Tag: productivity (page 1 of 5)

Idleness always produces fickle changes of mind

If you’ve never read Michel de Montaigne’s Essays then you’re missing a treat. He’s thought of as the prototypical ‘blogger’ and most of what he’s written has survived the vicissitudes of changes in opinion over the last 450 years. The quotation for today’s article comes from him.

As Austin Kleon notes in the post that accompanies the image that also illustrates this post, idleness is not the same as laziness:

I’m… a practitioner of intentional idleness: blocking off time in which I can do absolutely nothing. (Like Terry Gilliam, I would like to be known as an “Arch Idler.”) “Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing,” I wrote in Steal Like An Artist.  (See Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing, Robert Louis Stevenson’s An Apology for Idlers, Tom Hodgkinson’s “The Idle Parent,” Tim Kreider’s “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” etc. )

Austin Kleon

There’s a great post on The Art of Manliness by Brett and Kate McKay about practising productive procrastination, and how positive it can be. They break down the types of tasks that we perform on an average down into three groups:

Tier 1: tasks that are the most cognitively demanding — hard decisions, challenging writing, boring reading, tough analysis, etc.

Tier 2: tasks that take effort, but not as much — administrative work, making appointments, answering emails, etc.

Tier 3: tasks that still require a bit of effort, but in terms of cognitive load are nearly mindless — cleaning, organizing, filing, paying bills, etc.

Brett and Kate McKay

As I’ve said many times before, I can only really do four hours of really deep work (the ‘Tier 1’ tasks) per day. Of course, the demands of any job and most life admin, mostly form into Tier 2, with a bit of Tier 3 for good measure.

The thrust of their mantra to ‘practise productive procrastination’ is that, if you’re not feeling up to a Tier 1 task, you should do a Tier 2 or Tier 3 task. Apparently, and I have to say I’m obviously not their target audience here, most people instead of doing a Tier 1 task instead do nothing useful and instead do things like checking Facebook, gossiping, and playing games.

The trouble is that with new workplace tools we can almost be encouraged into low-level tasks, as an article by Rani Molla for Recode explains:

On average, employees at large companies are each sending more than 200 Slack messages per week, according to Time Is Ltd., a productivity-analytics company that taps into workplace programs — including Slack, calendar apps, and the Office Suite — in order to give companies recommendations on how to be more productive. Power users sending out more than 1,000 messages per day are “not an exception.”

Keeping up with these conversations can seem like a full-time job. After a while, the software goes from helping you work to making it impossible to get work done.

Rani Molla

Constant interruptions aren’t good for deep work, nor are open plan offices. However, I remember working in an office that had both. There was a self-policed time shortly after lunch (never officially sanctioned or promoted) where, for an hour or two, people really got ‘in the zone’. It was great.

What we need, is a way to block out our calendars for unstructured, but deep work, and be trusted to do so. I actually think that most workplaces and most bosses would actually be OK with this. Perhaps we just need to get on with it?


Also check out:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

The title of this post is a quotation from management consultant, educator, and author Peter Drucker. Having worked in a variety of organisations, I can attest to its truth.

That’s why, when someone shared this post by Grace Krause, which is basically a poem about work culture, I paid attention. Entitled Appropriate Channels, here’s a flavour:

We would like to remind you all
That we care deeply
About our staff and our students
And in no way do we wish to silence criticism
But please make use of the
Appropriate Channels

The Appropriate Channel is tears cried at home
And not in the workplace
Please refrain from crying at your desk
As it might lower the productivity of your colleagues

Organisational culture is difficult because of the patriarchy. I selected this part of the poem, as I’ve come to realise just how problematic it is to let people know (through words, actions, or policies) that it’s not OK to cry at work. If we’re to bring our full selves to work, then emotion is part of it.

Any organisation has a culture, and that culture can be changed, for better or for worse. Restaurants are notoriously toxic places to work, which is why this article in Quartz, is interesting:

Since four-time James Beard award winner Gabrielle Hamilton opened Prune’s doors in 1999, she, along with her co-chef Ashley Merriman, have established a set of principles that help guide employees at the restaurant. According to Hamilton and Merriman, the code has a kind of transformative power. It’s helped the kitchen avoid becoming a hierarchical, top-down fiefdom—a concentration of power that innumerable chefs have abused in the past. It can turn obnoxious, entitled patrons into polite diners who are delighted to have a seat at the table. And it’s created the kind of environment where Hamilton and Merriman, along with their staff, want to spend much of their day.

The five core values of their restaurant, which I think you could apply to any organisation, are:

  1. Be thorough and excellent in everything that you do
  2. Be smart and funny
  3. Be disarmingly honest
  4. Work without division of any kind
  5. Practise servant leadership

We live in the ‘age of burnout’, according to another article in Quartz, but there’s no reason why we can’t love the work we do. It’s all about finding the meaning behind the stuff we get done on a daily basis:

Our freedom to make meaning is both a blessing and a curse. To get somewhat existential about it, “work,” and the problems associated with it as an amorphous whole, do not exist: For the individual, only his or her work exists, and the individual is in control of that, with the very real power radically to change the situation. You could start the process of changing your job right now, today. Yes, arguments about the practicality of that choice well up fast and high. Yes, you would have to find another way to pay the bills. That doesn’t negate the fact that, fundamentally, you are free.

It’s important to remember this, that we choose to do the work we do, that we don’t have to work for a single employer, and that we can tell a different story about ourselves at any point we choose. It might not be easy, but it’s certainly doable.


Also check out:

Let’s not force children to define their future selves through the lens of ‘work’

I discovered the work of Adam Grant through Jocelyn K. Glei’s excellent Hurry Slowly podcast. He has his own, equally excellent podcast, called WorkLife which he creates with the assistance of TED.

Writing in The New York Times as a workplace psychologist, Grant notes just how problematic the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” actually is:

When I was a kid, I dreaded the question. I never had a good answer. Adults always seemed terribly disappointed that I wasn’t dreaming of becoming something grand or heroic, like a filmmaker or an astronaut.

Let’s think: from what I can remember, I wanted to be a journalist, and then an RAF pilot. Am I unhappy that I’m neither of these things? No.

Perhaps it’s because a job is more tangible than an attitude or approach to life, but not once can I remember being asked what kind of person I wanted to be. It was always “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, and the insinuation was that the answer was job-related.

My first beef with the question is that it forces kids to define themselves in terms of work. When you’re asked what you want to be when you grow up, it’s not socially acceptable to say, “A father,” or, “A mother,” let alone, “A person of integrity.”

[…]

The second problem is the implication that there is one calling out there for everyone. Although having a calling can be a source of joy, research shows that searching for one leaves students feeling lost and confused.

Another fantastic podcast episode I listened to recently was Tim Ferriss’ interview of Caterina Fake. She’s had an immensely successful career, yet her key messages during that conversation were around embracing your ‘shadow’ (i.e. melancholy, etc.) and ensuring that you have a rich inner life.

While the question beloved of grandparents around the world seems innocuous enough, these things have material effects on people’s lives. Children are eager to please, and internalise other people’s expectations.

I’m all for encouraging youngsters to aim high and dream big. But take it from someone who studies work for a living: those aspirations should be bigger than work. Asking kids what they want to be leads them to claim a career identity they might never want to earn. Instead, invite them to think about what kind of person they want to be — and about all the different things they might want to do.

The jobs I’ve had over the last decade didn’t really exist when I was a child, so it would have been impossible to point to them. Let’s encourage children to think of the ways they can think and act to change the world for the better – not how they’re going to pay the bills to enable themselves to do so.

Source: The New York Times


Also check out:

  • The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education (Highline) — “As our most trusted universities continue to privatize large swaths of their academic programs, their fundamental nature will be changed in ways that are hard to reverse. The race for profits will grow more heated, and the social goal of higher education will seem even more like an abstraction.”
  • Social Peacocking and the Shadow (Caterina Fake) — “Social peacocking is life on the internet without the shadow. It is an incomplete representation of a life, a half of a person, a fraction of the wholeness of a human being.”
  • Why and How Capitalism needs to be reformed (Economic Principles) — “The problem is that capitalists typically don’t know how to divide the pie well and socialists typically don’t know how to grow it well.”

So you think you’re organised?

This lengthy blog post from Stephen Wolfram, founder and CEO of Wolfram Research is not only incredible in its detail, but reveals the author’s sheer tenacity.

I’m a person who’s only satisfied if I feel I’m being productive. I like figuring things out. I like making things. And I want to do as much of that as I can. And part of being able to do that is to have the best personal infrastructure I can. Over the years I’ve been steadily accumulating and implementing “personal infrastructure hacks” for myself. Some of them are, yes, quite nerdy. But they certainly help me be productive. And maybe in time more and more of them will become mainstream, as a few already have.

Wolfram talks about how, as a “hands-on remote CEO” of an 800-person company, he prides himself on automating and streamlining as much as possible.

At an intellectual level, the key to building this infrastructure is to structure, streamline and automate everything as much as possible—while recognizing both what’s realistic with current technology, and what fits with me personally. In many ways, it’s a good, practical exercise in computational thinking, and, yes, it’s a good application of some of the tools and ideas that I’ve spent so long building. Much of it can probably be helpful to lots of other people too; some of it is pretty specific to my personality, my situation and my patterns of activity.

Wolfram has stuck with various versions of his productivity system for over 30 years. He can search across all of his emails and 100,000(!) notebooks in a single place. It’s all quite impressive, really.

What’s even more impressive, though, is that he experiments with new technologies and sees if they provide an upgrade based on his organisational principles. It reminds me a bit of Clay Shirky’s response to the question of a ‘dream setup’ being that “current optimization is long-term anachronism”.

I’ve described—in arguably quite nerdy detail—how some of my personal technology infrastructure is set up. It’s always changing, and I’m always trying to update it—and for example I seem to end up with lots of bins of things I’m not using any more (yes, I get almost every “interesting” new device or gadget that I find out about).

But although things like devices change, I’ve found that the organizational principles for my infrastructure have remained surprisingly constant, just gradually getting more and more polished. And—at least when they’re based on our very stable Wolfram Language system—I’ve found that the same is true for the software systems I’ve had built to implement them.

Well worth a read. I dare you not to be impressed.

Source: Stephen Wolfram

At the end of the day, everything in life is a ‘group project’

Everything is a group project

I like to surround myself with doers, people who are happy, like me, to roll their sleeves up and get stuff done. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of people in life who seem to busy themselves with putting up roadblocks and finding ways why their participation isn’t possible.

Source: Indexed

Forging better habits

I’m very much looking forward to reading James Clear’s new book Atomic Habits. On his (very popular) blog, Clear shares a chapter in which he talks about the importance of using a ‘habit tracker’.

In that chapter, he states:

Habit formation is a long race. It often takes time for the desired results to appear. And while you are waiting for the long-term rewards of your efforts to accumulate, you need a reason to stick with it in the short-term. You need some immediate feedback that shows you are on the right path.

At the start of the year I started re-using a very simple app called Loop Habit Tracker. It’s Android-only and available via F-Droid and Google Play, and I’m sure there’s similar apps for iOS.

You can see a screenshot of what I’m tracking at the top of this post. You simply enter what you want to track, how often you want to do it, and tick off when you’ve achieved it. Not only can the app prompt you, should you wish, but you can also check out your ‘streak’.

Clear lists three ways that a habit tracker can help:

  1. It reminds you to act
  2. It motivates you to continue
  3. It provides immediate satisfaction

I find using a habit tracker a particularly effective way of upping my game. I’m realistic: I’ve given myself a day off every week on top of two sessions each of running, swimming, and going to the gym.

If you’re struggling to make a new habit ‘stick’, I agree with Clear that doing something like this for six weeks is a particularly effective way to kickstart your new regime!

Source: James Clear

Unpopular opinions on personal productivity

Before Christmas, I stumbled upon an interesting Twitter thread. It was started by Andrew Chen, General Partner at a16z, who asked:

What is your least popular but deeply held opinion on personal productivity?

He replied to his own tweet to get things started, commenting:

Being super organized is a bad thing. Means there’s no room for serendipity, deep thought, can make you overly passive on other peoples’ use of your time, as opposed to being focused on outbound. (Sorry to all my super Type A friends)

I’d definitely agree with that. Some of the others in the thread that I agree with are:

  • 9hour workdays are a byproduct of the industrial age. Personal productivity takes a deep fall after grinding on work for 5hours. Office hours kill personal time and productivity (@lpuchii)
  • Going on a run in the middle of the workday (@envarli)
  • Use pen and paper for scribbling notes (@uneeb123)
  • No one else has my job nor are they me, so I can’t simply follow the prescriptions of others. To be more productive, I need to look for new ideas and test. What works for someone else may be antithetical to my work. (@bguenther)
  • Great ideas rarely come from brainstorming sessions. It comes from pondering over a problem for a significant amount of time and coupling it with lots of experiments (@rajathkedi)

As ever, about half-way down the lengthy thread, it devolves into general productivity advice rather than ‘unpopular opinions’. Still worth a browse!

Source: Andrew Chen (Twitter)

Creativity as an ongoing experiment

It’s hard not to be inspired by the career of the Icelandic artist Björk. She really does seem to be single-minded and determined to express herself however she chooses.

This interview with her in The Creative Independent is from 2017 but was brought to my attention recently in their (excellent) newsletter. On being asked whether it’s OK to ever abandon a project, Björk replies:

If there isn’t the next step, and it doesn’t feel right, there will definitely be times where I don’t do it. But in my mind, I don’t look at it that way. It’s more like maybe it could happen in 10 years time. Maybe it could happen in 50 years time. That’s the next step. Or somebody else will take it, somebody else will look at it, and it will inspire them to write a poem. I look at it more like that, like it’s something that I don’t own.

[…]

The minute your expectations harden or crystallize, you jinx it. I’m not saying I can always do this, but if I can stay more in the moment and be grateful for every step of the way, then because I’m not expecting anything, nothing was ever abandoned.

Creativity isn’t something that can be forced, she says:

It’s like, the moments that I’ve gone to an island, and I’m supposed to write a whole album in a month, I could never, ever do that. I write one song a month, or two months, whatever happens… If there is a happy period or if there’s a sad period, or I have all the time in the world or no time in the world, it’s just something that’s kind of a bubbling underneath.

Perhaps my favourite part of the interview, however, is where Björk says that she likes leaving things open for growth and new possibilities:

I like things when they’re not completely finished. I like it when albums come out. Maybe it’s got something to do with being in bands. We spent too long… There were at least one or two albums we made all the songs too perfect, and then we overcooked it in the studio, and then we go and play them live and they’re kind of dead. I think there’s something in me, like an instinct, that doesn’t want the final, cooked version on the album. I want to leave ends open or other versions, which is probably why I end up still having people do remixes, and when I play them live, I feel different and the songs can grow.

Well worth reading in full, especially at this time of the year when everything seems full of new possibilities!

Source: The Creative Independent (via their newsletter)

Image by Maddie

Working and leading remotely

As MoodleNet Lead, I’m part of a remote team. If you look at the org chart, I’m nominally the manager of the other three members of my team, but it doesn’t feel like that (at least to me). We’re all working on our areas of expertise and mine happens to be strategy, making sure the team’s OK, and interfacing with the rest of the organisation.

I’m always looking to get better at what I do, so a ‘crash course’ for managing remote teams by Andreas Klinger piqued my interest. There’s a lot of overlap with John O’Duinn’s book on distributed teams, especially in his emphasis of the difference between various types of remote working:

There is a bunch of different setups people call “remote teams”.

  • Satellite teams
    • 2 or more teams are in different offices.
  • Remote employees
    • most of the team is in an office, but a few single employees are remote
  • Fully distributed teams
    • everybody is remote
  • Remote first teams
    • which are “basically” fully distributed
    • but have a non-critical-mass office
    • they focus on remote-friendly communication

When i speak of remote teams, i mean fully distributed teams and, if done right, remote-first teams. I consider all the other one’s hybrid setups.

Using these terms, the Open Badges team at Mozilla was ‘Remote first’, and when I joined Moodle I was a ‘Remote employee’, and now the MoodleNet team is ‘Fully distributed’.

Some things are easier when you work remotely, and some things are harder. One thing that’s definitely more difficult is running effective meetings:

Everybody loves meetings… right? But especially for remote teams, they are expensive, take effort and are – frankly – exhausting.

If you are 5 people, remote team:

  • You need to announce meetings upfront
  • You need to take notes b/c not everyone needs to join
  • Be on time
  • Have a meeting agenda
  • Make sure it’s not overtime
  • Communicate further related information in slack
  • etc

[…]

And this is not only about meetings. Meetings are just a straightforward example here. It’s true for any aspect of communication or teamwork. Remote teams need 5x the process.

I’m a big believer in working openly and documenting all the things. It saves hassle, it makes community contributions easier, and it builds trust. When everything’s out in the open, there’s nowhere to hide.

Working remotely is difficult because you have to be emotionally mature to do it effectively. You’re dealing with people who aren’t physically co-present, meaning you have to over-communicate intention, provide empathy at a distance, and not over-react by reading something into a communication that wasn’t intended. This takes time and practice.

Ideally, as remote team lead, you want what Laura Thomson at Mozilla calls Minimum Viable Bureaucracy, meaning that you don’t just get your ducks in a row, you have self-organising ducks. As Klinger points out:

In remote teams, you need to set up in a way people can be as autonomously as they need. Autonomously doesn’t mean “left alone” it means “be able to run alone” (when needed).

Think of people as “fast decision maker units” and team communication as “slow input/output”. Both are needed to function efficiently, but you want to avoid the slow part when it’s not essential.

At the basis of remote work is trust. There’s no way I can see what my colleagues are doing 99% of the time while they’re working on the same project as me. The same goes for me. Some people talk about having to ‘earn’ trust, but once you’ve taken someone through the hiring process, it’s better just to give them your trust until they act in a way which makes you question it.

Source: Klinger.io (via Dense Discovery)

Configuring your iPhone for productivity (and privacy, security?)

At an estimated read time of 70 minutes, though, this article is the longest I’ve seen on Medium! It includes a bunch of advice from ‘Coach Tony’, the CEO of Coach.me, about how he uses his iPhone, and perhaps how you should too:

The iPhone could be an incredible tool, but most people use their phone as a life-shortening distraction device.

However, if you take the time to follow the steps in this article you will be more productive, more focused, and — I’m not joking at all — live longer.

Practically every iPhone setup decision has tradeoffs. I will give you optimal defaults and then trust you to make an adult decision about whether that default is right for you.

As an aside, I appreciate the way he sets up different ways to read the post, from skimming the headlines through to reading the whole thing in-depth.

However, the problem is that for a post that the author describes as a ‘very very complete’ guide to configuring your iPhone to ‘work for you, not against you’, it doesn’t go into enough depth about privacy and security for my liking. I’m kind of tired of people thinking that using a password manager and increasing your lockscreen password length is enough.

For example, Coach Tony talks about basically going all-in on Google Cloud. When people point out the privacy concerns of doing this, he basically uses the tinfoil hat defence in response:

Moving to the Google cloud does trade privacy for productivity. Google will use your data to advertise to you. However, this is a productivity article. If you wish it were a privacy article, then use Protonmail. Last, it’s not consistent that I have you turn off Apple’s ad tracking while then making yourself fully available to Google’s ad tracking. This is a tradeoff. You can turn off Apple’s tracking with zero downside, so do it. With Google, I think it’s worthwhile to use their services and then fight ads in other places. The Reader feature in Safari basically hides most Google ads that you’d see on your phone. On your computer, try an ad blocker.

It’s all very well saying that it’s a productivity article rather than a privacy article. But it’s 2018, you need to do both. Don’t recommend things to people that give them gains in one area but causes them new problems in others.

That being said, I appreciate Coach Tony’s focus on what I would call ‘notification literacy’. Perhaps read his article, ignore the bits where he suggests compromising your privacy, and follow his advice on configuring your device for a calmer existence.

 

Source: Better Humans