Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Have a Better Day

I don’t need to tell you this winter was cold. You were there. Simultaneously grateful and baffled that you’re living through month-long stretch of highs below 0°F. Highs below 0°F. My car, parked in the open air stopped turning over. Each morning, it would cry as I turned the key. Wahhh Wahhh Wahhh Wahhh. On rare days, the car would start right up – say, if I ran to the grocery store for baby formula late the previous night. Other days, when school was cancelled because it was too cold to leave the house – it would cry again.

This winter, when the Cruiser’s battery would cry – I’d jump it. Daily. In the middle of that frigid spell – a couple times a day. I became expert in jump starting it. I’d open the garage door, backup the van inline with my PT Cruiser, pop the hoods on both and in 15 minutes both cars would be running. Reluctantly.

One Tuesday with a negative high, Jen loaded the baby and the preschooler in the van for preschool drop off. I hadn’t planned to leave the house. I hadn’t jump started the Cruiser. A few minutes later, Jen calls me. The van, after driving 10 blocks for preschool drop off, refuses to start.

“The Cruiser won’t start,” the worst part of me cowers.

“Can you check?”

Reluctantly. I do.

Wahhh Wahhh Wahhh Wahhh.

Another preschool parent give Jen and the baby a ride home. I find my gym backpack and look up “replace PT Cruiser battery” on YouTube. I gather up the tools to disconnect and remove the heavy, cold, dead battery from underneath a brittle, plastic air vent. Jen confirms a replacement is in stock at the nearest auto parts store – a mile away.

“Yes, they have one.”

I take a deep breath and start walking.

With each step on the styrofoam snow I think about the cold. I think about how many icebox winters I’ve lived through. How many winters my family before me has lived through. Fifty North Dakota winters. A hundred Northern Minnesota winters. I imagine the isolated, madness-inducing winters the Split Rock Lighthouse keeper families endured.

It’s deathly calm as I walk 1 mile on a plowed road. I’m not concerned about having enough food to last the winter. I’m not concerned about keeping the house warm enough. I’m not concerned about the kids clothing being warm enough. I’m not concerned about paying for the car battery.

“Hi, my wife called about the PT Cruiser battery,” I say through fogged up glasses to the blur behind the counter.

“Yes, here it is.”

It seems heavier than the dead one. I pull and stretch the backpack around it. The weathered, retired man behind the register hands me a receipt and a, “Have a better day,” as I heave the battery-laden backpack on.

I smile, take a deep breath of warm air, and head out the door.

As I walk back, I visualize my plan; install the new battery in the Cruiser, drive it to the van, jump start the van. Then what? Three steps ahead is as far as I seem to be able to think in this stubborn cold. Ten minutes later, Success! I’ve reached the end of my plan – 2 running vehicles. Still just one me – 10 blocks from home.

The new plan: drive each vehicle 2 blocks, park it, run back to the other vehicle, start it up and drive it 2 blocks past the other vehicle. Repeat until both cars are in the driveway.

I start with the van. Driving it from Lowry to 27th. Then jump out and run back to Lowry for the Cruiser. I underestimated the feeling of helpless, anxious, panic in the moment before the engine turns over. Though it confidently does. I drive it from Lowry to 29th. Then back to 27th for the van. Again the helpless, anxious, panic just before it startup. Then. From 27th to 30th, and back to 29th for the Cruiser – which I take all the way home. Then back for the van. Breathless and chilled, I drove the van into the driveway just in time for preschool pick-up.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Friday, 2 May 2014

Introducing ‘Expand’ – My Twitter-driven Newsletter

Each weekday morning I publish 3 actionable messages – on Twitter, LinkedIn, App.net – to inspire you to make dramatic improvements in your professional and personal lives.

On Friday afternoons, I count up the reposts, favorites, and replies for each of these 15 messages across all 3 social networks. For the 3 messages receiving the most, I write up an expanded version and send it out.

If you’d like a sample, here’s last week’s newsletter:

Expand Newsletter – Week of Apr 28:

“You don’t need a new tool. You need to commit to getting more out of the ones you have.”

54 retweets, 33 favorites, 1 reply

Every few weeks a new video gadget comes on the market promising to make it easier to watch Netflix or your other preferred streaming video service on your TV. Each successive gadget has a smaller price tag than the previous one and so I look. Then I remember – I have a TiVo. It’s been doing all that internet video streaming for 7 years.

My MacBook Air is 3 years old. Every few months, I think I should switch to a Linux desktop and buy the latest Ultrabook model. Then I remember I have VirtualBox installed and, if I really wanted to use Ubuntu or ElementaryOS everyday I could while completely hiding the underlying OS X interface and not spending a dime.

Last year, I picked up a half dozen Python books as step 1 to learn how to write Python. I haven’t even cracked them open, as I remembered that I already know Ruby, PHP, and Javascript. Knowing Python a little bit might help me a little bit. Putting that exact same amount of effort into knowing Ruby, PHP, Javascript better will provide me a faster return.

In Merlin Mann’s seminal work, ‘Make Believe Help and Old Butchers’, he discusses the stages of becoming an expert in a skill. He argues that the media’s continual promotion of the latest life hack and iPhone app are actually stalling skill development at ‘Advanced Beginner.’ The only way to become an expert is to commit to a tool, a technique, a process, until it fails you spectacularly. Doing that means ignoring the latest shiny gadget and committing to the work with the current tools, learning where they’re insufficient, where they excel, and incrementally building out your toolbelt accordingly.

“If it has a deadline, it’s not your most important work.”

12 retweets, 19 favorites, 2 replies

Finishing my journalling project, making my wife feel loved and appreciated, making each of my kids feel loved and appreciated, staying healthy, calling my mom, reviewing my 5 year goals, researching my family history, figuring out what I want my life to be like in 25 years, identifying and pursuing my best clients.

None of these have a hard deadlines associated with them. Though if I ignore them, they’ll very likely go pear-shaped very quickly. I don’t want that, so I commit the time and energy to them they deserve. Surprisingly, none of these require a regular, multi-hour, contiguous block of time.

Contrast that with a stereotypical day job; requires 8+ hours of your energy for at least 5 days and includes regular hard, stress-filled, and perhaps artificial deadlines. I say artificial because the deadlines for all my best client projects were far more malleable than they first appeared. A few days or weeks is far less of a concern than being happy with both the progress and the results. The opposite is also true – all the projects I’ve been involved with drop-dead-hard deadlines were some of the worst. While work concluded when the date on the calendar was reached – no one was happy with the result. This has happened so consistently that if I’m talking with a prospective client about a prospective project and they declare a specific date they want the work completed by – I politely decline. An arbitrary date is obviously more important to them than work of any significance.

“To do lists are the inventory. Calendars are the means of production.”

6 retweets, 11 favorites, 1 reply

This morning 2 people asked for a meeting sometime a few weeks for now. I looked at my calendar, picked a day and time that worked and replied requesting confirmation that it worked on their end as well. Both did. Booked. Two potential To Do items: ‘Schedule meeting with David’ and ‘Schedule meeting with Lee’ were completed before they even made it to a To Do list.

I don’t have a To Do list, I have a calendar.

I put every promise and commitment on my calendar. Not just doctors appointments, client meetings, and special family outings. I also schedule reminders to review my bank accounts, to visit the gym, for the next action in my quarterly goals. Every project, every promise, every next action is scheduled in my calendar. Yes, this means my calendar is completely booked for the next 2 weeks and becomes less so the further out I look. But I also know the answer to any question that starts with ‘When’. When and I going to work on this project? (tomorrow morning, 9:30-11:30), on that project? (next Tuesday, 8:30-noon), when am I taking time for myself? (Friday afternoon, 1-4p), When am I cutting my hair? (Saturday 7:30a).

It’s so tempting to use To Do lists like grocery lists and write out everything you could possibly ever want with no concern for available capacity (money for the groceries, and time for To Do items). I’m very aware of how constrained my time capacity is – this means I better be working on the most important things I can in that time. Yes, things get shifted around. Knowing my capacity and having everything on the calendar means I can be flexible. Frequently, at the end of the day, I’ll review the activities I’ve scheduled for the evening and compare them against my level of energy, and I’ll frequently move things around. Life happens – so I frequently shift things around. In fact, just this week a big meeting I had scheduled for Thursday afternoon was rescheduled earlier – to Tuesday afternoon. To accommodate that, I needed to shift my Monday and Tuesday priorities. Now, I suddenly had unexpected capacity Thursday afternoon. Which was promptly filled by a new client meeting.

Scheduling has the added benefit of reducing my cognitive load. At the end of a long day, I don’t stare exhausted and overwhelmed at a lengthy To Do list. My calendar says I’ve committed to 1 thing and I should get started.