Mindfulness via Duolingo and Action For Happiness calendars

I don’t do well with mindfulness apps. Actually, I don’t do very well with mindfulness exercises. I’ve learnt it, I’ve done it, I think it’s good, and I’ve benefit from them. I just can’t get into the habit of doing it.

So instead, I’ve replaced it with Duolingo. It’s not the same thing, mindfulness and learning a new language… but it helps me keep my mind off things and distracts me in a way that gives me nourishment.

I started using it heavily back when I was travelling to France and French-speaking Canada and I wanted to learn some basic French. Then I lost the habit, but the nice thing about having Duolingo is that you can pick up from where you left sort of.

It’s ironic that I find Headspace quite competitive and stressful (be mindful! now! breathe! 30 seconds! relax! now!) which is not what it’s supposed to be. I find thinking about Headspace more stressful than thinking about Duolingo.


However, there’s one app I absolutely love, which is great for mental health and requires very low intervention. It’s from Action For Happiness, who do monthly calendars and has an app that sends you daily advice from their calendars, but the app is also used for people to share encouragement and reflections with one another around each day’s advice. Every day I get the day’s piece of advice and each time I read it, I do feel better about life and so on.

No clicking. No breathing. No timers.

It’s simple, it works, and it’s free!

I like free things that work well. The world should have more of these things.

Like fresh air and sunshine.

Dad’s night out

I just got back from the very first dad’s night out: a pub meet of all the dads from our kids’ class.

It’s a first-time-for-everything moment — the first time you decide to have a child, the first time you witness your child being born from your wife’s womb, the first time your kid goes to school, and the first time the dads from all the kids in the same class agree to meet in a pub (for me, anyway).

I met a lot of interesting people. A dad who works to address juvenile crime, a dad who deals with pensions programmes for UK universities, a dad who installs security systems but used to be a secondary school teacher…

All of us had in common our children who were all from the same class, and lived in the area.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from today’s night out, but I certainly wasn’t expecting for it to be this memorable and desirable.

Discovery muscle over means

Lisa, one of our talented UX researchers on our team, organised a “discovery methods” learning session today. It was really refreshing to have everyone come together and go through the various approaches we’ve used in the past. There’s no one right way to run a discovery, so it’s always valuable to have a broad set of tools, and most importantly, lots of experience trying different things out to see what works.

Sometimes coming back to old resources sheds new light on its meaning. One of the articles we put in our list was Will Myddleton’s “Three Ways to Run Better Discoveries“, which didn’t really resonate with me the first time I read it. It made more sense this time round, especially when I consider how discovery would likely be done at GDS. In this sense, discovery is a set of activities that takes place as part of a sensemaking exercise to figure out what to do next.

But discovery to me feels less like a “phase” and more of a continuous, never ending endeavour. In fact, I like to think of it as an organisational muscle, which grows stronger over time as we become more capable in navigating and building successfully towards ambiguous futures.

Sometimes I like to call this a “muscle over means” thing… where it’s less important how things are done to get to the right outcomes, and more important than the road is travelled together and done continuously and habitually.

The more often you do discovery, the more aware you become of the sensemaking process, the more natural it becomes, the less religious you need to be about tools and methods.

It’s very much a people / context thing, and that there is never one right way to run discoveries. Or three. Or whatever. It really depends on your situation and where you are along the journey. That’s precisely what designers need to get better at figuring out.

It’s a muscle, not a means.


Today, I got hooked on Centaurworld, Netflix’s new animated comedy series which appeared on my son’s feed despite it being very oddly shaped next to Puffin Rock, Super Monsters, True & the Rainbow Kingdom and The Storybots (which I highly approve of).

The mash up of war horse, centaurs, quests, silliness and songs shouldn’t work, but it does. For me, anyway. And I don’t even like watching TV.

A hardened war horse transported away from battle finds herself in a land that’s inhabited by silly, singing centaurs of all shapes and sizes.

I enjoyed reading this review from Kidscreen, which goes behind the scenes a bit with its creator, Megan Nicole Dong, who has infused various skills and talents acquired from her varied theatre / movie / animation backgrounds into the show.

Eastbourne, UK

We just spent a few days in Eastbourne for a short break. It’s by the beach, close to the local cliffs, has good restaurants and is more laid back than Brighton.

There was an unfortunate situation with the hotel, where they re-assigned us to another hotel but in a smaller room so instead of staying together, our family of 3 had to split up into two separate rooms. Nonetheless, Eastbourne is still a worthy local trip.

It costs half compared to going abroad, and is less complicated than flying and PCR tests. There’s enough to do for a 4 day stay.

Eastbourne pier
Eastbourne pier

Lighthouse at Beachy Head
Lighthouse at Beachy Head

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Beachy Head cliffs

Keralan fish curry
Keralan fish curry from Malayalam

Love birds at Drusillas Park
Love birds at Drusillas Park

Unwinding skills

I’m learning to apply the not-immediately-obvious skill of unwinding.

I’ve gotten really good at winding myself up for one reason or another, sometimes for very good reasons, but winding up needs to be unlearnt.

It’s better than calling it mindfulness or meditation, I think. Unlearning winding up gets to the heart of the problem… that I wind myself up in the first place!

It also helps to call my brain, body and feelings out as the 3rd person. It objectifies the things, and gives me a way of dealing with distracting signals inside me. So much unnecessary drama is better dealt with that way.

I also get to distract the things by taking deep breaths—it pushes them back and helps them settle down.

It’s effort, this unwinding thing… a lot more than living in autopilot. But it’s worth this than dealing with being wound up all the time.

The Dodos

I spent yesterday afternoon binge watching music videos from one my favourite bands: the Dodos, Meric Long and Logan Kroeber’s West Coast duo.

I somehow missed their amazing collaborations with Stargaze orchestra.

The orchestra brings gorgeous depth to “Transformer” from their 2013 album, Carrier. They performed two other tracks, “Relief” and “Death” and are a joy to watch.

For comparison, this is what the original video for Transformer looks and sounds like (the animated short is a bit dark):

The first time I came across The Dodos was from also from a music video—“Fools” from 2008’s Visiter—choreographed to Danny MacAskill’s run through Gran Canaria in the Canaries. I could watch this all day:https://www.youtube.com/embed/GL0rbxB9Lqg

I got addicted to the band’s sound. When this happens, I go through phases where I listen to tracks or bands in loops, and this “Fools” was on heavy rotation for a few weeks, which then led to rotating albums for months, putting extra weight on Spotify’s recommendations.

One of my favourite music videos is this one.

Apparently it took Logan and Meric three months to train for this. There’s a part in their performance with Seattle’s KEXP where they share some comments behind the video’s creation with Cheryl Waters (at 12:52).

I love that KEXP makes such high production studio recordings of music available for free to watch… it just brings a level of intimacy and personality to the music you don’t get with album tracks.

It’s fun to stumble upon band stories through these studio videos. In this performance with Audiotree, Logan talked about the SW3 music video (below) coming about after asking a colleague if his daughter would perform martial arts for the video, which turned out exceedingly well.

I’m already looking forward to their new album, “Grizzly Peak”, coming out 12 Nov. They’ve already released a few tracks as Lyric videos on YouTube, like this reworked track from the EP “The Surface”.

When it comes to complexity, show works better than tell

The sketchnote collection article I posted yesterday seemed to attract a lot of kudos from friends and contacts far and wide, equally reminding them of good past memories we all cherished. It seemed like this post was long overdue, but it’s nice to give it a new lease of life out on active channels.

It’s been awhile since I’ve shared or posted anything related to Systems Thinking (on any channel, let alone this one).

Today, I came across a fantastic case study article from Philippe Vandenbroeck about his work with Koen Vandyck regarding their analysis of state funded orchestras in Belgium, informed by and constituted through a large causal loop diagram (CLD).

causal loop diagram of orchestra ecosystem

The author speaks practically about how to read the CLD map, which provides a starting point for casual, new readers.

How to read this map? The map consists of factors that are causally linked. An upstream factor drives downstream factors. All the factors included in the map have been conceptualised as ‘variables’. That means that they can go up or down, and by doing so will have an effect on the downstream variables. The blue arrows indicate that an increase of a tail variable (say, ‘ticket sale income’) will lead to an increase of the head variable (‘revenue’; vice versa in case of a decrease). The red arrows indicate that the relationship is the reverse, meaning that an increase of tail variable will lead to a decrease of the head variable and vice versa (an increase in ‘ticket price’ leads to a decrease in the ‘attractiveness of live concert experience’).

Then, he starts to unpack the main insights from his analysis, the various “gravities” of systems phenomena, narrating the various “shapes” of the system through his systems literacy — e.g. upstream and downstream forces — while explaining the broader story, one critical systems loop after another, in an attempt to help the reader relate systems phenomena back to the challenges and significance in reality.

The central variable is ‘artistic quality’. There is a broad consensus that this determines the viability and fundability of any artistic project. It reflects the level at which an individual artist, project or organisation excels in its genre, organisational form or function.

The system map underlines that as far as an orchestra is concerned artistic quality is not the only determinant of success. It is a crucial element, but cannot be seen separately from at least four other key factors:

  • the public’s interest in attending concerts,
  • the societal support for classical music,
  • the orchestra musicians’ job satisfaction, and
  • the quality of the artistic and business management.

As a whole, the system map is therefore built around five key factors — artistic quality supplemented by the four factors just mentioned.

CLDs are seldom self-evident – especially the larger ones. CLD maps are there to reveal, through its formal structure and syntax, the underlying patterns of causal loops in an abstract way—it’s then left to people who have the tacit and deep knowledge of the real-world to translate that systems understanding to the real-world significance behind what these patterns mean.

CLDs are not like some other, more accessible frameworks like service blueprints and business model canvases, which contain in their formal syntax, elements that map directly to the assumed elements of the real world — i.e. users, front office, back office, activities, customer relationships, partners…

CLDs have NONE of those things — it is agnostic to real-world elements. Instead, it focuses on expressing the nature of causal feedback loops, and work alongside system feedback axioms (also known as system archetypes) which, almost like physics, map to patterns of behaviour over time.

systems archetypes from thesystemsthinker.com

These patterns act as heuristics for systems practitioners to understand how things might potentially unfold over time given certain causal assumptions and relationships between inter-related things happening in reality.

Despite the strategic value that causal loop diagrams offer practitioners, it remains somewhat of an underutilised tool in the strategy space. One one hand, it’s one of the more accessible and common tools that systems practitioners use to do strategic systems work… but the rest of the world doesn’t really pay much attention to it.

I suspect it has less traction compared to tools like, I’m probably making this up, complex user journeys, service ecosystem maps or blueprints, theory of change models,… perhaps even Wardley maps and the Cynefin framework? And it’s probably because CLDs don’t have that mapping to elements in the real world. It requires someone to be literate in basic systems syntax and language to read and understand a CLD.

This is why I wish there were more practical, applied case studies like this one using systems thinking approaches. More of this and not just talk about the value of systems thinking. Show, don’t tell.

This way, more people can cross the proverbial bridge between systems and the real world, and realise that in the end that the world of systems and reality itself have never actually been disconnected from each other in the first place… only just in our conception and understanding of it.

Interestingly, the author lamented on the reluctance of orchestras themselves to engage in meaningful conversations after the report was released and socialised, despite very positive feedback from the project sponsors and subject matter experts.

Reactions to our study were mixed. Our government sponsor was very pleased and hailed the report as a landmark study. We also received kudos from insiders who know the sector well. However, the orchestras themselves campaigned vigorously against the insights from our report. They refused to enter into nuanced debate about it. For Koen and myself, both staunch supporters of the institution, this was a disappointment. The reaction seemed to betray a false sense of entitlement and union-led intransigence. As far as we are concerned, the gravest threat to a viable future for the symphony orchestra is not a changing world, but the strategic myopia of what risks to become a cultural dinosaur.

The designer in me made me think the “people-centered practice” part is where systems thinking efforts can sometimes fail despite well intentions, although I’m not suggesting that this was what happened to Philippe and Koen.

For things to change at a large scale, lots of different people need to be involved, and people within the system need to have appropriate ownership and involvement in the change process for that whole organic process to move forward in a meaningful way. The profound understanding and insights that systems practice only represents a small portion of the actual thing that needs to change—people. Lots and lots of people.

But this is what excites me about the work I get to do, drawing from the profound practices and progressive communities of practitioners out there trying to make long-lasting impact and contribution in the world. There’s so much opportunity ahead of us to mix and blend our different tools and domains together, cross each other’s bridges, and learn from each other’s expertise. And work with each other to change ourselves, and the world, one step at a time.

My sketchnote collection from over the years

A short one today, because the long one is over on Medium…. yaah, I sort of cheated on the 100 day writing challenge.

Anyway, the article that I posted live on Medium showcases a collection of sketchnotes I’ve produced over the years since 2010.

If you’re into that sort of thing, head over to the article here:


WFH existential blues

I’m contemplating making a trip back to the office, now that more of my colleagues are starting to work from there. But I really enjoy working from home and have to push myself in order to work from the office – there’s a lot more prep I have to do: planning ahead for dinner, school runs, and such.

There’s also a bunch of stuff I forgot to collect and clean up before the lockdown hit, and I’m unsure where they are in the office now. I dread the idea of returning to the office to look for them — stationery, notebooks, the monitor assigned to me… I suppose the locker I’ve signed up for still has my stuff in it.

I feel very much trapped in a “transitional” state, where COVID came and basically, stayed… sort of what it is right now.

It’s like purgatory but with all the creature comforts. Or living out of a suitcase inside a really nice airport terminal. Part of me feels too comfortable working from home.

And I’m not sure if I should, like in the Matrix, proverbially swallow the red pill and fight my way into harsh reality… whatever that means.

I think no one really knows what reality is anymore, so people are just busy making up nice realities for themselves, and that might include making themselves feel very comfortable at home.

Should I be outside?credit: Yasmina H, via Unsplash (No, this is not what I look like)

“And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself,
“Well, how did I get here?”

— Talking Heads