Outsourcing our Brain and the impact of SatNav

On Tuesday this week the Guardian wrote an article with the title: “All mapped out? Using satnav ‘switches off’ parts of the brain, study suggests”

This article was reporting on a study that was investigating the processes that the brain uses when mapping our environment and planning routes. The headlines emphasises that when we are receiving instructions our brain turns off many of these processes:

The study found that characteristic brain activity linked to simulating the different possible routes for a journey appears to be entirely absent when a person is following directions rather than independently planning a route.

The brain is quite good at not doing things it doesn’t need to do, but that has consequences.

Having read through the article I thought to myself that this would make a really interesting extension to an article that I had previously written on outsourcing our brain functions.

The basic idea of the post was that we use tools to outsource our brain functions and in so doing we risk reducing our brain function. By not exercising the brain capabilities we find ourselves in the place where we are dependent upon the tools and struggle to function without them. A basic example of this is the ability to do mental maths which, on my own unscientific assessment, is completely missing from the younger generation that has always had a machine to do this arithmetic for them. Another example is the memory of phone numbers which people no longer need to do; if you’ve given me your phone number in the last 5 years I probably don’t know it, I still know numbers prior to that time. This time coincides with increased use of mobile phones and no longer needing to know the number to call someone.

So where is the link to the post that I wrote?

I searched this blog for the post.

I searched Google for the post.

I searched my Evernote for this post.

I couldn’t find the post.

Without one of these tools telling me where this post is I’m stuck. Having outsourced that part of my memory I’m completely dependent upon them.

The irony wasn’t lost on me.

Do you have a wandering mind? It’s probably making you unhappy.

The other day we revisited the subject of multi-tasking and I talked about a few ways I try to remain focused. Focus isn’t just important for productivity, it’s also a core competency for happiness.

Back in 2010 Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert published a scientific paper titled: A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.

We developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found (i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy.

Let me say that a different way: spending your life thinking about things that aren’t happening is making you unhappy. You would be happier if you focused on the here and now.

So much of the multi-tasking that we do is an attempt to switch between multiple things that aren’t happening, it’s a type of active mind-wandering. How many times do we check our social media to see if something is happening only to be reminded that nothing is happening. How many times have you refreshed your social media site only to refresh it again, and then again without even thinking. The research tells us that this is making us unhappy.

Below is Matt Killingworth talking through his work at TEDx:

Matt also talked through his findings on the TED Radio Hour in 2014.

Productivity and Laziness: Is it time to cultivate laziness as a skill?

There’s a hugely popular mantra in all productivity schemes:

Work smarter not harder

Every time I hear this phrase I want to replace it with a different phrase:

What’s the lazy way of doing this?

Smart working is really, let’s face it, lazy working.

Laziness may not be the first word that springs to mind when you think about productivity, but you should embrace it as your friend.

Think about it, we do all sorts of lazy things to make us more productive.

Whenever you ride a bike rather than walking somewhere you are being lazy. It might not feel like it, but the bike gets you there quicker and takes you further than you could go without it. It’s lazy to ride the bike.

If you are using a phone to talk to someone you are being lazy. It’s easier than travelling to where that person is to talk to them (unless they are sat next to you).

Lazy people are constantly asking “why should I bother?” That’s a great productivity question, remember:

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” Peter Drucker

I’ve seen countless business processes that add no value and were best ignored. Lazy people ignore these processes.

Lazy people experiment with doing things in different ways to see if they take more, or less, effort – they stick with the one that takes less effort.

We are surrounded by an increasing number of automation techniques, particularly in IT, yet I see people endlessly doing the same repetitive tasks. Lazy people let the machines do it for them.

I think that more of us should cultivate laziness as a skill.

"Tech is the new perk" according to Adobe Future of Work Survey 2016

Eighty-one percent of U.S. office workers say state of the art technology is important at work, outranking food and beverages (72%), a beautiful office design (61%) and on-site amenities (56).

Only one in four (26%) of U.S. office workers believes that their company’s technology is “ahead of the curve.” Indians are slightly more bullish (30%) while the U.K. is especially pessimistic (15%).

In the U.S., those who said their company’s technology is “ahead of the curve” love their work about twice as much and feel about twice as creative, motivated and valued compared to those at “behind the times” companies.

These are some of the findings from Adobe’s Future of Work Survey for 2016. The survey results were published in May 2016 under the title: Work in Progress encapsulating contributions from over 2000 workers from U.S., U.K. and India who use a computer daily for work.

One of the significant conclusions of this report, in Adobe’s words, is that “Tech is the new perk”. People would rather have good technology than access to food and beverage, lounge and relaxation areas, personalised workstations, beautiful office design and access to on-site amenities. This isn’t quite true across the three nations surveyed – in the U.K. we regard access to food and beverage as highly as we do technology.

These figures aren’t surprising in a world were we increasingly rely on technology to do our work. Personally I wouldn’t rank tech alongside perks at all, for many jobs that would be like classifying a van as a perk for a delivery person. Having the right level of technology is essential to doing a good job and doing a good job is a significant factor in most people’s job satisfaction. The problem is, we often expect people to do a good job without the right technology which is a bit like expecting a delivery person to carry a 3 tonne load in a 1 tonne truck. It’s not surprising that people in organisations with “ahead of the curve” technology feel more creative, motivated and valued – they probably are.

Personal "temperature bubbles" – Yes please

Like many people who sit in open plan offices one of the most contentious issues is temperature. I’m always hot; that’s who I am. Others are always cold; that’s who they are. It’s difficult to do anything about that in a place where we all share the same air.

Comfort in a working space is greatly influenced by temperature and comfort greatly influences people’s productivity.

I’ve always wondered whether there was a better, more personal, way of dealing with different people’s temperature preferences.

Design firm Carlo Ratti Associati are try a better way at the Agnelli Foundation headquarters in Torino, Italy. By combining sensors and IoT technology with the air-conditioning system they are aiming to create personal “temperature bubbles”:

It will also add an important layer of personalisation through so-called “temperature bubbles” that workers will be able to set with a smartphone app that speaks to fan units in the ceiling. “Your own personal [temperature] setting will follow you through the building,” he said.

Mashable: This high tech office will give everyone their own thermal bubble

Yes, please! That’s all I’d like to say.

Human Behaviour, a Printer and a Ream of Paper

Today I went to the large multi-function-printer in the corner of the office expecting to pick up some printing that I’d just sent to it.

(You might be wondering what I was doing printing, but that’s a question for another day.)

I was expecting to be greeted by a set of pages on the side of the printer, but instead I was greeted by a red-light and a message on the screen.

The message told me in very clear terms that the printer was out of paper. This particular printer has four trays, three of which are dedicated to the type of A4 paper that I wanted to use, all three of these trays were empty.

Being a good office citizen I opened the cupboard next to the printer where the spare paper is stored. Having open the cupboard I was accosted by a sight I’ve seen in every office I’ve ever worked in. Instead of the cupboard containing full reams of paper it was littered with ripped open paper wrappings containing loose collections of paper. Some of these collections had barely 50 sheets in them, some a 100 sheets, but all of them less than half a ream of paper. There were so many bits of reams that I couldn’t see the full reams.

Most home printers only take a few sheets of paper, but for some years now, decades even, designers of office printers have understood something quite basic. These design geniuses have understood that the basic design requirement for a printer tray is that it takes a ream of paper. I don’t think I’ve seen a paper tray that takes part of a ream for a very, very long time. Yet, despite this being obvious to the designers of printer trays it’s clearly not obvious to the users of printer trays. What could be simpler:

  • Open paper tray
  • Remove ream of paper from cupboard
  • Remove wrapping from ream of paper
  • Put full ream of paper in paper tray
  • Close paper tray
  • Dispose of wrapping

Instead people prefer, for some reason, a different process:

  • Open paper tray
  • Remove ream of paper from cupboard
  • Open wrapping covering ream of paper
  • Remove a handful of paper from wrapping
  • Place this portion of paper into paper tray
  • Place partial ream of paper back into cupboard
  • Close paper tray

The only logical conclusions I can think of for this behaviour are as follows:

  • People haven’t understood, even after all this time, that the paper tray can take a full ream of paper.
  • Disposing of the paper wrapping around a ream of paper requires such special skills that this step is to be avoided. Possible, but I’ve not come across it.

I wonder what the designers of paper trays think about this situation. They’ve done the design work, they’ve created an optimised solution, and yet people prefer to work in a way that creates extra work.

This silly little example shows to me the difficulty of adjusting human behaviour. Even when there is an obviously simpler way of doing things we prefer to follow the tried and trusted path. We prefer to put too little paper in the printer because we are afraid that putting too much in it might break it. This is just a tiny example, but there is evidence of this type of behaviour everywhere you look. The challenge that many organisations face is that these tiny examples scale up into huge areas of inefficiency.