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Do as I say I'm going to do, not as I do

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 22/07/2013 - 11:56am in

The good news, I think, is that I have a cold, I think, and not some exotic lethargic illness, probably. The bad news is I'm still non-optimally organised.

I had known all along that there was one assignment due in week five and three in week six. I knew that I should therefore at least start the other three before completing the first. I had a colour-coded chart to tell me this, with arrows and everything. I don't even have to tell you that it's the end of week five, and I'm only just starting three assignments simultaneously, do I? This is where the weekly planner is supposed to support the session planner, and I have yet to sort that out. Urgent and important, I would say.

I've also just returned from a meeting with a web development client for whom I owe work. I have two major non-domestic extra-curricular obligations: this project and the one day a week volunteering at the Men's Resource Centre. Which of these is important? Both. Which is urgent? The web development project. I'm going to have to tell the Men's Resource Centre they can't count on me till the end of this session.

One of the many asinine aphorisms from the productivity course I did a few years ago was "You don't find time; you make it." Really? Out of what? (You can't get the wood, you know.) The key insight for me from the chapter from Covey (1996) on our reading list was that the above should be reframed as "You don't find time; you take time from something else." And this often means saying "no" to somebody. This may be painful, but not as painful as eventually disappointing absolutely everybody, yourself included.

Getting Organised, Part II

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 19/07/2013 - 3:57pm in

Tutor Mike has had a major win. I have talked about my suspicion of schedules, and the anxiety I feel when thinking about more than one task at once. Assignment 1 for Managing your Study, in fact for the course as a whole, was to put together a weekly planner and a session planner. And to do them both in Microsoft Word.

We'll take the last one first: Session planner. Useless, I thought. This is a single-session course. There are barely more than half a dozen deadlines or exams, and they're all listed in the Unit Information Guides and a good few other places besides. Who needs this?

Still, concluding that the main purpose of the assignment was just to do the assignment, I duly marked in my deadlines on a table, colour-coded them, and put in some big arrows for good measure. The result is kind of a Gantt chart rotated 90° clockwise, with the vertical axis denoting time, the units of study along the horizontal.

Then I found that having done this, whenever I wanted to recall which assignments were due when, I went for the PDF I'd made of this Word document before any other source of the same information. Last weekend I thought hang it all, I'll print it out and carry it with me. Education: 1; Matthew still to score.

The weekly planner is a bit more problematic. I already have a perfectly fine calendar, which I've adjusted to spit out a plain text file of the next week's worth of commitments. I print this out on Monday morning, fold it up and put it in my pocket, using the reverse side for task-related notes over the course ofthe week, like a proper GTD hipster.

But the point of the weekly planner is not just to put in your fixed, non-negotiable commitments (classes, appointments, etc.), but also to fill every other hour of the day with negotiable commitments, even if it's just "cuddle cats". If it's important to you, it should be on there somewhere.

Initially I rebelled against this too, thinking it a ludicrous degree of obsessive over-planning, but then I appplied an IT analogy. The negotiable commitments are just default values. If I sit down to study unit EDU10446, and realise that my next assignment for EDU10445 is soon due, I can bump the one in favour of the other, in the expectation that it will all even out in the end (more or less). Having a default activity for any given time just means you don't spend half an hour deciding what to do before realising you don't have time to do it any more and you should have started half an hour ago.

In Covey-speak, about which I shall say more later, you are scheduling for Quandrant II (non-urgent, important), while allowing for Quadrant I (urgent, important) activities (Covey, 2006).

So whither Just One Thing™? Well, it turns out that Just One Thing™ is granular. It applies to hours as well as days. When you sit down (or get up) to do one of your scheduled activities, what exactly do you choose to do? Doesn't matter; just do one thing, and then you're off the hook. If it's study, just open a book for the relevant topic and read a chapter. Likely you'll find something in there that you can use in an essay, or reminds you of the next thing you can do, and you're away. Or not, in which case make yourself a sandwich and feel good about having done one thing instead of nothing.

Now there is no way on Earth I am going to manually compile a colour-coded weekly planner in Microsoft Word (or even a freedom-respecting equivalent), every week for the next three and a half years. I am going to have to build something in Drupal, to pull in my appointments from my existing personal calendar, and allocate the free space around them. I shall shedule this task in my weekly planner retrospectively, once it is complete.

A Glitch

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 17/07/2013 - 4:17pm in

I crashed yesterday. It's the second time I've crashed in five weeks at Uni.

The first time was on my day without classses in the first week. I'd done four days straight of cycling, and just couldn't get up the next day for volunteering at the Mens' Recource Centre. They are always very careful to emphasise how valued a part of the team I am there, but I'm under no illusions that I'm an indispensible part of the team, so no big deal. I put it all down to going a bit too hard a bit too soon on the bike.

Yesterday I had no such excuse. I haven't been on the bike in weeks. Barely even gone for a walk further than the Bowling Club. The night before, my friend Paul called as I was winding down for bed. We talked for a bit too long, then I had to wind down all over again, and probably had a glass or two more wine-based product than I otherwise would have. However I had the requisite number of hours sleep, and had not had enough to drink to be hungover, so - cursing Paul mildly for my sleepiness but not thinking anything more of it - I drove off to class. I was more tired than I was comfortable being behind the wheel, but confident that a bit off caffeine would soon put things right. I was wrong about that.

Ever feel so tired that you feel sick? Again, I stress not hungover; I know what that condition feels like and have become expert at titrating my alcohol dosage to avoid it. My body was just refusing to work, and was begging for a nice lie down on the floor, and was prepared to make me vomit if necessary to get it. I managed to make it to the end of my last class for the day, and abandoned any plans  for further study in favour of the perilous drive home. There should be a breath test for exhaustion.

I am worried that I may have found how much exertion my 42-year-old body can take, and that it's really not very much at all.

Okay. Take stock. Yes, I know regular consumption of not quite enough alcohol to cause a hangover is bad in the long term. And yes, I have been working from home and not exercising for a decade.

But on the other hand, what I have been asking of my body (after that first week at least), isn't any more demanding than the average clerical job. I've known more than enough fat, florid, middle-aged, middle-rung executives who weren't in the habit of passing out mid-meeting to know that I should be able to cope with this.

I suppose all I can do is keep an eye on the situation and mention it to my GP. Make an appointment ahead of schedule if it happens again.

I could stop drinking althogether. Ah, now that's the spirit! Nothing like a bit of absurd levity to lighten the mood. Cheers! [*slurp*]

Getting Organised

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 17/07/2013 - 3:29pm in

We were warned during O' Week that most students find university study much less structured than what we were used to. I suppose I'm one of the exceptions to that rule. My expectation, borne out by experience so far at least, was that scheduled classes and set deadlines would be a blessed relief from the degree of self management required in self-employment. It even compares favourably to the constant stress and uncertaintainty of unemployment.

That said, I know that keeping on top of things will be a challenge. Fundamentally, I would prefer to live day to day directed by whim. I've lived like that in the past and found it quite satisfying. However this isn't now a viable modus vivendi (Like that? Latin, that is. Dead posh.) for a number of reasons:

  • I'm partially responsible for the welfare of a spouse and three cats. I can't go off on a whim in case the latter decide to gang up on the former. It's bad enough being only outnumbered three to two.
  • I'm dead broke. Whims typically cost money.
  • Building up a good whim requires a certain degree of stimulous from the environment, and I live in Coffs Harbour, possibly the least stimulating environment in the country, outside of Canberra.
  • I wouldn't mind actually achieving something useful before I kick the bucket.

As noted last week (ahem), I had little reason to worry about being efficiently productive during school, and much of my past employment history has been in undemanding dirty-white-collar jobs. I've been sent on more than my share of courses which promised huge productivity gains from nothing more than a humourous video featuring John Cleese paying his alimony, a Powerpoint presentation, a trust exercise or two, bad orange juice, bad coffee, and platters of little sandwich triangles.

I even regrettably paid a substantial amount of money for a course in Coffs which shall remain nameless involving acronyms, slogans, inspirational aphorisms, bewildering exercises disturbingly reminiscent of the time I thought it would be a jolly lark to take a Scientology personality test, and endless CDs of an American man with a smile in his voice congratulating me on how well I was doing, the remarkable improvement in my productivity, and observing what a great idea it would be to do another course. It was a cult, not an educational, or even a training, course.

There's only on personal productivity strategy that has ever worked for me, and - for not quite the first time - I shall let the Internet in on the secret: It's called Just One Thing™.

My first problem in trying (and gradually failing) to run a business was actually doing work. No matter how trivial the project I was embarking upon was in reality, when I sat down in front of the computer in the morning it seemed overwhelming. Too often, the temptation was to say "Oh, well. Because of [insert excuse here], there's not much point in trying to get anything done today. Tomorrow will be different." And of course it never was. Part of the problem was that all the advice I'd received to date encouraged practices like slicing up your day into ten minute intervals and scheduling what you plan to achieve in each. This is totally inappropriate for a job which is mostly creative problem solving, where each problem is likely to be quite unlike any one you've solved before, and getting your head around what you're planning to do takes half an hour by itself. What you end up doing is planning to achieve far more than you ever could in a day, and ending the day inevitably berating yourself for abject failure, even if you've achieved quite a lot.

Eventually it dawned on me that the alternative to inevitable failure (or not trying), was to lower the bar for success. Start the day by saying "I don't have to work miracles. I merely have to do Just One Thing™." At minimum what you'll have done is one thing, which is preferable to going back to bed, curling into the foetal position and gently sobbing for a day. What is more likely, at least if you are a nerd, is that Just One Thing™ will lead to the next thing, and the next, and before you know it you'll have your nose stuck in the tram line and be well on your way to the terminal.

So Just One Thing™ is a form of self-deception, but it works for me. Well, I should qualify that by saying that it's improved things over the past few years. Will it be enough to get me through a minimum three and a half years of study? Almost certainly not.

My Brilliant Educational History

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 11/07/2013 - 1:25pm in

One of my tutors for this session asked us this week to reflect on how in school we were almost certainly berated by our teachers for being stupid. I can't recall that ever happening to me, although I can recall being berated for being smart.

My parents were (and are) very much children of the 50s, and terms like "validation", "self-esteem", and so on were foreign to them, as indeed they were to me until quite recently. Consequently, expressions of parental approval were mainly confined to reacting to displays of cleverness on my part. (If you know me, this will explain a lot.) So initially, I seized on school as just another opportunity to impress authority figures with how bright I was, and bask in their approval.

At about the age of ten, this congenial arrangement started to fall apart for a number of reasons. For the first time, I had a teacher (whose name mercifully escapes me) who, even to a ten year old, was clearly a buffoon. Also the satisfaction to be had from correctly completing pointless exercises was starting to wane. Although I am a remarkably vain person, being congratulated by an idiot for a wholly worthless achievement just isn't terribly motivating.

So I stopped bothering. No homework was done, save for the concoction of elaborate excuses as to why homework wasn't done. Precious little work was done in class. I became a master daydreamer. The odd thing was that this had absolutely zero effect on my academic performance. In first grade, at the age of six, I was placed in the top class, and I remained in the top class throughout primary school and high school, with one single brief blip.

If I recall correctly, it was in year nine that my reluctance to complete work became such a scandal that for one subject - chemistry - I was put down into the second highest class.

"What are you doing here, Davo?" boomed Mr. Riley as he entered class on the first day, "You don't belong here!"

Even with the self-obsessed gormlessness of a teenaged male, I knew that he was scolding me for the laziness which he held to be the sole reason I was not in the top class. However it didn't occur to me until recently that he was also sending a message to the rest of the class: "Look at this guy; he doesn't even bother to do any work and still he's better than you." No wonder I was such a popular target for playground beatings. I was put back in the top class for Chemistry the following term, after no particular show of effort on my part.

What struck me most (aside from the beatings) was the difference in the quality of education given to the top class versus the one below. There was no expectation that the kids one rung down could (or perhaps should) perform at the same level as their more privileged peers. With rare exception, no amount of disengagement could drop you from the top class, and conversely no amount of work could elevate you into it. Grading children in this way was clearly not a measure of performance, or even aptitude; it was simply a way of allocating educational resources to produce a batch of children 20% of whom were ready for higher education and/or managerial jobs, and 80% of whom were content (or at least resigned) to be manual labourers or factory fodder. I don't imagine things have changed much since the 1980s. Not for the better, anyway.

Throughout school, I was always assured that if I just kept my head down and did as I was told, the next stage would be more rewarding. Sure primary school was all rote learning and busy work, but at high school I'd be in my element. Then okay, junior high school isn't so great, but senior high school is an altogether different kettle of fish. Then, just wait till you get to university!

By the end of it I no longer entertained any thought of going to university. What's the point if I can't join Footlights and hang out with Peter Cook and the Pythons and Douglas Adams? It's the 1980s, for heaven's sake; even the best universities in Australia are little more than fancy vocational training colleges, anyway.

Later I realised that some of my peers who were hardly any less cynical than myself had done something rather clever. They'd actually learnt some of the things I'd haughtily dismissed. They'd learnt the maths and chemistry that were rapidly becoming irritating gaps in my knowledge. They'd acquired the second language that I'd started to wish I had. They knew the system wasn't what it pretended to be, but had seized something valuable from it regardless.

Twenty-five years later, I'm starting to feel that I may be approaching the level of maturity of those children. I may be, as m'colleague rightly says, on the shittiest campus of the shittiest university in the country (or near enough to it), but I'm going to see what I can do with it. To quote Douglas Adams, "It's either that or back to the dole queue on Monday".