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.

I’m reading…Tom Peters

Tom Peters is a writer on business management practices, I suppose you could call him a motivational speaker but that term has become so clichéd I’m not sure you would understand what I meant by it.

Tom is very active on twitter, he’s written over 60,000 tweets:

But the thing I love about Tom are his PowerPoint presentation decks. They are the most remarkable things. He publishes the slides that he uses at events and has also compiled a master copy called The Works while has over 50,000 words in it. A recent one from December 2016 comes to over 108 slides and obliterate many of the design rules that our modern corporate slides abide by, but the contents are thought proving and challenging:





At the beginning of this post I said that Tom was a motivational speaker, but I also said that you may misinterpret what I meant by that, this is what I mean: I love to read through Tom slide decks because they motivate me. They motivate me to be a better leader. They motivate me to see that things can be better. They motivate me to keep trying new things. They motivate me to keep seeing new things. They motivate me to adjust my priorities.

Every time I sit in a dull, pointless meeting Tom’s words about meetings ring around my head and make me determined that we are going to do better next time:

Prepare for a meeting/every meeting as if your professional life and legacy depended on it. It does.

Most of Tom’s material is highlighted through his blog which I subscribe to via Feedly to make sure I don’t miss out. His most recent post on collected quotes has some gems in it.

I’ll leave the closing thoughts to Tom himself:

My Tools: Evernote for iOS

It’s that time which sometimes happens in our house when we need a few things from the shops. I’m the designated shopper for this trip. We only need a couple so I don’t bother to write down a list. Then a member of the family adds something extra to the list, three things, my brain can cope with that. Oh, but while you are there could you also look for another thing. I’ve now got to four things to remember and I don’t know about you, but four is about my limit. It’s time to make a list.

My daughter’s car is in the garage for some work and she wants me to phone up to see what the progress is. I’m asked to do this because I supposedly know more about what they are about to say, that’s debatable. I know I’ll need the car registration but there’s something about the registration number of this car that means that I can’t remember it consistently.

These are just a couple of examples where I use Evernote for iOS on my iPhone. Back in 2012 I described how I used Evernote as one of my daily productivity tools which it still is (It’s interesting to read how my writing style has changed a bit since then). Evernote has all sorts of information in it having those that information on my iPhone makes them significantly more mobile.

Now is a good time to talk about Evernote for iOS because it’s recently gone through a significant interface overhaul which I must say I approve of. For one thing, making ad-hoc notes like a quick shopping list is much simpler. It’s also much cleaner and easier to read.

This is my All Notes screen from this morning:


Creating a new note is as simple as clicking the plus sign at the bottom.

The integrated scanning has also removed the need for Scannable simplifying the workflow of scanning things into Evernote.

I’m not sure there’s much more to say than that:

Let’s talk about Multitasking again!

Confessions of a multitasker

I am a multitasker; I’m doing it now.

There are a group of people sat around me discussing something, it’s a discussion that I could contribute too, but I’m also writing this blog post, I’m also allowing my iPhone to interrupt me. I’ve done this on many occasions and every time I do it I tell myself that I’m not going to do it again, so why am I doing it? The lie that I am telling myself is that the discussion doesn’t need all of my attention and I would be better spending my time doing something useful. I am kidding myself and every time you do something similar you are kidding yourself.

(I’ve been writing this blog post for over 40 minutes now and written 104 words. If I’d gone off to a quiet corner and really engaged I would have finished this post already. I’ll leave you to judge, but I suspect the quality of the words would be better as well.)

A recent report from the World Economic Forum based on some research from Stanford University, University of London and Sussex University highlighting the consequences of all of this multitasking which is probably more damaging than we might imagine.

Some of the report states what has been known for some time:

Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.

Repeat those words to yourself a few times: “your brain can only focus on one thing as a time”.

The report goes further, not only are you being less productive in the moment, the research is starting to point towards the impact being longer term:

It was long believed that cognitive impairment from multitasking was temporary, but new research suggests otherwise. Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.

While more research is needed to determine if multitasking is physically damaging the brain (versus existing brain damage that predisposes people to multitask), it’s clear that multitasking has negative effects.

So there you have it, there’s no advantage to be gained from multitasking, yet, we continue to tell ourselves that we are gaining something from trying to do two things at once. This isn’t the only situation where we behave illogically, but it is a growing madness as screens continue to proliferate.

Personally, I’ve been trying to build a set of practices which insulate me from the temptation to multitask. When i get home I’m trying to leave my iPhone somewhere out of reach and preferably out of view. I’m trying to take notes on paper in meetings, leaving the screens in my bag. When I have screen time I’m practising closing all applications apart from the one I’m focused on. I’m practising scheduling my days on a piece of paper. Another practice is to spend time in each day in silence or with quiet music without screens giving my brain time to calm down. What are your practises?

(It eventually took me two hours to write this post while multitasking which I did as a bit of an experiment to highlight the challenge. Hopefully the practices will reduce the time I’m multitasking and hopefully there isn’t any lasting damage to my brain.)

"It’s the Demography, Stupid" – Understanding the impact of population surge and shifts.

I don’t think that a day goes by without me hearing, or seeing, the word Millennials. Sometimes it feels like it is everywhere. Whilst the level of exposure seems to be reaching a crescendo I fist started writing about the generation in 2010 and have written a number of articles since:

The term Millennials refers to a generation which is, itself, loosely defined by demography. Some terms transcend their first meaning and that is what has recently happened to Millennials. It only really applies to the population in western countries and to people with a birth year in the mid-1990s through to the early 2000s, but seems to have become a term for anyone of the younger generations globally.

The Millennial generation is most regularly contrasted with the Baby Boomers who were born in the period after the Second World War through to 1964. The Baby Boomer generation was a huge cohort following the low birth rate during the wartime period of the early to mid-1900’s. This resulted in much younger average ages in the western countries and a huge explosion in the workforce which then facilitated significant economic growth. Those Baby Boomers are now moving into retirement and starting to become dependent on the generations younger than them, generations with much smaller cohorts.

The title of this post isn’t mine, it’s the name of a recent programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 which looks at the shifts in population such as that of the Baby Boomer generation, but also the impact of the One Child policy in China and the slow down of population growth across Africa. The programme gives a really great view of the impact of these population shifts within and between the generations, with a particular UK perspective. If you are a member of the Baby Boomer generation, Generation-X or the Millennial generation you should listen to this programme.

How is population change transforming our world? Think of a python swallowing a pig: a big bulge makes its way slowly down the snake from the head end to the other end. That’s a bit like what’s happened to the UK demographically. The baby boom generation – which has changed Britain politically, culturally and economically – is now retiring. That means a large bulge of pensioners with big implications for the generations that come behind them.

Personally I sit in Generation-X, between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. As a I look to my parents generation I see the promises that were made to them regarding their retirement and understand their desire to see those promises delivered. Likewise I look at my children and see the financial and social burdens that those promises are resulting in. It’s a huge demographic challenge that has been masked by a significant volume of immigration, in the UK at least. But that immigration has, itself, created other cultural challenges which the Baby Boomers have found particularly difficult to handle. Recent elections in the UK and the US have demonstrated these challenges.

One of the factors that has been on a bit of a roller-coaster ride in the last 50 years has been the UK dependency ratio, this is the ratio between those working and those being supported by those working. This seems to be a pretty good indicator of the burden I described above:

The higher the ratio the higher the burden on those working, the lower the ratio, the lower the burden. The last few years have seen a significant shift upwards.

This is the year of the 70th birthday, the year when more people in the UK celebrate their 70th birthday than ever before. It won’t be long before we are celebrating their 80th birthday, I wonder what our dependency ratio will be when that happens? I wonder how long it will be before the percentage of the population aged over 65 will pass 20%?

Numbers give us insight, how we respond to those insights is what defines the future. My concern is that we are currently making decisions that will impact our future, but without the insights.

This isn’t just a UK challenge though, at a global level it looks like the dependency ratio has reached the low point and is expected to start rising driven by a growth in China:

Data from the World Bank, this site is a great place to get insights.