Category Archives: mindfulness

Doing Better Work: the Fine Art of Getting Shit Done


Designers, entrepreneurs, a CTO; on the surface it was a standard kind of SF tech community gathering, held at the posh Designer Fund headquarters in SoMa. People drank coconut water and shared their Twitter handles. But what made this event different was what brought everyone together, and what we created together during that sunny winter afternoon last weekend.

It started when I met Maria a few months ago. We found we shared a background in design research and educational technology and a deep interest in supporting people’s personal and career growth. We knew we wanted to collaborate because we both so deeply believe that the work that we do to make the world better starts with being able to do better work. We do better work when we improve how we stay present, focused, aware, emotionally at-ease, open to others, focused on the right stuff, aligned to a meaningful goal, and energetically balanced.

The Post-its started flying the first time we had a brainstorming session to figure out where to start. The place where we kept landing, where we felt that there was so much to say and work on, was procrastination. We started talking to friends about it to assess their interest, and we heard lots of “Oh… yeah. That is really an issue.” We realized the extent to which procrastination is a source of daily stress and suffering and a block to things getting done. And we learned that it’s a topic that people often feel uncomfortable talking about at work. We’d found our first topic, and leading a workshop about it seemed like a great place to start.

I love designing workshops for IDEO. I love how people can come together, and how a really well-designed workshop experience can transport people to a new understanding of themselves and their work. I was excited to bring that same level of workshop design to my community in San Francisco.

We called the workshop “Procrastination and the Fine Art of Getting Shit Done” to be a little cheeky. (Pro tip: give your event a compelling name and people will sign up out of the blue.)

The workshop was really wonderful. Through careful facilitation, we helped people get to know each other and share stories of when they’ve been stuck; we explored what procrastination means to each of us; and we did an IDEO-style brainstorm around why we procrastinate. We did a writing exercise around our feelings about procrastination, and looked at the language that we use to talk about it. We surfaced emotion, normalized a taboo experience, showed people the way in which they deal with this, and reflected on how to do it differently.

During the second part of the day we discussed strategies around planning, habits, and reframes, sharing the best that we’ve learned from wide research and experimentation. I loved distilling down and sharing the wisdom that we learned from so many places. Two tactics that the group really appreciated were the Tiny List (keep your to-do list limited and start a new one every day) and the Don’t List (be clear with yourself about what just isn’t going to happen). Maria dove deep into the workshop content in her article What You Must Know About Your Procrastination.

At the end of the workshop, the group wanted to help each other move forward together, and we’re going to check in with each other in a month to see how folks are adapting new strategies and approaches. Maria and I learned how much we enjoyed working together, and we’re busy collecting feedback and designing our next workshop. We’re looking forward to helping more people do better work in the world.


(Photos courtesy Jesse Chan-Norris.)

Innovation, Idealism, and Cynicism

Buddhist Geeks 2012 Innovation Panel

Most of my brain cycles are devoted to either tech/innovation or the dharma, so I was understandably delighted to discover the Buddhist Geeks conference, and even more delighted earlier this year when they asked me to be a speaker. The conference was held in Boulder, Colorado a few weeks ago, and there I met lovely people who are “playing at the intersection of Buddhism, technology, and global culture” and inspired me to do more of the same.

A highlight of the experience was the panel discussion I was on with Vince Horn, Rohan Gunatillake, and David Loy, speaking together on the topic of “Reinventing Buddhism.” We described it in the conference brochure thusly:

Reinventing Buddhism: The Role of Innovation in a Rapidly Changing World

What we call Buddhism has often been a radical experiment in understanding the nature of human suffering and exploring ways to alleviate it, as well as exploring deep potentials of the human mind and heart. As we move further into the 21st century — a time marked by unprecedented change — those of us who wish to respond to these changing conditions are forced to look at what it means to innovate, how it works, and what the potential risks and rewards are.

At the beginning of the panel we each presented for a few minutes. For my part, I spoke about innovation as a process, and how core principles of the human-centered design process align in interesting ways with what dharma practitioners do.

I introduced the idea through this quote, from a conversation I had with my design research colleague Dan Soltzberg:

“When you go to meet someone to understand their world, which is what we do in qualitative design research, you have to be aware of and put aside all your own personal biases and filters to the best of your ability… There’s a suspension of judgment that creates incredible compassion for people. Doing research interviews is a deep moment of being with people.”

This process of being fully present, accepting what is, and connecting through compassion is at the heart of what dharma practice is all about — and it’s also at the core of the human-centered design process.

I also talked the part of the HCD process where the team moves from insight and synthesis to prototyping. During the prototyping phase, we deliberately foster a spirit of non-attachment through going broad with a large number of initial sketches and low fidelity prototypes. (Too often, designers get a hunch for something and get attached to one design solution without exploring the range of possible options.) As the prototyping process continues, we winnow down the possible options and bring them into higher fidelity forms, so at the end we might have only one design expression — but it will be the right one. Along the way we will have lost possibly hundreds of other directions. This is great training for another core dharma principle, the impermanence of all phenomena.

Vince, David, and I then kicked around other points related to how Buddhism is shaping culture in the West and how it in turn is being shaped through collisions with our institutions and systems. Kelly Kingman recorded it all beautifully in these sketch notes:

Sketch notes by Kelly Kingman

(She also wrote a nice review of the session.)

My favorite moment of the conversation was when Vince brought up how idealism and cynicism both prevent real innovation. He noted that idealism blocks us from being able to accept the world as it is and situations as they are, for example insisting that we want for organizations to be non-hierarchical despite that not working terribly well. He remarked that we should move from this idealism to a place where we can make decisions for our current reality. And on the other hand, that we should not fall victim to a cynical perspective that the systems are broken and we’re “all basically going down with the Titanic together.” Being stuck in this space keeps us from taking action or accepting responsibility.

I’m looking forward to returning next year. If you are at all dharma curious I highly recommend it.

[photo credit Al Billings]

Attention as a skill (UX Magazine)

Yes, yes, I’m a little delayed in posting this. But I wanted to share an article that I wrote back in January for UX Magazine, about developing the skill of paying attention, and how it applies to UX research. I intended the article primarily for those of us who spend most of their time in a lab setting, working with a research script.

Read the article here: Paying Attention: The Most Valuable Skill in UX Research

The sneaky thing is that I really care a lot about attention, and my point in the article is for readers to take what they learn about attention in a research context and apply it to the rest of their lives. As I wrote, “Stay with the present moment with your participants through better attention and discover for yourself what you might have been missing.”