Friction (4): mental overhead and nameless dread

Mental Overhead

Another type of friction we experience is from the ongoing mental overhead of having too many balls in the air. Unfinished projects, unanswered emails, half-read books, unresolved decisions – all take a sliver of attention and emotional energy. This constant mental overhead acts a drag on our attention. reducing our ability to concentrate and – especially when we’re tired – making us feel overwhelmed and unable to decide.

Nameless dread

Nameless dread is the emotional friction that comes with excessive mental overhead. it’s the lurking fear that we’re failing, letting people down, about to drown in jobs undone. It’s often a product of excessive mental overhead, or at least of the same root cause: too much on our plates, falling behind, living in fear that we’re about to be found out.

Things that help with managing mental overhead and nameless dread

  • Keepy uppies and little jobs can help you with feeling on the ball.
  • Some kind of amazing to-do list system might capture everything, but I’m still waiting for something that works consistently for me… look out for a post from Sharky on the latest in workflow management.
  • Talking about things really helps with nameless dread – either with teammates (who might even work some kind of miracle to help you out) or friends who’ll hopefully help by giving you some perspective.
  • Hire someone to do some of the routine stuff – at work or at home.
  • A bit physical danger helps to put most of our fears in perspective: ‘worst possible outcome’ of the things that we dread rarely involve injury, death or dismemberment. Try contact, motor or extreme sports.
  • See Tim Ferriss on Fear Setting
  • Good old fashioned getting things done – finishing things off, tying up loose ends, drawing lines under things (writing things off if necessary) helps a lot too.
  • Try this breakfast recipe.
  • When in doubt, exercise more and avoid eating crap.
  • Work out what you think you can do – and commit to doing 20% less. Allow slack in your system.
  • Pause and seek peace. Pray.

Little jobs

There’s a lot to be said for batching – saving up similar jobs and then working through them efficiently in one go.

But doing little jobs in free moments – in checking-the-news moments, social media moments, junky youtube moments – has its benefits too:

  1. Doing little jobs can act like a form of mental keepy-uppy, keeping your head in the game and saving time when you come back to the larger job that the small job is part of;
  2. Ticking off small jobs makes you feel good – which helps you do better work;
  3. It may be less efficient than batching, but it reduces the cognitive and emotional friction that comes from carrying around a list of undone jobs – so the job might take a bit longer, but you’re faster once its done;
  4. If you’re a bottleneck for other peoples’ work, your little job can unlock a lot of productivity;
  5. Doing a job in the space between other stuff can create space for doing them in a new way, or for new connections between unrelated things – one of the benefits of having a little slack in the system.

You might even get a blog post out of it.

Seth Godin on slack in systems

If you ask most people who run a factory, or an organisation or a sports team, what they’re looking for is a taut, firm connection between and among everybody: everybody busy all the time. The reason that a bucket brigade is so much more efficient than people running back and forth and back and forth to the source of water is that it’s easier for people to efficiently pass the bucket from one to another than it is for them to run back and forth. You will put the fire out faster.

If you’ve ever seen an efficient juggling troupe or bucket brigade or a hockey line-up that’s passing, passing as it works its way down to the goal, it’s a thing of beauty. And so what we seek to achieve is that idea of synchronisation. But I’m here to tell you that you cannot maximise system efficiency by eliminating slack from the system. It feels like you should, but you can’t. And the reason you can’t is because of variability. Variability says that someone might be five minutes late for their appointment. Variability says there might be a custom order coming through that’s worth it for the organisation to take on. Variability says that some customers need to be treated differently from others. And when a system like that exists, when you have removed all of the slack, then when switching costs kick in, the whole system falls apart.

What’s the alternative? The alternative is a fire department with firemen who eat chili for three hours, waiting for the alarm to ring. If you were trying to get rid of slack what you’d do is say, “Let’s have exactly the right number of firemen so that when the average number of fires are happening, all of the fires are being addressed.” Which works great – except when the above number of fires show up. And when the above average number of fires show up, you don’t have enough firemen to go around.

And so what we have the opportunity to do as we organise our lives, as we dance with these systems, is to intentionally build slack into our systems. A buffer. A cushion. To avoid the emergency. Because in that buffer, we can work on the long term stuff. The firemen aren’t really eating chili… they’re using their downtime in a slightly productive way. But mostly what they’re doing is standing in reserve, waiting for when the emergency shows up so that they don’t have to say, “Oh, sorry your house burnt down.”

Seth Godin – Akimbo Season 4 Episode 20: Systems Thinking

Resource: Seth Godin on Systems Thinking

Akimbo Season 4 Episode 20 (July 10, 2019) – Systems Thinking

This is a great episode of riffs on how systems create – and constrain – possibilities, and the opportunities that open up when systems change. Featuring Mr Heinz and the fictional (!) Betty Crocker.

Akimbo Season 4 Episode 18 (June 26, 2019) – Find the others: Apollo 11 and the making of culture

This episode isn’t flagged as an episode about systems or systems thinking, but that’s really what this telling of the story of going to the moon is all about. We watch the Space Race grow out of the wreckage of the Second World War and unfold across a network of more-and-less-and-un- expected connections within the complex adaptive systems of science, science fiction, culture and politics. I loved it.

Highly Recommend.

Seeds (3): becoming Beatrix Potter

1866

Helen Beatrix Potter born in London.

1876

Beatrix Potter has already been doing a lot of drawing and painting. This watercolour is from 1876, a couple of months before her tenth birthday:

Beatrix Potter Early Drawing of anthropomorphic rabbits

1883

Aged 17, she writes “I can’t settle to anything but my painting. I lost my patience over everything else.”

1890

Beatrix Potter sells her first pieces of artwork, illustrations for a set of Christmas cards. She’s 24 years old.

Beatrix Potter Christmas card image 1890

1893

Potter sends an illustrated letter to Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, which contains what will become the opening line of The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

Beatrix Potter Noel Moore Peter Rabbit early letter

1900-1902

Beatrix Potter turns the picture letter into a story. After a couple of false starts (including an alternative version of the story in verse written by another author), the book takes off. 28,000 copies – six printings – are sold by December 1902.

1902-1943

Potter is intimately involved in the design and publication of her books, and the development of spin-off projects and merchandising. She becomes a landowner and conservationist, “credited with preserving much of the land that now constitutes the Lake District National Park.”**

2000

The Tale of Peter Rabbit has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

So what, Sharky?

So this is a beautiful example of an overnight success that was decades in the making. It took thirty-six years – and probably thousands of sketches and paintings – for Beatrix Potter to become Beatrix Potter. She spent thirty-six years as the seed.

For more on Beatrix Potter see Sarah Gristwood‘s The Story of Beatrix Potter, and this site from the V&A.

**Wikipedia

Motion sickness: change and stability

If you’ve ever suffered from motion sickness in a car or on a boat, you probably know that it helps to look at a fixed (or at least slower moving) point on the horizon. A stable reference point helps your body to make sense of the continual movement and to stay oriented and balanced.

Lunettes Seetroën - Inspired By You
These amazing glasses from Citroën contain rings half-filled with blue liquid to create an artificial reference point as your body moves. More on Cool Tools.

Rapid, continual change creates its own kind of motion sickness as reference points (people, places, ideas, institutions, traditions) disappear. It’s easy to feel rootless, unsettled and insecure. Karl Marx’s economics were wrong, but he wrote eloquently about the rapid social change brought about by the industrial revolution:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Karl Marx – The Communist Manifesto

Some thoughts about dealing with rapid change

The faster things change or seem to change (we seem much more aware of change as we get older), the more valuable stable reference points become. Here are few ways of establishing or preserving ‘points on the horizon’ in the face of change:

  • Examine your uncertainty and unease in the face of change. What are you worried about? Are your worries well founded? Is the change disturbing because it’s change for the worse, or because it’s compelling you to “face with sober senses your real conditions of life, and your relations with your kind”? Face them – the better our science becomes, the more we need the liberal arts – that is, to know how to live as free people.
  • Guard relationships with old friends – people who knew who you were, remind you of who you are, and help you to see who you might be at your best;
  • Be deliberate about putting down roots in places that are important to you – move less, go deep;
  • Establish traditions – in your family, in your organisation – things you do together that remind you somehow of who you are, and what’s important. “People like us, do things like this.”;
  • Make room for quiet, disconnected reflection in your life – slow down, see what you think about, mull and pray.
  • Read old books, listen to old music and watch old movies. Share them with friends and children to create common reference points.
  • Ask questions – especially of people who have been around for longer than you have – absorb their cultural knowledge and the story of how things have already changed (a better view of change before you arrived on the scene is often helpful for making sense of – or feeling comfortable with – the change you’re facing now).
  • Stick around. Become a point of reference and stability within your family, town, organisation, network or scene.

Seeds (2): bikes, planes and automobiles

Many of the seeds of the automobile industry came from bicycle manufacturers (I touched on this in Use, Copy, Repair, Make), and on a visit to the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu I learnt some more of the story.

Karl Benz, widely credited as the maker of the first practical automobile, started in mechanical engineering and ironwork and started experimenting with petrol engines to power industrial machines. In 1883 he joined forces with Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger who owned – you guessed it – a bicycle repair shop. Benz & Companie Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik made petrol engines for industry, which allowed Benz to develop his expertise and finish his first Patent Motorwagen in 1885.

Other companies that grew out of bicycle manufacturers include Rover, Peugeot, Opel, Skoda, Humber and Hilman, Sunbeam, and Calcott.

There’s a parallel trend with weapons manufactures: Royal Enfield and B.S.A. (British Small Arms) turned their expertise in machining from guns to motorbikes and cars.

And it doesn’t stop at cars: the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics turned manufacturers who turned their hand to aviation instead.

We needed bike companies to innovate and start making cars, becoming cross-breed or hybrid companies before second generation ‘pure’ car companies picked up the torch and made further innovations as specialists.

So what, Sharky?

Right now, somewhere, in something that already exists, the seed of the Next Big Thing is taking root and getting ready to grow.

  • If you have an idea of what the future looks like, what might the seeds look like? Can you shape your project with the Next Big Thing in mind?
  • Looking at things from the other way round, what might your organisation be the seed of? What’s The Future for your field?
  • Is there a hybrid step (engines and bicycles, bicycle engineering and wings) that you could take to open up possibilities for your organisation?

Shakespeare: sleep no more

Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast,–

Shakespeare – Macbeth (2.2)

How are you sleeping?

Ah, the curtained sleep, neglected partner of exercise and eating well.

Ravel up the sleeve of care; be nourished in life’s feast!

Typo (4): (no) Standard English

[The task of documenting all the words in the English lanuguage] no longer seems finite. Lexicographers are accepting the languages boundlessness. They know by heart Murray’s famous remark: “The circle of the English language had a well defined centre but no discernable circumference.” In the centre are the words everyone knows. At the edges, where Murray placed slang and cant and scientific jargon and foreign border crossers, everyone’s sense of the language differed and no one’s can be called “standard.”

James Gleick – The Information

Seth Godin on fear and reassurance

The way [of handling fear] that doesn’t work is reassurance. Reassurance doesn’t work because you need an infinite amount of it. Someone can give you reassurance for five minutes and then ten minutes later you go “Ooohh no no no.” So the number of times that you need to be told by someone you trust and respect that you’re going to be fine is too high to even ask for it.

For me, the alternative is generosity. That is an excellent answer to fear. That if you are doing this on behalf of someone you care about, the fear takes a backseat. So if you want to figure out how to make books, go to a charity you care about and make a book for them, because now your fear feels selfish. If you want to figure out how to make marketing work, go and market for an organisation that you believe in. If you can find a lonely person and make them unlonely, a disconnected person and make them feel connected, you can make a practice of that. And the upside is it helps you walk straighter and stand taller.

Seth Godin – on Love Your Work with David Kadavy