Axiom: Interruptions cost 20 minutes

You’re sitting at your desk working away focussing in on a problem that’s been on your list to resolve for weeks.

Buttermere SwimmingYou start to uncover the various layers of the problem ruling some things out, adding new things in.

This isn’t a simple problem, it’s a bit complicated and you feel a bit like you are Poirot unravelling a mystery. You’re starting to build a real sense of achievement.

You’re not sure how long you’ve been working on this problem but just at the point you are starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel your boss walks in and asks why, yet again, you haven’t provided your weekly status report. You explain that you’ve been very busy doing real work and didn’t think anyone read the status reports anyway.

After a two minute conversation you return to your problem, but you’ve lost the thread – "where was I again". You curse your boss. Your curse yourself for coming into the office today.

You start all over again trying to resolve this knotty little problem. It takes you an age to regain the concentration that you had.

This is such a common problem that we accept it as normal. People have even adapted their working habits to try and carve out some time to get some work done.

The interruptions abound – email, phones, instant messaging, social media, people, meetings. But what is the cost of those interruptions.

My axiom has always been that the cost of an interruption is 20 minutes.

I thought that I’d got the 20 minute part from a book called Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister but I’ve recently been rereading it and actually it says this:

During single-minded work time, people are ideally in a state that psychologists call flow. Flow is a condition of deep, nearly meditative involvement…

Not all work roles require that you attain a state of flow in order to be productive, but to anyone involved in engineering, design, development, writing, or like tasks, flow is a must. These are high-momentum tasks. It’s only when you’re in flow that the work goes well.

Unfortunately, you can’t turn on flow like a switch. It takes a slow decent into the subject, requires fifteen minutes or more of concentration before the state is locked in. During this immersion period, you are particularly sensitive to noise and interruption. A disruptive environment can make if difficult or impossible to attain flow.

So where did I get 20 minutes from? Perhaps it’s just one of those things that changes in your mind over time? Not that it’s really that important, the significant factor here is that an interruption costs you significantly more than the length of the disturbance.

What Peopleware outlines is a theory called flow and the real question, therefore, is whether this theory is really the way our minds work.

The theory of flow appears to have been popularised by a Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (no I don’t know how to say it either), in the 1990’s based on research from the 1960’s and 1970’s. The idea of being in a flow or in the zone or being in the groove have been around for much longer than that.

There appears to be a great deal of research undertaken which, for the most part, would appear to validate the theory outlined by Csikszentmihalyi. For once the article in wikipedia appears to be reasonably authoritative and well referenced.

So I’m reasonably happy that the axiom is true even if it’s not specifically 20 minutes, but we all work in the real world. How do we work in a way that minimises the impact.

The first part of resolving most problems is recognising that it exists, many people don’t.

The second part of overcoming a problem is to recognise the part that we are in control of. I don’t think I’m unique in being able to generate my own set of interruptions. There are also things that I can do to manage many of the disruptions.

There are all sorts of schemes that people use and I don’t think that there is one that suites everyone. The following mind map (not my own) reflects some of the things that I do:

Axiom: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I really like pictures.

The most visited page on this site is one about Rich Pictures.

I regularly pick out interesting Infographics.

One of my favourite books at home is called Information is Beautiful which is named after the popular website.

In Search of JimmyWhy? Because “a picture is worth a thousand words”, or at least that’s the axiom I tell myself.

I wonder, though, whether this is really true.

If it were really true we’d spend much more time drawing, and far less time writing words. Yet writing words is what we do and do a lot (much like I’m doing now).

Many think that the saying is ancient and oriental, but the evidence for that is somewhat sketchy at least the literal translation. What can be said is that it was used in the 1920’s, became popular in the 1940’s and continues to be a preferred phrase. The variation on this “A picture speaks a thousand words” didn’t come until the 1970’s:


Just because something is popular, and just because it appears to be true doesn’t mean that it is true.

In order to assess the validity of the axiom I set off down the scientific route. What research was there for the value if diagrams?

If it were to be true then there would be some clear evidence for a picture being a much better way of communicating than a set of either spoken or written words.

I was always taught that there were three types of learners: visual learners, auditory (listening) learners and kinaesthetic (doing) learners. So I wondered whether there might be some mileage in the research done into that particular subject. If visual learners are stronger than auditory learners then it would add weight to the premise. But it turns out that learning styles might be one of my anti-axioms. So I gave that up as a dead-end.

My next port of call was to think of one particular diagram type and see whether there was any science behind the value of a particular technique.

Most of the pictures I draw are really diagrams with the purpose of communicating something.

As a fan of mind maps as a diagramming technique I wondered whether there was any clear evidence of their value. Back in 2006 Philip Beadle wrote an article in The Guardian on this subject and the use of mind maps in education:

The popular science bit goes like this. Your brain has two hemispheres, left and right. The left is the organised swot who likes bright light, keeps his bedroom tidy and can tolerate sums. Your right hemisphere is your brain on drugs: the long-haired, creative type you don’t bring home to mother.

According to Buzan, orthodox forms of note-taking don’t stick in the head because they employ only the left brain, the swotty side, leaving our right brain, like many creative types, kicking its heels on the sofa, watching trash TV and waiting for a job offer that never comes. Ordinary note-taking, apparently, puts us into a “semi-hypnotic trance state”. Because it doesn’t fully reflect our patterns of thinking, it doesn’t aid recall efficiently. Buzan argues that using images taps into the brain’s key tool for storing memory, and that the process of creating a mind map uses both hemispheres.

The trouble is that lateralisation of brain function is scientific fallacy, and a lot of Buzan’s thoughts seem to rely on the old “we only use 10% of the neurons in our brain at one time” nonsense. He is selling to the bit of us that imagines we are potentially super-powered, probably psychic, hyper-intellectuals. There is a reason we only use 10% of our neurons at one time. If we used them all simultaneously we would not, in fact, be any cleverer. We would be dead, following a massive seizure.

He goes further:

As visual tools, mind maps have brilliant applications for display work. They appear to be more cognitive than colouring in a poster. And I think it is beyond doubt that using images helps recall. If this is the technique used by the memory men who can remember 20,000 different digits in sequence while drunk to the gills, then it’s got to be of use to the year 8 bottom set.

The problem is that visual ignoramuses, such as this writer, can’t think of that many pictures and end up drawing question marks where a frog should be.

Oh dear, another cul-de-sac. In researching the mind-map though I did get to a small titbit of evidence, unfortunately from wikipedia (not always the most reliable source:

Farrand, Hussain, and Hennessy (2002) found that spider diagrams (similar to concept maps) had a limited but significant impact on memory recall in undergraduate students (a 10% increase over baseline for a 600-word text only) as compared to preferred study methods (a 6% increase over baseline).

That’ll do for me for now, it’s not “a thousand words” but it’s good enough for my purposes.

Why am I comfortable with just a small amount of evidence? Because this is one of those axioms where it’s not only about scientific proof.

Thinking about pictures in their broadest sense there are certainly pictures that would take more than a thousand words to describe them.

There are pictures that communicate emotions in a way that words would struggle to portray.

There are diagrams which portray a simple truth in a way that words would muddle and dilute.

In these situations the picture is clearly worth a lot of words, but our words would all be different. The way I would describe an emotional picture would be different to the words you would use. So it’s not about the number of words, but the number of different words.

This little bit of research has got me thinking though.

How often do we draw a diagram thinking that everyone understands it, but we’re really excluding the “visual ignoramuses” (as Philip Beadle describes himself). or the “visually illiterate” (as others describe it)?

In order to communicate we need to embrace both visual literacy and linguistic literacy in a way that is accessible to the audience. I used to have a rule in documentation, “every diagram needs a description”. The PowerPoint age has taken us away from that a bit and perhaps it’s time to re-establish it so that we can embrace the visual and the literal.

I’m happy to keep this as an axiom, but I need to be a bit more careful about where I apply it.

Axioms: An Occasional Series

I’ve been thinking and reading quite a bit recently about axioms:

ax·i·omIn Search of Jimmy

[ak-see-uhm] noun

  1. a self-evident truth that requires no proof.
  2. a universally accepted principle or rule.
  3. Logic, Mathematics. a proposition that is assumed without proof for the sake of studying the consequences that follow from it.

As I think about the way that I approach things I realise that there are a set of axioms that I tend to work from, things that I think are self-evident. They’re normally sayings that I have in my head that shape the way I think about a situation. Some of them have been gleaned from my experience, some from my education but to be honest I don’t think I know where most of them have come from or why I think they are good principles.

I wonder how many of my personal axioms are are really any good, just because I think they are universally accepted doesn’t mean that they are. So I’ve decided to put a few of them under the microscope by doing a bit of research into their validity. I plan to write about what I’ve found honestly and hopefully I’ll uncover some things that are definitely true (as far as we understand it), but I’m also looking forward to finding some anti-axioms that are not true at all.

Now where to start?

Concept of the Day: Cognitive Surplus

Today I watched Clay Shirky presenting at TED (via their excellent podcasts). Clay outlines a number of challenges to the way that we imagine people’s motivation. He explodes the premise that we all love to be “couch potatoes” and highlight a number of examples that demonstrate that as he says:

We like to create and like to share

Jimmy and Granddad Explore the Lake DistrictPeople don’t just contribute when there is payment at the end, they contribute when they are creating, and with the currently available technology the opportunities for creating are becoming ever broader.

This effect creates a global surplus of cognitive ability of “a trillion hours a year”. There’s a lot you can do with a trillion hours of creativity if only we treat it in the right way. he calls this Cognitive Surplus.

Not only is this concept a huge challenge to the way we approach social projects, but it’s also a challenge to the way we approach business projects.

My perception of many business projects is that they are constructed with the assumption that people won’t want the change, and hence a stick is required to get them to change. If people truly do" “like to create and like to share” then engaging people in a creative constructing way in the change process will turn them from blockers to enablers. It might even get them to invest some of their own cognitive surplus.

The latest example of this, for me, is the location tagging of a Glastonbury picture that is underway. Thousands of people are tagging themselves in a picture taken at Glastonbury. The reward for this is little more than the feeling that you have been part of something. They’re all using their cognitive surplus to create a shared experience.

Coming to think of it – why is it that I write this blog?

Concept of the Day: Cultural Plasticity

I’m not sure whether this counts as a real fully fledged concept, or just an idea, or actually even whether there is a difference.

PisaThe idea comes from Jonah Lehrer over on The Frontal Cortext blog where he reflects on the diversity of music that we enjoy (his pretext is the events at the MTV awards with Kanye West and Taylor Swift).

It got me thinking, in what other ways are we culturally plastic:

  • Food: The range of food available in the UK is incredible. Foods from every country in the world and even fusions of different food types. We skip between them without really thinking about it, something that my grandparents would never have done.
  • Video/Television/Films: I know a few people who will only go to the movies to see a certain type of film, but there aren’t many of them. And the range of film genre is increasing all of the time.
  • Reading: Looking at the book shelf beside me there is a huge variety of material. There’s no Mills and Boon, but apart from that there is practically every other type of writing.

So what impact does this plasticity have on the world of work?

Teams that accept diversity work better and produce stronger results. As people become more tolerant of, and learn to enjoy cultural differences hopefully this will be reflected in teams. This will be especially true for international teams which will become more prevalent as technology enables it.

I suspect, to, that people we start to choose the places where they work on the basis of the diversity of the culture. Places with a monolithic culture we be regarded  as stale and dull. Skilful business managers will be able to create diverse cultures that are highly productive.


A Trip to Hadrian's WallToday I have finished work with a reoccurring question on my mind – “how do I communicate better?”

I’m not sure whether it’s just me, or whether this is something that we all struggle with. I have some information that I need to move from my mind into someone else’s mind.

For thousands of years we have spoken; for thousands of years we’ve drawn pictures; for hundreds of years ordinary people have been able to read and write; businesses spend billions every year on technology in the hope that it is improving the way that its staff communicate – and yet we still can’t make the distance from one brain to another brain any shorter.

So I’ve decided that I need to do something.

I’ve decided to try and have a meaningful conversation with someone every day. I’m not talking about information sharing I’m talking about communicating. Hopefully this will lead to better communication all around.

“My method is to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity.” – George Bernard Shaw

If I’m successful I’ll let you know, if I’m not I’ll simply forget that I ever write this post and so should you.

Concept of the Day: Disconnect Anxiety

Jimmy and Grandad go to find the snow (or lack of it)Sometimes I feel I’m turning into a grumpy old man before my time and all that I am doing is raising the ills of IT. Unfortunately today is no exception.

Today’s ill is disconnect anxiety:

Disconnect Anxiety refers to various feelings of disorientation and nervousness experienced when a person is deprived of Internet or wireless access for a period of time.

If you are reading this blog you have probably experienced this anxiety and you are not alone. The Solutions Research Group has done some research in the US and the numbers are quite startling:

Overall, our research finds that 27% of the population exhibit significantly elevated levels of anxiety when disconnected. In terms of profile, 41% of this group are 12-24, 50% are 25-49 and 9% are over the age of 50.

A secondary group of 41% exhibit above-average levels of anxiety occasionally, depending on the situation.

The balance, 32% are below average in their anxiety response when unable to use their cell phones or the Internet. This group is disproportionately older than average (i.e., majority being 50+).

Or to put it graphically:

They went on to do research to try and understand why and how the anxiety was manifest. It’s a good report and links in nicely with a number of the things I’ve said previously about ADT and the machines taking over.

Perhaps that is why laptop free meetings are such tense affairs these days – everyone is experiencing disconnect anxiety.

Personally, I’m only occasionally anxious about being disconnected.

The summary of the report is here (pdf).

Hat tip to Endgadget.

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Mind mapping and Brainstorming

Jimmy and Grandad at Blackpool LightsI’ve spent two days this week in an off-site management meeting. One of the purposes for this meeting was for us to consider how we progressed some areas of our business.

We did this using a classical brainstorming technique – groups of people with a question to consider where all things were allowed and discussion was discouraged. The recording technique was a little different though, each team had a copy of MindManager into which they hammered the thoughts in without any structure. This didn’t really help the brainstorming activity, it was just normal brainstorming, but it wasn’t intended to make any difference.

Later sessions in the day were aimed at putting some structure to the thoughts, and that is where mind mapping and the power of MindManager came in. Structuring the disparate thoughts into themes using a mind map was really easy, and very powerful.

Presenting these themes back was also very powerful with people able to see how their thoughts had contributed straight into a structure.

It’s something I’ll definitely do again.

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Concept of the day: Deindividuation

Caramel and Cream - yummyAnyone who has used email or any other form of electronic communication has seen (and probably sent) written content that shocked you. You were amazed that the person, that you know, could say such a thing in such an aggressive way. The New Scientist has an interesting article that suggests that some of the reason for this is deindividuation:

Social psychologists have known for decades that, if we reduce our sense of our own identity – a process called deindividuation – we are less likely to stick to social norms. For example, in the 1960s Leon Mann studied a nasty phenomenon called “suicide baiting” – when someone threatening to jump from a high building is encouraged to do so by bystanders. Mann found that people were more likely to do this if they were part of a large crowd, if the jumper was above the 7th floor, and if it was dark. These are all factors that allowed the observers to lose their own individuality.

Social psychologist Nicholas Epley argues that much the same thing happens with online communication such as email. Psychologically, we are “distant” from the person we’re talking to and less focused on our own identity. As a result we’re more prone to aggressive behaviour, he says.

The most recent place where I have seen this personally has been in the occasional reply-to-all storms that we have in our email system. Someone will send out an email to whole set of people. Someone else will reply-to-all that they don’t know why they received the first email, or similar. This will then set of a storm of activity from people replying to the reply-to-all. Each of these replies will get more and more aggressive in their language.

If only these people sat back and analysed what they were doing they would stop doing it. It’s unlikely any of them have read though the recipient list to see who is on it, in their minds they are just replying to some random person. What they are actually doing is replying to all sorts of senior people who could have a great influence on their career, what’s more they are abusing a fellow colleague. If they only thought about how they would feel to receive such an email they wouldn’t do it.

A wise person once said: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

via TechCrunch

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Concept of the day: Attention Deficit Trait (ADT)

Need a hand Grandad?I’ve just finished reading a Harvard Business Review OnPoint called Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform. This talks about attention deficit trait (ADT). The Harvard article comes at a cost but the article in Time has a good overview, as does the CNET article.

Frenzied executives who fidget through meetings, miss appointments, and jab at the elevator’s “door close” button aren’t crazy – just crazed. They’re suffering from a newly recognized neurological phenomenon call attention deficit trait (ADT). Marked by distractibility, inner frenzy, and impatience, ADT prevents managers from clarifying priorities, making smart decisions, and managing their time. This insidious condition turns otherwise talented performers into harried underachievers. And it’s reaching epidemic proportions”

Sound like anyone you know?

It seems that ADT is completely caused by our environment, by the office, by the technology, by relationships.

So how do we control it:

  • Promote positive emotions
  • Take physical care of our brains
  • Organise for ADT

ADT is closely related to the way that our brain reacts to fear so it’s important to promote positive feelings through stressful times. Positive feelings are also associated with good relationships. The author recommends interacting with someone you like at least every 4 to 6 hours. That’s an interesting thing for someone who mainly works at home to hear.

I’ve talked before about the physical side of looking after our brain, sleep, diet, etc. It’s a good reminder that I’ve let it slip a bit recently.

Organising for ADT is about creating the space and time to think away from all of the distractions. This isn’t just time management, but it’s also managing things out.

I was talking to someone who runs a huge fund in New York, and he was saying he demands that his employees take several days a month just to think–to leave the office and just go off and think. He wants them to not bring their e-mail, not bring their cell phone–make themselves unavailable. And I think it’s a really smart management strategy.

Organisations used to give people sabbaticals, some still do. In a world that is increasingly asking for for “fast” rather than “right” I think that people are increasingly going to need times to reconnect with “right”.

Thought of the day: Occam's Razor

Up to where?In my last post I quoted KC Lemson and she used the phrase:

“So we thought about occam’s razor and realized that ah-ha, the problem is just that the facilities people are dumb”

I realised that I hadn’t a clue what Occam’s Razor was so I’ve done some digging.

Well Occam is a someone – William of Ockham (interesting how words change over time*).

Occam’s Razor (or Ockham’s Razor) is the principle that: “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”  Or in slightly longer words from Isaac Newton: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” It’s also paraphrased: “All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one.”

*My name is another one of those words that has changed over time “Chastney” comes from “chênaie” from the French for Oak Grove and has changed over time to “Cheney”, “Chesney”, “Chesnay”, “Cheyney”, and on it goes.

(Update: Nik pointed out that I assigned KC to the wrong gender, I have modified this. It’s amazing what different one letter can make.)

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