I love this executive summaries section at the end of the paper version of the Harvard Business Review. I don’t know if it has been running for years or just started, but it’s very useful in helping decide — do I want to give these X,000 words my attention?
They should put it up front really, to make it even more useful.
TL;DR: “Type as quickly as you can and always carry a pencil.” — Clive Thompson.
When the late Iain Banks talked about the inevitable “where do you get your ideas?” question that authors are dogged by, he said, “we have exactly the same amount of ideas as everybody else – authors are just better at capturing them”.
Getting thoughts out of one’s head and onto something where they can make use of is an essential practice for everyone who works with their mind.
The moment when the idea or insight occurs is where every great inspiration starts where every new novel, screenplay, strategy and scheme either sparks into life or winks out of possible existence as if it had never occurred to anyone.
When it comes to meetings and listening to presentations I currently prefer a notebook over a tablet or laptop for taking notes. Actually, I’ll use a smartphone if it’s more discreet – say on a crowded restaurant table. I’m always careful to make it clear I’m taking notes, however – if people suspect you are attending to email or other things they can find it distracting and even a little stressful.
For focused note-taking, though, nothing beats the reliability and – it turns out – self-editing and précis skills required of physical note-taking.
This video of a short talk by Clive Thompson, a journalist who writes a great deal about how our minds work with machines, confirmed many of my suspicions about why I like note-taking by hand, as well as why when it comes to developing ideas and getting them down in a document, nothing beats the ability to type quickly.
Since watching this I’ve got the pencils and sharpener he talks about finding as a result of his obsessive search for the best example of each. I can confirm that they are fantastic.
This post comprises notes on a work in progress – a drive to reduce tech-based distractions and learn how to use personal technology help me get things done more effectively and with less distraction and stress.
There is only one red dot on my smartphone now. It is to remind me to do things with things coming out of my mind not out of my email inbox. It’s for an app called Drafts, which effectively has become an inbox for my mind.
If you put in the effort to decide when the dots and pop-ups appear, then you can use them to support your goals, not nibble away at your reserves of willpower, attention and time.
That’s why I like the one red dot I’ve introduced back onto my phone.
At first, I thought Drafts would be a distraction – another text app, a sub-genre of productivity software of which I cannot resist trying out new examples. Then, as I tried to minimise the number of apps on my home screen – down to a maximum of four on the menu bar – I discovered its unique strengths.
The default screen when you open Drafts is a blank page. You write down your thoughts, notes, reminders or whatever and you can then send them to the app they are for or leave them there until you’re ready to process them.
This removes a friction in one’s workflow I’d not noticed before – deciding and finding an app to write in, post in or whatever. When you’re getting a thought out of your head and into an app you’re often on the move, or int he middle fo something else. You don’t want to start using an app and slip out of flow or walking and start doing something else – you just need the thought to be captured.
The notes are in an inbox which you can then process later. That’s where the red dot is useful – to remind me I have some notes that need to be sent to where they will be most useful. An email goes out via the email app using the share function or a list of options in Drafts (it will format it straight into the app with the first line becoming the subject line). An idea for a blog post goes into Ulysses Inbox, the draft of an idea into Slack to share with my team, the list of things to remember into Reminders, the sketched agenda points into Trello.
Image: The operations options for Drafts – these can be changed to the apps you use most.
I’ve been trying this out for a week, and it seems to be very useful. My ways of working don’t often stay the same for long – but this one feels like a small leap forward in personal workflow.
Image: A satisfyingly minimal clear home screen and dock.
…It’s another angle on what John Willshire discusses in his series of presentations on the idea of “fracking the social web“. The race for Likes and shares and and views leaves depleted culture and relationships in its wake.
…This connects with why at Brilliant Noise we’ve talked more about earning advocacy than earning media, or even earning attention. The media’s not the point, the customer is… and they couldn’t give a fig for brands, most of the time.
Paying attention to a device while you are in conversation robs you of your ability to create a “human moment” reflects Daniel Golemanthis LinkedIn post:
An article in the Harvard Business Review calls this kind of interaction a “human moment.” How do you have a human moment at work? You have to put aside whatever else you’re doing, and pay full attention to the person who’s with you. And that opens the way to rapport, where emotional flow is in tandem. When your physiology is in synchrony with someone else you feel connected, close and warm. You can read this human moment in terms of physiology – but you can also read it experientially, because during those moments of chemistry we feel good about being with the other person. And that person is feeling good about being with us.
It’s an interesting way of thinking about these bad habits of distraction – what the checking of smart devices gives us is clear – we just need to be aware of what they are taking away. There’s a trade-off when we choose to focus our attention on one thing and not another. And not choosing is of course a kind of decision as well – though usually the worst kind…
Like newly hatched chicks they chirrup and gawp, those little red dots having a similar cognitive effect on us to a chick’s open beak does for its parents – except we cough up some some attention instead of food.
When we get a new phone (or a new OS upgrade on one) there’s usually some mucking around to get the settings how you like them. Most people turn off the sound alerts for most things – few of us need a whooshing sound to let us know that set an email has indeed left the device, nor do we feel the need to annoy anyone in our vicinity with micro-clicky noises indicating we have successfully hit a key on an on-screen keyboard.
When it comes to turning down the volume of distractions coming out of mobile devices, we are left with some fairly basic, binary functions: you can turn on flight mode or some variation of “do not disturb”. As soon as you decide to be fully online though, it is apparently open season for any of the tens of apps you have installed to interrupt you with such vital news as they have a new feature, update or just – for goodness’ sake – that you haven’t used them in a while.
The author of Your Brain at Work, Dr David Rock, says that the habit of checking mail – and we can infer any other social app or icon on our devices which sees fit to display a red dotted plea for attention – can be so strong that we literally see the signal, open the app, scan the mail and begin responding before we have had a chance to think about it.
So how to avoid the red dots and attention traps of mobile devices? I use three devices on two ecosystems – each loaded with admittedly too many apps, so I’m an extreme case. My first move was to remove apps with red dots and alerts from my home screens altogether – leaving just things for reading or listening to music and podcasts there.
Recently I have gone further – removing the red dots and number of new messages from everything except texts messages and phone calls (the channels of urgency and last resort – either closer friends and colleagues or people who need to get in touch quickly will try these). Nothing gets to call for my attention until I am ready to see what’s going on in the world of that app, network or channel.
Perhaps we need to be more considerate about interrupting ourselves, allowing ourselves to be distracted…
Phone calls in the middle of movies or dinners or meetings are disruptive and – unless there’s some real urgency to them – extremely antisocial. When mobile phones came along it took us a little while to work this out, but soon turning them to silent and generally resisting the temptation to answer them became norms. When it comes to email and social media of various kinds, we may still be working out those social norms and the parameters of acceptability and usefulness.
It’s not just about social situations, though, it’s about the effect of these devices and apps on our ability to think clearly, focus on important things and manage our emotional well-being (constant connectivity can burn you out, raising your allostatic load – the stress hormones in your body).
There’s a useful question we’ve started asking since we started looking at all of this: who responds fastest when the other shouts for attention – you or your phone? Who in that relationship is the servant and who is the master?
I hope we’ll see device manufacturers offering an addition to airplane mode and do not disturb: low distraction mode – a selection of levels to tune in to how open to being interrupted we are. I’ll tell my phone when I want to look at email, Twitter and Facebook updates, thanks.
Meanwhile, although it is a little bit fiddly – you need to delve into too many apps’ settings – I highly recommend modifying your device to be low-distraction – red dot-free, as it were. Give yourself a little more peace, allow yourself to develop the habits that work for you around how you use these amazing connected tools we have suddenly found ourself using.
There’s a metaphor lurking about how a healthy diet of information and communication requires discipline and new habits. Like the past few generations of people in the West who have suddenly had access to literally all-you-can-eat sugar, saturated fat etc., we are having to come to terms with information-rich, distraction saturated, dopamine-firing, fascination on demand.
The result of all this de-distraction-ing of my devices was apparent immediately. They feel calmer, there are fewer triggers for bad habits or giving too much attention to Twitter etc (gorgeous as it is). It helps me to be more purposeful in my use of apps and my mobile device (“purposeful” being one of the three themes of Mobile Mastery we’ve been exploring at Brilliant Noise).
The most important part of this equation for me is mindfulness, combined with a sense of personal responsibility. If things aren’t feeling right, if you’re feeling stressed or anxious when you’re using social media or any technology, you need to acknowledge that and do something about it – take a break, declare email bankruptcy, try growing some new habits and ways of working. The responsibility is with each of us as the user to make sense of the amazing opportunities to learn more, think faster, connect more ideas that the web and mobile devices offer.
Despite having at least four other devices with Kindle apps on them at any given moment at home or work, my reading weapon of choice is the Kindle Paperwhite.
I rip through books on it, lose myself in them fast and deeply. Two reasons: first, there is less pull from the web and apps; second, the little “time left in book” statistic in the bottom-left corner seems to help me focus. The effect of the latter is a little like using the Pomodoro technique – it gives a sense of manageable scale and progress through the text. There may also be that effect some drivers report of their satnav’s estimated time of arrival at a destination – the temptation to beat the computer’s prediction.
For my money, there’s a far more immediate danger to the quality of our in-brain memory: that old op-ed page demon, distraction. If you want to internalize a piece of knowledge, you’ve got to linger over it. You can’t flit back and forth; you have to focus for a reasonable amount of time, with mental peace. But today’s digital environment rarely leaves you any such peace.
“We think we’re thinking faster, but actually we’re slowing down.” Caroline Webb, Partner at McKinsey & Co.
Following on from my last post, where I mentioned the brilliant “For Your Information” episode of Peter Day’s BBC series In Business in the context of advertising business models, I’d like to look at the other strand of the personal information theme in the programme.
Caroline Webb of McKinsey & Co, was introduced to discuss issues about information overload and its impact of personal productivity and executive teams, following on from the article she and Derek Dean wrote for McKinsey Quarterly, Recovering from Information Overload (free registration required):
In my talk at TEDx Brighton on the skills we need to develop to use the web effectively, I started from the point of view that information overload and distraction were two symptoms of a syndrome of inefficiency and mis-use of the web in our work. We need to make sure the web is working for us, and to do that we need to develop an understanding of networks, better habits of sharing, a sense of when to use our focus and attention in different ways and design more effective work-flows that took advantage of the way the web works.
McKinsey’s raising of this issue adds authority to a meme that’s been growing for some time, with posts like Declaring Email Bankruptcy etc.
In fact it puts me in mind of hopeful posts like E-Mail Is So Five Minutes Ago from BusinessWeek in 2005, when web 2.0 was just becoming an idea with real currency. It reminds us that the a yet unrealised hope for the social web was to help us work smarter, not just generate new opportunities for advertising.
In 2011, email isn’t dead – in fact it is still the centre of many people’s working days – and a range of other messaging options from Twitter to Basecamp updates can all add to rather solve the problems of overload and distraction. It isn’t even a case of us vs. the machines, it is a case that the culture we have evolved in using these things is corrosive and unproductive.
When Caroline Webb talks about an executive sending an email to a wide team and everyone leaping to reply on their BlackBerrys, whatever the hour, whether they are on holiday or in the car, the image that I can’t get out of my head is animals in cages reacting to a bell.
Like Pavlov’s dog we’ve allowed our reward centres and anxieties to be tuned to make us jump at the sound of a smartphone vibrating. The smartest, highest trained people we can get to run our companies are reduced to nervous monkeys.
Here’s a collection of insights from the BBC programme and from the McKinsey Quarterly article:
“Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy.” You know this if you have worked in these cultures – it is literally impossible to do your best work when you’re reacting to round robins and erratic requests at all hours.
“All the benefits of the information technology and communications revolution, it has a well-known dark side: information overload and its close cousin, attention fragmentation. These scourges hit CEOs and their colleagues in the C-suite particularly hard because senior executives so badly need uninterrupted time to synthesize information from many different sources, reflect on its implications for the organization, apply judgment, make trade-offs, and arrive at good decisions.”
“[executives] disjointedly attempt to grab spare moments with their laptops or smart phones, multitasking in a vain effort to keep pace with the information flowing toward them.” This is reactive, piecemeal work, dictated by the flow of communications, not the needs of the organisation, the situation, or the opportunities.
“Leaders need to change how they feel good about themselves…” People feel good because via email they get instant responses, can be hands-on on a project the moment they think about it (micro-management, as it was once known). On the flip-side, people feel good because they have a reputation for being ultra-responsive, available all hours.
Just as with Caroline’s quote at the head of this article stating that we fool ourselves into thinking we are thinking faster, “One might think that constant exposure to new information at least makes us more creative. Here again, the opposite seems to be true.”
The strategy you need to get out of this state of affairs is a combination of personal and systems.”It requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, and we can’t do it alone: in our teams and across the whole organization, we need to establish a set of norms that support a more productive way of working.”
And, it seems, none of this is really new – Peter Drucker was talking about how knowledge workers and executives needed to behave in the 1960s: “some fairly basic strategies that aren’t very different in spirit from the ones Drucker described more than 40 years ago: some combination of focusing, filtering, and forgetting.”
Lastly there are three steps that are required to start to put this right, according to McKinsey:
We need to acknowledge and challenge the mind-sets and current patterns of behaviour.
Leaders need to delegate and resist the temptation to interfere…
Leaders need to work with their teams to “redesign working norms”.
Naturally, as boardrooms tend to be McKinsey’s clients they are focusing on leaders and executive teams in this analysis, but in my experience these things apply to knowledge workers, in fact anyone who uses email, at every level in every type of organisation.
One insight we have now, though, after all these years of social web tools spreading, is that it is just important to think about the culture of working with the web and electronic communications as the tools themselves. As Dan McQuillan said at CityCamp Brighton about – and I echoed in a way – digital tools and networks can be used to loosen clogged bureaucracies and ways of working. But if we don’t think about how they are being used, don’t challenge unproductive and corrosive ways of working, they will establish new workplace tyrannies and inefficiencies…
When change comes (and it will come) it will need to come simultaneously in changes to how we work and how we think about organisations, how hierarchies and networks work together.
Search engine optimisation (SEO), social media, display ads, PR, creative, content, all of these things are too often presented in oppoisition to one another, when really all distract from the central task in hand, winning in the great attention markets of the web.
The only disciplines I wouldn’t include in those would be things would be user experience and community management, both of which, when practised with awareness of networks rather than fixating on a single website or platform, are growing in importance in the digital mix. It amazed me that toward the end of 2010 we were still talking about the relative merits of PR and SEO, as if effective communications
Let’s not waste too much time on playground tactics (no rabbit in a hat tricks) in 2011. Begin and end your thinking about success online with attention: serving it, winning it, earning it.
And with that, here’s some 12 year old hip hop to kick off the New Year. Keep it, er, real…
He’s musing about why things win out in attention markets and rolls out a lovely phrase from his brother – it’s all about the “natural selection of interesting”…
Ants in colonies don’t require any conscious top down organisation – local rules exist and individual behaviours leave pheremone trails that get reinforced if the behaviour is imitated, which leads to directional changes of the whole.
We leave links and tags, tweets and posts, instead of pheremones – and these guide the allocation of attention.
Oh – that’s just beautiful. An elegant analogy for the social web if ever there was one…
Image: If it's interesting, we'll help each other find it (Image: Budslife Busy)
As Duncan Watts has pointed out, the structure of the network is as important as that which seeks attention, and the same thing that becomes an attention grabbing hit one day, may not the next.
When Ted started Dogster he was developing new content and features with project times – from spotting a need to getting something out there – of about a month. As revenue began to come in from premium subscriptions and sponsorship deals he began to invest in more ambitious projects with longer lead times.
Suddenly, it seemed, the failure rate for projects began to increase. When a review of projects that were failing was conducted, a common factor was quickly spotted: almost all of the failing projects had taken six months or more from idea to public release. They were failing because the community had moved on; was interested in other things. Their needs had shifted.
Ted calls this effect: the impact horizon. Ever since, he has been working on bringing down the development time for new features to as close to a month as possible.
You start thinking about competing for attention in this environment and you get to thinking about the production process for your lovely useful/interesting ideas, bits of content, data, whatever that you’re going to send out into the big bad networks ecosystem. And suddenly building one thing starts to look like a very precarious approach.
Much better to build a process or platform for producing lots of things – because there’s a better chance of some of them working. When an idea takes, earns some good attention, ask why before the narrative bias kicks in and you’re tempted so it was always going to be that way.