I could spend hours doing this…

Discipline is such a key issue for productive work especially when there are so many distractions around. Let me give you my ultimate time wasting recipe:

  1. Check your corporate email for unread items.Island Hoping
  2. Read the first two emails by which time you should be bored
  3. Wonder what is happening on Twitter.
  4. Browse through the fresh set of updated. It is essential that you are following enough people to guarantee a fresh crop of tweets every time you look. This is easily done by following a number of news accounts.
  5. Once bored of tweets skip over to your RSS reader to see if there are any updates. Like twitter it is vital to be following a whole stack of feeds. The syndicated and group blogs are the best for guaranteeing updates on every visit, LifeHacker and BetaNews are good examples.
  6. Read posts until bored. The key is to never get to the end of your unread list ensuring that return visits result in further reading.
  7. Continuing the blog theme jump over to your WordPress Dashboard. This is the first of many information sources that you are convinced give you important information each time you visit.
  8. From your WordPress dashboard take particular interest in one or maybe two vital statistics justifying your next stop – Google Analytics.
  9. Google Analytics will highlight some interesting searches that have reached your site – it always does. Justify to yourself a quick trip to Google Webmaster Tools for further information.
  10. If there is any danger of you getting to the end of the statistics before you have successfully wasted enough of your valuable time you can also skip through the Bing Webmaster Tools and the Yahoo Webmaster tools. Three search tools are normally enough, but if you want to waste even more time other search engines are available.
  11. Your next stop is your personal email – again, read a few posts but never get to the end of the unread items available.
  12. Hopefully your personal email will highlight some justification for going to Facebook, but if it doesn’t just go there anyway. Don’t waste your time on applications or silly games – that would be a real waste of time. Spend time reading status updates and looking at photos of people you have never met.
  13. It’s time now to graze through some of the corporate tools that you have available. Portals and dashboards provide more information than you could possible consume. This can soon be justified as work even when you are only mooching around. Justifiable time wasting is the best form.
  14. The next activity that is vital to your time wasting credibility is your ability to browse around new sites. The BBC is particularly good for this there are endless possibilities in news and Sport.

If you are in danger of having to do some real work, by getting to the end of the list, you can, at any point, return to the top of the list.

If you have followed the guidelines correctly there should always be something to do.

Also, remember that you can carry on these same distractions when away from the office by use of a SmartPhone or other such device. Location should not be an inhibitor.

Following this recipe should ensure that you always look busy and avoid unnecessary activities that may result in something being produced. Alternatively, you could just redefine these activities as work and then you will have completed everything there is to complete.

Working through this kind of distraction reaction process is what I’m sure many people do and will do, but it isn’t good for you, or for your brain. Being able to cope with the lure of these attention giving sirens will be a defining feature of the future workforce.

Working on a day of important interruptions

Interruptions have a massive negative impact on productivity. You might think that you can easily switch from one place to another but you can’t. every time you switch you have a period of time when you are not being productive at doing what you are doing.Blackpool Prom Scuptures at Sunset

With this in mind there are many time management and activity management philosophies around that help you to focus on the important things and to drive out the interruptions. Most of the time I would agree, but today is one of those days that is an exception.

Today the important things are the interruptions. There are a set of people who are working away on things and they need help doing it, they don’t know when they need help so they need to be able to interrupt.

That leaves me with the challenge of staying productive between the interrupts.

I don’t want to start anything significant because I’ll just spend all day being frustrated.

I can’t sit around waiting for the interrupts because I’m likely to fall asleep and then miss the interrupts.

I don’t want to go and look for the interruptions because that would interrupt the people doing the productive work.

So what do i do?

It’s a dilemma.

I’m up-to-date on my email.

I’m up-to-date on my feeds.

I’m up-to-date on my twitter.

I almost wish that i was behind on my administration.

Understanding the value of things

Jimmy, Grandad and Grandma go to CornwallInteresting questions, interesting responses:

  • £50 today or £60 in a month?
  • £350 in 12 months or £360 pounds in 13 months?

It’s interesting what our response to some questions are.

  • You have a ticket to the theatre which cost £20 and a £20 note in your pocket. When you get to the theatre you have lost the ticket. Do you buy another ticket?
  • You have two £20 notes in your pocket. When you get tot the theatre you have lost one of the £20 notes. Do you buy a ticket to the theatre?

Your first reaction to these questions and your considered response might be significantly different. The problem with estimating the value is that we use very strange (complex) logic.

I spend a lot of time helping people to change there business by bringing extra value to the way that they do things. These changes normally involve IT, because that’s my area of expertise, but not always. Understanding and agreeing what the value of any particular activity is can be quite a stressful exercise, particularly when it comes to the decision to spend money.

The values that people place on things has always fascinated and frustrated me. Surprisingly few decisions are based cold hard economics. The value is often much more subjective, or so it appears to me. Perhaps I’m just not seeing the complicated value judgement that they are making. Perhaps my value judgement is missing important elements.

I don’t have any answers here, I’m just making an observation, but I’m not the only one that sees the paradox. Dan Gilbert does a much better job of explaining than I do.

http://static.videoegg.com/ted2/flash/loader.swf

If you ever want to extend your thinking TED is a really good place to start.

Being Inquisitive

Jimmy, Grandad and Grandma go to CornwallHow inquisitive are you?

Today’s quote to think about: “If you tell the average man there are 278,805,732,168 stars in the universe, he will believe you. But if a sign says Wet Paint he has to make a personnel investigation.”

I used to work in a restaurant and the same thing applied, if you told people the plates were hot, they would always have to touch them just to find out.

But how often are we completely the other way around? How many times do we take something as fact just because the person telling us spoke with authority? I have played a game a few times where I have embellished a truth and told it to a few people as fact. I’ve then sat back and waited to see how long it would take for the embellishment to come back to me. It normally only take a few days.

I’ve been in many problem solving situations where we would have fixed things a lot earlier if we hadn’t taken as fact the things that people told us.

Can a techie have business acumen?

Jimmy and Grandma have a day outI’m a techie I don’t mind admitting it – actually I’m quite proud of it. I can do things with technology that others marvel at.

I was recently in a meeting when someone who didn’t know I was in the room made the statement “well it must be a technical discussion you are wanting to have if you’ve invited Graham along”. There was a little bit of embarrassment when it was pointed out who the person sitting opposite them was. This person doesn’t know me so they were making a judgement on the basis of my role, but the role clearly said to them techie and the inference was not business.

There have been other situations myself and others have been in which highlight the same issue. Someone I speak to quite regularly was saying recently that one of the comments made to them in a recent interview was that they were “too techie”. Again the inference was not business.

The job that I do today requires a good deal of technical ability, but its primary purpose isn’t a technology leadership one, it’s a business understanding one. The premise of my role is that the gulf between business people and techie people is so great that they require an interpreter. In other words techies don’t speak the same language as business people.

Because my background is primarily a techie one I tend to be treated with a warm welcome by the technologists, but treated with a certain amount of suspicion by the business people.

It’s almost like some people think there is a one dimensional sliding scale with highly technical on one side and high business on the other. As a techie am I really incapable of thinking as a business person? Perhaps this goes all the way back to school where people were encouraged into the arts bucket or the sciences bucket.

Are these just age old prejudices with a new dimension? Or, do these definitions reveal some real issues? I’m not sure. What I do know, though, is that the need for edge people, or multi-dimensional people is growing all of the time, the innovators, the people who work beyond the process.

One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about the brain so much was the realisation that it will be the people who have a strong right-side of the brain who will be the most valuable ones in the coming economy.

Right-brained people are strongly creative, something that transcends arts, sciences, technical or even business. I think that is will be this characteristic that will become dominant, not the field in which you choose to exercise your creativity; Einstein was creative, Monet was creative, Tim Berners-Lee is creative, Warren Buffett is creative. Or perhaps you don’t like the word creative because that sounds too arty, then how about word innovative; Malcolm Gladwell is innovative, Ted Hoff is innovative, Stephen Hawkins is innovative, Yann Arthus-Bertrand is innovative.

Anyway enough of my musing it’s time for me to go and be innovative in a cross functional, multi dimensional, business focussed, technically challenging, problem solving, situation.

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That's obvious – isn't it?

One of the lessons that I am learning in my meaningful conversations is that the obvious isn’t perhaps so obvious.

Today I noticed these instructions on my deodorant. They’re obvious – aren’t they?

We all have a wealth of experience that defines how we see things, influences how we interact with things, defines our perspective and gives us the framework for what we regard as obvious.

I’ve been using spray cans most of my life, so of course it’s obvious what to do.

I’ve been driving in the UK for nearly 20 years, so of course it’s obvious that I drive on the left.

I’ve been to airports hundreds of times, so of course it’s obvious what I can, and can’t put into my hand luggage.

The amazing thing is, there are hundreds of things that are obvious to me, that are not obvious to anyone other than me.

Having discussions with people changes my framework of obviousness. It sometimes extends the things I regard as obvious and sometimes it makes me realise that I’m one of the few people that think something is obvious.

It’s only common sense after all .

Why Poor Performance is such a Productivity Killer

Jimmy, Grandad and Grandma go to CornwallI am struggling with a system today that is going slow. It’s nothing unusual this particular system is always slow, or at least I perceive it to be slow. In other words, it works slower that I would like it to – but worse than that, it works slower than my attention can sustain.

I’m now multi-tasking – I’m writing this in the seconds in-between this particular system responding. I’ve lost attention on my primary task, which is to interact with the slow system and I’ve moved onto a secondary task; writing this blog.

Everyone should know that multi-tasking is not the most efficient way of doing anything, but I’ve fallen into the trap and my attention has now completely gone. It happens like this:

  • Interact with system – click.
  • Wait a few seconds.
  • Interact with system again – click.
  • Wait a few seconds – get bored, check Twitter.
  • System is now waiting for me to finish on Twitter.
  • Interact with system again – click.
  • Wait for no seconds – already expect a delay, check FeedDemon for updates, see an interesting one, read it.
  • System is now waiting for me to finish on FeedDemon.
  • I notice system has come back – take a few seconds to remember what the next step was.
  • Interact with system again – click.
  • Wait for no seconds again, start to write post, also try to keep an eye on the system coming back but I’m not very good at it. Now only writing blog post because I can do that without any waits or interruptions. Not doing blog writing particularly well either.
  • Look back at the system after several minutes, notice that it has come back. It’s probably been waiting for minutes but my attention is completely gone.
  • Realise that I’m not doing what I should be doing so agree with myself that I am going to go and finish the primary thing that I should be doing. Struggle to focus on it because my mind has got into a groove on the blog post.
  • Give up and go back to the post. Think that if I get it finished I will be able to refocus on the job at hand.

This type of attention conflict is completely destructive to my productivity. I don’t get any of the tasks done and feel guilty for loosing focus on the things I should be doing. In many ways it would be better that the system was unavailable than running slow. I’d rather focus on one thing and be completing that than trying to do multiple things poorly but it’s just not engaging enough to keep my attention.

Working, as I do, in IT service design and management most customers primarily contract in terms of availability. The system must be available all of the time. If the impact of performance can be even more damaging than lack of availability – perhaps we are measuring the wrong thing?

Perhaps I just have a very short attention?

Why do I blog? Memory Management

Jimmy and Grandad got to Tarn HowesOne of the questions that I get asked from time to time is “why do you write a blog?” it’s a fair question – writing takes time and energy, so why bother? There are a number of answers to this question and today I’m only going to deal with one of them – memory management.

“Memory is a child walking along a seashore.  You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.” Pierce Harris, Atlanta Journal

I’m over 40 now and my memory is not what it used to be. This isn’t some kind of misinformed modesty statement, your brain starts to loose connections from your 20’s onwards, and my brain is going through the same natural cycle. I’m trying to do things to protect what I have, but I can only slow it down. I’m also learning a whole set of management techniques to mitigate for this loss. Learning them early seems like the best way of making sure that they are embedded within my working practice before I really need them.

One of the most powerful ways of managing memory is to write. Once something has been written the brain seems to archive the information and only remembers a pointer to the information. The challenge is then to have a really good pointer or search system available. That’s where the blog comes in.

What I write on the blog naturally gets a pointer, that’s the way that blogs works. Adding tags makes for even more pointers. What’s more it also gets full text search so if my brain pointers aren’t quite correct I can still find what I want. I can then let my brain archive the information without having to worry about finding it again.

Sometimes I’ll meet someone who reads my blog and they’ll make a comment about something I have written and I’ll be surprised by what they have read. I’ve already archived it but it’s fresh and new to them. It sometimes takes me a few seconds to remember what it is they are talking about.

Off now to forget this information.

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The Power of the List

Jimmy, Grandad and Grandma go to CornwallI’ve been wondering whether one of the most powerful things that separates the humans from the animals is the simple list.

It’s easy to tell when I am focused – I have a set of lists and I am working my way through them. It’s just as easy to tell when I am out of control – I have no list.

There are many, many personal and professional management systems that at their basic level are systems of lists.

I love the interaction of twitter – which is basically a dynamic list.

I’ve also noticed that if you want a really popular blog post you write a Top 10 list or similar.

Lists are everywhere.

The human skill is handling and manipulating the list.

I wonder if there are any exercises that I could do to make my brain better at handling lists?

Email and Slot Machines

Jimmy, Grandad and Grandma go to CornwallYesterday I was staying in a hotel and was given a complimentary newspaper – the Guardian. An article on email addiction caught my eye:

Dr Tom Stafford, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield and co-author of the book Mind Hacks, believes that the same fundamental learning mechanisms that drive gambling addicts are also at work in email users. “Both slot machines and email follow something called a ‘variable interval reinforcement schedule’,” he says, “which has been established as the way to train in the strongest habits. This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there’s something wonderful – an invite out, or maybe some juicy gossip – and I get a reward.” This is enough to make it difficult for us to resist checking email, even when we’ve only just looked.

That’s right – email addiction is just like gambling addiction.

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My Tools: The Off Switch

Jimmy and Grandma have a day outI’m told that I live in an always-on world, and there are many times when it feels that way. Like many of you I have a tool available to me that keeps me in control of the times that I am available. It’s an invaluable tool and it’s called the off-switch.

Most of the devices I have include an off-switch, even if they don’t I am still in control of the power supply. I have the power to unplug, or to remove the battery.

The off-switch is very good for your brain. As we are approaching the season of holidays and vacations now is the time that you should employ this tool as often as possible and preferably for an extended period.

Here’s my guide to the off switch:

  • On OffOn my laptop it’s the small silver button just above the F9 key.
  • On my desktop it’s the larger silver button on the front towards the rear.
  • On my blackberry it’s a silver button on the top left of the device.

Go on, you can do it.

My Brain: Habits

Easedale TarnIt’s been a while since I’ve written anything in the “my brain” series. It’s not because I’ve not been thinking about it, but more to do with the path of assimilation that I set myself.

Recently I have been thinking about habits and how we change them, or develop new ones. I’ve got a number of bad habits that mean I am generally overweight and unfit, I’m also too busy and drink too much coffee.

I’ve been trying to decide whether it is best to focus on breaking these habits or to build new ones that supplant the old ones.

Today I came across this article in the New York Times entitled: Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?

I’m not sure it answers the question I’ve been trying to answer, but it says some interesting things. In particular it talks about being in a position of “stretch”:

Comfort is the realm of existing habit. Stress occurs when a challenge is so far beyond current experience as to be overwhelming. It’s that stretch zone in the middle — activities that feel a bit awkward and unfamiliar — where true change occurs.

Although, in my current over-weight circumstance I quite liked the following piece of news:

“Getting into the stretch zone is good for you,” Ms. Ryan says in “This Year I Will… .” “It helps keep your brain healthy. It turns out that unless we continue to learn new things, which challenges our brains to create new pathways, they literally begin to atrophy, which may result in dementia, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. Continuously stretching ourselves will even help us lose weight, according to one study. Researchers who asked folks to do something different every day — listen to a new radio station, for instance — found that they lost and kept off weight. No one is sure why, but scientists speculate that getting out of routines makes us more aware in general.”

This leads me back to where I started this journey.

Recently I have been trying to stretch myself with a new set of crosswords, it’s quite depressing moving from a situation where you are used to completing a crossword to one where you can only complete half of it without help. If it was easy it wouldn’t be a stretch.

Personally I think I spend more time in the “stress” zone than the “stretch” zone but hopefully I am coming out of the other side of it a bit. This week I have done an excessively long week and my brain is definitely feeling the strain. So I’m going to try and use this weekend to rest my brain, because that is important too.

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