“The White Noise of Modern Life” – can you hear it?

I’m currently loving reading a book about a man, Chris, who is walking the coastline of the UK. This isn’t as easy as you might suppose if, as the author is doing, you are determined to stick to the actual coastline of a small nation with a very jagged perimeter and lots of islands.

What makes this a compelling story is that Chris’ walk is as much about mental attitude as it is about the physical challenge.

As you can imagine, part of the time is spent in cities and coastal towns, but there are huge sections where the walk is through sparsely populated areas.

Upon leaving one of our country’s busier cities the author used this phrase – [it was great to be away from] “the white noise of modern life.”

Something about this phrase reverberated around my mind, and I’ve pondered it several times since.

In recent years, the term white noise has taken on a broader meaning, breaking out of its signal processing origins. In this quote I think Chris is referring to all those things that we are so used to being there that we no longer notice them. They are there, all the time, in the background, vibrating the air.

As I pondered, I started trying to listen to the white noise and to hear those things that many of us allow into our modern existence to fulfil a purpose, bringing with them noise.

I sought out times when I could turn other noises down to see what was underneath, it would take me a few minutes each time, but this is what I found in my surroundings.

On my morning walk, a time when I deliberately try to have a time of quiet, I have been aware of a significant white noise for some time. I regularly post videos of my walk on Instagram, but rarely with the original audio, and that’s because my walk is always accompanied by road noise. There is an eight-lane motorway near to my house and I never walk far enough away from it for there not to be a level of tyre hum. When I made the effort to listen there were other noises that I wasn’t aware of, over in the near distance there’s a warehouse which was being accompanied by the serenade of vehicles maneuvers, there was also the hum of machinery at a nearby building site. All white noise that my brain was filtering out until I paid attention to it.

Returning home, I sat in my office and listened. The clock had stopped, I’ve written about that before. Outside a workman was using an impact driver to erect some woodwork in my garden. There is the low hum of the powered air-filter underneath my desk and another buzz which I eventually discovered to be one of the LED lights, my main monitor also has a slight buzz. My desk is positioned in front of a window that looks out into our garden. I love to have the window open for the fresh air and the sound of the birds, but the window also opens to the sound of the motorway. My laptop is quite quiet, but it isn’t silent. All imperceptible most of the time but lurking in the air.

Sitting in my lounge there’s some more white noise that I can hear. It’s coming from near the TV, but the TV isn’t the cause, one of the boxes has a hard drive in it, which must be spinning iron as it’s causing a vibration that is slightly rattling the glass shelf on which it stands. It’s not much, but more white noise. As I sit in silence for a little longer, I can also hear that the uplighter in the corner has an electrical hum. More air vibration.

We are privileged to have a small room where there is a chair and not a lot else, deliberately. I sit in there and I am struck by how quiet it feels, I can’t put my finger on what has changed, but it’s notably more peaceful in this place away from other noise generators.

I suppose the real question here is – so what? Does the noise we surround ourselves with have any impact upon us? I’ve done a bit of reading around, and the answer is inconclusive. There’s a link between noise and stress, which is clearly negative, but white noise is also linked with stress reduction. There are studies that show that white noise can have a positive, and negative, impact on both performance and stress depending on the volume. The impact of white noise is also dependent upon the type of activity being undertaken.

As the noise I’m talking about here isn’t true white noise, I’m not sure that we can claim the benefits, but do we need to do something about the negatives?

If we look at the primary source of white noise in my life, the road noise, there is research but it’s not really talking about my situation:

Despite my inconclusive research findings, I have a feeling that the noise around me is generating a level of stress, nothing major, but enough to be noticeable. We can give up our quiet spaces too easily and I’m determined to do a bit more to protect my own. I’m also looking to reduce the white noise in my workplace, although most of that is irrelevant at present as the workman is still building in my garden.

For those of you wondering here are the book details:

  • Title: Finding Hildasay: How One Man Walked the UK’s Coastline and Found Hope and Happiness
  • Author: Christian Lewis
  • ISBN-10‏: ‎ 1035006790
  • ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1035006793

Header Image: The local tree canopy is looking radiant in its green out on my morning walk.

Graham’s WFH Tip #11 – Meeting Management – Recognise your emotional responses

There seems to have been a lot of chatter about meetings recently.

Some of the discussion being prompted by a set of tweets, followed by statements, from those involved in Shopify. They are seeking to radically decrease the meeting burden on people:

I have a lot of sympathy for the idea that meetings are bugs, most of them are not desirable and add little value. Like bugs meetings have consequences.

If you read the linked article you’ll realise that the tweet isn’t quite as radical as it may seem on first reading, but to be fair, the proposal is quite radical including meeting free days, large meetings limited to certain days, and an automated deletion of all recurring meetings with more than three attendees. This latter activity being a one-off thing to clear out people’s diaries.

Previously Microsoft published some data on the change in meetings with the switch to home working during the COVID pandemic:

Meetings are still consuming a lion’s share of our time. Since February 2020, the average Teams user saw a 252% increase in their weekly meeting time and the number of weekly meetings has increased 153%.

Great Expectations: Making Hybrid Work Work (microsoft.com)

What? That’s a huge increase.

Why such a massive increase just because people are working from a different location?

There are, of course, many reasons for this swing, some of them practical, many of them emotional. It’s those emotional responses that I want to think about for a little while in the hope that we can start to see them for what they are.

Now that you are working from home you have huge flexibility to join meetings of all sorts of shapes, sizes, priorities, and subjects. The emotional cues have changed though, your viewpoint on the plethora of meetings is limited to what you can see, and something is nagging in your head reminding you that you can’t see everything anymore. You can’t get a general feel of who is meeting who in the way that you could when everyone was in the same office. Your emotional response to meeting invites has changes. You treat every invite as equally important when you know that it can’t be true. How do you respond differently to the noisy person, or the person who calls something “URGENT:” and “CRITICAL:” or the one I’m seeing increasingly “MANDATORY:”

There’s an additional stickiness to regular meetings. I’ve seen this cycle happen hundreds of times – a regular gathering of a small group of people takes place. You add someone into the meeting to talk through a particular subject and they remain on the invite list. Others get added for other subjects. Before you know it there are meeting invitations flowing backwards and forwards, upwards and downwards. The small, focussed, meeting now has an invite list of 60 people and regularly has 40 attendees. The small 5 person catch-up has grown from 30 mins three times a week, to every day at 6pm, for an hour – most contributions are still provided by the original 5 people. The value of the meeting hasn’t changed but its costs have spiralled.

As an invitee to one of these meetings, how do you decide whether you should attend? Do you ask for an agenda and only attend when the subject is something that is your responsibility? (Agenda? What’s one of those? :-)) Do you trust the person who organises the meeting to stick to the agenda? What do you do if there is no agenda, which is increasingly common? What happens if someone asks a question about your area and you’re not there? How will you know if they discuss something that impacts your area, and you don’t pick it up in the minutes? Can you ever trust minutes anyway? But the minutes are now a video, and who has time to watch the videos. What if you miss something important? How much of this is an emotional response?

You tell yourself that you’ll join the meeting, even if you don’t get any value from it, because you’ll use the time to catch-up on some emails. You know this is practical folly, you know that this type of multi-tasking places a huge burden on your productivity. It’s not practical considerations that are driving you, this is an emotional response. You’d rather take the significant hit on your productivity than face the potential of missing out.

Working from home has taken away many of the people interactions that you used to value. Joining a call, any call, includes a certain amount of social time. Having spent an hour listening to whale music and trying to read a 50 page report, you are ready to talk to someone, anyone. You know that the social side of this meeting is going to be minimal, but it’s better than nothing. You want to be sure that you haven’t been forgotten. The last thing you need, in the current climate, is for people to forget who you are.

Let me give you some simple advice here – by giving in to these worries that are going around your head, you are compromising your ability to do excellent work. Most of those meetings that you attend do not add value to you and you should remove them from your calendar. You may miss something important, but you are paying a massive price to mitigate that fear. Remember, you survived, just fine, with fewer meetings before you started working from home.

Here’s my tip to you (sorry it’s a bit long): Decide to manage the load that meetings place on you. Recognise the emotional responses to meeting invites and resist the temptation to join everything and anything. Be particularly cautious of regular meetings, do an audit and cull the low value ones. If you aren’t speaking at most of those meetings it doesn’t need you to be there.

Header Image: This was the scene on my regular morning walk today – cold, crisp, misty, and beautiful. There was fun moment though, there’s a big iron gate at the end of this path which was frozen shut. Thankfully, a short detour and I managed to find a gap in the fence.

Graham’s WFH Tip #10 – Lift Your Focus and Feed the Birds

When I am working from home, which is all the time, I can find myself sucked deeper into situations than is good for me. Sat alone in my little office I can feel myself locked into a kind of tunnel vision. The screens, my headphones and the shenanigans they represent have become my sole attention.

There are times when this singlemindedness can be a powerful thing, the feeling of flow when I am in the zone is wonderful, but there are plenty of times when the tunnel is not a healthy place to be. Inside my head I am not flowing, I am watching the vortex of hundreds of things that I am supposed to be doing. Watching a whirlpool swirl around is mesmerizing, but not very productive. I need to break my gaze and switch my focus.

That’s when I look up and out of the window into the garden beyond. Here there is a bird feeder; around it the robust Great Tit is dancing with the flashy Goldfinch. On the fence the brightly coloured male Bullfinch is waiting in line behind his less brightly coloured but intricately dressed partners. The squirrel is contemplating how to extract some nutrition from the contraption before it marked “Squirrel Proof”. On the ground below a Dunnock is picking up the seeds rejected by the goldfinch. The Blue Tit makes a dash into the feeder, retreating just as quickly as it arrived. The squirrel dashes away followed by another, bigger, one. Meanwhile the Robin stands on the edge of the birdbath and makes sure that everyone is behaving themselves. Occasional visits from a Jay or Sparrow Hawk add extra delight.

A few moments watching the choreography and my brain has calmed enough for me to return my attention to the task-at-hand. My first task, list the tasks, then pick a task, before, doing a task.

When I worked in an office and met people in a room there was something cathartic about walking away from the room at the end of a meeting. It gave the opportunity for one set of thoughts to drain away before another set arrived. The move to home working and online meetings has created a situation where a day can be filled with more than ten 30 minutes meetings, back-to-back, without a break. Clicking on LEAVE isn’t the same as standing up and walking out of a meeting, it doesn’t have the same physical cues. Standing up at the end of a meeting, watching the birds for a few moments has become my end-of-meeting cue, especially useful when someone has generously given me “2 minutes back.”

Your thing might not be garden birds, I recognise that I am privileged to be looking out on a garden, my advice to you is to find something that lifts your focus up from the whirlpool and away from the battleground of the last five back-to-back meetings. It ought to be something that isn’t based on a screen, checking Facebook/TikTok/Instagram/Twitter doesn’t count. Something like a picture in your working space, a pet, a favourite object, or book, something that reminds you that this is just work. Having a perspective that it broader than your work is good for your work.

Header Image: This the Monastery of Saint George of Choziba in Wadi Qelt.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tip #9 – Find your Social – It doesn’t have to be about work all of the time

There are several things that people miss about the office and many of those are related to the social interactions that being in the same physical location enables.

I used to enjoy going “for a brew” with the people who worked on the desks around me. We’d talk about all sorts of things, sometimes work, but mostly it was a more social interaction. How are the kids? What did you think about that show last night? Weren’t the roads bad this morning? How was your last holiday? That kind of a thing. We’d often supplement this with a walk somewhere at lunchtime.

Some groups of people find social interaction easier than others, I suspect that some people need it more than others, but for many these interactions are particularly important. The challenge with home working is that it strips out the triggers for these interactions, there’s nothing stopping me having a social chat with someone as I go for my coffee, but there are no social prompts for this. For many modern workers and especially for home workers lunch is the thing you do sat at your desk while listening into another conference call, a drink is something you get while there’s a short lull between calls. The result is that this type of interplay has vanished.

Why does it matter? Speaking personally, I work better when I understand that what I am doing has meaning and purpose. The long list of emails requiring my response doesn’t give meaning to anything. It’s the personal connections across the team is what gives purpose to what I am doing.

We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.

Brené Brown

On a more practical basis having those social connections leads to notable changes in my thinking. Knowing a bit about a colleague’s home situation and how it influences the times when they prefer to work makes for a different approach to scheduling. Understanding that a co-worker is going through a stressful time at home influences my response to their desire for time off. Understanding someone’s total workload, and not just the part I’m interested in, affects my expectation of their ability to deliver. Celebrating a team members family news strengthens those connections that give meaning.

As a home worker you need to recognise this challenge of the missing triggers for interaction and be more intentional about creating space for these important conversations. I’m not naturally good at this, it feels strange to cold-call someone just for a chat. I know others who are far more instinctive at this type of thing, but for me I need to schedule it.

Every other Friday I have a call in my morning with team members for whom the time-zone works. It’s supposed to be 45 minutes, but often goes for the full hour. None of us are naturals at chatting and often fall into the trap of discussing a work activity before one of us pulls us up into the social. It’s only a small group with each one based in a different country and it’s fascinating to hear about the perspectives across two continents. Certain subjects come up regularly, but I love those times when we find a new avenue to explore. It’s not as natural as a chat during the walk to Tesco, we need to work at it a bit, but it is so, so valuable to do.

Whenever I’m in a one-to-one or a group of three meeting I try to include a social element to the conversation, it’s a hugely valuable aspect of working together as human being. I must admit that I’m more likely to look favourably on a request from someone I have chatted with. Wider than that, though, these interactions connect me with people in a way that adds to the meaning and purpose that Brene Brown talks about.

Your circumstances may make it possible for you to meet up physically with the people you work with. Make those opportunities a priority, they will make a difference to the way that you feel about the team that you work with. I’m no longer in that situation, but there are plenty of former colleagues in the vicinity who I make the effort to connect with.

One thing that I personally find tiring is being the initiator, I’m assuming that I’m not the only one judging by the number of people that reach out to me. This makes me very grateful for those that do. Although I find it tiring it’s always worthwhile so I’m off now to find someone to interact with.

Header Image: This is the view from the top of Masada in Israel. There’s a huge amount of history in this place. Just imagine what it took to build a palace up here over 2,000 years ago.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tip #8 – Lighten Up – you need more than you think you do…

Do yourself a favour, go to your local app store and download a light meter app. It doesn’t have to be a fancy photographic level one, you’re just looking for one number. If you have a proper photography level light meter handy that will do, but it’s overkill.

Put your phone, or light meter, next to your keyboard where you normally work, set the units to Lux and take note of the number.

Now move the phone/light meter around and take note of other readings. What does it say in that corner where you like to read?

You might also like to take note of readings at various times of the day. What does it say when you are on the early shift in October?

There are recommendations for how light an office should be, and it’s likely to be a lot higher than you were expecting?

The UK HSE recommendation for an Office is a minimum of 100 lux, with an average to avoid “visual fatigue” of 200 lux. That number goes up dramatically for situations for “work requiring perception of fine detail” – with a minimum of 200 lux and an average to avoid “visual fatigue” of 500 lux.

Those recommendations are just factoring in safety, what about wellbeing and alertness? Light isn’t just for seeing, it has a significant impact on how we feel. Well here the recommendations are a bit more difficult to pin down, but 1,000 lux is probably about the right kind of brightness. For a bit of comparison, not that there is any, an overcast day comes in at somewhere around 2,000 lux with a sunny day at >100,000 lux.

I work out of a small bedroom at my house. It’s blue skies outside, but it is October, in here today, without any lights on it’s just about 200 lux at my desk. This is supposed to be enough, but it feels dull. With lights on, which I do quite a lot, it’s over 500 lux, and it makes me feel completely different. Perhaps it’s time to invest in some spot lighting for my desk to push the brightness nearer to 1,000 lux.

The other factor in Office lighting is the temperature, and to a certain extent colour.

Colour makes a big difference to how we feel, and I certainly don’t have enough time to go through that now, suffice to say, there are colours which are good for different modes of working.

Most of the time, though, the predominant light should be a form of white for which the temperature is the thing that you should be considering. Most of us didn’t consider lighting temperatures until the days of LED and now we see hundreds of choices. For an office, the recommendation that people make is between 3,500K and 4,000K which may not be as warm white as you have in your lounge but isn’t a stark blue-white either. Why does temperature matter, it’s not about health and safety, higher colour temperatures impact productivity because we are supposed to find them invigorating. You should go for lower temperatures when you want to relax because they contain more red which helps to increase melatonin levels, something we need in an evening. The higher colour temperatures contain more blue light which is linked to alertness.

In summary: go brighter and go lighter.

Tip: Go brighter and lighter – aim for more than 500 lux brightness and 3,500K temperature.

There’s another discussion about lighting and home working, and that to do with video conferencing, but that’s for another day.

Header Image: Another beautiful morning walk.

Graham’s WFH Tip #7 – Make Time to Stand Up and Get Moving

It’s quite clear that our sedentary lifestyle is killing us. Who better than the wonderful NHS to tell us.

Having worked in an office for many years, and now also worked from home for a long while, I find that there is something different about the home office that means that there’s less movement. I’m speaking here as someone who sufferers with poor posture and many an aching neck and back. Sitting for long periods of time is not good for me, I can feel it.

Despite all the pain, movement doesn’t come naturally, I need to take conscious steps to make it happen. I need prompts to get up from my rear and to let the blood flow.

These are the steps that I take, and I leave them here as a few pointers of things you might like to take on. They certainly aren’t a definition of best practice:

  • I use an app on my work mobile – Stand Up! – which is set to remind me every 30 minutes to stand up. That simple ping is often all I need to get going. There’s also a tracking element to it, but I find that I’m not overly motivated by trackers.
  • I have a sit-stand desk – it’s not an automatic one, so I do need to press a button. If you can afford one with an automated timer, then go for it.
  • Bluetooth headphones enable me to walk around while I’m on calls – most of the time I’m at home alone, so the annoyance level for others is minimal.
  • Regular evening stretches get everything going again – I use a yoga app for this. It doesn’t take long to make a difference for me, 20 minutes is often all I need. I find being consistent at this difficult.
  • The coffee making facilities are downstairs – those few steps make a difference. I work on the first floor (that’s upstairs to those of you who don’t come from the UK) and stairs are a wonderful way of giving your heart rate a micro boost.
  • Occasionally I will do a walking meeting – unfortunately, the mobile signal isn’t great near my house which limits where I can walk. Also, many of the calls I’m attending are discussing a diagram or a document which isn’t great on a mobile.
  • Desk stretches – I know where my physical weaknesses are, and I know how to stop those weaknesses becoming painful. There’s a neck twist and a back stretch that make all the difference. I just need to remember to do them.

The reality is, I tend to be physically lazy, and there are times where all this movement isn’t enough, mainly because I’m scrimping on each one of them here and there. The overall result is that I get steadily stiffer. On those occasions I have found that a couple of sessions with a physio are invaluable. They act as a reset on the process. I used to put this off, thinking that I could work my way through it, I try not to do that anymore. Early intervention makes the recovery so much better. The desk stretches that I do are the ones that have been recommended to me by my physio.

It’s time for all of us to get moving.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Header Image: This is the view from the top of Malham Cove, a fascinating geological wonder in the Yorkshire Dales. Below is the view from the bottom.

Malham Cove

Graham’s WFH Tip #6 – Plan your first day back before you leave

I’ve recently returned to work after a week of holiday, which was wonderful.

On this occasion I had the privilege of going away returning on the Saturday. When this happens Sunday can feel like a bit of a lull day, I’m no longer on holiday, but I’m not yet at work.

Work is just over the horizon, I can’t yet see it, but my mind is already highlighting to me that it’s there. The negative part of me expects it to be stormy. It’s inevitably going to be a hectic combination of catching up and attending to the regular duties. I know that there is already a mountain of communication awaiting me on a screen that is within easy reach, just a few short steps away.

As the lull progresses the temptation to dive in and reduce the size of the storm grows. What harm can it do? Surely a small amount of preparation time now will reduce my stress and make things go smoother in the morning?

This is a mistake, for me anyway. I need to resist this itch. The pull is strong, but experience tells me that it won’t end well if I give in.

When I do give in, this is what really happens.

As expected, the mountain of communication is significant, unfortunately the stream of information is always incomplete, that’s normal. This isn’t a problem on a working day because I would contact the people involved and get a fuller story. On a post-holiday lull day there isn’t anyone to talk to, they’re still enjoying their weekend. The incomplete story will remain deficient; it sits there as a cloud in the storm.

That’s not the real problem though, it’s now incomplete and in my head. It sits there, in conscious, as a blob of frustrating ambiguity bouncing around trying to find resolution. Any post-holiday serenity that was remaining has been depleted and I let the culprit in.

I return to the mountain of communications and find a stream of emails that make me want to shout “No! Don’t do that!” At this imagination kicks in and I picture the many ways that people may have responded, and all the work I’m going to need to do to get them back on a sensible track. Why do bad ideas travel so much quicker than good ones? On a normal working day, I would be able to head off a bad idea before it had chance to germinate. It’s not possible to do that on holiday. On a lull day I know that the ideas have headed out into the wild, but I still can’t do anything about them. These ideas get as far as my head, another dark cloud hanging there, further depleting my post-holiday serenity.

Here’s the thing, though, when I do set off to tackle the poor idea, I frequently find that I’d misunderstood what was meant anyway. The black cloud I’d imagined wasn’t even real, something I would have found out in my first conversation with someone. If I’d left these communications until the morning the darkness would have lasted a few short hours instead they will now linger needlessly overnight.

There’s also a set of communications about things that need fixing, the problem is, there’s always some where it’s not clear whether it’s already been fixed or not. More clouds.

In short, by trying to tackle the storm early I’ve just walked into the middle of it with no immediate way out. The exit will arrive, on schedule, on the next working day, which is when I should have stepped into the storm.

So, what’s the tip? Plan your first day back before you leave.

Specifically, set time in your diary for your return, block it out. Make sure that this is a conscious task that you will remember while you are away. Remind yourself in the lull day that you don’t need to step into the storm because you have some time already set aside for that.

Enjoy the lull day.

On your return, use the time to go through your communication and build a list of things that you need to tackle, don’t try to tackle them in that time. Remind yourself that everyone survived without you for a period, they can survive for a few more minutes. Make the list a physical thing, don’t try and store it in your head. Once you’ve built the list, tackle the list.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Header Image: This is South Stack Lighthouse on Holy Island in Wales. Accessed is via a path of 400 steps and a short bridge over the sea, as you can see from the following picture looking back from the lighthouse. At least the bridge is now sturdy and metal, it used to be hemp rope!

The journey down…or up, depending on which way you are going.

Graham’s WFH Tip #5 – Enjoy You Spaces

I take the word “from” in “Working from Home” to mean that I can work anywhere within easy access of my home location. While I have a place in my home where I primarily work, I do not regard it as the only place where I can work.

The organisation I work for is quite flexible about my working location, I could work almost anywhere, but I like my home. I’m conscious in writing this post that there are people whose work doesn’t look anything like the pattern I’m about to describe. Some of that is because your work needs you to be at a screen all the time, I’m also conscious that some people work in organisations where your screen time is being monitored all the time. What I am about to say probably isn’t overly helpful if your work looks like this. If you work in the later type of organisation, I would seriously question the motivation behind that monitoring.

For many of us, our work includes times when we could be somewhere other than sat at our main screen setup – and there are times when we should. A change of location can have a significant impact on how we see things.

There are times and types of meetings that require us to work in our “office” location. It’s not good manners to do a video call in your local coffee shop. My main reason for saying this is that you don’t want to be that person who disturbs all the other people enjoying their daily brew. Here in the UK we are mostly too reserved to say something, but there are times when we want to walk over and unplug you or push you out of the door. There are also, probably, good security reasons, but most of the time the issue is good manners.

For the other times there are good reasons why you should consider working in different places, even if it’s a change of location within your home.

Within the traditional office space many organisations have been embracing an approach known as “activity based architecture”, or “activity based working” for some time. This approach defines areas within a location and designs them to encourage distinct types of activity. There’s quite a lot of thought gone into that trendy new office with spaces for quiet working, stand-up meetings, one-to-one spaces, etc. Organisations aren’t doing this just because it makes for a cool looking office, they are trying to create productive places.

Our surroundings can have a significant impact on our how we think.

A simple example may be to think about ceiling height. Yes, even the height of the ceiling can have an impact, in this case, the impact is on creativity. There are studies that have shown that a high ceiling increases people’s ability to think creatively. How high should the ceiling be to make a difference? Preferably over 3 metres, or 10 feet, it’s known by some as the Cathedral Effect, I’m sure you can understand why.

Speaking personally, the only place in my house where the ceiling is anything like that high is halfway up the stairs. What I do have, though, is a garden, and there the ceiling is significantly higher than 3 metres. Some of my best thinking is done outside, sat at a table with sheets of A3 paper and a pen. However, rain is a characteristic of the weather where I live, and it’s not always possible to work in the garden, that’s when a local coffee shop provides me with some headspace.

For everyone wondering. Yes, low ceilings are supposed to produce a different effect, and that’s the ability to focus.

The effects produced by high or low ceilings
actually occur because such ceiling heights increase or
decrease vertical room volume, which in turn stimulates
alternative concepts and types of processing.

J. Meyers-Levy, R. Zhu (2007) The influence of ceiling height

Another example. There are times when I need to review a long report. My normal place of work is a place prone to interruption, not by family or anything like that, but by the screens and the constant flow of notifications. This is when I choose a place in my house where there’s an armchair and the notification noise is minimal (and the ceiling is relatively low). It’s a wonderful place to give something some extended focussed thought. I’m someone who prefers to review material on paper and with a pen.

I’m also privileged enough to have a comfortable seat in the home office which I use when I want to think differently about something. It’s still close to the screens and tends to be the place where I corelate several thoughts together. I often use this seating to do my daily planning, something about sitting in this seat helps me to order my thoughts.

Each working space come with a frame, sometimes the frame is visible, in others it’s not. Changing the frame can be an immense help in changing our perception and helping us to think differently.

Different people are impacted by different elements of a frame, it may not be the ceiling height for you. For some people it’s the light in a location, for others the smell, colour also has an impact, so does clutter and tidiness. The important part of this tip is that you start to recognise the frames and use them to your advantage.

Have you thought about the frames that you are working in, and how a different frame would help to create a different outcome?

The biggest challenge I have is motivating myself to get up and move to another space. I know it will do me good, but that doesn’t stop me procrastinating.

This tip has been about static space, some work is better done on the move – perhaps we’ll go there next time.

Header Image: Sunset from a local swimming spot, local enough for an evening dip. It’s a popular place in the day, leave it a little later and we get the place to ourselves.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tip #4 – Thinking Music

It’s WFH Tips time again 😊

This time we are going to be thinking about the impact of music, and a bit about other sounds in our working environment.

What I really want to encourage you to do in this post is to consider the soundscape around you. Whoever you are, and whatever your preference, sound can have a significant impact on your creativity and productivity. There are elements of the soundscape that we probably can’t influence too much – if you live in a city, it’s unrealistic to expect complete silence – but you can control what sounds you put into your environment. Now you are working from home control of the soundscape is part of your new autonomy so make the most of it.

I wrote a little time ago about the power of a ticking clock, which has become part of my daily soundscape. I also love having music playing while I’m working, but it must be the right kind of music. There is music that helps me to focus, and music that is distracting or even annoying.

When it comes to music, people have all sorts of preferences – that’s part of the joy of music, after all. While I prefer music, others prefer silence, and that’s great as well, personally I find silence lonely.

If you search the internet, you will find people declaring music as a productivity improver, the popular posts are mostly subjective, but there are some that focus on research. One of the better ones is comes from Cognition Today – How does background music affect work productivity and creativity? 9 research findings – Cognition Today. As you might expect, the answer isn’t that music = better productivity, it’s more subtle than that. Let’s face it the definition of productivity is itself dependent upon the context in which it is being measured and the role being performed. Perhaps the most interesting study is the last one in this article that basically says that if you think music is helpful then it will be, but if you think it’s distracting, then that’s also likely to be true.

These are my focus music tips, which I accept may be completely opposite to yours:

  • Instrumental music – I find music with lyrics distracting, which aligns with some of the studies.
  • Curate your playlists – I use Spotify for my music and have playlists specifically built for focussing. I have different ones for types of instrumental music. It’s worth the effort to curate ones where the music fits with what you regard as pleasurable.
  • Observe the emotions – instrumental music can have a significant impact on our mood and it can creep up on you. One of my focus playlists includes music from soundtracks. When I was first building this playlist, I copied in some music from a nature program which accompanied a scene where a leopard seal was chasing a penguin. When I noticed that it was subconsciously making me stressed, I removed it.
  • Time for a change – I have several playlists because I find that music can move from pleasurable to annoying if I listen to it too much. That’s also one of the reasons that the playlists are long.
  • Keep it low – there are times when I like loud music, it’s not great for focus.
  • But not too low – music that is too low can also be distracting.

The music in my home office plays through a smart speaker which enables me to quickly turn it off when I need to respond to a call or other interaction. If I am at home on my own, I play the same music throughout the house. There’s something about walking into an empty room where music is playing that I find reassuring.

One of my favourite pieces of thinking music, at the moment, is the soundtrack to Planet Earth II. I’d love to hear some of your choices.

Here are a few of my playlists if you fancy a listen:

“My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.”

Edward Elgar

Header Image: This is a local sunset looking out across the Irish Sea and the wonderful expanse of wind turbines. You can just see the turbine sticking up alongside the setting sun.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tip #3 – Put your Superpowers to work (but don’t overuse them)

Working from home means that you are working in a different location, but it doesn’t mean that you have to work in the same way. You have been liberated from the office, which for most of us was a noisy open plan disaster of a location where you were impacted by all sorts of other people’s poor behaviour. You now work in a location where, for most of us, you have significantly more control.

There is no need to work in the same way as you did in the office – you have superpowers.

You have the superpower of invisibility.

You are no longer at the beck and call of everyone who just happens to be walking around the office farm. There is no need to join others for a brew, or for lunch, just because it would be impolite not to join them. No one needs to know where you are – you are invisible, unless you make yourself visible.

Many people make the mistake of giving up their invisibility too easily. They feel like they need to answer every email and every text immediately. If there’s a call they feel like they have to join it. There’s a worry that others might think that they aren’t working hard enough if they aren’t immediately responsive. This is a mistake, by going invisible you will achieve far more.

You have the superpower of focus.

Open plan offices are such distracted places. The noise, the interruptions, the coming and the going. For many of us we are employed for our ability to solve problems and solving problems requires focus. Outside of the bustle of the office factory you can make the space to focus. You do need to talk to people and let them know about your progress, you need to collaborate with people and seek consensus, but you shouldn’t let that steal your focus time. In your focus time is your strength.

You have the superpower of time shifting

The 9-to-5 is such a cliché yet there are millions of people following it every day.


Some of this is a particularly British thing. In my culture good people are in the office from 9-to-5, five days a week and only take 30 mins for lunch. If you are particularly hard working you will take your lunch at your desk and not leave until 6. No one would dream of taking time out in the middle of the day, and if they did they would definitely make sure that everyone knew that they were just popping out for an hour to have a major organ removed. Presenteeism is highly valued.

Even organisation that have flexible working hour look on people who start early and leave early, or start late and leave late, with a suspicious eye.

There is good scientific evidence for this being a terrible way to organise a business if you want to get the best out of people. Some people work better early, others work better later. For most of us an afternoon nap would be highly beneficial. The four day working week has been shown to provide significantly better productivity. Taking time off work when ill leads to fast recovery. It goes on.

How much time flexibility you have depends on your role and your employer. For many reasons I have high levels of flexibility and I aim to put it to good use. I try to stick to a routine, as I suggested in the first tip, but it’s not 9-to-5. It’s taken me a long while to settle on a working schedule that, I hope, makes me productive. I don’t know what time flexibility you have, but perhaps you have more flexibility than you think you do?

You have the superpower of autonomy

I’ve previously quoted Daniel Pink as saying this (emphasis mine):

“When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system–which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators–doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements:

1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
2. Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
3. Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

Daniel Pink

I return to these three words regularly – autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Working from home should extend your autonomy and you should seize it with both hands.

You have the superpower of space shifting.


You have the superpower of space shifting.

The desk isn’t always the best place to work – I’m going to spend some more time on this one in a dedicated post, so that’s probably enough for now.

I titled this post “Put your Superpowers to work (but don’t overuse them)”. Overuse of your superpowers can be detrimental to your own wellbeing and also to your productivity. Time shifting needs to be balanced with routine. Focus needs to be balanced with communication and collaboration. Invisibility needs to be balanced with visibility.

Time to get those superpower to work, don’t be shy…

Header Image: A lovely day in the Lake District – this is Buttermere. A glorious walk, a lovely swim. While we were there we were enthralled watching a crew filming aerobatic paraglider sequences followed by a helicopter – not something you see every day. They were apparently for a future Mission Impossible. We didn’t see Tom Cruise, although there was no way of knowing if he was flying one of the paragliders.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tip #2 – Wear Work Clothes

What do you wear when you are working from home? Do you have work clothes? I do, and I find it extremely helpful.

Perhaps you are the person who embodies one of those overused WFH caricature and works in your pyjamas? Or, perhaps you are someone who wears a shirt and tie above and Hawaiian shorts below? Maybe you just wear what you wear and don’t really give it any thought?

There are several advantages to having work clothes, a uniform.

Tip #2: Pick a uniform for work, wear it for work, change out of it when you are not at work.
You’ll feel better for it.

I feel I need to apologise a bit here, I am writing from a male perspective. I know that the pressures are different for women, but I don’t feel at all qualified to talk into that context – not being a woman.

Anyway, back to those advantages?

Uniformity requires limited thinking

When I talk about work clothes I’m talking about a uniform that you put on each day. I’m not talking about sitting in the home office with a shirt and tie on, although, if that’s what works for you, why not? I’m talking more about have a defined set of clothes that you only use for work, and likewise, you only work when you are wearing those clothes. The variation in these clothes should be kept quite narrow, they should, in essence, be uniform. It helps if they all match with each other.

Uniformity takes away a whole stack of cognitive load – also mentioned in Tip #1. Having a defined set of work clothes removes the morning effort of choosing, effort which, in most of our WFH situations adds no value.

Changing partitions the day

I have work clothes, I also have non-work clothes and I try to keep the two separate. At the end of each day I go to the effort of changing out of my work clothes into my non-work clothes. Whilst this is a physical activity, it is also a mental activity, by changing my clothes I am finishing my working day and moving into my non-working time.

I’m trying to enact a feeling, telling myself that work has finished for the day. This change of clothes partitions my day, I am stopping doing one thing and starting to do something else.

Wearing work cloths means that I am at work

Whilst changing moves me from one mode to another, wearing the WFH uniform reinforces my sense of being at work. Distraction is a challenge when you work from home, the work clothes reinforce my concentration during work time. Again, I’m trying to enact a feeling, the feeling of being at work.

Give a workwear uniform a try, you might actually like it 😊

Addendum: I also have a different aftershave for the weekend and holidays. It provides another mental signal that differentiates work time and non-work time.

Header Image: Looking towards Nicky Nook – a wonderfully names local hill. It’s beautiful around here and the lush greens at this time of the year are stunning

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tip #1 – Routine is your friend

When I worked in an office I was unaware of the routines that were being subconsciously marked into my psyche, even before I’d left my home I’d entered into a daily rhythm unawares. When you work in an office the routine starts soon after you awake and continues until after you are home.

One of the joys of working from home is having the flexibility to slot things into your day, you no longer need to follow those structures, this is also one of the greatest dangers of working from home. Let me explain a little more.

Tip #1: Routine is good for us and you should seek to establish a daily routine.

While flexibility is sometimes good for us, the reality is that it is comes with a cognitive burden. Routine tasks do not require us to think, that is one of their characteristics. Have you even noticed how it can be difficult to get ready for the day when you are staying in a hotel. That’s not a difficulty you have at home. You know the morning routine where you live. Most people don’t have to think about the location of their toothbrush, they just brush their teeth. In a hotel, however, it’s something that you have to give thought to, you also have to think about what you do with your toothbrush once you’ve finished brushing. The pathways for you morning ablutions is built into your brain as a stored sequence of tasks that are simply followed.

You only have so much cognitive energy to give in a day, you want to use it wisely, and preferably doing things that add value to the role that you are undertaking. Having a set of routines, that don’t require us to think, frees up our brains for those activities where it’s really needed.

While we don’t have to follow the office routines when we work from home, I suggest that you do.

I’ve got tips for some of the specific routines, which I’ll cover later, but for now, some routines for you to consider:

  • Going to work
  • Leaving work
  • Lunchtime
  • Clothes and getting dressed
  • Start of the day
  • End of the day
  • Focus time
  • Refreshments
  • Breaks
  • Day plan
  • Research and learning
  • Administration
  • Social conversations

You may, or may not, be in control of each of these routines, but I can guarantee that you are in control of some of them. Now imagine that you have to think through each one of these activities as a unique activity each day – exhausting. Routine takes that need to think away from us, and let’s be honest, most of the time, there is no value in each of these activities being different every day.

While I’m here I suppose I ought to talk a bit about how to establish new routines. The simple answer, for me, is to repeatedly do the same thing and eventually it will become the habit. Remember, there is no set number of times you need to do something for it to become a habit, we are all different in that respect. Sometimes we’ll just slot into a habit, at other times we’ll need to work through phases of discomfort before it fits. The point of a routine is to reduce your cognitive load, not to increase it, so there’s no point in stressing over a habit we find difficult, that’s just defeating the purpose of the exercise.

Until next time 😊

Header Image: Local evening light. This is a field close to where I live, somewhere I regularly visit on my routine morning walks.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

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