Category Archives: work

Lifeskill: Learning To Use Lulls

I feel like I have been hurtling through 2018. Several personal and business trips kept me on the road more than usual, and then I have been playing catch up when I am back in the office. But, there is some light on the horizon. Just a couple more events that are going to be lots of fun and then a week of vacation to cap off the month.

But even in the midst of all the busy-ness including heading into the overlap between the spring and summer semesters of my online course, I woke up to a lull today. I certainly had a to do list but nothing on it was pressing. I answered a few emails, did two phone meetings in the morning, and then decided everything else could wait until tomorrow or over the weekend. I needed some breathing space and took advantage of a nice day to dig in the garden, moving a few hostas and sweet william and doing some general cleanup.

I call this a lifeskill–the ability to know when to work and when, even though it is a Thursday afternoon, you can put aside work for a bit of a break. I think it’s one that is hard to learn in a classroom or regular job. Working from home as part of the gig economy means tuning into the natural ebb and flow of work rather than following an established number of hours each day, otherwise known as seat time.

You can create a daily routine that matches your preferences for when and where to work. From there, you may find a weekly routine (established events or activities) or identify a yearly pattern (ie, busy in the fall teaching a course with less work in the summer). Why is this important? Because if you don’t identify these moments of “lull,” you will just keep working. At some point, nothing on the to do list is on fire or a live frog or any other kind of emergency so you can put it aside for a few hours or a day. A mental health day or mini-vacation. Even the most passionate person needs time to be away from the work, maybe pursuing some other passion or finding space for relaxation.

Today I enjoyed a lull, and I’ll be better for it tomorrow.

Finding the Flow

Inspired by Donna Donner’s post 12 Month Human at Four O’Clock Faculty which I found on Twitter via Tamara Letter:

I write a fair amount about living a life outside the traditional workforce. One lesson I continue to learn about living this life is that it flows and living in rather than fighting the flow is the way to move smoothly and calmly even through the rapids.

I was the road warrior in June: just take a look at my reading log. I hit a high of 13 books because I discovered The 39 Clues series on Audible. Each book takes about 4-1/2 hours of listening, which just happened to be the average length of each of my car trips. Every day was planned to the minute as each task had to be completed on time if events and trips were going to be successful. There was no time for procrastination. Within that strict regimen there was “work” and “life” as even my garden was part of the to do list. Weeding had to be done before I was gone for ten days. That meant a daylong marathon with shovel and cart. My husband shepherded me inside at dusk, handing me two ibuprofen as I walked up the steps.

And now…it’s July, and for the first time in many years, I am home. No traveling, no training, even very little “work.” My mother was worried that I was going to be bored and suggested I could use the free time to house clean. I’m thinking more Scratch programming and Raspberry Pi exploration along with early morning hours in the garden and long afternoons floating in the pool with a book.

Donna Donna got to the heart of my life when she wrote that her teaching life is “entwined with all the other cycles of my life.” She goes on:

As my summer rolls on I will honor my love of learning, my love for my family, my love for my profession and my curiosity of the world. My life cycle flows with this balance all year long. You see, I am a 12-month mother. I am a 12-month wife. I am a 12-month friend.  I am a 12-month teacher. I am a 12-month human. I never take a vacation from any of those parts of me. Some parts just come out a little stronger at times but all contribute to balancing me as a whole.

I think the struggle is figuring out which part is stronger at any time as I tend to want to always focus on the work I do for others first. I resonated with Donna sitting on the porch with her hummingbirds–mine are at their height right now, buzzing me as I head out to fill the feeders–reviewing her notes from a summer workshop. For me, it would be planning ahead for my fall courses and events.

Then, I sat down at the laptop this morning prepared to put in a full morning of work and realized I didn’t have to…I could browse Twitter and that led to Tamara’s tweet and Donna’s post and some writing. It’s a different kind of work this personal reflection and community connection, and who knows where it might lead. The emails will wait; the preparation for an October workshop will wait; it’s time for the focus to be on my own learning and growing and flowing.



Learning, Education and Snow Days

There has, as you can imagine, been lots of talk about snow days here in the Commonwealth. Jon Becker mused about how odd it seemed to have a university close despite widespread connectivity. He asked a powerful question: “Are we not supposed to work?” The comments provided examples of both K-12 and higher education organizations that managed to continue work and learning despite not being able to physically meet. My own comment was bit tongue in cheek: I teach online for two universities that were both officially closed. Our learning went on as usual. If my students, most of whom were themselves out on snow days, chose not to work on the days the schools were closed, that is up to them.  I suspect, however, most of them used the time to get caught up.

National Public Radio revisited a report from 2015 on students in Delphi, Indiana, who were expected to log in from home on snow days. Teachers had prepared ahead, creating digital versions of lessons and engaging with students. The article described some of the issues around e-learning that will resonate with anyone who has taught online: some content is harder to teach online, not all students have access, and tech support can be difficult. I was most interested in the “diminishing returns” described by the superintendent:

But he admits there is a point of diminishing returns, which he noticed during a recent string of snow days.

“You know, the first day we had about 100 percent of the kids involved in e-learning,” Walker says. “Well, then, after the fourth day, we were down to about 55 percent of the children.”

On the fifth snow day, Walker gave kids and teachers a free pass: No e-learning today.

I wonder why there was a fall off in participation? The novelty wore off? The sense of community was reduced? Or, did students have a sense that the work didn’t count? The edict that there would be “no e-learning today” reminded me of Jon’s tweet: an educator is banning learning? What if they wanted to continue?

K-12 educators  seem torn about snow days and formal learning. In a tweet chat last evening, the topic, not surprisingly, was snow day learning. Some teachers felt like these days should be breaks for the kids: have fun in the snow, hang out with family, and just take a break from the rigors of school. Others indicated they had communicated with their students and parents, sharing ideas for how to keep the learning going despite being out of school, whether it was encouraging elementary kids to read or high school kids to apply their physics learning to snow.

As with the students and teachers in Indiana, there were some constraints. Not all students had Internet access and even for those who did, accessing the school ecosystem could be difficult on a non-school device. Some questioned the use of non-school communication systems like Twitter as being against the AUP.  And, ultimately, making kids and teachers work on a day off still didn’t make the day “count” towards state attendance requirements so there was a sense that it was all just optional.

That last problem underscores the disconnect between bureaucracy and technology as the latter moves much more quickly than the former. Ultimately, if snow day learning is going to catch on in K-12 at least, bureaucracy is going to need to catch up.

Getting the Most from the Tools

I had something of a revelation over the course of the past few days: I am NOT taking full advantage of the tools I am using to make my life easier. Somehow, I have gotten stuck at a somewhat superficial level of use: I use the tools but they don’t work for me.

My main teacher was Tim Owens. I approached him with a question about the CSS for this blog. By the end of solving that problem I had learned that I no longer had to ctrl-click to get the menu, that I could use Chrome’s Developer view to not only view but link to the problematic code, and that it was worth using the CSS file to customize my blog rather than editing the existing file. Oh, he also turned me on to 1Password.  I walked wondering what else I was missing.

Then, I checked out the posts from today’s Reddit AMA with three MIT computer scientists. There’s a lot there–for instance, they recommend Scratch as a great starting programming language–but so far, I’ve only gotten through the answers to the question about the tools they use to organize their lives. I have a little bit of a fascination with how people work.

Evernote was by far the most popular tool and I feel like I know a fair amount about using it. But I realized that knowing and doing are two different things. I am not afraid to say that I still use a pencil/paper to do list but I think it’s time to leverage Evernote to become more effective in the planning area.

Then, I saw the post on the AMA about getting a text message with reminders from Google. I don’t use Google tasks but I think this feature might convince me to start. I have been learning more about the joys of texting. I have tried to be less obsessive about checking my email, particularly on the weekend, so getting a text message to remind me to water the plants that I’ve brought in for the winter would be very helpful.

As for email, I am definitely a bit obsessive, and I sense the need to get it under control in terms of the role it plays in my daily life.  And while I don’t think it causes me stress, it does interrupt my flow and, maybe more importantly, it enables others to use email as an “emergency” communication tool. Because folks know I am almost always in email, they send emails when they really should call or text. My worry that I’m going to miss one of those emergency emails makes me even more obsessive.

I tweeted today that my first 2015 resolution was to check email three times a day. But I may start right now and then have a head start on the new year.

My other resolution is to schedule time each week to explore the tools I’m using and learn more about how to use them to support my productivity.

Doing Good

Tim Stahmer’s post about Apple choosing to do good over making profits reminded me of my recent reading of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. I loved the book for lots of reasons and have been stumbling over real world connections right and left since I finished it. Tim’s post makes one of those connections.

Pink discusses the seemingly anti-capitalistic idea that businesses can make money AND do good at the same time. He highlights Tom’s Shoes whose business model includes donating a pair of shoes for every pair they sell.

Another connection related to Pink’s description of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow was one of my favorite reads in graduate school. Turns out it is one of Pink’s favorite books about work:

Flow is the mental state when the challenge before us is so exquisitely matched to our abilities that we lose our sense of time and forget ourselves in a function. Csikszentmihalyi’s contemporary classic reveals that we’re more likely to find flow at work than in leisure.

As part of his work, Csikszenmihalyi (Chicksa-ma-hi).researched happiness using a somewhat unique method that took advantage of the technology at the time. According to Pink:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did more than discover the concept of “flow.” He also introduced an ingenious new technique to measure it. Csikszentmihalyi and his University of Chicago team equipped participants in their research studies with electronic pagers. Then they paged people at random intervals (approximately eight times a day) for a week, asking them to describe their mental state at that moment. Compared with previous methods, these real-time reports proved far more honest and revealing.

I think Flow is a relatively well-known concept so I was a little surprised when a recent report on National Public Radio described “new” ways to research happiness using an app that pings you several times a day and asks you to complete a survey failed to mention the connection with this earlier work. The researcher’s findings are similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s:

KILLINGSWORTH: So when I look across all the different activities that people engage in, they are universally happier when they’re fully engaged in that activity and not mind wandering, no matter what they’re doing.

The last, and perhaps most interesting, connection I made with Pink related to a comment he makes about contemporary businesses. They are, according to Pink, living in the past, and not even the recent past:

Big Idea: Management is an outdated technology. Hamel likens management to the internal combustion engine—a technology that has largely stopped evolving. Put a 1960s-era CEO in a time machine and transport him to 2010, Hamel says, and that CEO “would find a great many of today’s management rituals little changed from those that governed corporate life a generation or two ago.” Small wonder, Hamel explains. “Most of the essential tools and techniques of modern management were invented by individuals born in the 19th century, not long after the end of the American Civil War.” The solution? A radical overhaul of this aging technology.

This accusation is usually flung at schools: they would be familiar to people from earlier generations. And, ironically, that accusation often comes from businesses who are, according to Pink, themselves outdated and who are not always successful at adopting new technologies. Pink describes the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) adopted by companies including Best Buy. The focus is on the work rather than the seat time (hmm….again sounds familiar). But, as Best Buy began to struggle, the new CEO disbanded the practice, returning to a more standard top down management, 40 hour work week model. This, along with Yahoo’s decision to end telecommuting, is seen as a step back for flexible work arrangements despite evidence that it can boost worker satisfaction and productivity.