Do Your Best

So, I have been reading a schwack of books/articles/blog posts about writing recently:

This is just from the past few days.  I use Evernote and it’s Web Clipper to track interesting blog post and web articles in Evernote itself.  I am using Scrivener to outlining and writing.  I am using it’s Simplenote integration so that I can keep things in sync between my computers and my iPad.  On Twitter I am following a number of writing sites like Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Relief.

I have gone completely nuts.

When my doctor told me I had diabetes last year I dove into the nutritional aspect, lifestyle changes, ways to even out blood sugar and even huge tomes of medical advice on the correct proportion of proteins to carbohydrates to fats.  I read everything I could and weeded out the crackpots (eat a <insert nutrient here> diet) from scientific studies.  In the end I came up with a solution that worked for me.

I seem to be taking that same approach to writing.  Everyone who is published keeps saying that in order to be a better writer you need to be a well rounded reader.  So I’m reading.  Books about writing, fantasy, science fiction, thriller, detective, romance (yes, even romance), children’s, young adult, new adult, etc.

I am overcompensating.  I have this intense fear of failure so I am doing whatever I can to minimize that risk, to come up with a full blown, 100% guaranteed method of success.  Too bad there isn’t one.  There is no 100% guaranteed solution for anything that involves creativity.  Where it is writing a novel, writing an application or coming up with the ultimate solution to a problem, there is no guaranteed solution.

Just do your best.  That’s all that can be asked of you.  Do your best.

How to be more creative

How can you structure your life to be more creative.  John Cleese has the answer.  In his mind there are five conditions, five different things you need to do in order to be creative:

  • Space.  You need to give yourself an environment free of distraction in which you have the opportunity to be creative.
  • Time.  You need to have contiguous time for creativity to percolate.  In his talk he mentions 90 minutes as being the minimum amount of time for your mind to open up and be receptive.
  • Time.  You need as much time as possible between now and when you need the answer.
  • Confidence.  You need to be confident in your ability to be creative.
  • 22 inch waist … err … humour.

Sometimes this is a lonely endeavour (writing a book?) whereas sometimes it can be collaborative effort where ideas are passed back and forth and grow into something that no one expected.  The main idea is to get into an “open” state where your mind is receptive to new ideas.

So, is he right?  Well, if you take a look at various papers in psychology journals you will find a lot of information that seems to back this approach.  Whether his approach is the correct approach is kind of moot.  What John Cleese presents is a series of actions that someone can take, but in my personal opinion the most important thing is being receptive and open to new ideas.  If following the steps that John Cleese came up with enables you to be open then by all means, use the steps.

We are our own worst enemies.  As John Cleese says, we all know that it is easier to do the myriad of little things that we know how to do than to tackle a larger item that we don’t know.  Mankind in general is fearful of the unknown and yet, when we are trying to be creative, we are facing fear head on.  Fear of finding the right solution.  Fear of not coming up with a creative solution at all.  Fear of coming up with a solution, but it not be creative enough.  We put ourselves through a lot of emotional turmoil when trying to be creative, so if there are some steps that you can take so that this creativity is easier (see the items above), then by all means grab on to those steps.  At the very least, try to figure out if those are indeed the right steps.

Pantsing versus planning

I mentioned previously that I was going to do NaNoWriMo this year.  I am basically committing myself to writing 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November.  I tried this previously and failed miserably.  The euphoria of starting was quickly replaced by the fear of not really having a solid idea in place.  Dejected I walked away from NaNoWriMo until this year.

I’m going in prepared this year.  Really prepared.  I have read half a dozen books on writing in the past five or six weeks and I have read more books since September 1st than any other seven week period in my life.  One of the interesting things is some of the nomenclature used in NaNoWriMo.  For example, the infamous travelling shovel of death

It consists of a shovel that can be used by a character – or multiple characters – to commit murder(s), thus propelling the plot forward when things are moving too slowly


What I was most interesting in was the difference between a “pantser” and a “planner”.  The pantser does everything “by the seat of their pants” while a planner has, at a minimum, a rough outline of the novel.  The first time I tried I was quite confident that I could do the pantser route.  Wow, was I mistaken.  I suck at.  Really, really suck.  I mean, on a scale of 1 – 10 I don’t even rank as a 1.  Two years ago I started my 50,000 word journey and didn’t even make 5,000 words.  If I’m writing short blurbs (like this) I pretty much just have a general idea as to where things are headed and I start writing.  But, honestly, after 400 – 500 words I run out of steam.

So, writing by the seat of my pants isn’t working, time to plan.  This time I have a 12 page outline in mind with chapters, scenes, character descriptions, a whole new way of how Magic works in this fantasy world, how magic first started and, over the course of the next few days, I am going to create a map of the world I am creating so that I can be consistent in describing the events.  I am most definitely planning.

While there are people on both sides of the fence who complete NaNoWrMo it would be interesting to find out, from amongst those that end up published, who actually planned out the novel.  The following novels started as NaNoWriMo projects:

Were they planned or done via the seat of their pants?  My bet is planned to some degree, but I would love to know for sure.

Brainwriting versus Brainstorming

According to the Kellogg School of Management:

  1. In a typical six- or eight-person group, three people do 70 percent of the talking
  2. Early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation.

Now, from a purely narcissistic perspective, this would mean that in the first few minutes of a meeting it is important to bring your ideas to the forefront as they have a higher chance of being accepted if you do.  Kind of sad isn’t it?  The best and brightest ideas may not be accepted because they came up late in the conversation or they may not have even come up at all.  And who normally speaks in the first few minutes of a meeting?  Extroverts.

What’s the solution?  Brainwriting.  Not brainstorming (the simultaneous oral generation of ideas) but brainwriting (the simultaneous written generation of ideas).  If you follow the video from Professor Leigh Thompson I’ll bet that you can see where this sort of idea generation could be very beneficial in your workgroup.  Some people are just more reluctant to be outspoken about their ideas, but if you can negate that reluctance and get everyone focused on the ideas themselves you should be able to get better results.

It is important to note some of the rules around what Professor Thompson calls brainwriting and that is that there can be no method of identifying whose idea is whose.  The ideas need to be evaluated on their own merit and not on whose idea they were.  Have you ever been in a meeting where someone asks for ideas and starts writing them on the board?  As soon as someone says “Ooh, that’s a good idea” the flow of ideas start to trickle to a halt from the introverts.  The extroverts keep talking, but you start to lose many of the good ideas.  Brainwriting eliminates this as the ideas are generated at the same time and shown to everyone at the same time with no names attached.


Business Problems and IT

One of the most important things that IT can do for an organization is solve the business problems that the organization is facing.  These problems may or may not be technology related, they normally are, but they all share one thing in common:  they are causing the organization pain.

This is not unique to Private Sector or Public Sector companies, every organization experiences pain and it is our job to fix that pain.  We are the doctors for the organizations pain.  (My parents always wanted me to be a doctor.)

In many cases the doctor analogy is very fitting as there are many steps that we have in common with doctors:

  • listen to the symptoms that the user is describing;
  • ask questions based on those symptoms to find the real problem;
  • go through potential solutions, taking into account patient history, and come up with the solution that is most appropriate to the patient.

We’re all supposed to do that, but sometimes I think that doctors have this worked out much better than IT.  For instance, doctors have generalists, let’s call them family doctors, who know enough about a lot so as to narrow down the root cause based on the symptoms.  In many respects we have lost the generalist in IT as I think we have too many specialists.  We have too many people that know a lot about a narrow range of topics so that sometimes they are unable to think of a solution outside of what they know.

Back in the old days (yes, it’s another one of those posts) when there wasn’t as much variety in the technology it was easier to become a generalist that covered the entire range of technologies.  Ah, the Golden Age of IT.  With today’s technology, however, there is such a variety that I think we are at the stage where a generalist is not necessarily welcome at an organization due to the complexity of the technology.  The idea is that you need to be an expert in your field in order to contribute to the organization.

Are we doing ourselves a disservice?  Are we concentrating so much on experts that we are unnecessarily limiting our options?  Am I off my rocker?  Do we need generalists or do we just get a bunch of experts?  I don’t believe that there is a solution that will work every time.  My personal opinion is that I think we need to be flexible enough to look at both approaches.  After all, when the doctor narrows down the problem to an area, but can’t solve it, they do bring in the specialists to fix the problem.  So maybe we need some generalists and combine them with some specialists.


There seems to be a lot more buzz right now about the Pomodoro Technique than normal so I thought you might want to skip the hype and get right to the point.  So, what is the Pomodoro Technique?

In short, it is a method of timing your tasks and shutting out outside interruptions.

The big idea is the use of a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato.  Why tomato?  Because the creator of the technique, Francesco Cirillo, liked the timer his mother used in the kitchen and it was in the shape of a tomato.  (Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato).  But whether or not you use a kitchen timer or a digital timer, the concepts remain the same:

  • Start a task and start the timer for 25 minutes.  Ignore all interruptions during that time.
  • When the timer goes off take a five minute break to stand up and stretch, walk around the office, clean up the desk, etc.  Do something but nothing that really requires brain power.  This five minute break is to give your brain a rest.
  • Repeat this process,
  • After 3 or 4 pomodori (plural of tomato) you get to take a longer break:  15 – 30 minutes.

It is important to understand that this “task” that you are trying to complete is not an open ended task like “answering the questions of everyone who drops by”, it is a closed end task with a specific end point like “review the new fahrvergnugen business case”.  A discrete task that can be marked “complete”.

This technique relies upon a couple of facts:

  1. Most people cannot concentrate for long periods of time without their mind wandering and the efficiency of their thinking decreasing.  Taking a break, a mental break, allows the mind to recharge and get ready for more work.  The pomodoro technique puts this at 25 minutes of concentration, but it is just a number and your results may vary.
  2. Most people need to feel a sense of accomplishment on a frequent basis to maintain a well balanced work life.  By breaking tasks into small enough pieces that can be accomplished in a few pomodori this feeling of accomplishment is reinforced throughout the day.

There is no need to measure your entire day by pomodori.  Most of us have meetings, email to review and other tasks on our plate that we are unable to commit an entire day to pomodori.  In addition, there are circumstances where you are “on a roll” and taking a break may be detrimental to the over all process.  This technique is designed to make you more aware of your mental state and when you need a break and to help you power through tasks that may need a little more coaxing and I think that is where all of us need to focus.  We need to be more aware of how taxing / enjoyable a task is and work to ensure that we are not causing ourselves undue stress and anxiety.

Take care of your brain, it’s the only one you get.