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2.5 Years of Audio-Books

May 6, 2016

the life changing magic

I moved farther away from my workplace about three years ago. Enter the commute, which has ranged from 25 minutes to 90 minutes depending on location and time of day. Thus, audio-books.

My Audible subscription has made many a crawling freeway more bearable. So here’s a rundown of my top five for your listening and reading pleasure.

  1. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has been my favorite book so far, surprisingly. As a former design student, I thought I’d seen enough home and lifestyle books, blogs, and magazines to last a lifetime. I was wrong. This was a lovely book to listen to for two reasons. First, the content is inspiring. Although I haven’t konmaried my house yet (aka, used the ‘konmarie’ method of tidying), it has changed my relationship with stuff and happiness in a way that has nothing to do with organizational tips and tricks. Second, the female narrator, Emily Woo Zeller, has a voice I could listen to forever. During my drives with her, I did not bother to switch it up with music, as I often do for my evening commute. I would seriously listen to this book again, maybe on an annual basis.
  2. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain was my very first audio-book. If you’re an introvert or you love someone who is, this book is wonderfully explanatory and empowering. In contemporary American society, introverts are often pressured to be ‘less shy’ or ‘more outgoing,’ and while there are benefits to adaptive extroversion, Susan Cain also lays out the case (as only a lawyer can) for the true strengths that introverts bring to the table. There’s a healthy dose of social science and neuroscience thrown in for good measure.
  3. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by ColinAmercan Nations Woodard is a cultural history of the United States that has helped me better understand the many ‘nations’ of my country and why we are often at odds with ourselves. While covering American history from pre-colonial and colonial days to the present, Woodard skips most of the prestigious names and battles in favor of talking about the people who make up America, who they were, where they came from, what values they brought with them, how those values influenced their decisions (including the government they set up), and how they’ve continued into the present day. It thoroughly debunks the myth of any essential monolithic ‘American’ culture, while also explaining what common themes brought us together as a country and what still tries to pull us apart. I wish this had been required reading in high school (even though it hadn’t been written yet).
  4. Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity by David Christian is my favorite of the Great Courses audio-books I’ve listened to so far. Like American Nations, it provides a completely different take on history, starting with the history of time and space itself. In the midst of lectures on cosmology, physics, astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, and (eventually) human history, the author also explains the history of how we know these things. He dives into the theories behind them, alternative theories, and the evidence that supports our current understanding of the universe. It’s a history of knowledge and science as much as a history of everything and well worth the 24 hour investment. (Warning: As an astronomy professor, he is critical of religion as an explanatory or authoritative source on the creation of the universe. Take that as you will.)
  5. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt explains moral psychology in a way that has helped me better understand why people do what they do, especially when they themselves can’t explain it or their explanations seem to defy their actions. Haidt argues that we are governed not by rationally developed ethical norms, but by moral emotions.We do what feels right and then try to rationally explain it after the fact. Moreover, these moral emotions bear several common features across cultures. Which moral emotions are emphasized helps explain political and religious divisions. A self-confessed life-long liberal, Haidt admits that through this work he’s come to understand his conservative counterparts better, sympathize this their deepest motives, and de-vilify/re-humanize his political adversaries. From a Buddhist psychological perspective, I find that Haidt is bringing empirical evidence and a clear social sciences framework to something that sounds deeply familiar.

Finally, a few honorable mentions, in no particular order.

  • The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (yes, that William James) probably took me the longest to complete because the antiquated language makes it hard to pay attention to, but this classic is well worth the time.
  • The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by former USC president Steven Sample is full of wise advice for leaders, especially those outside the for-profit business environment.
  • The Happiness Hypothesis is Jonathan Haidt’s first book and lays some groundwork forhappiness hypothesis The Righteous Mind.
  • The brothers Dan and Chip Heath build on Haidt’s ‘rider and elephant’ metaphor with concrete guidance in their book Switch, which is about behavior change.
  • The Blue Zones Solution by Dan Buettner explains how people live to over 100, with particular emphasis on diet, but some of the social components he describes were also very interesting to me.
  • Make it Stick by Peter Brown is a must read for all college students as it covers the neuroscience of learning, what really works, and what just feels like its working.
  • Finally, two books by my favorite social sciences researcher of all time, Brene Brown. The first, Daring Greatly is about vulnerability and living a wholehearted life.  The followup, Rising Strong is about what happens when we get knocked down and still want to keep ‘daring greatly.’ If you want a little taste, check out her TED talks.
  • I slogged through Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein, which I found fascinating and frustrating by turns. I don’t know enough (or want to know enough) about Freud to bring a critical perspective to much of Epstein’s work.

Now you may ask “Why so few Buddhist books, Dharma Cowgirl?”

Most of the Buddhist writers available on audio-book are teachers I tore through years ago, great folks like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron. After a while, their books start sounding the same. While the Dharma is always welcome, I have a bad habit of zoning out when it’s something I’ve already heard. I prefer to revisit these authors in text, when I can be more deliberate.

Otherwise, the Buddhist books I’m reading now are all too obscure and academic to merit an audio version. I also prefer to listen to books I don’t have to worry about remembering, annotating, or citing later. Maybe that will change after my dissertation is finally submitted.

Either way, I’m sure I’ll continue to enjoy my Audible in the meantime. I hope you also enjoy some of these books, in audio or print.

Swimming in Words

April 22, 2016
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Words by Diane Luque via Flickr.com

Too many words. Too many ideas. All searching for connection, but there are only so many places to plug them in, only so many threads to connect them to one another, to anchor them down. The rest are just floating, swimming. I can’t think straight sometimes.

Everything I’m studying now:

  • The entire field of practical theology
  • How the Bodhicaryavatara pertains to spiritual care
  • Buddhist education
  • The history and meaning of Humanistic Buddhism
  • Master Taixu
  • Religious pluralism and Buddhism
  • Theories of learning and teaching
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy
  • The Pali language
  • Localization of Fo Guang Shan
  • Individualistic and collectivist cultures
  • Communication styles across cultures

These are in no particular order.

It’s too much, really too much. Even with enough time in the day, my brain can’t sort it out.

What good does it do to hit my library limit and still ask if I can check out more books? This is an addiction, right?

Part of it’s my job. Half of those projects are for work, either as assignments or for professional development. Some are for my degree, for qualifying exams. The rest are for two conferences I’m trying to attend this year.

I need to pause, to digest. Writing helps me do that. It helps me organize my thoughts in the semi-logical order of words, sentences, paragraphs, arguments, papers.

Also, I need to get away from the words. I need to move to think. Walking helps me do that, back and forth on campus, around in circles in the neighborhood, up and down hills with the dog. Yoga helps, stretches my body and makes me focus on non-verbal perception.

Sometimes I just need to turn it off. I turn on the tv instead. They have words, too, but I don’t have to remember them, to connect them. It’s more of a feeling thing.

I wish I could turn it off with meditation. Let the words settle out of mind, let my mind be blank, but I’ve never actually experienced that. Mostly meditation is just stepping back while the words continue to run their merry way, with or without me.

I feel out of control and I try to control it with planning, with schedules and to-do lists and work-flow charts. Then I forget a meeting or skip a task and all my delusions about control blow gently away in a puff of smoke.

In the end, I remember to be kind to myself. Slow down a little. Breathe a minute. No sense in worrying too much. All is impermanence. Open the next document and get stuff done.

Loving-Kindness Through Gritted Teeth

April 9, 2016
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‘Suffer’ by Vincent Bozzo via Flickr.com

It had been a long day. I was standing in the shower, waiting in vain for the hot water to wash some of the tension out of my back, hands braced against the far was, mumbling a metta meditation under my breath.

“May they be happy. May they be healthy. May they be well. May they be free from suffering. May they be happy. May they be healthy…”

The target of my meditation was a person who’d aggravated me earlier in the day. At the time, I could see that their behavior was driven by the three poisons – attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Suffering begetting suffering. But it was an intellectual recognition. I was tired. I couldn’t summon the empathy or compassion I needed. I’d made the situation worse.

So now, here I was, hours later, in the shower trying to summon the loving-kindness I’d needed to have back then. I realized I was repeating my mantra through gritted teeth. This was never going to work.

I took a deep breath and I remembered how the mantra starts. “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be well. May I be free from suffering.”

My shoulders relaxed, my jaw let go, the frown I’d been carrying in my forehead smoothed out. I had also been suffering. And suffering begets suffering.

I couldn’t extend loving-kindness to someone without having it for myself. The wisdom of thousands of years of Buddhist masters was right on target. I couldn’t start in the middle of the antidote and expect a quick fix to my lack of compassion. I had to start at the beginning; the practice of metta meditation begins (and ends) with oneself.

It’s also a way of taking responsibility. It wasn’t all about the other person; they weren’t the ‘problem.’ I contributed to the suffering. I had to be part of the solution. Nor is it self-indulgent, as some practitioners (particularly western ones) fear. I am as worthy of happiness as anyone else. So are you.

I continued the mantra for myself for several minutes before extending it to the other person. I felt the change in the center of my being. It was a change in how I regarded myself and how I regarded them. I felt a small measure of freedom from suffering. This ensured that I had the generosity of spirit to reach out to them the following day, to make amends and further relieve suffering.

May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be well. May I be free from suffering.

May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be well. May you be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy. May they be healthy. May they be well. May they be free from suffering.

Updates on Australia

March 30, 2016

Here are some updates on my GoFundMe project to raise money for the Global Conference of Chaplains in Higher Education 2016 conference in Bendigo, Australia. If you’re already a supporter, you’ve received these updates via email or Facebook. If you’re not a supporter, please consider donating $5, $10, $20 to the campaign. I’m still a little shy of my goal.

Here is the most recent update, via YouTube:

Logistics and Funds

So far I have raised $2,190 of my $3,000 goal. This is how those funds have been spent:

-$1,267.86 Air New Zealand Flights 7/8 to 7/16 PAID

-$550.00~ Schaller Studio Hotel 7/10 to 7/16 RESERVED, not paid

(~may fluctuate due to currency conversion from AUS to USD)

Remaining: $372.14

The remainder needs to cover 1) travel in Australia and 2) some food on the days immediately before and after the conference. It looks like I can take a regional train from the Melbourne airport to Bendigo; it’s about a 90 minute trip. From there I can get a local bus to my hotel and the hotel provides bicycles for its guests. La Trobe University, where the conference is located, is about 5 kilometers from the hotel along some bicycle paths and calm looking streets. During the conference, meals are provided, so I am set for food except on arrival an departure days.

I am still waiting to hear back from the conference organizers about my request for a scholarship to cover the cost of registration, which is $436~.  If I do not receive a scholarship, I will continue my fundraising push to cover that cost.

Research Progress

 

Meanwhile, I’ve also been doing research for my paper “Communicating Religious Pluralism as a Spiritual Value: A Buddhist University’s Experience.” I’ve collected sources in two related areas: 1) the general approach of Buddhist traditions to other religions and 2) the specific approach and history of Fo Guang Shan, Hsi Lai Temple, University of the West, and related organizations in inter-religious interactions. I’ll be combing through these sources in the weeks to come with the goal of composing my paper in June.

I have yet to begin creating the workshop, though I am continuing to have ideas about what I’d like to do. The title is “Sustained Compassion Demands Self-Care: But How Do We Do That?” and it’s based on my belief that compassion for others is practically impossible without compassion for and care of oneself and also my observation that this is really, really difficult for caregivers. We are often very hard on ourselves precisely because we want to help other people so much. I’m very interested in this paradox and will start putting together my workshop on this topic in late April.

Donation Opportunity

If you haven’t donated yet, please consider contributing $5, $10, or $20 to my GoFundMe campaign. A little bit from a lot of people goes a long way; all the way to Australia, in fact!

All supporters will receive a copy of my final paper and the workshop materials to share this work with others. I will also be sharing updates of what I’ve learned from the other presenters and chaplains at the conference, so you’ll be traveling and learning vicariously through me.

If you can’t donate, please share this campaign via Facebook, email, or other social media. I understand what it’s like to be unable to contribute, but support comes in many forms and is no less appreciated. Thank you and by this merit may you achieve happiness!

Taking Religious Pluralism Seriously

March 22, 2016

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‘Dualism of Power’ by Baipin via Flickr.com

Do Christians take religious pluralism seriously?

This question has been plaguing me as I plow through the reading list for my first qualifying exam in practical theology, a necessarily Christian discipline. As a Buddhist, I am naturally paying attention to the literature within the field that discusses diversity, globalization, colonialism, and pluralism. How might practical theology relate to Buddhism? This is the question I seek to answer and my research is providing me with interesting hypotheses.

However, the first question, the one about Christians keeps floating into my mind. As an outsider, answers are much more elusive, though hypotheses do present themselves.

The Christian literature on practical theology certainly acknowledges diversity and pluralism. It’s hard not to notice several billion people in the world who are not Christian. Ongoing globalization has brought them into direct, repeated contact with Christians for hundreds of years. They (Christians) know we (non-Christians) are here.

But do Christians take pluralism seriously?

I think of the work of Catholic/Hindu mystic and scholar Raimon Panikkar, in his book The Intrareligious Dialoguewhich introduced me to the idea of ‘the risk of conversion:’

The principle is this: The Religious encounter must be a truly religious one. [sic] Anything short of this simply will not do.

So consequences are the following:

3. One must face the challenge of conversion.

…The religious person enters this arena without prejudice and preconceived solutions, knowing full well he may in fact have to lose a particular belief or particular religion altogether. He trusts in truth. He enters unarmed and ready to be converted himself. He may lose his life – he may also be born again. (p. 26-27, 1978 edition)

As a Buddhist studying in a Christian seminary, attending CPE at a Jewish academy, I wrestle with this risk daily. Perhaps there is a God. Perhaps Jesus redeemed our sins. Perhaps I have violated the covenant he made with me before I was born. Perhaps I will go to hell and perhaps not, but only by His grace. This is all perfectly possible, even as my experience leads me to believe it is unlikely.

Last weekend, I read the most cogent explanation of redemption of humanity through Christ’s crucifixion I had ever encountered. It had always puzzled me how the death of one man so long ago could forgive the sins of all humanity, myself included. As I read, I felt that somehow I understood it, not cognitively or logically, but intuitively, deeply; I could see the beauty of it. I felt the risk.

Do Christians today, do these writers so eager to acknowledge the reality of diversity and religious pluralism, take a similar risk? Do they read the works of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists and think “They might be right.” Do they wonder if their desire for, attachment to, and/or fear of God are unwholesome roots based on ignorance keeping them trapped in a cycle of samsaric suffering? Do they ever think maybe Jesus was just a really good guy whose words about his ‘father’ got taken out of context?

Today, I was skimming a volume that purports to be all about ‘globalization and difference‘ only to run across a Christian justification to remain open to other religions on the basis of the “universality of God’s self-disclosure.” Thomas Groome writes “One can readily find awareness within the biblical tradition that all people can come to ‘know’ God, precisely because God is the God of all and actively present everywhere.” (p. 189; 1999) In other words, “God reveals Godself through other religious traditions and other prophets,” (p. 187) so it is acceptable to study and affirm (aspects of) the wisdom of other religious traditions.

This is a perfectly valid Christian stance. I’ve heard it before. Buddhism even has our own versions of it: Other religions aren’t a problem if they help you lead a good life; maybe they’ll help you be reborn Buddhist in your next life.

Both the Christian version and the Buddhist version are deeply patronizing and insulting to the other. Both come from a place of smug superiority deeply entrenched in a hegemonic worldview. Neither takes religious pluralism seriously.

As a Buddhist in a predominantly Christian  culture, I can’t afford not to take Christianity seriously. I can’t give into a hegemonic worldview, as easy as that might feel sometimes. I must risk conversion everyday or I’m never going to understand the material I’m trying to learn or the academic and cultural tradition where I’m making my place.

But can I say the same about Christians? These books I’m reading talk a lot about pluralism, but very few of them seem to take it seriously. They stand within Christianity and talk about the religious other on Christian terms.

They rarely talk to the religious other and almost never from the viewpoint of the religious other (a few do, but they get soundly criticized by their fellows). If they did, they might find that, no, actually, God didn’t disclose Godself to us (Buddhists) at all, and, honestly, we’re not sure we would care if God had.

They may be able to hear us (Buddhists) and reassure themselves (Christians) that, it’s okay, God did disclose, we just didn’t hear/see. But what if, just what if, for a single moment they entertained the possibility that here is an entire 2,500-year-old religious civilization with hundreds of millions of members operating reasonably well sans any divine revelation? A source of genuine wisdom not from God? Now there’s a serious thought. If one entertains that thought seriously, then on what ground (if not universal revelation) can one justify openness to that other religion?

Can any religious tradition justify an open stance towards pluralism without recourse to their own worldview? Is it even possible? If God doesn’t reveal Godself to all people, should I listen to them at all? If Christians don’t have buddha-nature, should I even bother to teach them meditation? If Jews don’t have an atman to reunite with Brahma, should I still be nice to them? If Allah’s mercy doesn’t shine on Zoroastrians, should I have dinner with my neighbor? If we accept that the worldview of the other may be true, there from whence can we justify our acceptance of (and care for) that other and their worldview as possible and valuable when it is in deep, true, open disagreement with our own?

Is openness to pluralism only possible from within a universalizing religious worldview? From within a belief system that claims to apply to all people whether they agree or not? Can we only risk conversion from within security? What risk is that?

I realize I’m making sweeping statements that can’t possibly be representative of all Buddhists or all Christians or all others. I also realize that I’m unilaterally insisting on what qualifies as taking religious pluralism ‘seriously.’ But it’s my question, so I’m allowed. Unfortunately, it’s also a question I can’t answer.

Good News, Bad News, Help Needed!

February 21, 2016
by

The good news is that I have been accepted to present both a paper and a workshop at an international conference in Australia in July.

The bad news is that I have been accepted to present both a paper and a workshop at an international conference in Australia in July.

sadpandaWhen I submitted my proposals for this conference last October, I knew making it work financially would be difficult but possible. Since then life circumstances have changed and right now I can NOT afford the airfare to Australia, let alone any of the other conference costs. (Those who know me personally, understand why this is the case.)

At least, not without help – your help. Please go to paypal.me/MonicaSanford to donate! I need to raise $2,000 by March 15th. 

Three years ago, I reached out via my blog to raise funds for my first unit of clinical pastoral education. You helped pay for my first year of chaplain intern work. Since then, I’ve been able to pay for my second and third unit. University of the West has had a campus chaplain for three years in a row due largely to your generosity. I’m hoping that you will help me again now.

Here are the details: I’ve been accepted to the Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education at La Trobe University in Bendigo, Australia. I also presented at the 2012 conference at Yale University in Connecticut thanks to a kind scholarship from the organizers. This conference only happens once every four years and I’m hoping that the Australian location will draw a more diverse crowd from the Asian side of the Pacific Rim.

If I can get myself across that ocean somehow, I’ll be presenting a paper:

Communicating Religious Pluralism as a Spiritual Value: A Buddhist University’s Experience.

In general, Buddhist traditions view religious pluralism as a spiritual good and multiple religious praxis as a cultural norm. This is due largely to Buddhism’s historical co-existence with multiple Asian (and now western) religions, a flexible metaphysical orientation, and practical focus with clear boundaries. This stance is radically different from the approach of many western traditions to religious multiplicity (which range from exclusive to inclusive to plural) and can often lead to confusion. University of the West, a small, private, non-profit, Buddhist-founded school in Southern California has remained authentic to its Buddhist roots while also actively welcoming and valuing students and staff of all religions and none for twenty-five years. The university has addressed confused parents, skeptical accreditation agents, distrusting peer reviewers, and diverse students who vary from actively averse to indifferent to strongly attached to the university’s Buddhist identity. For these stakeholders, the university has found ways to actively communicate what many western audiences view as a direct paradox, being both truly Buddhist and completely religiously plural. Moreover, the university has articulated an institutional spiritual identity in which being plural is an inseparable part of being Buddhist – it is a core spiritual value of Buddhism as the university understands it. This paper will explore the philosophical foundation of pluralism within Buddhist traditions and Buddhist religious history, its current articulation at University of the West, and some of the ways that westerners can dialogue with Buddhists (and other eastern religions) around alternative approaches to religious pluralism.

I believe this is an important topic. The theme of the 2012 conference was also interfaith (the 2016 conference is going with Dig, Dialogue, Diversity) and yet over 90% of the participants were Christian chaplains. I hope this conference will be more diverse, but I also feel the duty to show up and ‘represent,’ as it were, a non-Christocentric perspective.

I’m under no illusions that my ‘minority’ status probably helped me be accepted to present at both the 2012 and 2016 conferences. I’d like to change that by making the conferences and the face of campus chaplaincy more diverse overall. The day I get turned down because there are too many good proposals from Buddhist college chaplains will be a good day.

My 2012 presentation on self-care packed the tiny room we were assigned and I observed that self-care was clearly an important topic for college (all?) chaplains. Therefore, I will also be leading a workshop:

Sustained Compassion Demands Self-Care: But How Do We Do That?

Self-care, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, burnout – buzzwords all chaplains have heard, but how do we actually deal with them? This workshop will draw on two threads, recent social science research (Kristin Neff, Brené Brown, Daniel Goleman, etc.) and ancient Buddhist teachings (meditation and contemplative training), to present participants with practical ways to exemplify the chaplain’s compassion over the course of a long career. Recent findings in social science have further legitimated traditional contemplative practices that are now being adapted to secular and religiously plural settings through programs such as Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University and Cognitively-Based Compassion Training at Emory University (via the Emory-Tibet Partnership). This workshop will present some of the basic principles and practices from these projects as they pertain to the practice of spiritual/pastoral care. Moreover, it will emphasize the necessity of self-care to the practice of authentic compassion not merely as a means to an end, but as an integral aspect of that compassion. Topics covered will include healthy boundaries, dealing with failure (personal and professional), and relating genuinely and non-judgmentally to others. Finally, the workshop itself will provide opportunities to actively practice self-care during the 55 minute session, as well as gain tools and resources to further develop a lifelong compassion-based spiritual care practice.

Exciting, right? I’m excited. I really want to present on these topics and I really, really want to be able to attend the other sessions and learn from my fellow campus chaplains.

This is, of course, if I can raise the funds to go, so let’s get down to dollars and cents.

  • Registration & Meals $351 US
  • Accommodation for six nights $553 US
  • Flights from LAX to Melbourne $1,623 (today, they range upward to $1,800-2,000)
  • Ground Transportation $250
  • TOTAL COST $2,777

Some prices have been converted from Australian dollars into U.S. and may vary as currency fluctuates, but probably not by much. This doesn’t include travel insurance, meals outside the conference center, workshop materials, or other costs that inevitably crop up (what do you mean I didn’t pack any socks?!).

My goal is to raise $500 by March 1st so that I can register for the conference and an additional $1500 by March 15th so I can book my flights. That will allow me to confirm my participation by the early bird deadline and get posted on the conference website as a presenter. Then I’ll worry about finding/funding a place to lay my head at night.

You may donate funds directly through PayPal with this link: paypal.me/MonicaSanford. Any amount is welcome.

Or you can contribute to my GoFundMe campaign and watch how it’s going.

I’ll even put up a reward, just like a crowdfunding campaign. Anyone who contributes to this project in any amount will receive 1) a copy of the paper I present and 2) a copy of my workshop materials including presentation slides, handouts, and lesson plans, with permission to use, adapt, and distribute at no cost. I will consider your contribution a ‘purchase’ of the workshop materials (not the paper) for unlimited use by you.

If you’ve never sent money via PayPal before or donated to fund a personal cause, please be assured it’s simple, safe, and secure. See summaries of previous fundraising campaigns on my blog:

Know that your money will be going to a good cause and you’ll get frequent reports on its use, plus your rewards for contributing. And I promise, no fun will be had in Australia. No fun at all.

Systems for Controlled Chaos

February 19, 2016

Productivity. Is that a dirty word?

How about Right Effort? That sounds more Buddhist-y, right?

Or, if you prefer, we can just call it Getting Shit Done.

No matter what we call it, a lot of people struggle with it, myself included. Which is why I set about to systematically study the topic a few years ago and why I now teach others whenever I can. So here goes, first lesson in controlled chaos guided by three questions.

What’s your system?

Five years ago, I’d have said “System? I don’t have a system,” even though I kinda did.

If you get anything done now, even if it’s not as much as you want or harder than you’d like, you have some kind of system. It could be all in your head, on paper, in a computer, or scattered in different places, but it’s there. The first step towards designing a good productivity system is determining what you already have.

Where does work originate? Where do you keep track of it? How do you know when you’re done? A good productivity system includes inputs, processes, and outputs. That’s the theory.

In practice, your system probably includes email, calendars, task lists, schedules, and plans whether electronic, paper, or memory-based. How you manage each component in your system can have an impact on your productivity. I’ll cover things like managing email and creating daily plans elsewhere. For now, let’s just see if we can identify the components.

I’ll use myself as an example, starting with inputs. Work comes from three main places in my system: syllabi, emails, and meetings.

Once I’ve captured a task from one of my inputs, I have to keep track of it and make sure it gets done. My processes involve: calendar, task list, daily plan, and periodic review.

Finally, things do, indeed, get done. For me that usually means papers written, reports produced, emails sent, appointments made, and papers filed. These are my outputs.

For another example of a system, see the video below by the College Info Geek, Thomas Frank:

How do you decide?

How do you decide what work needs to get done? In other words, when do you add something to your calendar, task list, or daily plan?

Everyone has criteria for what they turn down and what they agree to do, even if those criteria are vague and change frequently. Sometimes the entire criteria is: Did my boss/professor/mom/boyfriend as me to? If so, then I’ll do it. Sometimes, that’s okay, but sometimes we also need the power of “No.”

If you’re not sure, here is one way to decide whether to add something to your plate:

Decisions

There are a few simple rules for this matrix:

  1. If urgent and important, then do it right now. Don’t delay or let not urgent work interfere.
  2. If urgent and not important, delegate it to someone else. I delegate transcription work to my student assistant and dinner to Trader Joe’s freezer section because I don’t personally like either data entry or cooking, but both must be done.
  3. If neither urgent nor important, don’t do it. Period. This may require learning to politely say “No, thank you. I have other priorities.” (You’re under no obligation to elaborate on those priorities to people other than your boss.)
  4. If it is important, but not urgent, then schedule it for another time. Don’t assume you’ll remember it, actually write down the specific task and when you’ll do it. This is where your system comes in.

When do you plan?

If you’re like me, you’ll find that most items fall into the ‘Defer’ category. They must be done, but not right now. Therefore, you need to plan when they’ll get done.

Rule #1 of planning: it doesn’t happen by accident. You have to plan to plan. For me planning is part of my daily, weekly, and semester routine. Here’s how it works:

  • Daily: The first thing I do when I arrive in my office each morning is check my daily calendar and my task list. Then I write out my daily plan on a yellow legal pad that sits facing me on a shelf next to my desk (Thomas Frank likes a white board for this). This may seem redundant, but it helps me deliberately focus on what I’m going to accomplish. If an item on my task list doesn’t make it into my daily plan, it gets immediately rescheduled. For example:
    • 9:30 am – Planning & Email
    • 10:00 am – Prep for meeting w/AB
    • 10:30 am – Meeting w/AB in Room LA415
    • 11:00 am – Complete Grant Inquiry for 123 Foundation
    • Noon – Lunch
    • etc.
  • Weekly: I preview my calendar, task lists, and email flags twice a week. On Saturday mornings, I scan for school-related work. On Monday morning, I spend a little extra time scanning for work-related work. This includes flipping through my meeting book, a simple spiral-bound notebook that goes everywhere I do. New tasks get a box next to them and new calendar appointments get underlined. I add a check mark once they get into my electronic systems. An email I need to do something about gets flagged, then checked off. If it’s not checked , I missed it, so it’s not scheduled, so it won’t get done. Very little gets lost for more than a week.
  • Semester: Since I’m on an academic schedule, I also spend a few extra hours at the beginning of each semester planning major projects, including homework. I schedule all assignments (including reading) into my task list for when I’ll do the work (not when the assignment is due). I also plan major work projects and goals around the same time. This period often has a spring cleaning feeling to it.

You don’t have to replicate this method. Just have a method.

Rule #2 of planning: plans change. Be flexible. Notice above that if I don’t have time for a task in my daily plan, it immediately gets rescheduled. I don’t beat myself up for not accomplishing everything on my task list every day. That’s frequently impossible. No plan is perfect.

Rule #3 of planning: know when to ditch the plan. In addition to being administrative staff and adjunct faculty at my institution, I’m also the campus chaplain. That means that if a student walks into my office having a panic attack then that’s what we’re doing now (and probably for the next hour or two). That Board of Trustees report can wait. That’s the deal I’ve made with myself and my institution.

In situations like these, it helps to have done a little thinking about your work principles. What actually is important? What is the order of importance? What is truly urgent? And what could actually wait? We often confuse importance and urgent. The first relates to overall impact, while the second is a factor of time. Clarifying the two in your mind for your specific situation can help you make quick decisions on the fly.

Eventually, your system will become habitual. You won’t have to think about it. The moment you agree to do a thing during a meeting, that thing will make it onto your task list with a scheduled work date and you won’t even notice you’ve done it. That’s the beauty of systems, they automate a lot of process to reduce the energy necessary for them. There are some downsides, so most systems frequent updating. For myself, I know that I’m at least twice as productive than I used to be as a result of my system. And I’m not done updating yet.

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