“Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” – Robert Heinlein, American science fiction writer
In the course of doing our day to day work, we have to spend lots of time doing repetitive tasks. Over time, the inefficiencies can become really obvious (not to mention annoying). Usually, we put up with it. But there are a bunch of good reasons not to. Many processes evolve organically, and you shouldn’t assume that there’s a rational reason for why you’re doing something the way you are. Sometimes a small change will make a big difference, and you, as the person having to put up with the painful tedium, are the perfect person to think of it.
One of the best pieces of professional advice I ever got was:
“Get good at looking for ways to get 80% of the work done in 10% of the time. Not to drive company efficiency, but to preserve your own sanity.”
That may sound like cultivating laziness, but it’s actually the opposite. There’s always going to be more to do, and that mindset that encourages you to be protective about your time, which is a really strong motivator to minimize the things that feel like a bad way to spend it.
So, learn to look for the simple and clever hacks in your day to day routines. Here are a few links to help inspire you.
This slideshow from Prachi Gupta at LinkedIn does a great job of illustrating why a hacker mentality is important, and showing how LinkedIn nurtures the habit on a company-wide level. They have monthly “Hackdays” where everyone in the company gets to work on anything they want. They even take the best hacks and give people months to work on making them a more solid, scaleable solution.
Among many gems in the presentation is this definition of what exactly is meant by the term “hack” in this context:
“A ‘hack’ is a quick and dirty solution to a real world problem. It’s never perfect or complete, but it’s almost always clever and insightful.”
This post focuses on the Japanese concept of Kaizen, or “change for the better”, and explores the sometimes blurry line between “lazy” and “efficient”. He makes the good point that laziness can get a bad reputation, and should be looked at as a more positive attribute. He also provides some great examples about how the person doing the day-to-day repetitive tasks is often the best person for innovating on the process.
Don’t get too carried away with the shortcuts, though! It’s great to find novel and clever solutions to problems that save you time, but be careful you’re not doing it at someone else’s expense. This explores where the line is and what happens when you cross it. In short, hack, but have a conscience about it.
Last week, we were having a discussion about how to break out of a rut, and several people mentioned that having the right music helped them get focused and productive. So I did some research, and it turns out noises of all kinds can have a big effect on your productivity. Auditory information can enhance your state of focus, or it can completely derail it. Here are a few links exploring the connection between what’s going in your ears and getting things done.
Hearing only one side of the conversation is way more distracting than the whole thing, according to a recent study. Your brain has to work harder because of a natural tendency to want to fill in the blanks of the conversation. Something you may want to keep in mind if you work in an office with other people who often make phone calls.
Not all background noise is distracting however. Sometimes, the bustle and commotion of a public space can be better for focusing than a quiet office, especially for creative activities. I personally use coffee shops as my email-office, but apparently you can get the same benefit by simply hearing the sounds of a busy cafe. Coffitivity let’s you experience the ambiance of a coffee shop from anywhere. You can even adjust the volume of the loop so you can play your own music on top of it, just like you would if you were there.
I’ve been trying coffitivity out while writing this post, and even though it feels a little bit silly, there’s something really comforting about the coffee shop soundtrack.
Sometimes, it’s not the music that helps boost your productivity, it’s the medium you use to listen to them. Wearing headphones, even without listening to music, can help you block out distractions. Even better, they can send a signal to those around you that you’re in the zone and aren’t to be disturbed.
Of course, you probably aren’t going to wear headphones solely as a fancy do-not-disturb sign. And you shouldn’t, as there are many benefits of listening to music. Melodious sounds cause a release of dopamine, giving our brains the same satisfying reward as eating a fancy treat or smelling a pleasant aroma. Research shows that listening to music while working will help you complete tasks faster, and come up with more creative solutions.
I’m a creature of habit. I listen to the same playlists over and over (mostly 90′s punk rock with some instrumental metal thrown in occasionally, if you’re curious). Apparently that might not be the most productive strategy. Unfamiliar genres may ultimately be better for maximizing focus, according to the folks at Focus@Will. They are a service that offers streaming of productivity-optimized music, with what appears to be a pretty impressive amount of science backing them up. I’m not sure how much I agree with them, though. I think the concept sounds really interesting, but I kept finding myself distracted by the fact that I’d rather be listening to something I’m more familiar with. Old habits die hard, I guess. I do enjoy unfamiliar music within a familiar genre, however. Music discovery services like Last.fm, Pandora, and Spotify are great for that.
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Consider the following scenario: You’ve been working hard all day, feeling like you’re being productive, and you look up at the clock and see that it’s 5pm. A strange feeling washes over you, as you realize you have no clue how it got so late, and you can’t make sense of where your day went. It’s just an unexplainable 8-hour blur.
That feeling sucks. It sucks so badly, in fact, that it’s one of the reasons we built RescueTime, so we could understand what was actually going on with our days.
Have you ever had a day like that? If so, I’ll let you in on a secret…
If you’re like most people who spend their days at the computer, those days probably have a lot to do with email.
Email has become the glue that ties our workdays together. We can communicate with pretty much anyone, anywhere, anytime. Interactions that used to require scheduling a face to face meeting or phone call can be handled asynchronously. All things considered, it’s pretty amazing. But, that ease of communication can create a deluge that can drag down your entire day if you’re not careful.
In the average 5-day work week, about a day and a half of it is spent on email
That’s right. Email takes up around 28% of the average desk worker’s day. This has borne out in several studies, and we’ve seen similar numbers across our user base. That’s just shy of two and a half hours in an eight hour day (or 11.2 hours per week) It may seem like a lot, but even that number doesn’t tell the whole story. There are many factors that cause email to take a huge toll on our productivity, even if you have the best spam filters. Being aware of these can help you avoid falling into some serious productivity traps.
Three reasons email sucks
One: Switching tasks all day comes at a price
For many people, email is always on. It’s a ubiquitous layer on top of any other work that’s happening. Either there is a browser tab open with Gmail, or Outlook is running in the background, just to make sure nothing important gets missed. It’s pretty easy to think “it’ll just take a minute to respond to this email, that’s not hurting my productivity that much.” Besides, if you aren’t responsive, aren’t you dragging down other people’s productivity who may be waiting to hear back from you?
First of all, all those quick responses throughout the day add up. We tend to be really bad at estimating the sum total of time that it takes.
But it gets worse… that one minute it takes to respond is just the starting point. You then have to get back to what you were working on, and that’s surprisingly harder than it seems. That “re-focusing time” has been the subject of numerous studies, and has been shown to last anywhere from one to twenty-three minutes. Even more troubling, there are many tasks that are simply never returned to after dealing with the interruption.
Part of the reason for this refocusing lag may be that the way we use email forces our brains to work differently. The randomness of email, and our desire to be responsive, causes our brains to switch to a state of high-alert, continually on the lookout for new input. Most of that activity takes place in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is where our fight-or-flight response comes from. That’s different from how our brains tend to act when we’re in a state of flow or deep thought, with most of the activity occurring in the pre-frontal cortex. [source]
With that in mind, the cost of always-on communications starts to become more apparant.
Two: Email is always unfinished business
Chances are, if you look at your job description, “managing your inbox” probably isn’t listed as one of your primary duties. But the problem with email is that it’s a never ending task. There are always new emails coming in, and when you respond to an email, it usually results in a response back. The cycle just keeps spinning. Since your inbox keeps filling up, it’s easy to let it occupy a permanent, growing space in your mind. As you work on other tasks (probably the ones that actually are on your job description), your inbox which may or may not be exploding with something important sticks around in your mental space, causing a huge distraction. I’ve often found myself mid-stream on a project, then unconsciously tabbing over to my email, sometimes several times a minute. It’s infuriating.
“It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.”
Three: Email is a one-stop shop that’s full of distractions
I’ve heard email described as “a firehose that we have to drink from”, and it’s certainly ubiquitous. It’s become a hub for our entire work day. It’s a single place that we’ve organically grown to use for many different reasons. It’s for communicating with your colleagues. And your customers… And personal communications… And it’s your task list (“I’ll just leave this in my inbox so it’ll remind me to follow up”)… And it’s your knowledge base (“I’ll just email this to the group to spread the knowledge around”)… Sometimes it’s a file system (“I’ll need this file tonight at home, so I’ll just email it to myself”)… On top of all of that, it’s the default notification repository for pretty much any other system you might be using.
The number of use-cases you can shoehorn email into is impressive. There’s a certain elegance to it, too. It’s this single place that you can keep an eye on everything. The downside of that, is that every time you go into it, you have to contend with that “everything”, even if you’re only trying to focus on one specific thing.
Instead of a boutique shop, it’s a Wal-Mart.
So what to do about it?
Ok, ok, It’s real easy to opine about how much email is overwhelming and problematic. There are countless blog posts about it. I even spoke at a conference devoted to it last week. The trickier part is figuring out practical ways of dealing with it. In most cases, you generally can’t easily just stop using it. It would be really disruptive to your company, and unless you’re the CEO, you can’t really get away with being that weirdo that says “oh, don’t send me an email, I won’t read it.”
The bummer is, there’s not a single solution that works for everyone. That said, with a little trial and error, it’s easy to find some strategies that will work for you. Here are several ideas and resources to get you started.
When I read Claire Burge’s recent article about funneling all her communications away from email to other systems, I was skeptical. I mean, pushing all your personal communications to Twitter or Facebook seems even worse, right? You’re moving your communications to a platform that has distraction baked directly into their business model! And isn’t having your business communications spread across five project management systems obviously much less efficient than having everything in a single place?
On the other hand, if you are going to Facebook to deal with personal communications, it doesn’t really matter that you’re getting distracted, because social interaction is the whole reason you went there in the first place. Similarly, when you go to Basecamp to interact with a customer, you’re in an environment that’s walled off from anything not related to that customer. Perhaps most interestingly, when you do this, you allow email to stop being this over-crowded place that constantly needs monitoring. Breaking it up into smaller silos, it forces you to treat communications as a set of distinct tasks, rather than a single monolith that won’t ever be finished, no matter how much effort you put in.
So try moving your personal communications to Facebook, or your work-related discussions to LinkedIn. If it’s practical, try to shift your project related discussions to a dedicated project management environment like Basecamp or Asana.
Boomerang gives you some power-user tools that let you offload some of the mental overhead of email. The company who makes it also makes Inbox Pause (which does exactly that, pauses your inbox until you’re ready for new messages), and the Email Game (a nifty little game which forces you to work through your inbox).
You can also use a service like Unroll.me or Sanebox to move all your bulk email to a single place, allowing you to focus on personalized communications while you’re in your inbox. AwayFind is another option, letting you set up smart notification alerts so you don’t have to worry about missing important emails.
That’s not an exhaustive list of tactics, but it’s a starting point. Here’s some further reading:
Next week, I’m speaking on a panel at Overloaded 2013 called “Can technology save us?”. We’re going to be discussing some of the ways technology can help to keep us from getting totally overwhelmed by our ever-expanding access to information. In preparing for the conference I’ve come across some interesting perspectives on how today’s abundance of information affects our lives. Here are some examples.
“Pictures tell a thousand data points” – source: visual.ly
Matt Cutts is an engineer at Google, and he’s been doing a series of 30-day personal experiments. In his latest one, he takes a step back from email, social media, and news. He learned that he was able to get more things done, and still didn’t miss out on important information. He also made the observation that he can make his communications ‘scale’ better by responding to emailed questions in a different medium, such as with a public video or a blog post.
In this post, Lifehacker breaks down several often-repeated ideas related to time management and productivity. Several of them relate to information overload, how do deal with it, and the scary things it may (or may not) be doing to our brains.
The office itself can be one of the biggest sources of information overload, and sometimes the best thing to do is just get away from it. Office environments, even with awesome co-workers, usually mean a fairly steady stream of interruptions. Ducking out to a coffee shop for a few hours a couple times a week can give you some time away from the usual work-related distractions. And it may be just enough of a shake-up to help you bust out of normal work routines, like constantly checking email, and actually get some real focused work done.
It’s no surprise that there are a huge number of services, tools and methodologies for dealing with distractions and staying focused. The amount of information we have to swim through on a daily basis requires us to have some kind of system, right? This article in the Wall Street Journal examines the fact that no productivity system is for everyone and looks at some of the things you should think about when looking to adopt a new approach.
It’s pretty easy to think of information overload as an entirely modern phenomenon. I mean, how overloaded could you possibly get before the internet started shooting you in the face with a never-ending firehose of news, status updates, and pictures of kittens? Turns out, it’s been an issue, in one form or another, for a good long while. Here’s a look at information overload from a historical perspective.
With all the talk about how information overload is this big, complicated problem that needs to be fixed, it’s important to remember that information has opened the door to some pretty amazing things. Each year, Bill Gates publishes an annual letter, where he discusses his thoughts on issues the world should focus on for the coming year. This year, he’s focused on information. He makes a strong case for using measurement tools to make real, lasting, positive changes on many global issues. He provides some great examples of how having more information generally leads to better outcomes. He’s focused on large, world-changing issues, but I think some of the principles he talks about work equally well on a smaller scale, as shown by the QuantifiedSelf movement.
These days, there’s an mobile app or device for just about anything you might want to track about yourself. RescueTime can track your time on the computer. Fitbit lets you track how many steps you’re taking. Foursquare will track the places you’ve been. The list goes on and on.
Tracking that information can help you get in shape or stay productive, but it also can just look really, really cool. Data tells a story, and is fantastic subject matter for fine art and graphic design projects.
From The 2010/2011 Feltron Biennial Report
Nicholas Feltron is probably one of the most well-known designers doing projects like this. His gorgeous personal annual reports showcasing his obsessive-compulsive personal tracking have been making the rounds in design circles for years. They even inspired Facebook to create the Timeline.
Laurie Frick: Walking, week 42
Another artist doing some amazing work is Laurie Frick. She takes more of a fine-art approach to her Quantified Self explorations, which explore mood, temperature, weight, sleep patterns, heart-rate, and location data in a variety of media. Unlike the very polished corporate graphic design quality of Feltron’s personal reports, it’s not immediately apparent that Frick’s pieces are based on data. To me, that adds to their appeal. They work on their own as abstract pieces, but the underlying story told by the data makes them even more interesting.
So how can you use data in your creative projects? Flowingdata.com has several tutorials that are a great introduction to several of the technologies that you can use to create visualizations.
Six beautiful things you can do with your data, right now
In many cases, developing the creative and technical skill sets for your own projects isn’t necessary. Here are six services that will let you create a variety of great-looking visual pieces, just by plugging in your own data.
Notch makes dynamic infographics based on your fitness data. You can connect it with your Fitbit, Runkeeper, or BodyMedia account. Once you’re connected, you can generate and share a number of beautiful visuals based on your activity levels. Here’s one of mine.
I’ve been tracking my music listening habits with Last.fm for the past several years. It’s great, because the data lets Last.fm personalize my radio stations. But I can also make a really awesome chart of my listening history using LastGraph. Just enter your Last.fm username and give it a few seconds to index your history. Then head over to the “posters” tab and you can generate a “stream graph” of your listening history for a given time period.
IOGraph is a nifty little application that records your mouse position over time. Let it run for a while and watch a picture of your computer time build up. It makes for some pretty fantastic abstract compositions.
It’s fun, and you don’t have to have a pre-existing data set to play with. I created the image above while writing this post.
Meshu takes geographic information about you and uses it to make customized jewelry. For example, you can enter every city you’ve ever lived in, or connect it with your Foursquare account, and then it will generate a custom design for you based on the connections between those locations. The finished product is abstract, and won’t be recognizable as a map to others. In other words, a really good conversation piece.
So you may not already have a pile of data laying around covering your fitness, sleep, music, or location histories. But you probably use social media, and the infographics directory visual.ly has a bunch of different designs you can plug your social data into.
I’m having a hard time getting this blog post written today. You see, today is the first day of the NHL hockey season and I’m watching a game, checking Twitter, skimming blogs, and all manner of hockey fan nerdery. I’m glad the season is finally underway, but now I’ve got a lot to be distracted by.
Here are some posts about distractions, how they affect us, and how to manage them:
That buzzing phone in your pocket may not seem like a huge distraction, but all those small nudges add up to a pretty big cognitive load. This study of 300 people showed that interruptions of no more than 3 seconds double the error rate on a series of cognitive tests. That’s about the time it takes to check your phone to see if that beep you just heard was a text message, Twitter mention, or an new email. That gets pretty scary when you think about all the critical jobs that people do under such conditions. Our advice, ditch the notifications.
Sometimes, however, distraction isn’t such a bad thing. It’s possible to “positively procrastinate”, at least according to some researchers. Generally speaking, procrastinators aren’t lazy, just distracted. In fact, one of the principles investigated is: “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” If you accept that and stop trying to fight it, you can learn to play your tasks against each other and work on one meaningful task when you’re supposed to be working on another. Or, a quick hack to focus on your primary task is the “nothing alternative”, which only has two rules: 1. You don’t have to work on your task. 2. You’re not allowed to do anything else.
TED TALK – Paolo Cardini: Forget multitasking, try monotasking
It’s hard not to get distracted these days when there are so many different signals competing for our attention. This short TED talk by Paolo Cardini takes an interesting approach for blocking out distractions. Special phone covers that will downgrade your phone into “monotask” mode, where you can only perform a single function.
One of the problems with distractions is the time it takes to get back on track once you return to your original task. It’s disorienting bouncing from one thing or another. This applies to small things, like bouncing back and for the between writing this post and watching the hockey game, or larger projects, like switching between long-term projects at work. Here are some ideas about how to smooth the transitions between projects to maintain a sense of flow.
A study of more than 1,000 Facebook users showed that browsing Facebook negatively impacts self-control. Participants who spent time on Facebook where more likely to choose cookies over granola bars (yum!), and give up sooner on cognitive tests. It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Somewhat buried in the headline was the observation that sharing content with your close social circle also boosts self-esteem.
Email is one of the hardest distractions to deal with. It arrives randomly, you never know if it’s going to be important or not, and it’s the default way that everyone communicates. So it’s not like you can just cut it all out, right? Right? Apparently, you can. Here’s an account of one productivity specialist’s switch to a “No email” workstyle. Moving communications away from email and into more specialized applications like LinkedIn, Facebook, and and Basecamp initially seems like it could just make matters worse by increasing the number of places you have to go to keep up with incoming information. But it seems to work, and I think it’s an idea that could use a lot more examination, especially considering that email tends to take up around 30% of the average worker’s time.
Welcome to 2013 everyone! It’s the first week of the year, which means it’s the week that most of us set some shiny new productivity goals (many of which we will have completely abandoned by mid-February ) It’s also the week when just about every blogger everywhere has something to say about setting and reaching those shiny new productivity goals. Here’s a collection of posts to help you refine your resolutions to be more sustainable, give you some good ideas if you’re still trying to decide what to focus on, or in some cases dissuade you from setting any goals at all this year. Enjoy!
The smart fellas over at Buffer get all science-y and explore why new year’s resolutions typically don’t work out. Once you’re armed with the knowledge about why our brains have a hard time keeping resolutions, you can start to re-frame your commitments into something that’s more likely to succeed. Some of the keys: keeping it simple, focusing on habits instead of aspirations, positive feedback, and social accountability.
We’ve been doing some thinking of our own about how to stick to your goals. In this post, we examine the use of self-tracking systems to create feedback loops that help you form habits and build up data points that will help you turn your efforts into a game.
It’s all well and good to set goals, even grandiose ones, but the keys to reaching them are focus and iteration. Both can be really difficult, especially given our increasingly busy lifestyles. Tackling your goals in small chunks, with reviews and deliberate next-steps in short cycles along the way.
Here’s a list of bite-sized resolutions for entrepreneurs or anyone else who wants to advance their career in 2013. Ideas range from keeping your inbox at zero to reading the Wall St. Journal every day, to pledging to stop bringing your computer to meetings. They’re all over the map, so pick and choose a couple that seem interesting to you and see if you can form some new productive habits.
Google takes a nostalgic look back at the major events of 2012, but also takes a look to the future with this neat interactive map that let’s you view people’s new year’s resolutions from around the globe. Play around with it, get inspired, and add your own resolutions to the list. (hint hint, can you find RescueTime’s resolution on there?)
File under “resolution tough love”, LifeHack gives you five reasons your resolutions are likely to fail. Do you really care about what you’re committing to? Are you willing to make the necessary changes to put your self in a situation where you’re likely to succeed? Do a little soul-searching, then modify your goals as needed.
You know it’s coming. That day when you look up and say “that was a good run, but I totally failed at that resolution attempt”. Sometime’s our good intentions are much loftier than we can handle. Don’t be too hard on yourself, it happens. Read this article for some ideas on how to respond to a ‘resolution relapse’ and get back on track.
More exploration of the “goals are bad” idea. Instead of goals, just pick some areas that you’d like to focus on, and commit to working at them, without an explicitly defined end-goal. Chances are, you’ll get where you were wanting to go anyway, and you’ll give yourself the flexibility to make the proper adjustments along the way.
Here’s wishing everyone a happy and productive New Year!