Slow

Slowing down can actually help you speed up! How? By enabling you to focus and unlocking the foundations of your knowledge domain.

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Audio

In today’s world, there seems to be much usage of words like “rapid”, “change”, “quick”, “speed”, “fast”, “instant”, “agile”, “responsive”, etc.

I have noticed that, when the meanings of these words get mixed in with emotions and thought process of work, they can lead to a feeling of being hurried or harried, of rushing, of deadlines, of insufficient time. The word “deadline” itself seems kind of scary, carrying the connotation of “dead”!

Because we feel that there isn’t enough time, often quite rightly, we are forced to go fast and rush. That in turn can lead to a feeling of pressure. That we’re trying to work quickly, but there isn’t enough time, so we are stretched or pressured.

However, I have found that when I am actually going fast – delivering lots of work rapidly and on-time, I don’t feel hurried or harried at all. In fact, I feel quite calm, relaxed and that there’s time, and I don’t feel too pressured or stretched.

So what does it really mean to be rapid, agile, responsive, fast?

Firstly, I have found that when you put pressure on yourself, you arc up, your body becomes stiff, your breathing becomes shallower. It becomes more difficult to focus, and you start to have your focus split or fragmented between a lot of different things. This loss of focus, in turn, leads to a loss of productivity and a loss of sustainable productive energy. So, while I can pump out work in a panic for a short period of time, over a longer period, it becomes unsustainable.

Secondly, I have found that the fragmentation of focus can lead to a dismantling of the ability to properly understand a problem and a problem-space. That is, because insufficient time has been spent on discovering and then solidly grasping of the foundations of a structure of knowledge, your ability to work at the higher levels of that structure becomes slow, repetitive, inefficient and tedious. You have to repetitively go through multiple iterations of the same problem before identifying the root of it, when you could have discovered the root right from the start, if you thoroughly understood the foundations of what you’re working with.

My solutions?

Firstly, rather than taking on that hurred, pressured mind-set and body language, I have found it generally better, at almost any cost, to relax and take on a cooler disposition and demeanor.

Secondly, I try to reduce the number of elements that I focus on at any one time. For example, instead of trying to deliver an entire three page report all at once, I focus on just writing one really good paragraph. Or, instead of trying to deliver multiple screens of an application, I just focus on one screen, or on one link between two screens. Or, instead of trying to deliver an entire module of code, I just focus on one or two individual functions.

Or, instead of trying to speed-read an entire chapter of a book, I spend a long time reading the first couple of pages, so that I get a very firm grasp of the foundation that the chapter rests on. In this last case, I have found that reading a book this way often leads to mentally “unlocking” the conceptual framework of the book, such that I then understand the contents so well that speed-reading actually works!

When you deliver that small amount of work, you may get a small dopamine kick. You feel a sense of achievement. You might even reward yourself with a treat! (Say, a tasty snack, or drink, or a short break.)

Because you’re reducing your focus to one element at a time, you’re able to deliver more rapidly and responsively. You can deliver a small part rapidly, then another one.

I believe this is the real spirit of many of the ideas of “agile”, “iteration”, etc. It’s not a spirit of pressure, rushing, panic, etc., but rather, of slowing down, identifying one or two things that you can break off and focus on. Those things being small enough that you can deliver them, learn from them, and then decide on your next step as appropriate.

Ship

Life doesn’t always go to plan. How might we think about plans in a way that keeps us motivated and moving forward?

Audio

Have you ever had one of those “face-palm” moments in life, where it suddenly hit you that you had made a less-than-optimal decision? If you had known more, you might have made a different decision, or no decision at all!

The frustrating thing is, now you do know! Now you can see that X and Y are necessary, in order to achieve Z. But at the time you made the decision, you weren’t aware of this.

The problem is, at the time, you didn’t have the information or awareness to know what the problem with your decision was going to be, whereas now you do know. And I think this reveals something about how work gets done and things get achieved in time, which is: not everything happens in the order that we think it will happen.

We may have a model of the world in our minds, which is sequential and tied to certain dates and times, kind of like a flowchart. For example:

InYourMind

A leads to B leads to C and D, D leads to E and F, and E and F lead to G.

The way things actually work out, often is quite different. For example:

InReality

A leads to B. B seems like it will lead to C, but actually ends up leading all the way to Z. And it’s only when we get to Z that we then see the whole alphabet, and that the process involves all 26 letters, not just the 6 or 7 we started out with!

We can’t really change the fact that reality often doesn’t go to plan. However, we can offer ourselves some mental consolation and self-forgivenness.

We can remember how much we didn’t know at the time. Give that memory space. And give ourselves “permission in retrospect” to have not known everything. “I didn’t know, we didn’t know”. And because that time has already passed, we can’t go back in a time-machine and make it any different (at least, not until Elon Musk gets round to time-travel!)

So, in a sense, there wasn’t necessarily ever a problem. The project did go “according to plan”, but it was just a different plan than we had originally understood! Perhaps a larger plan, perhaps smaller. But it is a plan, and there is a structure to it. We simply need to maintain our awareness of the change, adapt to it and move with it.

As you go through this kind of change many times, over the course of a career, you develop mental processes and tools for working in this way. Rather than our plans becoming like a large structure, say a tower made of stones, which can’t bend or move, our plans become more like a ship, which can be steered in one direction, then steered in another, moored and unmoored, or taken to a warehouse, dis-assembled and re-assembled.

So a change in plan isn’t a catastrophe. It’s valuable information that we can use to steer the “ship” of our work and make new discoveries along the way!

Expand

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

Audio

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.

expand-diagram-1

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.