Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Fly Through the Resolution Revisited

I posted this back in mid-January, but thought that it was still relevant. For those of you considering making New Year's Resolutions, this is as accurate as it was last year.

On Last New Years Day, I caught a really amusing news segment on resolutions already broken. People on the street who confessed that their resolution was to stop smoking while holding a cigarette or to eat better though they had doughnuts for breakfast. Of course this should come as no surprise as the media has also been filled with the encouraging statistic that only 8% of Americans who make resolutions achieve them. Since only 45% of Americans make them in the first place, that implies that only 3.6% of all Americans can keep a resolution that they make (though there may be people who don't make New Year's resolutions who can very easily keep what resolutions they do make, the anecdotal evidence is that the vast majority of people can't).

As people who use magic (by whatever title), we should be in that 3.6%. After all, the application of Will is supposed to be what we're all about. But I'm guessing that a lot of you, like me, have resolved plenty that we have then not accomplished (sometimes we're them).

I'm going to make the argument that the problem are resolutions themselves.

The word resolve has two distinct meanings:
: to find an answer or solution to (something) : to settle or solve (something)
: to make a definite and serious decision to do something : to make a formal decision about something usually by a vote
-- Merriam-Webster online

The term resolution also contains this definition, which is what people are thinking when they make New Year's resolutions:
: a formal expression of will, opinion, or intent...

So, resolutions can be both decisions (and the expression of those decisions) AND solutions.

Well, no wonder we can't keep our resolutions! First of all, just deciding to do something (or stop doing something) isn't actionable. Decisions alone don't get you anyplace. You need a concrete goal, a feasible plan, and doable tasks that you can accomplish. This is a planning problem and you know how I feel about that sort of thing. But I'm not immune to it. There was a time, in this century, but before the kid was born, where I seriously had a resolution that I made like three years running, but never reached, to go to the dentist. And I'd like to nominate that as the most pathetic resolution, let alone resolution that you don't accomplish. After all, I had dental insurance at the time. And it takes all of 15 minute to find a dentist, call them, and make an appointment. But while "look up dentist on insurance list" and "make dental appointment" are both highly actionable, "go to the dentist" isn't. So I didn't do anything about it, for several years. Pathetic.

But even for more important or meaty resolutions, a solution to a problem isn't something you just decide to have. It's not starting point, it's a destination. You have to work your way to the solution. You have to find it and then implement it. If the problem is that you feel like crap, you can't just resolve to be healthier. Because "be healthier" isn't a solution to anything and even if it was, deciding to be healthier doesn't implement the solution. This is a temporal problem (jumping ahead to the result). Smoking is a great example of this. People resolve to quit smoking all the time. The problem is that quit is not an instant state, it's a process by which you work through the challenges and cravings and fail and restart, hopefully to end up at non-smoker status sometime in the future. Instead of "quit smoking" -- an effort that will fail at the first weakening of will -- a better resolution is "become a non-smoker." This is a decision you can make to implement a solution to a problem. Of course, you still have to come up with a plan. Will you go to the doctor, get on the patch, quit cold turkey with a carrot stick in hand and then forgive your inevitable failures? Until you know, you won't be able to do much.

Before any smokers complain, I should point out that in my early 20s, I was a pack a day smoker myself. But at this point I am a non-smoker and haven't had a cigarette for probably close to 20 years*. If you're curious, my process to become a non-smoker was a spatial one. First, I stopped smoking in the car (in winter, which made it easier because I didn't want the window open). Then I quit during my workday, which involved finding people to chat with who didn't take smoke breaks and getting snacks instead. Then I stopped smoking in our house, in summer when it was really hot outside (which meant that my boyfriend also had to stop). Then I stopped smoking in anyone else's house (which was easy, because most people don't like that anyway). Then I stopped smoking while drinking. Each of those steps took time and willpower. But eventually, there were only a few places and times where I could smoke. At other times, I'd promise myself I could have a cigarette later (I accidentally stumbled on this now well-researched trick). Then, at the end, I concentrated all my willpower on the few times left... and then I didn't smoke anymore. The whole process took, well, over a year I think. It was as far from a one-time declaration as possible.

* Yes, this means I'm older than you.

Below are 5 of the top 6 New Year's Resolutions in 2016 (according to some survey that is probably pretty unscientific). If this is what people are resolving, I'm not at all surprised that like 92% of people fail. Accurate or not, I'm going to take these in reverse order, explain why they're undoable, and then suggest alternatives. Now, I'm aware, that resolutions are traditionally short statements or declarations. It might be that behind the scenes, people are actually doing all the good goal definition or planning. But if they were, we'd probably see a better success rate, so assume that the resolution we have here is all that there is.

Don't do this.

Pay down debt
This is probably the most doable of the resolutions in the list, though it's still missing key aspects. I'm not going to complain that this isn't a good idea, in fact it's a very good idea that has all kinds of positive repercussions. The problem is that this is not yet a goal and there's no plan for achieving it. Before anything else, you need to start by understanding how much debt you have and what interest it's charging. And then you need to do a budget to see where your money is going. This activity could take you a couple of weeks or more, depending on how nebulous your finances currently are to you. And that's only the first step.

After that, we need to make the goal more concrete:
  • pay down $10,000 in debt
  • pay off high interest credit card
  • pay off car loan early
  • pay extra on the mortgage
All these goals require sending more money to the debt than you have been. So where will that money come from? Maybe your goal is really "make more money and use it to pay down $10k in debt." That's better, but even better is including how you will make that money. Or maybe instead of making more money, you want to re-purpose the money you have. So now your resolutions look like this:
  • take a weekend job and use the money to pay down $10,000 in debt
  • cancel the cable and use the money to pay off high interest credit card
  • sell comic collection on ebay and pay off car loan
  • stop buying Starbucks and pay extra on the mortgage
Finally we should include a time frame that depends on the means and the size of the debt:
  • take a weekend job and use the money to pay down $10,000 in debt by the end of the year
  • cancel the cable and use the money to pay off high interest credit card by August 2017
  • sell comic collection on ebay and pay off car loan six months early
  • stop buying Starbucks and pay $50 a month extra on the mortgage
From this longer, but much more actionable resolution, you can easily create a list of tasks you need to do go accomplish this goal, from applying at the coffee shop to buying coffee to make at home, or photographing your comics or calling the cable company. Things you can actually do.

Spend more time with family and friends
Human connection is something that's really necessary for health and happiness. When people make this resolution, they are probably feeling lonely and disconnected. We're fundamentally social animals after all.

This is a somewhat concrete goal, but what's missing is the HOW and WHY. First, how much time are you actually spending with your network and how much would you like to? This is your gap to fill. And how do you see these people now? Do you have breakfast together, watch movies, play poker? The next question is why don't you see them more? Are you working too much? Are they? Are your kids massively over-scheduled? Are you disorganized and don't return calls or reach out as much as you want? This is an exercise in understanding and scoping the problem.

Once you have a better grip on the problem, you need to clearly identify whether this issue is even in your control. You can't resolve to spend more time with friends and family if THEY'RE the ones who are too busy/distracted/disorganized. It's not within your control to change people. At best, you can reach out and encourage them into your cause (let's spend more time together). And if it's your family, you will obviously need to all cooperate to make it happen. If you're really craving connection and your friends and family aren't, then the best you can do is replace them or, more likely, subsidize them with additional people who are. You can only make resolutions for yourself on things that you have some control over. So change your behavior (reach out, work less, schedule stuff) but don't expect to change others'.

Maybe the result is a resolution that's more like:
  • work with my family to get support for having supper together 5 nights a week
  • make some new friends who have more time to get together
  • cut back on work and hobbies to make time to see the people who love me
  • make a point of reaching out to people twice a week
Save more, spend less
This is similar to number five above. A good idea, but needs more specificity (how much savings, what type of spending). Even more importantly, if you can't point to exactly what you are spending and what you are saving every month now, you aren't going to make much headway with this. And once you do know where the dollars are going, this is all about priorities. What will you spend less on? Where will you cut? Fundamentally, this is an exercise in what you value. No wonder it's hard to accomplish this sort of goal! If your resolution was "understand all my expenses and then determine and document my values and priorities in order to cut costs so that I can improve my savings" you wouldn't expect to be able to flip a switch and have that change happen starting January 1st, right?

Lose weight
This seems like a good idea, but it's actually not. First of all, why do you even want to lose weight? To have more energy (exercise is a better goal)? To avoid a health issue (don't diet, change your diet)? Or to look hot in a bikini (a combination of eating less/better and exercising more is a good start, but you may also need to look at skin care, cosmetic procedures, and so on)? The plan will differ greatly depending on the reason.

Next up, how much weight and how fast? People are terrible at being realistic about this sort of thing. If you gained 10 lbs in the past year, then losing that 10 in the coming year is the sort of sane goal you may actually be able both accomplish and maintain.

Finally, how will you lose weight? Eating less and being hungry has all sorts of repercussions, which is why the consensus is that calorie restrictive diets don't work. There are reasons that this is the actually the worst of all goals, but we'll be getting to that in my willpower post soon. My recommendation is to avoid this resolution altogether and exchange it for concrete exercise goals and concrete nutrition goals. You'll feel better and be healthier and may lose some weight in the process (bonus!).

Live a healthier lifestyle
Please. This is the perfect example of an undoable goal. In fact, this is really about six undoable goals rolled into some kind of undefined meta goal. There's no way someone will resolve this and then be able to wake up the next day and actually do... what exactly? Situps? Eat kale? Stop drinking a fifth of Jack for breakfast? What does this mean!?

One of the primary pieces of advice for making resolutions is to pick one goal and work on it. So, of all the ways you can live possibly mythical "healthier lifestyle" pick one. Then turn that into a real resolution like:
  • Go to the gym three times a week and work out for 30 minutes
  • Replace soda with water and have a veggie-based lunch or dinner five days a week
  • Stop drinking a fifth of Jack for breakfast (this is actually a really good idea, if it applies to you... though you might need some help)
Now even these aren't enough to actually accomplish the goal, but at least they are concrete and measurable and you can make a plan to do them.

How meta... my resolution is to remember to resolve to follow through with my resolutions.

And what was the sixth resolution on that list? The number one resolution from that survey is to Live Life to the Fullest. And I think you can see how undoable that is. If you want to be one of the 8%, you need to choose goals that are definable and doable and not just nebulous woo-woo. You need to define the goal in detail, work out a plan for getting there, come up with detailed tasks, and forgive your inevitable failures.

So if you are considering making resolutions this New Years Eve, start now to help ensure you end up in the 8%.

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Friday, December 22, 2017

Longest Night

Lots of magic going on. Deipnon (after the new moon and as Saturn prepared to enter Capricorn), Solstice night offerings, Decan rite for the moment of the Solstice. Tomorrow I'll be doing some Saturn work, in the spirit of the new boss (all the cool kids are talking about it!). Christmas eve has its own kind of magic, one deeply rooted in a very haunted, Germanic view of the holiday that comes from my childhood and has more to do with the Kris Kindle than Kris Kringle).

As I did then, we'll be celebrating on Sunday night. And as always, Monday is the start of a very busy interstitial period based on the idea that where you are on New Year's is where you will be the rest of the year. That means cleaning up, catching up on laundry, taking down the tree, etc. Plus a whole batch of magic and planning ... and magical planning. All culminating in an astrologically auspicious New Year's Day working.

I'm also going to revisit my tool kit for the next phase of the EBER project. I'm not going to jettison anything necessarily (sigils aren't going anywhere) but I am tweaking a bit. For example, based on what I think the theme will be for the coming year, I think I'll be de-emphasizing tarot in favor of the I Ching. I'll also be doing more magical potion making, including my blended oils. In any long project, your emphasis will naturally evolve over the course of the project, but making those trends conscious helps keep things on track.

We're all very happy to see the end of Mercury retrograde as well. This one was glitchy. For example, I broke a measuring cup, the spouse broke a large glass, and the kid broke the towel rack... all in the space of about 2 hours. But more interesting was how it interacted with Saturn's ingress into Capricorn. The moment it did our heads spun around like Linda Blair in the Exorcist. We've spent the last couple of days looking back, talking about the past, reexamining things that were difficult or challenging -- it has been frankly quite annoying. I even had to deal with some work (during my vacation!) that was basically a clean up effort from last year stuff. But that feeling is starting to ease up now.

Which is good, because it's time to face forward and get a move on 2018. 


Sunday, December 17, 2017

2017 It's a Wrap

I'm going to avoid talking about the negative parts of 2017. Like many people, I'll be looking forward to having this year in the rear-view, but I'm going to focus on the good stuff because, really, what else you gonna do? And honestly, there was plenty of good stuff at the House of Perpetual Indulgence*.

* Nickname given by an old friend and that we've embraced.

I don't really talk too personal around here, but I believe I mentioned that we dealt with a serious accident some years back that had a huge impact on us in several different areas. Since that time, a significant portion of our physical, emotional, financial, and magical energy have been getting us on solid footing again. We were very fortunate and I'm incredibly grateful as things could have been so much worse (memento mori, remember?).

I share this not for sympathy (shit does, indeed, happen). I'm just sensitive to sounding like our recent successes are all there is (the "blog my perfect life" syndrome), or that nothing bad has ever happened to us, so of course things are going well. So if you take a lesson from the following, it's that organized project planning and a big dose of magic can change even the most fucked up situation and that planning ahead can make the shit easier to deal with when it hits.

First of all, the household made major progress on all three of the Early to Bed, Early to Rise (EBER) project priorities: to be healthy, wealthy, and wise...

  • On the health front, there were very interesting results from the Decan work I've been doing. Also the 9 nights of Hecate devotional, which lead me through some amazing dreams to a potential solve for long-term health concern (and now mushrooms talk to me!). Couple this with some serious focus on self-care, and everyone in our household has benefited in different ways.
  • From a sustainability / prosperity standpoint (which is how I interpret "wealth" since the risk in our capitalist society is of viewing it as purely materialist and income based) we have sorted out some vexing problems that have increased our optionality significantly. We eliminated debt. We dealt with some deferred maintenance. We invested in some areas with solid household ROI. Think buying a side of beef and setting up a shop in the garage.
  • I feel like the information gathering phase of the project went especially well -- the right data has just been falling in my lap through the year. This includes mundane and magical information related to both the goals above and other areas moving forward. And the latest, in case you haven't seen it yet, is Austin Coppock on the Rune Soup podcast. That one is really honing the direction for the rest of the EBER project. So much so that I'll be kicking off phase two just before the Winter Solstice, earlier than I expected.

Second, there's the expansion of my consulting business. I really enjoy this work and am looking to connect with more people who need help with their project goals in 2018. This includes some surprises I'll be rolling out in the first quarter. My own podcast on Rune Soup was a game changer. I'd never done one before, but it was really fun and it was wonderful to get feedback from people. I'm absolutely looking to do more of these next year (suggestions / invitations welcome).

Finally, I'm at the same place I was career-wise a couple of years ago. A lot of magic moved me into a spot with many more opportunities and I've been working my ass off ever since. In order to manifest my big next-step career goal, I'm going to have to be on point for the next couple of years.

Over the next two weeks, I'll be setting the stage for 2018 with familiar themes (resolutions anyone?) and new stuff too.

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Friday, December 1, 2017

The Year of Being Agile -- Agile Risk Management, Entanglement (Office Space Edition)

Bet you thought I forgot about this series, didn't you? I admit I got distracted by the EBER project but 2017 is still the year of being agile.

One of the things that bugs me about traditional risk management is that you have a "risk register" where all your individual risks go to live and are then mitigated, one by one, through your risk process. This makes no sense to me.

Risks aren't discrete and independent units. In fact, risks come in interrelated webs, with dependencies that impact each other's likelihood and potential severity. Let me give you an example:

Randolph has been dealing with chronic stress-related health issues. They come from his job, which is 12 kinds of shit in a shit box. He can't afford to quit his job, first because they don't pay enough to build up a cushion of savings and second, because they pay his health insurance. He also can't find a new job because, hello? health issues again. So his health is a risk, his job is a risk, his very livelihood is a risk. And those risks are entangled like the tentacles of a horrifying monster from the depths -- Riskthulhu.

https://disse86.deviantart.com/ -- go buy his stuff or this guy will get you

Let me be blunt. There's no easy, safe solution to this kind of situation. In fact, there's not a single solution at all. How you sail past this bastard is going to depend on the specific details of your life. However, here are some approaches that may prove useful:

Dwell on the Worst Case Scenario
This is a stoic technique -- Memento Mori, remember that you will die. You contemplate the bad things that could happen in order to make the bad things that do happen less horrible. It fosters gratitude and reduces stress. Both good results. But in addition, in this situation it gives perspective needed to make hard choices. Our friend Randolph might be terrified of doing anything for fear that it will upset the situation and make things worse. "How can I take a new job," he thinks "when I'm sick so often?" But let's be honest, if he does nothing he's already on the way to worst. His health isn't going to get any better and most likely neither will his job. Eventually he'll lose it and by the time he does he really may be too sick to ever work again.

Yeah, I know it sounds depressing but it's really not. Here's a personal anecdote. My father and I have had a sometimes challenging relationship. He's a decent guy who has the ability to piss me off like no one else. And when he got cancer I started having panic attacks. The best therapist ever told me to go and write, in detail, the worst case scenario. Of course the worst case scenario was that he'd die. But you know what, that's going to happen at some point anyway. And since I'm his kid, odds are that I'll be around to experience it. And if he drives me crazy in the mean time, so what? And along with biofeedback training, I felt tons better. No more panic attacks.

In fact, he didn't die and is alive to this day. Eventually he will though, just like everyone does. But in the mean time he drives me a lot less crazy. Cause it just doesn't seem worth getting pissed off so much anymore.

Look for the Wiggle Room
Randy probably feels trapped by his situation and that sure doesn't help his stress. In order to find a way out, he needs to see where he might have some wiggle room. For example, there are known proven methods for reducing stress. Sure it doesn't make his job better, but it might make him feel better. As usual with stuff that's good for you, the ways all sound boring and prosaic and we all known them already. Still much of this stuff is free and can be started incrementally: sleep, exercise, vegetables, meditation. And do magic for a peaceful house and calm mind or even a paid break from work (I once did this and there was a power outage that had me paid to hang out at home for a few days). Or alternately, maybe there's a chance to tweak the job slightly. A transfer to a different department or location? A temporary assignment under a different manager? It's not an escape, but it is a change. Enchant for the opportunity and then when it comes, take it. Randy needs to remember that by doing nothing, the worst case scenario could still happen, so he needs to find the wiggle room and, well, wiggle the fuck out of it.

Get the Word Out
Lots of people hate their jobs. They may even bitch about it. But what people sometimes don't do is get the word out in a positive way about what they want instead. Randy needs to start telling everyone - that he's a) looking for suggestions for health b) looking for new opportunities. He needs to make it positive, about what he wants (energy improvement, better work/life balance, to have his talents appreciated) and not how terrible everything is and how bad he feels. And I mean everyone. People on the bus, at the store, online, his family, his friends. Sure, he may not feel up to actually launching a job hunt or trying every medical idea in the world. But by stating his intent, he's opening the door for those things to come to him.

And needless to say he should be "saying" those things magically too. Put the call out. Demand the kind of job you deserve. Ask for what you want. And when the universe obliges, don't balk. Remember how much worse things can get by doing nothing at all.

Stop Trying So Hard (Where It Doesn't Fucking Matter)
OK, it's absolutely not in my nature to tell anyone to stop trying. Proactive striving is kind of my MO, to the point that you should filter all my advice through your own tolerance for foot to the floor action. But if you are stressed and sick and short on energy / time / money then the best thing you can do is pull back, stop giving so many fucks (save them for when you really need them), and don't try so hard. For Randy, he needs to remember that if he expends less energy on work, works less, cares less, and decides that he just doesn't care anymore... well the worst that can happen is he gets fired eventually (though that could just be the best thing that happens to him). But in the mean time he stresses less and has more time and energy to implement some of the other strategies here to make things better.

I know a few people are reading and saying to themselves "well, I just can't do a bad job at work or I couldn't live with myself." To that I ask:

  • You're perfectly capable of doing a bad job at other things (like taking care of your health) so why not branch out?
  • You are probably already doing a bad job because of the stress and illness, so why not lean into it (probably not what Sandberg meant)?
  • Did you ever think that a good job might not even be possible to do at that shit hole? 
Oh, and don't tell me it's unfair to your coworkers. You'll be setting a good example of self-care and sanity and maybe encourage them to start fighting their own Riskthulhus.

Work is a big part of people's lives, but it's not the only part. Even if your job sucks, it doesn't mean it has to suck the life out of you. You need things in your life that aren't about striving and goals. You need stuff that makes you feel happy and better. And not in an escapist, I just ate a quart of ice cream and spend 7 hours click-bait surfing kind of way. Find things that bring you joy and a sense of fulfillment. Find things that make you happy. They may be small things, but don't discount their importance.

I actually had to make this meme, since I couldn't find an image or quote from that scene in the movie online. Now think about how fucking sad that is.
Randy needs to make sure he's got other good things and people in his life. Those things aren't optional. They are critically important.

Blow this Shit Up
Let's say that none of the previous stuff has helped at all (though I would argue that taking walks outside and eating kale is bound to do something good). It's time for the nuclear option. This is the riskiest and most aggressive technique.

I've written about this in detail before (including a divination technique to help figure out if it's a good idea) but here's the TL;DR version:

Randy's job is an area of his life where he is very fragile. Think of a fragile teacup. It doesn't like shocks or changes. It prefers to be coddled and babied. It's likely to break at the least bit of stress. Sometimes fragile things are worth babying, but other times it's just not worth it. Randy knows, from his Memento Mori practice that doing nothing is as big a risk in the mid to long-term as anything else he might try. So he decides to take the teacup and smash it.

  1. He creates a list of magic he will do for improved health, financial stability, and a better job. He outlines in detail what kind of enchantments he will do for these areas.
  2. He performs divination to see what will happen if he does these things and then smashes his teacup. With luck the signs are good. This step is optional actually. Sometimes you just gotta throw shit down.
  3. He does the magic (important, he needs to do everything on his list and with feeling).
  4. He walks into work on Monday and QUITS. Just like that. He may consider saying "take this job and shove it!" he might decide to burn fewer bridges and even give notice. But he's taking the shitty job and smashing it. BAM!

I know it's easy for me to talk. I love my job. But I've had bad jobs in the past. Ones that gave me so many migraines that I was completely debilitated. Ones that put my life at risk (think late night gas station weirdos and climbing a two story wet ladder in the dark with no safety equipment). Ones that were so bland and soul-sucking that I felt like a Shawn Of the Dead zombie. Those weren't good places to be, in my job or in my life.

There comes a point where you have to do something. Maybe you get on the phone and demand that your paycheck arrive on time from now on (and get a round of applause from the whole store). Maybe you come in on the weekend and move your desk to an entirely different part of the building, leaving no trace of your whereabouts. Maybe you tell HR that you will not sign their bullshit review and that you want four months severance and for them not to contest unemployment or you will sue them. Maybe you change all the printer status messages on the day you leave and no one can figure out how to change them back for months. Maybe you get better and better jobs so that you can live well as the best revenge.

This is a time of risk. Doing nothing is a risk. The status quo is a huge risk. Job security is a lie and a risk. It's the year of being agile and we all need to learn to deal with risk.

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Life is Too Short to Eat Shit -- Media Edition

As I mentioned before, one of my personal maxims is that life is too short to eat shit. And it turns out that even the Pope agrees with me.

So in thinking about self-imposed limits on media, I've been subjecting everything to a smell test. If it smells like shit, I've been cutting it out. But this is tricky because I want to distinguish shit from things that aren't shit, but that have a smell I don't particularly like. Because if I only subject myself to things that smell lovely, well then I'm back in the bubble. And none of us can afford to be in the bubble right now.

Here are the metrics I've been using:
  • How relevant it is? Local traffic and weather is highly relevant to my life. The more relevant it is, the easier it is to validate. They say that the snow will start around 1pm, did it? In most cases, relevant = local. However, there are things that are potentially relevant on a larger scale. You know what's not relevant though? Almost everything coming out of Washington.
  • How much BS do I have to wade through to get to it? I follow one political blog that is an easy and relatively painless way to get highlights on what's happening in government at the national level. Painless here means: no ads, no video, no audio, no talking heads, NO COMMENTS. A daily short list of items that I can review in a couple of minutes to see who spouted what bullshit, who quit or got fired, and who made what egregious claim. The authors do some minimal analysis and link to places that do more, but I just ignore all that. I'm not sure that accurate analysis is possible and I've been working hard to withhold opinion based on inaccurate analysis.
  • Can I trust the facts? This is the big one. I'm constantly surprised that smart, educated democrats who were just 12 months ago complaining about the biased media being in the pocket of big corporations and that government intelligence is by definition a lie are now championing those same media outlets as beacons of democracy and believing everything the intelligence agencies say without question. Since when can the CIA be trusted? Since when is the press independent of corporate censorship? These are the same people they were a year ago.
  • What's the ROI? Am I getting something useful out of my investment of time and -- more importantly -- emotional energy? Apply this lens to social media especially. 
I've also been limiting other kinds of media. The radio's been set to the classical station recently. Minimal ads, no news, no chatter. I don't watch fictional series on TV any more. Mention any major series and I probably haven't seen any of it. Instead, I enjoy cooking shows, competitions (Great British Baking-type or Forged in Fire), nature stuff, etc. Note, I don't want to come off as a snob here. Some of these shows are enjoyable, but ultimately silly fluff. I just need to take in less right now. And I definitely need less torture porn cop TV, prowar propaganda, lame and formulaic sitcoms, and complex dramatics that I'm supposed to keep up with for season after season.

I suppose this makes me more boring in the break room at work (no I haven't seen Game of Thrones... like, ever) but so be it. Because that's the way it's gotta be for me right now.

Know why? Because I'm Leroy:

And frankly, I think we're all Leroy. And that kind lady tucking us in? Yeah, that's Western Society (or the Dominant Cultural Paradigm or the Mass Media or the Government Propaganda Machine -- they're all one thing at this point, so take your pick). And to be clear, it's not a conspiracy. It's a complex self-perpetuating consumer system -- and we're what's being consumed. Sometimes it seems like no one's even in charge of it, but that doesn't keep it from being way more terrible than most of us ever expected or in my case could even imagine.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

How to Become a Project Manager -- Lessons From the Corporate World

Since this has come up a couple of times recently (in both my online and IRL lives), I thought it would be useful to spread the PM gospel. While I believe that everyone can benefit from acquiring some PM skills in order to meet their own goals, there are also some people for whom project management would be a good career.

It's important to have a role model
First of all, why would anyone want to be a project manager for a living?

  • The skills are cross functional and can be used in many industries, from computers to medical care to construction. That means more options in the job market based on other skills you already have.
  • The money is good. Let's just be blunt about it. PMs make a good living. They tend to be respected and valued for the work they do.
  • Your job isn't going to get replaced by a robot any time soon.
  • The role isn't easy to off-shore (and if you have PM skills managing off-shore teams, you are doubly valuable).
  • You don't need -- and likely don't even want -- a college degree in PM. This is a field where real-world experience is considered the best training. Degrees can even be looked on with suspicion unless they are coupled with actual experience.

So what sort of strengths do you need to be to be a good PM?

  • Communication skills -- written, verbal, presentation, non-verbal.
  • People skills -- projects are made up of people, so you need to be good with them.
  • Management skills -- even if you don't directly manage the folks on your teams, you are still effectively a manger for that project, so you should not suck at it.
  • Organizational skills -- obviously.
  • The desire for responsibility -- not just the willingness, but the desire. You have to like owning and running stuff. Most of the successful PMs I know are proactive control freaks who enjoy being responsible for things.

If PM degrees aren't that interesting, how do you get a job?

People typically slide into project management sideways. They start out in construction, development, engineering, or healthcare -- something where there are PMs -- and prove that they have the skills and sense of responsibility to manage and coordinate projects and people, then they start seeking out those opportunities until they find they are asked take the role, get a change to get training or a certification, or find they end up with the experience necessary to get the role someplace else. This works because not everyone wants to a) run stuff and b) deal with the details. People who want a) but not b) go into upper management. People who want b) but not a) are wonderful individual contributors. If you like both, you have the makings of a PM and that makes you valuable.

Great, but what if I'm barely out of school / not working (or working in a place where I don't get to run the french fry machine, let alone a project) / or trying to get into a new field entirely and have no experience?

There are professional certifications that carry some weight. They are managed by the PMI -- the Project Management Institute -- and while I didn't have one until I'd already been a program manager, they can help as part of a transition plan. The best and most well known certification is the PMP, but it requires documented experience leading and managing projects as well as training (and a killer exam). The good news is that you can get this experience without the job title, so if you've been doing it and can justify it, this will help you look better on paper. The training can easily be bought through a week-long boot camp class (which trust me, will really help you pass that test).

Another option -- that I'm less familiar with -- is the CAPM, which is the associate PM cert. This one requires experience OR training (and what looks like a smaller exam) and would be a good option for a younger person (like my nephew who has a business degree and is working in fast food right now).

I want to be a PM! What should I do next?

  • See if there are PMs where you work and take one out for coffee. We are as amenable to flattery as the next person.
  • See if there's a local chapter of the PMI and go to a meeting and network. By definition these people will be champions of the career field.
  • Scour job listings. Note, everyone should do this always -- you don't even have to be in the market for a new job for this to be super useful):
    - Look for jobs listings called "project manager" "project coordinator" "program manager" that you might be qualified for based on other experience (it's worth a shot, especially since there are jobs that have the title but that don't have the pay, which you could use as a jumping off point).
    - Look for jobs that you might be able to get that have a project manager type component without the title. You use the experience as the stepping stone to the certification and actual title.
    - Look for the skills that PM jobs are looking for and see how you could get them. Honestly lots of organizations are desperate for people to help organize and coordinate things. Volunteer at your favorite charity, school, club, etc. You'll learn both skills and lessons and can put those on your resume.
  • Do magic. Once you know what you need to learn, enchant for those learning experiences to come to you. Enchant for opportunities to take low cost or free classes in the field (just because a degree isn't useful doesn't mean there's nothing to learn). Enchant to put the right mentors and contact in your path.
I hope this is helpful for anyone curious about PM as more than just a nifty toolkit for getting what you want personally (though it is that as well, obviously). If you can not only keep your shit together, but help other people get theirs together as well, if you crave responsibility and like to control things, if you are reasonably organized and a very good communicator -- you have the makings of a career PM.

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Thursday, November 9, 2017

EBER Project -- Play to Your Strengths (Lessons from the Corporate Sphere)

This post is an expansion of part of this earlier post on setting big goals. If you are trying to figure out what big thing to pursue, I still recommend that post (plus it has a nifty Dr. Horrible theme). This post is about just one important piece of that... focusing on what you do well.

The idea is to play to your strengths and talents. Not because working on your weaknesses is bad but because it's not the best use of your energy. And for a really big goal, you need all the energy you can get. Being athletic has never been a strength of mine, but in looking at ways to be more fit, I need to focus on things I can do. Joining a sports team would be terrible idea, but an activity where I only compete with myself and have a way of seeing progress... that plays to my strengths.

Lots of business and life coaches suggest playing on strengths, so I went hunting for actual research that backs it up. And there is plenty. Plus doing a lot of what you suck at just kind of sucks. It's not the effort (you can be good at things that are hard), it's the endless grind. It's demoralizing.

How do you figure out what you're good at?

In case you have no clue what you're good at, take a look at this article by the Harvard Business Review. It describes a process called the Reflected Best Self (RBS) exercise. Quickly, the stages are as follows:
  1. Ask a bunch of people who know you what you're good at.
  2. Look for themes in the feedback.
  3. Write a description of yourself highlighting your strengths.
  4. Create a description of your goal or dream life based on this description.
Another interesting method for understanding strengths was effectively thrown in my path at a recent conference. Yes, like any good career-person, I have a list of professional development goals. This year's was to attend the Project Management International Global Conference in Chicago.

Sometimes you see something and you just know that it's the right thing for you to do. That's what I experienced when I saw the conference listing and I convinced my boss to send me. And everything about the trip just reinforced my instinct.

First, there was the great group of magicians I had the pleasure of connecting with over dinner. Not only did we have a great time, but they are planning on meeting again, which makes me feel very happy.

Second, there were some particular courses and events that were exactly what I needed right now, such as the Project Management and Stoicism session (seriously the thing I was looking forward to most in the entire conference).

Finally, there was an opportunity to take this interesting CliftonStrengths assessment. The first 450 people to show up the morning of the first day got to take the assessment for free and have either an individual or group coaching session based on the results. I really like the way the assessment was organized. It was easy to take and the results came immediately online. It ranks you on 34 skills in four areas and gives you back your top five strengths. I found the results really interesting and my boss thought they reflected my strengths as well.

The coaching session was also good. For example, described a workplace issue, and she talked me through how I could leverage the things I was good at in order to meet the challenge. It was incredibly useful and insightful. Of course, no one minds hearing about all the stuff they're awesome at, but the thing that really struck me was how to leverage those skills to deal with the things that aren't so easy.

Because let's be honest. Playing to your strengths is great in theory, but what if it's your weaknesses that keep messing you up? Say you are great at learning and focus, but not so good with empathy and folks at work find you annoying because you don't seem to care about them. Unless you are going to find a job in a fire watch tower, you are probably going to have to deal with other people. Maybe you'll never be that good at putting yourself in someone else's shoes, but with your knack for learning, you can read about how to put people at ease and practicing listening skills with your laser-like focus.

Or let's say that you are top notch at finding creative solutions to problems, but have a hard time focusing and getting your ideas in writing. No one will even know how awesome you are if you can't hone and share your vision. So use your creative problem solving to experiment with reducing distractions (maybe you arrange to work from home sometimes, but instead you go to the most boring place you can think of to really concentrate) and communicate your ideas (how about a short video or chart-heavy slide deck to express your cool new ideas?).

In the end, your strengths make up an important part of who you are. And sometimes we have a harder time identifying them than our weaknesses. After all, do you spend more time contemplating how awesome you are or beating yourself up over how much you suck? Yeah, I thought so -- me too!

By the way, you can take the basic assessment for like $20 (I'm in no way associated and certainly don't make any money from it, I just thought it was interesting and useful). I can see using it to identify a new career path, set and meet goals, and find solutions to life's challenges. Because we're all awesome, just at different things.

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Monday, November 6, 2017

Bullet Ephemeris Public Service Announcement

Ever since mentioning my Bullet Ephemeris (and then blogging about it), I've been seeing masses of directed advertising for custom hardbound planner books. I am frankly stunned at the number and variety of these, to the point that I feel obliged to make sort of a public service announcement.

Each of these ads makes roughly the same claims for their product:

  • It will help you achieve every single goal you've ever even remotely contemplated
  • It will turn you into hyper-achieving accomplishment machines
  • It will banish all stress, wasted time, and bad hair-days from your life
  • It is, each and every one, better than all the others

Sigh. Let's have a little chat.

First of all, writing stuff down and being organized isn't a bad thing. But if a fancy form you fill out was all it took to meet your goals... well, there wouldn't be literally dozens of these out there on the Internet. This is why I don't ever give templates to my private consulting clients. In part because I learn a lot more about how people operate when they free-write and self-organize, which allows me to give them the personalized service that they are paying for. Also, when you write it you own it, which is way more important and useful than me providing some kind of arbitrary structure.

Second, meeting all your goals and accomplish accomplish accomplish isn't the idea! The idea is to use these tools to figure out what's most important, what will get you pointed toward your mission, values, and vision, and what will make you happy. And as anyone suffering from the tyranny of choice in this world can tell you, there are always too many goals / classes / options. Not everything has to be a goal or an accomplishment. Know what? I knit. And I'm absolutely not an accomplished knitter. I'm not even a dedicated amateur. I knit when I feel like it, buy supplies as I want guilt free, and occasionally finish something (or abandon it or screw it up). It is, in the purest form, a trifling hobby. And that's fine! Not everything you do has to be a big deal or in service to your goals.

Third, being disorganized does tend to cause stress, but being organized isn't all it takes to banish it. Try exercise and meditation and kale (always the same fucking three, isn't it?). And wasted time is a precious commodity. Maybe you don't want to fill every minute of your day with tasks and lists and hacks and goal achieving effort. Maybe you want the kind of life where hanging out under a tree thinking long thoughts is a regular part of your week. Maybe that IS your goal.

Finally, I'm as much of a sucker for shiny office supplies as anyone, but no system that someone else makes is going to work better than the system you make and work and, above all, that you make work. It is easy? Again, no. It can be really hard. Odds are that, as adults all of you, you've already achieved the easy goals. The ones you have left are the tough ones, that require more from you than you're used to. Either they take more organization skills than you naturally have (though these skills can be taught and developed -- or I wouldn't have a this site!) or they have bumped up against some limitation or fear that you have to get around, or they mean making hard choices and prioritizing differently, or they mean breaking bad or making good habits.

My hard goal is easy for some people. And my easy goal may be hard for some of you. The way I think and plan and structure data is unique to me -- just like your way is unique to you. The only difference is that I've spent years learning about these different ways as part of my career. You only need to know about one... yours.

I'm always flattered and honored that some people want me to help them directly -- I believe I provide value (and if I ever doubt myself, I remember that corporations aren't sentimental -- if I wasn't bringing it, they'd have gotten rid of me already). But lots of my knowledge is slowing appearing right here for free. So buy an inexpensive spiral or book, grab a pen you already own, and get busy figuring your life out.

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Friday, October 27, 2017

FAQs About my Consulting Services

Well, there's been a lot of interest in my consulting services since I went on Gordon's podcast. And I've gotten several questions that I though would be useful to answer here.

First of all, what consulting services? Go take a look -- if you ever wanted to be more organized or have someone to help you get your shit together, well that's what I do. And if you want to combine that with magic for even more leverage? That's my specialty.

How do I start?
I usually like to start with a free half hour Skype chat. I learn what you're after and you to learn how I work. The goal is to decide whether we're a good fit before you spend any money.

How do you work?
I'm neither a therapist or life coach. I like to keep things super practical. Every minute of our consultation needs to be productive and you should come away feeling like you have concrete next steps. You will have homework that I review before the next session. That means our time together is more focused. I'm happy to point out where I see you might have a block, but you'll want to explore it on your own or with someone who specializes in that area.

How long / frequently do I need you?
I'm not interested in people getting coaching from me forever. I want you to get organized, have a plan, and start implementing it. If you can do sessions every other week at first, that's helpful. Later you may just want to check in monthly or even less. But my goal is to get you off and running with your goal. And naturally the more effort you put in the faster progress we make.

Do you still do tarot readings?
Unfortunately, I had to stop doing my readings. I loved doing them and got some great feedback, but they took a lot out of me and I spent a ton of time doing the writeups (which for my largest readings would literally be like 15 pages of material). However, I will pull cards and do readings as part of my consultations as needed -- I just don't do the big write up. If you're interested in the types of readings I did, or want to try them yourself, hunt around on the blog. Early version of the Black Swan and Multiverse divinations are detailed and you can even try them for yourself.

How do I book?
Once upon a time, there was a lot of email back and forth. But now you can use my shiny new booking tool to sign up for either an intro session or a full consultation!

How do I pay?
Once you book a full consultation, I'll send you a Paypal request. I usually wait until just before the consult to send it so that there's no confusion if one of us has to cancel. I don't have a cancellation policy at this point because, hey, I'm just as likely to occasionally need to move a session as anyone.

You have a guarantee?
Yes! If you ever come away from a session feeling like it wasn't worth your time or productive, we can try it again for free. If that doesn't work, you get your money back for that session and any future sessions you may have paid for. You are putting a lot of trust in me and I appreciate that.

You give to charity?
Yeah, 10% of my proceed go to homeless charities. Previously I had the opportunity to work with someone directly under special circumstances, but moving forward I'm supporting a local family shelter and Modest Needs (which I highly recommend).

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The EBER Project -- When Goals Attack

When I started planning my major, three year project (dubbed Early to Bed, Early to Rise -- EBER) I knew it was important to immediately begin working on one or two of the goals. So I broke down part of the project into epics and then chose a couple of stories to get started on. This even before initiating the project.

This is useful because it keeps me from getting too caught up in planning. I need to be making traction even while the rest of the plan comes into focus.

My two chosen epics were around physical fitness and information gathering. Now, there's an argument to be made against focusing on too many things at once. But there's also some logic around intelligently picking stories that compliment one another.

My physical fitness stories are primarily physical -- though they have emotional and mental benefits. They are active but allow me time to think. My information gathering stories are mental / spiritual. They are contemplative but require focus and quiet time.

So the two epics don't conflict and in fact pair together nicely.

But I recently noticed a strong desire to add a third epic. Such a strong desire that I found myself working on the epic without having decided to do it. Instead of blaming myself for this breech of process or resolutely forcing myself to stop, I chose instead to examine my motives and drivers.

When you find yourself working outside your stated objectives there are usually two flavors. First, you might be working on something instead of your planned stories. Second, you might be working on something in addition to your planned stories.

If it's instead of, consider the following possibilities:

  • Are you avoiding the work you should or want to be doing because of some fear? Does the new thing act as a distraction to something you find difficult or scary? In this case, you should stop and spend some time thinking about what you are stuck on and not allow yourself to get distracted.
  • Are you doing this new thing as a direct replacement for the thing you'd planned? Is this a different, maybe better, way to move forward on the epic? Change happens and sometimes a different possibility presents itself and you just know it's the right thing to do. In this case, you should adjust your story, epic, goal, even project based on the new information/opportunity. Agile means flexible.
  • Are you doing this new thing because what you chose to do was wrong? Sometimes we think we want something, but we really don't. Or we think we know how to get someplace, but we are wrong. Remember, any part of your project is up for revision at any point. If going to law school is the wrong thing for you, better accept that now rather than 4 years and $100k in debt from now.
  • Was your original plan too vague, undoable, or fuzzy? Make sure your stories are clear, doable, and tie to your mission/values/vision. You can't take action on things that are not actionable, but you want to make progress so you work on something that is.

If it's in addition to, consider the following:
  • Were you too easy on yourself? Sometimes we don't give ourselves enough to do, and we start adding extra work to stay motivated. That's great, but next time do it mindfully.
  • Is there a dependency with your other work? Is it impossible to make traction on your planned efforts without also doing this other thing? You have just learned something important about how project dependencies work. Learn from the experience as you choose work in the future.
  • Is there a gap in your planned efforts? Did you leave a big hole in what you choose to do that has an impact on your project or life? Sometimes we know what we need without knowing. Accept that and use the information to adjust your plan.
In my case it was this last item. I was still making traction on my physical and mental work, but found that the lack of any emotional component was difficult. In fact, the information gathering I was doing was difficult and it was hard to keep my composure -- to remain coherent (to use a Gordonism). So I began immersing myself into modern applications of Stoic thinking again. This was the extra work I hadn't planned, but that I clearly need.

The universe obliged by providing me opportunities to do that very thing. So I will roll with it and count on Stoicism to help me through the stress caused by intelligence gathering.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sustain-ability: what you can, with what you've got, where you are.

Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are. ~Theodore Roosevelt

Boy, this past week has been crazy and the next is shaping up the same. We've got family illness, migraines, too much work, not enough sleep, etc. And lots of good stuff going on too (like PM consults and travel and plans to meet people and so forth). We've all been focused on just motoring through the tough stuff so we can try to enjoy the good.

This happens to everyone of course. Chaos theory tells us that shit clumps up (actually it probably tells us some more elegant things using math, but go with me here) and good or bad, stuff does seem to clump. Even the budding psychonaut commented on it: "why is it completely boring for weeks and then suddenly everything happens all at once?"

And with that mustache, what couldn't he do?

When things get crazy, I like to remind myself of the quote above. Sometimes plans, goals, and best intentions are all sacrificed on the altar of the daily grind. Whatever you want to do, sometimes there are things you have to do. This happens to everyone from time to time and there's no point beating yourself up over it.

Optimally, you'd keep this sort of thing to a minimum. In fact, you can use the amount of time you spend focused only on the immediate -- or worse operating in crisis mitigation mode -- as a metric for how your life overall is going. And the trick to reducing time in crisis mode is to prep when things are going well. Like an emergency fund for life.

For example, most weekends I go to the farmers market on Saturday morning and the local healthy grocery Saturday afternoon (I know, it's a thrill a minute at Chez Ivy). These errands are really enjoyable for me, not just chores, but this weekend I didn't do either. Because of a combination of "up in the night with a very ill person" "morning migraine headache - again" and "epic endless cold rain storm" I just hunkered down at home instead. But since we tend to have a full larder, it's not like we were going to starve. And by taking time to rest on Saturday, I did catch up on some stuff on Sunday. And I make the coming week (work meetings, early flights) easier to deal with as well.

That quote isn't just useful for when things go sideways either. It's also really useful for setting realistic goals for your projects. Because whatever your vision of your future is, the epic journey to get there has to start where you're at right now.

Image that your goal is to "eat better" (and if you ask me, that should be on everyone's list). Now there's lots of ways to eat better and your goal is going to need refining if you want to be able to achieve it. Maybe better is organic, local, sustainable, fair-trade. Maybe better is less takeout and more cooking. Maybe better is no trans fats, fewer empty calories, low carb, low inflammation. Maybe better is together, at the table, as a family. All good goals and all achievable for lots of people.

Not a goal!

But between there and here is a gap. Sometimes a big gap. And in order to bridge that gap you need to start where you are right now.

I get the urge to want to want to do and be all the things! Right now! But you can't ignore where you're starting from and you can't skip the steps in between. Even if you could magically skip to the end goal (maybe through a reality show where contestants humiliate themselves by like eating 100 HotPockets in order to win a new kitchen filled with free vegetables -- any producers watching should contact me for options on this) it wouldn't stick. The process and the journey really are important.

Which is why the eagles couldn't just give Frodo a ride to Mt. Doom.

When there's something about our lives we want to change it's tempting to avoid looking at that part of our lives now. Just like when things we've tried haven't worked, you kind of just want selective amnesia. But where you are is important, what you've done helps you understand what you can do now, and working with what you've got? Well, what else do you have to work with?

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

EBER Project -- Bullet Ephemeris Redux

Since I'm in the middle of flushing out the EBER project, I wanted to explain how I've been using the bullet ephemeris for project planning and management.

First, I created a main project page to capture the high level stuff:

Sorry for all the blank space, but it is a personal project after all.

I ended up using vision statements rather than a long narrative paragraph. This means that my vision statement sounds a lot like the kind of things I'd make sigils out of -- and don't think I won't take advantage of that.

I also very briefly outlined the first two main phases of the project, which are scheduled to take a year. Then I'll have a month long review / planning period to define and kick off year two. This is important for two reasons: one, the entire first year is focused on information gathering so I won't know what's next until I have more information and two, with agile planning I don't have to know everything in advance.

Consider how lightweight this is. Yes, it takes some thought (and I believe that thought is worthwhile honestly) but the entire purpose of the project takes like half a page. And the high level details for the first year take less than the other half. And this is for a three year project.

The following two pages (left and right) is the start of my backlog, and this is where the bullet journal model really shines. On the left page, I have the epics and stories outlined and numbered. On the right page I create a double column list of short tasks for each story. I do it this way because the inherent limitation of paper is that you can't insert into a list very easily. Still I'm really enjoying paper for the EBER project planning, so I will keep doing it.

If you wanted to keep your backlog electronically, I'd recommend a hierarchical list with everything in it. That way you could add and insert easily -- and no numbering.

And if you like paper, but think more organically, you can create a mindmap version where your epic breaks out into story bubbles and then into task bubbles. Whatever makes sense for your brain (my brain loves bulleted lists, so there you go).

This is a mockup of a backlog / task list page (note comment above about personal project being personal):

Notice I leave a little space in case I want to add stories to an existing epic and that later epics won't have any stories yet (you plan as you go, not all in advance).

So each story gets a dot (as per the bullet method) and when those stories are added to a sprint (which for me is a month) they get a little arrow. I'll then jot them down on my month page along with the page of the corresponding task list. When they're done, they get an 'X'.

For tasks, I either complete them right off the task list and 'X' them out or if they are date based (events, appointments, todos) I schedule them right into my electronic calendar. The scheduled items get a little up arrow (cause the calendar is in the cloud, get it?).

So here's how the sprint planning process works. Note: this is long when written out, but doesn't really take that much time (particularly since it's once a month). If you schedule a little quiet time, you can make it into a very contemplative activity where you review your goals and think about who you are and what you want to accomplish.

  1. I look at last month and see whether I completed the stories I set out to complete.
  2. If I did, I mark them complete on my backlog (and give myself a pat on the back). 
  3. If I didn't, I have a decision to make: 
    • Do I move them forward to next month? If so, I put a forward arrow on the past month and add them to the next month's page.
    • Do I decide to work on them later? I give them a backward arrow effectively putting them back in the backlog. 
    • Do I decide to scratch the whole idea? No need to continue with something you aren't finding valuable. I strike it out for the month and on the backlog.
    This is useful because if I look at an old month, I can see what happened to the stuff I didn't do.

I think about what went well and what didn't and whether I need to adjust course moving forward. I ask questions like "why didn't I accomplish what I set out to?" "what changed in the last month that affects my project?" "why did I kick ass on this one thing and can I replicate it?"

Based on that, I might adjust any part of the project, from the vision to the epics to the stories.
Preplanning -- Update the Backlog
Based on what seems to be the next up priorities, I may take a little time flushing out upcoming epics or stories. That makes planning go smoother. But the further out something is, the less time you spend sorting out the details. Because by the time you get to them, things will have changed anyway. So no need to overthink this.

  1. I review the project page to remind myself about my mission, vision, and goals. I make changes as necessary.
  2. I check my deadline list if I have one, to see what needs to be worked on for upcoming deadlines (that application is due soon, I'd better get my recommendations and write that essay -- for example). I add new deadlines as they appear.
  3. I pick the story or stories for the coming month. Sometimes they come from the backlog and sometimes I make them up based on changing circumstances. Remember, the idea is to complete the entire story in that month. If you can't then you have to make the story smaller (or even, in a pinch, have a part one and part two). If you decide to do more than one story, they can be from different epics (which is how you work on more than one thing at a time).
  4. I make sure the stories have their tasks listed and add / update / strike out tasks as necessary.
  5. I write the stories on the monthly planner page and note the task page (you can also rewrite the tasks for your month, your choice).
  6. I schedule the tasks that have a date and/or time.

    One useful thing to remember is that you don't have to keep some pristine single source for all of this. If you have stuff to do, you can write it straight into the month page and skip the backlog. The backlog is a holding pen for stuff you have yet to do, so you can dump all your ideas for meeting your project goals. But stuff changes as you go so you want to stay flexible -- which can mean messy. Just make sure your stories includes a reason (why you need to do the thing) that aligns with your vision and values. That's how you keep your project in focus.
Important -- any part of your project is fair game for changing. If you decide mid-way through that your goal is wrong, a new opportunity presents itself, or a huge risk appears that you didn't anticipate, you need to react to that. Anything is up for changing, even the project itself:

  • Maybe all your efforts and magic means that you meet your goal suddenly and way earlier than you planned (yay!!!). So call it a success and move on.
  • Maybe something big and bad arose that you have to put all your effort toward (boo!!!). So defer your goal until later and start on the new thing.
  • Maybe you complete the first epic of your goal and think "fuck this ring nonsense, I'm going to retire to Tahiti and start hospice for the rehabilitation of troubled Gollums" (change!!!). So you ax the project, call it a learning experience and reset your sights on the thing you REALLY want.
That's the heart of agile and what makes it so powerful. This also means that your backlog, particularly on paper, will end up being a mess with changes and updates. And that's just fine too. If it gets crazy in the bullet journal, you just flip to a new page and clean it up. It's not as graceful as an electronic backlog, but it allows you to a) really own what you are writing and b) see a history of the project in all its real-life messiness.

This is also, bluntly, what separates agile from other project planners (some printed out in very lovely hardbound books for quite a lot of money). Having goals is good and so is planning to get those goals done. But life is messy, change is constant, and the world is filled with uncertainty. Pretending that isn't the case is how you end up with stiff, complicated plans that you never look at again, being able to only have near-term goals without a longer-term vision, or -- even worse -- achieving a goal without ever stopping to realize it's the wrong goal.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Talking About Magic and Project Management with Gordon

I was so pleased to be able to chat with Gordon on his RuneSoup podcast recently. He's a great interviewer and is really good at putting people at ease. Pretty much everything he does is highly recommended.

Runesoup.com -- I'm totally pretending that's me.
Amusing note, I'm so bad at marketing that the spouse had to remind me that maybe I want to mention it on my blog too!

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Sunday, October 8, 2017

The EBER Project -- Backlog and Schedule and Phases Oh my!

So, let's talk a little bit more about the component parts of a major agile project like the EBER project. At the highest level, your project contains goals, plans, and deadlines. However, we now know more about how each of those things is handled.


The epics, stories, and tasks that you started creating become part of the backlog of work. A backlog is basically a stack-ranked list of things you need to do to meet your goals. So for example:

[EPIC] story

So for my physical fitness epic, I might have the following stories and tasks

[Fit] I want to get additional regular exercise to increase strength and stamina
        Buy new running shoes
        Take the dog for a run instead of a walk
        Take a walk at lunch during the week
        Research three gym options in the area
        Update budget to account for gym membership
        Schedule gym visits in advance 3x per week
        Sign up for membership
        Pack a gym bag
        Get your ass to the gym

[Fit] I want to eat more vegetables and make sure I get my vitamins
        Buy fresh veggies each weekend
        Prep veggies in advance of the week
        Prepack vitamins to take to work to have with lunch
        Start dinner planning with a veggie dish
        Add a second vegetable whenever possible

Important note, you don't need to have everything planned out in your backlog in advance! No, that's the least agile way to go about it. Instead, you have a few things planned in detail (like my examples above) and then things get fuzzier as you go out in time.

[I know what's coming] I want to perform divination for my household monthly
[I know what's coming] I want to follow three industry journals / blogs

These may have tasks like setting aside time to do readings, deciding on a schedule of different types of divination, deciding which journals or blogs to follow, and subscribing to the ones that you decide on. But until I get to that story, I don't have to break it down.


In a classic project, you'd have a project charter that outlined your plans in detail. But we're doing an agile project, so it gets much simpler. First, if you have a long project, you may have different phases. For example, this winter, I'm focusing on physical fitness (because it's harder for me in the winter) and divination (because I have some open questions about what's coming that I'd like to get a bead on). So that's my first phase.

The rest is your basic agile cycle of the sprint, which I talked about before.

Much simpler and more flexible than a classic project plan... and definitely more effective for projects with a lot of uncertainty (which seems like everything in the world right now, doesn't it?). 

Because the agile model is cyclical, you don't need many hard deadlines. You simple size your stories so that you can finish it within the sprint. If you can't, you just break down your stories into smaller bits. But there will still be external drivers and deadlines, for example a special on gym membership that you need to take advantage of before the end of the next sprint. And if you have project phases, it's smart to have concurrent milestones. And finally, it's useful to make sure that, as you create your backlog, you know what it means to be successful. So gym 3x per week or readings every other Tuesday.

The best way to handle these deadlines is to put them right into your backlog. So I have a project phase this winter for fitness and divination. I simply need to decide which stories I'd like to accomplish in this phase. And if a particular story or task also has a deadline, I just note it. And for each story, I need to make sure I understand what it means to be successful and reflect that in the tasks. Because let me tell you from personal experience, paying for a gym membership isn't enough to get fit.

So I get that it looks like a lot of stuff you have to be tracking, but the great thing about agile is that everything is built into the backlog -- which is nothing more than a list of stories (with tasks as necessary). You can keep it on paper (and even some corporate software teams do that) or in a digital list.

Here's a sample backlog for the garage cleaning project:

Epic -- clean garage to use for home improvement projects -- Deadline: 15 Nov
(not a complex project, but a single epic to focus on)

I want to get rid of crap we don't need in order to make room
    Order shiny new cabinets -- sale through Oct
    Identify stuff to donate and put in car
    Identify stuff to go in house / laundry room
    Order a large trash container for the week -- 1 Oct
    Drop off stuff to donate
    Rip down old crappy shelves
    Get container -- 4 Oct
    Fill up the trash container with crappy shelves, extra construction material, and any crap we find
    Trash container pickup -- 11 Oct
I want to insulate the laundry room
    Buy insulation
    Install insulation

One note: if I have a lot of deadlines (like I do at work) I will create a deadline list that's just the items that are due in date order. That allows me to "see into the future" to determine what's coming that I need to work on.

Finally, here's my quick breakdown of the four types of tasks:

Events -- If it lasts a whole day or more and you can't schedule anything else... that's an event. The key to tracking events is advanced visibility. Events are the only things that I actually track in multiple places (something I usually try to avoid). I note them on my Outlook calendar at work, our home calendars, and on a vis-a-vis annual wall calendar.

Appointments -- An activity that includes a start and end time (duration), affects availability, and needs a reminder. These are tracked on the same electronic calendars as above. No double-tracking required. A date book -- or datebook area in your bullet journal -- is a perfectly acceptable paper solution.

Todos -- An activity with a rough timeframe (today, this morning, this week, etc), no duration, doesn't affect availability, usually repeats, needs a reminder. They don't really fit into a calendar slot like an appointment because they don't have a specific start time. But they do have a rough time they need to be completed by. They typically repeat and are infrequent enough that a reminder is necessary. There are a host of tools and apps that work great for this kind of stuff -- pick one that works for your platforms and allows you to get an email, txt, or phone reminder when they are due. If you prefer paper, then putting them in a side column in your date book works.

Tasks -- An activity with no timeframe, unknown duration, no auto-repeat, and no reminder. If you make a list of all the small tasks you need to do to accomplish a big goal, there will be a ton of things you have to crank through. But while they may all have to be completed by a certain date, they don't each have to be completed on a particular date. This is the key difference from a todo. For tracking these the best tool is a good old fashioned checklist. Many of the todo-type tools and apps will also allow you to create checklists that don't have dates attached. Outliners are great for fast and flexible capture and it what I use at work. And for paper, nothing beats a notebook or bullet journal where you write down everything you need to do and then check or strike them off.

I find that group efforts (like at work) require more events and appointments where personal efforts usually need more todos and tasks.

For the EBER project, I'm currently identifying stories for the first phase, and also starting on the first stories (don't wait to start until you plan everything!).

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