I’m always looking to better capture the special moments of my kids growing up. While having an iPhone in my pocket at all times lets me document these experiences, I feel like I’m not capturing the essence of those moments. I started thinking that technology was part of the problem, and if technology was causing the problem, more technology won’t fix it.
Once upon a time, there lived two brothers, John and Steve. John was a television reporter for ABC’s 20/20. Steve was on the faculty of Harvard Medical school. They both had horrible back pain.
They’d searched far and wide for a magical solution to cure their back pain. They tried every contraption and theory supplied by doctors. Unfortunately, nothing helped.
One day John met a shaman (doctor) named John Sarno. John Sarno had a magical cure for back pain. If you just said the magic words and believed them, your back pain would be cured. You had to say:
- There is nothing wrong with my back.
- The pain is all being generated by my head. It’s my brain trying to distract me from the emotional rage that’s I’m feeling based on repressed Freudian memories.
When John woke up the next morning his back pain was cured.
“Steve!” said John, “I have the most amazing news! I found the miracle cure. You just have to say the magic words.”
“John, you know I can’t do that,” said Steve. I’m a doctor and don’t believe in magic. Besides, Freud’s theories on repressed emotions were discredited long ago.”
So John lived happily ever after while Steve stayed in back pain.
(End of fairy tale)
This story is a close adaptation of reporter John Stossel’s segment about John Sarno on 20/20 from 1999. His brother Steve was teaching at Harvard Medical School at the time.
When I first heard the story, I remember thinking that Steve was right. John Sarno was obviously blowing smoke. In the years since then, I’ve realized that it’s not quite so simple.
The basic problem here was that what Sarno said seemed to work even though his theory was tragically flawed. Sarno theory involved Freudian repressed rage — a theory that was discredited a century ago. He was clearly grasping at straws.
But the part that made sense was that the pain wasn’t anatomical. It was coming from your head. This article from Vox does a good job summarizing Sarno. In the article, Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, author of the book Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery says, “What he recommended as treatment was essentially cognitive behavioral therapy — elimination of fear avoidant behavior and catastrophizing — before anyone had ever heard of it and it’s exactly what is being used now to treat patients with central sensitization.”
My experience with chronic pain started around 2000. I had horrible wrist pain that wouldn’t go away. Luckily all my doctors told me that I didn’t need surgery. Though they didn’t give me any options of what I should do. Luckily I found Lisa Sattler who is one of the world’s best physical therapists for carpal tunnel. After a year of physical therapy with her, the pain went away.
Though the pain came back, as back pain, a few years later. I found the book Back RX to be very helpful. But as the back pain persisted, I got an X-Ray that showed a bone spur in my hip, “Aha!” I thought, “I’ll have surgery and pain will go away.”
“Not so fast,” said the surgeon. “Why don’t we inject some strong painkiller right into your hip. If the pain goes away we’ll do the surgery. If it doesn’t go away, the surgery won’t help.”
So I went into the doctor’s office and lo and behold, the pain didn’t go away with the painkiller. That got me thinking about Doctor Sarno again. I started to realize that the more stressed I became, the more my back hurt. Also, the pain would move around a lot which doesn’t make a lot of sense from an anatomical perspective. At this point in my life, I still don’t think Sarno’s theory makes sense; however, if I sit down and meditate, I can make most of my soft tissue pains go away.
There’s an old saying that the best way to learn something is to teach it. That’s certainly true when working with Blake on a school project. Blake is writing a chapter book at school. At most, it’s going to be 20 pages long. In Blake’s mind this is huge. Like infinitely large.
Blake’s topic is Apple — a topic that he’s passionate about. He wants to write everything in the world about Apple in his up to 20 pages. He wants to explain all the iPhones, iPods, iPads, Macs and everything else that’s ever existed within the Apple oeuvre. I thought it might be more useful to take a historical perspective and highlight the important parts of Apple history. He wanted to stick with his original plan of writing the encyclopedia of Apple.
So I tried to prune some of the low hanging fruit. “What about the iPhone 5?”
“Of course we have to write about the iPhone 5,” Blake said.
“Why?” I said.
“Because it’s important. That’s where Apple started using Touch ID.”
“No,” I reminded him, “that didn’t happen until the iPhone 5s.”
So we got rid of one Apple product. But the real question here is how to make writing the most productive and fun, While Blake is working on his writing project, I was trying to think about how to optimize my own writing.
I thought about some of the principles we’re using in Agile software development at work and how they could help when writing:
- Limiting the work in progress (WIP). It’s much easier to start things than to finish them. I remember someone at Google once told me that “If you have 10 apples, don’t take one bite from each of them.” And it’s the same thing with writing. I only want to have 3 items in progress at any given point. That gives me some flexibility on what to work on but any more than that I start to feel overwhelmed with the work I need to finish.
- Develop iteratively and refine. Jeff Patton gives a great example of this when thinking about the creation of the Mona Lisa. Da Vinci didn’t sit down and start drawing pieces of the Mona Lisa.
- He drew the basics. Then he drew the outline. Then he made refinements.
- Do the most important thing first. In order to develop iteratively, I need to prioritize. By prioritizing the work, it breaks things up into manageable chunks. I’ve also done the biggest things first so I can stop much earlier and still have something that holds together. Then I can edit and refine only the parts I really want to.
- Time Box. I give myself a certain amount of time upfront to finish something. If I say I’m going to finish this piece in 2 hours it really helps me prioritize and make sure I’m focused.
- Split up the planning and the doing. Most people don’t like planning so they mix up their planning and their actual writing. It’s much easier to split up the work into multiple bite-sized chunks. This relieves a lot of cognitive stress and makes the writing more fun.
Here are the steps I use to implement these principles:
- Topics. This is really just the very high level of topics that I want to write about. I keep a list in Evernote. It’s good to try to keep this list prioritized because the items on the top become the most exciting ones that I want to tackle. Possibly I might put in a very high-level outline at this point.
- Story Bits. This is when I start to flesh out the idea. This can be done on index cards, post it’s, or just a piece of paper. My favorite way of brainstorming is Mind Mapping. There’s a great book that taught me how.
- Organizing. Then it’s time to create a broad outline. Some good ways of building the outline are user story mapping and the pyramid principle (summary here). These days when I’m writing a blog post I just write out my the paragraph order and my topic sentences.
- Write. Once I’ve done he organizing, the writing is fairly easy. It’s just fleshing out the idea. Each paragraph really should only be one idea and I’ve already written that idea down in the last step.
- Refinement. This is where I go in and make sure that spelling is correct and that everything makes sense. This is best to do once I’ve had some time to rest and take a look at it. There’s normally some silly mistakes but in general I’m happily surprised with what I wrote.
By following these steps I’ve been able to write a lot more and have a lot more fun doing it. Give it a try!
From Lewis Menand’s review of Smart, Faster, Better, I learned that all self help books have the same goal — to get us to be the people we know we should be. These books don’t have have any new solutions — they just reiterate common sense through the current cultural or businesses lenses. Menand points out that Dale Carnegie’s famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People (which I love) could be summed up in the sentence “If you are nice to people, they will like you.” But, he continues, the purpose of these books is not “What would Jesus do? but How, exactly, would He do it?” Carnegie’s book has some great tips on how to be nice to people like, “Be a good listener and focus on what the other person is interested in.” To me, it’s a fundamental point that none of these books, as much as they try, have the answer — we already know the answer. But they do have some good tips and tricks on how help us anyway.
- We are currently in an attention economy. Companies like Google, Facebook and many others are trying to convince you to spend as much time as possible on the web viewing ads. This is not in your best interest.
- My Solution: (Go to Medium for the Full Story): I figured out how to use micropayments to replace Google Display ads with my To Do list. Building on an idea Matt Cutts had on his blog, I used Google Contributor and Remember The Milk to substitute advertisements with my To Do list. Now I have my To Do list follow me around the Internet. It’s just like a persistent targeted ad that won’t leave me alone. It’s Awesome!
- Tristan Harris’s Solution: Tristan Harris is the champion of managing your attention on the internet. There’s a great profile of him in The Atlantic. He used to be the “Product Ethicist” at Google and now has a foundation called Time Well Spent. He’s currently studying how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities, writing about ways to protect yourself and speaking about these things at TED.
- Manoush Zomorodi’s Solution: Manoush Zomorodi has a podcast called Note to Self where she focuses on how people relate to technology. There’s a great video of Manoush from the GEL conference which talks about how to disconnect from the internet. If you want to learn more about how to reclaim your time and be more creative take a look at Bored and Brilliant and Infomagical.