Saturday, September 28, 2013

Politics of Distraction

Much can be said of the current problems in Washington but is it the inherent nature of democracy that makes it messy since the breakdown of civil relation and bipartisanship between legislators. Long ago, veteran lawmakers reminisce about the old days in the 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s when bipartisan compromise and level headed thinking saved the day, a tradition started by Benjamin Franklin during the first meeting s of the constitutional congress. Some even recall warm friendships between members of opposing parties. This bring to mind the China model, devoid of democratic institutions wherein 2 parties battle each other for control of government with free exchange of ideas; instead managed like a conglomerate of technocrats but with the risk of corruption, innate in an unelected centralized government. But the tradeoff looks attractive day by day, just watching television, where the dramas of Washington plays out like a comedy in the cinema; the lone senator filibustering a bill but backs down and votes instead with the opposition, like a performance in a kabuki or an Indonesian shadow play where things play out at back stage while the overt players perform for the gullible public.

Sometimes it just seems like the death of common sense, an attribute that used to distinguish the New World colonies, now driven by ideologues, demagogues and inflexible principles goaded by muddy thinking. One thinks that the way forward are bipartisan entities like the Office of Budget and Management who fact check assertions and verify the truth. Instead it is a battle of inane ideas, more driven by emotion and funded by billionaires working in the background to keep their immense wealth. It is a shame that elected officials allows themselves to be led by these men in the back room who ask for pledges not to raise taxes, constricting common sense. No wonder this churning in government makes one want to pick up a weapon and start shooting anyone in sight; perhaps this is an important study, to see if the turmoil in government, played out through the media, affects the sanity of people sensitive to visual and auditory noise like political junkies checking news feeds to know what is going on to nourish their addiction.

In my case it is stress that causes distraction, to flee from the work at hand, trying to escape from responsibility that work entails, looking for an activity that can free the ego instead of solving the problem. This emotional reaction prevents one from following David Allen’s GTD principle, causing one to react to incoming emails with fear when one should just place the mail in the appropriate folder if one cannot respond within 2 minutes; organizing the reaction in a systemic way. One realizes it is emotion that derails one’s common sense, the way politicians react to seeming slights that result in gridlock, not moving forward in a calm and sensible manner. Get a grip on your mind – books would say, try journaling or deep breathing to ground one, instead of allowing one’s attention to take flight with thought bubbles; the curse of the monkey mind.  Journaling is calming, the steady rhythm of writing, a way to control the berserk electrical patterns coursing the brain into a more sensible and calm array like listening to Mozart when in turmoil; music soothing the savage mental beast. One thinks this is needed by the Washington politicians as their rivals - the Chinese politburo practice Tai Chi in their enclave within the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Monday, September 16, 2013

GTD – Self Organization

Yesterday I participated as a judge in a speech contest, previously sending an email to my club members to convince them to attend the contest; an event hosted by 2 area governors that had a small handful of participants where none attended form my club despite my reminder. But it was an interesting session with speeches on cats, dogs, brassieres and a hilarious one on how Toastmaster will help save the planet and extend lives; the last speech delivered by a brilliant standup comic who lost (as he did not come in a formal coat and tie like the others). Earlier in the week we had our club meeting where my members where asking about the area contest as some of us received an email asking for help. This made me realize, in the days leading up to the contest, that I had a responsibility to organize a contest for my area, wondering how this major event slipped my mind, realizing that the pressure and stress at the office wiped out the task from my mind.  The truth is that I was running away from any kind of work, neglecting to read emails especially one from a governor to start organizing our area contest, focusing instead, but rightfully so, at my office work, thereby, allowing my responsibility as governor to slip away. Now I have 2 weeks left to organize a contest. 

I could not sleep the night before the Saturday contest, thinking that I will be derided by the other officers, but I resolved to accept the shame and come clean and ask for help. But nothing of the sort of humiliation occurred despite the fevered thoughts in my brain, instead the kindness and concern of the people came through, giving me confidence that I can make it. I started to plan my next steps, thinking about my other work in the office where I had slipped and did not communicate very well, not organizing meeting or not updating my customers, instead letting the deadlines slip. In fact I had not prepared well for a department meeting last Tuesday, though submitting the presentation in time but attending remotely, not making the case to explain my position clearly to the audience in the meeting. All these seeming failures crept in my mind that together with the area contest that I let slip resulted in sleepless nights that further caused me to self-indulge and procrastinate.  Saturday afternoon was spent going to a concert in the woods at Paris Mountain Park where I tried to gain strength listening to music, surrounded by nature and trying to silence my mind.

Last week I watched several videos by David Allen and download GTD materials to help me become more efficient and productive. I also continued to read the book ‘Is Work Killing You?’  By David Posen, MD which gave a lot of good insight on the nature and cause of stress (i.e. Volume, Velocity and Abuse of work).  These materials plus the music concert in the woods calmed me a bit  and several plans came into shape. I have determined to do the following:

-    In my Lotus Notes, create the following folders for emails that I will defer work (i.e. cannot be done in 2 minutes): Answer, Read and Pending. I will check these folders during the day and, hopefully, prevent me from missing important emails.

-    For project work, the following tools will be used: office work = Atlassian  tool to update and manage maintenance tickets (using SCRUM or KANBAN Method) and MS Notes to organize reference materials. For other projects = Trello for SCRUM or KANBAN tools and Ever Note and Pinterest for reference notes on my personal projects.

-    Organize my file folders especially Dropbox so I can work anywhere with my mobile devices.

Reading these books have helped me organize my thoughts, keeping me calm instead of rushing into panic, raising my thinking at a higher level so I can plan better. Let’s see what will happen in a few days.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Barreling Through

The writing seminar last night at the library was great, led by a local poet who teaches at the governor’s middle school, a charming woman who brought an insight on writing that grabbed my attention. It came from left field as one would say, not expecting the epiphany that came, despite the many books read and lectures I attended on the craft. She introduced the concept of balance, between the individual and environment, a concept alien to me since last night, centering on a self-absorbed perspective, like a stream of consciousness approach popular in literature like Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road,’ in fact missing the balance entirely and, instead, focused on the self-conceit that is an attribute of journal writing or being a egoistic diarist. The hour and a half was well spent, considering the knowledge gained in such short a time; perhaps the impact was relevant because one was prepared, well-versed in the writing struggles and the theory of craft that her insight landed on welcoming ears.  The fifteen minute writing exercise was relaxing too, though I was self-indulgent and kept to the ‘me’ focus.

I went to the gym early this morning, waking at 5 am and watching 2 lectures by David Allen while I prepared my gym bag, grabbing the time to listen to his productivity seminar so I can get a leg up at work, then travelling to the gym by 6:30 am for a 35 minute workout in the tread mill. The day at work was tedious, jumping from one subject to another that one forgets what one has done, scheduling meetings,  writing emails and preparing a presentation for an afternoon conference, presenting and, finally, exhausted; the mind unable to ponder what to do next, instead writing a blog entry, a meditation that hopefully settles the mind. It is beginning to be a pattern, the late nights, watching HBO specials in a rush before the 3-month promotion ends, sorting the many books borrowed at the library, eating too much and neglecting to do the personal work promised to one’s parents, preferring to escape again until one discovers its midnight and tipsy with wine. Then the hectic day at work, participating in meetings and getting lost near the end of the day after barreling through the day’s To Do list.

The writing seminar was a welcome respite that one thinks he will join the scribbler’s group at the library, a chance to reconnect back to the dream, careful to digest the intricate dance needed to be a writer, attuned to the subtle aspects of one’s character like the dance needed at work. Discernment of the layers one discovers in one’s thoughts, interactions with others and the work that needs to be done, to increase one’s psychic bandwidth, instead of the heavy handed, barreling through of a bull, making its way into the light. I guess the mornings are best when one’s wits are alive and fresh which degrades as the day moves on, thereby losing the freshness of thought. But I have reached a turning point where one must change or face disaster that a tired mind brings or perhaps it is burnout that one faces. Tasks are lost that one needs to make a better list: write that email to the club presidents and schedule visits, write that email to mom and dad and check the other tasks needed to send money back home; all these things that concerns one’s personal life instead of one’s work life where making a list is compulsory. I think I should have done my Tai chi exercises this morning.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Slow Afternoon

Last night I slept at around 12 midnight, woke at 6 am the next morning, roughly 6 hours of sleep, eating breakfast of yogurt, banana and boiled egg and at the office by 7:45 am, attending a meeting at 8 am and drinking coffee in the meeting room.  By the afternoon, after a heavy Cuban lunch of yellow rice, beans and roasted pork, plus eating my ‘usual’ lunch of 4 carrot sticks, 30 pieces of almond nuts and a small brownie plus green tea; my brain is sluggish, unable to move forward on my To Do List. By 3 pm, I had attended 3 meetings during the day, replied to a number of emails and worked on my tickets in the computer system. Roughly 2 hours left before the end of the work day with my mind slowing down to a crawl, exhausted by lack of sleep, a heavy lunch and too much work to do. But I have my To Do List all set,  but the mind and body is weak, although the spirit is more than willing, realizing that age is coming to claim one’s youth, unable to move forward because the mind is moving in mud.

After lunch, I drank my usual tablets of Gingko Biloba and St. John’s Wort, hoping that these supplements will give me the second wind of the day, to allow me to breeze through until the end of work at 5 pm. I still have to attend another seminar tonight from 7 – 8:30 pm at the local library, a seminar on writing.  Somehow I must soldier on, doing my task list and ticking them off one by one until the day’s goals are done. But I lack the ‘psychic bandwidth’ with all the incoming email and work demands; the volume of work further causing one to exhaust his mind. Last night I watched a lecture in YouTube on productivity, where David Allen spoke about his GTD process (Get Things Done) then reading on the agile and kanban method of software development while listening to the music of Anuskha Shankar. I think I have found the technology and tool to help me, but this afternoon it looks like my brain is slowing to a crawl; listless, pressured and distracted at the task at hand. I am unable to work unless I  get my vitality back through breathing, journal writing or drinking more coffee.

Recently, I have been reading various books on the science of healthy aging, how to avoid dementia by exercise, diet and mental challenges, plus the other areas to be followed like drinking tea, being sociable, and so on while my mind struggles to keep awake, nodding off and struggling to complete work. I think I am heading towards the life I would like to lead, shredding the distracting and procrastinating habits, working smart and following a reasonable regimen of diet and exercise. But the minds still strays, psychic energy slipping away while one tries to bring the vitality back via writing and breathing exercises. The mind thinks about many things that cause stress, like wondering why the chief of staff is wandering the corridors, walking into cubicles like mine and handing out pamphlets about India, wondering if this is an attempt to check me out, my paranoia amplified by my internet browsing at work (‘will we go to war in Syria?’) or the heated political discussions with my neighbor, a battle between conservative and liberal arguments. I don’t know how he can focus and continue working while I struggle with my procrastination and tired brain. There is still much to learn, grasshopper.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


I attended a course last week on diversity, travelling to a training center close to home on Thursday and Friday, trying to keep up with work during the 2-day seminar, eventually working at home after the seminar just to keep up. It was a difficult week, receiving emails that required immediate attention plus some administrative work that just had to be done, causing me to work until midnight on Thursday evening. On top of that were my usual extra-curricular activities that required me to watch DVDs from the library and read books and magazines scheduled to be returned the next week. It was crazy times again, driven by the automatic response to keep busy – reading and watching movies in the guise of some future goal to be updated and aware of current events and to be culturally relevant. This plays on my strength, the inclination to absorb much input but also an innate fear of being left behind, neglecting one’s own abilities to successfully tackle any problem without deceptive confidence of reading too many books.

This brings me to one of the chapters in the book ‘Coaching the Artist Within.’ This urge to be constantly busy is actually a reaction, to flee from looking into the roots of this fear, to find meaning on why one does what he does. A ‘centering’ exercise is proposed to bring the mind back into reality, to focus on the task at hand and not flee the circumstances, to keep the mind grounded. This is the same problem I have at work, neglecting to respond instantaneously to emails, to react immediately by a reply or an action to update a ticket or create a service request, instead putting it aside and passing the buck down the road so one can look at it later, at the real risk of being overwhelmed. Therefore, I lack a system that should keep me on top of things, something that I have missed despite all the self-help books I have read like David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ or Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Successfully People.’ It used to be that I could cope but the volume has increased significantly that it is just too much unless I upgrade my ‘mental’ technology of organization and productivity.

My initial urge is look for the latest technology in computers and tablets or the latest idea in business to solve the problem, but the book really explains that it has nothing to do with the use of the latest gizmo or productivity idea but to look into one’s soul so to speak, doing a sort of cognitive therapy to correct a mental mistake, like a bias towards an erroneous idea. I think there is benefit in both approaches but clearly the issue is the mind’s desire to escape; it is the most immediate reason. Why is one escaping? Because of the fear of failure, the fear that one cannot be the writer or manager that one can be, fear to proceed in a bold and creative way, preferring to work in the shadows instead of stepping forward and expressing one’s ideas; to lead. But one agrees that writing is difficult but the years were not spent unwisely; the continued reading of books, gathering of experience and journal writing and reflecting has profit. Similarly, the years of experience, training and technical and academic study has also provided the skills needed to succeed as a manager. Therefore, one needs to ‘ground’ the mind by centering its attention to the task at hand; whether in managing or writing.

How do I procrastinate at work? Seeing emails from people I don’t know or rarely know throws my mind into a panic. Whether it is an email or an automated alert that goes to my in box, the panic throws my mind into a frenzy (unless I know it’s an organized attack that I need to respond right way lest the issue blows up), but initially I am fearful that I will not live up to expectation, thereby delaying my response. But days later, when my mind calms down, I come back to the email and find it’s not as bad as I thought. Hence, it’s an emotional response by the mind (or nervous system); perhaps it’s one’s creative nature that goes off, reactive when one needs to stay calm. Grounding my mind via centering maybe the solution; although I am looking into tools like Trello or agile feature in our ticket system, to help organize work.  But the key is creating a ‘system’ like a weekly review of the tasks at hand, organizing work and responding in a timely manner, principles expressed in David Allen’s GTD.

Another skill that I need to work on is replying to emails in a friendly and non-reactive manner. But the key is the cognitive realization of the emotional mental (?) response or fear to an email from person unknown. But the other challenge is the volume of work, to have a strategy to handle the incoming mail, maybe it is not an emotional response but a reaction by an overstressed mind. Therefore, aside from the weekly review, the next effort is to plan one’s activity, for example, checking emails at a certain time of the day – maybe at 10 am and 2 am. The strategy looks something like the following:

-        Review open tickets every week, possibly Friday or Saturday. Extract business requirements to Excel and review
-        Organize work after review of open tickets by using kanban method (agile feature)
-        Read email twice a day and respond promptly following David Allen’s GTD
-        Organize all other work like book writing and toastmasters using
-        Practice centering techniques or meditation to calm the mind

I now realize that I have been taking vitamin supplements like St. John's Wort, Gingko Biloba and Valerian to calm my mind, to handle the cognitive issues plaguing my mental well-being, instead of the hard task of cognitive therapy.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Labor Day Weekend 2013

I took leave on Friday which provided me with a 4 day weekend with the Labor Day holiday, where I spent 2 mornings and an afternoon playing golf with friends from the office. I wanted to travel somewhere but did not have the urge, settling on golf which is just as good, playing for roughly 4 hours talking, walking, and drinking beer. I also spent most of the time watching the HBO series ‘The Newsroom’ and the several DVDs that I had borrowed from the library, plus my usual rush through a pile of borrowed magazines, again questioning my sanity and priority. I had planned to work during the holiday, just to catch up on work, but just spent a few hours on Friday and procrastinating for the rest of the weekend, hopefully I will be more successful on the last day after my last game of golf for the weekend holiday.

I feel that I am just clawing my way out of the pile of work that overwhelmed me; e-mails, administrative work, meetings, phone calls, getting things done while trying to get rid of my anxiety which is irrational fear according to a book I am reading on being a creative coach. There is just to many demons in my mind, demons of self-doubt preventing me from moving forward, lacking the self-confidence, but due to the expectations one just needs to perform, and ‘perform’ is the best description, or leading because of the inadequacy of the team at some certain times, complacent and preferring to ease forward, hoping that problems disappear. Unfortunately, one finds himself with the technical insight and ability, despite playing a small role, to move events forward, like a catalyst, not doing the actual heroic work but nudging the bits forward with the insight of age and experience – the backroom operator.

Nevertheless, the mind always tries to escape, reluctant to accept responsibility whether at work, in my creative dreams and in real life personal problems, preferring to flee by reading books and magazines and watching movies, thinking that this is the ‘real’ life; lost in the fantasy world of entertainment. Sadly, there is no other way; the responsibility is clear and one must step forward, otherwise one will lose the battle in the theater of the office, or lose in the real life responsibilities that command shame; an attribute shared by one’s spoiled parents, who lived a sheltered life while neglecting everyday problems until age drove them into the lonely twilight of reduced cognition, perhaps dreaming of those wonderful days of the past, when one had parties and reunions with long dead relatives, uncles and cousins scattered out in the world with their own life struggles as time moves on. It is the children who need to pick up the pieces.

The volume of work and problems do not cease that one must keep moving, punching and doing what one can until one masters the new battlefield and rise above the litter of everyday stuff. I am glad for the 4 –day weekend, a welcome respite considering that one has not had a vacation for some time, preferring to shave a day off by taking leave on Fridays before the weekend and one finds the end of the year close at hand, nevertheless a time to read books and reflect.  The action is clear and one has the answers therefore one needs to move without thinking of the fruits of the labor just the act itself. But I had insomnia the other night, awaking in the early morning at 3 am or 5 am in the weekend of the holiday, but time not wasted as spent reading self-help books to kick start the writing of a novel and the creative life. One plans a few hours of work later today, a little bit of effort to climb out of the pile.