Forces

Combining multiple small forces, all pushing you in a similar direction, you can move closer to your goals with less effort.

Advertisements

Audio

Imagine a big, long-term goal you might have. Perhaps it’s to lose weight. Perhaps it’s to save up enough money to retire, or at least, to live more comfortably.

It’s the kind of goal that won’t happen overnight, and won’t happen without significant effort and perspiration (and perhaps risk).

You may find it very difficult to see that goal through to the end. There may be multiple factors over time that make it difficult. There are things that make it constantly difficult to achieve your goal.

For example, you’re trying to eat less in order to lose weight, but, almost constantly, occasions or situations seem to arise that make that goal difficult. For example, it’s late at night, you find yourself starving, and you find it hard to resist going to the freezer and reaching for the frozen pizza.

Or you’re trying to save money, but situations seem to keep arising that cause you to have to spend money.

A strategy I’ve found helpful is to try to position myself so that I have multiple forces pushing me toward my goal, rather than pulling me away from it.

Imagine a beach-ball on the pavement, which you’re trying to move without directly pushing it. You try blowing at it. But it’s a windy day and your breath is no competition for the winds blowing in multiple directions, perhaps even in your direction.

But now imagine if you and 3 friends stood in front of the ball, all of you holding leaf blowers. Each of you standing at a slightly different angle, but all aiming the ball in a generally common direction. That ball would be much more likely to go where you want it to!

And it can be the same with long-term goals and forces that push you one way or another in life.

Going back to the example of losing weight, if you rely only on your will power and, say, a diet plan, you may be on course for a while, but then veer off, due to other complex forces getting in the way.

But you could combine your will power and diet with multiple other forces. For example:

  • You could move house to a place that’s very close to a gym. Now that the gym in a few minutes’ walk away, rather than a 30 minute commute, it’s more likely that you’ll go there regularly.
  • You could make less food available to you at any given time. You even buy a smaller fridge, which can fit less food in it, so that instead of a few footsteps away, the food is a walk-to-the-shops away. Or you might put your food on a high shelf. Or try to spend less time at home, so that you’re not tempted.
  • You could get into a habit of preparing/cooking low-calorie, highly filling foods. This might mean learning cooking methods that are simple and fast. That way, you’re more motivated to, say, quick-steam some broccoli, rather than put a pizza in the microwave oven. (At least one person I know has gotten rid of their microwave altogether!)
  • You could attend some kind of support group or meetup of dieters, where you motivate eachother and give eachother tips. So the influence of that group pushes you in the direction of weight-loss.

Or take money as another example:

  • You could move to an area where rents are cheaper, so you’re paying less for housing.
  • You could also choose, among the cheaper places to live, an area that’s farther away from expensive shops, e.g. clothing stores or tech stores, so that there’s less temptation to spend money on these kinds of items.
  • You could let your friends know about your goals, and have them encourage and support those goals, perhaps even hold you to account for them!
  • You could visualise your goal – perhaps make a drawing about it and put that on your wall so you see it regularly, or set your morning “wake-up” alarm to some piece of audio that reminds you of your goal, say, a song or an excerpt from a speech.

If you have your life set up so that there are many forces pushing you where you want to go, then it’s more likely that you’ll get there by sheer inertia, even while your will-power and resolve goes through ups and downs.

These techniques can also be applied within the workforce, whether you’re a business owner, manager, employee, consultant, etc. For example, if you want to develop a new skill or competency, you could might try:

  • Regularly listening to a podcast that’s oriented around that skill
  • Volunteering to teach someone the basics of that skill for free (trying to teach someone else a subject can be an excellent way to test and strengthen your grasp on it)
  • Finding authoritative sources on the subject and absorbing their influences (e.g. books or articles they write, talks they give, etc)
  • Applying aspects of that skill to your current work (techniques such as “job crafting”) can be useful here

By combining lots of small forces together, which all point in a certain direction, you are much more likely to have yourself “carried along” in that direction, while hopefully avoiding excessive effort or pressure.

Credits

Similar ideas can be found in the Job Crafting movement, The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman and How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams.

 

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!

Orgchart

Organisational charts aren’t always up-to-date, or most useful to you. So why not draw your own?

Audio

Does your organisation have an organisational chart? A diagram of the reporting relationships, in a hierarchical structure, is fairly common in companies, government departments, etc. These charts often exist on an Intranet, Wiki page, etc.

You may work in a smaller organisation, perhaps a startup or a small project team within a larger organisation. Perhaps in this situation, there is no formal, defined organisational chart.

Organisational charts aren’t always directly helpful. They may be out of date, and their intended audience may not be you, and so they may not be particularly applicable to you. They may be used for any number of purposes that you may or may not be aware of, and thus, they may not be the most useful document for you to refer to, in understanding the interpersonal relationships within the company.

So an idea I would like to share is: creating your own “personal organisational chart”.

You start with a blank sheet of paper (real paper, or perhaps virtual, if you’re using a tablet and stylus). Draw a stick figure in the middle of the page, representing yourself – you’re starting somewhere close to home, with you!

you

Then you think about the people who you communicate with directly, either day-to-day or periodically. People you are in meetings with, or report to, or otherwise interact with. Write their names around your “you” stick figure with spokes coming out from you to them. (You may want to draw those you are in more frequent contact with, or who are more crucial to your role, at a closer distance than others.)

2nd-degree

Then think of the people who these people interact with. Which people they talk to, refer to in meetings, etc. Draw them as spokes coming off the people you’re connected to. Keep working your way outward until you end up with kind of “web” or “network” of how the organisation fits together.

3rd-degree

The beauty of this kind of organisational chart is that its more relevant to you, because it starts with you in the middle! So it can enable you to visualise relationships in a way that informs you of where you sit, who you’re influencing, who’s seeing output of, or giving input to, your work. This is information that you can act on. It can help you to acheive your goals – doing a better job, engaging more effectively with the organisation, delivering work that’s more tailored to the needs of the organisation, etc. It can also help you to be selective about how you represent yourself, how you work with people, how you steer your role and even your career, with that organisation, going into the future.

Even long after you’ve left that organisation, when you revisit the experience, this org chart can serve as a memory aid, helping you to call to mind how that job was, what you did, what you learned, etc.

So there you have it – the “personal org chart”. Give it try!

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.

Audio

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?

Audio

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”.

Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 3.26.15 pm

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.

Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 3.32.57 pm

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

Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 3.33.03 pm.png

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.