Weekly Head Voices #161: Email Equilibrium.

fastmail This folder is empty

Welcome to the one hundred and sixty first edition of the Weekly Head Voices, looking back at the week from Sunday January 27 to Sunday February 3, 2018.

I am writing this draft in a markdown file, using good old Emacs, during an early morning session (more about that later), because I am still not really loving the Gutenberg block-based editor experience in WordPress 5.0.

Today, I have three stories:

Running inspiration

After a month-long normal-shoe-person hiatus at the end of last year which again led to tender ankles, I realised (I’m a slow realiser, ok?) that it’s not the shoes but the person in the shoes.

Because it seemed that the shoes initially offered some relief, I reflexively started increasing distance and speed until my ankles started complaining again.

Durnit!

I then chatted with an erstwhile collaborator who is now, besides still being a successful tech entrepreneur, a successful sandal-wearing ultra runner and Leadville Trail 100 mile finisher.

He gave great advice, especially with regard to continuously training complementary muscle groups so that they can better contribute to the whole running mechanism.

Perhaps more importantly (to me) than that, was simply knowing that someone with a history, mechanism and control system not too dissimilar from mine, including the flat feet, runs so far with much joy.

Shortly after the chat, friend LM sent me this highly interesting Run Repeat survey of 150+ studies about arch support.

Amongst other things, it again confirmed what we know about barefoot and minimalist runners running with less impact and more efficiency, two ideas that I really like.

All of this led to me getting back on my Lunas, and my Xeros, and my bare feet.

I have been keeping the distances shorter, and my pace lower.

Initial results are encouraging.

P.S. Of course that survey does not come with a simple answer. However, the quote at the end by itself is worth the price of admission:

If you don’t need an arch support, you probably shouldn’t use one. It is the equivalent of wearing a cast when you don’t have a stress fracture or broken bone. Why would you do that? The best forms of injury prevention are make sure your body is balanced in strength, mobility and flexibility, you are training smart and getting good sleep and nutrition. An arch support affects only one aspect of the body. Don’t forget the big picture.

A FAR cheaper and more long term solution? Work on you arch, foot and hip strength!!! That is where you are supposed to get “arch support” from. Not some shoe insert. Work on your posterior tibialis, fibularis longus, single leg balance, proprioception, gluteal strength, core strength, body alignment, etc.

Dr Mathew Klein

Early(ish) morning sessions

It usually takes us until about 20:30 and often up to about 21:00 when all of our GOUs are finally in their beds. There’s a spread of 10 years between the oldest and the youngest, so there’s a wide range of themes and activities keeping us busy until that hour.

In my younger days (ack!) I used to be able to switch my work brain back on at that time, and work quite productively for a few hours.

(It is of course also possible that I just don’t remember this too well. Who knows what’s real anymore?!)

Whatever the case may be, it seems that I wrote blog posts, did some more reading and learning, and was generally productive.

More recently however, I’ve noticed that my work brain simply refuses to come back online at nine.

In order to work around this issue, my awake brain devised a plan, during the daylight hours of course.

Instead of trying to force poor work-brain to continue working, I go to bed at 22:00 and set my alarm for 5:30 (the optimal amount of sleep these days is 7.5 hours exactly). It does not seem like much, but I have an extra 50 minutes to an hour of crystal clear time in the mornings before the rest of the family wakes up to start the day.

(I also used to do this in 2012 when we were finishing The Visual Computing in Medicine Book. In Dutchie-land, the kids go to school much later, so I had even more time in the mornings.)

I usually start the morning with a little mindfulness exercise from the Waking Up course (extremely high-stress double-project-lead duties in 2013 were the catalyst that got me into mindfulness and early morning practices in the first place!), then I do the day planner, and then I take care of one or two important activities, the selection of which is usually clear after the day planning.

(It has not escaped me that this whole exercise is quite reminiscent of HN’s startup founder daily routine parody. :).

This morning, I get to write the words you are currently reading, with a clear(ish) mind to boot.

Whether this is just novelty, I don’t know yet, but it currently does seem as if starting the day with a bit of quiet and focus increases the probability the rest of my day at the office also starts more productively.

Inbox under control. WHAT IS HAPPENING?!

In the old days, I used to be a fan of inbox zero.

However, due to life stubbornly not adhering to Merlin Mann’s view of email (quite poetically, it seems that the inboxzero.com website is currently down), I eventually ended up with 1000+ unread emails in my inbox. (I know people with multiples of that…)

The term email bankruptcy (shudder) had even come up once or twice in conversations with friends.

Whoops.

I wrote back in WHV #69 that there seemed to be an inverse correlation between my creativity and inbox-zero.

I still think there is something to be said for that observation.

One can definitely get sucked into busy-work, a prime example of which is the grooming of one’s email, wasting time and energy that could far better be invested in creative pursuits.

However, could it be possible in some situations that one’s email landscape has changed in such a way that it has suddenly become tractable to maintain inbox-zero with a creativity-friendly and entirely affordable amount of energy?

Could it be that because one has let email slip so long, people don’t send as much email anymore, and now one paradoxically has the opportunity to reclaim inbox zero?

It seems it can be.

On January 31, at the tail end of that day’s early morning session, I was staring incredulously at the words:

This Folder is Empty.

my inbox

I don’t want to call this inbox zero, because it’s not 2007 anymore Dorothy.

Let’s go for Email Equilibrium Startup Founder Parody instead.

P.S.

Friends, thank you for reading this.

I am looking forward to our next meeting.

Weekly Head Voices #69: No sugar added.

This time, the head voices are echoing the span of time ending strictly on Sunday, April 27 at 23:59.

I have to break my rule and reach through past the start of that week however. On Wednesday April 16 I had quite a heavy sugar crash. After about 12 cups of coffee, each with a spoon of sugar (as per usual), some chocolates from the Stone Three sweetie jar during lunch ,and two giant coconut crunches at about TU Delft sugar fix time (yes children, I do my best to commemorate the sugar fix, even at 11000 km distance from you), my energy levels dropped through the floor and no amount of coffee could get them close to normal again.

That’s when I decided to stop taking sugar.

On Thursday April 17 I went cold turkey. I’m not taking any table sugar at all, no cookies or sweets (ARGH), and I’m even steering clear of breakfast cereals. Pretty boring, I know. After more than a week of completely unscientific N=1 case “study” experience, I can report that:

  • It took some getting used to my coffee without any sugar.
  • NO MORE  COOKIES. ARGH ARGH ARGH. COME CLOSER SO I CAN BITE YOU.
  • My perceived energy levels seem significantly more stable, and I remain all energetic until late at night. Sometimes I don’t sleep, because I run around in the neighbourhood making growling noises. Sometimes I wake up, miles away from home, with all kinds of gunk under my finger nails. Oh well.

On the topic of quitting, let’s talk about all of those lists we love so much. You should really go read Noeska’s presentation on Productivity, Project Management and Other Important Stuff in her latest status update blog post. Besides all of the Getting Things Done and Pull Yourself Together tools and systems she presents, I was happy to see her talk about the dangers of productivity tools on slide 23, and especially the “doing the right things vs doing things right” dilemma.

You see, I’ve been thinking much about this lately. Usually when I’m doing the most valuable and important things (designing and building new products, learning new programming languages, coming up with brand new ideas for artefacts to build) my email inbox starts overflowing and my todo system (currently todoist, which I do like) stagnates (my todoist karma is currently ZERO. I’m at KARMA ZERO damnit!!). Conversely, when I’m almost at inbox zero and my todoist is under control, it feels great, but I’m tired because I’ve spent all of that time taking care of a bunch of emails and mostly urgent but almost no important tasks.

Some people I’ve chatted with are hardcore enough to make the classification between important and urgent in their lists. However, when I see that list of tasks, my OCDs take over and I go into 100% reactive mode. NO ROOM FOR CREATIVITY.

I’m still thinking about how to solve this problem. I do think that the lists and the systems are really important, because some things do really need doing at certain points in time. For now, I’m still picking the three (or two, or one) most important things to do per day (see Noeska’s presentation, also see pro tip #2 in this 2011 post of mine). Also, what does work remarkably well for me, is maintaining a daily “done” or “I did it” list. Go read this, you can thank me later.

After all of that, the weekend took us to Vaalvlei, a picturesque wine farm just outside of Stanford:

Vaalvlei wine farm, just outside of Stanford.
Vaalvlei wine farm, just outside of Stanford.

Here we were treated to a super-exclusive wine tasting of the Vaalvlei Sauvignon Blanc, 2012 Shiraz Reserve, 2011 Shiraz, Shiraz port, and the top TOP secret Shiraz cognac right from the cask (don’t tell anyone, ok?):

Vaalvlei wine and cognac tasting
Vaalvlei wine and cognac tasting

I can report that these hand-crafted wines and the cognac were all beautiful, but I trust that my friend De Wijnrecensent (aka the Tall Philisophical Neighbour! all secrets are revealed on this blog.) will have more to say about this in a few months time.

Enjoy the rest of the week kids!

Happiness slingshot. [Weekly Head Voices #61]

Make sure you won’t be disturbed for the next 2 minutes and 57 seconds, and then focus your full attention on this marvelous YouTube clip:

Yes people, there are apparently some brilliant human beings, the pinnacle of our society you might say, who took the time to construct a giant slingshot with which they then proceeded to shoot each other through the blue summer sky. This is the sign that we, the human race, must be doing something right.

Because I need all the time that I can get to play may part in being a good human, I will now switch to Bullet Time(tm):

  • IEEE VisWeek 2011, Mind-Blowingly Awesome Visualization Conference, took place in week 43. For the first time in years, I was NOT there. The TNR went and came back inspired. My fearless and revered ex-leader Frits Post received the IEEE VGTC Visualization Career Award, which is yet another official recognition of his awesomeness. I hope he still has some space on the mantelpiece next to the Eurographics Honorary Fellow award.
  • Through the #visweek conference twitter stream and some of the blogging that was going on, I was able to follow the conference at a distance. There was a Blogging about Visualization BoF (birds of a feather, a kind of informal meeting to discuss some topic of interest; also read Dominikus Baur’s blog report), which motivated me to revive the MedVis.org webblog! We even have a twitter account now. If you have even a mild interest in medical visualisation or imaging, please subscribe via email, your RSS reader or the twitter account.
  • This blog won one of Joe’s official SA Blog Awards! Buy me a beer when you see me.
  • A real Italian explained to me that putting sugar in your espresso is entirely acceptable and even desirable. Herewith I’m going to stop feeling ashamed about my sugar-in-espresso habit. I’m not sure what I was thinking that combining two of the best substances known to humans was a sin.
  • After spending some serious quality time with The Email Game, I wrestled both of my overgrown inboxes to the ground. Lessons learnt: 1) Even the thin layer of gamification offered by The Email Game was sufficient to motivate me to start and finish a task I’ve been dreading for weeks. 2) Inbox Zero actually is more important than I’ve recently come to think. The trick is deciding when exactly you’re going to empty it.
  • Here’s a picture of a hedgehog after a bath:
It's a hedgehog. After a bath!

So recently I was having a conversation with someone in a bar. Soon the question came up: What are you striving for in your work?

Imagine my surprise when I didn’t have an answer ready. I was surprised, because I usually spend a significant amount of time on introspection, pondering the usual questions:

  1. What makes me happy?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. What should I strive for?

I mostly have answers to all of these and more, often involving coffee drinking in some form, along with a healthy dose of perspective, and harmony. However, due to general work-related business the past few months, my moments of introspection have been few and far between. As is the case with these types of philosophical guidelines, one does need to spend time regularly pondering them, else they sink quickly deeper below the surface of everyday life.

So I spent some time trying to remember what it was that I was striving for in work. Fortunately, not that far below the surface, I found it again:

Create value.

That’s really all there is, but it works for me.

Three rules of stress-free email productivity

Hey kids, this would have been the Weekly Head Voices #10, but since the past week can be really compactly summarised (4 hours of lecturing, 8 hours of lab supervision, 1 M.Sc. defense, 15 hours of meetings, 1 brilliant going-away party), I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s post to something completely different, something that one or two of you might even find useful!

Image copyright Grant Neufeld.
Image copyright Grant Neufeld.

I get to process quite an amount of email every day, and the amount seems to be increasing year after year.  Experience has taught me one or two hard lessons with regard to the efficient handling of said email.  Because I like you, I now give you my not-so-secret-anymore rules for stress-free email productivity!

1. Only check email when you actually have the time to take action.

This is the most important rule, and also the one I forget the most often.  The bottom-line is that you should only check your email if you have the time and inclination at that moment to take action on all of your inbox.  Taking action includes the GTD-style delete, delegate, defer and do possibilities, so for example chopping an email up into its constituent actions and sticking those in your todo-system (deferring) counts as taking action.  Under any other circumstances, don’t even check, as this will only serve to stress you out.  Conversely, following this rule will lead to having longer blocks of contiguous time to spend on tasks that you select, and not the crazy reactive work processing style endemic in the modern work place.

This rule is in practice nicely satisfied by the advice to make time for two or three distinct email processing moments per day.

2. Don’t use email as your main todo system.

Conversely put, have a good todo system that’s separate from your email.  This forces you to analyse emails during email processing moments and to break them up into the atomic GTD-style tasks that they represent.  You can always link the original email to the task, but the task description should be your main unit of work.  Seeing the same emails over and over increases stress and leads to unnecessary effort as you analyse them again and again every time that you see them.  Tasks, in general being more concisely described, are easier to start with and also increase the resolution of your accountable productivity.

3. Have separate work and non-work accounts.

Accidentally seeing one work email during your well-deserved holiday can spoil your mood. Maintain a separate email account for non-work (social) matters and make sure correspondents are aware of the difference.  This way, you can continue using email during rest periods without the risk of that one misplaced email putting you back in work-mode for the rest of the day.  This measure helps to maximise the value of your relaxation time.

Following the three rules above will also help a great deal in attaining and maintaining the nirvana that is inbox-zero.