They say you learn something new every day.

Posts tagged ‘lifeskills’

100 Days Young (20/03/2012)

Today is my 100th daily “you learn something new every day” post.

100 Days Young 

It’s not the first time I’ve celebrated a 100th edition of some sort of web project (using that very Simpson’s picture, in fact). But that was with someone else. Making this my longest running public project – unlike my short running webcomic, for example. I think I managed 24 of them).

I remember downloading all of my posts from Image Dissectors once before and being shocked that I’d produced enough content to fill two novels.

It reminds me again that little and often is the way to go. To succeed at anything is a marathon, not a sprint.

Having targets and counts helps, as it makes you feel that you’re heading somewhere. Having other people comment helps too – which is why writing is such a difficult and lonely activity, since you get no feedback. It’s why so often I turn to coding to get some instant feedback and praise.

Writing this every day has changed my life. That sounds quite grandiose, but I mean it’s changed the structure of my life. I think about it during the day: what will I write that I’ve learnt today. And when I come home, it’s part of my evening. In the same way as I eat dinner every day and brush my teeth every day, I write this too.

I don’t think it’s something I’d want to do forever, but it’s made me realise that I love the idea of doing something every day for a year. Or until it’s done. I think it’s a pattern I’m going to try again. 

Management Over Heads (19/03/2012)

I went for lunch the other day with some friends I use to work with. It was interesting talking to them about work. I’m a manager now, and so my viewpoint of things has changed.

As always, we were complaining about management decisions. I realised, as they spoke, that, actually, many of their complaints were invalid. Either, their complaint was unfair (it wasn’t their manager’s fault) or was a non-issue.

I’m amazed, actually, at how bad people are at identifying whether a problem is significant or not. As humans, we seem to get fixated on a problem, and not view it in relation to other problems. For example, I have a colleague who once spent all day trying to save £10, when there was another problem he could have fixed, which would have taken half a day, and saved £10,000. As it was, he saved less money that his salary: so he incurred a net cost to his company when he was trying to save money. Basically, most people are bad at prioritisation.

There are two things it’s made me realise. 

  1. Identifying significant problems and solving those is a rare skill.
  2. If you listen to what is actually bothering people, you’ll often find that their complaints are quite insignificant, and you could make a few simple, cheap changes and make them happy.

On the subject of point 2. Someone a know was upgraded from our corporate build of Windows XP to Windows 7. When they got the new version they asked “where’s solitaire?” It turned out that the new corporate build had had it removed.

Let’s remember, this was a several million pound project to upgrade all of the computers to Windows 7. Yet for this user, what mattered more than all of this was solitaire. Had it been put in, he’d have been happy with the process. As it was, he was not.

Sometimes, we spend too much time solving problems that people are unaware of, and leave things that seem insignificant to us, but are big things to our users. 

Should be Prohibited (03/03/2012)

Anything invented before your 15th birthday is the order of nature.  Anything invented between your 15th and 35th birthday is new and exciting. Anything invented after that day, however, is against nature and should be prohibited.

Douglas Adams

As well as being very funny, in some ways I find this terrifying.

I notice this with people at work – people who are over 35  do struggle with this.  I’m turning 25 in two days time, so I have a little while to go with things being “new and exciting”.

In some ways, I can already feel it coming. When I first started using Office 2007, I hated it so much I uninstalled it. It was only when I was forced to use it at work, and needed certain features (the ability to view more than 65536 rows in Excel, the ability to have more than three bits of conditional formatting, sumifs etc) that I got used to it. Now, I love it, and dislike Excel 2003. But it was actually the enhancements to certain features that won me over. If there had been a version of Excel 2003 with those features in, I’d have stuck with that.

In occurs to me, again, that change is a real challenge. It’s an effort to change, and so it’s easy to sleepwalk into stagnating. I’m not advocating change for changes sake, but I think it’s important to continually examine what you’re doing. I guess, really, that’s the whole point of this site. In many ways, writing these daily “things learnt” is performative – that is, the act of writing them, in itself helps me to examine my life (“the unexamined life isn’t worth living” and all that).

I haven’t fixed all the things I need to fix (my sideboard is still a mess!) but I’m aware of it, and it’s on my list of things to do. I think, too, before putting something down now.

Internut (24/02/2012)

I’ve moved house.

My new flat is lovely, but I’ve spent the last four days without the internet at home. And you know what? I actually loved it! It’s really changed my life.

I remember now that I’ve felt this way a few times when I’ve been without the internet. I’ve suddenly had… time! There’s, like, five hours between getting home and going to bed.

I usually fill a good part of this with the internet. Without it, I have time to do stuff! Loads of stuff. I’ve taken up listening to Radio 3 (oooh, classy!) which is incredibly relaxing. And I’ve done some writing, and reading and just got on with things.

I don’t think I can give up the internet fully, but I think I may try to go one day without it.

But how have you been writing this without the internet, you may ask. I wrote a couple at home and posted them at work, and one on my iPhone. It’s really not that much of a problem.

Races, Marathons, Practising and Preaching (18/02/2012)

I wrote once before that this site wasn’t turning out quite the way I was expecting.

My intention was for the things learned to be relatively factual – you know, how to tie your shoelace, how to do long division etc. However, other than the occasional blasts of knowledge, most of this so far has been morals or styles of thought. I put this down, really, to the fact that I’m at home for Christmas, and have switched my brain to sleep mode. I’m hoping this will change a little next year.

Well, that turns out not to be true – most of this is ideas or ways of looking at things, rather than “blasts of knowledge”.

The thing is, ideas come cheap. Realising things, or figuring out ways of doing things is quite easy. There are books and books full of ideas. The hard thing is converting those ideas into changes in behaviour.

This has struck me quite a lot recently. There are lots of best practice things that I know. You know, each piece of data should exist only once. Minimize your code by reusing the same data. Make code portable. Etc etc. All of these things I know as concepts are good things to do.

Yet, in reality, time and time again I break these rules. Not because I forget them, but because living your life is quite different to thinking about your life. It’s so easy to unlearn things; that is, un-fix a problem that you’ve already solved in one place.

I don’t think I necessarily have a solution for this, other than lots of calibration. This blog helps, since it forces me to think about what I’ve learnt. And by adding in lots of links to previous articles, in encourages me to remember things I’ve written before.

But I think there’s a missing piece still, and that’s forcing myself to “practise what I preach”. That’s going to be my aim for the next few days.

Taking Responsibility (15/02/2012)

I was talking to my colleague today.

He and I don’t get on very well. We have different views on many things. But I realised today one thing we disagree about is responsibility. He regards any failure as being the responsibility of the team beneath us.

“They’ve not managed to do this…”

“They can’t tell us this…”


Sometimes, his complaints are completely unrealistic.

However, I realise that I’ve started sharing that responsibility. And I think that’s the right thing to do. The team does what we tell them to do. They get their attitudes and values from us. If they fail, we fail.

I’ve never thought it quite as clearly as that, but I think I will from now on.

And I think this is important when you manage teams. You have to share the responsibility. That way you get involved with the problem and help them solve it. You also remember that your attitude affects them in so many ways. In many ways, managing a team is like having children. They look up to you.

I’m reminded of the speech Daniels gives in the final episode of the first season of The Wire:

Couple weeks from now, you’re gonna be in some district somewhere with 11 or 12 uniforms looking to you for everything. And some of them are gonna be good police. Some of them are gonna be young and stupid. A few are gonna be pieces of shit. But all of them will take their cue from you. You show loyalty, they learn loyalty. You show them it’s about the work, it’ll be about the work. You show them some other kinda game, then that’s the game they’ll play. I came on in the Eastern, and there was a piece-of-shit lieutenant hoping to be a captain, piece-of-shit sergeants hoping to be lieutenants. Pretty soon we had piece-of-shit patrolmen trying to figure the job for themselves. And some of what happens then is hard as hell to let down. Comes a day you’re gonna have to decide whether it’s about you or about the work.

Take Note (12/02/2012)

I’ve realised that I’m really bad at taking notes. It was sort of one of my New Year’s Resolutions to take better notes. But that hasn’t worked out so far. As you can see below from a typical meeting:

Some average notes

There’s two things that strike me about this actually.

Firstly, the “quick win” rocket, and how messy and ridiculous a lot of this is.

Secondly, how unimportant a lot of this is. It’s not that I don’t understand these notes – a lot of them were just unimportant or not chased up.

I’ve been thinking about this note taking problem. And I think it fits into a few other things. Quite a few of my projects (and projects in general at work) are dragging on. There’s a lot of scope creep and project failures.

I think all of this can possibly be solved by setting slightly clearer boundaries and “logging” things correctly.

Take notes, for example. There are a finite areas or workstreams that I am involved with. Every note I take should fit into one of them. If it doesn’t, I either have to create a new one, or not take the note. In many ways this fits back into my idea of a software solution that encourages you to work, communicate and log in the appropriate area. Taking notes on a per meeting basis is wrong, because it means all your notes are sorted by meeting, or event. But in reality, you want your notes sorted by category, or type.

Computers are very good at this sort of thing, since you can log a many-to-many relationship. But humans not so much so.

I wonder if one option here is to make a small note logging application of some type and use a computer to take notes.

Whether I do this or not, I think I’m going to have to start logging notes in a more project based way, because it’s beginning to get ridiculous.

Less Manual Work (08/02/2012)

I’m reminded again about this bit of wisdom from Coding Horror:

Truly lazy developers let their machines do the work for them. This is partially motivated out of self-interest, it’s true, but smart developers know that people don’t scale— machines do. If you want it done the same way every time, and with any semblance of reliability, you want the human factor removed as much as is reasonably possible. I know for every problem I encounter at work that causes me to lose time, I ask myself— how can I make sure I never have to deal with this problem again? If my solution fixes it so nobody ever has to deal with that problem, that’s a nice side-effect, too.

It’s close to my heart, because I’m very lazy as I keep saying.

But while I know this, and I mean it and I say it to anyone who will listen, I keep encountering problems that I solve by doing a bit of manual work. And suddenly, I’ve got loads of manual systems that I’m involved with.

I don’t really know a way around this. This is something so close to my heart, and yet I still get caught up in things and end up in a manual mess. I think the only thing to do is keep track of all your project somewhere, and recalibrate regularly – possibly every month. If this blog has taught me anything it’s:

  1. Doing things regularly works. But only if you stick at the regularity
  2. You need to recalibrate regularly. More regularly than you think. As humans we get used to things very quickly.

Just do it (06/02/2012)

Last night I made myself do some writing. I was lying in bed, thinking about writing, and in the end I said, actually out loud, “Just do it.” Unfortunately for me, my motivational phrase is the Nike slogan, but it worked really well. I picked up the laptop and got on with it. And, as I’ve noted before, once I started I really got into it, and it was fine.

Sometimes you have to just get on with it. And it doesn’t matter how many times I tell myself this, it’s still hard. Saying it out loud helps, I think. 

I spend a lot of times putting things off. Often I come up with reasons for why I can’t do it. “I just need to watch this episode of 24, otherwise the thought of it will distract me.” I’m lying to myself, of course. When I finish that series of 24 I’ll just start the next one. And when even when I’ve watched all of 4 I’ll just find something else to watch.

It made me realise that I often lie to myself. Or say things to other people that aren’t quite true to convince myself that they are. I need to stop lying to myself. It’s pointless, because I know it’s a lie. I came up with the damn thing!

Don’t look back in anger (24/01/2012)

I’m in the middle of a situation at the moment. My landlord (a hideous multi-million pound corporation) has cut short my contract and is throwing me out of my flat (they gave me notice on Christmas Eve). They want to sell the flat. But they don’t have a buyer lined up, they haven’t put it on the market and they don’t even know what the flat looks like.

When we asked for a month’s extension, they refused.

I’ve taken this opportunity to see if I can afford to buy a flat, and at the moment I’m waiting on the seller to come back to me. It’s a hideous experience, and the most stressful thing of my life.

A few times now, when thinking about my project to “write about something new I’ve learnt every day”, I’ve thought that if I get this flat I’ll write about how disasters are an opportunity. And if I don’t I’ll write about how sometimes you have to know when to walk away.

However, this is ridiculous. I’m arguing it both ways. And an explanation that works both ways is meaningless. It can explain anything. I came across this idea in Thinking Fast and Slow a few days ago:

A story in Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan illustrates this automatic search for causality. He reports that bond prices initially rose on the day of Saddam Hussein’s capture in his hiding place in Iraq. Investors were apparently seeking safer assets that morning, and the Bloomberg News service flashed this headline: U.S. TREASURIES RISE; HUSSEIN CAPTURE MAY NOT CURB TERRORISM. Half an hour later, bond prices fell back and the revised headline read: U.S. TREASURIES FALL; HUSSEIN CAPTURE BOOSTS ALLURE OF RISKY ASSETS. Obviously, Hussein’s capture was the major event of the day, and because of the way the automatic search for causes shapes our thinking, that event was destined to be the explanation of whatever happened in the market on that day. The two headlines look superficially like explanations of what happened in the market, but a statement that can explain two contradictory outcomes explains nothing at all.

Again, this is something I’d come across before (and even written about before) in a talk by Michael Blastland:

It’s amazing how powerful these beliefs can be. Michael Blastland tells the story of a journalist looking at the figures for alcohol consumption during the recession. He saw that alcohol consumption had gone up.

“Oh,” he thought, “that follows, since people have lost their jobs and have gone out to drown their sorrows.”

Then he realised, this was before the recession had started. After this, alcohol consumption had actually gone down.

“Oh,” he thought, “well, that makes sense, since during the recession people have less money and so can’t afford to go out.”

Then he realised the figures were for 2007.

In each case, he was able to justify the figures by fitting them into his existing worldview. The point is, he could have justified it either way, and then used it as a headline to support his argument.

The point in both of these things is that as humans we look for “agency”. By that, I mean we assume there is a reason for things. In fact, often there isn’t. Often stuff just happens.

As Daniel Kahneman explains:

The prominence of causal intuitions is a recurrent theme in this book because people are prone to apply causal thinking inappropriately, to situations that require statistical reasoning.

I think this is a key thing. And there’s a confirmation bias here as well. When we do something, and then things go well, we assume that things went well because we did that thing. If we pick our lucky number, or pray or even something that seems logical, like make a compelling argument, and then something happen, we think we made it happen. In fact, that thing might have happened anyway for a different reason entirely.

If you want to get to the heart of something and make a difference, you need to fight against this view. Which is very difficult because we’re hard-wired to think like this. There’s a video of some triangles moving around, created psychologist Fritz Heider. It’s just shapes, but as you watch it it’s almost impossible not to create personalities for the different triangles.

Sometimes, you have to avoid seeing patterns where there are no patterns. 

Tag Cloud