Tag: productivity (page 1 of 7)

Taking breaks to be more human

I have to say that I’m a bit sick of the narrative that we need time off / to recharge so we can be better workers. Instead, I’d prefer framing it as Jocelyn K. Glei does as asking yourself the question “who are you without the doing?”

The point isn’t just that it’s nice to goof off every so often — it’s that it’s necessary. And that’s true even if your ultimate goal is doing better work: Downtime allows the brain to make new connections and better decisions. Multiple studies have found that sustained mental attention without breaks is depleting, leading to inferior performance and decision-making.

In short, the prefrontal cortex — where goal-oriented and executive-function thinking goes on — can get worn down, potentially resulting in “decision fatigue.” A variety of research finds that even simple remedies like a walk in nature or a nap can replenish the brain and ultimately improve mental performance.

Source: How to Take a Break | The New York Times

Meetings as exercises in power

Meetings are one of the major ways in which power is demonstrated and exercised in hierarchical organisations. Trusting people and leaving them alone to get on with stuff is more productive, but work isn’t always about productivity (sadly).

Meeting abstention: Anyone invited to an internal meeting has the power to opt-out. “Send me the summary, please.” If someone abstains, they give up their ability to have a say in the meeting, but most meetings these days don’t actually give people a platform to have a say. And then that person can leave the Zoom room and get back to whatever it is they were doing that was actually productive.

Meeting nullification: If anyone in an internal meeting announces that the meeting is a pointless waste of time, it’s over. The meeting organizer is obligated to send everyone the memo that they probably should have sent in the first place.

Source: Meeting nullification | Seth’s Blog

Opportunity costs

While I appreciate the sentiment behind this article, I feel that the title is a bit off, and the solution a bit odd. Instead, I’d argue by sharing you work early and often, and in a way that people don’t need to have a meeting with you to discuss, you end up iterating towards better solutions.

The other thing is that, so long as you’re rigorous about working hours, workplace chat apps allow you to fix typos after you’ve sent messages. Always useful for people with ‘fat thumbs’ like me.

Unfortunately, time is a limited resource, which creates an opportunity cost. Opportunity costs are the name economists give to the things you could have been doing with a resource you spent in another way. The time you devote to a particular project could have been spent on countless other things on your to-do list, but you chose to spend them on that project.

And there is the rub.

Every project you do at work needs to be effective, but not every project needs to be perfect. An email you send to a close colleague at your level of the organization can be a partial sentence with typos in it and it will still elicit the desired response without damaging the relationship. A note to your boss might need to be written a little more carefully. A presentation to a potential new client had better be polished to a high gloss.

Source: You shouldn’t always give 110% | Fast Company

The impact of decision fatigue

I remember reading that Barack Obama only had two colours of suits while President of the USA, because making lots of small decisions inhibited his ability to make larger/more important ones.

Decision fatigue impacts our ability to choose between several options, causes us to make impulse purchases, and can even lead us to avoid decisions entirely:

  1. Impaired ability to make trade-offs. Trade-offs feature several choices that have positive and negative elements. They are a particularly energy-consuming form of decision making. When we are faced with too many trade-offs to consider, we end up mentally depleted, and we make poor choices.
  2. Impulse purchases. When shopping, decisions regarding prices and promotions can produce decision fatigue, depleting our willpower to impulse purchases. This is why snacks are usually displayed near the cash register: by the time they get there, many shoppers have decision fatigue and may grab an item they hadn’t initially intended on buying.
  3. Decision avoidance. Sometimes, our mental energy is so depleted, we completely avoid making a choice. We may as well try to bypass the mental and emotional costs of decision making by selecting the default option when one is available.

Interestingly, poorer people are more prone to decision fatigue. “If a trip to the supermarket induces more decision fatigue in the poor than in the rich — because each purchase requires more mental trade-offs — by the time they reach the cash register, they’ll have less willpower left to resist the Mars bars and Skittles. Not for nothing are these items called impulse purchases,” explains Dean Spears from Princeton University.

Source: Decision fatigue: how a burden of choices leads to irrational trade-offs

Criticism, like lightning, strikes the highest peaks

🙏 Blogging as a forgiving medium — “The ability to “move it around for a long time” is what I’m looking for in a writing medium — I want words and images to be movable, I want to switch them out, copy and cut and paste them, let them mutate. “

I love the few minutes after I press publish on a post, which feels like a race against time between me and the first readers of it. Who will spot the typos and grammatical errors first?

📝 Open working blog and weeknotes templates — “We wrote a guide on how to write weeknotes for Catalyst projects. It is based on Sam Villis’ guide and the templates here are based on Sam’s guide too.”

This is useful, especially if you’re not blogging yet (or haven’t for a while!)

How to be more productive without forcing yourself — “Basically, if you’re addicted to any of the high-dopamine, low-effort activity, please quit it. At least temporarily so you can reestablish a healthy relationship to work. The more experienced we’re about the topic, the more obvious this is. There is no other way than to temporarily quit the addiction.”

I like the practical advice in this article. Too many people do stuff that’s too low-value, thus squandering their talent and ability to take on more important stuff.

🤔 Objective or Biased — “This type of analysis software is not widely used in recruiting in Germany and Europe right now. However, large companies are definitely interested in the technology, as we learn during off-the-record conversations. What seems to be attractive: A shorter application process which can save a lot of resources and money.”

This is kind of laughable and serious at the same time. I’ve felt the pain of hiring but, as this research shows, automating the hard parts doesn’t lead to awesome results.

📱 Contact-tracing apps were the biggest tech failure of the COVID-19 pandemic — “The system itself, on a technical level, is the root of the problem. In an effort to provide something that could be used universally, while also protecting users’ privacy, Google and Apple came up with a system that was doomed to be useless.”

My concern here is that the fault for the failure will be placed at the door of privacy activists.

Quotation-as-title by Baltasar Gracián. Images by Vera Shimunia, Russian textile artist via #WOMENSART

You can never get rid of what is part of you, even when you throw it away

🤖 Why the Dancing Robots Are a Really, Really Big Problem — “No, robots don’t dance: they carry out the very precise movements that their — exceedingly clever — programmers design to move in a way that humans will perceive as dancing. It is a simulacrum, a trompe l’oeil, a conjurer’s trick. And it works not because of something inherent in the machinery, but because of something inherent in ours: our ever-present capacity for finding the familiar. It looks like human dancing, except it’s an utterly meaningless act, stripped of any social, cultural, historical, or religious context, and carried out as a humblebrag show of technological might.”

💭 Why Do We Dream? A New Theory on How It Protects Our Brains — “We suggest that the brain preserves the territory of the visual cortex by keeping it active at night. In our “defensive activation theory,” dream sleep exists to keep neurons in the visual cortex active, thereby combating a takeover by the neighboring senses.”

A simple 2 x 2 for choices — “It might be simple, but it’s not always easy. Success doesn’t always mean money, it just means that you got what you were hoping for. And while every project fits into one of the four quadrants, there’s no right answer for any given person or any given moment..”

📅 Four-day week means ‘I don’t waste holidays on chores’ — “The four-day working week with no reduction in pay is good for the economy, good for workers and good for the environment. It’s an idea whose time has come.”

💡 100 Tips For A Better Life — “It is cheap for people to talk about their values, goals, rules, and lifestyle. When people’s actions contradict their talk, pay attention!”

Quotation-as-title from Goethe. Image from top-linked post.

The clever man often worries; the loyal person is often overworked

Man in field sitting at desk and computer

👏 Blue sky thinking: is it time to stop work taking over our lives?

👍 Attitudes are skills

🤦‍♂️ How Not To Kill People With Spreadsheets

🕸️ Viral Effects Are Not Network Effects

🤯 Inventing Virtual Meetings of Tomorrow with NVIDIA AI Research

Quotation-as-title from a Chinese proverb. Image from top-linked post.

To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others

Illustration of a woman

🧠 Your Brain Is On the Brink of Chaos

😫 ‘Ugh fields’, or why you can’t even bear to think about that task

👍 The Craft of Teaching Confidence

🏝️ Log on, chill out: holiday resorts lure remote workers to fill gap left by tourists

🎧 Producer 9th Wonder on Producing Beats for Kendrick Lamar

Quotation-as-title by Albert Camus. Image from top-linked article.

Enforced idleness

Some people think it’s the Protestant work ethic, others that it’s a genetic predisposition. Me? I think it’s to do with the highly competitive nature of western societies.

Whatever you think causes it, the inability of adults, including myself, to spend a day doing nothing is kind of problematic. It’s something I often discuss with Laura Hilliger (and she refers to it regularly in her excellent newsletter)

There’s a university in Hamburg, Germany, giving out ‘idleness grants’ for people to do absolutely nothing. Emma Beddington’s answers to the questions on the application form aren’t too different to how I’d answer:

What do you not want to do? I want not to compare my achievements, or lack of them, with others’. If successful, for the duration of my idleness grant I will crush the exhausting running mental commentary that points out what those with energy, drive and ambition are achieving and enumerates my inadequacies. When one or other of my nemeses tweets the dread phrase “some personal news” (always the precursor to an announcement of professional glory), I will not feel bad, because I will have accepted that “being quite lazy” has inherent merit in 2020.

Emma Beddington, Doing nothing is so easy for me. But how to feel good about it? (The Guardian)

It’s always possible to do more and be more, but sometimes it’s important to just spend time being who you already are.

Saturday spinnings

As usual, I’m taking a month off Thought Shrapnel duties during the month of August. So this is my last post for a few weeks.

In the meantime, consider deactivating your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. See how it makes you feel, and perhaps I’ll run into you on the Fediverse? (start here)

Sinead Bovell

I Am a Model and I Know That Artificial Intelligence Will Eventually Take My Job

There are major issues of transparency and authenticity here because the beliefs and opinions don’t actually belong to the digital models, they belong to the models’ creators. And if the creators can’t actually identify with the experiences and groups that these models claim to belong to (i.e., person of color, LGBTQ, etc.), then do they have the right to actually speak on those issues? Or is this a new form of robot cultural appropriation, one in which digital creators are dressing up in experiences that aren’t theirs?

Sinead Bovell (Vogue)

This is an incredible article that looks at machine learning and AI through the lens of an industry I hadn’t thought of as being on the brink of being massively disrupted by technology.

How Capitalism Drives Cancel Culture

It is strange that “cancel culture” has become a project of the left, which spent the 20th century fighting against capricious firings of “troublesome” employees. A lack of due process does not become a moral good just because you sometimes agree with its targets. We all, I hope, want to see sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination decrease. But we should be aware of the economic incentives here, particularly given the speed of social media, which can send a video viral, and see onlookers demand a response, before the basic facts have been established. Afraid of the reputational damage that can be incurred in minutes, companies are behaving in ways that range from thoughtless and uncaring to sadistic.


If you care about progressive causes, then woke capitalism is not your friend. It is actively impeding the cause, siphoning off energy, and deluding us into thinking that change is happening faster and deeper than it really is. When people talk about the “excesses of the left”—a phenomenon that blights the electoral prospects of progressive parties by alienating swing voters—in many cases they’re talking about the jumpy overreactions of corporations that aren’t left-wing at all.

Helen Lewis (The Atlantic)

Cancel culture is problematic, and mainly because of the unequal power structures involved. This is an important read. See also this article by Albert Wenger which has some suggestions towards the end in this regard.

Woman working at a laptop

How to Stay Productive When the World Is on Fire

The goal of productivity is to get the things you have to get done finished so you can spend more time on the things you want to do. Don’t fall into the busy trap, where you judge your self-worth by how productive you are or how much you’ve contributed to your company or manager. We’re all just trying to keep our heads above water. I hope these tips will help you do the same.

Alan Henry (WIRED)

As I wrote yesterday on my personal blog, I have a bit of an issue with perfectionism. So this reminder, along with the other great advice in the article, was a timely reminder.

Why you should be thanking your employees more often

If you treat somebody with disdain, of course, you give that person a psychological incentive to diminish your opinion and to want you to be less powerful. Inversely, if you demonstrate understanding and appreciation of someone’s contribution, you create a psychological incentive in the individual to give greater weight to your opinion. And that person will want to strengthen the weight of your opinion in the eyes of others. Appreciation and gratitude breed appreciation and gratitude.

Bruce Tulgan (Fast Company)

Creating a productive, psychologically safe, and emotionally intelligent environment means thanking people for the work they do. That means for their day-to-day activities, not just when they put in a herculean effort. A paycheck is not thanks enough for the work we do and the value we provide.

Old blue boat

Nostalgia reimagined

More interesting still is that nostalgia can bring to mind time-periods we didn’t directly experience. In the film Midnight in Paris (2011), Gil is overwhelmed by nostalgic thoughts about 1920s Paris – which he, a modern-day screenwriter, hasn’t experienced – yet his feelings are nothing short of nostalgic. Indeed, feeling nostalgic for a time one didn’t actually live through appears to be a common phenomenon if all the chatrooms, Facebook pages and websites dedicated to it are anything to go by. In fact, a new word has been coined to capture this precise variant of nostalgia – anemoia, defined by the Urban Dictionary and the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as ‘nostalgia for a time you’ve never known’.

How can we make sense of the fact that people feel nostalgia not only for past experiences but also for generic time periods? My suggestion, inspired by recent evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience, is that the variety of nostalgia’s objects is explained by the fact that its cognitive component is not an autobiographical memory, but a mental simulation – an imagination, if you will – of which episodic recollections are a sub-class.

Nigel Warburton (Aeon)

In the UK at least, shows like Downton Abbey and Call The Midwife are popular. My view of this is that, as this article would seem to support, it’s a kind of nostalgia for a time that was imagined to be better.

There’s a sinister side to this, as well. This kind of nostalgia seems to be particularly prevalent among more conservative-leaning (white) people harking back to a time of greater divisions in society along race and class lines. I think it’s rather disturbing.

The World Is Noisy. These Groups Want to Restore the Quiet

Quiet Parks International (QPI) is a nonprofit working to establish certification for quiet parks to raise awareness of and preserve quiet places. The fledgling organization—whose members include audio engineers, scientists, environmentalists, and musicians—has identified at least 262 sites worldwide, including 30 in the US, that it believes are quiet or could become so with management changes….

QPI has no regulatory authority, but like the International Dark Sky Association’s Dark Sky Parks initiative, the nonprofit believes its certification—granted only after a detailed, three-day sound analysis—can encourage public support of preservation efforts and provide guidelines for protection. “The places that are quiet today … are basically leftovers—places that are out of the way,” Quiet Parks cofounder Gordon Hempton says.

Jenny Morber (WIRED)

I live in a part of the world close to both a designated Dark Sky Park and mountains into which I can escape. Light and noise pollution threaten both of them, so I’m glad to hear of these efforts.

Header image by Uillian Vargas