Category Archives: Personal Productivity

Don’t follow your dreams, lead them

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By all means, let a motivational speaker convince you to follow your dreams. Quit that day job! Climb that mountain! That gold medal winning, mountain-climbing, obstacle-overcoming speaker followed their dreams and they’re here today to tell you, nay – SHOW you, that they are the embodiment of all the evidence you need that following your dreams will lead you down the path to the success you desire. Indeed, it is the only path.

This article is about a particular kind of bias but, first, I need to declare another bias of my own. I do sometimes tag myself as a #motivationalspeaker. Part of what I do in helping people change and develop themselves requires me to speak, and that speaking business existed way before I did. That business and its buyers have some labels that I need to adhere to in order to get found. I would prefer not to use ‘motivational speaker’ to describe myself. I do think I help others choose to change for the better. Two of my five books are heavily centered around leaders motivating others. But, I’m as prone to ‘imposter syndrome’ as anyone else. When I think of motivational speakers, I think of the big names with massive crowds. I’d name names but who knows in the near future how many famous names end up being people you don’t want to cite in an article or be photographed next to? It’s a new form of Russian Roulette. #NeverMetTheGuy

My point is that being motivational is like being tall: If someone has to tell you they’re tall, they’re not.

So, that’s my bias. The main bias I’m addressing in this article though is ‘Survivor Bias’.

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If you want to find out how successful businesses became succesful, you’d think it sensible to talk with and study businesses that are already successful. Do what they do and you’ll get what they get, right? This is literally what many business speakers say. Many others imply it. There’s bias in there that will stunt your findings and inject randomness into the results of your efforts following their advice. As usual, a big part of the answer is asking yourself and others more and better questions earlier. What about those same successful business people who left and did the same things yet failed? What about those same successful business people who did the same things previously yet failed? What about failed business people who were doing the same things at the same time? By all means, take some learning from the winners at winning time but factor in luck and hubris. Those learnings become optional tools in your potential success toolkit not a recipe for success.

There’s a great study looking at real life expert investment advisors compared to monkeys throwing darts at a list of investment options (ie random luck). Over time, who wins? Hey hey, it’s the monkeys. Focusing solely on winners at the point they’re winning leaves out a whole bunch of vital info you need to know if you still want to follow your dreams.

I first encountered the concept of survivor bias in a museum tour. We got to a preserved log cabin they’d transported from its original wild location. The guide initially praised it and said how it had survived 400+ years and how the ‘technology’ of its construction could be used today etc. Then, she pointed out how many people had died in exactly the same types of cabins. They had the only cabin that survived 400 years. 99 point whatever percent did not. Yet we’d be quite happy to base our opinions of log cabins on the one successful one we encountered.

It’s your life. Follow your dreams if you choose to. You’ll definitely regret it if you don’t try. Listen to that Oscar winner’s speech about leaving their small town and trudging to so many auditions, then getting a break and making it big. But maybe take a vacation to Hollywood first and talk to some waiting staff to balance out your info on the experience and your actual odds. Dreams are not real and making them real requires, beyond luck for a minority, being realistic. Get info. Make plan. Take action.

Those great actors did leave their towns. Those mountain climbers did risk their lives. The great inventors did whatever they did. And, society as a whole, moves forwards thanks to their followed, and luckily fulfilled, dreams. You are not society. You are one person. Roll your dice and take your chances but please do so knowingly, not with your eyes closed. By definition, you have to close your eyes to dream but to achieve those dreams, you need to open your eyes.

I’m not a Grinch (most days). I have dreams and I’m following, and have followed, some but not all of them. Got some but not all of them. Following your dreams is not the path to success. It is the second step on any one of a number of paths to success. The first step is having a bunch of dreams from which to choose, investigate and trial. Any speaker, motivational or otherwise, advising you to follow your dreams can do so with my blessing (not that they or you require it). But, they had better have a bunch of practical action steps after that or they are not just useless but dangerous.

Good luck and please feel under no obligation to thank me in your Oscar or Nobel speech. Or both.

Extend Your Productive Life

LWL 3D 2019

With the upcoming release of my new book, I’m updating and relaunching my earlier books. The first is ‘Live Work Love: #Add10QualityYears’.

The book is available now on Amazon, down to $1 for a limited time at http://bit.ly/LiveWorkLove . 

Our longevity, health and quality of life are due 30% to genetic luck and 70% to our choices and behaviours. We’re dealt some cards and this book is about how to play the best hand, given those cards we’ve been dealt. No one wants to live forever but most of us would like to get the most out of whatever we’ve got coming. The vast majority of us would like to keep on going until we don’t, not taper off to a long unhealthy tail-end of life. Regardless of how long we have, how do we stay healthier longer, optimise our happiness and make it all worthwhile?

Reviewing and summarising much of the recent research on life expectancy, quality of life and personal productivity, this book then focuses on adding ten productive years to your work life. (Work in the broadest sense of the word.)

Currently, there is a lot of concern and uncertainty about living longer with less money, poorer health and disconnected people. The baby boomers are the most significant moneyed demographic and they’re greying at a pace. Now is a time of unparalleled affluence and longevity, yet we are faced with low quality-of-life issues driven by stress, obesity and unwise lifestyle choices. Forget waiting for that illusive magic blue pill or silver bullet when we can do a few little things every day that add up to a massive high-quality chunk of extra life that funds itself.

The book provides 12 controls for people to nudge their lives towards a better direction by influencing our physical, mental and social lives.

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The book is available now on Amazon, down to $1 for a limited time at http://bit.ly/LiveWorkLove . 

The ‘BackBrief’ As A Business Communication Tool

backbrief

What is a ‘BackBrief’? I first encountered the concept running a delegation workshop for a prestigious lawfirm.

The point of delegation is to drive optimal productivity, right. The lowest cost resource that can do the work should be assigned to do that work. The high-cost resources such as the partners, specialists and so forth should be doing high value work. Those in supervisory roles need to be delegating effectively, using systems to ensure work is done to standard, to time, and on budget.

There’s a lot that I could write about delegation and perhaps will in future but, for now, I want to focus in on one person. That person is a senior solicitor in that firm. He knew at a logical level that he should be delegating but his personality was such that he struggled. “No one can do this as well as me”. “Even if someone could do this as well as me, it won’t be the way that I would do it”. “Look, it’s just quicker and easier if I do it myself”.

Obviously those are just excuses and you can probably counter those excuses yourself. It’s short-term thinking, ultimately unsustainable, and certainly not optimal productivity. He was however able to cite several instances where he’d assigned work that ended up being poorly done, or not done at all, due to a lack of understanding on the part of the people being assigned the work. You could argue that adult professionals should not go around nodding that they can do a task when they aren’t sure. You could assign blame to the delegator who is ultimately still accountable for the work and its quality and timeliness. Better is to implement a simple system that invests a small amount of time upfront that ensures there is accurate understanding or there isn’t. Another lawyer in the room was ex-military and she introduced us all to the concept of the ‘BackBrief’.

BackBrief is exactly what it sounds like. The person or people receiving the instructions give a synopsis of the instructions they just received. The person originally giving the instructions can then determine whether the message was received properly. If it’s a small task, then the ‘BackBrief’ might be a swift verbal remark. If it’s a task of substance, then it might warrant some time and a small presentation.

It’s a great idea I’ve been introducing in my workshops that a lot of professional non-military workplaces are picking up on.

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Decision-Making: Deliberation Without Attention

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“Every thought on the wire leads to a fall.” – Philippe Petit, High Wire Aerialist

People feel much more responsible for their actions than their inactions. Joseph Hallinan says in his book ‘Errornomics – Why We Make Mistakes’ that at the moment you think you’re making a decision, it only seems so. It’s really long after the real decision was actually made.

This is an extract from my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’.

Most days are made up of a series of decisions. Some are like which of three cereals should you have for breakfast or which task to start next. Some decisions might be about buying a house or signing a contract to undergo elective surgery. Maybe you agonise over every decision or just the big ones or none at all? The rest you just go with your gut feeling. Sometimes you’ll regret the decisions you make, or choose not to make, and sometimes you won’t. What’s the smartest way to make decisions or help others make them? It depends on the complexity of the decision.

Ap Dijksterhuis out of the University of Amsterdam conducted several studies on just this subject. However, like many of the researchers I’ve read for this book, they used sentences like, “Because of the low processing capacity of consciousness, conscious thought was hypothesized to be maladaptive when making complex decisions.” And they’re right but wordy. In my words, it’s hard to think about a bunch of complicated things at once.

You might like to imagine you’re a rational, logical person who’ll weigh up the pro’s and cons of each decision you make, especially the big ones, and make the best decision you can with the information you have. But what Dijksterhuis proved was quite different. He studied consumers and shoppers in lab conditions and in actual sales situations – during and after. The ‘after’ is especially important, as that is when the true quality and impact of a decision hit home.

All participants were facing a purchase decision of varying sizes. Half were interrupted and distracted during their decision-making process. All were subsequently followed up on how they felt about their decision post-purchase. The thinking was that the distraction allowed the unconscious mind, which can handle lots of complexity at once, to process the decision. It hooks into the brains emotional centres. This is where ‘gut feelings’ may come from. Plus emotional responses to the decision choices are pre-rehearsed and emotional responses to each assessed by your brain with you not consciously aware of them.

His findings were that “simple choices (such as between different towels or different sets of oven mitts) indeed produce better results after conscious thought, but that choices in complex matters (such as between different houses or different cars) should be left to unconscious thought. Named the ‘deliberation-without-attention’ hypothesis, it was confirmed in four studies.”

Conscious thought focuses attention on whatever factors manage to squeeze themselves into our limited conscious mind at the time. That distorts perception and can over-inflate the relative importance of certain factors.

Researcher Loren Nordgren joked about Rene Descartes’ famous quote, “I think therefore I am.” That was all well and good but was he always happy with the shoes he chose to buy? Over-thinking doesn’t make for good decisions when it’s not a simple decision.

I’m not suggesting that lack of attention is a good thing. Otherwise we may as well put teenagers in charge of all the important decisions. Most can usually (always) be relied upon to provide the ‘without attention’ component! No, it has to be a bit more structured than that.

Both studies look at what might be called intentional self distraction. They contrasted three approaches to decision-making: make an instant choice, long list of pro’s and cons, briefly distracting the conscious mind. The latter was the most effective and, down the road a bit, evoked the least regret.

If you just skim read Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’, you might assume that instant decisions are often best. But on closer examination, I reckon Gladwell agrees with Dijksterhuis. Both reject the supposedly time-tested tradition of logically weighing up over a period of intense concentration a list of pro’s and cons. It takes ages and delivers a poorer result.

My shorthand version of a useful process is:

1. Introduce the problem and range of solution options

2. Carry out a pre-set 3 minute distraction activity.

3. Return to the problem and / or the options. Make your choice.

4. Live with it.

So, what?

I had it drummed into me and I subsequently preached to those I trained about the commonsense of structured event interviewing as a tool for recruiting. I was schooled on the value of decision matrix spreadsheets when evaluating complex contract tender responses. Does this research mean those formal processes have no value? No. Recruiting and big contracts are expensive and the consequences of mistakes are significant. At the very least, you may need to retrospectively justify your decision. (ie Cover your butt.) I think the lesson of deliberation-without-attention is that it pays to try both approaches. If they don’t match, you might need to do some more research and ask some more questions.

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Give Work The Finger?

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One of my earlier books ‘Live Work Love: #Add10QualityYears’ was about adding ten years to your productive life. Expanding lifespans in developed countries are tarnished by the physical diseases and decay of affluence. Retirement for many is becoming a shifting goalpost, a political football or an unwelcome concept from last century. Now seems a great time to write about the topic of stretching out the good and productive years. We’re living longer so we may as well live better and make a few more bucks along the way. Or not – on the bucks front anyways. I’m already reading much about how money, above a certain level, doesn’t make that much difference in terms of quality of life. Though below that level, it will diminish the quantity of life you end up with.

A consistent theme throughout the book is overlapping and inter-connectedness – a systems approach. Certainly, when you get to the sections on our bodies and how our physical systems work (or don’t), this becomes incredibly evident.

This next bit might be more of a laugh than anything factually helpful but it is a conversation starter. I use it when MCing conferences to get a buzz going and the noise and enthusiasm levels up amongst the audience.

John Manning studied the relationship between our finger lengths and certain health outcomes. Look at the photo below of my hand and how I’ve marked the difference in length between my ring finger (4D) and my index finger (2D.) Check out your own 4D:2D ratio. They’ve been the same your whole life and they’re not going to change. It’s supposed that their relative lengths are a consequence of exposure to differing levels of testosterone in the womb as a foetus.

So what? Manning’s study of Liverpool heart attach victims’ fingers found a high ratio (like mine) has a correlation with lower heart attack risk. It’s good for sport. It’s bad for depression. It’s terrible for autism. Manning himself describes his findings as, “Persuasive but not yet definitive.” Why am I even bothering to finish this paragraph? You’re too busy trying to stretch your fingers or finding a friend to check out their fingers before you tell them why…

The point is that, even if this is true, there is nothing you can do about it. These are cards that have been dealt. But, on average, our genetics are only a third of our future. Two thirds are our choices, and we can all do something about that.

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In Workspace, No One Can Hear You Scream

space

The tongue-in-cheek title of this article is a reference to the tagline of the classic movie ‘Alien’. Apart from a couple of iconic horror-ish scenes, much of the drama of that movie is suspense – long periods of nothing with intermittent interactions with the unexpected. That sounds a lot like office workspaces – long periods of nothing then getting quite startled by the smell of whatever the last person cooked inside the microwave. And, in the dystopian future of the alien franchise and in most offices, everything is done for the benefit of the company.

We’re regaled in LinkedIn posts and magazine articles about the sexy workplaces, usually in Silicon Valley with mini-golf courses in corridors and fireman poles connecting meeting rooms to a bat-cave. Those kinds of googly environments do exist, and even exist in New Zealand. TradeMe have quite a centrepiece in their office of a five-storey slide. At the top is a sign very clearly indicating it is unacceptable to “drink and slide”. Also, there’s some wisdom about not carrying laptops at the same time.

Whether you think it nice or silly or engaging to have such trinkets and playthings, there are many other more affordable and overtly practical trends and developments in work space design. As long as they’re pragmatic and purposeful and not just change or funkiness for its own sake or that of the ego of a designer, I do not have a problem with them. Novelty by its very nature wears off, like welcomes.

One trend is hiding the wires. Those of us with home offices or who like to muck in and help shift ourselves at work know the excitement of the Russian Roulette of unplugging cables, shifting, then attempting to re-plug things in. With LANs, HDMIs, VGAs and RCAs, it’s hard to tell that I made up one of those previous terms. (One is a record label that signed at various times Duke Ellington, Kenny Rogers and Britney Spears). Complete wirelessness is not yet with us so I look forward to hidden compartments and doors, ala Hogwarts, to keep cables out of sight and out of mind. Until, of course one of them stops working and who knows which one that is or where it’s hidden in spaghetti limbo?

Bringing the outdoors inside is a thing. We’re way beyond potplants now. Some countries are making rooftop garden spaces and parks compulsory. Even Auckland has beehives set up in the CBD for all those folks with balcony yucca, cherry tomatoes and small grazing spaces for ponies that will fit in a handbag.

Multi-purpose spaces are becoming commonplace. From ‘non-assigned seating’ to casual breakout areas to standing meeting spaces, I’ve even seen ‘town squares’ and a caravan repurposed as a meeting room with its own coffee machine with more tech than Apollo 11 had, which admittedly wasn’t that much.

Given that mobile devices are, well, mobile, spaces that used to be for cubicles, pods, or customer desks are now general lounge areas that can be used for laptop work, meetings or general lounging.

Areas within areas can be designated and differentiated discretely or glaringly by colour. The ‘red zone’ is for boisterous play where creative juices can run riot and innovations generated. If you’re trying to meditate in the red zone, that’s a rookie play. Wise up and head for the chill blue space. Duh.

Community tables are happening. Some look like King Arthur is expecting his knights to arrive at any moment but the general idea is sharesies. If the table seats 12 and you’re having a chat for two, don’t be surprised or offended if another two or more people show up and encroach your space. Outside of offices, I’ve been to cafes with community tables and they’re popular and I hate them. The thing I don’t like about being a people-person in my own time is the people. But, apparently, in workplaces, they’re collegial and collaborative. In fairness though, it takes a village to raise a project.

I’m not saying ‘Get Him To The Greek’ is a good movie but there is an amusing drug-addled scene in which various characters interact with a furry wall. Office designers refer to this premis in their new designs as influencing wellness and productivity with a variable texture vocabulary. I am actually a fan of this and have years of bubblewrap popping experience to back myself up. Flat is out.

Permanent layouts are out and flexibility is in. So, it seems like office space is being treated much the same as office people.

If you’re worried everything is changing, fret not, there’ll still be timeless classics like flickering fluorescent tubes, partitions blocking natural light, and Barry from Accounts trying to sell you his daughter’s fundraising soap. Whatever happened to fundraising chocolate?!


 

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Why Does Going Home Seem Faster?

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This article goes into an experiment by Ryosuke Ozawa and other scientists from Kyoto University who found that subjects perceived a journey from A to B as seeming longer than B to A. In this case, ‘A’ is home.

You can read the article yourself but first I’ll quickly summarise the possible reasons why, then I’ll suggest how we might use this finding on ourselves and those we lead or influence in order to nudge ourselves into more positive mindsets and better results – or, at least, results about which we might feel better.

The first reason centres around familiarity. The bits of our brain that were on duty back in caveman times (caveperson) were really attuned to not getting eaten by predators. Back then the food chain wasn’t just an abstract concept to humans. Something new was noticed and time and energy in the brain given to assessing it. Could it eat us? Could we eat it? Could I start a family with it or at leats give it a go? That’s about it. It’s that time and energy given by the brain to the unfamiliar that may generate a perception of longer time. Similarly, under stress oneof the physical effects you may not have noticed is the dilation of the eyes’ pupils. This is let in more light so we can react more quickly in a fight or flight situation, doing punches ‘Matrix’-style. I guess we’ve evolved from successful fighters. With stress memories seen through dilated pupils, those memories seem bigger and slower than actual reality. Interviews with victims of armed robberies regularly report the robbers as being significantly bigger than they actually were.

For those journeys away to unfamiliar places, perhaps for an event that might stress us like a new client, job interview, presentation, etc, we may well perceive as longer due to the strangeness / unfamiliarity. Returning home, the stress is less and there is at least one previous experience of the route.

A morale for this story – if you’re trying to be creative or inspire someone, take them for a walk away from the familiar workplace. I’m not suggesting you drive them into the woods at midnight – just hit up a different cafe from the usual watering hole.

“OUR BRAINS KEEP TRACK OF TIME USING VERY DISTINCT SYSTEMS”. – Dan Zakay

The second reason was overestimation / overconfidence. Before the first journey is taken, most people usually underestimate how long it will take. On the return, we over-correct and over-estimate so relative to our 2nd guess, it seems quicker. Disneyland and such themeparks regularly use this effect for queue management. A sign may suggest this point has a 45-minute waiting time whereas it’s only 20 so when you fly through in 20-25, it seems quicker. (Either way you’re probably buying an over-priced soda on the way).

The third reason was a contrast between worring or anticipating about the purpose of the trip and generally positive feelings about home after some sense of completion. Other research has shown that time does fly when you’re having fun and drags during calculus class (or whatever your ‘calculus class’ was). Also, time flies, at least in your brain, just after you’ve had fun.

So, leaving aside driving to places for gigs, interviews, etc, in what situations might the ‘return-trip effect’ be useful to us developing more positive mindsets and better results?

If you’re planning a project, you need to programme in some last steps to ‘return home’ – to compare and appreciate how far you’ve come. If you’re in a relationship and blocking out date nights, don’t stick to the same safe favourite place. Mix it up. If you do the regular family holiday, consider the pro’s and cons of always going to the same place. Cost-aside, the brains of your family will remember more positively and for longer the unfamiliar. Ironically the word familiar, of course, is derived from family.

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Self-Discipline: How To Refill Your Willpower Tank

brain gym

You’ve only got so much self control; Don’t waste it!

This article in ‘Psychology Today’ by Susan Krauss reports on Roy Baumeister’s work about how our self control can be sapped through overuse.

Personally, I’ve always had a mental model of willpower / self discipline / self control as a muscle that you could exercise and get to grow stronger. It turns out to actually be a tank that gets emptied but can be refilled and we can rely on random chance to do it for us, or be proactive and consciously and deliberately take actions that refill our willpower tank.

Oddly, the only thing proven to do so is consumption of small amounts of actual sugar. As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who, through strength of character, can be better people, maybe our natural level of self control is set through natural random chemical chance? It’s like those old Donald Duck cartoons where he’s in a dilemma and on one shoulder a little duck angel appears and on his other shoulder appears a little duck devil who argue it out into each of his ears. This ‘strength’ or ‘ego depletion’ theory implies that the angel gets weary and the devil gets his way until the angel rests up. And the best advice is to slip the angel a barley sugar or a powerade like it’s on a triathalon.

Krauss argues, and I agree, that if the model is that of a muscle that gets tired, then maybe the same progressive development can be applied to our willpower muscle that bodybuilders apply to their actual muscles. Keep working it out and it’ll get stronger over time but you need to keep increasing the weight / temptation to build it up. No pain; no gain.

No weight trainer or body builder says, “I’m going to curl this 20kg with my bicep forever,” yet you’re supposed to say, “I’m never going to have chocolate cake ever again.” That seems unrealistic, demoralising and potentially counterproductive. Weight trainers say, “I’m going to curl this 20kg weight 8-12 times or until I can’t, then rest, then do that set two more times. After time, that’ll get easier and I’ll increase the weight.” I don’t know what the cake equivalent is but it isn’t, “None ever again.” Work up to it.

Employers probably aren’t directly interested in employees’ cake avoidance or body building abilities but willpower / self control is likely a contributor to perseverance and grit which, as I write about frequently, are the most common precursors to success at work (or anywhere else for that matter.) So, if you’re leading someone at work who gives up, can’t focus for long enough or is constantly engaging in temptations that are distracting them from activities that should be adding value to their work and their lives, what can you do?

Well, if we’re stick to our weight training metaphor, you become their personal trainer. Not one of those old school cliche ‘Drill Sergeant’ types who shout, “You’re worthless and weak!! Give me twenty!!” Set challenging but realistic micro-goals that progressively build towards the desired target. Each success builds on itself, they’re more likely to buy-in to it and participate and, ultimately, you and they are more likely to achieve the end goal. But even the fluffiest of personal trainers aren’t pushovers. They don’t accept excuses and they demand honesty and effort.

And the irony is, given that sugar refuels our willpower tank, even if you do eat the cake, you may regret it but you’re less likely to eat more cake. So, in a tenuous way, you can have your cake and eat it too. Try a handful of dried cranberries. They’re the supposed ‘Superfruit.’ You never hear of ‘Supercake.’ (If you have heard of ‘Supercake’, please do let me know…)

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Does Your Fun ‘n’ Funky Workplace Actually Make For Better Work?

slide at work

This article covers some workplaces that have gone for the fun and funky motif – perhaps some others have tried to, but in the superficial way where all the mini golf courses in corridors and Harry Potter secret doors and fireman poles cannot overcome the dull, uninspiring work infecting dulled, uninspired inhabitants.

Cosmetic efforts at dollying-up the physical environment or doing ‘David-Brent-From-The Office UK’ level of cringe-worthy activities is superficial, paternalistic and, at best, only effective in the short term.

“…one of the most important factors in engagement actually relates to internal employee happiness rather than external stimuli. This means, in the same way that buying children a lollipop will please them for a few minutes, ‘faux fun’ will have equally short-term benefits”.

A boss with a rubber chicken is probably embarrassing or at best diverting attention from problems that demand competent attention. Several real chickens would probably be more effective at boosting morale, although you’d rather have it be your turn to clean the microwave than clean up after Katy Pecky and Christina Eggalayer.

I MC’d a conference in Wellington a while ago. In the afternoon, we were taken on a waling tour of a couple of high-profile workplaces – TradeMe and Xero. Ostensibly, we were looking at the physical layout of the workplaces as they were famous / infamous for being Googly / Appley in their fun, modern, even futuristic designs. And, yes, on arrival it was very visibly overt and different. Walls lined with classic album covers, a five-story spiral slide in the centre of the building and even a choice of several boutique beers on tap in the staff canteen with sweeping harbour views for all.

But these places also walked the talk. It was not superficial; it was representative. One meeting room was a caravan parked in a large space. It was an old caravan fitted out with the mod cons of an office meeting room. But it was also one of the first items ever sold on their site. It meant something. It represented something. But it was also practical, flexible and had genuine functionality.

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Productivity: You Say Tomato, I Say Pomodoro

tomato-isp

 I’ve taken a real shine to podcasts recently. Whilst walking or driving or at the gym, I’m plugged into my bluetooth wrap-around headphones doing two things at once. For most guys, multitasking is microwaving a pie whilst having a shower. Sometimes my phones goes and it automatically cuts the podcast and brings on the call, which is inevitably an offer of easy, high-fee work. I’ll accept the work, the caller will compliment me on the high-energy music in the background, the call ends, the phone brings back up the podcast and I go back to my workout. Such multitasking must surely be a shining example of productivity. (This happens to me all the time and isn’t a made-up example for this article in any way).

People talk about multi-tasking and being productive all the time. I’m not entirely sure everyone shares the same understanding of what it actually means. Technically, it’s a measure of the ratio of outputs to inputs in a production process. You know, a genuinely measurable thing you can track against a baseline and assess the effectiveness of changing variables. Probably my podcast at the gym example isn’t really about productivity, although my vertical leap has increased ten percent in the past three months and surely that’s a kind of productivity?

That ‘outputs to inputs’ stuff must just be about companies and countries though, right? Let us just fret about personal productivity. Let us all read about four hour work weeks, attempt four hour bodies and outsource our low value activities to some kids in Kazakhstan via fiverr.com. As a self-employed person, I do outsource much of my, for want of a better term, work. I have an accountant. I have a graphic designer. I buy their time and outputs as and when required. Those aren’t low value activities but they’re areas where my skill levels are amateurish on a good day with the wind behind me. Other tasks that are low value, I might assign to one of my low-skill non-Kazakhstani kids at low but not Fiverr.com-low rates. I probably shouldn’t be in charge of running a country but it seems to work for us. To be fair to Nahir my Fiverr guy, his work isn’t low skill. He is a skilled creative and I could never have drawn that cartoon myself of a desert scene made up of popsicles and cupcakes to go along as a background image with a comedy song I’d written about how I’m annoyed when people confuse the words ‘desert’ and ‘dessert’.

One technique worth considering, to the extent that you find it do-able, is performing different types of activities at different times of the day. I once met a professor of chronobiology (look it up) and she told me of circadian rhythms and such. People are different but the average person has two peak periods of alertness in a given day – around 8am to 10am and 6pm to 8pm. Our droopiest period of non-alertness is 1pm to 3pm. She argued that, if you can, you should schedule high value / high thinking activities in your peak alertness periods and your mindless, low-value tasks in your trough alertness periods.

Gloria Mark is one of the world’s leading experts on workplace interruptions. If I was to ask you what you thought were the primary causes of workplace interruptions, you might say things like phonecalls, emails, pop-in visitors or meetings. Mark did a videoed study of many workplaces where they’d had time management training and knew at a conscious level that they should be working on one task at a time until completion and that the tasks should be done in priority order according to agreed high-level goals. It’s fascinating to watch as the number one workplace interruption isn’t any of those you would’ve thought of. Our number one workplace interruptor is… ourselves. You watch the videos and people are working studiously on their high priority task, then, for no overtly obvious reason, they stop, shuffle sideays and do something else briefly, and finish by sliding back to that high priority task they’d just interrupted themselves from doing. And they’d do this repeatedly. Every time you interrupt a task and return to it, there is abundant opportunity for errors, duplications, ommission and so forth, nevermind the inefficiency.

One option to deal with the ill-disciplined, unproductive, troublemaker that is yourself is the pomodoro technique. When faced with any large task or series of tasks, break the work down into short, timed intervals that are spaced out by short breaks. This trains your brain to focus for short periods and helps you stay on top of deadlines. If you gradually increase the duration of the working periods, you can even train your brain to be more focused. The guy who invented the technique used a wind-up timer in the shape of a tomato and pomodoro is Italian for tomato.

Sorry, that last paragraph was a lot funnier in its original Kazakh language. It lost a bit in translation.

 

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