Saturday, June 24, 2017

Sustain-ability: Bitches Get Shit Done

So, for the past couple of weeks I've had reason to be a bit emotionally under the weather -- sad even. The reason doesn't matter. But due to a couple of techniques, I've been in the upside position of being able to objectively evaluate what I'm feeling and see how it's impacting me... and therefore to do something about it.

As a disclaimer, this isn't about clinical depression, I'm not a medical provider, and I don't give medical advice. In fact, this isn't even about me so much as it's about this process that I went through that I found helpful. Your mileage is totally going to vary.

First, the new things in my life that helped me:

1. Mindfulness practice. In recently months I've been much better about meditating. This is due to a recommendation by Gordon over at Runesoup for Headspace. So credit where credit is due and both are highly recommended. This also happened to be a goal of my PMPM project (kicked off last year and blogged about occasionally under the label project Ivy).

2. Tracking. Haven't you written about this before, Ivy? Why yes, yes I have. But I recently started tracking some additional stuff with a "don't break the chain" model. Things that I want to accomplish on the regular, I track with this method (note, it's a technique, not a tool -- you can use paper or a calendar or a digital app, doesn't matter, doesn't cost anything).

Because of these two things, when I was feeling sad I could better see the impact. For example, I started eating like shit, had zero energy, experienced a kind of irritated ennui, and - ironically - completely broke the chain on my mindfulness practice (doh!). You can see what a horrible loop this could be, right? Because the very symptoms of my sadness could loop round and become exacerbating causes. So that's the good news, that I could get perspective on it and break the loop.

So, how did I do that? First, I gave myself permission to be sad and to communicate that sadness to my family (not that they didn't know). No point in feeling guilty about a perfectly normal emotion. Second I attacked the problem proactively. Now one school of thought is to be nurturing and baby myself a bit. But I was already a winey lump of woe, so I figured this might not be quite what was needed. Here's what I did instead:

  • Magic, about three different kinds (sigils, conjuring, kitchen witchery)
  • Took bonus longer dog walks
  • Harvesting and drying herbs from the garden
  • Making mushroom power (not those kinds of mushrooms!)
  • Canning local strawberry syrup and jelly
  • Baking an almond cake for father's day with pastry cream and fresh strawberries
  • Cleaning out the fridge
  • Doing 1000 loads of laundry (or so it seems)
  • Chia pudding
  • Found a source for raw dairy and making an order
  • Arranged to purchase a side of grass fed beef for later in the summer
  • Trying three new recipes for dinner veggies (two were even edible)
  • Kale salad!
  • Probiotics and B12 (lots of B12, I tend toward anemia)
  • Sun -- no shortage of that here this week
  • Best feel-good cure ever that I won't get into here (involving the spouse)
This was, it should be noted, not all on the same day. 

The important part of this though is not what I did to feel better (your list is going to be lots different, though walks / sunshine / and veggies are pretty universally applicable "feel better" cures). The important thing is that I managed to recognize how I was feeling and -- maybe even harder -- what the impact on me was.

And this was due to some good habits that I'd already had in place. Which speaks for a risk management model where you shore up the good stuff when things are going well instead of only focusing on the potential bad things. ... which will tie into my next post. But first, I have some chicken broth to make!

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Monday, June 19, 2017

The Year of Being Agile -- Agile Risk Management, Part One

This is part of a serious of posts on using the agile development method as a PMPM (Practical Magic Project Management) technique... go see the Index page for links to the full series.

OK, first off full disclosure: Agile doesn't have much time for risk management. It's not that the methodology is against it in any way, it just doesn't address it. I think this is because it was developed to mitigate particular risks (the risk that you might put in a ton of work building the wrong thing) rather than addressing risks in general. However, the core features of agile can be used to address risk -- and I think there are very good reasons for doing so.

Still, I'm going way off book here, based not on the official Agile Methodology but on my own experience and interpretation.

But first, let's take a look at how risk management is currently practiced:

Formal Risk Management
TL;DR: Don't do this

  1. Identify the risks
  2. Analyze the risks for likelihood and consequence
  3. Rank the risks based on a combination of likelihood and consequence
  4. Treat the risk by doing something about it
  5. Monitor and review the risk
I've done a lot of risk management in my career and I have to say that bluntly, this process is crap. There's limited use to step one and sure, step four is always going to be useful. But the rest is a waste of time.

First, while here is some use in listing the risks you know about, the real danger are the ones you don't know. So any process that only deals with known risks is inherently flawed. Taleb would argue that the biggest risks, the Black Swans, are unpredictable to begin with. In addition, while capturing the risks you know about can be useful (if only to make sure you have some kind of plan for them) the idea that you are going to capture everything is up front is unrealistic. So any process that's too onerous is never going to be repeated. A list of what was worrying you in January is not that interesting in July.

Second, analyzing and ranking risks doesn't work because people are notoriously bad at predicting the odds of a risk happening, let alone the size of the impact. Again, one of the hallmarks of a Black Swan is that it has completely outsized impact to what anyone would have expected. And while we're underestimating stuff that could be really serious, we often overestimate other risks. We often see this with risks that are emotionally fraught -- like the risk of telling your parents that you don't want to join the family business. Since we suck at this so bad, I say don't bother. You CAN prioritize risk -- at least for the ones you know about, and we will be getting to that, but it's not based on either the odds of it happening or how bad you think it's going to be when it does.

Third, monitoring and reviewing the risks on the regular does make sense, but because the rest of the process is so heavy it frankly introduces the risk that you'll never do it. Not to mention that repeating a flawed process doesn't make the process better.

Why Bother Anyway

So if risk management is such a waste of time, why bother? Well, because bad stuff can happen in your life and you'll do better if you've given this some thought and preparation. That's where agile risk management comes in. 

Agile methodology was specifically designed as a response to these kinds of lumbering and inflexible top-down processes that reduce a team's ability to respond to a rapidly changing environment. Just like the lumbering and inflexible risk management process I just eviscerated. The same features that make agile so good for reaching goals can also be leveraged for risk management. 

Agile Features
Just as a quick recap, here are the core features of agile:
  • Cyclical -- agile works in a repeating short cycle of planning/working/validating. We're talking weeks, not months.
  • Iterative -- agile breaks everything down into small pieces that iterate slowly toward the correct solution.
  • Prioritized -- agile regularly validates that the priority of the upcoming work is correct based on lessons learned in the past short cycle. Priorities can, and in many cases should, change as frequently as that cycle.
  • Validated -- agile incorporates frequent regular check-ins to make sure that a) the results are satisfactory and b) the process is effective. 
  • Agile (obviously) -- agile is designed (and named) for rapid change in direction and plan, allowing you to pivot quickly in response to changing circumstances, failures, and opportunities

Step One -- Adopting the Risk Mindset
Note, the following content is from my earlier risk management series (from two years ago, my thinking has evolved and my process solidified since then).

In my experience, you never really know how sustainable your life is until something comes along and shakes it up. I speak from personal experience here. Something goes wrong and you suddenly realize that your life has overly complex maintenance, too much management overhead, inflexible tools, and not enough redundancy to cope with chaos. Things seemed to be hanging together when everything was fine, but are now rapidly coming apart at the seams. It's not just the big stuff either. Lots of little related problems coming together can throw everything out of balance.

It makes sense to examine the weaknesses in your systems... and one of the best ways to do that is to think about the things that could go wrong. Because if you know what could go wrong, you can not only avoid those things so they don't happen, but change your life now so that if they do happen, things won't go sideways quite as badly. This is risk management and it applies to both project management and operations. Risk in this context, by the way, is any uncertain event. If something bad is already happening, that's an issue and you go straight to trying to fix it. Dealing with stuff before it hits gives you lots more options.

Just as we discussed in the Black Swan divination post, seemingly good things can still have bad results, and bad things can be turned around or avoided. The whole point of risk management is to increase the chances of good stuff happening and decrease the chances of bad stuff happening. Technically, there are both positive and negative risks. But this is specifically about the negative ones.

In order to manage risk in your life, you need to do something that people just aren't very good at doing... you have to think about bad things happening and you have to plan what you might do if they did.

First, let's get past the magical elephant in the room: thinking about bad things happening will not make them happen. And thinking about good things won't make them happen either. I know this is completely contradictory to a lot of current pagan and newage thinking, but it's true. Research shows that:
  • Positive visualization can actually make you less likely to reach your goals. This is because it tends to sap the energy for actually doing anything to actually reach them. Read the article... the bit about mental contrasting at the end is particularly relevant.
  • Negative visualization can be highly beneficial (just ask the stoics). Defensive pessimism, acceptance of death, and not getting too tied to outcomes can increase gratitude, reduce anxiety, and improve actual outcomes. Our willingness to acknowledge bad things can help us make changes to avoid them. And our flexibility with regard to goals is helpful in dealing with whatever comes, bad or good. Note, negative visualization is not the same as pessimism (see below). 
  • Self-fulfilling prophecies do exist, but they are based on action, not thought. It's an untrue belief that's made true by acting as if it's true. Not an actual risk that you somehow trigger just by thinking about it.
  • Optimists are healthier, but because of what they do, not what they think:
    "We also know why optimists do better than pessimists. The answer lies in the differences between the coping strategies they use. Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they're problem solvers who try to improve the situation. And if it can't be altered, they're also more likely than pessimists to accept that reality and move on. Physically, they're more likely to engage in behaviors that help protect against disease and promote recovery from illness. They're less likely to smoke, drink, and have poor diets, and more likely to exercise, sleep well, and adhere to rehab programs. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to deny, avoid, and distort the problems they confront, and dwell on their negative feelings."
OK, to sum up: actions are more important than thoughts, negative visualization can be good for you, and don't be a pessimist, but don't be a Pollyanna either.

Next post, how to identify risks when humans are terrible at identifying risks.

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sustain-ability: The Other Option

This is a personal story about how the modern world isn't set up for sustainability and how we managed to get around that fact recently (and I promise every word is true).

Our household has two cars, both paid for, and both a bit long in the tooth. Our older vehicle is a small SUV that we purchased new just a few months before the budding psychonaut was born. It's currently 15 years old, with not as many miles as you's expect. The other car is a hybrid and is currently 10 years old. We bought it used in 2011 and it's also in really great shape... or it was.

Last week, we were driving the hybrid when the car suddenly went "ping!" and all the dash lights came on. And I mean ALL the dash lights. The anti-lock break light, the check engine light, and several mysterious lights that were nothing but red and yellow exclamation marks (that can't be good). In addition, the little status panel started announcing that we should CHECK HYBRID SYSTEM and CHECK VSC SYSTEM. And the performance went from family sedan to large concrete block on wheels. Car was apparently very upset indeed.

Not our actual car (same make, model, and problem)
The little battery icon showed all depleted, so first we decided to swap out the regular 12v battery, since it'd been a few years. This fixed the problem temporarily, but then a day later again "ping!" So off it went to the dealership, where they gave us the worst possible news, the news that no hybrid car owner ever wants to hear.

Yeah, the big hybrid battery was near death and needed to be replaced. Parts and labor: $4265.29. And until they fixed it, they wouldn't know if anything else was wrong.

You recall that I keep a running log of all maintenance on our cars, which helps us make smart decisions about ongoing cost. But no amount of tracking can prepare your budget log for $4265 (and 29 cents). That's major decision territory.

"Transfer me to sales" I said.

But sales had further bad news. The blue book value of our car in perfect working order topped out at $4200 (yes, I confirmed this). Which means our car was worth 0 dollars. Now, this was until recently a not just serviceable, but actually quite nice older sedan. It had recent body work and paint and a new wind screen from when the roof tiles blew off onto it and still presentable leather upholstery. Everything single thing worked on it and it was a reliable, working, attractive (if somewhat boring) car. Which to the world was now worth zero dollars.

Probably not our actual salesman
The salesman had some suggestions. New cars had rebates, and 0% financing, and great maintenance plans, and were all shiny and new and not sad and broken with angry dash lights. Mildly used cars were available as well and were going to cost us about the same or a little more than what we paid the last time. But as tempting as a new(er) car was, I was cranky. I couldn't help but think that we were getting fucked over, not necessarily by the dealership, but by a system that says that new cars are $35,000 but really well-maintained 10 year old cars only worth $4000. That's a loss of $3100 in value a year (though if you really want to scare yourself away from a brand new car, check out depreciation graphs, they aren't linear). And when you consider that some people buy new cars every 5 years? Crazy.

We decided to hold off on any decision for a day or so while we thought about our options. So last Saturday was spent grumping around the house having discussions about ongoing maintenance costs and whether we wanted a new car now (we did, but we sure didn't want to pay for one). And whether we wanted another car of the same type, which spawned lots of research on reliability rankings that showed that our current unhappy car was one of the most reliable on the market. And whether a very used car was just trading the devil we knew for one we didn't. And whether one car would work for us right now (we did that for years, but current logistics makes it really difficult). Sigh. We felt caught in a trap. But after a few hours, we started thinking outside the box -- looking at other options.

Turns out we could get a refurbished hybrid battery from our locally owned (and highly regarded) car parts store for $1919.99. And Youtube was happy to show us how to replace the battery on our exact make and model. And since the big battery is in the trunk between the back seat and the actual trunk space, you don't need a lift. In fact, all you need is a manual torque wrench, an electrical meter, and some patience and care (it's a high voltage battery after all). The spouse, who is full of awesome, volunteered.

So we picked up the car and drove it sluggishly home (a hybrid with a dying battery will keep running for awhile, but not forever, and they've got no pickup whatsoever). And over the course of only about five hours work (two fewer than that quoted by the experts at the dealership), my husband swapped the two. I had to help lift it out of the car and carefully settle in the new one (damn those things are heavy), but otherwise it was all him.

And the car? It's fine. Great in fact and running better and with higher MPG than it has in years. Yes, we had to pay nearly $2000, but that's under half the quoted price. It was hard on my spouse's back, but he was OK afterward as well. My general feeling was relief, like we'd dodged the trap.

Now, we still have a 10 year old car. And it could be that the refurbished battery will die again in a few years (though it shouldn't). But I feel good about our decision. Because in the end, the value of the car on the market isn't important. It's the value of the car TO US. And by my calculations my car is worth about $19,000. That's what we paid for it and what it would cost us to replace it with one that was as as carefully maintained. And that's the only cost that matters.

This isn't about fixing your own car versus having it fixed (not everyone can do that obviously). It's about looking further than the simple and easy (and usually unsustainable) choices that society offers. It's about trying to find the other option.