Tag: productivity (page 1 of 2)

Do the tools you use matter?

An interesting post from Austin Kleon on whether tools matter. It was prompted by the image accompanying this post, which met with some objections when he shared it with others:

On my Instagram, a follower was very upset with the above cartoon, saying it was “mean” and “hurtful” and not smart and ungrateful to my fans, and that I should try to “remember what it was like to be a beginner.”

He defends his position, partly by telling stories, but also by stating:

There are actually very good reasons for not wanting to teach young artists. There are good reasons for not answering a question like, “What brand of pen do you use?” or questions about process at all.

If you are just starting off and I tell you exactly how I work, right down to the brand of pen and notebook, I am, in a some small sense, robbing you of the experience of finding your own materials and your own way of working.

It’s been interesting seeing Bryan Mathers’ journey over the last five years. I’ve seen him go from using basic apps which work ‘just fine’ to reaching the limits of those and having to upgrade to more powerful stuff. That’s a voyage of discovery, but along the way it’s absolutely useful to find out what other people use.

Kleon points out that we can do better than tool-related questions:

So, yes, the tools matter, but again, it’s all about what you are trying to achieve. So a question like, “What brand of pen do you use?” is not as good as “How do you get that thick line quality?” or “How do you dodge Writer’s Block?”

I’m a fan of a great site called Uses This (formerly ‘The Setup’) which asks a range of people the hardware and software they use to get stuff done. The interviews are always structured around the same four questions, but the best responses are ones that take the idea and run with it a bit.

Note to self: update the version of this I did back in 2011.

Source: Austin Kleon

Your best decisions don’t come when you demand them

As with every episode so far, I greatly enjoyed listening to a recent episode of the Hurry Slowly podcast, this time with interviewee Bill Duggan. He had some great words of wisdom to share, including:

If we’re talking about the creative side, you certainly can’t force it, and a very simple thing is you can’t solve every problem in one day. You can’t solve every problem in one week. You can’t solve every problem in one year. Some problems you just can’t solve, and you don’t know you can’t solve it until you give up trying to solve it.

He makes the point during the episode that if you know what you’re doing, and have done something similar before, then there’s no problem in pushing on until midnight to get stuff done. However, if you’re working overtime to try and solve a problem, a lot of research suggests that you’d be better off doing something else to allow your subconscious to work on it, and spark those ‘aha!’ moments.

Source: Hurry Slowly

Arbitrary deadlines are the enemy of creativity

People like deadlines because people like accountability. There’s nothing wrong with that, apart from the fact that sometimes it’s impossible to know how long something will take, or cost, or even look like in advance. Creativity, in other words, is at odds with arbitrary deadlines:

We may tease them for their diva-like behaviors when they feel persecuted by a deadline, but we have to admit that “develop an amazing new idea” is not something that slides into your schedule, like pick up lunch or respond to new clients. Nor can systems be tweaked and extra hands hired to help hit a goal that requires innovation, the way they can when mundane busy work is piling up. And yet deadlines are a fact of life for any company that wants to stay competitive.

Time is a human construct, not something that’s objectively ‘out there’ in the world. As a result it can be interpreted differently in various situations:

Creative work operates on “event time,” meaning it always requires as much time as needed to organically get the job done. (Think of novel writers or other artists.) Other types of work operate on “clock time,” and are aligned with scheduled events. (A teacher obeys classroom hours and the semester calendar, for instance. An Amazon warehouse manager knows the number of customer orders that can be fulfilled in an hour.)

I don’t particularly like the phrase ‘creative people’ in this article, as I believe everyone is (or at least can be) creative. Having said that, I agree with the sentiment:

Creative people need another scarce commodity: mental space. Working in a large team and constantly collaborating as a group doesn’t allow a person the clarity of mind to solve problems with fresh ingenious ideas. “Alone time or working with just one close collaborator seemed to be the key under the low time pressure conditions,” says Amabile.

Creative people, she adds, “have to be protected. They have to be isolated in a way, from all the other stuff that comes up during a work day. They can’t be called into meetings that are unrelated to this serious problem that they’re trying to address.”

Source: Quartz

On your deathbed, you’re not going to wish that you’d spent more time on Facebook

As many readers of my work will know, I don’t have a Facebook account. This article uses Facebook as a proxy for something that, whether you’ve got an account on the world’s largest social network or not, will be familiar:

An increasing number of us are coming to realize that our relationships with our phones are not exactly what a couples therapist would describe as “healthy.” According to data from Moment, a time-tracking app with nearly five million users, the average person spends four hours a day interacting with his or her phone.

The trick, like anything to which you’re psychologically addicted, is to reframe what you’re doing:

Many people equate spending less time on their phones with denying themselves pleasure — and who likes to do that? Instead, think of it this way: The time you spend on your phone is time you’re not spending doing other pleasurable things, like hanging out with a friend or pursuing a hobby. Instead of thinking of it as “spending less time on your phone,” think of it as “spending more time on your life.”

The thing I find hardest is to leave my phone in a different room, or not take it with me when I go out. There’s always a reason for this (usually ‘being contactable’) but not having it constantly alongside you is probably a good idea:

Leave your phone at home while you go for a walk. Stare out of a window during your commute instead of checking your email. At first, you may be surprised by how powerfully you crave your phone. Pay attention to your craving. What does it feel like in your body? What’s happening in your mind? Keep observing it, and eventually, you may find that it fades away on its own.

There’s a great re-adjustment happening with our attitude towards devices and the services we use on them. In a separate BBC News article, Amol Rajan outlines some reasons why Facebook usage may have actually peaked:

  1. A drop in users
  2. A drop in engagement
  3. Advertiser enmity
  4. Disinformation and fake news
  5. Former executives speak out
  6. Regulatory mood is hardening
  7. GDPR
  8. Antagonism with the news industry

Interesting times.

Source: The New York Times / BBC News

The Goldilocks Rule

In this article from 2016, James Clear investigates motivation:

Why do we stay motivated to reach some goals, but not others? Why do we say we want something, but give up on it after a few days? What is the difference between the areas where we naturally stay motivated and those where we give up?

The answer, which is obvious when we think about it, is that we need appropriate challenges in our lives:

Tasks that are significantly below your current abilities are boring. Tasks that are significantly beyond your current abilities are discouraging. But tasks that are right on the border of success and failure are incredibly motivating to our human brains. We want nothing more than to master a skill just beyond our current horizon.

We can call this phenomenonThe Goldilocks Rule. The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.

But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to talk about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of peak performance, or ‘flow’ states:

In order to reach this state of peak performance… you not only need to work on challenges at the right degree of difficulty, but also measure your immediate progress. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains, one of the keys to reaching a flow state is that “you get immediate feedback about how you are doing at each step.”

Video games are great at inducing flow states; traditional classroom-based learning experiences, not so much. The key is to create these experiences yourself by finding optimum challenge and immediate feedback.

Source: Lifehacker

Should you lower your expectations?

“Aim for the stars and maybe you’ll hit the treetops” was always the kind of advice I was given when I was younger. But extremely high expectations of oneself is not always a great thing. We have to learn that we’ve got limits. Some are physical, some are mental, and some are cultural:

The problem with placing too much emphasis on your expectations—especially when they are exceedingly high—is that if you don’t meet them, you’re liable to feel sad, perhaps even burned out. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t strive for excellence, but there’s wisdom in not letting perfect be the enemy of good.

A (now famous) 2006 study found that people in Denmark are the happiest in the world. Researchers also found that have remarkably low expectations. And then:

In a more recent study that included more than 18,000 participants and was published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from University College in London examined people’s happiness from moment to moment. They found that “momentary happiness in response to outcomes of a probabilistic reward task is not explained by current task earnings, but by the combined influence of the recent reward expectations and prediction errors arising from those expectations.” In other words: Happiness at any given moment equals reality minus expectations.

So if you’ve always got very high expectations that aren’t being met, that’s not a great situation to be in

In the words of Jason Fried, founder and CEO of software company Basecamp and author of multiple books on workplace performance: “I used to set expectations in my head all day long. But constantly measuring reality against an imagined reality is taxing and tiring, [and] often wrings the joy out of experiencing something for what it is.”

Source: Outside

Culture is the behaviour you reward and punish

This is an interesting read on team and organisational culture in practice. Interesting choice of image, too (I’ve used a different one).

Compensation helps very little when it comes to aligning culture, because it’s private. Public rewards are much more influential. Who gets promoted, or hangs out socially with the founders? Who gets the plum project, or a shout-out at the company all-hands? Who gets marginalized on low-value projects, or worse, fired? What earns or derails the job offer when interview panels debrief? These are powerful signals to our teammates, and they’re imprinting on every bit of it.

In my mind, organisational culture is a lot like family dynamics, especially the parenting part. After all, kids follow what you do rather than what you say.

When role models are consistent, everyone gets the message, and they align towards that expectation even if it wasn’t a significant part of their values system before joining the company. That’s how culture gets reproduced, and how we assimilate new co-workers who don’t already possess our values.

People stop taking values seriously when the public rewards (and consequences) don’t match up. We can say that our culture requires treating each other with respect, but all too often, the openly rude high performer is privately disciplined, but keeps getting more and better projects. It doesn’t matter if you docked his bonus or yelled at him in private. When your team sees unkind people get ahead, they understand that the real culture is not one of kindness.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, yet most organisations I’ve worked with and for don’t spend nearly enough time on it.

Culture is powerful. It makes teams highly functional and gives meaning to our work. It’s essential for organizational scale because culture enables people to make good decisions without a lot of oversight. But ironically, culture is particularly vulnerable when you are growing quickly. If newcomers get guidance from teammates and leaders who aren’t assimilated themselves, your company norms don’t have a chance to reproduce. If rewards like stretch projects and promotions are handed out through battlefield triage, there’s no consistency to your value system.

When you strip away everything else, all you’ve got are your principles and values. I think most organisations (and people) would do well to remember that.

Source: Jocelyn Goldfein (via Offscreen Magazine)

Listening to video game soundtracks can improve your productivity

I can attest to the power of this, particularly the Halo soundtrack:

As I write these words, a triumphant horn is erupting in my ear over the rhythmic bowing of violins. In fact, as you read, I would encourage you to listen along—just search “Battlefield One.” I bet you’ll focus just a bit better with it playing in the background. After all, as a video game soundtrack it’s designed to have exactly that effect.

This is, by far, the best Life Pro Tip I’ve ever gotten or given: Listen to music from video games when you need to focus. It’s a whole genre designed to simultaneously stimulate your senses and blend into the background of your brain, because that’s the point of the soundtrack. It has to engage you, the player, in a task without distracting from it. In fact, the best music would actually direct the listener to the task.

These days I prefer to listen to Brain.fm after I got a lifetime deal via AppSumo a year or so ago. I enjoy music as an art form, but I also appreciate it for the effect it can have on my brain.

Source: Popular Science


Technology to connect and communicate

People going to work in factories and offices is a relatively recent invention. For most of human history, people have worked from, or very near to, their home.

But working from home these days is qualitatively different, because we have the internet, as Sarah Jaffe points out in a recent newsletter:

Freelancing is a strange way to work, not because self-supervised labor in the home doesn’t have a long history that well predates leaving your house to go to a workplace, but because it relies so much on communication with the outside. I’m waiting on emails from editors and so I am writing to you, my virtual water-cooler companions.


The internet, then, serves to make work less isolated. I have chats going a lot of the day, unless I’m in super drill-down writing mode, which is less of my job than many people probably expect. My friends have helped me figure out thorny issues in a piece I’m writing and helped me figure out what to write in an email to an editor who’s dropped off the face of the earth and advised me on how much money to ask for. It’s funny, there are so many stories about the way the internet is making us lonely and isolated, and it is sometimes my only human contact. My voice creaked when I answered the phone this morning because I hadn’t yet used it today.

The problem is that capitalism forces us into a situation where we’re competing with others rather than collaborating with them:

How do we use technology to connect and communicate rather than compete? How do we have conversations that further our understandings of things?

I don’t actually think it’s solely a technology problem, although every technology has inbuilt biases. It’s also a problem to be solved at the societal ‘operating system’ level through, for example, co-owning the organisation for which you work.

Source: Sarah Jaffe

Different sorts of time

Growing up, I always thought I’d write for a living. Initially, I wanted to be a journalist, but as it turns out, thinking and writing is about 75% of what I do on a weekly basis.

I’m always interested in how people who write full-time structure the process. This, from Jon McGregor, struck a chord with me:

There are other sorts of time, besides the writing time. There is thinking time, reading time, research time and sketching out ideas time. There is working on the first page over and over again until you find the tone you’re looking for time. There is spending just five minutes catching up on email time. There is spending five minutes more on Twitter because, in a way, that is part of the research process time. There is writing time, somewhere in there. There is making the coffee and clearing away the coffee and thinking about lunch and making the lunch and clearing away the lunch time. There is stretching the legs time. There is going for a long walk because all the great writers always talk about walking time being the best thinking time, and then there is getting back from that walk and realising what the hell the time is now time. There’s looking back over what you’ve written so far and deciding it is all a load of awkwardly phrased bobbins time; there is wondering what kind of a way this is to make a living at all time. There is finding the tail-end of an idea that might just work and trying to get that down on the page before you run out of time time. There is answering emails that just can’t be put off any longer time. There is moving to another table and setting a timer and refusing to look up from the page until you’ve written for 40 minutes solid time. There is reading that back and crossing it out time. And then there is running out of the door and trying to get to the school gates at anything like a decent time time.

I’ve written before, elsewhere, about how difficult it is for knowledge workers such as writers to quantify what counts as ‘work’. Does a walk in the park while thinking about what you’re going to write count? What about when you’re in the shower planning something out?

It’s complicated.

Source: The Guardian