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%!

“it’s not enough to get the design right, you’ve got to…

“it’s not enough to get the design right, you’ve got to design the right thing”

Bill Buxton – Designing the future with the help of the past with Bill Buxton

More complete quote:

Problem-setting is basically, it’s not enough to get the design right, you’ve got to design the right thing. And so, if you just leap in and start building something where you’ve got a solution, you have no idea if that’s the best option. There might have been a better way and you didn’t take time because you are already behind schedule. But here’s the crazy thing. At the beginning of the product cycle, you have a small team just getting going. Your burn rate, in terms of what it’s costing you per week in terms of the project and that, is very, very low. So, what you then should be doing is thoroughly exploring a range of different alternatives. Problem-setting, part of that process is this notion of, you cannot give me one idea. You have to learn how to work quickly and give me multiples. That’s a technique for this whole issue of, how do you deal with the problem-setting? And by exploring the space first… oh, that’s the real problem… Put it this way. You have a bunch of people that talk about user-centered design. And they’ll say, you know, go talk to your users and they will tell you what to do. Okay. Would you go to a doctor where you walked in, and the doctor said, okay what’s wrong with you, what operation do you need and what drugs should I give you under what dose, right? And that’s how some people naively interpret user-centered design, is “listen to users.” And, no. I’m going to ask you all kinds of questions. But I’m going to take all of those as part of the information that helps me make a diagnosis. And so, where do we collect the symptoms to find out where the real problems are? You’re telling me this. I understand the situation. Now, I have to know enough about your industry to ask pertinent questions. And for me, that’s what the problem-setting is. The designer, the main equipment is to have that meta-knowledge. And that’s where the diverse interests come in, so how do you get that knowledge? But if you don’t even know that’s the kind of knowledge you need to get, you’re not even going to go looking for it.

“Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it…

Six Laws of Technology

  1. Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.
  2. Invention is the mother of necessity.
  3. Technology comes in packages, big and small.
  4. Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions.
  5. All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant.
  6. Technology is a very human activity – and so is the history of technology.

Melvin Kranzberg

Is it me? What is “an unusually high volume of calls”?

If you’ve not heard these exact words, you’ve heard something very similar to them:

We are currently experiencing an unusually high volume of calls, please hold and a member of our team will be with you as soon as one becomes available.

You are then tortured by some music that is completely inappropriate for the narrow frequency response capabilities of a phone until there’s a short pause, just long enough for you to think “ah, a person”, and then you are again greeted with:

We are currently experiencing an unusually high volume of calls, please hold and a member of our team will be with you as soon as one becomes available.

You continue this experience until your ears are number and your brain is craving to do something more intellectually taxing – like watching daytime TV.

As is often the case, the person that you eventually get to talk to sounds plausible, and makes you believe that they have resolved your problem, so eventually you hang-up. You say to yourself, again, that there’s another hour of your life that you aren’t going to get back, but there at the back of your mind is a question, what constitutes “an unusually high volume of calls”?

You leave it a few days before you check on the progress of the thing you wanted sorted only to discover that it hasn’t and submit yourself to the inevitable second phone call to the service centre. It’s a completely different time of day, it’s a completely different day, and yet, there it is, ready to greet you like the smell of a dog that has been playing in a stagnant pond:

We are currently experiencing an unusually high volume of calls, please hold and a member of our team will be with you as soon as one becomes available.

Another hour later you still have that question, what constitutes “an unusually high volume of calls”?

What is the measure? Is this statement made on the basis of the average across a day? Or a week? Is it based on a model that factors in seasonal and regional differences? Has some significant national or global event happened that I haven’t been aware of meant that everyone needs to phone right now? Or, as I suspect it is, the definition of “unusually high” is one more than the number of service personnel that the organisation decided to roster for that time, on that day, and that the staff scheduling has little do with customer demand. The volume of service staff is almost certainly governed by the finance team with little relevance to the poor individual wanting to get a refund on their overcharged insurance bill. (Anyone guess what’s happened in my house today?)

I have wondered about setting up a web site where people can see the times and days when an organisation is normally experiencing “an unusually high volume of calls” based on crowd sourced input from people. My hope would be that people could then phone in during the non-unusual times with a high probability of speaking to an actual person, but I suspect that for some organisations there are no non-unusual times. And there is my problem, if there are no non-unusual times then sitting waiting for a service person is normal and that shows utter contempt for customers and we should all leave such organisations. Who’s with me?

(No, we won’t be using that insurance company again).

Stop the Self Inflicted Pain | How Much Better Could Your Life Be?

I have a physio friend and people regularly go up to him and say: “It hurts when I do this!”

His response is to say: “Well, don’t do that then.”

Pain is often our body’s way of telling us to do things differently, yet we all do things every day that cause us pain, or am I the only one? Many of the practices we regard as sacrosanct in modern business have no basis in science, yet a global peer pressure enforces them into the life of millions. Some of these practices are just a bit unhelpful, but some are dangerous to health and well-being. Many of the things that we do outside of work are likewise unhelpful and dangerous and yet we continue to do them, and I’m not talking about rock climbing. When questioned we would struggle to articulate why we do them, we just do.

Although I quoted my physio friend, I’m not primarily talking about physical health things, though that can can often play a significant part. My principal focus are those practices that impact upon our productivity and ultimately our well-being.

Perhaps you are living in splendid ignorance, so I’m sorry if this post opens your eyes to things that will now frustrate you when you see them, as all good 12 Step programmes know the first step is to move out of denial.

The first thing to note is that I’ve constrained the length of this post to keep it readable, but the list of self inflicted pain is very long indeed, and I may return to it at some point in the future, it may even become a series, I’ll see.

Are your wasting your productive time?

Many people plan their day around a focus on important work and urgent work with little attention to the timing of the work during the day.

If your diary is anything like mine it is littered with meetings. There is no pattern to the types of meetings and when they happen, they are scheduled at the time when the person arranging it decided it should happen.

We each have different times in the day when we are better, or worse, at different types of work – we have a chronotype. For most, our chronotype is somewhere between extreme morningness or extreme eveniningness, as such for most of us we are more alert in the morning, have a slump in the afternoon and then have another peak in the evening. Yet, how many of us waste our alert productive time in the morning on the trivial tasks that would be better suited to our afternoon slump? We are making our lives significantly harder by expecting our performance to be the same across the day and our schedule of meetings isn’t helping.

This is a particularly difficult challenge for international teams where people are in different time-zones with some in the middle of their most productive time and others in the middle of a slump.

Are you getting outside?

If you are going to recover from a slump one of the best ways of doing it is to get outside into the nature that’s probably around you. Even if you work in a city there is likely to be parkland or some other form of green space available.

Remaining inside and expecting your body to recover from a slump is likely to just extend the slump.

You don’t have to be outside for long, a few minutes is enough to make a huge difference to your focus and ability to get work done.

Are you wearing the right footwear?

Do you work in an environment where you are expected to wear shoes? Perhaps you are expected to wear “smart” (uncomfortable) shoes?

Research in schools has shown that shoeless learning spaces perform better. Is it too much of a stretch to think that work environments, particularly for knowledge workers may also perform better if people ditch their shoes?

I’ve often pondered whether it’s one of the reasons why people prefer home working. Work always feels different at home in my slippers.

How much of a culture change would your organisation need to allow slippers to become the normal footwear in the office? Would the productivity increase be worth it?

Are you wasting time with long meetings?

Back to you diary. How many 1 hour meetings will you be attending today or this week? How many 2 hour meetings? Of the 1 hour and 2 hour meetings how many of them include break times? Not many? None? That’s my experience also.

What is the ideal length of a meeting for maximum concentration? Well, there doesn’t appear to be an absolute definitive answer on that, some say 15 minutes, some say 45 minutes, there’s some evidence for a sweet-spot of 18 minutes, whichever option you choose they are all less than an hour and way less than 2 hours. There are different ways to engineer longer meetings with mini-breaks, perhaps getting everyone to change position, or change subject, another way is to do something interactive but these mini-breaks are only partially successful.

There’s a good reason why the daily stand-up meeting in Scrum is only 15 minutes. Extending the meeting beyond that time can, quite quickly, suck all of the energy out of the meeting.

If you routinely schedule meetings for an hour then you are almost certainly wasting people’s time. Remember the project management adage:

Work expands to the time you schedule for it.

One other thing to be aware of. People are more productive at the beginning and end of a meeting, but only if they know it’s the end. This is where sticking to a timer is really important. People’s productivity will lift as they see the finish line coming into view.

Two 30 minute meetings will be more productive than a single one hour long meeting.

Are you frustrating everyone with a blended remote and face-to-face meeting?

The worst type of meeting is the blended remote and face-to-face meeting. The people who are face-to-face are frustrated by the slowness caused by the people who are remote. This frustration is particularly acute for people who have travelled and are sitting there thinking that they wished they had decided to join remotely. The people who are remote are frustrated by their inability to understand everything that is going on in the meeting room and often get distracted.

  1. All face-to-face meetings = best
  2. All remote meetings = OK
  3. Blended remote and face-to-face = worst

I speak as someone with significant experience of each.

Oh dear, I’ve run out of room…

I think that will do for now, if each of us manged to make these few changes we would all be in a better place, but I suspect that for many of us even these are beyond our grasp, we clearly prefer the pain. There’s definitely more examples to come, so I suspect that there will be another round.