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

    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

    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)

    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

    Bullet Journal like a Pro

    The inimitable Cal Newport, he of Deep Work fame, turns his attention to Bullet Journals:

    My main concern, however, is that this system, as traditionally deployed, cannot keep up with the complexity and volume of demands that define many modern knowledge work jobs, where the sheer volume of tasks you must juggle, or calendar events in a typical week, might overwhelm any attempt to exist entirely within a world of concise and neatly transcribed notebook pages.

    Cal therefore recommends some modifications:

    • Introduce weekly plans
    • Time block daily plans
    • Maintain a deep work tally
    • Augment the notebook with a calendar and master task list
    • Integrate email
    I might just try this!

    Source: Cal Newport

    Deliberate rest, cognitive momentum, and differentiated work hours

    Appropriately enough, it was during a lunchtime run that I listened to the latest episode of Jocelyn K. Glei’s excellent podcast. It featured Alex Pang, writer and futurist, on the benefits of rest for the creative process.

    He talked about a number of things, but it confirmed my belief that you can only really do four hours of focused, creative work per day. Of course, you can add status-update meetings and emails to that, but the core of anyone’s work should be this sustained, disciplined period of attention.

    Four really concentrated hours are sufficient to do one’s most critical work, they’re sufficient to do really good work, and for whatever reason they seem to be the physical limit that most of us have.
    In addition, he introduced terms such as 'deliberate rest' and 'cognitive momentum' which I'll definitely be using in future. A highly recommended listen.

    Source: Hurry Slowly

    Spain is on the wrong timezone

    As an historian, I find this fascinating:

    So why are Spaniards living behind their geographic time zone?

    In 1940, General Francisco Franco changed Spain’s time zone, moving the clocks one hour forward in solidarity with Nazi Germany.

    For Spaniards, who at the time were utterly devastated by the Spanish Civil War, complaining about the change did not even cross their minds. They continued to eat at the same time, but because the clocks had changed, their 1pm lunches became 2pm lunches, and they were suddenly eating their 8pm dinners at 9pm.

    We were talking over Sunday dinner today how some traditions and practices can stick within families and organisations without them being questioned for years. This is an extreme example!

    Source: BBC Travel

    Fridays are a social construct

    I feel like I could have written this post. I agree entirely:

    Some of the phenomena governing people's schedules are natural. It does get dark at night and people do need light. It gets cold in the winter and people need heating. But the Earth does not care whether it's the weekday or the weekend, a Wednesday or a Saturday. And yet somehow the society has decreed that Wednesday is a serious business day and any adult roaming the streets during daytime on that day might get weird stares.
    As the author points out, knowledge work doesn't depend on people doing it at the same time. In fact, the title of his post is 'Against the synchronous society':
    Perhaps there's no need for people in the workplace to expect others to be able to instantly respond to them. In fact, slower, asynchronous communication can lead to more robust institutional memory inside of an organisation. Instead of the easy fix of tapping a colleague on the shoulder to get an answer, the worker might instead devise a solution for an issue themselves or figure it out while typing up an email, adding to the documentation and making sure fewer people have that question in the future.
    Great stuff. I, for one, am looking forward to a time when we're collectively spend a bit more time reflecting, and a bit less time (knee-jerk) responding.

    As an aside, the software running the blog, Kimonote, looks interesting:

    Kimonote is a fancy plain text organizer, a macroblogging platform and an antisocial network. It supports Markdown, which allows for a consistent look-and-feel no matter whether you're looking at your own private notes or someone else's public posts. Additional niceties are available, such as a table of contents.
    Source: mildbyte

    To 'quit' isn't necessarily the opposite of having 'grit'

    This is a useful way of framing things:

    “Quit” doesn’t have to be the opposite of “grit.” This is where “strategic quitting” comes in. Once you’ve found something you’re passionate about, quitting secondary things can be an advantage, because it frees up time to do that number-one thing.
    As someone who burned out in their twenties, I definitely agree with the sentiment that time is more important than money:
    When we choose an extra hour at work, we are, in effect, choosing one less hour with our kids. We can’t do it all and do it well. And there will not be more time later. Time does not equal money, because we can get more money.
    Although I'll be doing some consultancy in 2018, my main focus is on the work I'm doing for Moodle. I've been careful to establish boundaries to ensure that work is sustainable: I'm working four days per week, and I'm doing that based from home.

    By my calculations, that gives me 13 hours more ‘free’ time than if was working in an office in my nearest city. It all adds up!

    Source: Fast Company

    The importance of downtime

    There’s a few books I read every morning, on repeat. One of them, Daily Rituals, details the everyday working lives of famous writers, painters, composers, and other well-known figures.

    I was reading about Charles Darwin earlier this week, and the author of this article has a book that’s sitting waiting for me to read back at home:

    Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking. Their creativity and productivity, in other words, were not the result of endless hours of toil. Their towering creative achievements result from modest “working” hours.
    The author also references John Lubbock who was, apparently, one of the best-known authors of his time:
    So despite their differences in personality and the different quality of their achievements, both Darwin and Lubbock managed something that seems increasingly alien today. Their lives were full and memorable, their work was prodigious, and yet their days are also filled with downtime.

    This looks like a contradiction, or a balance that’s beyond the reach of most of us. It’s not.

    I’ve often sais that four hours of focused knowledge work is the maximum every day. Factor in emails, meetings, and admin, and the daily routine of figures such as Darwin’s seems abiut right.

    Source: Nautilus

    How to defuse remote work issues

    Good advice here about resolving difficulties with a remote co-worker.

    When it comes to delivering feedback, use the same formula that you would in any other feedback situation. First, provide crisp and clear observations of your teammate’s behavior as free of judgment and subjectivity as possible. (For example, instead of “you were rude to me,” try “when you interrupted me as I tried to be heard over the phone…”) Second, describe the impact of the person’s behavior. Phrase the impact as your reaction or impression, not as the objective truth. (“When you talked over me when I was on the conference call, I felt like you don’t respect what I have to say.”) Finally, ask an open-ended question that engages your teammate in a dialogue and helps you to understand one another’s perceptions. (“How did you perceive that call when you were in the meeting room?”) Don’t stop until you each have a clear vision for how a similar situation could play out better the next time.
    Working remotely is great, but it can be an emotional rollercoaster.
    Most of us avoid or delay uncomfortable conversations even with people who sit beside us. It’s natural to dislike confrontation. Now imagine how easy it is to let concerns fester when your teammate is two time zones away. Avoiding an important conversation is a bad idea with an office mate and an even worse idea with a virtual teammate. Get the issues out in the open as quickly as possible before they sour your relationship and affect your ability to get the job done.
    Source: Harvard Business Review