More thoughts by Tim Brown
When I was fourteen I got a job as a terrible waiter, at a pizza place near my house.
Saturdays were the best. Before early shifts I ate two fresh, warm Sicilian slices from the big brick oven. I'd spend the day helping to make dough, chop vegetables, and fold boxes. Late shifts began in the lazy afternoon hours. I had time to get the dining room ready, and I even learned a few things in the kitchen while we waited for customers.
One Saturday afternoon, two old ladies came in and asked for tea. They were my first customers that day, but I was ready. I poured water into two glass mugs and microwaved them. Put a Lipton tea bag on each saucer. Brought out the tea, milk, and sugar. Having tea at a pizza place is pretty weird, but we were officially a "ristorante". So.
A few minutes later, from the kitchen, I heard the old ladies calling for me.
"Waiter! This tea tastes like poison."
I didn't know what to say. What was it supposed to taste like? I didn't have much experience. So I apologized and consulted my boss, Nick.
Nick was a football player in college. He moved around the kitchen like a bowling ball. He could put his arm in the oven to move stuff around, and he washed his hands with scalding water. When he cooked, he looked like bombs had hit him and failed to do any damage.
"They said the tea tastes like poison," I said, not an hour after I had dropped a crate of portobello mushrooms in the back room and made Nick furious.
He smelled the tea. I mentally retraced my steps and wished I had thought to do so before talking to Nick. I did everything the way he'd shown me. The tea bags were new. The milk was fresh. The water was from a pitcher we kept at the coffee station.
"Did you rinse out the pitcher?" he asked.
"It was full already." I said.
"That was vinegar." he said. "You served them straight vinegar."
The rest is a blur. I think Nick and I laughed about it. Of course I gave the old ladies new tea, with water, and we didn't charge them.
I guess there's a lesson in there about being prepared, not making assumptions. Verifying the quality and condition of materials before starting a project. But every so often I just laugh out loud at those poor old ladies I poisoned.
Sometimes it’s difficult to get things done, and no book or software or advice or alarm or sticky note or anything can make it easier. Even when you have a system in place for remembering things at the right time, in the right place. Even when you eat and sleep right, have enough energy, love the work you’re doing, and look forward to the outcome. Even when everyone is rooting for you.
For me, there are two reasons for that difficulty: curiosity and laziness.
Curiosity distracts me from doing things I have promised myself and others that I would do. On the other hand, succumbing to curiosity almost always energizes me and makes me happy; it is often the spark I need to get other things done, and occasionally produces life-changing results. The constant evaluation of each pursuit’s potential worth and cost is maddening, and at the same time invigorating.
Laziness is hitting the snooze button — an active unwillingness to overcome inertia and throw myself into the mental battle of curiosity and promises. But it’s also a kind of self-deception, a tide of my own making that ebbs and flows while things I care about — goals, trust — lay scattered on the shore, ready to be lifted and lost. Overcoming laziness can feel like moving the moon.
So I kiss my wife, hug my children, joke with my family and friends. I listen to music and stories. I read and exercise. I remind myself why I care. I think about people whose lives are much harder than mine, I imagine what real difficulty is like, and I try to withstand the inevitable oppressive guilt that comes with empathy. Then I try to get things done.
On some special days that live in the lore of my family, friends, and notebooks, it all works out. I move the moon, curiosity and promises align, and a life-changing spark stirs a fire inside me that warms every single aspect of my life. The real difficulty of getting things done is that I want every day to be one of those days, and the only thing in the way is me.
“Do the thing I’m excited to do, or do what needs to get done? Answer: get excited about what needs to get done.”
I wrote that a few weeks ago, and I thought I’d write a few more words about how I change gears mentally to focus on something that requires my attention.
Several years ago, when I worked at Vassar College, I was having lunch with a guy from IT — Phil. He was telling me about some tedious database queries he was working on. Phil was looking forward to getting the job done so he could move on to something else. It didn’t seem like he was having much fun.
Earlier that day, I happened to overhear a colleague in the communications department describe the project she was working on: a feat of content strategy that involved getting faculty bio information into one editable place and publishing the same bio to many different Vassar sites. It was going to make maintenance easier, keep bios consistent across sites, and allow faculty members to edit their own bio content. But to pull it off, she needed IT to run some database queries.
So I told Phil why he was doing those database queries. Turns out he got the assignment from his boss, who hadn’t explained the reasoning behind the task. Phil’s face lit up. He thought the project was awesome, and felt proud to be a part of it. Our five-minute chat totally changed how he felt about doing his work.
I think about that whenever my work feels like a chore. Sometimes all you need is to remember that your efforts are part of something bigger, and that getting your job done matters to someone.
Before the sun came up on Saturday, I was at my table with a mug of coffee, notebooks open, and laptop at arm’s length. Earlier in the week, my pocket guide was published. My talk was evolving steadily. I was mostly caught up on day-to-day work. So, it was time to figure out what to work on next. I wrote down every exciting project that was on my mind, and soon had a list of a dozen or so potential goals.
“Now what?” I thought.
Said good morning to Eileen and the girls. Drove my truck to the dealership to have it serviced. In the waiting area at the car dealership, I grouped my goals by their underlying purpose and labeled the groups: concepts, practice, tools, teaching. Seemed like a nice mix of stuff. Two of my 13 goals were not in groups, so I stopped paying attention to them. If they’re important, they’ll come up again.
Looked at my calendar — three commitments in the next few months. Those will require preparation and interrupt my work and home routines, so I should plan on getting less done overall. On a piece of paper, I listed May, June, and July, with some space in between. Jotted down my commitments in their approximate time slots. Added tasks related to those commitments. Finished the complimentary dealership coffee (hurk).
Next to my timeline of months and tasks, I listed some of the goals. Seeing them next to the timeline helps me figure out whether its realistic to get them done in that span of time, given my other commitments. I chose to pursue only five goals, representing three of my four purposeful groups. Can’t do everything.
Drove back home. Listened to Back to Work while I did some yard work. Spent the day with my family.
Up early again on Sunday with that familiar what-should-I-work-on feeling, except now I have answers. I’ve already thought about what’s exciting, whether different projects have a purpose, and what my available time looks like. I stick to the goals I chose yesterday. If I see something on Twitter that I want to read or research, or someone emails me with a new opportunity, I measure the value of that new thing against the value of sticking to my goals; If now’s not the time for the new thing, I think about it the next time I’m setting goals.
I am no history buff, but I like stories — and I love the first two books in Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, teacher, and author Walter A. McDougall’s trilogy on American history: Freedom Just Around the Corner, and Throes of Democracy.
McDougall explains moments in American history in ways that only my best teachers used to do (Hi Mrs. Oliver! Hi Mr. Schmitt!). I’ve never read anything like these books before, certainly not in any textbooks. They are poetic, humorous, and enlightening. They make me feel proud, and also ashamed, of my American heritage, less distant from my civic responsibilities, and more hopeful about my life as a hard-working person in this place and time of opportunities.
Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Freedom:
What is novel about Americans, as their novelists repeatedly teach, is not that they are better or worse than peoples of other places and times (100 percent of whose genes they share), but that they are freer than other peoples to pursue happiness and yet are no happier for it. Therein lies the source of America’s disappointment. Only free people can disappoint and be disappointed by the discovery that worldly ideals cannot be advanced except by worldly means. That raises the historical questions: how did it happen that Americans managed to seize such freedom, conceive such ideals, achieve such success, yet grieve over such disappointment? Did they think themselves somehow exempt from the curses of Adam and Eve?
A short answer can be had by conducting a thought experiment based on a popular 1990s computer game. The player begins with an endowment of land, resources, and people, then plays God (or Caesar) in an effort to build up a civilization. Imagine a continent, heavily forested, plentifully watered, fertile, rich in metals and fossil resources, situated in the most benign latitudes of the north temperate zone. Imagine the continent vacant but for a few million neolithic tribespeople scattered over thousands of miles and vulnerable to diseases pandemic in the rest of the world. Imagine, too, a restless, advanced civilization across the sea, whose own population is starting to soar. Now introduce on the coasts of your continent tens of thousands, then millions of Britons, leavened by a mix of Germans, Frenchmen, and others, endowed with all the power, ideas, and ambitions of the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Scientific Revolution. Having imagined all this, all you need do is cry “Let the games begin!” and you have your American Genesis.
That is the short answer. For the long answer you have to read on.
Read the books. It’s what our founding fathers would want, with the possible exception of Jefferson.
Every day for the past nine months I have woken up around 4am on purpose. It’s amazing to have a sizable chunk of my day’s work accomplished as I watch the sun rise and hug my children good morning.
Getting work done early makes it easier to spend the day handling emergencies, being around for coworkers who need a hand, and hacking on side projects. Nobody schedules meetings before breakfast, so it’s uninterrupted time. And it’s easy to keep in touch with friends in easterly time zones. In case you want to try it, I thought I’d share a few tips that helped me make it work:
Going to bed early. It has been relatively easy for me to avoid movies, TV, and iOS games with family and friends after dinner. Sometimes I get wrapped up in chatting with my wife, and getting my kids to sleep is a constant challenge, but going to bed early is critical.
Using the Sleep Cycle alarm clock (iOS). I don’t care about the sleep analysis part of the app. What makes it really useful is its alarm, which wakes you in your lightest sleep phase. So when the alarm goes off, it’s like I’m ready to wake up anyway. Helps me avoid snoozing for too long.
Using Flux (Mac). Especially in winter when the mornings are dark and cold, having a warm screen eases me into work mode.
Using the StayFocusd Chrome extension. I have tried a few different tools that prevent me from visiting distracting sites via customizable parameters. They all work fine, and I ended up with this one. Great for snapping me out of sleepy surfing and keeping me on task.
Knowing what I’m going to work on. By planning the morning’s tasks the day before, I can wake up and just get started. I have found the morning to be a great time for planning, email, and routine task work, and not as great for writing (this surprised me!) or deploying work.
Having coffee and snacks ready to go. I grind my coffee the night before, which is not as delicious as freshly ground coffee but doesn’t wake anyone up. Having minimally-packaged, prepared food to eat in the morning is also useful, to avoid kitchen noise.
Working early is a lot like working very late, except you’re running on a near-full tank of gas instead of a near-empty one. The hard parts? Going to bed on time, waking up on time, and staying focused and alert in the morning.
Sometimes I make a pressure calendar — a quick, disposable calendar that helps me think clearly when I feel overwhelmed. Here’s one I made the other day.
I use pressure calendars when my to-do list is full of tasks that seem equally important, or tasks that could each consume all of my available time (like when I have speaking engagements or deadlines approaching). A pressure calendar shows me how much time I have, and helps me spend that time wisely.
It’s a printout from my calendar app, so for starters I can see scheduled commitments. If I have family visiting for a few days, for example, I know I won’t be working in the morning on those days. If I have travel plans, I know I’ll spend the night before packing. And so on.
I draw horizontal lines on the printout to divide days into thirds. Into the available chunks, I pencil in tasks. This helps me judge available time realistically, because I know I can expect four hours of productive time in each third of a calendar day. What can I get done in four hours?
In practice, things never go exactly according to my penciled-in plan. Stuff happens, so I cross off the days that have passed, erase as needed, and sketch out new plans. Although this kind of editing can get messy, it helps to be able to wrap my head around my tasks in a time-related way without having to use software; hassles and overhead that wouldn’t normally bother me can really stress me out when I’m under pressure.
I refer to the pressure calendar constantly until I no longer feel overwhelmed — and then it’s amazing. Amazing to see how much I accomplished in a short span of time. Amazing to reflect on the stress I felt. And amazing to take all that stress, crumple it up, and toss it in the trash.
Say what you’re doing. It’s great for parenting, and great for work.
My brother recently became a father, and asked me to share some parenting tips. Here’s one: when my children are around, I say what I’m doing out loud. “Now I’m putting these dishes into the dishwasher, and then I’m going to … turn on the faucet, and wash my hands. Now I’m walking to the towel … and drying my hands.”
My one-year-old loves this, and my four-year-old still kinda loves it. People like to see how other people do things. (Hey, look, some nice folks just launched a thing that shows people how they do things.)
My four-year-old has leveled up, though. She wants to know what I’ll do next, and when I will do the thing she cares about. Coping with these demands has vastly improved the accuracy of my time estimates at work, partly because I know better when to commit. At home, I don’t tell my daughter that we’ll play after dinner — I tell her to finish her dinner, and then we’ll talk about it again. I’m rooting for her — I want to play too — but more importantly, she needs to eat.
I tell her about sequences of events and fixed constraints too, but I try not to make promises; I say I hope we can go outside later — but it depends on the weather, and when Daddy gets home from work, and first we need to do these other things (x, y, z). We make lists together, and rank tasks. It shows her that I care about her priorities, and helps us both practice managing time and ideas.
Inevitably, when she has finished being reasonable, I need to remind her about our plan. So we keep our lists in her “idea book” (a small notebook). Writing things down helps us remember, gives me reasons other than “because I said so”, and will be really fun to look at when she’s older.
Do what you said you would do.
It’s not always fun. You may need to remind yourself why you care and why your work matters. Over time, you learn. To know better when to commit. To make commitments based on your goals. And to manage pressure as needed.
It pays. Doing what you said you would do builds trust, and helps you accomplish goals.
Today my wife Eileen launched her business, Simply Brown. There’s just a single product, in a very limited quantity — a rag quilt kit with detailed instructions and fabric featuring Mo Willems’ Pigeon. Share it with somebody crafty.
Six months ago, Eileen didn’t think she could start a business, make something people wanted to buy, or step away from ten years of elementary school teaching to try something new. But she did all those things. Here’s why she did it. Now I’m going to tell you how she did it.
First, she decided to step away from teaching for a year. This decision was terrifying — and still is. But only when she was free from responsibilities did she come up with her best ideas. She needed that clean break. She needed to finish the last thing before starting this new thing. (Thanks for the advice, Jeff.)
Then she had an idea. Rag quilts make great gifts (like, everybody-in-the-room-oohs-and-aahs gifts), and designer fabrics are hard to find. What if it were really easy to make a rag quilt? What if you didn’t have to worry about finding fabrics that match, or planning and measuring materials? I had fun helping Eileen turn questions like these into reasons why people might be interested in a product.
So then Eileen did some research. She looked at products on Etsy, she scoured Pinterest, she dug deep and read what people were saying in forums about kit-style products and rag quilts and designer fabrics. She looked at the kinds of things people were happy about. She learned about wholesale fabric suppliers and what it takes to buy from them. She started learning about the industry and found a conference for quilters.
One fabric supplier, Cloud9 Fabrics, stood out because their website was nice, and they had a line of organic fabrics that Eileen loved — based on Mo Willems’ Pigeon books, a very popular series with her first graders (and with our daughters). So Eileen started designing the product and we did some accounting to figure out how much it would cost to stock fabrics and everything else she wanted to include in the kit. We started planning the website together and bought a domain name.
Next, she read about starting a business — about different business structures, insurance, and legal issues. The U.S. Small Business Administration site was helpful. Once she knew how to proceed, setting up the business was very straightforward. One thing we learned is that you’re never finished setting up a business — you need to reevaluate everything as you grow.
When the business was set up, she could buy her supplies (wholesalers won’t sell you stuff until you submit business credentials). She bought fabric by the bolt (a thrill for her), plus lots of thread, pins, and packing materials. Then she made a quick trip to the store for shelves to keep her stock organized.
For weeks, as she did research, designed the product, started the business, and bought her supplies, Eileen and I wrote and edited text for the website in a handful of Editorially documents. More than half of our time was spent on the how to page.
Using her supplies, Eileen designed and tested the product. She allocated a single kit’s materials and decided how the kit would look when it shipped. Then she followed her own instructions and assembled a quilt while I took pictures. As you can see, the quilt turned out beautifully.
Finally, we built the website. Squarespace made it incredibly easy to create a customized, responsive site with a shopping cart. Plus, I’m a regular Back to Work listener (as you could probably tell from my other Pastry Box posts) and Squarespace supports the show. And – and! – I could use Typekit fonts. I put a lot of thought into my type choices for Simply Brown, and I’ll explain those another day.
I hope this works. I am proud of Eileen for trying.
One more thought by Tim Brown will be published
- Friday, 6 December