Quieting the Tumult Between Your Ears

Over the past year I’ve had a meditation practice. It’s one of those things that makes a noticeable difference when I practice consistently but is easy to forget about when I don’t. There have been months when I practiced daily, and stretches when I didn’t practice at all. Recently I’m trying to get back into the groove of consistent practice and it’s reminded me of an important truth: there is a lot of noise going on in my mind.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a confession of insanity or hearing voices. We all have noise going on in our head. The degree to which we recognize it for what it is can be an indicator of the strength of our mental muscles. Why? Just like our physical muscles become stronger through exercise, through practice and repetition we can learn to turn down the noise and control it.

A corollary to the truth that we all have noise in our heads is that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts may flit through your mind, but just because they appear in there doesn’t mean you put them there. Just because thoughts are in my head doesn’t mean that those thoughts are who I am. This is part of the human condition and learning to control the noise, the torrent of thoughts, is one of the important skills that we all need to learn.

During my practice today I felt like I was playing a word association game:

focus on the breath – that book Breath that I read last week was really good – I need to read more books – Hunt for Red October is one of my favorites – Sean Connery was in Red October, I’m sad he passed away – we’re all going to get Covid and die – why am I sitting here again? – where did that come from? so morbid – focus on the breath

Should I feel like a failure? Of course not. It certainly wasn’t a meditation session that I’ll win any medals for, but then again I’ll never win a medal for meditating. I think it’s more like one thread in a grand tapestry. If every thread is the same it’s going to make a boring tapestry. It’s the variety and variation that makes the whole interesting.

When you feel like the tumult and noise is too much, simply recognize that it likely is. Focus on your breath, appreciate the small victory of recognition, and know that your mental muscles have grown just a bit stronger.

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Learning a New Skill is Terrifying and Satisfying at the Same Time

The last few Wednesdays have been big days for me. I started hosted YouTube live broadcasts for SpiderOak. While I’ve done similar things before, making training videos, running a webinar, or recording audiobooks, I had never hosted a livestream. It is an exciting project to get started on, but terrifying at the same time. If you’re interested in taking a look at how the first one turned out, here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpHoJ2V68xI

So how did it go? I’m pretty pleased. The number of attendees was in line with what I was hoping for, the presentation worked well, and I was able to start on time, end on time, and not have any technical glitches in the middle. Hooray!

The other side of the story is that with only 15 minutes left until start time, I wasn’t sure it would happen.

I spent a lot of time preparing the technology stack on my computer and the hardware in my office. I used the excellent mmhmm as the camera and presentation software. I have a green screen which attaches to the back of my chair so I can have a nice virtual background. I got out my Blue Yeti microphone and had it hooked up and ready to go so the audio would be decent. My slides and software to demonstrate was all loaded into mmhmm and I had practiced the presentation several times. With 30 minutes to go I was feeling great.

Then I went to YouTube and tried to start the stream in preparation for going live. No dice! When I scheduled the livestream, I chose the option to create it with an encoder instead of my webcam. Turns out once you’ve scheduled it, there’s no way to change that setting. YouTube’s documentation was pretty good, however, so I figured all I needed to do was install a software encoder, enter the correct settings, and I would be good to go. 20 minutes to go!

I installed three different software encoders, but couldn’t get them running. I had missing drivers for some, some preferred a different version of Mac than what I run, and others were just confusing. With 10 minutes until live, I found Stage Ten, got mmhmm set up as my streaming source, connected it to the YouTube account, and confirmed the stream was ready. Looking up at the clock, I had two minutes to spare. 😅

At 12:30 pm the livestream started on time. I’d been so busy trying to get everything set up that I didn’t have time to be nervous! That was the hidden gift in the whole adventure.

Had I known this was how the prep would go I don’t think I would have volunteered for the project. What a great learning experience it turned out to be! Here’s my big takeaway: if you take a leap of faith and work hard, great things can happen. You’re not guaranteed a happy ending, but the journey itself will make the experience worth it.

The Value of Rituals

One of the joys of the pandemic has been the return of baseball. (Congrats to the Dodgers on their World Series win. We’ll get ’em next year KC!) I’ve started to think a lot about my local team and some of the fun quirks of the game. All sports have superstitions and illogical practices, but baseball is bathed in them. Rally caps anyone?

One of my favorite young pitchers would always jump over the chalk lines on his way back to the dugout when an inning ended. It wasn’t that he simply didn’t step on the chalk line, he jumped over it so there was no chance that he would step on it accidentally.

Another favorite player adjusts his batting gloves between every pitch. Not every at bat or after every swing, but after every pitch. He pulls back the velcro, tightens it, then grips his bat and gets back into his stance. Thank goodness the MLB put rules in place about batters not leaving the batter’s box during their at bat. If not each of his at bats would take 10 minutes.

Perhaps my favorite quirk of baseball is the pre-game routine. There are pitchers who play long toss across the width of the outfield. There are position players who stretch in a certain order for a certain amount of time before they take batting practice. And of course there are managers and coaches who write their lineup cards in elaborate handwriting.

These rituals might seem strange, but they plan an important function. Pre-game rituals help players mentally prepare for the game. That might seem obvious, the need to get ready before you play, but playing sports at a high level requires players to have incredible consistency and focus. No matter what happened at home, during the drive to the game, or what personal issues a player is going through, in order to be successful during the game they need a way to be mentally and physically ready. That’s why successful players can be obsessive about their pre-game rituals. It’s one of the steps that takes them out of their normal life and places them in the mindset of competing and performing.

You and I may not be professional athletes, but we all have important work to do each day. Some of that work is likely hard, or boring, or not the kind of thing we want to do today. To be successful, to perform at a high level, we need to find our own rituals that prepare us mentally and physically for our work. Rituals and habits that help us set aside the other things going on in our life and that let us make our art, wherever type of art our work calls for.

Now that many knowledge workers work from home, this is even more important than before. You can only show up in your ratty pajamas to a full day of work so many times before our work starts to feel like a bad dream.

Take time to think about your rituals. Codify them, even if only in a simple way. For me, my morning starts with a hot cup of Yerba mate, reading RSS feeds, and arranging my desk. Then I review my calendar, make notes of to do items that I’ll need for each meeting, then I block out time for deep work and note what that work will be. Once that’s done, then I’ll open my work email and chat apps and start to go through the inboxes. Those two things are some of my least favorite tasks, but they are important for my work. By starting with things I enjoy (a hot drink and reading interesting articles), moving on to things that get me excited for the day (planning for meetings and setting aside time for projects I like), I’m ready to start tackling the things I don’t really like but need to do well on.

Find your rituals. Make then an important part of your day. Consistently do them, because they will lend consistency to your work and to your art.

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We All Need Beard Oil Sometimes

For most people reading that title doesn’t make much sense. You only need beard oil if you have a beard, right? Yes, if we’re talking about literal beard oil. Luckily we’re talking about figurative beard oil, so this can still apply to everyone.

I started growing a beard last November, and I’ve kept it going in various states ever since. I’m a guy who has never had long hair so I didn’t have much experience with the difference hair products can make in your life. (I know, I know: cue the groaning from most of the guys reading this.) Beard oil is one of those miracle products that makes such a big difference it really does feel like magic.

One of the reasons many guys never grow a beard is because it itches and feels scratchy after a while. Unsurprisingly, this is skin irritation, but not for the reason you might think. The beard scruff isn’t causing the itching, it’s actually dry skin. Hair follicles on your face secrete oil which moisturizes your skin. If you have a beard, however, that oil moisturizes the beard and your skin is left without that natural oil. This causes beard itch, and can also lead to things like “beard-ruff”, dandruff from your beard. Not very comfortable or good looking. (I just love seeing snowstorms fall from my beard, don’t you?)

I was a few weeks into growing my beard and having a tough time with the itch. One of my coworkers, who has a magnificent beard, mentioned that beard oil is his secret weapon. I did some research and went out to get a bottle. Immediately after putting it on the itch quieted down. As long as I use beard oil every day or so, I never get beard itch.

Every area of our life and our work has the potential for small optimizations that make a big difference. Spend time to discover what they are, make a plan to implement them, and then evaluate the results. Not every optimization is worth the cost, and not every routine needs to change. There are some, however, that bring outsized value and can fundamentally change how we work. Look out for those and seize them when you find them.

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Foundational Work is a Long Term Investment

My work at SpiderOak revolves around customers. My team handles customer support, account management, onboarding, and some technical aspects of our websites. Working with customers means a constant influx of work. There will always be questions, some big and some small, and they will always come at times when you don’t expect them.

This makes doing foundational work hard to schedule. If a server goes down or there’s a technical issue that affects customers, it means that we’ll be working full time to communicate and assist while the problem is solved. Those are busy times, but important times too.

Once in a while, everything seems to go right. No hard drives fail, the system runs as it should, problems that crop up are small and get solved quickly. When we’re lucky enough to have times like this we turn our focus to foundational work. This is the work of documentation, evaluation, professional development, and planning. In a perfect world we’d be able to consistently schedule all of these things, but at least we know that slow times mean we’ll have time for it.

Here’s an example of why this kind of work is so important. One member of our team decided to take on a project to create an interactive troubleshooting form. Customers with problems answered a series of questions and were given suggestions of how to fix their problem based on the answers. Some people that use the form still end up contacting our team, but more than 50% end up finding an answer and don’t contact us. In the three years we’ve used this interactive form, more than 3,000 customers found self help answers through it. This saved our team hundreds of hours and saved those customers a lot of time too. It’s a pretty good return on a few weeks of part time work.

When your work hits a calm patch, enjoy the break but also consider what foundational work you can do. Work on a project you’ve been putting off. Take a professional development course. Read a book. Do some of the work that’s been put off for “someday” so that you’ll be able to start to reap the rewards now.

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Now Page Updates

I’ve been a big fan of Derek Sivers for a long time. Years ago he added a “Now” page to his website as a way to update people on what he’s working on and how things are going. It really caught on and now there’s quite a movement of people adding /now to their website. I haven’t had a Now page for years, but added one today. You can see it here.

There is Competition, But Not as Much as You Think

I had an interesting conversation with my younger brother the other day. He is a college student who has the beginnings of a nice career playing jazz music. Unfortunately the pandemic has a huge negative influence on musicians who play live music, including my brother. He’s been looking for another job to help fill the gap until his live gigs restart.

He had an interview scheduled for the afternoon, then in the morning an opportunity related to his music came up. He called to ask my opinion of what he should do. Keep the interview appointment and miss out on the music? Go do the music and not get the job? I saw a third option: call the interviewer, explain that something had come up and ask if it would be possible to reschedule. He did that and everything worked out wonderfully. He got to take advantage of the musical opportunity and still had an interview a few days later.

It sometimes feels like the world is filled with competition, and on some level that is true. There are a lot of people in the world and many of them want the same things you do. When it comes down to details, however, it’s amazing how few people there are that try hard and go the extra mile, especially when looking for a job. They spellcheck their resume, are polite and punctual, and try to show their potential value to the company. In my experience with hiring, there may be hundreds of people who apply but only a handful do the things to merit serious consideration. Those few people are your competition. By simply being a functioning adult you can eliminate the majority of your competition. By showing that you are responsible and considerate, the type of person that others would like to work with, you’re almost to the final round.

There will always be competition for anything worthwhile, but don’t let the idea of competition stop you from competing. Be the kind of person you would want to hire yourself and you’ll likely find that your competitive field gets much smaller very quickly.

Hat tip to Brett McKay at Art of Manliness for the inspiration.

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We Don’t Use Email Here

In a meeting today one of my coworkers said “We don’t use email.” Wouldn’t it be great if something like that was true? Email can be pretty terrible at times, especially if it balloons to take up time that you would rather spend on other things.

The problem is that even at a tech company, we still use email. Not everyone uses it, but if you work directly with people outside the company it’s almost impossible not to use it. Many internal tasks (like calendaring and internal app notifications) still rely on email.

While I have had my share of days where I fantasized about the cruel, painful death I’d like to inflict on it, email is still useful for a lot of things. Since I’m working from home, email is one of the breakwaters I use to separate my work life from my personal life. I don’t have an office phone system and I would much rather give out my work email than my personal cell phone number. Score one for email.

Sometimes real-time chat programs (like Slack or Semaphor) aren’t the right tool for the job. If I need immediate input from someone it works great. If a conversation is going on that I want to participate in it’s also great. If I have longer form thoughts that I want to share then it’s not a great fit. (Remember office memos? They do serve a purpose sometimes.) Yes, I could pin a couple of paragraphs of text to the top of a channel, but sending them as an email means no one will receive a notification, it won’t get buried by subsequent conversations in chat and people know that because I sent it by email I don’t expect an immediate answer. It’s like extending an invitation for a more thought-out answer.

My point here isn’t to blame or shame people because they like different tools than I do. It’s important to choose the most appropriate tool for the job. Sometimes that even means crusty old email.

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A Picnic in the Park

Since COVID-19 turned our world upside down, many of the things that were very normal have now become things we have to take great care in doing. Two of my kids have birthdays in July. In years past their birthday parties were at our community pool with a large group of friends and a stack of pizzas to share. This year those kinds of parties aren’t what we want to do. Planning a birthday party during a pandemic is a challenge!

We ended up having the party at a local park. Each party had only three or four friends and involved masks and hand sanitizer. I know it shouldn’t have been much fun, but it was great to see how quickly the kids adapted. We grilled burgers and hot dogs, played horseshoes, and had water fights. (It helped that it’s very hot and the wind was strong. Being outside with good air circulation helped calm a lot of my fears about virus transmission.)

Finding some normalcy is important. Having fun with people you love is important. Protecting each other is important. Spending some time in the park this week has helped me a lot.

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Experience Improves Systems

Setting up systems is one of the quickest ways to improve efficiency. Experience within a system shows us how to improve the system itself.

A few weeks ago I went to a community organization to pick up some supplies. Their offering was well received and a lot of people showed up around the same time as me. It was terrible. The line was long, the service was slow, and everyone was grumpy. I felt bad for the volunteers. They were doing their best to help everyone, but they really didn’t know how to handle the situation and it made the experience terrible for everyone involved.

I debated whether or not I would go back the next week, but decided to give it another try. The second week was much better. They learned from the mistakes of the first week and had a much more robust and efficient system set up. The wait time was reduced, time in line was used for tasks that would speed up time at the front of the line, and the volunteers were better trained.

By the fourth week it was a well oiled machine. One of the fun things to watch was how the experienced volunteers trained the new ones. Unlike the first week when everyone was new and there was frantic discussion and on-the-fly changes, now the experienced volunteers trained the new ones on how the system works and why. The questions new volunteers asked were answered from a place of experience.

In our work, creating systems improves processes and efficiency. But don’t overlook the value of tweaking the system based on experiences within it. Those small changes can be the difference between a good customer experience and a great one.

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