Follow My Leader

I spent the past two weeks enjoying the scenic views at the Philmont Scout Ranch with my son and some of his fellow Scouts BSA troop mates. It was very much the kind of vacation that involved a lot of hiking, mountain climbing, and even some inclement weather. We all completely enjoyed ourselves and I learned a lot about hanging bear bags and taking care of blisters. I also learned a lot about leadership by watching the boys in the crew interact with each other.

Storm Warnings

Leadership styles are nothing new to the people that read my blog. I’ve talked about them at length in the past. One thing I noticed when I was on the trek was how different leadership styles can clash and create friction among teenagers. As adults we tend to gloss over delivery and just accept that people are the way they are. When you’re fourteen or fifteen you haven’t quite taken that lesson to heart yet. That means more pushing against styles that don’t work for you.

We have all worked for or with someone that has a very authoritarian style in the past. The kind of people that say, “Do this right now” frequently. It’s a style that works well for things like military units or other places where decisions need to be quick and final. The crew leader exhibited that kind of leadership style to our crew. I sat back and watched how the other boys in the unit handled it.

If you’ve never gotten to watch the Stages of Team Development form in real time you’re missing out on a treat. I won’t go into too much depth here but the important stage happens after we get past the formation and into the Storming phase. This is where motivation and skill sets are low and the interaction between the members is primarily antagonistic. Arguments and defensiveness are more prevalent during storming. It happens every time and frequently occurs again and again as team members interact. It’s important to recognize the barriers that Storming creates and move past them to a place where the team puts the mission before their egos.

Easier said that done when you’re with a group of teenagers. I swear our group never really got past the storming phase for long. The end of the trek saw some friction still among the members. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that was. After all, we grown ups can put things aside to focus on the mission, right? We can check our egos at the door and hope that we can just get past this next part to make things easier overall.

Style Points

That’s when our lead Crew Advisor pointed out a key piece of the puzzle I’d missed, even after all my time dealing with team development. He said to the crew on the last day, “There are a lot of leaders in this group. That’s why there was so much friction between you all.” It was like a lightbulb going off in my mind. The friction wasn’t the result of leadership styles inasmuch as it was the clash between styles that kids aren’t so good at hiding.

I’m not an authoritarian. I don’t demand people do things. I ask people to do things. Maybe when I want isn’t a request but it is almost always phrased that way. “Please walk the dog” or “Can you get me the hammer from the garage?” are common ways for me to direct my family or my unit. I was raised not to be a demanding person. However, in my house growing up those statements were never questions. I’ve continued that method of leadership as my own family has grown. Dad asks you to do something but it’s not optional.

Where my leadership style clashes is with people who tell you to do something right now. “Get this done” or “You go do this thing over here” wrankle me. Moreover, I get frustrated when I don’t understand the why behind it. I’m happy to help if you just help me understand why it needs to be done. Bear bags need to be hung right away to keep animals from devouring the human food. The dining fly needs to be put up to put things underneath in case of inclement weather. There’s an order to things that makes sense. You need to explain why instead of just giving orders.

As I watched the teenagers in the crew interact with each other I couldn’t understand the defensive nature of the interactions. Some of the crew mates flat out refused to do things because they didn’t get it. They took their time getting necessary tasks done because they felt like they were doing all the work. Until the end of the trip I didn’t understand that the reason for their lack of motivation wasn’t inspired by laziness, but instead by a clash in style.

My son is like me in that he asks people to do things. So when he was ordered to do something he felt the need to push back or express displeasure with the leadership style. It looked defiant because he was trying to communicate that politeness and explanation go a long way toward helping people feel more motivated to pitch in. 

For example, asking someone to help hang the bear bags because there is a storm coming in and they are the most efficient at it is a better explanation than telling them to just do it. Explaining that you want someone to train another person in a job because you excel at it helps the person understand this is more about education than making them do the job over and over again. I’ve mentioned it before when it comes to leaders leaning on the people that get the job done all the time without expressing why. It’s important to help people understand that they have special unique skills that are critical to helping out.

Promoting From Within

Leaders chafe at the styles that don’t match their own. One of the ways to help this process is through delegation. Instead of punishing those that talk back to you make them responsible for leading the group. Let them show off their leadership style to see how it is received. You’re essentially giving that person the power to express themselves to see if their way is better. Depending on your leadership style this may be difficult to do. Authoritarians don’t like letting go of their power. People with no patience are more likely to just do the job themselves instead of letting others learn. However, you need to do it.

Leaders will excel in the right environment. Give someone responsibility and let them accomplish things. Instead of simply giving out tasks let the leaders figure out how to accomplish the goals. I ran a small experiment where I told our crew leader to just take care of his one responsibility and then leave the crew to their own devices. By this point in the trek they knew what needed to be done. If they couldn’t find the motivation to get it done then it was on them and not the leader. Weather forced my hand before I could get the experiment done but when a leader is having issues with those under then chafing at their leadership style they need to empower their group to lead their way to see how effective it can be instead of just falling back on “I’m in charge so you do what I say”.


Tom’s Take

My leadership experience and training has been all about creating artificial situations where people are required to step up to lead. Seeing it happen organically was a new experience for me. Leaders emerge naturally but they don’t all grow at the same rate or in the same way. The insight gained at the end of the trip helped me understand the source of friction over the twelve days were were in the backcountry. I think I’d do things a little differently next time given the opportunity to allow those that needed a different style to come forward and provide their own way of doing things. I’ll be interested to see how those leaders develop as well as how I approach these situations in the future.

Putting the FUN Back in Productivity

It’s not a secret that it’s hard to get stuff done. Procrastination is practically a super power for me. I’ve tried so many methods and systems to keep myself on track over the years that I should probably start a review site. Sadly, the battle of my executive function being on constant vacation and the inability to get organized saps a lot of my ability to execute. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve finally realized that I need to start tricking my brain into getting things done.

Any reputable researcher will tell you that dealing with neurodivergent behaviors like ADHD is all about understanding the reasons why you do the things you do. I know what needs to be done. I just don’t want to do it. Worse yet, anything that I can do to avoid working on something is going to capture my attention because I’d rather be doing something unproductive as opposed to something I don’t like. This can manifest itself in strange ways like preferring to do the dishes instead of writing a blog post or mowing the yard instead of practicing a presentation.

Not DisFUNctional

It’s taken me a while but I’ve finally come up with a system that makes it easier to get me into a rhythm to get things done. And because you wouldn’t remember it unless I made it spell out some memorable word, we’re going to call it the FUN System. Because more than three points would likely have gotten lost anyway.

F – Fake It! – It’s going to sound silly but the first step in convincing yourself to do something is often to lie to yourself about how much better it will be when you get it done. Your brain has convinced itself that this is bad and you shouldn’t be doing it. So in order to get it done you’re going to have to convince it otherwise.

We do this all the time to others. Telling kids that veggies taste good. Telling our friends that they should do something for us so they feel better. Selling pretty much anything to anyone. It’s all about convincing someone skeptical to do something they don’t want to do. Your brain is no different. You need to convince yourself to get the thing done. Maybe you promise yourself a reward or some extra downtime or something that just gets you moving. You don’t even have to keep the promise. The key is to use it to overcome the objections your brain has already but up. Fake it however you need to in order to make something happen.

U -Understand It – This one is especially powerful for me. I love learning. Like a lot. Enough that I can often convince myself to get a bigger task accomplished more quickly by learning about it. Understanding the details or the process or figuring out how to make it all work. I binge watch documentaries on Youtube and enjoy reading up on random things to learn more about how they work or why they are the way they are.

This extends to things beyond emails and simple tasks for me. Cooking was something that was easier to accomplish and do more often when I learned how it all works together. Why 350 degrees is the magic baking temperature, for example. Or how different spices can create different styles of flavors. It’s all about learning the ins-and-outs of what you’re trying to do.

The key here is not to fall down the hole of learning more about what you’re trying to do than actually doing it. It’s very easy to get paralyzed by over learning and just sitting there going over the details again and again instead of putting them into practice. Using the above example you may have to tell yourself you can come back to the investigation after you’ve tried it once or twice. Ensure that you use the desire to learn as the driver for getting something accomplished before you procrastinate your day away.

N – Next On The List – The third way I tell myself to get things done is to move them down on the list behind an easy task. It’s a cruel trick that relies on momentum. I tell myself that I got the little easy thing done so I might as well tackle the bigger thing. And it works more often than you might think.

The brain only needs a little dopamine from a sense of accomplishment to keep going. It’s the idea that you’re being productive. So if you need to write something long then put it after a short response email. If you’re dreading a phone call then do it after you’ve tidied your desk or taken out the trash. Doing something small will help you get prepared for the big task and ensure that you can carry forward that little extra push to get through it. As a bonus, the sense of accomplishment from that extra big task will carry forward to a couple others! It’s a like a productivity feedback loop.


Tom’s Take

The usual disclaimers apply here. This is my method and it may not work for you. You have to learn how your brain works and find ways to keep it moving and working. There are other things that help create the sense of accomplishment, like routine or the enjoyment of results. But in the long run the key is finding a way to get your brain out of the funk of not wanting to do stuff. My FUN System helps me and maybe it will help you too. Try it out if you’re struggling and use it as a basis to make your own fun.

Don’t OutSMART Your Goals

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I read a piece on LifeHacker yesterday that made me shake my head a bit. I’m sure the title SMART Goals Are Overrated was designed to get people to click on it, so from that perspective it succeeded. Wading into the discourse there was an outline of how SMART goals were originally designed for managers to give tasks to employees and how SMART doesn’t fit every goal you might want to set, especially personal aspirational ones. Since I have a lot of experience with using SMART goals both for myself and for others I wanted to give some perspective on why SMART may not be the best way to go for everything but you’re a fool if you don’t at least use it as a measuring tool.

SMRT, Eh?

As a recap, SMART is an acronym for the five key things you need to apply to your goal:

  • S – Specific (what are you going to do)
  • M – Measurable (how will you know when you’ve succeeded)
  • A – Attainable or Assignable (can you or the person you’ve selected do this thing)
  • R – Relevant or Relatable (is this goal appropriate for me or for the person doing it)
  • T – Timely or Time-Based (when are you going to accomplish this goal)

Aside from the obvious reason that the originators really wanted their system to spell “smart”, what does all this mean? Well, when we teach SMART goals at Wood Badge, we ask people to envision something they want to do in the next year. Maybe it’s taking a vacation. Or perhaps it’s another project they want to get done around the house. Once they’ve picked it out, we ask them to think about how they’re going to accomplish it. This second exercise is where the application of the ideas behind SMART goals comes into play.

In an enterprise IT sense we don’t do projects with no planning. At least, I really hope we don’t. We need to understand what we’re doing and why and how we’re going to get it done and when. We already have those constraints put in place when we begin the process. SMART just formalizes them into something memorable. Take an IDC switch upgrade for example:

  • Specific – We are going to upgrade the switches in the gym IDF
  • Measurable – We’re done when the switches are installed, cabled, and configured properly
  • Attainable – This is easy to accomplish and the team has done many before
  • Relevant – The networking team is doing the work, not the storage team or the accounting department. Relevant to our needs because we have more bandwidth in the gym during basketball games and we need to increase the amount of concurrent users and devices
  • Timely – We’re doing the upgrade next Friday when everyone is out of school, which is two weeks before basketball season starts to make sure we have everything ready to go with minimal disruptions. The switches are scheduled to arrive tomorrow.

See? SMART helps us plan the whole thing. Specific keeps us from setting goals like “make things faster” and forces us to be very specific. That goes hand-in-hand with Measurable, which also prevents scope creep. We’re done when we’ve met the measurable case. Setting more measurable things will help your projects work much better.

Attainable just means we’re not setting goals we can’t reach. Switching out one IDC at a time is better than trying to reconfigure the whole network in a weekend. Having been roped into unattainable projects before I really wish more of them had this condition figured out up front. Relevant helps answer why we need it or who is relates to. The accounting department may want the fastest access to the data center or the cloud but if they want us to pay thousands of dollars a month for a circuit only they can use it’s going to be hard to meet the Relevant section of the goal. Timely gives you a date to shoot for for completion. That keeps your project from sitting on the “in process” part of your kanban board until the end of time itself.

Don’t Dumb It Down

LifeHacker’s writer, Beth Skwarecki, says that SMART is deceptive because it creates a bait-and-switch mentality of setting pass-fail goals with a deadline. There’s no inherent motivation to get things done and no reason to set goals that require you to stretch your limits because you don’t want to fail. Looking at goal setting in a vacuum would validate her reasoning. However, looking at SMART as the only source of input into the goal setting process is also setting yourself up for failure.

It’s true that SMART encourages you to set deadlines and spell out what you’re doing. That’s because many people struggle with the process of actually defining goals. Like vacation planning they have the big picture of sitting on the beach clearly in mind. They stumble when it comes to booking hotels and rental cars and when to buy the airline tickets and how they’re going to get to the beach and what they need to bring when they get there and so many other things not even on their radar. SMART gives them a framework for figuring out how to make it all work.

SMART isn’t a motivator. It doesn’t make you want to do something. Instead, it gives you a way to measure progress or force yourself to understand when things need to happen. In the article, Beth says that it’s bad if you set a time goal for yourself and then you procrastinate until the week before because there is no inherent drive to work on things in a timely manner. I’d argue that has nothing to do with the SMART framework. Sure, you set yourself a goal to be finished. But we do that all the time.

We want to be able to run a 5k race by the time of the race in the fall. We want to go to Disneyland on our vacation in July. We want to buy a house before we turn 30. All of these goals have a Timely component. Maybe you don’t have a Gantt chart breaking down every minute of the planning process yet. That doesn’t mean putting a time on it doesn’t help you do things better. When I was working on my SMART goal project back in 2017 I had a whiteboard on my desk with deadlines and checkpoints to make sure I was getting things done. The motivation to finish on time came from me setting smaller, attainable goals and not big red circles on the calendar looming on the horizon.

The last thing I’ll say about the article is that SMART goals aren’t supposed to push you to challenge yourself. Beth says that SMART encourages you to do things that are attainable so you don’t fail. I’d argue that the purpose of SMART is to help you set attainable goals and then help you reflect on what you could be doing better or more often. Yes, everyone wants to succeed as often as possible. Constant failure is discouraging. You also need to make sure you aren’t just setting targets to knock down for the sake of knocking them over.

Goals that are set without a check-in aren’t really helping you. Projects with SMART goals should be living documents that get updated frequently. Are you sailing through your running goals? Time to reset your yardstick and stretch yourself a bit. Run a faster time or go for a longer distance. Are you having struggles with your project because things aren’t coming together? Sit down and be honest with yourself and figure out how to make the most out of what you have. Maybe it’s not replacing every AP in the office but just the ones in the employee areas in the main building. If you’re not adjusting your goals along the way based on the feedback you get from the process then you’re going to fall into the trap of making things too easy to fail or too hard to succeed.


Tom’s Take

I’m a big fan of using the right tools for the job. Don’t use screwdrivers as chisels. Don’t use a flamethrower to light cigars. And don’t forget that you can find other ways to make things work for you. SMART isn’t the superior system for every situation out there. There are times when it’s maddening and doesn’t properly fit. However, running your projects and goals through the SMART filter will usually help you identify where you need to tighten up language or timelines. It certainly can’t hurt. And if it’s not working at all then try to find a better way to make it work for you. Use a tool or framework instead of just thinking you’ll do it your own way. That’s the kind of thinking that leads smart people into making dumb decisions.

Racing On the Edge of Burnout

Exhibit A:

It’s been a year and more and I think a lot of us are on the ragged edge of burning out completely. Those that think they are superhuman and can just keep grinding away at things without acknowledging what’s going on are kidding themselves. I know I’m feeling it too even though I have a pretty decent handle on what’s going on. Let’s explore some of the ways it’s impacting us and what should be done, if anything can even be done.

Creativity Black Hole

I don’t feel like doing anything remotely creative right now. The cooking will get finished. The dishes will be done. The things in my floor will be picked up and put away. But beyond that? Good. Luck. I’m not feeling any kind of drive to do anything beyond that.

Remember when everyone was picking up quarantine skills? Baking, cooking, knitting, crocheting, home improvement, or even an instrument? Those were fun days filled with massive uncertainty and a need to distract ourselves from what might be coming next. However, those skill pickups are things that need time to work on and refine and continue to master. And now that the world is back in full swing we don’t have any more time than we did before. In fact, we have a lot less.

Now we face a choice of doing what we’ve always done before, albeit in a more restricted fashion, but now with the added pressure of an additional time sink staring us in the face. You can’t improve your cooking skills if you don’t cook. But when you don’t have a mountain of free time to devote to researching recipes or putting together the best shopping list or exploring new places to source ingredients you’re going to feel like it’s back to being a chore and end up churning out chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese.

That’s what burnout looks like. When something you previously enjoyed becomes a chore like any other because you have no time to devote to it and get enjoyment from it. Whether you want to admit it or not all your creative pursuits feel like this right now. I know I find myself zoning out more often than not when it comes to free time. I don’t want to write or cook or learn to play the harmonica. I just want to spend a few moments not thinking about anything. And that’s what it feels like to be burned out.

How about doing things even remotely adjacent to work? Writing a coverage post from a presentation or recording a new podcast episode or a video? If it feels like actual work you’re probably going to avoid it just as much as you avoid the things you actually like to do. That means the rest of your creative output is going to suffer too.

Escape Velocity

Now that we know we’re burned out and don’t want to admit it, how do we fix it? The short answer is that we can’t. We’re still in the uncertain period of balancing work and creativity and other stuff going on. Our current battle is watching those two things fighting for supremacy. Work commands our attention to get the stuff done that pays the bills. Creative pursuits are clamoring for air because remember that cool time last year when we made all the sourdough bread? How do we make them both work?

Another quote that has been resounding with me recently is “If you prioritize your distractions over your responsibilities then your distractions are your responsibilities.”

We want to get away from the stuff that grinds on us. But when the things we use to get away become a grind then they just fall into the same place. We need to keep those distractions separate and use them when we need to as opposed to just taking a 30-minute break twice a day and working on our harmonica scales. When you associate your distraction with your responsibilities you stop liking it as much.

I use Scouting as one of my distractions. It’s basically my hobby at this point when you consider how much time I’ve invested into it. Yet, I find myself starting to get burned out on it as well. Part of that is my inability to say “no” to doing things. And that lack of time is wearing thin because I can’t be everywhere at once. I need to pull back from all the things that I’m doing because otherwise my hobby will become just another job that gets in the way of me relaxing and letting go.

Understanding each and every part of these battles is key to drawing the lines around what you need to keep burnout at bay. Our brains like to consume all the things around a hobby or topic and then walk away from it when it doesn’t produce the same kind of dopamine response. We have to teach our brains to enjoy a bit of what we like and not eat it all at once and get tired of it. That’s why scheduling time for things is so important. Otherwise you’ll grind yourself away to nothing. Make time for your responsibilities and your distractions and don’t mingle the two or you’re going to end up with some kind of unappetizing oatmeal of things.


Tom’s Take

I’m burned out. And I don’t want to admit it. Things keep slipping out of my head and I can’t seem to keep up like I want. Acknowledging it is the first step. Now that I know I’m burned out I can try and fix it by making those changes. Don’t soldier on and hope that you’re going to pull through it. Admit that you’re more burned out than you realize. You may not be completely gone yet but if you ignore it you soon will be. Instead, take the time to prioritize what you need to take care of and what you want to do to enjoy life. Schedule a hike. Make time to practice your instrument. But make sure you keep it segregated and keep your work life where it belongs. Don’t bake bread at 9am on a Monday and don’t send emails at 9pm on a Friday. And be kind to yourself. Your brain doesn’t like burnout any more than you do. Take a moment, take a breath, and take some time for you.

Tech Field Day Changed My Life

It’s amazing to me that it’s been ten years since I attended by first Tech Field Day event. I remember being excited to be invited to Tech Field Day 5 and then having to rush out of town a day early to beat a blizzard to be able to attend. Given that we just went through another blizzard here I thought the timing was appropriate.

How did attending an industry event change my life? How could something with only a dozen people over a couple of days change the way I looked at my career? I know I’ve mentioned parts of this to people in the past but I feel like it’s important to talk about how each piece of the puzzle built on the rest to get me to where I am today.

Voices Carry

The first thing Tech Field Day did to change my life was to show me that I mattered. I grew up in a very small town and spent most of my formative school years being bored. The Internet didn’t exist in a usable form for me. I devoured information wherever I could find it. And I languished as I realized that I needed more to keep learning at the pace I wanted. When I finally got through college and started working in my career the same thing kept happening. I would learn about a subject and keep devouring that knowledge until I exhausted it. Yet I still wanted more.

Tech Field Day reinforced that my decision to start a blog to share what I was learning was the right one. It wasn’t as much about the learning as it was the explanation. Early on I thought a blog was just about finding some esoteric configuration stanza and writing about it. It wasn’t until later on that I figured out that my analysis and understanding and explanation was more important overall. Even my latest posts about more “soft skill” kinds of ideas are less about the ideas and how I apply them.

Blogging and podcasting are just tools to share the ideas that we have. We all have our own perspectives and people enjoy listening to those. They may not always agree. They may have their own opinions that they want to share. However, the part that is super critical is that everyone is able to share in a place where they can be discussed and analyzed and understood. As long as we all learn and grow from what we share then the process works. It’s when we stop learning and sharing and try to protest that our way is right and the only way that we stop growing.

Tech Field Day gave me the platform to see that my voice mattered and that people listened. Not just read. Not just shared. That they listened and that they wanted to hear more. People started asking me to comment on things outside of my comfort zone. Maybe it was wireless networking. It could have been storage or virtualization or even AI. It encouraged me to learn more and more because who I was and what I said was interesting. The young kid that could never find someone to listen when I wanted to talk about Star Wars or BattleTech or Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was suddenly the adult that everyone wanted to ask questions to. It changed the way I looked at how I shared with people for the better.

Not Just a Member, But the President

The second way Tech Field Day changed my life was when I’d finally had enough of what I was doing. Because of all the things that I had seen in my events from 2011 to 2013, I realized that working as an engineer and operations person for a reseller had a ceiling I was quickly going to hit. The challenges were less fun and more frustrating. I could see technology on the horizon and I didn’t have a path to get to a place to implement it. It felt like watching something cool happening outside in the yard while I was stuck inside washing the dishes.

Thankfully, Stephen Foskett knew what I needed to hear. When I expressed frustration he encouraged me to look around for what I wanted. When I tried to find a different line of work that didn’t understand why I blogged, it crystallized in me that I needed something very different from what I was doing. Changing who I was working for wasn’t enough. I needed something different.

Stephen recognized that and told me he wanted me to come on board without him. No joking that my job offer was “Do you want to be the Dread Pirate Roberts? I think you’d make an excellent Dread Pirate.”. He told me that it was hard work and unlike anything I’d ever done. No more CLI. No more router installations. In place of that would be event planning and video editing and taking briefings from companies all over the place about what they were building. I laughed and told him I was in.

And for the past eight years I’ve been a part of the thing that showed me that my voice mattered. As I learned the ropes to support the events and eventually started running them myself, I also grew as a person in a different way. I stopped by shy and reserved and came out of my shell. When you’re the face of the event you don’t have time to be hiding in the corner. I learned how to talk to people. I also learned how to listen and not just wait for my turn to talk. I figured out how to get people to talk about themselves when they didn’t want to.

Now the person I am is different from the nerdy kid that started a blog over ten years ago. It’s not just that I know more. Or that I’m willing to share it with people. It has now changed into getting info and sharing it. It’s about finding great people and building them up like I was built up. Every time I see someone come to the event for the first time I’m reminded of me all those years ago trying to figure out what I’d gotten myself into. Watching people learn the same things I’ve learned all over again warms my heart and shows me that we can change people for the better by showing them what they’re capable of and that they matter.


Tom’s Take

Tech Field Day isn’t an event of thousands. It’s personal and important to those that attend and participate. It’s not going to stop global warming or save the whales. Instead, it’s about the people that come. It’s about showing them they matter and that they have a voice and that people listen. It’s about helping people grow and become something they may not even realize they’re capable of. I know I sound biased because the pay the bills but even if I didn’t work there right now I would still be thankful for my time as a delegate and for the way that I was able to grow from those early days into a better member of the community. My life was changed when I got on that airplane ten years ago and I couldn’t be happier.

The Double-Edged Grindstone

Are you doing okay out there? I hope that you’re well and not running yourself thin with all the craziness still going on. Sometimes it seems like we can’t catch a break and that work and everything keep us going all the time. In fact, that specific feeling and the resulting drive around it is what I wanted to talk about today.

People have drive. We want to be better. We want to learn and grow and change. Whether it’s getting a faster time running a 5K or learning new skills to help our career along. Humans can do amazing things given the right motivation and resource availability. I know because I taught myself a semester of macroeconomics in a Waffle House the night before the final exam. Sure, I was groggy and crashed for a 10-hour nap after the final but I did pass!

It’s that kind of ability to push ourselves past our limits that both defines us and threatens to destroy us. I’m a huge fan of reading and fiction. Growing up I latched on to the Battletech novels, especially those written by Michael A. Stackpole. In his book Lost Destiny there is a great discussion about honing your skills and what it may end up costing you:

Were we to proceed, it would be the battle of the knife against the grindstone. Yes, we would get sharper, we would win great victories, but in the end, we would be ground away to nothing.

 

Running in Place

That quote hit home for me during my CCIE lab attempt training. I spent my free time after work labbing everything I could get my hands on. I would log on about 8pm every night after my eldest went to sleep and lab until midnight. Every night was the same chore. No time for television or reading anything other than a Cisco Press book. Instead, I drilled until I could provision EtherChannels in my sleep and could redistribute routes without a second thought in four different ways. I felt like I was getting so much accomplished!

I also felt tired all the time. I had no outlet to relax. I spent every waking minute of my free time focused on sharpening my skills. As above, you could practically hear the edge of the knife on the grindstone. I was razor-focused on completing this task. As I learned later in life, the joys of hyper focus in ADHD had a lot to do with that.

It wasn’t until I got through my lab that the true measure of this honing process hit home. I spent the weekend after my attempt hanging out with some friends away from technology and the whole time I felt unsettled. I watched horrible movies on the Sci-Fi channel and couldn’t get comfortable. I was antsy and wound up, even though I’d just completed a huge milestone! It wasn’t until about a week later that I was finally able to put a name to this anxiety. I listened to the little voice in my head repeating over and over again in my downtime: “You really should be studying something right now.”

I was in search of my next grindstone. My knife was sharp, but I knew it could be sharper still with the next certification or piece of knowledge. It took me a while before I could quiet that voice and focus on restoring some semblance of my life as I had known it before my lab attempts. Even now there are times when I feel like I should be studying or writing or creating something instead of unwinding with a book or a camping trip to the woods.

The rush of dopamine that we get from learning new things or performing skills to perfection cannot be understated. It makes us feel good. It makes us want to keep doing it to continue that stream of good feelings. We could focus on it to the detriment of our other hobbies or our social lives. And that was in the time before when we could go out whenever we wanted! In the current state of the pandemic it’s easy to get wrapped up in something without the ability to force yourself to walk away from it, as anyone with a half-filled room full of a new hobby can tell you.

Setting Goals with Limits

What’s the solution then? Do we just keep grinding away until there’s nothing left? Do we become the best left-handed underwater basket weaver that has ever existed? Do we keep forcing ourselves to run the same video game level over and over again until we’re perfect, even if that means not getting out of our house for weeks at a time? Can we do something repeatedly until we are destroyed by it?

The key is to set goals but to make them in such a way as to set limits on them. We do this all the time in the opposite direction. When we have a task we don’t like to do we force ourselves to do it for a set amount of time. Maybe it’s an hour of reconciling the checkbook or thirty minutes of exercise. But if it’s something you enjoy you have to set limits on it as well to avoid that burnout.

Find something you really like to do, such as reading a book. However, instead of devouring that book until it’s finished in one sitting and staying up until 4am to finish it, set an alarm to cut yourself off after an hour or two. Be honest with yourself. When the alarm goes off, stop reading and do something else. You could even pair it with a task you like less to use the little dopamine boost to help you through your other activity.

It’s not fun to stop doing something we like doing even when it’s something that is going to make us a better person or better employee. However, you’ll soon see that having that extra time to reinforce what you’ve learned or collect your thoughts does more for you that just binging something until you’re completely exhausted by it.

Remember when TV shows came out weekly? We had to wait until next Thursday for the new episode? Remember how much you looked forward to that day? Or maybe even the return of the new season in the fall? That kind of anticipation helps motivate you. Being able to consume all the content in one sitting for 8-10 hours leaves you feeling great at first. Later, when your dopamine goes back to normal you’re going to feel down. You’ll also realize you can’t get the same hit again because you have consumed your current resource of it. By limiting what you can do at one time you’re going to find that you can keep that great feeling going without burning yourself out.

Yes, this does absolutely apply to studying for things. Your brain needs time to lock in the knowledge. If you’ve ever tried to memorize something you know that you need to spend time thinking of something else and come back to that item before you really learn it. The only thing that transfers knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory is time. There are no shortcuts. And the more you press the edge of the knife agains the stone the more you lose in the long run because the available resources are just gone.


Tom’s Take

I’m not qualified to delve into the psychoanalysis part of all this stuff. I just know how it works for me because that’s who I am. I can shut out the world and plow through something for hours at a time if I want. I’ve done it many times in my career with both work and personal tasks. But it’s taken a long time for me to finally realize that sprinting like that for extended periods of time will eventually wear you away to nothing. Even the best runners in the world need to rest. Even the smartest people in the industry need to not think about things for a while. You do too. Take some time today or tomorrow or even next week to set goals and limits for yourself. You’ll find that you enjoy the things you do and learn more with those limits in place and you’ll wind up a happier, healthier person. You’ll be sharp and ready instead of a pile of dust under the grindstone.

Making Time For Yourself

I was a recent pop-in guest on the Network Collective Holiday Show with my friends Jordan Martin and Tony Efantis. One of the questions they had been asking their guests was about the big lessons we’ve learned this year. As I thought back on the roller coaster ride that was 2020, I realized that one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned is that I need to make time for the important things for myself.

Mark It Down

I know it sounds like a given, but we all need to make time for ourselves. I realized that when my usual schedule of running myself in overdrive and jumping from one event or travel opportunity to the next evaporated back in March. I found myself sitting at home and working toward some uncertain future. I never thought that there were going to be huge problems but I also didn’t know how things would end up turning out.

As the days grew into weeks and eventually into months, I quickly figured out that the normal I once knew was going to stay gone for quite a while. In place of that was a situation that I needed to adjust to. And that was going to to take some time. I needed to catch my breath but I also needed to build a skill set that would allow me to continue forward.

Over April and May I got better at cooking. I retaught myself the basics of making all kinds of meals. I gained the confidence of trying new things. It helped me find a bit of stability. It happened because I started doing research and setting aside time every day to practice those skills. Maybe it was something small like making tacos. Or even putting something into a slow cooker. But it was time that I needed to take to do something that I needed to learn.

The second big lesson in taking time for myself came in June. With the move of Cisco Live to a digital event an the likelihood that everything else for the rest of the year was going to go the same way, I took the opportunity to get back into better, healthier shape. I had a hard time exercising on the road with the hotel gym being something that I didn’t appreciate. I started getting up earlier and going for walks and then for short runs. Then I upped my running and my walking distances. I made sure to lace up running shoes every day no matter what. No excuses whether it was raining or blisteringly hot outside.

Taking the time to get into better shape has had a huge impact on my self worth and my health. I’ve dropped 50 pounds since March and my running times keep coming down. My pants size went down significantly and the pictures of myself that I’m taking now barely resemble pre-COVID me. All because I took the time for myself.

Make It Happen

There’s no magic in what I did. There was no special system or secrecy code to get me to where I am right now. The only trick was making the time for myself. It’s like the financial books you can buy that give you tips to put into practice to get rich. One of the first is “pay yourself”. It’s contrite but proves the point that you need to give yourself resources to work with or you’ll never get ahead.

Time is as valuable as resource as anything we have. We can’t save time and use it later. We can’t manufacture time. We can only use the time we have to the best of our abilities. Sometimes that means putting something we want to do on hold because of something we have to do. As someone that prides myself on writing lots of blog posts it meant that I had to put that particular part of my productivity behind more immediate things like getting my morning run in. It meant getting the Gestalt IT Rundown story script done before I could play a game or watch a TV show.

Time is what we make of it. I’ve started to realize that by blocking more and more of my time to do things. Maybe I put down on my calendar that Tuesday evening is a day to draw or practice a new cooking skill. Thursday morning could be my long run of the week and my day to research topics for my Tomversations videos. Whatever it is, I make it stick. I don’t need to schedule my exercise in the mornings because it’s become a habit for me. But I do need to schedule the other things to make sure they’re done. You don’t need to have a mark on every minute of your day to be productive, but you do need to make sure you make time for the pieces that are important.

That means making time for non-work things. It’s easy to fill up our calendar with things for work. It’s harder still to fill up the calendar with non-work tasks and skills. Schedule a hike on a Saturday morning. Make Monday night your night to work on a craft that you want to do like learning leather working or knife making. Maybe you just want to say that Wednesday at lunchtime is the place where you’re going to schedule time to read a few more pages of your new favorite book. There are all things that as valid as the next staff meeting or briefing that you have to do. Because they enrich you and help you become a better person.

More importantly, by scheduling these things in your calendar on a personal level you remind yourself not to let work get out of hand. When you live in the office, which is the same as working from home now, you will find yourself working at midnight some nights because you just couldn’t put the work down. By reminding yourself of what’s important you draw a bright line between work and personal and ensure that you have time to put in effort on both without getting overwhelmed.


Tom’s Take

There’s a bit of irony in me saying that you need to make time for the things that are important to you while I write this post after midnight on Christmas. The fact is that I made time earlier today for my family to open some gifts and help bake cookies. I went for a walk and watched some educational videos. Sure, I eventually found the time to write for myself but it came after I had taken care of other things. My journey through 2020 has taught me that time is the kind of resource you need to pay yourself with as often as you can. But you can’t just mark off your calendar and hope that something magical happens. You need to make the effort to use your time wisely and work on yourself. Every new skill you learn or pound you lose is making you a better, more well-rounded person. And that’s the kind of payoff that you can only get from investing time in yourself.

Setting Boundaries Before You’re Swamped

We’re at the tail end of 2020 and things are hopeful for 2021. People are looking at the way IT has pulled together to enable working from anywhere and moving resources to the cloud and enabling users to get their jobs done. It’s a testament to the resilience of a group of sanitation workers behind the scenes whose job it is to clean up after management and sales and do the jobs no one else wants to do.

The cynic in me is worried about what the future is going to hold now that we’ve managed to transform the way we work. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I was checking out this Reddit thread from last week. The top rant had an interesting perspective on the way that 2021 is going to go for workers and I couldn’t agree more. My dread has a name, and it’s Overwork.

Harder, Not Smarter

If anything, 2020 proved that we can do amazing things with the right motivation. The superhero mentality of IT paid off handsomely as we stood up remote access servers and found ways to get access to resources for people that couldn’t come into the office and needed to get things done. We proved invaluable to the company in terms of support and project execution.

However, that superhuman effort also makes us valuable because we can do the impossible. Which means individual workers are great at tasks that are a stretch to get done. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Now, think back on the number of times over your career that you’ve jumped on something that you’ve seen as hard or challenging and gotten it done. Is that number more than one or two? It probably is.

Now, look at it from the perspective of management and the people that make the hiring decisions. You’ve never failed, or at least you’ve failed so infrequently as to be unimportant. You always get the job done no matter what. If we only had a team of you sitting around we could get so much done! Sound familiar?

Let’s look at it from the finance part of the equation. Revenue is down. Expenses are down too, but we could still trim a bit and save money. Where should we cut? Can’t get rid of sales or marketing because they’re working to bring in money. Can’t get rid of executives (for some reason) because they serve some purpose. IT? Support staff? They’ve never failed us before. If we give them a little extra work and don’t fill that open position or cut someone that’s underperforming they’ll come through for us, right?

It’s a tale that’s as old as any in business. Why pay someone to do the work in a role when we can split it up and pass it out to the rest of the team. An extra job won’t hurt anyone, right? Funny how that never happens to the CFO or the CMO. But the networking/storage/security/wireless/server/cloud teams? They’re rockstars!

Know When to Fold Em

In 2021, you are going to need to set boundaries and stand up for yourself when it comes to work. Every role not filled with a person drawing a salary is directly impacting the bottom line of the company. Which means either you should be getting paid more for doing more work or the executives and stockholders are going to get paid more because the company made higher profits. Who deserves that extra money more? The people doing the work? Or the people parking assets in your company until they recover their position and jump to greener pastures?

You need to draw the line and advocate for yourself. Don’t just blindly accept new responsibilities without some sort of future resolution. Are they going to hire someone to fill that role eventually? If not, what are they going to do with the salary? If you and someone else on your team are doing that role permanently you should both be compensated for it. If the executive team gives you pushback, just remind them that they can forgo their next raise or set of stock options to cover things. You’d never see them doing any more without some form of compensation, right?

Drawing boundaries is going to cause friction because superheroes have never had them before. Superman and Spider Man don’t negotiate about saving people on a train. However, you aren’t a radioactive Kryptonian vigilante either. You’re doing a job that you get paid to do. Adding more to your plate is either worthy of additional money or it’s something that needs to be pushed back. If this was AWS and they wanted to upgrade their server instances to a faster CPU, do you think they could persuade Amazon to give it to them for free? Not on your life.

Take the time in 2021 to set yourself up for success. You may be worried that people are going to fire you because they think you want too much money or because you need to be happy to have a job right now. You also need to realize that no one can do your job better than you right now and they know that too. Have a frank and honest discussion about why you feel it’s unfair to pile more work on you without treating you fairly. Make sure they know you’ll help where you can but if they aren’t going to fill the role you need to get the resources they would dedicate to the person doing it. Chances are they’ll realize they do need to hire someone to take the work or they’ll find a way to do without those responsibilities.


Tom’s Take

You are a valuable resource. But you are not infinite. If you burn yourself out then you are spent. The business will likely look for someone to replace you and get them up to speed on your job. You? You’re going to be a shell of the person you were. 2020 has been a roller coaster that has pushed us all hard. We need to find a balance. And if you don’t let people know that you need to find balance in your work and your compensation you may find yourself with no boundaries, no balance, and knee deep in the swamp.