Three themes for 2020

Three themes for 2020

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from that renowned scholar of personal productivity, Mike Tyson:

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

I lived this quote in 2019. If you'd asked me in mid-2018 how the mid- to long-range plans I was making at my trimesterly review would unfold in 2019, I would have been able to give you a rough but reasonably detailed forecast. And I would have been totally wrong, because there was no way I could have seen 2019 coming: my diagnosis of a serious heart issue requiring open-heart surgery in February, followed by an 8-week recovery period that put me out of work for the entire semester. That was immediately followed by being unexpectedly appointed as department chair for 6 weeks (with paper-thin experience), when my chair herself had to go on medical leave. Which was then followed even more unexpectedly by being appointed chair --- with precisely 6 weeks of experience and zero onboarding --- for the entire year when she retired.

So, 2019 was anything but boring. I learned that life has this way of thumbing its nose at your trimesterly reviews, and routing its way around your plans.

The constant flux of 2019 reminds me why I don't make New Year's Resolutions. Resolutions or year-long goals just don't work for me, and I suspect for most people, mostly because making goals on that kind of time frame assumes that you, your life, and your priorities are going to remain essentially constant for 12 straight months. I'm resolving in 2020 to write in a journal every day someone says; that's a worthy goal, but it assumes that daily journaling is going to be something you want to do and can do not only now but also in April, August, and November. Maybe you get started journaling and stick with it for a month, but for whatever reason in two months it just no longer provides the value for your life that it did the day you resolved to do it. Year-long resolutions tend not to stick because we change while the resolutions stay constant.

So for 2020. instead of doing New Year's resolutions, I decided to adopt themes, or guiding principles for how I will respond to change in 2020. I've settled on three of these themes, which are kept simple so they are easy to remember, like mottos or advertising slogans. And the format I am using is taken from the Agile Manifesto: While there is value in the items on the right, I will value the items on the left more.

Theme #1: Human and personal > individual and digital. My Dean recently told me something obvious that nonetheless had a big impact on me: That being a department chair is primarily a people job. This really resonated because not only is it true, it's also a major blind spot for me. Throughout my whole career, I've been effectively a freelancer --- calling my own shots, working by myself and for myself even when the result is something public-facing like a class or a workshop. I've used a lot of digital tools like email and appointment scheduling apps, not because they're the best tools for the job (although they often are) but because I am avoiding interacting with people. At one point I even set a long-term goal of having half my teaching load being online courses, for no other reason than to avoid being around students so much. This clearly isn't healthy behavior, and learning to identify it and act in the opposite way has been probably the hardest thing about being a department chair so far.

It's also been hard to face the fact that the only real way to get anything important done as a department chair is to build consensus first. I can't just decide something's a good idea and then starting moving on it right then and there --- which has been my M.O. for my entire career. Even harder, perhaps, is the fact that my actions now have real consequences in people's lives. For example my decisions about scheduling classes can mean the difference between work and unemployment for an adjunct. In the past, if I wanted to do something in my teaching, I'd just do it and the worst that could happen is that I'd fail and have to compensate with my students in some way. Now, I have to attain buy-in for almost everything and then live with the real consequences in the lives of my colleagues.

All this has made me realize that I need to connect more with the humans around me, and the human element in the things I do. So in 2020, while I still value individualism, efficiency and automation, and while I still believe there's value in being predictably inaccessible to do deep work, I'll be making sure that I consider the human. This means making greater efforts to have face time with people and get to know them --- and subsequently interact with them --- on a more personal level. This is not easy for me, as an introvert. I'd much rather play email tag with someone than just pick up the phone or meet in person for 15 minutes because email gives me permission to hide from personal interaction. But it also turns me and the other person into artificial intelligences trying to pass each others' Turing Tests.

Theme #2: Attention > time. We all say that we're busy and don't have time for things. But after 2019, I think we're looking at it the wrong way. I think we have the time to do anything we place value on; we just don't allocate our attention the right way a lot of that time, and we end up being "busy" without actually accomplishing important things. We say "I'm too busy to do X" when what we actually mean is, "X is not a high priority for me". I'm to the point where I'd prefer people would tell me the latter rather than the former when I ask them to do something. It stings a little but it's a lot more honest.

A lot of people call productivity philosophies like GTD a "time management" practice. But in fact, David Allen (the author of GTD) says otherwise:

You can’t manage time. Time just is. You don’t mismanage five minutes and wind up with four, or six. [...] Time management is really managing what we do, during time. But it’s easier for executives to say that time is what needs to be managed, rather than themselves. It’s easier to make time the enemy and parade our worthiness (I have so many big, important things to get done), rather than to say “I don’t keep my agreements.”

Time is not a thing we "manage". We can't create it, destroy it, borrow it, or give it away. Instead, Allen goes on to say that "Time management is really agreement management" --- which I would paraphrase to say that time management is really attention management.

I learned a lot about the value of time in 2019. I first of all learned how terrifyingly short our time on this planet really is, during the run-up to my surgery. Then, post-surgery, I learned that you can have a lot of time available to you (which I did thanks to FMLA leave) but you still have to make choices about where to place your attention during that time. The first 2-3 weeks of recovery I spent all day sitting in a recliner in my living room because it hurt too much to move. My choices were (a) stare out the window, (b) watch Netflix, or (c) do something to get my mind active. In reality I did a combination of all three of these, but I can also say that I really began to recover and get back to being me once I started using that time to keep my mind active. I signed up for DataCamp and finished some data science courses; read research papers; read a ton of books; and more.

So in 2020 that will be a theme for me: Manage where your attention goes in the time you have available to you. I still practice "time management" activities like time boxing to set up my schedule, but this is more as a means of focusing my attention on one thing for a short sprint than it is to "manage time". And I will also be a lot more picky about where my attention goes, saying no to more things in 2020 than I did in 2019 and using the bullet journal/essentialist philosophy of ruthlessly weeding out things from my projects and tasks in order to focus on what's truly important.

And don't complain about being busy. Everybody's busy, but some of those people managed to get important things done anyway.

Theme #3: Integrity > balance. Another thing that I realized in 2019 is that the idea of "work-life balance" isn't exactly right. The term suggests two plates on an old-fashioned balance scale, with Work on one plate and Life on the other, separate from each other but in equal quantities, to achieve "balance". In reality this isn't what happens -- Life and Work are not separate things. When I decided to say "yes" to being appointed department chair, for example, I wasn't thinking about whether I had enough Life on the other side of the scale to "balance" the appointment out. I was thinking: How will this affect my behavior and demeanor with my wife and kids when I'm home for the day? Will I still be able to finish work by 5pm every day and not work on nights and weekends? Will the extra income open some doors for the family that wouldn't be open otherwise? Life is not hermetically sealed from work; it is an integral part of my work.

And likewise, when I am making life decisions, I am absolutely thinking about the relationship of that decision with work. My wife and I are working with financial planners right now to plan for empty-nest and retirement. Absolutely I was thinking about my work when we thought, for example, about where we want to live when the kids are out of the house and whether I want my kids to attend my university.

I think what we mean when we say a job offers "good work-life balance" or when someone has attained this balance, is that Work and Life have say over each other, and decisions about one are made only after considering how the other is affected. Work and Life are in an integrated whole. So instead of looking for "balance" what I am going to focus on is the integrity of that whole. When I have a decision to make about work, have I given enough thought to my life outside work? And vice versa? This seems both easier to do than attaining "balance", it's also more honest.

I hope that you have a fantastic 2020 and live out the themes in your life that make sense for you.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.