly 8760 hours in a year. 400 hours is 4.5% of 8760. At 30mph, your car would sit idle 95.5% of the time. Double the miles to 24,000 and the car still sits idle 91% of the time. Double the speed and the car sits idle 97.75% of the time.

We tend to oversubscribe resources and then never really use them. This is not a problem generally (well, unless you're an environmentalist or economist), but it can be problematic when the resource is say, you.

The first step in true multitasking is realizing that even when your schedule is overbooked, you probably spend 90% of your time idle: riding in cars, trains and planes; waiting in lobbies and lines; listening to people whose lack of clarity and mindfulness makes their getting to the point a 1%-of-the-time phenomenon.

So, even when you're 150% booked, you have 90% free time.

Once you come to a real understanding of this (it may take a while if you're resistant to seeing it or insistant that you are indeed overbooked), the second step is to figure out how to liberate the unused time trapped within the overbooked time.

The easiest way to start is to prepare. You know you're going to have down time during your up time, so be ready to make it productive. If you have a backlog of things to be read, keep at least some of them with you. If you normally insist on driving long distances, let someone else do the driving so that you can pop a Dramamine and get some work done. If you're meeting someone you know to be chronically late, check in with her just before your meeting so that you can spend your waiting-time actively and productively.

If you did nothing else but prepare to be productive during your unscheduled free time, you'd be amazed at how much more you might accomplish as a multitasker.

True Multitasking
I know what you're thinking. All we've talked about so far will only provide the effect of being a true multitasker. It's still not the real deal.

True, but if you were to put into practice just some of what I outlined above, you might decide that you don't really need true multitasking.

Of course you might still like to learn how.

Two Anchors
Observation: Tying together two anchors doesn't result in something buoyant.

Conjecture: Trying to simultaneously conduct two tasks, neither of which you're particularly good at, won't magically transform them into something at which you are good.

Assertion: The first step in good multitasking is good single-tasking.

You can't play a drum set well if you you haven't mastered each of the sub-tasks. You work your right foot on the kick. You work left hand on the snare. You work your right hand on the high-hat. You get comfortable with each subtask and then you slowly bring them together.

Becoming a good single-tasker is a prerequisite to attempting multitasking.

The IKEA Go-To Person
An important side-effect of mastering a single task (no matter how complex) is that it gets driven into muscle-memory (and its analogs throughout the body). Your hands know what to do. Your ears hear the note that your eyes see written on the page. Without looking or thinking, your hand reaches to turn down the stove as your ears pick up the pot reaching the point of boiling over. You perform tasks smoothly and effortlessly.

Consider your standard IKEA put-it-together-yourself bookshelf. The first time you put together a piece of furniture from IKEA, you follow the directions with religious conviction. You lay out all the pieces. You find their pictures in the directions and associate each piece with its part number. You put together sections in exactly the order specified. At each step, you read and re-read the directions to make sure you've got it right.

Two hours later, exhausted from concentration and focus, you have a book shelf that looks pretty much like the one you saw in the showroom.

Let's say that you wanted to be able to put together an IKEA bookshelf while having a philosophical debate. What would you do next?

Here goes. You walk into the kitchen. You grab yourself a cup of tea to restore your strength. You return to the living room, and... you dismantle the bookshelf and start again.

Nope, there's not another way. That's it.

Nope, you can't build something else from scratch. You need to take apart and rebuild what you just built.

Nope, you can't leave on it the books and plants you placed there after completing the project. They have to go somewhere else.

IKEA Take-two
To master the task, you don't simply repeat it. This time, you practice looking at the directions less frequently, but more intently taking time to register them in memory.

Each time you feel the compulsion to check the directions before taking the next step, you instead close your eyes and try to recall them visually.

You make a couple of mistakes that you backtrack and correct, without looking at the specs. A couple hours later you've got a bookshelf and you've become a better bookshelf put-together-er.

Now what?

Do it again, this time looking less or not at all at the directions and paying attention to other factors like tempo and sequence.

Eventually (after three times? after twenty times?), you can put together that bookshelf in your sleep. Not only that, but will be a lot easier to put together other articles of furniture.

Don't have an IKEA bookshelf. There are plenty of opportunities right in your home. How about taking apart the vacuum cleaner, cleaning out the grit and lubing all the moving parts? How about rebuilding the toaster? Rebuild the chainsaw. Rotate the wheels on the minivan and change oil.

By mastering many complex tasks, you gain the skills necessary to true multitasking.

Soft Focus
As you become really good at single-tasking, you find that you've transformed previously challenging  activities into effortless ones that require little thought. You start to simultaneously do things that were previously impossible individually.

At any point, one or another task may demand your full attention. However, like your car on vacation, those demands will be few and infrequent. The key is to make sure that your attention is directed to the tasks that require it at the time required for exactly the time required and no longer.

Doing this takes a form of awareness referred to as soft focus. Soft focus is how symphony conductors zero in on the third chair flutist's missed note while directing and hearing an entire orchestra. It's how lifeguards protect a beach full of swimmers quickly identifying any potential problems and intervening before they occur.  It's how cooks manage to prepare all the elements of a complex meal simultaneously, smelling that the steak is done, hearing that the pan is too hot.

In my experience, soft focus begins with rapid transition from task to task to task and then smooths into a general awareness like the transition of pages in a flip book gaining momentum and finding a steady groove. Soft focus only works when you've mastered the many tasks that you're monitoring. There's little use in attempting it until you have. Soft focus is often a by product of mastery that becomes hard to avoid. You just find yourself doing it.

Are You a Multitasker?
That's pretty much it.

Over the years, I've become a pretty good multitasker. I frequently perform with bands with whom I've never practiced playing songs I've never heard while managing the sound system. Our experience in Insurmountable Opportunity is a pretty good example of multitasking behind the wheel of a car. When I write software, I go directly from the verbal description of what's wanted to the code that implements it without any of the typical intervening steps (pictures, requirements, design specifications, etc.) much as one would when playing a new song by ear.

I can trace back my ability to multitask in any of these ways to the process I outlined above.

Although it may not be easy, it's really quite simple. It just takes consistent practice.

So, are you ready to multitask? Let me know how it goes.

Happy Wednesday,

Monday, April 22, 2013

Multitasking! (Part II)

The other day, in Multitasking?, we talked about the mythical multitasker: a person with the ability to simultaneously undertake several activities without compromising any of them. I suggested that multitaskers are in fact quite rare if not altogether mythical and that almost all who claim to be multitasking are in fact, not. I further proposed that the rarity of true multitaskers didn't necessarily mean that more could not exist, but that instead, someone who lacked multitasking skills might acquire them through training and practice.

Ear of Corn
You're about done with dinner. There's little left over to become leftovers. All but one item of food, a solitary ear of corn, have been consumed. Each of your two kids realizes that the other may intend to consume it. Simultaneously, each rises from her chair and dives across the table, reaching desperately for the last ear.

Two kids plus one ear of corn equals "resource contention". Resource contention is the primary reason for multitasking. The only real diference between you trying to multitask and your two kids vying for an ear of corn is the contested resources. In the case of multitasking, the contested resource is you. Therefore, viewing an ear of corn as the contested resource is a great way to start to understand multitasking.

Ultimately, multitasking is about resource management and allocation. The better you manage and allocate your resources, the less contention. If you get really good at it, you can appear to be to expertly performing many complex tasks simultaneously, even though you never actually simultaneously do any of them.

Seeing the Contest
A prerequisite for good resource management is seeing that the resource is contested. It's hard to do resource management well when you're not aware that there are contested resources.

You get up to clear the table. Your kids grapple on the floor each reaching for an unidentifiable yellow object that just rolled under the couch. You might see them, you might not. Seeing them, you might say, "Hey, you two have fun while I clear the table", or, "Hey, what are you two fighting over?", or, "Get up off the floor and leave that ear of corn for the dog."

Sometimes you don't know that a resource will be contested until the contest begins. Other times (e.g., the second time for pretty much anything), you can anticipate the contest. Whether reactive or pro-active, resource management begins with awareness of the contest or its potential.

To Act, or Not
Once you know that you have a contested resource, the first question is whether or not you want to do something about it. Even though you prepared an odd number of corn ears for an even number of corn consumers and even though it quite predictably led to resource contention, dealing with the contention is not necessarily your problem.

A quite reasonable response to the contention is to actively do nothing; let the contestants work it out. Oftentimes your greatest challenges in resource management may have been facilitated by you. Why would others manage the contest when you always do it for them? This applies to all types of resource including ears of corn, and specially, you.

Managing the Resource
Let's say that you decide to manage the contest. Tere are many ways to go about it.

What Resource?
The simplest way to manage the contest is to never make the contested resource available in the first place. For an even number of corn consumers, your prepare an even number of corn ears, or for any number of consumers, you prepare some whole-number multiple of corn ears.

In these examples, even if there is a contest, it's likely due to someone having "cheated" or taken more than his "fair share". The violations are easy to see. This makes the contest something that can be readily managed by the contestants.

Of course, the easiest method of all is this. Regardless of the number of corn consumers, you prepare zero corn ears.

One of the more common forms of resource management imposes an overhead cost that typically exceeds 100% of the original. It's called micromanagement.

You grab the ear of corn from your kids and sit them down at the table. You walk into the kitchen, cleanse the corn ear of dust balls and dirt. You return to the table with it, a plate and a knife.

One by one, you strip the ear of each kernel alternatively allocating the kernels to one of two piles that form on either side of the plate. As you do so, you count, "One for Rya, one for Nilo. Two for Rya, two for Nilo..."

An hour later, you look up to see both kids have fallen asleep. You pick up the plate and toss it in the fridge. They can have corn for breakfast.

If you want to save yourself some time, skip micromanagement and go for macro-management. Instead of allocating the corn one kernel at a time, you grab either end of the ear and break it in two. You hold your hands behind you back and let one child pick the hand that holds the ear she wants. You then present that ear to the other child, and the second ear to the first.

While the amounts of resource shared may vary, macro-management provide significantly greater efficiency than micromanagement.

An alternative to directly managing a resource is to manage time spent with it.

You place the ear of corn on a plate in the middle of the table. You instruct the kids that you will count to ten after which Nilo can take the ear and gnaw on it while you count to ten. When you reach ten, Nilo must return the corn to the plate. Now it's Rya's turn. She takes the corn. You count to ten. Back to Nilo.

Timesharing is a core technique used by computer operating systems to facilitate multitasking. The UNIX operating system was originally called the UNIX Timesharing System.  Timesharing can make resource management easy; however, there are several issues that occur in its most basic form, e.g., counting to ten.

You reach ten and it's time for Nilo to surrender the corn ear. Only problem is that Nilo hasn't yet taken a bite. He's been holding the corn as if ready to do so, but his mouth is so full that he can't fit in any more.

You tell Nilo to return the ear to the plate. He tries to complain, but his words are garbled by so many kernels. He pouts and chews vigorously as he surrenders the corn.

A problem with timesharing is that fixed periods of time don't always work simply because the potential user of the resource isn't ready to use it. This is the case with resource management generally. It isn't necessarily your problem to fix, but certainly one of which to be aware. You make the resource available; if it can't be used, so be it. More resource for others or for you.

Time Allocation
If you want to make available resources only when the consumers are ready to use them, you might want to consider forms of time allocation more advance than fixed periods.

For example, rather than alternatively providing ten-second intervals to either child, you simply provide a ten-second interval every sixty seconds. Whichever child is ready first, gets the upcoming interval.

During the fifty-seconds in which no resource interaction is permitted, you can do whatever you want.

Fair-share Scheduling
You can implement a form of micromanagement that puts the overhead burden on the corn consumers. Rather than you dolling out the kernels, you let the kids do it. Each takes the ear of corn and removes a kernel. She then passes it to the other who does the same.

Merit-based Management
Perhaps my favorite form of resource management is merit based. In short, the amount of resource provided to a consumer is consistent with the consumer's deservedness of it.

Of course the rules of merit can become a new point of contention. Still, if the resource is owned by you or is you, you can make them up arbitrarily.

Who gets more corn? The child who's the hungriest? The child who's the smallest? The child who's the biggest? The child who cleared the table? The child who said "please"?

Up to You
Whether or not you see the contest, whether or not you choose to manage the contest, and how you manage it are all up to you. Regardless, knowing how to manage contested resources is the first step in becoming a good multitasker.

Next time, we'll get into the deeper magic of simultaneity.

Happy Monday,

Friday, April 19, 2013


You ever notice how much of the world has taken to multitasking? 

You're talk with someone. Her phone chirps. You speak. She thumbs a reply to the just-arrived text message perhaps nodding or um-humming to the cadence of your words. She thumbs the send button and returns her gaze to you. You're pretty sure she didn't really hear what you just said, so you ask if she'd like you to repeat it. She says, "No, it's OK, I can multitask."

I used to think the popular term "multitasking" was derived from computer science and the development of operating systems that could simultaneously run more than one program. However, I've recently developed a theory that "multitasking" is really code for "I'm only pretending to pay attention to you."

I've tested my theory in several ways (lord knows there are ample opportunities to do so). So far, only a statistically insignificant percentage of test subjects have seemed to truly be capable of multitasking (at least as the term is applied in computer science).  Samples of tests include: 1) contradicting a statement I made while the alleged multitasking was taking place, 2) jumping to a completely different topic without preamble or segue, 3) stopping to ask whether or not the subject agrees or disagrees with my previous statement, and 4) asking the subject what it was that I just said.

As I said, there've been statistically insignificant positive results.

Yup, multitasking has become an epidemic with millions of people feigning interest and concern all the while having no idea what was just said.

Now you might be thinking, "So, what you're saying is that there's really no such thing as a person who can multitask?"

My answer would be, "No."

It's not that people can't multitask. It's just that, generally speaking, no one's any good at it. 

Nonetheless, I see a twofold solution to the challenge. One, limit or avoid unlicensed or poorly implemented multitasking. Two, learn to multitask well.

In truth, we all multitask at one level or another. We breath while we walk. We walk while we talk. We talk while we smell the freshly mowed lawn. These are all basic forms of multitasking and most of us are able to do them. 

Still, even at this level there are times when multitasking doesn't work. For example, have you ever known someone who would walk while listening, but stop to speak. This would be evidence of developmental gap along the path to adult multitasking. There are those who when excited forget to breath while speaking. There are those who get so distracted by a new smell that they completely lose the thread of the conversation. Rudimentary multitasking failures and breakdowns occur all the time.

So, if someone has difficult following a conversational thread when confronted by an unexpected aroma, what's the likelihood that he can construct a text message while listening to someone speaking? Statistically insignificant. Shoot, many of us have difficulty following conversational threads even while not multitasking (at least not obviously.) Fact is, if you lose the thread of a conversation it's likely due to undetected attempts at multitasking.

Thing is, multitasking can be a powerful skill. It's great to be able to play the piano while singing a song or to prepare the portions of a meal simultaneously. However, like any skill, you'll likely have to develop it before you get any good at it.

Next time, we'll talk about how.

Happy Friday,

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Transition: movement, passage, or change from one position, state, stage, subject concept, etc., to another; (dictionary.com)
We’re moving.  We’ve been moving for about a month.  We’re moving the hard way.  Days of slowly packing while still living and handling the normal chaos in an ASD household.  I have a library to rival a small room in the NYPL: days of packing and sorting books.  I have a playroom and related supplies to rival a small nursery: days of sorting toys, checking for missing puzzle pieces, finding Legos.  Days of cleaning up the gunk that feel on the floor every time I moved a book or toy that hadn’t seen the light of day in months.  Days of chasing after Jaedon as he found new non-food items to eat among the 8 year gunk under recently moved furniture. 
After 3 weeks of constant activity, I crashed.  I was done.  I took more time to rest and read (since sleeping still wasn’t an option) between packing boxes.  I took the time to wonder about myself in transition.
I think it’s my autistic side.  I can be very rigid and controlling during transitions.  I map out the process, with a few alternative pathways just in case, and I move ahead with my plan.  The thing my plans don’t adequately handle are the various variables in my plans.  So plan A: Isaiah gets home from work at 4 and I leave to go to the new house to clean.  Plan B: Accept my friend’s offer to take the clothes up to the house and ask her to do a bit of cleaning up.  The successful execution of both plans depend on the people variables. On the day in question, both people variables varied.  When variables vary, and plans have to be readjusted in ways that involve more time, I get to work on my autistic side.
This reminds me of the last 2 weeks of my pregnancy with Zachary.  At 39 weeks pregnant, with my cervix beginning to open and Zach in position, the midwives and I decided he would come at any moment and set about ensuring that moment was sooner, rather than later.  I won’t list the various ways we sought to encourage Zach to yield to the truth we knew.  But we did them, and added new ones as often as another sage with wisdom on the matter could arise.  Still no Zach.  He finally put in an appearance when I was a frantic, angry 41.5 week pregnant woman.  This appearance was so sudden, it almost took place on the I-87.
As we sit at home in the incessant packing, facing acute excitement and boredom (“Mommy, this is so much work! I’m bored!”), I wondered about the idea that transitions are anything more than a label for a moment in time,  a label I can use, or discard.  Is there any such thing as a transition?  What makes my standing here deciding if something goes in the Salvation Army bag any more part of a transition than it did a month ago?  What makes the conversations with the kids around moving, nature, woods, giving stuff away, how to transition the pets, any less part of ‘regular school’ and ‘regular life’ than they were a month ago?
Grabbing a hold of my thoughts around being only half way there in the moving process, pulling them back from the How much more? thoughts, sitting with the moment and being my most relaxed self in the moment helps me enjoy the fact that we are moving!  My children and I are working together on an exciting (though sometimes monotonous) project because we want to.  This moment is beautiful for what it is, and prepares us for the next on.  The packing is as much an execution of strong, powerful action as calling the realtor was in the first place.  Adjusting, and being patient in a moving process and coming up with plan Q are all strong powerful actions.  Wow!  And here I thought I was waiting for the new life to begin in the new house.  It’s happening now!
Transitions in movies and music make the piece what it is.  Like rosemary and turmeric and cumin, they are as critical to the flavor as the lentils themselves (in my stewed lentils for dinner tonight).  Why separate them out?  Why not be present with them and enjoy the flavor they bring and the opportunities they offer?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Your Time, My Time

About three years ago, my days had become so full that by day's end there'd be twenty-to-thirty voicemail messages waiting for me. Sometime after midnight, I'd sit down at my desk and begin slogging through them, listening carefully to each, taking notes and at times playing them over to see if I could make out unintelligible words and phrases. Some messages were quick and to the point, some droned endlessly never really getting to a point. At 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, calling back was rarely an option, so I'd prepare a list of calls to be made the next day.

As the numbers and lengths of messages increased, I found myself spending more and more time listening, taking notes and responding. The more responsive I was, the greater the volume of messages became.  I decided it was time to do something about it. I changed my voicemail greeting to indicate that I would listen to only the first fifteen seconds of any message.

Some message-leavers picked up on the idea and got to the point in the first ten seconds;  others didn't. Some started breaking up large messages into sequences of small ones. Regardless, I began to spend less and less time listening to voice mail.

About two years ago I decided that I was still spending too much time in voicemail purgatory, so I changed my voicemail greeting again, this time to indicate that I would only check voice mail every few days and that callers who wanted me to respond sooner should text or email me.  This had a significant impact on the time I spent daily with voicemail and messages in general. First, the number of voicemails dropped precipitously. Second, because people typically speak much more quickly and easily than they text, the messages got tighter, clearer and more quickly to the point.

There was also an unanticipated benefit; I stopped hearing the phrase, "I left you a voicemail about it."

About a year ago, I stopped listening to voicemail altogether. Through the process, I've managed to rescue almost two hours from my day and I don't feel like I'm missing anything. It's been great.

About a year ago, as I began reaping the benefits of my changes to personal voicemail protocol, I decided to do the same with email. Email is often better composed than voicemail.  People type more slowly than they speak and tend to be more thoughtful when typing. People can review and edit messages before sending them. However, there are cases where people use (or abuse) email in a way that makes their lives easier and yours harder.

First, there are those who receive information that they think might be important, but aren't sure about, so they forward it to you with a preamble that reads something like, "I thought this might be important", or, "FYI".

I don't read those.

Second, there are those who forward a long thread of emails where the actionable details are scattered across the thread. The open the message with something like, "Would you please take care of this?"

I don't read those.

Third, there are those who forward either of the above or other types of email in messages with copy-to lists with ten or more people.

I don't read those.

And of course, there are those who never get to the point.

I tend not to ready anything from those senders.

What does this mean to me? Another hour or two per day reclaimed. Further, the people whose messages I read tend to write really good messages.

In the end, I think it comes down to being aware of time, and more importantly the impositions we place on the time of others. The tricky part about messages is that we don't really get to see or experience the weight of the imposition. Further, time imposed is inversely proportional to the time spent imposing.

How much time do you spend facilitating poor messaging? How much poor messaging do you impose?

Happy Tuesday,

Monday, April 15, 2013

Not So Random Thoughts

Never take career advice from someone who's looking forward to retirement.
(Corollary: Never embark upon a career from which you would look forward to retiring.)

You know you've found work that you can transform into a great career when you find yourself saying something like, "And they'll actually pay me to do this?"

When trying to diagnos a problem, start by fixing what you know is broken. The returns on looking for esoteric reasons are negligible when you haven't addressed the mundane ones that are right in front of you.

The best way to undermine doing well is to worry about doing poorly.

When you're passionate, no matter how hard you work, it never feels like work.
(Corollary: If it feels like work, it's not passion.)

Resistance to instruction is the first obstacle to learning.
(Caveat: Not all instruction is worth pursuing.)

The best way to discern whether or not instruction is worthwhile is to go with it. Most people who say, "Yeah, I tried that, but...", never did.

To not consistently practice with focus and attention is the second obstacle to learning; it's also the greatest.

You don't get it when...
...practice feels like work.
...learning feels like work.
...work feels like work.

You can make anything feel like work, even those things you (used to) love to do.

You can make any work feel like play.

Overcome the trivial, petty limitations that pervade your life and you'll change everything. There's no need to focus on the big challenges until you've taken care of the little ones.

The key to correction is to see faults without judging faults. To see a fault is not to judge; to judge blinds you to faults. The key to never overcoming challenges is to judge everything that might be corrected.

Actively love what you do, and you'll get good at it; negative judgment and love never occupy the same space.

Happy Monday,

Wednesday, April 10, 2013



You never really know whether you're a mile from your goal or a thousand.

Sometimes your goal is much farther away than it appears; sometimes, it's much closer.

Even if you've got the distance right, other things can change.

You might get faster; you might get slower.

Someone may stop and give you a lift; your ride might not show up.

Ultimately, you must rely on you...  to persist.

That may be a good bet; that may be a bad bet.

It may have been a good bet that is now bad; it may have been a bad bet that is now good.

That would be up to you.

To persist is not a "have to"; it's a choice.

It's a choice that can be unchosen, the choice to persist, or not.

When persistence is not a choice, it's called endurance.

One thing is certain. To persist increases the likelihood of arriving.

Sure, there are those who persist and don't arrive; there are those who don't persist, but do.

There are those who spend their entire lives trying to get to home plate, but only make it to third base.

There are those born on third base who think they hit a triple and yet never make it home.

There are those on whom no one bet; yet they persisted and overcame.

There are those on whom everyone bet; yet they folded at the first sign of challenge.


To be clear, to persist is not the same as to repeat, repeatedly.

Repeating may be part of persisting; repeating may look like persisting, but they're not the same.

To persist is to adapt.

To be clear, to adapt is not the same as to change.

Changing is part of adapting; changing may look like adapting, but they're not the same.

To adapt is to change in a way consistent with learning.

Persistence can require you to adapt slowly, as a species adapts to environmental change.

Persistance can require you to adapt quickly, as driver adapts to his car hitting an ice patch.

Sometimes you adapt to the situation; other times you adapt the situation to you.

Whether slow or fast, whether you or something else, persistence requires adaptation.

Persist, adapt and... achieve?

Well, yes, and no. There's one more thing.

Pay attention.

To adapt well, you have to pay attention.

Attend to everything, not just to what you think is important.

The most important clues are found where you least expect to find them.

They occur at times when you don't seek them.

Though they smack you upside your head, you miss them because you don't expect them.

Pay attention.

Persist, pay attention, adapt... repeat.

Succeed? Sure.

Perhaps you won't reach your initial goal, but it won't matter.

A goal is just another thing to adapt, perhaps the most important thing to adapt.


Pay attention.



Happy Wednesday,

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Next Why

You ever find yourself in situations where you feel a sudden drop in self-confidence? You spill tomato juice on your linen suit just before walking into an important meeting or you open your guitar case just before taking the stage and find a broken B-string with no spares.

Perhaps there are certain things that, no matter how calm you are, always seem to annoy you? Someone rides your tail as you drive to work or someone rides the left lane trailing a parade of cars. Someone who knows nothing about your situation dictates what you should do.

Do you ever ask yourself why? Why the sudden loss in confidence? Why the sudden gain in a annoyance? If so, how do you answer?

You might answer why with non-answers like, "Well, who wouldn't feel a drop in confidence after spilling eight ounces of bright red liquid on his crotch just before going into an important meeting?", or, "Wouldn't you get annoyed if someone cut you off like that?"

You might respond with befuddlement. "I don't know why. It's just something I do. I can't seem to help it."

We all experience situations, events and people that seem to trigger responses that are disproportionate to the trigger or when compared to how we respond to other things. Because the emotional changes happen so quickly and because they can be measured physiologically (e.g., increased heart rate and blood pressure) we often see them as autonomic. So to ask "why" seems silly. It's a physiological phenomenon beyond our control, right?

Yet, no matter how quick your response, no matter how large the magnitude of biometric change, the response is not automatic. Sure, once you've determined that you need to respond, your autonomic systems can make it happen quickly. However, they don't fire up on their own. You have to train them to do it. Fight or flight doesn't kick in until you perceive something to fight or from which to flee. The something is determined by you, and it's done over time.

So, if you really want to change how you respond, you can. The best way I've found to overcome seemingly automatic responses to situations and people is to perform a little internal archeology and dig down to why I respond the way I do. This is quite different from finding out why it's okay to respond the way I do or determining which biological systems facilitate the response.

It's important to note that there are typically many layers of why crusted around the core. Getting to the core why is an iterative process that can take time and diligence  The more deeply rooted or out-of-proportion the response, the more whys you'll need to ask.

The first answer might be a non-answer like, "Well, who wouldn't get mad!"

That's OK, you can still ask the next why, e.g., "Even if everyone else would get mad, why do you get mad?" or "Let's say everyone does get mad. Each person would do so for her own reasons. What's yours?"

There's no need to contend with the statement that everyone would get mad. You just leap from it to the next why.

Eventually your whys will lead you to an answer that is a belief, a belief about what the trigger meant: "I believed that no one would take me seriously because I had a big red stain on my pants." or, "I believed that I would play terribly because my B-string was broken." or, "I believed that the driver of that car cut me off on purpose."

When you do, you're starting to make real progress, but you're not done. There are still more whys to be asked and the whys begin to diversify. You could ask, "Why do you believe no one would take you seriously?" or, "Why do believe you would have a stain on your pants in the meeting?"

You could ask, "Why do you believe you'd play terribly" or, "Why do you believe that you'd be playing without a B-string?" or, tying it back to the initial response, "Let's say you were to play terribly without a B-string. Why would that cause you to lose confidence?"

The cool part about pursuing the next why is that, even if you don't get to the core why, the revelations along the way will serve you. You might not get to why you'd feel horrible about playing terribly, but still get to why you wouldn't have to walk on stage without a B-string simply because you had no spares.

So do you have any poorly controlled or uncontrollable reactions to situations, events or people that you'd like to change? How about pursuing the next why?

Happy Thursday,

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Tallest Pygmy

I've lately been encountering a phenomenon I've deemed the Tallest Pigmy. The Tallest Pygmy occurs when a superlative is applied in a context and the context is later lost. For example:

the formost authority on particle accelerators in Canada
the world's formost authority on particle accelerators... in Canada 
and then simply,
the world's formost authority on particle accelerators
or even,
the world's formost authority.

The phenomenon is not limited to any domain, or for that matter, to people (you could have the world's greatest concert venue... in Poughkeepsie). The world qualification is rarely stated as such, though it's often felt. I would estimate that a good fifty-percent of all organizations refer to themselves or something they do as being "world class".

Over the past weeks I've been introduced to most amazing musicians, the smartest IT people, the most prestigious researchers, the best-equipped facilities, and the most talented graphic artists. In the contexts in which each operates, I'm sure that the statements are merited. However, outside those contexts, well...

One Woman's Greatest
The disparity between one person's best and another person's worst can be so great (i.e., the worst person in one context can be so much better than the best person from another) that it's hard for anyone from one context to imagine the other.

Over the past weeks, I've met world renowned researchers who need statisticians to help them design studies, great software developers who don't actually program, but instead piece things together in WordPress, awesome musicians who have no sense of time, and professional graphic artists who don't actually know what is required for a graphic to become a logo. In their contexts, they're well respected for what they do; however, in mine, they don't qualify for the role, let alone the adjectives. They're all tallest pygmies.

You might be thinking, "So what? Why do you care?"

I don't care in general. However, tallest pygmies can become a challenge when, by way of collaboration, I "get" to work with a most talented artist or smartest IT guy. I find myself spending more time educating and training than I would have spent simply doing the work myself.

Even that wouldn't be a problem. I love helping people to develop their skills. However, it can take a lot of time to educate tallest pygmies (much of which can be spent helping them to see that they don't actually meet the minimum height requirements for the new context), and of late, time is the commodity with which I've needed to be most stingy.

Sigma Reduction
To be clear, tallest pygmies can indeed be quite deserving of positive adjectives so long as they're not superlatives. In some context or other, every one of us is a tallest pygmy.

When I worked at Bell Labs, everyone with whom I worked had been the tallest pygmy. Pretty much everyone (well, except me) had been the smartest kid in her high school, had graduated from college, summa cum laude, and had been a top-ranked grad student at a top ranked university.

With such well qualified people, it was an amazing place to work. Yet, despite their qualifications, another phenomenon occurred, one that many tallest pygmies found dismaying. I'll call it Sigma Reduction. Each person had spent his life in the 3- or 4-sigma category. You bring all those 3-sigma cats together, compare their skills and abilities, and guess what? You get a bell curve. Yup, even with all the qualifications, there was a small percent of the group that was clearly more capable than the rest, and a small percent of the group that was clearly less capable. Most of the previously 3-sigma folks had become, well, average.

Pygmy Management
A dense collection of 3-sigma-cum-average engineers could pose significant management challenges. A friend of mine who was hired from a competitor's company to manage a large engineering team once said, "It can be so much harder to manage the really smart guys."

When I asked him why, he responded, "Because it takes so much longer to show them where they're wrong."

Smart or not, being the tallest pygmy can often lead to missed opportunities to learn and grow.

Beyond the overhead of training and managing tallest pygmies, the biggest challenge for me personally has been one of disappointment. I'm always on the lookout for opportunities to have been the tallest pygmy, opportunities to plunge into new contexts in which I'm the shortest. Sure, there are infinitely many contexts in which I'd not meet the minimum height requirements; however, the contexts I'm seeking are the ones in which I currently consider myself to be accomplished.

I'd love to hook up with a technology team where I'd be happy just to maintain the supply of diet Coke so long as I could learn from them. I'd love to play music with cats so skilled that I spend ninety-percent of my time just trying to hear what it was they were actually playing. I'd love to debate someone where every statement caused me to pause and think, "Shit, that was really good."

Over the past weeks, I've anticipated at least some of the above based on my external assessment of a new context. Perhaps I over-prepared by anticipating being the shortest pygmy, but, oh well.

You might be thinking, "So what?" (I know I am.)

I think the so-what is this: Each of us is from time to time the tallest pygmy. Each of us is from time to time the shortest. Being aware of which is which can have a wonderful affect on learning and growth.

Happy Tuesday,