Expand

How do you manage work-place stress? One technique I have found helpful is ‘expanding the problem’.

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Do you ever find yourself, at work, feeling stressed out, tense, a pit in your stomach, anxious and concerned, tired out? Work-related stress seems to be a common theme in today’s workforce, and it’s something I’ve faced myself.

Here’s an example of one way this can happen:

Suppose you have to deliver a report. You feel motivated, pumped. You’re going to focus on your goal and get the job done. Now the first step is to talk to Judy and then Mike, who have crucial information you need. But it turns out that Judy is on leave. So you go and talk to her manager, Beth, and Beth tells you that she can give you part of the information you need from Judy, but for the rest, you’ll need to get off Joe, in another department. So you go and talk to Joe and he emails you a link. But when you try it, it turns out to be password protected! So to get it unlocked, you need to talk to Jim in IT. All of a sudden, this initially straight-forward task of making a report has grown into a complex maze of people and information. Your to-do list is stacking up with items and you get to the end of the day, not having “completed” even a part of the report.

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You feel perhaps a bit agitated, restless, stressed our, or maybe tired or worn out or mildly depressed. You feel like you got nothing done. And that’s not a nice feeling!

This kind of stress/depression can occur even with relatively solitary activities, such as design or engineering. Nay, especially in those activities! Say you’re in the midst of a coding problem, you’ve been Google-ing for a solution, and you find something that almost works but not quite, and you go for a whole day and not really “finish” anything.

What can we do, constructively, about dealing with these situations?

I’ve found that the problem often is being too focused on the end-result, on the solution that I’m seeking. And because of that, I’m judging my progress (and perhaps myself) whenever I fail to meet that result. And by the end of the day, those failures and judgements have accumulated, and I feel a burden of, guilt, debt, etc.

So one mindfulness-inspired practice I have been trying is that of expanding the problem. Imagine the problem as a funnel, very wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. If you try to force lots of material through at once, it will inevitably be blocked by the narrowest part of the funnel. But if you were to widen the funnel – convert it to a pipe – then all the material could move through at the same speed, without blockage.

To apply this to your work mindset: you’re putting all your focus and energy on the wide part of the funnel – the solution. But the process of achieving the solution, the narrow part, is consuming your effort. So you’re trying to force a lot of effort through a very narrow space. But what if you were to mentally expand your work process. Giving it more attention and energy, and making it feel larger in your mind.

So for example, say you have to talk to Judy, and then go and speak to Jim in IT about getting the password, you can see that as part of your journey toward your solution. And it counts as work, and in fact, counts as a success and an achievement.

So, as you look at your ‘to do’ list, perhaps you see a line like this:

• Finish report

Scrub it out! And, instead, write:

• Speak with Jim in IT
• Email Jim password request

And before the end of the day, you can have those two ticked off!

Speak with Jim in IT
Email Jim password request

Notice that now you’re re-focusing on the actions and tasks you’re performing throughout the day, in order to get the result, and not focusing directly on the result.

And you’re expanding the problem-space. Perhaps you identify a whole network of people who you need to interact with, to get the job done. And then you discover efficiencies – ways you can shortcut the process or get extra value out of it, e.g. getting to meet people and learn about the organisation in the process. So, you might not have delivered the report by the end of the day, but you did learn who Jim was, and established a rapport with him, which could serve you well in the future.

By focusing on the problem, you achieve small incremental results on the way to achieving your big result. And you can leave work at the end of the day with a feeling of success and accomplishment. You can close that day off, get a good night’s sleep and come in the next morning with the energy and motivation to keep going.

Additionally, if you’re going through many tedious steps – a process – in order to achieve an outcome, chances are your work is, by nature, complex. Chances are that this complexity will re-appear at another time. So the learning and knowledge you gain from working through this complex process, if you hang on to it, can help you work through other complex processes in the future.

That’s the technique in a nutshell. Expand the problem, give the problem space. Perhaps try visualising it, through writing, drawing, diagramming, etc. Give yourself time and focus on each action/task, each step of the way, and let the solution come when it’s ready.

Consumer

Is your employer only a consumer? Is your barista only a producer? What happens when we flip these two categories?

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Who is a consumer and who is a producer? For some people, it’s economic common-sense that, in economic dealings between people and organisations (such as employment) we are either producing/creating/making things or purchasing/borrowing/consuming things.

I have found it interesting to mentally swap those categories. I will present two very familiar forms of producer-consumer relationships that you likely have experienced.

Let’s start with the workplace. Say you are an employee and you report to a manager. You think of your manager as someone in a position of power, as a kind of customer. You are offering them your services, applying your time and effort, and they are directing you to perform those services, and directing the outputs of those services elsewhere, e.g. to their managers, to customers, etc.

Now take an opposite kind of relationship. Say you are shopping to purchase an item. You walk into one of the big branded stores and you look at the items and then pick up a product. And as you’re walking out the door with your purchase, you hope to yourself it works properly, doesn’t break, and that there’s some kind of warranty if it does. It seems that the producer is in a position of power, able to determine how your product is designed, built and supported. Or suppose you’re ordering coffee from a cafe. You can somewhat determine the product you’ll be getting. E.g. what kind of coffee, how strong, etc.

Now let’s try flipping these two kinds of relationship.

Imagine the ways that your employer or client might be thought of as a producer. The ways in which they have you work. Perhaps management methods. Perhaps ideas. Perhaps frameworks of ideas, ideologies. Perhaps principles, best-practices, etc. Also, workspaces within which you work, optimised for your work activities. And equipment optimised for your use.

Thinking of these and other things as things either produced or provided by your employer and consumed by you, as an employee, can open up new ideas and a new space of opportunity. Those things might be seen as a class of assets, which you could harness and use in various ways, whether or not intended by the supplier of those assets, your employer.

For example, imagine applying a visual design technique you learned on-the-job, at your place of employment, to design a birthday card for your child!

How about the other side, thinking about the “producers” as a consumers? Imagine that the big-brand supplier collects data about you, which they use to improve their products or processes. The cafe perhaps does something similar, to improve the service they’re offering you. In a sense, they’re consuming from you – personal information that opens up marketing possibilities, feedback about their products, experiences, ideas. Though you’re paying them for a product, in a sense, they’re consuming from you.

Could this understanding of the relationship also open up possibilities? Perhaps you can have some impact or influence over a consumption item.

Perhaps you identify and sell an improvement, either to the “producer” or to a third-party, such as a venture capitalist. Or perhaps you smile and crack a joke with the barista, which brightens their day, lightens their load and improves the quality of the coffee!

So whatever kind of marketplace relationship springs to mind, try flipping it in your mind, and see how that changes the landscape and perhaps opens some new doors.

Schedule

Does your schedule work for you? Here I present the “modular schedule” – a way of introducing flexibility and adaptability while preserving consistency and regularity.

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Open your calendar. Maybe it’s a physical calendar on your desk. Maybe it’s a virtual calendar on your smartphone, tablet or laptop. Have a look at the grid. You can see days of the week and times of the day. And the calendar tool enables you to easily create appointments and meetings and reminders. And those can easily be made to recur, so that, for example, every Wednesday at the same time, you attend an exercise class, or every Friday night at this time, you meet this person.

Using these tools can help you to structure your time and introduce some consistency and regularity, which helps you to get into productive rhythms, predict your free time and balance various priorities.

However, using such tools may also introduce a fair amount of rigidity. For example, you might have exercise on Wednesday night, but you start to feel very sick on Wednesday afternoon, forcing you to skip exercise. Or you have to miss your regular appointment on Friday night, because you realise you’ll be away on a trip, and won’t be back in time. Or you miss some other appointment because something comes up, e.g. a lengthy tax return.

A calendar with regular events occurring every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday
A standard calendar features consistency and regularity, but might it also be rigid and inflexible?

Is there a way to schedule that gives us some structure, but also some flexibility?

Recently I’ve been partially experimenting with what I’ll call a “modular schedule“. Rather than scheduling specific dates and times for an event, I’ll just specify a duration (and optionally, a location) and make the event a moveable “module”.

Say it’s exercise – e.g. weight training. I decide on a place that I’ll do that, the gym. I know where that place is and how long it will take to get there. I know what activities I’ll be doing and what equipment I’ll need. And I can time-box it to, say, 1.5 hours (including travel time). So there is a sense of regularity and expectation in the event.

But because I’m not pinning it down to a time and date, the event can be moved and changed. So if I’m too sick to exercise on Wednesday, that module is still there, and it can be moved to the next day or two days later. I can take a moment on Thursday to pause, and think, “well, I’m feeling well now, and I’ve got 3 hours free, what can I do?”. And then it’s easy to slot in that 1.5-hour module exercise.

Two modules – a 1-hour exercise module and a 15-minute coffee with Jill module
Example of a modular schedule. Two modules – time-boxed, but also moveable.

By using this method, it can become easier to change and adapt your schedule on-the-fly, because you have a small set of recurring activities in mind, along with how long they’ll take (and where you’ll do them), but because you haven’t locked yourself into a time (and perhaps place, if it can be done anywhere), then you can move those activities around. You can cancel, re-order, manipulate, move them around, just like chess pieces on a board.

Another advantage of this technique is that it can enable you to allocate time more strategically. So if there’s a particularly good moment to do something, you can wait until that moment. For example, perhaps its a sunny day and the weather is nice and warm, and you think, “that’s a perfect time to walk the dog”. So you can take move your “walking the dog” module to that time. Or maybe it’s rainy, cold and miserable outside, so now is the perfect time to go to the library or the cafe, open your laptop, and get some work done. You’re making more efficient use of your time, because you’re choosing moments or contexts which will fit the best with the activities you’re performing.

So you won’t find yourself, for example, working hard on your laptop while it’s beautiful and sunny outside and you feel like exercise. Or you won’t find yourself trying to walk the dog when it’s rainy and cold outside.

So that’s the “modular schedule”. Give it a try!

PS. It will be interesting to see if software tools come out in the future, that facilitate more flexible modes of arranging time. But if you internalise this technique, add it to your mental toolbox, it can be pretty easy to start automatically making certain activities more modular, without even needing to refer to a physical or digital calendar.

Paste

Often, “don’t repeat yourself” is good advice. But might “copy-and-paste” sometimes be a better way of solving the problem?

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Repetition – one thing happening again and again. It’s everywhere. Look at the trees outside and you see patterns of branches and leaves, repeated over and over.

Yet, when it comes to product design, business, software and other creative works, we strive to avoid repeating ourselves. We strive to make it “one of a kind”, a “unique” business proposition. “Don’t repeat yourself” is a common maxim in the software industry.

However, as in nature, repetition is frequent and common in software and elsewhere. And granted, it has often caused much pain and frustration. However, it may not always and necessarily be a bad thing. We might ask: “where does repetition make sense?”

In one of my former projects, working with a very experienced and trusted team leader, I was assigned to develop a new feature of the product, in this case, an online form, containing many fields and controls and some fairly complex interactions. After I had completed this, he tasked me to develop a new screen. And when described the new screen to me, it sounded so similar to the first screen that my immediate first thought was: “this should all really be done as one re-usable component, called by both screens”.

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However, when I expressed this idea to him, he recommended against it. “Don’t do that – copy and paste!”. Suprised, I asked him if he was serious. “Yes!”, he said, “trust me”.

So I followed his advice, copied the existing code to a new file, and started working on the new requirements. And even though, at the start, they had seemed like very similar screens, as development progressed, the code started to diverge quite radically.

For example, a user would enter a figure on one form, and they would get one kind of error and a link leading them to a particular screen; whereas on the other screen, they might enter a figure into an equivalent field, get a message that wasn’t an error, or a link leading them to a different screen.

What I realised was that these are two very different screens. They started out the same, and I was correct to point out the similarities. But, over time, they were destined to diverge and become very different screens. Thus, it made more sense to start with a copy-and-paste.

What would have happened if I had gone with my initial instinct and created one “master” component, to serve both screens? Well, every time there was a difference between the behaviour of one screen and the other, we would have to add some kind of exception (e.g. an if-statement) to the “master” component. And over time, as these differences accumulated, the “master” component would develop into a mess of exception-handling, and the code would become difficult to read and maintain.

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Instead, I ended up with two separate screens, each with its own behaviour, which could easily be modified if needed.

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Win!

More broadly, the “mathematical” instinct may be to reduce, but the problem may not be one of reduction, but rather, of generative, divergent growth. In simple words: we may want lots of copies, so that we can easily modify each copy in a different way.

So sometimes “don’t repeat yourself” is helpful advice, but sometimes it’s not. If you know ahead of time that two or more pieces are going to diverge from each-other, and you want to be able to easily control and customise each of those pieces, copy/paste may well be a better strategy.

Revisit

Revisiting your past, including your career history, may give you valuable insights, increase your comfort/confidence and help you to steer your future.

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Have you ever revisited something from the past?

Perhaps a restaurant you hadn’t eaten at for a while, or a suburb you hadn’t visited, or a friend or family member from the past, who you hadn’t seen for a while. People you’d worked with, employers who hired you or clients you did work for.

When you revisited that place or person, perhaps some old feelings came back. Or maybe it was fresh – you noticed some changes and it even felt like a new experience.

It can be an interesting exercise to mentally revisit experiences of places and people.

You can apply this idea of mentally revisiting to your career history. You can recall the details of the jobs you held.  What you did. Who you worked with. The way decisions were made. The way conflicts were managed. The way the team worked together. The end results.

Remembering those details can give you some fresh insights – insights about yourself and others, about why you were hired, about why particular decisions were made and about the general landscape of your profession. You can identify common elements in your career history, which reveal, for example, where your strengths and weaknesses lie, what you enjoy / don’t enjoy and what you, as a person, bring to a situation.

One category of experience you can re-visit is the challenge. Perhaps a person or a thing might have troubled you in the past. Maybe it was a difficult job. Maybe it was a person who you found difficult to get along with. Maybe it was a relationship that went through some turbulence. By revisiting a challenge you had, you can gain insights into why that challenge arose, how you dealt with it, how you might deal with it the same (or differently) today. You might realise some way to avoid such a challenge in the future.

One of the cool things about going back and revisiting a past experience is that you can think about it with fresh eyes. You can take your present self, as you are now, and project that self back into the past, and that can give you new insights into that situation. You might assume that you learned everything that could be learned about an experience at the time you had it, and there’s nothing more to be learned. But there may actually be a wealth of new things to be learned, from your present perspective.

Another cool benefit of revisiting a past experience is that you can become more comfortable with it. Perhaps the experience was distressing or uncomfortable in some way. Perhaps it was confusing and you weren’t able to grasp exactly what was happening at the time or why. By going back to it again, now that you’re out of it, you can become more comfortable and acquainted with that experience. Rather than being a “black-box”, a past experience can be something you begin to understand, to learn about, and to treat just like an old friend.

And becoming more comfortable with your career history can give you a shot of confidence now, in your current work situation, and it can help you to guide and steer your career for the future.

You carry your memories with you. They are always accessible, and can be pulled up practically at will. So why not use them?

Influences

Lately, I have been taking a step back and asking: who and what are your influences? Observing and actively shaping influences can lead to interesting results!

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Over my career thusfar, I’ve been noticing the various influences that different organisations bring to bear. Various schools of thought and methodologies are applied. At the time of writing: Agile, Scrum, Kan-Ban, Design Thinking, User Experience, etc. Various ecosystems are set up, by certain vendors, of tools, applications, etc. Various words and clusters of language are used to describe things.

It seems that the people who run and staff the organisations have been influenced by ideas, which they picked up either during their tenure at an organisation, or before they joined, perhaps from their education and training or other sources.. They absorb these influences and then spread them. The thinking of the organisation forms a kind of bubble.

In my own research of schools of thought, such as Agile and Design Thinking, I’ve seen that they spring up from small groups of individuals, whether named or not, who inspired the way of thinking or perhaps set up some of the key concepts and created the language.

So in macro, organisations seem to operate on influences, and in micro, individuals do.

I have noticed that I myself draw influences from certain sources. Factors such as the schooling I had, the companies I worked for, articles and books I read, ideas that I heard about from people I know, my friendship and social networks, all play into how I have been influenced.

So lately I have been trying to take a step back and ask myself: Who and what is influencing you? What have you been learning and from who? Where are you getting your information, words, language from? I don’t ask myself these questions with any judgement, e.g. of whether an influence is better or worse than another, but I just observe what’s there.

I also ask similar questions about the people I come into contact with, offline and online: Who and what is influencing them? Where do they learn, and from who? Where do they get information, words, language from? And also, what are their “stakes” or incentives in sharing something, whether it’s an idea, language, technology, schools of thought, ways of doing things, etc. What’s their motivation?

Perhaps they’re affiliated with a school of thought, vendor, etc. Perhaps they have a personal interest of some kind in some area of thought. Perhaps the company they work for expects them to promote some idea. Perhaps the idea is foundational to how they live and work. (I don’t pretend to know any of this for sure, but it’s interesting to ask the question.)

And, as with myself, I don’t try to judge the value of the influences and motivations. It’s not necessarily better or worse for someone to have a stake in promoting something or to be influenced by an idea. Rather than judge, I simply observe. And over time, I develop my own perspective on how various people, ideas, motivations and networks fit together.

By being aware of influences, I start to actively shape my own influences. For example, I might observe that I have been thinking very much within a certain interpretation of “Agile”. And I might see limitations in that thinking, which cause me to actively seek out the influence of a different school of thought, e.g. “Design Thinking”. This can be done by, for example, attending courses, reading books, networking with people in the field, etc.

So I get into cycles of observing influences, choosing new influences, observing again, etc. (Sounds kind of “Agile”-ish, doesn’t it!) Over time, I see myself shifting in thinking, and shaping my thinking by shaping who and what is influencing me. This, in turn, affects what kind of work I seek, how my C.V. looks, what kind of employers I work for, and what direction my career goes in.

This constant observing and re-shaping of influences has certainly made for an interesting and exciting career, and funnily enough, has given me more of a sense of direction. Something new to aim for, at every turn.

Delete

We’re familiar with the Delete button on our keyboards, and the warnings that pop up when we press it. But there can be advantages as well – it can free up space, and I mean cognitive space.

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We’re probably familiar with the Delete button on our keyboards. And all the warnings and alerts that come up when we press that button. They’re trying to warn or inform us that we’re about to lose information, and we’d better be sure we want it to go away. And there can be catastrophic consequences to ignoring those warnings – i.e. data loss.

I’d like to talk about the advantages of hitting Delete. And this applies not only to your computer, but also your tablet or mobile phone, which you may use as much or more than your computer. On those devices also, you can delete apps or content.

And the advantage you can get from deleting things is that is frees up space. And I don’t mean storage space, I mean cognitive space. When you unlock your phone, you might be greeted by a plethora of apps and folders, which have evolved over time. You might have downloaded some out of curiosity, some because friends recommended them, some for work, etc. etc. And over time, these build up and create a mess, just like a messy house.

Keeping your digital spaces clean and orderly can be just as important as keeping your physical spaces clean and orderly. We all know what it’s like when your home is messy and you can’t find the things you need. And beyond that, mess can clutter your mind up. It can make you feel tired or depressed or anxious.

And coming home after work to a clean, orderly house, where everything is where you need it to be, can be refreshing, give you energy, make you feel lighter, and enable you to focus on what you want to focus on. E.g. that brilliant startup idea you’re working on after-hours!

So regularly deleting items on your lists, or files, or apps or anything can be a good practice. I’ve been doing this every month or so. I go through my phone or tablet and purge all the apps that I haven’t used for, say, more than 2 weeks. And after I’ve done this, I’m left with a nice, simple, clear, organised layout. This enables me to think more clearly and access the apps I need. Also, when I’m aware of the apps I do have and why I installed them, then I remember what my more general priorities in life are. And this contributes to me staying focussed on things that matter and not getting swept away.

So in summary: keep your decks clear, both physically and digitally, so you can get to what you need. And then your mind will be clearer, you’ll be able to better focus your attention, and (as a bonus) you’ll be freer to think creatively!