Grounded & Steadfast

est. 2008

Back to the topic of why newsletters are a good choice for writers.

This piece by Simon Owens perfectly sums up my thoughts. In it, he opines that email newsletters are similar to the handmade zines of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In contrast to carefully edited and displayed content of the web, newsletters are more haphazard:

Many newsletters feature a hodgepodge of unrelated sections, images, and GIFs, and they take a distinctly informal tone in their writing.

What makes this format work for both writer and reader?

It could be that, like those within the zine community, newsletter readers enjoy feeling like they’re in some sort of exclusive club. Sending a newsletter seems more like a private, intimate conversation compared to when you write for the open web.

But he finishes by stating that newsletters could suffer a potentially gloomy future:

Given our renewed obsession with Inbox Zero and the general feeling that we already receive too much email, it might soon become harder for new independent newsletters to break through the noise.

For now, it’s a fun tool to make use of!

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Oppression in Our Industry

For the past 6 months, I’ve been studying and prepping a Sunday school class on oppression. One thing that jumps out right away on this subject is that very few of us in North America participate in what we would call direct oppression. In fact, we abhor forms of direct oppression and, in most cases, oppose them.

I wish I could say the same for indirect forms of oppression!

Sadly, most of us hurt others by some of the choices we make. Sometimes unknowingly. Other times we’re aware of it, but do not care enough. There are plenty of examples (non-fair trade chocolate or coffee, most clothing), many of which come from our purchasing power. We live in the most affluent society to have ever lived on earth and how we use those resources can result in indirect oppression.

Of late, some examples of this in our own industry have come to light. I think of Talia Jane, who wrote a letter to the CEO of the company where she was employed. Whether or not you believe her own decisions led to her situation, the culture and environment of the company is in no way healthy. The same can be said of Amélie.

We get a similar picture as Lauren Smiley outlines the Shut-In Economy. It’s not all bad; there is some good that comes from changes to how we do things. But the movement eschews human contact, even to the point where those giving the service are invisible. Purposefully.

Shutting people out is an important part of being a shut-in: When signing up, customers can choose the option of not seeing their Alfred, who will come in when they’re at work. Alfred’s messaging is aimed at sweeping aside any middle-class shame.

It’s these kinds of decisions, purposeful designs, that lead to oppression. If we are not even aware of the humans around us and how our decisions affect them, we’re prone to do nothing about a problem we don’t know exists. And the industry (the valley, the investors, and we, the consumers) seem to want to head down this road with one ultimate goal in mind: convenience.

Amazon is our chief example here. Why leave the house to get things you need when you can find and purchase them with a click of a button? That sounds great. And for many situations, it is great! But getting out and doing these things gets you into your community.

Convenience always comes with a cost. The sad thing is we usually do not have to pay it. We’re horrified at the actions of our colonial ancestors (those of us who have them) and how they treated people of different lands. Yet, our actions can lead to similar results. If you can buy a cheap electronic gadget for under $20, somewhere there’s a human putting it together for inhumane wages.

Sometimes the affects are closer to home as well. Back to Amazon, Mother Jones shed some light as to the costs that come in order to get us anything we want whenever we want it. The piece outlines the horrid conditions that workers face every day in these gigantic warehouses. Even if the situation is not true in all cases, human beings are being treated poorly and we have a part to play in it. But this was back in 2012 and now it’s 2016 and the shift to using these services continues to skyrocket.

Our industry plays a part. What are we going to do about it?

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Interesting take on the “Internet Sabbatical” and its ilk. Matthew Malady found it was a waste of time. His reasoning is that giving up constant distractions the online life brings is not equal to the price of giving up the access to instant knowledge available online. His conclusion:

At the end of the experiment, I wasn’t dying to get my phone back or to access Facebook. I just wanted to get back to being better informed.

You’ll likely not be surprised at all to hear that I disagree with his take on this topic. From the account, it sounds like Malady is like most of us; distracted and (attempting) doing many things at once. And yet his experiment did not result in a desire to change.

What’s more, I don’t know that I learned any lessons about my tech usage that would make David M. Levy proud of my efforts, or that will help me use my devices more intelligently going forward.

Perhaps this can happen to people. But perhaps it’s due to how one spends the time offline. Malady confesses his own time may not have been spent in the wisest fashion:

Perhaps even worse, I also watched much more TV than I normally would.

This is a topic that’s going to be a focus for some time, as we learn the full extent how the Internet affects us. From physiology to social norms to environmental concerns, we’re still learning how this new connection and stimulus shapes our lives. To date, we’ve spent far more energy figuring out how to give everyone access than we have how that access will affect them (related).

Obviously, the Internet is enabling … that’s a good thing. A great thing. But it is also addicting, and much of what we’ve done with the connection to knowledge leads to surface living, flicking from one thing to the next. I’d suggest that the knowledge Malady claims to get from the Internet could be described largely as a useless collection of facts (much of which is likely not retained anyway), which is a far cry from wisdom.

Facts without wisdom are just data. Knowledge takes a little more work.

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First Things First

Fresh off my read of Deep Work, I dug right into Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next. Think of this one as a guide to productivity for those who believe the Gospel of Christ. It focuses a lot on the why, before getting into the how of things. It’s been another enjoyable read — I’ll give a full review in time.

But I’m currently about two thirds through it and was shocked to see one of this suggestions. In the chapter on Regular Routines, Perman advocates for a daily workflow. This workflow is something that should occur every day, regardless of all else that is going on. It’s the routine that ensures you're getting time every day to work on the things that you're the best at, that matter the most.

That’s good advice. He boils the workflow down to 4 core tasks. But what shocked me is the order of the tasks:

  1. Plan your day
  2. Execute your workflow (including processing your email to zero)
  3. Do you main daily activity
  4. Do some next actions or major project work

(emphasis mine)

Wow! That is such a stark contrast to the methods Cal Newport advocates in Deep Work. The same thing for Shawn Blanc in The Focus Course (and many, many other resources). I know personally the worst thing I can do is start the day with reactive work like email. Once you start down that path, it’s seem as if there is no return … others are dictating the course of your day and where your focus is spent.

I love the idea that there is a core ritual or routine that you get to each and every day (It should also not be your entire day. For if you're doing the things that are of the most importance daily, then you are more free to be available for others, or to allow spontaneity to occur as well). But my core routine would be in a far different order. Or perhaps broken into chunks, with some of the core tasks happening at different points of the day.

I could see a routine like this working for me:

Morning (beginning of workday)

  1. Do your main daily activity
  2. Do some next actions or major project work

Afternoon (end of workday)

  1. Execute your workflow (including processing your inbox to zero)
  2. Plan your day (except it’s the next day, similar to Shawn’s note)

For me, the main daily activity is what is going to push things forward. Whether a project, or planning and strategizing, or conducting research. That daily activity requires focus, a time of low stimulus. And since mornings are when I have the most energy available and tend to do my best work, there’s no chance I’m wasting those finite resources in reading and sending email.

Putting the first things first is too important.

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Here’s a nice look at how several companies are learning to be family friendly. I’m especially happy with this one as the first two pictures are of the Wildbit office. One of our founders, Natalie, shares some of the thinking behind the space and the importance of children being welcomed in the space.

(She followed up with an expanded post on our site. The paragraphs of mine were written weeks ago, but it's telling how my thoughts below match the outline of Natalie's post.)

What’s more, this is important for the remote team as well. How do companies make remote positions more welcoming to the family life? By allowing flexibility. I’m blessed to be able to adjust the hours of my day when the need arises (doctor appointments, school events, etc). On top of that, the team stresses firm 40 hour work weeks.

This is all possible because Wildbit has cultivated an environment that puts people first, tasks second. Both are important, but when employers forget the former, the latter is always heavily affected. This comes through in yet another post, Putting Unicorns Through the Meat Grinder:

Natalie told me recently that the real product of Wildbit is not Beanstalk, Postmark or DeployBot—it’s their team. The software they sell is just a byproduct of the team that they’ve compiled.

I can’t tell you how thankful I am for working for a company like this!

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Improving My Habits

Every so often, I try to examine my toolset for possible improvements. Not so much in terms of finding new apps (although that happens too), but in terms of improving how I use the apps already in my toolset.

And, as I’ve mentioned in the past, OmniFocus is always one where I see bad habits creep in. There are a few that consistently make my “system” less efficient and increase rather than decrease a sense of anxiety.

Arbitrary Due Dates

This is one that has been a problem for me since I started using GTD type apps. I outlined this problem in the link above:

In my old job, all side projects, life responsibilities, and the odd Campaign Monitor task were added to OmniFocus. I was a heavy user of due dates, but the reality was these dates were fictitious. It was more a case of when I’d like this task to be done or worked on. This could be a problem as some tasks truly were due on a specific day, but they would be mixed in with other tasks in the Forecast view that were more wishful thinking than anything else.

I recognize this is a problem, yet I still have a fallback habit of setting these dates.

And after my recent analysis of my habits, I realized that there is another cause of my problematic usage of due dates: fear. Although these specific tasks are not due at a particular time, I have a sense of when I want to attempt to deal with them. And so I set a due date because I fear that I’ll forget about the task entirely.

This is not an issue of the task itself, but another problem entirely.

Daily (and Weekly) Reviews

The problem above? My lack of regular reviews. My sub-conscious wants to set these dates to trigger my memory at a specific time. Since I’m bad at reviewing my projects regularly, I’ve developed this habit of setting a due date to bring a task back to my attention.

If I were conducting routine reviews, I would see these tasks and flag them at the appropriate time. So the due date is problematic, but it’s not the problem. It’s the symptom.

Solution: Plan, Regularly

Sven Fechner details a better overall routine using different perspectives.

Each day in the morning and sometimes even the night before I sit down and plan out my day. There are things I need to do and things I want to accomplish and more often than not they are more than I have time for.

He has a planning perspective that he uses daily to create a list of tasks appropriate for each day. Cal Newport has a similar process:

I take time blocking seriously, dedicating ten to twenty minutes every evening to building my schedule for the next day. During this planning process I consult my task lists and calendars, as well as my weekly and quarterly planning notes. My goal is to make sure progress is being made on the right things at the right  pace for the relevant deadlines.

I would do well to come up with a similar habit. Daily might be overkill, but weekly is not quite enough for me.

Recurring Numbness

One last issue to mention is the repetition of recurring tasks. There are several tasks that my past self has deemed important enough that they should recur every 1 or 2 weeks. However, my present self often finds that, in the moment, I don’t want to tackle the specific task. Or, it doesn’t feel like a priority. I can check it off and ignore it for now, because it’ll just come back next week!

Solution: Analyze

In some cases, this is not a terrible thing. We’re not slaves to these systems. But if I find myself ignoring this task for the third or fourth week in a row, I ask myself a couple of questions:

  • Is this still important? Perhaps I can delete this task from OmniFocus entirely.
  • Has it become a habit? In some cases, the task in question has become a regular part of my routine and I don’t need to see it in my task list any more.
  • Does it need to be so routine? Perhaps the item is still important enough it needs to be done, but perhaps it’s not needed so regularly as I originally thought when making it a recurring task.

Just recognizing the act of ignoring this task for several weeks in a row is usually enough to cause me to pause and ask these questions. The answers tell me whether it’s fine to continue on as is, or to make a change.

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