Leadership, Awareness, and Fear

Leadership is a state of heightened awareness and fear.

~ Aaron Douglas, sometime this week

I’ve been a team lead for a couple years now at Automattic – a little over a year of that with the larger team (Go Slytherin!!). I’ve made several discoveries of what being a lead (team, project, technical) means. I’ve realized one thing I have to do is to put myself into a higher state of awareness and embrace fears.

Awareness

Leads have to see the business landscape with different eyes. My main goal as a team and project lead is to unblock the pathways for my teammates to succeed. I’m required to involve myself in conversations that are out-of-band from what the team is connected to. These conversations get summarized in my head and become part of discussions with project leads and individual 1:1 meetings. I have to pick out the important things that relate to the team and bring that into conversations to establish insight amongst everyone.

This makes me sound like a guru. I’m not. The process isn’t glamorous nor difficult. It’s a super shallow task at times but it allows my team to focus on the work. Understanding more about our users, the rest of the company, and other big projects will only add depth to the things they are working on. Letting them go deep and work well on the things they’re doing is key to succeeding.

Fear

Fear can be healthy. Fear keeps us from doing bad things. Fear can also paralyze us so it’s important to understand how to interpret our fears. Team leads/managers have to learn to sense their own fears and translate those into actionable items or at least a watchlist. Typical fears for me include (and oddly most of them come in the form of questions):

  • Did I forget to do something I said I would do?
  • Are we on track with the project I’m leading?
  • I hope our users are happy with our work.
  • Is everyone happy with me and the work they do?
  • What am I missing?
  • Are our priorities right?
  • Where are these voices coming from? (kidding, maybe)

I’m not saying leads are the only one with fears. We all have things like this we keep in our minds. Every one of these fears (except maybe the last one) can have some actionable item to keep the fear in check. Fear is a motivator. Use your fear to keep your team humming along.

What I’m not suggesting is using fear to intimidate your team into motivating them to work faster, harder, longer hours. You need to show your team empathy and compassion to turn their fears into motivation to do a great job. Make sure they know you have their backs and that a level of trust exists. When you get status updates make sure to restate that progress back at some point in some fashion so they know they heard you. You wouldn’t be a lead without them and they wouldn’t have a direction and focus without you. They have their own fears – don’t make one of them you.

Experience Life as a Beginner

I’m nearly four years into my challenge of hacking my brain to be successful at working remote with Attention Deficit Disorder. I’ve struggled with trying to understand my behaviors and challenge myself to change incrementely over time. There’s one repeated concept that always comes up in my practice – my past experiences both help and hinder my progress. The key is being able to experience life as a beginner.

Beginners have a great platform to learn knew things. First off they realize they have a set of things they need and want to learn. There is motivation to better yourself and usually a fairly well defined place to gain the knowledge from. Beginners have (or will quickly) admit they don’t have all the answers. Those of us with experience trying to learn new things may think we understand things well enough. We’re not open to seeing things as a whole.

So my challenge to myself is to start seeing things as a beginner. Challenging assumptions I have will make me more open to learn new things and become more effective at working and living. 

Here’s to starting off with a less full cup! ūüôā

It’s Funny What Kids Will Remember

Back in the mid 1980s there was a kids’ TV Game Show called “Double Dare” on the Nickelodeon channel. We didn’t have cable TV but at some point it started to air on regular television. Our local TV station even aired an episode early in the morning before school¬†at 6:30am.

doubledare-logo

The show format was fairly simple. One part were standard panel-type questions with answers gaining you points.¬†Sometimes your team would have to perform “physical challenges” which usually involved something messy – like digging through a small pool of pizza sauce looking for a flag. The team with the most points at the end got to go through an obstacle course for sixty seconds. Collecting flags throughout the course got you more money and prizes to take home.

Everyone who watched the show did it for that sixty glorious seconds of slime, goo, and gunk.

There’s one specific morning I remember watching Double Dare. My dad would usually leave work right around when the episode would finish up. He was always hurried, barely time to say goodbye before his most times¬†lengthy commute to a job site for his systems technician job with Honeywell. I knew the challenge was only a minute long and I really loved the show. I asked my dad¬†that¬†morning to sit and watch the¬†obstacle course since it was so much fun and it would be a good start for him. He initially said no and I¬†remember being incredibly disappointed.

Being the smart kid I was I reinforced my plea with the fact it was only sixty seconds¬†and it would be worth it. Something clicked in his head and he agreed and sat down to watch. I was so excited to share this awesome experience with him.¬†I don’t remember his reaction to the show but I do clearly remember him taking the time to sit down and watch it. It meant a lot to me even if, at the time, it wasn’t something he really wanted to do.

Actions, especially with kids, have a lasting impression and who knows what the triggers are for those actions to stick in their heads. Moments like this have happened for me well beyond childhood.¬†So this is just a reminder to myself to look for those small moments that could have a big impact on someone’s life.

And now here’s one of the show’s ending obstacle courses. It takes less than sixty seconds to watch. ūüôā

Stop Looking at the Past in One Year Chunks

looking-back

We all do it – look back at the previous year somewhere around January 1st. We total up what we’ve accomplished in that one year and determine if it was a success or it sucked. Variables like births, deaths, accidents, career changes, friendships, personal health,¬†and travel all seem to be popular indicators of success or suck. The reality is you should really stop looking at your past as increments of one year advances.

When you end up looking back at the previous year you tend to forget the things that lead you to where you are now. The reality is the older you get the less important one year of time becomes. When you’re 12 years old one year is one twelfth of your life (shocking math, right?). When you’re 30+ it’s now 1/30th of your life. It’s the reason why we tend to¬†always say that “you can’t believe how fast this year went.” Perception is reality.

Looking at one year of time is short-sighted. When I look at how much I’ve accomplished throughout my life I can’t help but feel success. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs but I’ve managed to keep moving on and up in my mind.¬†Life is a constant stream of change, conflict, and resolution.¬†The perception of what’s gone right is easier when you only remember what’s happened recently. Take the time to step back and look at more than just the year and you’ll see a bigger perception of your life.

 

 

The Cross-Posting Effect

A lot of my friends on Instagram are also my friends on Facebook. They, like myself, tend to cross-post photos from Instagram onto Facebook and Twitter. I noticed a funny effect from that cross-posting – you end up missing a lot of posts from your friends.

Mindless scrolling. We all do it.¬†Facebook was made for it as well as Instagram. Your brain is bored so you grab your phone and start scrolling through posts. I think we’re sort of zombies when this mode clicks in.¬†I usually end up snapping out of that zombie scrolling mode when I see posts I’ve already remember seeing. Semi-conciously I feel I’ve reached the end of any content that I may want to read or view.

Cross-posting images from Instagram to Facebook sort of breaks this zombie mechanism of knowing when you’ve reached “the end” of new content. I’ve found myself scrolling through Facebook and seeing a photo I recognize and stopping.¬†Chances are I didn’t actually see that photo on Facebook first, but rather on Instagram. The reverse applies as well. My brain stops me when content starts repeating but in essence¬†that’s new content in that specific app.

I’ve also noticed this effect happen with publicizing new blog posts onto Twitter and Facebook but not to the same effect. I use the WordPress.com Reader to track blogs I like reading. Sometimes I do see friends’ posts on Facebook that I’ve already seen in the WordPress.com Reader. The content looks different enough that it doesn’t trigger the same effect all the time.

The thing I wonder about is if the effect causes some sort of mental fatigue in your followers causing them to potentially classifying your posts as noise rather than signal. I know how my brain tends to work and I can see that happening already with some accounts I follow in multiple apps/sites.

Bicycler’s Quiet

Bicycling is my meditation. I use it as part of my toolset to calm my brain and to train my mind to take in a lot of input and focus on important things. I recently realized that there’s a moment that doesn’t happen very often when biking. It sometimes takes an entire summer for me to have it occur. I call it the Bicycler’s Quiet.

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Bicycler’s Quiet is the sudden loss of wind noise in your ears when you’re cycling with the wind. It doesn’t happen very often because you need to be cycling at roughly the same speed and direction of the wind. Biking on days with very little to no wind doesn’t¬†do it because your movement creates wind across your ears.

I love when it happens.¬†Everything specific to the bike becomes quiet and you hear the world around you like it’s the first time. Super surreal and it’s a moment I live for. ūüôÉ

Another Year Around the Sun

37th Birthday

I turn 37 today. It’s been an amazing journey through life so far and I can’t wait to see where the next 37+ years lead me.

In the past five¬†years alone¬†things have changed so much. I finished my master’s degree, we got a place “up north” for the weekends and met so many fun people, I’ve had amazing jobs doing what I love – software development, and I’ve had the opportunity to speak at a number of conferences about the things I’ve done. I’ve also learned a lot about myself listening to my brain and figuring out this thing called ADD/ADHD.

My goals for the next five years? Meet more awesome people. Do more awesome things. Be an even better human and husband.

I am a procrastinator.

I have always believed I was a procrastinator. I tend to put difficult tasks off until when they are due. I always believed it was the pressure of the deadline that forced me to complete the task.¬†College¬†gave me a series of structured deadlines to learn new things.¬†Procrastination can also add undue stress onto your system. Over time it will make you feel like you’re stupid and can’t get anything done. ADHD and procrastination seem to go hand in hand as well.

I’m sort of done with procrastination. It sucks and I know I’m smarter than this.

This month I’m speaking at two conferences and giving two different talks. The first is¬†on remote working (a “soft” topic) and the other on an introduction to RxSwift – a fairly complex programming topic. I’ve known I needed to prepare these talks for several months and I have been doing the work. The remote working talk went off well. The RxSwift talk is upcoming and I’m sweating it. I want the people at my talk to get something significant out of it and not walk away feeling something was missing or it was a waste of time.¬†When I finally made this statement to myself I realized something significant:

It’s not procrastination –¬†it’s a failure to start.

I didn’t dive into the¬†demo project for the talk because I felt¬†like an imposter. How could I give a talk about a topic I am not an expert in? The reality is I needed to dive into code to incrementally learn¬†the topic better to give people a leg up on their first try at RxSwift. This fear of being an imposter kept making me lose focus on simple things and putting them off.

I¬†seem to have an enhanced behavior of finding something else to do instead of the “real work” when I encounter mental resistance. Mental resistance can come from¬†not knowing a subject or the task feeling¬†remedial. I tend to find other things to do instead like opening up a Facebook tab or checking the 14 different Slack instances I’m in for new messages. I know it is time to step back and re-center myself when I notice that my brain starts derailing like this.

When you find yourself slipping on a task or unable to commit to get something done I suggest doing the following:

  • Break the task down¬†into smaller bits and just get started on the first one. Just get started.
  • Walk away. Literally – walk. Exercise is my number one tool to combat¬†attention and focus issues. Grab your headphones and take a short walk around your office or neighborhood. Don’t actively try to think about your problem at hand – just take in the different atmosphere. You’ll be surprised how often an idea comes to you seemingly randomly during this process.
  • Prevent the distraction¬†by blocking the thing you’re using as a mental crutch. In my case it was logging out of Facebook and blocking the site on my machine. The¬†behavior broke after several months¬†on my work computer. If it’s something like wandering and cleaning your house, close your office door and leave a note to yourself to focus. Maybe try the¬†Pomodoro Technique¬†for 20 minute focus sessions.
  • If all else fails¬†stop committing to things¬†you can’t get done. You’re not a failure if you don’t have time or interest. Dig deep in your head to see what’s important to you and your future.

Sometimes we don’t have a choice and we just have to buckle down and get something done. Reward yourself. Check off that box and celebrate! Sometimes the little successes are more important than the big ones.

Just Get Started

I tend to set myself up for defeat with how my brain works when trying to accomplish a task. I overthink things.

When¬†I pull a task from my list of things to do a process starts in my head. I visualize the task and then try to figure out what the solution is and how it looks at the end. Smaller tasks with a clear goal seem to start just fine. Tasks that are a bit more nebulous or aren’t clear how to do everything end up stalling. I end up wasting time misdirecting myself so I don’t have to face the fact that I don’t have an immediate solution.

I also tend to misdirect myself with tasks that have a clear solution but aren’t terribly exciting. It takes a serious conscious effort for me to keep a grasp on things that tend to be mundane but are a part of my day.

While my focus on this post is generally around my job it applies to how I approach things with my personal life too. Unimportant or difficult tasks tend to get stalled and I will find myself doing other things (like cleaning, checking out Facebook, the weather…) just to not face the task at hand.

So … Just Start.

So how do I get over this fear of working on a task?

Just start.

just-start-crop

Sounds simple, right? It boils down to these things:

  • If this is a larger task admit you can’t see the end and just find the first small chunk you can work on. Smaller tasks are easier to finish and it lets your unconscious noodle on the entire project in the meantime.
  • Turn off the distractions and be cognizant¬†of when you misdirect yourself.¬†Try to figure out a pattern to what causes it and stop it before it happens.
  • If this a task that’s just not engaging or not exciting but its something you need to do, just start. Once you get moving and you prevent the misdirection you’ll finish and feel good.
  • Celebrate the finished tasks.

 

The Power of Five Minutes When Working Remote

Minutes can make a difference. This is something I quickly discovered early on when I started working remote.

The granularity of a usable block of time was much bigger when I worked in an office and had a 20 minute commute each way. Unconsciously I believe I felt 15 minutes was the smallest unit of time I could use to create or do something effective. Since I started working remote, I’ve discovered that unit of time has decreased to something even smaller which is closer to five minutes.

I can get a lot done with five minutes. I can wake up, let the dogs outside, get the coffee started, and then be at my desk working. I don’t have the normal rituals to adhere to in the morning – getting ready for work, driving, going up the elevator, saying hi, putting my lunch away, and then putting my mind into work mode. I end up starting on my treadmill desk right away in the morning with my coffee (when it finishes). If you’re lucky to video chat with me in my morning I’ll have bed head and workout clothes on. ūüėŹ

Once I realized how much I could actually get done in those five minutes I discovered other longer tasks were less efficient uses of my time. Driving to get a cup of coffee from Starbucks took easily 20 minutes. That’s 4 times the amount of time I need to do something useful! OMG THE HORROR!

Working remote, to me, means working more efficiently. I try to use my time wisely and keep on track with my goals for the day. It’s easy for me to get off track (especially for me dealing with ADD) so I have to break down my tasks into smaller achievable tasks. I also love checking off boxes when I finished something.

You can get a lot of things done in five minutes. Just don’t forget you can also take a five minute break.

Featured image courtesy of http://scrutiny.deviantart.com/art/Time-is-Slipping-Away-177781756