Clean Room, Clean Mind

Why do I avoid the backlog and overflowing todo list? Why do I shove one more tool into a drawer already full of bits and bobs? Why do I squeeze yet another outfit into an overflowing closet? Because confronting this mess is hard work. It means making tough choices. Most of the time, I’d rather not decide.

To make sense of my environment, my work, my life—I need to confront the mess. Once the clutter is gone I know I’m left with just the essentials. Once the dust is clear, I can get to work.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo explains that while the process of decluttering and cleaning your home is important to your physical wellbeing, the true outcome is happiness and clarity in your mind. The habit gives you the freedom to take responsibility for important decisions.

I learned so much from this book, from awareness and mindfulness to practical tips on folding and hanging clothes. The habit of tidiness is now a mindset for me rather than just a chore to be completed.

The process starts by discarding the inessential items. Tidying up defines what is valuable: learning what I can do without; learning which books, clothes, keepsakes, or kitchen tools give me the most joy.

In applying her principles, my books were the hardest. I had hundreds and many in the category of “I’ll read this someday.” I trimmed it down to 80-90 best of the best — including this one! Hah. Keeping sentimental, must-read again, and books I reference often. The rest I gave as gifts to a new home or donated.

Life becomes far easier once you know that things will still work out even if you are lacking something.

A clean home is a perfect metaphor for a clear and organized mind. If my room and desk are clear and tidy I can face the reality of what’s in front of me. “It is by putting one’s own house in order that one’s mindset is changed. When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state.” Am I scared of what I’ll find?

Because you have continued to identify and dispense with things that you don’t need, you no longer abdicate responsibility for decision making to other people.

Decisions are now easier as I see more clearly the work in front of me. And I enjoy even more the treasures, clothes, and tools I chose to keep.

Review: Dawn of the New Everything

My book review of Dawn of the New Everything, Encounters With Reality and Virtual Reality by Jaron Lanier (2017). The book is enjoyable and readable, though I did skip around over the more esoteric bits.

Alternating between a deep autobiographical dive into Lanier’s life and a straightforward account of the history of technology, with an emphasis on virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR). I enjoyed learning about early technologists like Ivan Sutherland, whose 1963 SketchPad presentation was the “greatest demo of all time” to Doug Engelbart’s 1968 productivity software demo than reads like a modern tech stack: file versioning, collaborative editing, and video conferencing.

More eye-opening for me than the history is the honest and thought description of VR from one of the industry’s true pioneers.

A lot of joy in VR remains in just thinking about it.

VR trains us to perceive better… we learn to sense what makes reality real. [Because] human cognition is in motion and will generally outpace progress in VR.

A sense of cognitive momentum, of moment-to-moment anticipation, becomes palpable in VR. Like the chi in tai-chi.

The investigation has no end, since people change under investigation.

The technology of noticing experience itself.

Lanier describes VR as feeling your consciousness in its pure form. “It proves you are real.” The exact opposite of what I’d previously thought of when considering VR—I perceived a “fake” or “out of body” experience. Instead, Lanier emphasizes that it’s meant to be temporary. It’s meant to make you think, not just escape. It’s intended to produce the enjoyment of coming back to your true senses, reborn.


Reading notes: I read the hardcover edition from my local library after seeing a mention in both Wired and The Economist. See on Goodreads.

 

2017 Daily Reads: Dalio and Drucker

Two books made a big impact on my year in 2017, transforming my thinking. One for a massive amount of new insights and the other for improving my thought patterns.

Both books I’d buy again and give away—both are now open on my reading table each morning.

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A photo of two books that became a daily ritual in 2017.

The Daily Drucker by Peter Drucker (2004)

(Edited by Joseph Maciariello—note: Drucker died in 2005, soon after this book came out.)

Here’s an example of a daily insight I wrote about: A Decision Without Action Is Only a Hope.

This book is now a “daily devotional” for me; less holy scripture and more mindset for effectiveness in business, life, relationships. The improvement on my thought patterns was immediate: I noticed the ideas and principles coming up in daily work and life conversations, the mindset for effective time tracking and outward focus on contributions accelerated my career growth, and I deepened my understanding of business and how best to run an organization.

My all-time favorite — now well-worn and bookmarked — is September 4, “Practices of Effective Executives.” A distilled summary from his bestselling book of the same name.

The September 4 “Daily Drucker” reading details the five practices for effectiveness: 1) know where your time goes 2) focus on outward contributions 3) build on strengths 4) concentrate on superior performance and 5) make effective decisions.

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A photo of the Daily Drucker reading for Sept. 4th, with a handwritten card I used to hold the spot.

Which ties perfectly into Ray Dalio’s masterpiece where decision making is a key theme.


Principles by Ray Dalio (2017)

See a brief example of the insights I gained: Synthesis: Navigating Levels Effectively.

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A photo of the Principles book open to page 336; talking about meaningful work and relationships.

As I said in the beginning, this book hit me with a wall of new insights. I’m still processing it after 3 reads! Hat tip, Matt.

Top highlights of the book for me:

A winning formula: meaningful work + meaningful relationships + making a living. This ties in well with the freedom and mission that WordPress and Automattic stand for—a livelihood for anyone in the world with a website, blog, or shop.

Good principles are effective ways of dealing with reality.

Beware ego block by remembering that you’re looking for the best answer, not simply the best answer that you can come up with yourself.

Use pain to trigger quality reflections, learn what causes your pain and what you can do about it. This is the most effective habit Ray developed over 40 years.

Practice being open-minded and assertive at the same time, and think about your and others’ believability when deciding what to do. Find the most believable people possible who disagree with you and try to understand their reasoning.

Ideas versus decisions. Meritocracy is for hearing everyone’s voice — not for everyone making the decision.

You’ll find much, much more in the book; see also the book’s website: principles.com and social media. On LinkedIn Ray’s been sharing the most popular principles as readers give him feedback — with short audio clips.

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A screenshot of Ray Dalio sharing a top insight from his book, on LinkedIn.

I suggest buying both electronic and the hard copy. In 2018 I’ll share more thoughts and insights from the book, plus share experiences and learnings from putting the principles into practice.

What were your top books from 2017? Did anything become a must-read or daily habit?

A Decision Without Action Is Only a Hope

A decision is only a hope until carrying it out has become somebody’s work assignment and responsibility, with a deadline.

Who has to know of the decision? What action has to be taken? Who has to take the action? Make sure the people who have to take the action are able to do so.

Note—the people who have to take the action are rarely the people who have made the decision.

Source: The Daily Drucker, quoting The Effective Executive. I’m loving this daily dive into the management and leadership motherlode—highly recommended.

Smarter, Faster, Better

A few findings from reading Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (Goodreads).

On self-motivation: Ask yourself, why am I doing what I’m doing? If you are doing something you think is stupid and meaningless, you’re not going to care.

Envisioning the day: Make a habit of picturing how things will go, what goals you have from meetings or tasks—it can make you much more productive.

Distractions: We can trick our brain to ignore things by spending time visualizing what we want to occur, like going to the store for only lasagna and ignoring the special display of holiday cookies.

Tests, finances, decisions: Slow down to make better choices, called “disfluency.” Also helps with overload of data; it’s easy to let your eye slide over it without absorbing anything. Fight it by slowing the information down, make it stickier.

Internalize new ideas: Tell someone about it, interact with the idea, and it’ll stick with you better. For example, telling a colleague about a book you’re reading, not to educate them, but to lock in the ideas.

Financial life: Force yourself to interact with the data, even if it seems inefficient. Sit down regularly and see what you spent money on—is it expected? Do you need to change habits? Not only look, but write it down.

Editorial note: I published this with the WordPress desktop app, a superbly focused and native experience to write posts and manage your blog settings.

Review: The Way of the Web Tester

This is a book review of The Way of the Web Tester by Jonathan Rasmusson. Hat tip: Alister Scott.

A beginner’s guide to automated testing, though not specific to the web, despite the title. Covering the quintessential pyramid of UI, integration, and unit tests as well as basic building blocks of HTML, CSS, HTTP and REST APIs, and JavaScript. The book also spends time on best practices for general software programming and testing.

The goal for test automation, according to the author, is to have more time to do the fun things like developing new features, and less time on boring things like fixing bugs. We can’t test everything, yet “with the right 20%, we can sure test a lot.” Agreed. In broad strokes, this book debunks many common misconceptions of automated testing.

Don’t try to automate everything. Instead, automate just enough.

I love the dual audience of testers and developers, and how each chapter addresses the goals for each to learn in the coming text. The chapter ending summaries are handy. The text flows and the examples are easy to follow. Though a quick read, the book ends up covering important topics such as organization, naming, coupling, reusable code, and avoiding flaky tests by making them deterministic.

A few minor nitpicks: I found the metaphor of armor and mobility a tad confusing, and some of the humor seemed off-putting and unnecessary. As a beginner book I didn’t like how it conflated an important concept of CSS selectors and using similar syntax with jQuery to select elements by ID; in my opinion this difference should be understood at a beginner level. The author also doesn’t mention targeting data URIs in HTML attributes for selection, which seems to me to be worth a mention as a useful technique when working without relying on extra IDs or classes everywhere—such as legacy code or HTML output from third-party templates that you don’t control—and is present in popular JavaScript frameworks such as React.

I love the concept of a Developer Productivity team at a software company—at Spotify, Rasmusson describes a squad that went around killing and fixing flaky tests. Making things run better, making everyone happier. I think of Excellence Wranglers at Automattic as having a similar goal in our work as quality advocates.

The Way of the Web Tester does a great job introducing important concepts and covers the basics of automated testing, and I’d recommend it to everyone, even seasoned developers and testers.

 

Encourage Dissidence

From the “Kindred Spirits” pattern chapter in Apprenticeship Patterns:

Your community’s health can be measured in the way to reacts to new ideas. Does it embrace the idea after vigorous debate and experimentation? Or does it quickly reject the idea and the person who proposed it? Today’s dissident is tomorrow’s leader, and one of the most valuable services you can provide to your community is defending it against those who believe that marching in lockstep is the price of membership.

I love this challenge—it’s got me thinking a lot about how I approach new ideas, both when I bring them to my community or team and when I’m faced with new ideas from other people.

I am sometimes going with the flow in order to be liked and get along with everyone? Do I reject things out of hand because I don’t like the idea or the person? And do I question everything with a healthy dose of dissidence?

The Power of Habit

My review of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

… once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom—and the responsibility—to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.

This book breaks down habits into small, understandable pieces—at its simplest a 3-step loop of cue + routine + reward. The narrative style is easy to grasp, in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell and Freakonomics.

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Wonderfully illustrated with examples of both good and bad habits, from alcoholism and gambling to workplace safety and employee willpower. Duhigg describes willpower, self-discipline, the power of belief as “keystone habits” that can create a structure for widespread change.

The stories and examples explain the central idea of the book: habits can be changed if we understand how they work. In the 3-step loop for a negative habit like overeating, for example, the cue and reward remain the same but the routine changes to a healthier one. And, importantly, small changes—no matter how tiny they may seem—fuel bigger ones.

Habits are powerful, but delicate. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.

My biggest takeaway is a motivation to think critically about my own personal habits, as well as the keystone habits and cultural values of my workplace. Raising my awareness is the first step to understanding my habits, and identify which ones I should change.

(Props Matt for the recommendation.)