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Paul Tevis

Entries in things i've read (31)


Pull, Don't Push

One of the things I struggle with is balancing the desire to get things done over the long haul with the need to respond to things in the moment. To my surprise, I’ve been applying tools for managing this balance at work but failing to do so at home. Over the holidays, I spent some time trying to work out how to fix this oversight.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: At the beginning of every month, I sit down and make plan of what I want to accomplish during the next several week, based on the data I have about what I’ve been able to do in the past and what I see coming down the pike. Where I get into trouble is that I get attached to the plan. When something comes up in the middle of the month, I try to stick to it — even if what comes up is something I want to do. A conversation with Gwen in early December woke me up to the fact that I’m not as flexible or spontaneous as I think I am or as I want to be. I’m missing out on opportunities because I’m too attached to my planned outcomes.

The irony is that as an improviser, I’m supposed to give up my attachment to outcome, to trust in the process and in my partners, to respond in the moment to what happens. At work I’ve been doing more and more of that. To realize that I’m not doing it in my personal life is… an opportunity for growth.

So with that in mind, I took a long, hard look at my personal planning process and discovered a few things. I’m essentially using a Scrum process, with month-long iterations. One option to increase my flexibility would be to reduce my iteration length. I could do my planning on a weekly basis rather than a monthly one. There’s some appeal there, but I found that I was more interested in another option: I could move to a Kanban-based approach.

So with that in mind, I sat down to read Personal Kanban, which had been recommended to me around Thanksgiving. The book is pretty simple; if you read this slide show, you’ll know 90% of what the book says. That’s slightly unfair, because the book also has a lot of stories about how the authors and people they know have used it, but the essence of it is this:

  1. Visualize your work
  2. Limit your work-in-progress

I completely agree with these two principles, though I’m conflicted in how I felt about the book. I wanted a little more “how” to go with all of the “why.” I get that you have to adapt this framework to your own situation, but I was hoping for more guidance about how people have adapted it so I could see potential fits for my situation. (Appendix A does this a little, but it’s much later in the book than I hoped it would be.) I also felt like the book took a long time to get to the point. When I was outlining it for my notes, I jumped over entire chapters that I was able to summarize with a single sentences. It did not have what I would term economy of expression.

These misgivings aside, I found the core ideas of Personal Kanban compelling, and I’m experimenting with it. The first change I’ve making is one I was toying with already: I’m only working on one “project” at a time. I don’t have a timetable for finishing that project; I work it on it as I have the bandwidth to do so, and when I’m done with it, I pull the next one. What I’m noticing so far is that while my overall productivity may be down slightly, my sense of well-being is up. I’m feeling better about what I’m doing. Most importantly, I’m responding to opportunities as they come up — like the chance to watch hockey with Gwen.


Born To Be Read

One of my Christmas gifts this year was Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, which I was familiar with as the book that brought the nascent underground “barefoot running” movement to the mainstream. After devouring it within the first twenty-four hours I owned it, I’m pleased to report it’s more than that.

In some ways, it’s similar to Daniel Pink’s Drive, in that it takes the conventional wisdom about a particular topic, points out how science has poked holes in that wisdom in the last several decades, and proposes an alternative hypothesis. In Drive’s case, the conventional wisdom is that sticks-and-carrots are the best way to motivate people; in Born To Run’s, it’s that running is bad for your legs (and feet, and knees, and other joints). We evolved to walk, says this bit of wisdom, so running long distances leads inevitably to injury. As the book goes on, we discover more and more that points to this conclusion (and its basis) being incorrect.

Where we start, though, is with a trip McDougall takes to Mexico, where he encounters the Tarahumara and a man called Caballo Blanco. The story of how this eccentric ended up in Mexico, his dream for holding the ultimate long-distance running race, and McDougall’s quest to make it happen, and his struggle to compete in it is the narrative around which all of the sports science is woven. And while that story starts off a bit overwritten (the first chapter makes the Tarahumara sound like a remnant of lost Atlantis), it gets good fast. It’s a tale of improbable feats and unlikely characters that sucked me in, which is why I finished it so quickly. For me, fun story + science = great read, even if I’m not that into the topic. When I am — like I am with running right now — it’s a recipe for a book I can’t put down until it’s done.


Doctors Agree

I shared a quote from Dr. Carol Dweck the other day about valuing things enough to work towards them. Today, as I was taking notes on Daniel Pink’s Drive, I was reminded how much I love the context that I discovered it in:

As Carol Dweck says, “Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something, that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it. It would be an impoverished existence if you were not willing to value things and commit yourself to working toward them.”

Another doctor, one who lacks a Ph.D. but has a plaque in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, put it similarly. “Being a professional,” Julius Erving once said, “is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.”


9 Things, Part 0

In February, Heidi Grant Halvorson wrote a blog post for the Harvard Business Review entitled 9 Things Successful People Do Differently that ended up being their most-read article ever. That led to an expanded version of it as an e-book, which is, from what I can tell, a boiled-down version of her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. That e-book — which you can hear more about on this episode of the HBR Ideacast — is without a doubt the most important writing on productivity and effectiveness I’ve read this year. I say that because it is (a) tremendously practical, and (b) extremely short.

Dr. Grant Halvorson is a motivational psychologist whose research digs into the question “Why do some people succeed at reaching their goals while others fail?” The answer, as it turns out, has little to do with talent. Instead, it’s largely a matter of little differences in the way people make their goals and how they plan to achieve them. The e-book lays out nine specific you can do to take advantage of what this research tells us. It’s simple and profound stuff, and as I read it, I found a lot of resonance with my own experience. I’ve discovered most of them in one form another on my own and seen firsthand that they work; the book gave me the framework to understand why. I knew they worked for me, and the book gives me good reason to believe they’ll work for other people, too. So, for the next nine days, I’m going to take a look at each of the ideas in turn and show how they helped me succeed at my goals. Sound good?


Not Hardboiled

A few months back I read an interview with Christa Faust about writing noir, and this this bit jumped out at me:

“No happy endings. Everyone goes down and winds up either dead or wishing they were dead. If your cool, witty, handsome, fedora-clad, jazz-enthusiast Detective Mary Sue walks away unchanged and unscathed at the end of the book, then it ain’t Noir. That’s Hardboiled. Bad, cliched, silly Hardboiled, but Hardboiled nonetheless. Repeat after me: Chandler = Hardboiled. Cain = Noir. Don’t make me explain this again.”

I was reading a lot of Chandler at the time, so this intrigued me. It took me a while, but I finally got around to reading some Cain. It was about time.

Looking at James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice through the long lens of history, I can see it is very much of product of its time while still being amazed that it was actually published in its time. I can only imagine that when it came out in 1934 it was both shocking and relatable. It tells the story of two people — desperate people — trapped in prisons of their own devising, struggling to find their way out. These characters must have been very familiar to Depression-era readers, particularly because of how understandable the book makes both Frank and Cora. Still, it doesn’t refrain from judging the terrible decisions both make, and it clearly repeats the Biblical pronouncement that the wages of sin are death.

So, yeah. Noir. No happy endings. Thanks, Christa. You won’t have to explain this again.