I’m Reading… “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” by Daniel H. Pink

Why do you do what you do, when you do it? That is the fundamental question threaded throughout this book. The reality is, for many of us, we have unconsciously walked into a When of life that has little to do with productivity, performance or even well-being.

When - Daniel H. PinkWe have a tendency to treat all of our awake time as equal, we schedule our days around the priority of an activity and little else. We sit in afternoon meetings conscious of things going a bit slow, but choose to power through. We visit our doctor and expect the best performance from them whenever we go. We remember sitting in afternoon exams wondering why it was so hard. Yet, we all know instinctively that we have certain times of the day where different things are more enjoyable, and times when we are better at doing certain things.

In When, Daniel H. Pink, gives a framework for understanding ourselves, and those around us. As with many human conditions we all sit somewhere on a spectrum and not rigidly into any neatly defined box, but having the boxes helps us to understand ourselves and others. In When the boxes are:

Lark Third Bird Owl
Analytic Tasks Early morning Early to mid-morning Late afternoon and evening
Insight Tasks Late afternoon/early evening Late afternoon/early evening Morning
Making an Impression Morning Morning Morning (sorry owls)
Making an Decision Early morning Early to mid-morning Late afternoon and evening)

Most of us are third-birds – we’re neither extremely larkish or blatantly owly.

If you look through this table you may notice that the mid-afternoon isn’t a great time for anyone or anything and that’s because it isn’t. That post-lunch slump affects most of us and isn’t a great time to progress anything, which is why it’s the ideal time to take a break. Some cultures have breaks built-in with extended lunches and early afternoon naps. This was perhaps the case in the UK some years ago, but it’s certainly isn’t now. Most people have their lunch at their desk while covering their keyboard with crumbs. That, it turns out, is a massive mistake, we would be far more productive if we took a proper break and had a nap.

When is full of advice on how to take good breaks: micro-breaks, moving-breaks, nature breaks, social breaks, even mental gear-shift breaks. Pink’s exhortation is for us to get serious about breaks, to schedule them in and to stick to the schedule.

The mid-point slump, doesn’t just apply to our daily routines though, the same pattern applies to most things – we start and finish with enthusiasm, but struggle in the middle. Pink devotes a number of sections to this phenomenon and in his usual style mixes scientific research with concise practical advice for handling these situations whether that’s a mid-point in a career, in a project or even in a relationship.

I’m not going to cover all of the sections in When here, because there is a lot that I liked about this book and much to apply and the post would be too long if I did. The one remaining section I will touch on though, is the one on synchronising. Getting together with others and performing a task has a powerful impact on our mental and emotional well-being. Having sung in groups most of my life I recognise the power of it in that situation, but I’m predominantly an introvert and wouldn’t go out of my way to join synchronisation opportunities, that’s a challenge. I think that my first step on that one is to join a yoga class, I currently use an app on my iPhone to do my practice, but I recognise that this is robbing me of the synchronisation high that comes from being in a group.

There are certain books that you read and wish that you had read them earlier, this is one of those books. Although, as I reflect upon it, as someone who in many ways is in the middle of things, perhaps it’s best that I read it now, when I need it.

Stop the Self-Inflicted Pain | Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we let others do it to us?

Do two posts make a series? Anyway, this is second post looking at some modern-day frustrations where we look inside things that we do that are daft and dangerous. Some of them you may not realise are doing you damage, others probably already drive you a bit loopy. Part 1 is here: Stop the Self Inflicted Pain | How Much Better Could Your Life Be?

We have three more topics for today:

Devices in Meetings

What is the purpose of a meeting? Do you know? In almost every case, the addition of screens into that meeting is harming that purpose.

Most meetings that I attend, if I attend in person, are based around a large table. The table is littered with laptops, phones and tablets. People join the meeting with every intention of contributing wholeheartedly to it, but within minutes they are distracted. They don’t mean to be, but they are powerless to stay away from the distracting movements that are occurring before them.

“But” I can hear you say…

“But, what if I want to take notes electronically?” If you are far more disciplined than me, then perhaps you can have a powerful, internet connected, multi-skilled device there in-front of you and only use it to take notes. If that is you, then I take my hat off to you, but it’s still not as good for you as writing notes.

“But, what if I need the material off my laptop to inform the meeting?” That may be a perfectly valid point, but it should be limited and clearly understood in the objectives for the meeting, often it’s an excuse.

“But, what happens if someone needs to contact me?” This is the ultimate expression of the problem. If you take a device into a meeting because you think that someone may need to contact you, then you will be spending a significant amount of time in that meeting distracted by the potential that someone is going to contact you. “Has my phone run yet?” “What’s was that email that has just come in?”

Multi-tasking

One of the main reasons that devices in meetings is such a bad idea is that it draws us into multitasking and we are very poor at multitasking.

There are numerous experiments that show our inability to task switch, but perhaps we need the kids to show us how it is (not) done:

There’s also growing evidence that the impact of persistent multitasking is lasting harm. You’re less effective while you are multitasking, but you are also permanently numbing down your brain.

Aside from the impact on our brains there are situations where multitasking is downright dangerous. Those of you who still think you can text and drive are kidding yourself:

It has become normal many of us to multi-screen in front of the TV every night. Even if we are only using our tablet or phone while the adverts are on, we are still expecting our brains to multitask. Those advert may be annoying, but rather than picking up a screen we would be much better standing up and having a stretch.

This isn’t a new subject for me, but we still have a very long way to go before people listen.

Open Plan Offices

Once the darling of every office manager the open plan office is a disaster for productivity.

You don’t need to look any further for evidence of this than this invention from Panasonic:

wearspace_rolling

These are a pair of blinkers for the office, for those times when you need some peace and quiet to get your job done! Seriously!

Again, I hear that “but” word entering into your head. The primary “but” for open plan offices is: “But, doesn’t it improve communication between teams and enable more creative interactions?” Let me put it as simply as I can: “No.”

Open plan offices drive down interactions:

The results were stark: after the shift to an open-plan office space, the participants spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

Most people spend their time in an open plan office with headphones plugged in which makes it difficult to know whether they are one a phone call so it’s normal to instant message them, even if they are on the next desk.

How many more things?

That’s eight different areas that we’ve covered in two posts, I wonder how many more there are? Imagine if each one improves your productivity, or wellness, by just 2% we would have improved our lives by at least 16%!

How weatherproof are your headphones?

On the 28th August 2018 I went out for a walk in the mountains of the Lake District. It was a glorious day of contemplation and enlightenment, and quite a lot of water.

When I returned home I was unpacking my somewhat wet equipment and getting out of damp clothes when I noticed that my Anker Bluetooth Headphones were missing. I’d definitely had them on my walk because I’d listened to part of an audio-book on them. How frustrating.

I like these headphones because they are light, have good battery life and are supposed to be waterproof which I’d tested a bit and it seemed to be the case, but I’d not gone swimming in them or anything like that.

But now they were lost.

I searched the various nooks and crannies of the car, I searched the many pockets of my rucksack, but no headphones. I even checked the many pockets of my walking trousers and waterproof coat, several times!

A eventually came to the conclusion that they must have fallen out of a pocket, or the car, probably in the car park near Thirlmere.

Today on the 29th September – a month later – and just to show how often I do gardening, I found the headphones. They were about a metre from where I get out of my car, laid on some plumb colour slate. They weren’t wholly disguised, not were they very visible, I’d obviously not looked there. But, I did need to look there whilst I was weeding.

In the last month we have had rain and wind in the form of storms Ali and Bronagh, as well as the usual English September showers, we’ve even had sunshine and our first mild ground frost.

Would these waterproof headphone survive a month laid on the ground outside my house? I’m please to say, absolutely! One of the ears is a little quieter than the other at the moment, but I suspect that may ease as they get dried out a bit. How’s that for resilience?

If anything, the biggest impact has been from the sun and bleaching, some of the black isn’t quite as black as I remember it, but they work, and that’s what counts.

Anyway, I’m off now to enjoy another audio-book with my headphones on. Hopefully I won’t loose them this time 😀.

Concept of the Day: The Law of the Instrument – “To the man with a hammer…”

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Abraham Maslow

More commonly expressed as:

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

(I’ve not attributed the common version to anyone because that appears to be up for debate)

The Law of the Instrument is another of those cognitive biases, which appear to be fruitful ideas for these Concept of the Day posts. I think that the reason I find biases so fascinating is that they reveal things about the way we think and provide explanations for why we behave in certain ways and certain situations. The Law of Instrument highlights our tendency to place an over-reliance upon a familiar tool. I suspect that each of us has at least one example of situations we’ve encountered where this has been the case.

I used to have a colleague who would write documents in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets – which his Personal Assistant would then retype into a Microsoft Word document. He knew how to use a spreadsheet, so that’s what he used.

In a similar vein, many organisations send out corporate communications as Microsoft Word documents because that is what the corporate communications team are comfortable creating them in. This annoys everyone, especially the people on mobile devices.

We’ve covered Excel and Word, so I didn’t want to leave PowerPoint out :-). Not sure I need to give an example here though. we have the phrase “Death by PowerPoint” for a reason.

Most of the features of most applications are rarely used, because people don’t go looking for more effective ways of doing things. Once you’ve worked out how to create a table it’s likely that you’ll always create a table that way. I’ve seen several methods employed by applications to nudge us away from our ingrained behaviours, but we keep coming back to the hammer that we already have available to us.

Organisations are dependent upon the data analysis that people do in Microsoft Excel because that’s the tool they are familiar with, when far better tools exist.

The language used by many coding projects is defined by what the chosen developer knows. There’s rarely much discussion about finding the right language, and hence the right developer, for the project.

There’s a current trend to move people to Agile project management methods. In many cases organisations are moving from having one methodology for project management, which was only appropriate to some types of project, to another project management methodology which is only appropriate for a different set of projects. The thought of running two different project management methodologies is regarded as heresy. Agile has become the one-size-fits-all answer to project management.

The Abraham Maslow in the original quote is the same one who produced the Hierarchy of Needs. What better example of The Law of the Instrument could you wish for? The Hierarchy of Needs has, for many, become the universal tool for explaining people’s behaviour. Whilst The Hierarchy of Needs is a useful tool, it’s very unlikely that there is a universal tool for explaining all of human behaviour.

Like all biases, the first step in overcoming it is to recognise that it exists. What we all need in our lives is someone who is regulalrly asking us “why did you do it like that?” Our answer to that question will be a good guide to thye impact of The Law of Instrument in our lives. Another good question to ask is “is there a different way of doing this?” It’s unlikely there isn’t an alternative but if you can’t think of one then you need to challenge your bias.

Cognitive Bias Posts:

I’m reading… “Hit Refresh” by Satya Nadella

How do you bring significant change to an organisation? Particularly a large, multi-national organisation?

Where do you start once you’ve decided what it is that you want to change? How do you make change that is sustainable?

This is no ordinary organisation either, this is Microsoft, an organisation that has some huge fans, but also massive detractors. It’s an organisation that has made some very public missteps and become regarded as arrogant, but is also one of the most valuable organisations in the world.

How do you revive a giant?

Microsoft has, for a long time, had a reputation for being an organisation with an interesting way of working. This is something that Nadella refers to early on in the book by using a cartoon from Bonkers World that depicts Microsoft’s organisation structure as being one of a set of warring factions:

While it’s a cartoon, it has meaning because it is based in a truth. Moving away from this situation required a significant change of culture and to use Satya’s words for Microsoft to find its soul.

This book is partly an autobiographical telling of how Nadella got to be Microsoft CEO, it’s partly an outline vision for the future of Microsoft and partly a discussion on some of the opportunities and challenges currently facing the wider technology industry.

I found the autobiographical parts the most interesting, but I like biography. These sections give some insights into how someone born in Hyderabad becomes the CEO of an organisation that has had a dramatic impact on the world that we know. There are part of these sections that are very personal, particularly when he is talking about his son Zain who suffered in-utero asphyxiation during his birth which caused severe brain damage and left him with cerebral palsy. This isn’t one of those management books where someone tells you how brilliant they, there’s more humility than that.

Nadella describes the role of CEO as “curator of culture” and it’s clearly culture that he regards as the primary change required. Speaking as someone who works in the technology industry, Microsoft is an organisation that divides opinion, and it takes people a long time to change an opinion. Nadella took over as Microsoft CEO in 2014, since then Microsoft has sought to show a very different culture, embracing many things that previously would have been regarded as red-lines. Two words that Nadella uses several times in the book are listen and empathy neither of them words you would have associated with the Microsoft of the Steve Ballmer era.

The CEO is the curator of an organization’s culture. Anything is possible for a company when its culture is about listening, learning, and harnessing individual passions and talents to the company’s mission. Creating that kind of culture is my chief job as CEO.

The culture change I wanted was centered on exercising a growth mind-set every day in three distinct ways. First, at the core of our business must be the curiosity and desire to meet a customer’s unarticulated and unmet needs with great technology. This was not abstract: We all get to practice each day. When we talk to customers, we need to listen. We need to be insatiable in our desire to learn from the outside and bring that learning into Microsoft.

Still, many responses to the recently announced purchase of GitHub reflected suspicions of the arrogant Microsoft. I suppose it just goes to show that 4 years isn’t a very long time in people’s memories.

The third section, on some of the opportunities and challenges facing the technology sector are also interesting, but for a different reason.  These sections aren’t as insightful into Nadella’s thinking on a particular subject, but feel more like the thinking of the broader Microsoft organisation. There wasn’t, for me, any particular revelation here.

Summarising: Nadella is an interesting character with an interesting background. He seems to me to be taking Microsoft in the right direction, but it will be interesting to see where he gets put when the history of the current age is written.

I’m Reading… “The Diary of a Bookseller” by Shaun Bythell

I didn’t actually read this book, I listened to it on Audible, which is deeply ironic, but I didn’t realise that at the time.

The Diary of a BooksellerShaun Bythell’s diary is an autobiographical look at his life running a bookshop in the Scottish market town of Wigtown which is Scotland’s national book town and home to the Wigtown Book Festival.

In choosing this book I seem to have cemented myself into a series of autobiographical books about people and their occupations for which I present as evidence:

This is not a complaint, just an observation about a genre of books which I have loved, much to my surprise.

Anyway, back to the irony of listening to this book on Audible. Bookshops have been closing across the UK, including the obliteration of at least one major chain. What’s the primary driver behind this shift in our buying habit – Amazon. The number of books that we buy has been about the same for a number of years, the difference is that we no longer buy them on the high street, we either order them from Amazon, or download them to our Kindles. Shaun Bythell loves the Kindle so much that he has one which he peppered with a shotgun mounted as a trophy on a wall in the shop.

Embed from Getty Images

For those of you still looking for the irony, I should point out that Audible is also owned by Amazon.

This Diary of a Bookseller is partly about the daily interactions between a bookshop and the Amazon gorilla, and partly about the daily interactions with visitors to the bookshop. One is strangely faceless and bleak, the other portrays the British public in their eclectic and eccentric diversity.

Amazon has become so pervasive that there’s no way of avoiding it and Shaun is no exception listing many of his books there. This puts him at the mercy of the Amazon algorithms and creates a constant need for good reviews and high fulfilment ratios.

Sometimes the eccentricities of the British public are wonderful, at other times they make you want to scream. From the people who expect to pay the sleeve price for a book that is labelled in shillings and pence, to the people who are delighted to have found a book for which they have been on a long search. From the people who order books from a secondhand bookshop who complain that the book was indeed secondhand, to the people who sit by the fire in the shop building a pile of books which they then buy. This books is about a bookshop but, for me, it was primarily about these interactions.

I liked this book, a lot.

Three Days to Become Normal – A Story About Shorts

It’s been a remarkable year for weather here in the UK. We are currently experiencing something that other nations regard as normal. Outside it is sunny, it has been sunny for weeks, and the weather forecast says that it is going to be sunny for the foreseeable future.

We obsess about the weather here because it is different every hour, or part of an hour. It’s extremely rare for it to be so stable for so long. We are normally inappropriately dressed for at least part of every day but regard that as the consequence of living somewhere with such fickle weather.

It’s been sunny, and hot, for so long now that it seems daft to go into an office, where there is no air conditioning, dressed in trousers and a long-sleeve shirt. My normal attire is long trousers and long-sleeve shirt; but our corporate policy on clothing does include “smart” shorts in our definition of “business casual”.

(“Business casual” is a term that everyone hates because it include such a diverse set of clothing as to be meaningless. What it really means for most people is: “dress in a way that doesn’t get you noticed”.)

I decided, on Monday, that it was time to move over to shorts. I’m wise enough to know that I would get some reaction to this, but decided to do it anyway. There were a number of reactions on the first day, a few looks and some comments about the knobbliness of my knees.

On Tuesday the shorts were, again, my chosen attire. This time there were very few looks and only one comment, from someone who hadn’t been in on the Monday.

Today is Wednesday and no one has said anything about the shorts.

It took less than three days for the shorts to become normal.

We talk about change being difficult, and often it is, but sometimes it only takes three days for the change to become normal.

UPDATE: On day four the number of people wearing shorts has increased dramatically, perhaps that’s because people are happier being a follower.