For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way from my hometown of Rolla in south-central Missouri, on the Little Dry Fork Creek. Depending on how loosely you define “city”, one could argue that CQ is the world’s largest city. In my pursuit of a simple life, I publish these observations and admonitions from my 18th-Floor Homestead.
Business and Publishing updates:
Recently, CS and I were interviewed concerning the launching of Mind Fleet and the new education regulations which limit the afterschool and online training activities for young students. In some ways, the opening of the Mind Fleet online store with its Postcards From Space stories is perfectly timed to fit into this sudden change in the educational landscape. You can go to mindfleet.cn to learn more about the stories and how they make young students eager to read and learn in English. Reading should be fun, not homework.
Caption: Courtesy of Jorah Kai, author of Kai’s Diary
Caption: Autumn’s hottest fashion trend – t-shirts from Postcards From Space and Mind Fleet!
Courtesy of Liv Zhang
Mind Fleet’s First customer… was Chester Sidney Green! Why not? Intriguing him with science-based stories was the original objective. Mind Fleet began as a germ of an idea in March. I was looking for something for my son. I wanted to make reading in English more like fun, and less like homework. That is when we discovered Postcards From Space, a company based in Durham, England. (postcardsfromspace.co.uk).
Although he is too young (age 8) to read the stories written by Miles Hudson in England, CS can easily understand when I read aloud to him and explain. Reading the cards together has actually led to a great deal of wonderful father-son quality time. The photos and illustrations on the cards are a big help, too. His frequent interruptions with animated questions – pertinent and impertinent – show he is eager to understand and that he is using his imagination. That is exactly what I had hoped for. The additional resources available through the QR codes printed on the cards that take him directly to the PFS website in England only make it more interesting, exotic, and fun. And what kid doesn’t get excited about receiving mail sent to them? Modern children grow up with a finger on the screen; nothing new there. But something in the mail? And, in this age of immediate gratification, something they have to wait until next week before enjoying? Well, now, that’s different!
CS and I had finished the Postcards From Space and the Postcards From Deep Space series so it was only natural we would want to continue the series by reading Dougal Jerram’s new story. Postcards From Volcanoes has the two characters Tanno and Iguda (boy and dog) begin to explore volcanoes and send back reports and photos to eager young readers. We use the same products we offer to others. Thus, CS became the first official customer of Mind Fleet.
In the Volcanoes story, we have finished the first chapters, about the Stromboli volcano in the Aeolian Sea and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy in Roman Empire times. Now, CS is eagerly awaiting the next weekly card. One additional benefit of the new series is the built-in geography lesson as the young explorers travel around the globe. If you haven’t already done so, you are invited to visit mindfleet.cn – available in English and Chinese versions. Will you be the next customer? Check out the Early Bird special offer.
Caption: Courtesy Torgeir Higraff
Torgeir Higraff, back in Norway, has promised to send the next installment soon of his adventure Kon-Tiki2 about his drift voyage on twin balsa rafts from South America to Easter Island and back to South America (almost). This is a great story; I am eager to read each chapter as he produces them. I hope Torgeir’s writing project will go all the way to publication so everyone can enjoy this true story of modern adventure on the high seas.
Caption: Courtesy of Randy Green
Work on 18th Floor Homestead, my next book, continues. Now that CS is back in school and I am home again after a brief stay in one of the lovely CQ hospitals, I will return to the habit of daily writing. Starting a new company was exciting and fun and different… but writing is my first love. I hope to have the rough draft done in the coming weeks. After the life-changing jolt of surgery and the prospects of a long recovery period, reinventing a simple life sounds like a very reasonable idea. A simpler life, anyway.
Caption: Courtesy of Fu Di lu
Lulu ( Fu Di lu) has submitted 17 chapters of her memoir (with the working title Diary of a Country Girl) from, she estimates, a total of 30 chapters. Getting closer. Looking forward to helping her to publish her memories of a simpler and more innocent time.
8 Things My Son Taught Me
The classic movie from many years ago, Dances With Wolves, has a fabulous closing line. “For many of them,” the narrator softly says, “it would be the last peaceful summer of their lives.” I cannot know what the future holds; undoubtedly, some good and some bad. But, if this summer of 2021 turns out to be the “last peaceful summer”, let us relish the memory of it. And, while we are at it, let us relish the memory of the upcoming autumn… and winter… and spring seasons following it.
Personally, it was indeed a wonderful, amusing, frustrating, stressful, exhausting, eventful, delightful, peaceful (sometimes), and thoroughly memorable summer. I’m sure other parents of young children will understand. I am grateful I got to spend so much time with my eight-year-old son during his summer holiday. But, honestly, I was also looking forward to September and his return to the classroom so I could have some alone time for writing, for the new business, and just for being alone.
Like most parents, I wish to teach my son, age 8, by example. I try my best to give him a good role model to observe. How ironic, then, that throughout the summer, I began to notice that there are some things I could learn from him. Think about it. What can our kids teach us? Maybe my boy can teach me how to work. Maybe doing things his way would make me happier than my mode of remote-working, highly organized, self-disciplined desk warrior.
Watch children at play. Notice how happy, focused, and energetic they are. Wouldn’t it be great if we adults could go through our day with that same happy, focused, and energetic mood? Well, maybe we can. Here are a few of my reflections this September morning.
1) In the past, I have written about the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau. In my book, China Bound, I wrote of my twin experiences with that book. The first was when I was a university freshman, age 18. My English professor highly praised Walden and made it mandatory reading for the class. However… because it was a homework assignment, I automatically resented it. Indeed, when I started reading it, I felt it was the most boring book I had ever encountered. Two pages would put me to sleep. I hated it.
My second experience with Walden was many years later. After I came to China, I found that same book in a campus bookstore and, curious, purchased it. This time, because no one was forcing me to read it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. As Prof. Quinn had said many years earlier, it really was an excellent book. The difference, of course, was the second experience was not required reading. Hence, I never felt the internal resistance we automatically generate when something is imposed upon us.
What can we learn from this? Children will cheerfully devote endless time and energy to things that they choose and which they can pursue on their own. Why can’t I organize my work the same way? Maybe the self-discipline required for carefully planning and following a to-do list without deviation is not the best way, Indeed, maybe it is going in the wrong direction. Time management gurus say, “Plan your work, then work your plan!” What 8-year-old does that? Have you ever heard a kid say, “That’s enough play for now”? Why should kids have all the fun? Hmm.
What else can my son teach me?
2) What about the to-do list, itself? Really? The to-do list is the sacred cow of time management principles. I have never dared to question the value of a to-do list; it feels like heresy to even consider the possibility. For many years, I have begun each day with a list of the top six – only six, and numbered by priority! – activities that I choose for that day. Then, I do my best to stay on-plan. (And, yes, there is plenty of internal resistance to staying on-plan. Perhaps that resistance is trying to tell me something.) What would happen if I merely made up a short list of the most important, most valuable activities that could be completed that day? Then, as a major change, what if I (like a kid) continually asked myself which of those items I was in the mood to do at that moment? What would happen if I, like a small boy, allowed myself to stop working on a task when I found myself bored, tired, or attracted to something else on the day’s list? It would be like a child goes from one toy or game or book to another. What if I could easily shift to another activity on the list? I would, after all, still be doing something on the written list of things I had chosen to do. The difference would be that I was working on something for only as long as I wished. Probably, if I could choose my activities according to my mood of the moment, and choose their duration before I shifted to something else, I would be a lot happier. Maybe I would even feel in control of my day.
3) Adding to the other sacrilege, let’s look at forming new habits, another bedrock of time management courses. What if I picked a small number of new behaviors which I desired to become habits… but promised myself that I would commit to working on them for only one month? My friend Marc Reklau, a digital warrior currently living his dream life on the island of Malta, designed a form for creating a simple, highly visible record of how well you are following your own plan for creating new habits. (This form can be downloaded from his website, marcreklau.com.)
Thus, I sat down with CS and together we chose a few actions that he would commit to making habitual but for only one month. Note that I said we chose them together; I only identified and clarified. Remember the Walden principle. If I tell him what I want him to do, he will unconsciously resist; the result would inevitably be conflict, inefficiency, and lapses in our domestic tranquility. But, if he gets to choose his own desired traits and he is assured that this commitment is only for one month, he happily pursues the new behaviors. They are now his choice without guilt, pressure, or (my) outside influences. And Marc’s chart helps motivate him to continue once he has begun a streak.
Then I did the same form for myself – for only one month.
4) Back to my discarding of the to-do list. I found that one form of the to-do list is still useful. Each morning, as I plan my day, I have a one-page list of activities I have chosen for that day. I find that a paper list is more effective for me than something on a screen. (Ideally, I prepare this list the afternoon before when I am finishing my workday so I can get up in the morning and hit the ground running.) Since these are the things I have personally chosen after browsing through my notes (digital and paper), there is no resistance. Indeed, the only problem is limiting the number things on the page to something realistic.
5) What if this Business School heresy continues? What else can my kid teach me about organizing my work? What if I created that short list each day of what I chose as the most valuable things to pursue that day? What if I could work on those items without the constant flood of new intrusions, including the standard crisis du jour? How much more could I accomplish of the really important, valuable things? Clearly, that would be achievable only if I was unavailable to be disturbed. That means I would have to be offline. Hmm.
I realized that, over the years, my work life has become increasingly centered around digital devices. In particular, I am dependent upon the resources available on the internet. But that’s exactly the problem; access to the internet comes with a huge price. That gateway allows flow in both directions. Granting anyone and everyone permission to disturb my work opens up the floodgates for all the interruptions, distractions, temptations, notifications, beguiling advertisements, and messages (personal and general, important and dreck) which prevent me from focusing on those things on my list which matter most.
A recent afternoon without my smartphone due to a malfunction made me painfully aware of just how dependent I have unconsciously become. I definitely do not want to live without these modern conveniences; I do, however, want to control how much they disrupt my plans. Ruefully. I pictured Ernest Hemingway sitting in a Paris café with his pencil and notebook. I remembered how he claimed he was able to “work” anywhere, and that a “seven pencil morning” was a good day. How simple can you get?
The solution was obvious. Recently, I began turning off the phone and computer each night and, upon arising, I do not reconnect. I do not automatically check for messages. Moreover, throughout the morning, I do not recheck frequently… to see if anything new has arrived since the last check. By staying offline until lunchtime, I now use the computer for my chosen activities without the online distractions. My mornings are my time.
I admit that this was difficult at first. I worried that I might be missing something, maybe an important call or a question that needed an immediate answer. However, I had to acknowledge that a genuine emergency or a situation that absolutely required my immediate response is really quite rare, I began to relax and indeed to relish the peace and quiet of undisturbed work time. During the morning hours when I am offline, if I think of something that requires the internet, I make a note of it to deal with in the afternoon; then I continue to stay offline until lunchtime.
This practice of self-imposed digital isolation seems to be working well. I am more peaceful, and far less stressed and frustrated by all the distractions, notifications, and interruptions in the form of questions… with their subsequent lengthy exchanges that were previously a part of my mornings. More productive, too. Every interruption, experts say, requires 5 to 25 minutes afterward to return to fully concentrating on our previous activity. Eliminating interruptions saves huge amounts of time by allowing undisturbed focus.
There are three more facets of my new perspective of work as seen by a young child which are intriguing. It’s amazing what kids can teach us if only we are receptive to learning from them.
6) The first is “on-the-fly prioritization”. When I begin my day’s activities, I look at my list for the day. It is important to note that my day’s list is not numbered or organized in any particular order. When I am ready to start – not before – I decide what I feel like doing at that moment. It’s nice to begin feeling in control.
However, after many years of learning what works best for me, I know that the early morning hours, when my two roommates are still asleep, is my best time for anything requiring me to be creative. Early morning is also the ideal time for other tasks on which I need to focus without interruption. Obviously, then, work that is optimized in a specific setting should get the priority for that time block. That is reasonable, logical.
But even this is not always essential. The new primary criterion has become, “What do I feel like doing?” Watch a child at play and see this principle in action. They do one thing then abruptly shift to something else. Likewise, I am now free to begin working on one project and shift to something else on the list if my mood changes.
7) There is yet another thing I learned from my son. Something radical. I am beginning to see the value of immediate rewards. What? Impossible! Deferred gratification is another foundation of the fabled self-disciplined work life. The presumption is that you have to earn rewards that will come in the distant future. But, with little kids, that concept doesn’t work so well. Children often live in the present moment; a reward promised in a vague or distant future is not a great motivator for them. What about something new? Instead of extolling the virtues of deferred gratification, why not give myself a series of mini-rewards throughout the process with a big reward after the final step is completed? One bite of a snack now is a much better motivator than a whole cake later. This is true for me, just as it is true for my son.
Yet another aspect of the deferred compensation issue: Getting started is always the hardest step on any journey. Sometimes, I give my son a mini-reward of something he enjoys as a reward for merely starting an unappealing activity. Used in moderation, it has been an effective motivator. Later, a nicer reward (commensurate with the importance and difficulty of the activity) given immediately after completing a milestone is immensely satisfying. Note, however, while it is sometimes effective to have a pre-start reward just to motivate ourselves to take that first step, the biggest reward must come after a completion, not merely for starting. Reward efforts, results, and level of performance, not promises and intentions, but it is okay to do the rewarding in small steps. Well, why not do the same thing for myself?
8) One final observation: As the familiar children’s song goes, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!” As a result of adopting some of these ideas from watching children at play, I would say, “If you are happy (happier) and you know it, act like it.” Greet each situation and each person with a childlike smile. Our outward physical behavior does indeed influence our internal mood. Instead of going through your workday with a grim and determined facial expression, remind yourself to smile… just like the kids.
Will all these ideas make me super-productive? Will they make you? Probably not. Will they make us more productive than we already are? Again, maybe not. But, it can’t hurt experimenting to see what works best for you. Kids are almost always happier than gloomy but efficient, logical, deferred-gratificationed, self-disciplined, high organized adults. Think about it. If we could imitate kids and be equally or almost as productive as today but also happier, would that be such a bad thing?
… and another thing. Always remember: YOU ARE THE AVERAGE OF THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU SPEND THE MOST TIME WITH. – JIM ROHN
So choose carefully.