Everything 101

When I was in high school I had a boyfriend who was adorable and funny and later became a quasi-famous actor.  One morning, he came to my house unannounced.  I was in the midst of getting ready to go rollerblading (shush, it was the 90s).  He tried to convince me to bag it and head to the beach, and I tried to convince him to join me and try rollerblading for the first time.  He declined, and when I pushed for a reason he simply said “I don’t feel like learning something new today.”  I laughed at the time and relented.  But all these years later, I think of that quote often.

Because I spend a fair amount of time meditating on my internal thought processes, I have pinpointed the emotional arc that I experience when embarking on learning something new.  Whether its teaching myself to use the sewing machine I received for Christmas, play Hive, or navigate WordPress, the story is the same.

First I procrastinate until the amount of effort I’ve wasted avoiding the task is greater than the effort of doing the task.  Then I dip a toe in; skimming an instruction manual, doing a bit of online research, or posing a question to friends with expertise.  This leads to feeling overwhelmed at which point I divert my attention to something I know how to do (checking email, snacking).  Eventually, I tackle the unknown for real and push through, exhausting myself and sucking all the fun out in the process.  Then, I recover, and eventually repeat a reasonable version of the effort until I’ve gained some mastery.

The fact that I’ve finally dissected this arc enough to understand my reticence at acquiring new skills has, in itself, been somewhat helpful.  Recognizing in myself how, when, and why I derail in the face of new challenges has helped me devise a few ways to overcome my bad habits.

1.  Git ready for learnin’

Once I’ve decided to try something new, I set aside time the day before to prepare.  This might mean digging out my sheet music, setting up my music stand and tuning my cello but not actually playing.  Or, it could be unwrapping and registering my Rosetta Stone DVDs, calling customer service when they don’t work, and testing the mic on my laptop but not actually completing a lesson.  The nasty bits of administrivia that lead to the lesson can be derailleurs in and of themselves.  Taking care of those as a separate exercise means they won’t muddy the fun of the activity itself.

2.  Early bird special

Tony Schwartz says in this article that the time to tackle your most difficult challenge is the first 90 minutes of your day.  Although not a morning person, I find I’m most creative and intellectually flexible before I’ve started to engage with the world.  I liken it to how humans are taller when we wake up in the morning than at the end of the day when gravity has compressed us toward the ground.

Whether you’re going to create a new system for organizing your email or try a spin class, do it first thing.  You’ll have less time to talk yourself out of it and more mental agility to absorb the experience.

3.  Buy vs. build

Are you really going to teach yourself Ruby on Rails or might you need to attend a course? Is your fluency in Russian on track or would a conversation partner help it along? Have you been doing your daily pull-ups or would a personal trainer kick you into gear?

In my professional life, I help clients think about what to outsource vs. do themselves everyday.  My consulting practice is based on the idea that it can pay to outsource aspects of a business.  But how often do we make the same calculations with regard to personal growth? Estimate the investment you’re willing to make in learning a desired skill.  Then consider that doing it for free (e.g. on your own) may result in not doing it at all.  Calculate.

4.  Fro-yo

When I complete a milestone that I want to achieve, I reward myself with a run, an Amazon order, a TV show, or frozen yogurt – all things I enjoy and serve as deserved time away from the rigors of self-education.  Note to teacher (that’s you): completing half the module does not entitle you to half a “30 Rock.”

Those are my hot tips for today.  Now I’m going to speak some Spanish and reward myself with a yoga class.  Class dismissed.

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Everything 101

Please don’t rear-end me.

We’re seven weeks into our new lives in Durham, North Cackalacky.  Quick review: amazingly nice people, awesome food and beverage situation, great bands that play before my bedtime, reasonable housing prices, worst drivers I’ve ever encountered.

Its not that they lack skill, its that the roads are wide open and flat and not very attention grabbing.  The net result is next level multitasking.  Drinking coffee while applying mascara while texting? No problemo!  I saw a middle aged guy driving a Porsche down the I-40 with a novel propped on the steering wheel.  A NOVEL.  Which he was READING.  In the PASSING LANE.

A lot has been written in the businesphere about the perils of multitasking and why we might become more productive humans if we re-learned to devote our full attention to one thing at a time.

According to this article, “it takes… an average of 15 minutes to re-orient to a primary task after a distraction such as an email. Efficiency can drop by as much as 40%.”  Peter Bregman, an expert on performance and productivity, quotes a study in this article that shows “people distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQs.”

Its hard to block out the noise made by your iPhone, your laptop, or even a chatty co-worker.  But if we are honest about how many emails we skim and ignore, calls we screen and don’t return, and commitments we make and promptly forget, there is an consequence of multitasking worse than lowered productivity and IQ.  We’re addicted to distraction itself more than to what distracts us.  And that, good people, is what’s scary.

We interrupt ourselves to address stimuli that we are just as likely to half-ass.  Being distracted from writing a report to look at Facebook? That makes sense – one takes thought and concentration and the other is diversion.  But being distracted from a conversation to check email that we will likely lose track of? That’s not logical!  That’s distraction from one potentially interesting thing to a thing that’s a known bore.

There are lots of ways to combat this, and productivity experts with far more expertise that I have weighed in.  So I’ll just talk about what works for me.

1.  I turn off my phone in meetings.  I’m not an ER doctor, I’m an HR consultant.  No one will die because I don’t return a text for 25 minutes.

2.  I track my time in excel.  I have to track billable time anyway, so this comes naturally.  The result is that I see if a block of time is unaccounted for and can ponder what I might have done with it.  Or, more positively, at the end of a week I have data to determine whether I spent my time in the right places.

3.  This goes along with number 2 – determine how much of your time you want to spend on certain activities.  If you’re tracking your time (your calendar works for this too, btw) add up the hours at the end of the week and see if you met your goals.  For me, that’s three hours of writing, four business development meetings, etc.

4.  Don’t expect to stop multitasking and become a highly functioning individual in a week.  Its a muscle that takes strengthening like any other.

I have a lot more thoughts on this topic, and will likely come back to it.  But now I’m thirteen minutes into the hour I’ve reserved for client work, so I will turn my email and phone back on, and start replying to messages.

Please don’t rear-end me.