Anything can be a timer

Some work, especially creative work, acts like a gas: It fills up whatever amount of space you give it.

I’ve looked at timers, Pomodoro setups, and different apps and devices to signal to my brain “This is the time. Use just this time.” But most of them wind up feeling arbitrary and unhelpful.

If I can adjust the timer after I’ve started it, it takes additional willpower to maintain that sense of containing the work.

It got me thinking about something my wife said to our daughter when she was a baby: “You’re an adorable little alarm clock, but you don’t have a snooze button.”

Natural timers

Instead of looking for just the right artificial timer, I started thinking about where I see hard edges and clear boundaries within a day.

If I get up before sunrise to work on things, I know I can’t press snooze on The Sun.

If I start a task with a warm cup of coffee, I can tell myself it needs to be done before that coffee gets cold (or drank) and needs a warm up.

Or, and this is a little TMI, if it’s a full pot of coffee sized task, I have to check off that to-do by the time I need to head to the bathroom.

I can look at the calendar and see what events can’t be moved, and tell myself I need to finish something before that next thing starts. I can’t just say “ten more minutes, please” to a class I need to go teach, or picking my daughter up from school.

When and how I spend my willpower

It takes that little extra bit of intention to find the right time to start, but the benefit for me comes in knowing there’s a clear, definite place to end. There are consequences for going beyond that boundary.

It’s especially helpful for some creative tasks that can easily drag on into procrastination, like perfecting an outline or fiddling with proofreading a document.

Instead of needing to spend willpower deciding on the start and end point of a task, I’m only picking one.

Kicking With Intention

I saved one great image from The Bullet Journal Method that illustrates using tools intentionally:

It suggests without space between a stimulus and an action, we’re going to react with snap judgement based on instincts like fear or anxiety.

Inserting a pause allows the chance to come up with a more constructive action.

Responding rather than reacting. Choosing to kick rather than twitching your leg when the doctor’s hammer strikes.

I wrestle with the easy reactions allowed by social media; the buttons where one click signals you’ve seen something or want others to see it.

Or the mental math about a Quote Tweet where you decide if you have anything constructive to add, whether your framing is necessary, or if the thing that you’re sharing deserves more eyeballs (because sometimes you’re reacting negatively to something).

These features ask you “How should I react?” instead of “What should I do?” or “What do I have to say?”

Social media content gets called a feed, as if it were just another blog or a rapidly updating news site, but the tools provided to interact with it treat it like an inbox.

Reply. Reply All (with tagging). Forward (share). Flag.

The design and prompts are there to make it feel like it’s your responsibility to wade through it all.

But there’s too much, because it’s not actually intended just for you.

That’s a thing about social media that’s hard to deal with right now while many of us crave social contact: It’s not all about you.

Your feed isn’t just for you. It’s a bunch of people screaming into the void, and you’ve chosen to stand nearby.

That’s why your email inbox lets you clear things out and social media doesn’t. Email is (supposedly) intended for you. You can’t delete or sort other people’s social media posts because they’re not your job.

It’s never too late for resolutions, and right now seems like a good time to reevaluate how (and if) to use social media.

I don’t intend to chuck it all, but I do want to make sure I remember what is and isn’t my job, and what tools are best for the work I must do.

Hopefully I can spend more time kicking at things that need to be kicked instead of twitching into space.

Teaching My Daughter About YouTube

In today’s hectic world, it is important to distinguish between distractions that are incidental and unintended and those which are designed to be distractions and are intentional.

Execupundit.com: Distractions

Our daughter’s elementary school assigned Chromebooks to all their students for use while classes are virtual. Because the school acts as the laptop’s administrator, and because YouTube clips are often part of her assignments, we’re not able to add on as many filters or blockers as my wife and I would like.

YouTube is designed to be an infinite rabbit hole that keeps you watching the next videos it serves you. For a six-year-old with developing impulse control, giving her access to that site is like setting her in a room full of cookie jars.

And anyone whose response is, “Make sure to be with her and monitor what she does every time she needs to use the computer,” needs to remember that:

  • We’re in a global pandemic where parents are also working from home.
  • If you have more than one child, you’re already in a daily whack-a-mole style freefall.
  • It’s neither possible nor helpful to their developing independence to always be hovering over your child’s shoulder.

So I’ve started doing what I do: Trying to teach her about how sites like YouTube work.

I explain to her that while her teachers and her parents want to make sure that she can see things that are helpful to her, the people who built YouTube aren’t thinking about her as the person they want to help.

They want her to watch as many videos as they can. They want her to spend as much time on YouTube as they can. Because that’s how they can show her ads, and showing her ads is how they make money.

It can get a little abstract at that point for a six-year-old, but that’s why I try to stress the difference between her teachers and the site itself. Her teachers want to help her be able to do other things. YouTube wants her to sit and watch more YouTube.

It’s not the kind of message that clicks the first time, or the third time, but we’re consistent. We remind her. And little by little, she’s paying attention to the idea. She’s asking if she can watch YouTube less. While she’s on break, she’s finding other ways to occupy her time.

Maybe it connected with her sense of how to be kind. Her teachers and parents want to help her through the resources and content we share with her, but YouTube isn’t doing what they do out of kindness.

Or maybe our cord-cutting has helped her develop a distaste for ads. When we were stuck watching the ad-supported Disney Now app to keep up with new episodes of The Owl House, we saw the same ads over and over (and over and over and over). It irritated her more than it did the adults in the room.

Whatever the thing is that’s clicking with her, it’s a good time for the adults in her life to take stock of the same things.

Apps and websites are tools designed for a purpose.

Some of these tools are designed to help the end user solve a problem or perform a task that’s important to them. And some tools are designed as a snare for attention; providing a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, or they address a problem in a way that only feels like a solution.

An illusion of a solution only perpetuates the problem, like a person stranded on the ocean desperately gulping down salt water.

We need to regularly ask ourselves the question: Is this designed to help me, or to feel like it’s helping me?

Pancakes, Burgers, and News

Three things where if you check them too frequently, you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment and anxiety.

Put down the flipper, take your finger off of Refresh, and breathe. Don’t touch those things more than is strictly necessary.

Things my daughter believes we need to bring with us in case of a fire

The other morning at the breakfast table, my almost-six-year-old daughter started laying out her whole life plan for me. I wound up recording about 14 minutes of it, since Sprout was really on a roll (yes, her Eggo got cold).

She had everything planned out:

  • Her career
  • Her spouse’s career
  • Where they were going to live before and after they had kids
  • How many kids she was going to have
  • What pet each kid was going to have (and be personally responsible for)
  • Where her brother Button would live, and how Button would take care of the kids she already had if she was giving birth to the younger ones (because she expects her spouse to stay with her in the hospital “just like you did with Mom.”)
  • How they would all evacuate their house in the event of a fire

Hold Up — What was that last one?

She’s been very focused on what to do in the event of a fire.

  • Who’s going to get Luna?
  • What if we’re outside and can’t hear the smoke detectors?
  • What if a fire starts when we’re asleep?
  • Will we go to the front yard, or the back yard?
  • No, really, who’s going to get our cat? We won’t have time to put Luna in her carrier.

The other day she made an emergency kit in a pile on the couch:

  • Snugglies, including Fletcher (her forever favorite) and Sushi Cat.
  • Toys
  • A coat, in case the fire happens at night when it’s cooler
  • A blanket
  • Snacks

She’s a very structured kid. She likes process and routine. It makes sense to her. So she’s drafting this all in her mind when she starts thinking about fire.

And she’s thinking about fire a lot lately. Sometimes so much that she says she can’t think of anything else.

But it’s not as if suddenly there’s been a lot of external references to fire that she’s been bombarded with. We don’t live near a fire station, nobody we know has dealt with a fire recently, and the only time we’ve ever had to call the fire department was years ago for what fortunately turned out to be a very minor issue.

So… Yeah. Where did this come from?

Buddy Holly, “Ben Hur”, space monkey, Mafia

Years ago my friends and I would riff on “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” adding new verses to this random jumble of baby boomer buzzwords. Looking back on that word salad, it feels like a proto-Twitter stream.

And I think about that because of all this around us right now. The ambient anxiety. The multi-pronged, world-on-fire assault on our attention every day.

With all that going on around her, and being a young kid, she’s processing only part of what’s going on. She understands social distancing, and she understands why she can’t play with her friends, why school closed, and why (for a long time) she couldn’t even go near her grandparents.

A fire is smaller and easier to respond to than all this.

Sometimes it comes up to the surface

Before bed time every night, Sprout and I read together. Normally I prop myself up in her bed with a few of her snugglies, but the other night she asked me not to use Nice Bear.

“Nice Bear has a fever,” she said, “And snugglies don’t have vaccines. But they do have medicine. So she’ll get better, but you shouldn’t put her in bed tonight.”

The subtext of her anxiety has always been about this pandemic, but it doesn’t always come out as directly as it did in that conversation.

Sprout is an intense extrovert who was cut off from her Young Fives Kindergarten class months ago and has spent most of that time with me, her mom, and her baby brother. Nothing about this new normal feels normal to her.

She craves the world that she’s known for most of her life and that’s kept just out of reach.

When we go out into the backyard, she makes up Star Wars themed games and tells me to do voices (My Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan has gotten pretty good over the last two months). But what do these Rebels and Imperials do every time we play?

They plan birthday parties. Or Christmas. They invite guests and think about food and games and presents.

It’s the flip side of her panic planning about fire safety.

She could have adventures in the farthest corners of the galaxy, but all she wants is to play games with some friends and share cake.

What I can and cannot do for her

I can hug her as many times a day as she’ll let me.

I can tell her she’s loved, and her mom and I will do everything we can to keep her safe, no matter what.

I can wear a mask, and can be vigilant about my own exposure when I have to venture out into the world without her (especially soon, knowing that I’m required to teach face-to-face in a classroom).

I can pretend to be Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader and, yes, even Luke Skywalker, if that’s what she needs.

But I cannot make sure that her school is safe for her to attend.

And I cannot convince every person to make the small concession for the health and safety of others and wear a damn mask.

And I cannot single-handedly convince the federal government to just try and do better.

I cannot step into a clean suit and stare into a microscope until I have an a-ha moment that allows me to save everyone with a simple answer nobody has thought of.

And I cannot be all the friends she misses. I cannot be a kid.

We do not have a metric for all we’re losing

We can measure the lives lost.

We can measure the number of people who were infected.

We can measure the number of people who were exposed, or at least the number of people who were able to get a test because they thought they were exposed and were able to jump through whatever hoops were required of them to get a medical opinion.

We can measure the number of people filing unemployment claims. We can measure the number of businesses closed or filing for bankruptcy. We can measure the value of the stock market and the GDP.

But we have nothing that measures how many good ideas will never be put to use from the people we’ve lost, or because the people still living haven’t been able to think about anything other than their fear or anger or exhaustion.

We can’t measure the achievements, advancements, or good deeds lost. We can’t even guarantee that some of these things have only been delayed.

We cannot know the landscape of the path we shall never travel.

And if we cannot have some kind of measure to know what we could have achieved if our nation hadn’t been forced a poisoned cocktail of unpredictable, indiscriminate disease and conscious, callous government disinterest and disinformation…

All we can do now is the same thing we could do before.

Wake up every day and try.

Force yourself out of the doomscrolling (literal and figurative) and find that small patch of goodness that you can tend.

If you don’t know where to start, make a list of the essentials. The things you need now, and any time that all this feels like too much.

And don’t forget to include snacks and snugglies.