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.
You would not believe the lengths I go to to try and get things finished. Sometimes the pain of not finishing and still not getting on with it doubles me up with psychological pain.
I shout. I swear. I sulk. But I do not finish…
Some have their ways of deflecting criticism about their procrastination. They make themselves look incredibly busy (which is such hard work that of course they are incredibly busy).
You used to have to be very creative to do this once upon a time, but these days technology has solved the problem – email, Facebook or even Google will create enough busy-ness to keep you from being idle, or actually achieving anything you were supposed to.
So. This post.
This post, I am going to finish. Or now, even start… The article says:
Read the article. Read the book. Or just start either and then get distracted by..
…and I’m back. Here’s the summary – these things stop you…
Fear of getting anything done.
Fear of setting the bar too high.
Not wanting to end the fun.
The curatives are all obvious and basically of the “grow up and get on with it” variety – but it’s nice to hear how many others share my completer-finisher-aversion.
That Belbin team personality test has a lot to answer for by the way (that’s where “completer finisher” was first offered as a personality type). Tell someone they are in that category and not will they not gratefully, they will then go around invoking it as if it were some cross between a doctor’s note and a odd species of superpower. Yes, it was in my profile, and yes it has given me permission to leave all sorts of things unfinished for years.
On reflection, the solution is one-part habit forming and one stuff-it-all-and-remember-what’s-really-important.
I should forming a habit of finishing things to a certain stage – declare a state of acceptable “finishedness”, while remembering that nothing is ever nearly finished. Some stuff – books, emails, plans – don’t deserve to be finished – but rather than soldiering on with some Puritan work ethic nonsense, we should positively abandon them. Declare – that’s not worth my precious time, and drop it.
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…
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.