Twenty-five years ago I was a college professor who spent hours preparing classes, fearful that students would ask me a question I couldn’t answer. And when I started convening and speaking at conferences I was scared of being “on stage”, even in front of small audiences.
1977: I earn a Ph.D. in applied elementary high-energy particle physics. Get a post-doc position and move to the United States. Work at major U.S. particle accelerators for a year. Leave academic research forever. Since 1978 — that’s 41 years! — every job I’ve had didn’t exist a few years earlier.
1978: I join the management of Solar Alternative, a solar energy manufacturing business founded the previous year. Five years earlier, there were no such businesses in the United States.
1983: I start teaching computer science using personal computers in the classroom. IBM introduced the PC in 1981.
1984: I begin IT consulting for clients using personal computers. Businesses didn’t start using personal computers until the early 80’s.
1992: I organize a conference where there are no expert speakers available (it’s a new field, there are no experts). Invent a way to make the conference successful based on the collective needs, wants, and experience of the attendees. (The conference has run annually for the last 27 years.) This is something new. Organizations hear about this and ask me to design and facilitate their conferences.
2005: I realize that the conference process I invented and since improved is incredibly popular with participants. I decide to write a book about it, and in…
2009: I self-publish Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love. (Five years earlier, self-publishing was a minor industry for vanity projects. Now it’s the most common way authors publish.) I quickly discover the size and interest of the meetings industry. In demand, I become a meeting designer and facilitator of participant-driven, participation-rich meetings. Yet another career that had not existed before.
A conventional career
My parents once suggested I become an accountant. I politely declined and continued studying physics. I have nothing against conventional careers, but my life hasn’t turned out that way.
If I had to guess, it probably won’t.
And it probably won’t for you either.
Has the job you’re doing now just been invented? Share your experience in the comments below!
“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists…” —Umberto Eco, SPIEGEL Interview, 2009
Managing my life Are you blessed with a perfect memory? Me neither! To avoid unpleasant consequences, everyone like us needs a reliable way to keep track of things we have yet to do. As I age, my memory slowly deteriorates. But my life shows no sign of becoming simpler. There will be entries on my To Do list until the day I die.
Over the years I’ve tried many different methods to implement effective To Do lists and I’m sharing here the system I’ve used successfully for the last 5 years. I hope it will be useful information for anyone like me who has struggled to track and prioritize their personal life and professional work.
Creating a successful To Do list methodology One of the reasons why it’s hard to track and prioritize To Dos is that we have a tendency to pick an available tool without first deciding what To Do list methodology will work for us. So many tools exist — simple written lists, elaborate day planners, electronic devices, software, apps, etc. Most of them have built into them an implicit methodology as to how we should manage our tasks. Unfortunately, one person’s methodological meat may be another’s poison.
After much experimentation, I have settled on using a combination of Kanban and Getting Things Done methodologies to capture and prioritize my life tasks.
The simple yet brilliant Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology doesn’t prescribe a complete system for organizing your life. Instead, it encapsulates only the essential workflow processes you need to follow to clear and organize your work-life, plus what you need to know in order to choose tools and procedures that work for you. Each person’s implementation of GTD is unique.
Kanban and GTD — a winning combination! The essence of Personal Kanban is the creation and continual updating of three lists: To Do, Doing, and Done. Tasks migrate from To Do –> Doing –> Done as we work. Most practical implementations (including mine) add a Waiting For list, to capture top-of-mind tasks that currently require action outside our control before working on them.
To these core lists, GTD suggests adding separate lists for each set of project tasks. So I have a Brattleboro list (for things to do when I go into town), a Boston list (for when I am at our apartment there), a Book 3 list (for tasks remaining before I publish my next book) and lists for current client projects. I move tasks from these lists into and between the core Kanban lists through the review process.
Regular review and updating of your To Do implementation is essential for it to be useful. Schedule reviews in a way that works for you. I like to review my Kanban/GTD implementation at the beginning and end of each day, plus at any time when it’s not obvious to me what I should be doing next.
Implementation Trello is a superb tool for implementing Kanban/GTD; check here for more information on how I use it. When I’m occasionally deviceless (yes, it still happens in this oh-so-connected world) I rely on good old paper and pen to capture ideas and build short in-the-moment To Do lists, e.g. shopping lists. My manpurse holds a Levenger Pocket Briefcase, always filled with 3 x 5 cards, a Reporter’s Notebook, plus a variety of reliable pens, ensuring I can always fall back on a two-thousand year old method of making lists.
Conclusion Amazing methodologies and technologies are available to us. Effectively planning and managing a complicated life can be easier and less stressful if you adopt approaches like Kanban/GTD and adapt them to work well for you. The choice is yours!
After dinner last night I heard a familiar sound — the growl of the UPS box truck driving up our 600′ rural driveway. I knew it was our regular driver, the guy who’s been delivering for years, because if he sees I’m in my home office he’ll stop and do a tight three-point turn outside the entrance, rather than driving past to reverse by the garage.
I heard the van door slide back and went to the door to meet the guy I’ll call Roger. Roger is tall and lanky, has a sweet smile and disposition, and is open to talk if the time is right. Over the years he’s met me hundreds of times in that doorway. Mostly, he smiles and hand over the delivery, I thank him and wish him a good night, and he jumps into his truck, finishes reversing and drives away. Once in a while, when the roads are bad, we talk about his day: how he’s handled the challenges of delivering along my rural town’s sixty miles of dirt roads plus the surrounding area.
For some reason I hadn’t seen Roger for a few weeks; the other drivers had been making deliveries. So I said, “Hey, you’re back!” as he strolled towards me, package in hand.
“Well, I’ve been off a lot; my mother just passed away,” he replied.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. I stood and looked at him.
“Well” he said…
…and he started to tell his story.
Roger talked about his mom. He stood facing sideways from me, with an occasional glance in my direction prompted by my occasional responses to what he was saying. Once in a while he’d swivel to face me, sharing something that was especially important. Then he went back to telling me about his frequent journeys down south to see her since she’d fallen and broke multiple bones in June, how his family had done their best to cope, and her eventual decline and death.
He told me about dealing with “picking up the pieces” now she was gone. About the last time he saw her in the hospital, when she was “all scrunched up” and seemed out of it, until he bent down and hugged her and told her “I love you mom” and she opened one eye and said “I love you too” “as clear as anything” and then closed her eye and “was out of it again”. He told me much more than I’ll share here.
Roger talked for over ten minutes, by far the longest conversation we’ve ever had. Now and again he edged away during our time together. But he couldn’t quite get himself to stop what he wanted or needed to say.
And that was fine with me. I was in no hurry, and he wanted to talk.
At the end I wished him well and he turned, got into his van, and motored off down my driveway.
On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma tore across the tiny island nation of Anguilla. The hurricane destroyed every power pole. Roofs were torn off schools, government buildings, and the hospital. The Category 5 hurricane’s 185 mph winds and driving rain caused severe interior damage and destruction to most buildings on the island. After the storm, every road on the island was blocked with fallen polls, trees, and debris, and there was no power for weeks. Amazingly, only two people died.
Resilience in the Face of Disaster
Six months later, we are visiting; amazed at the recovery that has taken place in such a short time. Most Caribbean islands, such as neighboring St Maarten, remain heavily damaged. Anguilla’s 13,000 inhabitants have worked their hearts and bodies out to bring life here back to something approaching normal. Power has been restored all over the island, internet and phone is largely back, and the majority of the colorful beach restaurants and shops serving Anguilla’s crucial tourist industry have been completely rebuilt.
While exploring the New York City High Line for the first time in November 2017, I stopped for lunch in the Chelsea Market, passed the Apple West 14th Street Store and on impulse went in to take a look at the Apple Watch Series 3 which had just been released. Though impressed while watching the original Apple Watch launch two years earlier, I was still wearing an inexpensive watch I’d purchased years ago in Zurich. This time I liked what I saw. Within 30 minutes I was the owner of a space gray 42mm aluminum Series 3. I added a space black Milanese Loop but passed on the cellular option.
As I write this, two months later, my Apple Watch has hardly left my wrist (you’ll see why later). Frankly I’m surprised at its positive impact on my life. Let’s list the ways…
“I know the world is crazy right now. I know it’s hard to find the good in the news but you won’t find it there because the news asks you to be only a passive consumer of the world’s pain and joy. What we need to do is rise from our seats and participate in the world as fully as possible.” —Chris Corrigan, Pick up the unclaimed portion of joy
One of the hardest things for me to do is to shut up and listen.
“If I could give just one piece of advice to all medical students, I would say, ‘Show up completely, and then shut up for at least two minutes while the miracle in front of you tells you who they are and how you can help them.’ If every doctor did just that one thing, it would change medicine.” —Raymond Barfield, Professor of Medicine and Divinity, Duke University, from “The Miracle in Front of You”, January 2016 interview in The Sun
It’s hard for me to shut up and listen because I get sparked by what people say and I want to respond.
It’s hard for me to shut up and listen because people often talk about their problems, and I love solving problems—even when I haven’t been asked to solve them.
It’s hard for me to shut up and listen because I have a need for connection with others and want to share who I am, sometimes more than is best for our relationship.
Yet, when I am able to shut up and give the gift of listening, the odds that the person speaking feels heard increases.
And, when I am able to shut up and give someone sharing a problem the space to say fully what’s on her mind, it’s more likely she’ll ask me what I think, and then, perhaps, I can help her.
And, when I am able to shut up and connect with someone through listening well, I’ll usually end up connecting with him more deeply.
Finally, of course, when I shut up and listen well, I’m less likely to miss important information that I need or want to hear.
We can all—especially me—benefit from shutting up and listening.