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Life is not full of boolean decisions.  Not everything is a yes-or-no situation.  Life is complex, issues are complex, and there amount of grey area far surpasses the amount of black and white.  Drawing a hard line with a decision does not allow you the flexibility to change your opinion when new facts become present or simply because your preferences change.

In all decisions we make – technological or not – allow yourself to respond in the grey area.  Instead of just saying: “This is the only right option,” try to say “This is an option that works, that I favor, but here are other options that could work.”  Give yourself and others a chance to evaluate the reasons for decision making.

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Open Your Heart

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Technology is just a fancy word for tools.  Tools are created to serve a purpose – to solve a problem.  To be the best technologists possible, you must open your heart and listen to others to determine the real problem and best solution.

We encounter people with problems big and small every day.  Being a technologist makes you the most prepared person to solve any problems that come your way.  With proper search skills, nearly all information is at your hands.  Additionally, a technologists has the curiosity and know-how to build tools to solve problems that may seem to difficult to solve with existing tools.

To truly solve a problem, you must be quiet and actively listen to the person in need (even if that person is yourself).  No matter how technical the problem sounds, you must open your heart and try to find out what the real problem that needs solving.  When you rush, you end up treating the symptoms without actually solving a problem.  Many tools we have today are solutions to symptoms or meant to fix the not-quite-complete output of an incomplete tool.  These are results of a failure to properly listen and understand the needs of the user.

Another reason to open your heart is that it creates a connection.  It enables natural follow-up, and allows the person(s) with the problems to provide feedback as well as input to create the best solution possible.  Anyone can be a technologists, and by listening and actively making the user part of the solution, you are helping them to develop the mental tools needed to become a technologists themselves.

Be happy, listen, and be the best technologists you can be.

-Nick

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If…

One of the key features of a programming language is the ability to express “IF some condition is met THEN do something OTHERWISE do something else.”  This is referred to as an IF statement or an IF-THEN-ELSE statement.  While it is the cornerstone of programming, it also can be extremely helpful in many non-programming situations.

Most spreadsheet applications (Excel, Numbers, Google spreadsheets) allow you to use these if statements.  The formulas vary slightly but are essentially:

=if(“condition”,”do this if condition is met”,”do this if condition is not met)

I frequently use these IF statements to create complex sorting.  Excel has good built-in filters, but often my data is raw or too specific and I want to add “fuzzy” filters (such as if data is less than something, or in a specific range, etc).  It statements allow you to create additional fields for which to make the built-in filtering even more powerful.

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Rethink

Often times we are faced with opportunities that we decline simply because they don’t fit into our current workflow.  You’ve perfected your processes over the past few years – so anything that requires a change to those processes must not be that great.  Sound logic, but not always true.  Over time, you’ve honed your processes to the tools you have at hand.  When new tools or opportunities present themselves, it is important to rethink your workflow given the new tools.  While not every opportunity or new tool can have a net benefit, passing on a good opportunity can come at a severe cost.

Take a few minutes to build a new process – from scratch – using the new knowledge and tools in front of you.  If that workflow is less optimal than your current, toss it, but if it is better, give it a try.

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Support

A support network is your most important asset in getting things done.  It can take a very long time to build a support network, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible to start building a new one later in life.  Here are some tips when building a support network.

  1. Find a mentor – Find someone willing to take you under their wing.  Ask them if they will be your mentor.
  2. Be a mentor – If you are in a position to mentor someone, do so.  Ask them if they’d like to be your pupil.
  3. Support Others – By supporting others you help to strengthen and grow your own support network.
  4. Ask small questions first – If you’re unsure if someone is willing to help – ask for 5 minutes of their time.  If they are not willing to give that, find someone else.

Having a support network with redundant roles is also useful.  If only one person can answer certain questions for you, you may find yourself asking too much of that person, and might be at a loss if that person is away or unreachable.

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Teach

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The best way to hone a skill is to teach it.  Roughly a year ago, I wanted to strengthen my ability to do regular expressions (RegEx).  While there are tons of tutorials that teach regular expressions, what was lacking was a fun way to learn.  So, I created http://regexquest.com/.  It is a game that is story-driven that acts as both a tutorial and test of regular expression skills.  For me to make the game, I was motivated to push my skills.

Beyond the motivational aspect of teaching, it is also benefits others.  Going through a tutorial will only benefit you, but through teaching, someone else benefits from the knowledge you have.  Even if it is simply providing and introduction to a friend, you are creating much more value.

Go out and teach – and have a wonderful weekend.

(Drawing courtesy of Pablo Francisco Arrieta Gomez [xpectro])

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Be Concise

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Not only can a lengthy email (or post) cause a reader to say TL;DR, it can leave itself open to interpretation leading to misunderstanding.  To communicate effectively – especially via e-mail:

  • Highlight the key points
  • Provide a summary if necessary
  • Focus on only one topic in an email

There is nothing wrong with sending 3 shorter e-mails if there are three different talking points.  That allows three discussions to happen specific to those talking points, as opposed to one long thread which may get confusing.

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Surviving the Black Hole

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All black holes have an area that is known as the event horizon.  This is the point at which – after crossed – nothing can escape.  With work – this can be thought of as a nervous breakdown.  Avoiding the nervous breakdown horizon can be difficult once you have started the spiral towards a black hole.

Black holes happen all the time in work/life.  They arise when the amount of work it seems we need to complete in a day surpasses the amount of hours we are willing to work.  Being expected to complete 12 hours of work in a 10 hour day feels like those last 2 hours will spill into the next day, putting you behind, leaving you 10 hours to do 14 hours of work, then 10 to do 16, and so on…  The vortex happens when we fail to organize and try to jump into action.  Unless you have just a one-time burst of tasks, the way to avoid a full-system meltdown may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but works:

  1. Don’t work on your tasks – Diving right in is the wrong thing to do.
  2. Get organized – Everyone runs with different levels of organization, but to avoid a black hole, you need to be rigid in ensuring you have your task list written down and prioritized.
  3. Re-prioritize your list – Double check your task list and ensure you have a good priority list set.  If one task is being blocked (waiting on someone else) simply move to the next task on your list.
  4. Identify repetition/Long tasks – Find items on your list that have common threads and try to template things.  Need to follow up with 20 clients?  Write a form e-mail, then copy/paste what you need from that.  Work smarter not harder.
  5. Start when you are ready – Once you are caught up on e-mail, have all your tasks in order, and clearly know how you can efficiently achieve your tasks, then you can start getting to work.
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Stride

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Even something as basic as walking can be an amazing metaphor for how we work – and how we can work best.  When you have a clear path, you can effortlessly walk without any mental effort.  In fact, your body wants to continue moving forward, and will so with ease.  You can stop if you need, turn if you need, but any course change requires mental effort.

Running through an obstacle course is a completely different story.  Not only do you physically have to be able to overcome an obstacle, you need to mentally be able to navigate and transition to the next item.  All of your active brain power must be focused on staying on your feet and keep moving.

Most of us are aware of when we’re in “stroll-mode” and “obstacle course” mode while doing work.  We try to avoid obstacle course as much as possible, and work towards stroll-mode on a daily basis.  There is one mode that can be deceptive – wandering aimlessly.

Wandering aimlessly is when decision points are created on the spot.  Imagine taking a walk in a park and every time something new came into vision, having to asses if you’re going to go in that direction – or even worse, taking a few steps off your course to get a better view.  If you have all the time in the world, or absolutely no goal other than to enjoy the scenery, this is wonderful, but with work, there are deadlines and goals, and this can destroy productivity.

Avoid Wandering Aimlessly by using “Discovery”

Discovery is a great way to forge a trail when one does not seem clear.  The major different between wandering aimlessly and discovery is that discovery has set decision point spots.  Taking the hiking trail example a bit further – you would stake out good lookout points, such as the top of a hill, opening of a river, or existing path.  You would work towards that goal and wait to gather information until you have reached your lookout point.  From there, you stop and give yourself a set amount of time to discover.  During this phase, you look around, get a closer look, and gather as much information (in the time frame you’ve allotted) then make a decision on your next lookout point (or your final destination).

Even when you don’t know where you’re going, keep these tips in mind to remain productive and reduce mental fatigue:

  1. Avoid obstacle courses
  2. Use maps and goals to hold your comfortable stride as long as possible
  3. If you’re unsure where to go – use discovery
  4. Try not to change direction mid step
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Tunnel Vision

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Tunnel Vision – or hyper focus – is an amazing way to achieve difficult or long tasks in an extremely short amount of time.  To achieve this, you need to strictly follow these rules.

  1. Have a clear goalYour know exactly where your destination is.  Like a train station.
  2. Have a clear path – You need to have a list of tasks that outline how you’re going to get from point A to point B.  Hyper Focus only works when you do not have to make big decisions.
  3. Remove distraction – Stops or distractions will cause you to lose significant momentum.  Limit e-mail to once every few hours and turn off social media and/or your phone.
  4. Accept that your path cannot change – To achieve hyper focus and hyper productivity, you cannot question your direction, you simply have to get to your destination as quickly as possible.

You cannot hyper-focus too long or too often.

Despite the benefits of hyper focus, its inflexibility and potential mental strain (it is the equivalent of running a marathon, but for your brain) make it a poor choice for daily activities, but sometimes we’re faced with two weeks of work and only three days to accomplish those tasks.  It is those times that we can turn to hyper focus – turn off all other distractions and map out a clear path, then go.

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