Here are articles on productivity

Learning to learn: How to get better at what you do

I’ve been reading the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. In it, he describes the kind of deliberate practice you have to do to get good at something. This is extremely important! If you’re doing anything new with a learning curve, you can vastly accelerate that learning curve with the right kind of practice.

I’m learning to sight-sing (sing directly from a musical score) despite playing no instruments and having no musical background. Not only do I have to learn to sing, but I must learn to read music, to hear pitches, to match pitches, etc. It’s a very difficult learning curve for me, at a time in my life when I’m many years away from the last time I tried to learn an entire skill set from scratch. Here’s how I’m using deliberate practice to accelerate my learning.

First of all, I have to deal with the fact that sight-singing is skill-based. No amount of intellectual understanding can help me get it any faster. I need to drill. I drill every day. It is very clear that daily drilling separated by sleep cycles builds capability. There’s a measurable improvement every day in my skills. That’s neat. It’s frustrating only because there doesn’t seem to be any shortcut. The results only show up when I put in practice time during the day with sleep in between.

When I notice a chronic problem in my practice, I design an exercise for that particular problem. For example, there are certain intervals I just can’t remember. So I plunked out little made-up songs (with words and imagery) 30-seconds long on my keyboard that emphasized the troublesome intervals. Then I listen to them for 20 minutes each day until my brain starts to memorize them.

Learning to sing intervals is trickier because I have no outside source of feedback to know if I’m doing it right. Often, I’m not. To the extent possible, I use a piano for feedback. I sing slowly with a piano keyboard, and concentrate on listening to the external sound of the keyboard and of my voice, rather than my internal imagination of what the note *should* sound like. I’m gradually becoming able to sing most intervals.

One intermediary skill in learning to sing intervals has been to explicitly develop comfort singing a note when it sounds dissonant. If a note is playing and I’m supposed to sing a major 7th above it, I have to hold that note even if it sounds a bit jarring to my ear. So paradoxically, I’ve had to develop the skill of singing a note even when my ear tells me it’s out of tune. Because it’s in tune, it’s just a dissonant harmony.

My next step is to work on stretching the range where I can hear and sing intervals. I’ve discovered that I’m essentially tone deaf below G. I never noticed before, but I can’t even tell which notes are higher or lower in that part of the keyboard. Unfortunately, drilling that one seems to require an external keyboard. For reasons I don’t understand, my iPod keyboard doesn’t produce the same confusion that an external keyboard does. When I get my hands on the right equipment, my next set of self-drills will all be around developing that part of my range.

Next time you are learning something new, don’t just practice; practice deliberately. Design exercises to stretch yourself where you’re having trouble. You’ll find if you stick with it, it’s possible to learn much more quickly than you ever though possible. (And no, it doesn’t feel any easier. You just make faster progress through the uncomfortable parts.)

Why I Like Paper

A reader wrote in:

I read your suggestion about the 3×5 pad and it sucks! That’s because I hate paper and pen note-taking. I want something that I can carry with me anywhere on my handheld and which will also prompt me, just like a personal assistant, not something which will load me with the extra work of transcribing to a master list! As if I am not burdened enough already! Look, I need something to help me gain lost time each day. Something to boost my productivity and tidily organise my intended activities in a manner that enables me to take action on them!

My reply:

The reason I like paper is that the transcribing *forces me* to confront whether or not a particular task is important enough to copy by hand. If it isn’t, that’s a sign that it probably isn’t important enough to keep on my list. The key to freeing up time, ultimately, is saying “No” to commitments and then vigorously protecting the time you’ve freed up.

If time is getting lost, you need to stop doing the things that you define as “losing” it. Smartphones are often big time losers. Yes, the phone is a fun toy, and yes it can do cool stuff, but measured *in terms of my getting my important work done* (as opposed to my unimportant, imagined work), it’s probably doesn’t make me that much more productive.

The problem is that it speeds up some things, but it slows down others. For example, I type about 1/3 the speed on my smartphone as I do on my desktop. I may find it convenient to respond to email on my smartphone, but it’s actually making me *less* productive. And even if I could answer email at the same rate, the moment I click on a link and spend 5 minutes web browsing or playing a game, any email productivity gains get lost as I waste time goofing off.

If you’re brave enough, try keeping a log for a couple of days. Note what you get done on your smartphone and what you get done at your desk, and how much time each takes. You may find your smartphone boosts your productivity. Or you may find it doesn’t. For looking up phone numbers and addresses, my smartphone is awesome. But does it really save time? I used to clip someone’s business card into my rolodex and I’d memorize it after 2-3 calls. Now I have to retype or scan-plus-double-check each card to get it into my address book (or pay someone to do it, which means earning the money to pay them). And then I *always* have to look them up, because I no longer memorize.

Assuming I make 5-6 calls a day, am I really more productive with an electronic address book when you take all that into account? I suspect yes, but I probably save a few minutes a month, *not* hours.

In short, I like paper because it forces me to think. I like technology because it’s fun and sometimes convenient. But I never assume that paper is automatically bad, nor do I assume technology is good. Like any tool, test it out and be careful that adopting a new, faster tool in one area doesn’t slow you down in another.

Use An Editor!

If you want to produce extremely high-quality work, it may be wise to find someone to help. It’s hard to be objective about our own work. Almost by definition, we believe if we did it, it must be good. But yet, sometimes an objective eye can help us take our good work to the realm of greatness. The objective eyes I’m talking about belong to editors.

Editors ROCK! When I’m writing a Get-it-Done Guy episode, my natural sense of humor comes out. My natural sense of humor was developed doing comedy improvisation with college audiences. “Decorum” is not high on the list of words you would use to describe my first draft material.

Fortunately, there’s a very dedicated editor at Macmillan publishing who reads my drafts. She sends them back with paragraphs circled in red pen. In the margin, she writes notes like, “If you say that, the FBI will open a file on you, start wire-tapping your phones, and put you under 24-hour surveillance. Again.” While most people would enjoy free protection services, I find it cramps my style when I go out clubbing. So I rewrite the paragraphs she highlights, this time using Goldilocks and the Three Bears as the central metaphor of my piece. My editors approve, and another Get-it-Done Guy episode is born.

Editors come in many varieties. Some editors can make sure your humor is appropriate. They can make sure your text flows, that you don’t repeat yourself, and that your points build on one another. Copy-editors handle editing the details. They double-check your spelling, your grammar, and your punctuation. I was a copyeditor for the school newspaper when I was a student at Harvard Business School; I need to give my marketing staff a special therapy budget, so they can deal with me.

If you have to write reports, pamphlets, or anything where quality matters, get yourself an editor. It doesn’t have to be a professional, a colleague who writes well may be all that’s required. If you’re worried about letting your coworkers see your work before it’s polished, find a friend who has the write skill set, but works at another company. You can be an outside helper for each other, without worrying about work-in-progress-quality work getting out to the people in your company.

If you’ve never worked with an editor, give it a shot. You’ll discover that having an extra pair of eyes double-check your work can often produce something better than either of you could have written on your own.

The Power of Visceral Relationships

I’m having a conversation on Google+ about social media, and it connected up with an exercise I did today to produce a rather puzzling realization.

Social media has certainly broadened who I know and how we connect. It’s because of social media that I have met some of the great in-person people I know. And I definitely use it to keep in touch with people I’ve met at conferences, etc. It’s just such a weird thing to me.

I’m working my way through a process of re-examining my life, and I did an exercise today of writing down my happiest memories. They mostly fell into categories of: “times I was hanging out in person with friends,” “times I was alone in a nourishing/replenishing environment,” and “times I was performing.” When I think about those memories, I feel really good. I don’t feel really good when I think about my social media interactions, however. I don’t feel bad, either. And that, I think, is why I raised the question. For me, social media relationships are cerebral, not visceral.

That’s great for work, accomplishment, and idea exchange. But it’s the visceral community that, as revealed by this exercise, brings me joy. It’s also the visceral community that make me feel supported, like someone’s got my back, etc. So I wonder how much my social media actually supplants or shifts my relationships from “happy-making” to “engaged-making.” Those aren’t the same thing, and I personally prefer the former to the latter.

Email Overload – Where the CEO of Xerox and I Disagree

As you probably know, I’ve launched my You Are Not Your Inbox, so I’m revisiting some of my old thoughts about Email Overload.

Tim Sanders wrote a blog entry that references a Business Week article (“What’s So Bad about Information Overload?”) on information overload I commented on last week. The writer suggests that information overload might be good. There might be some valuable information, and besides, young people can handle it just fine.

Sure. In what universe? My Get-it-Done Guy podcast email and people’s reaction to my
What is Email Costing You Assessment, suggest many people of us feel our life force being regularly sucked from our bodies by information overload. It makes us jump from topic to topic. It interrupts us when we need to concentrate. And then we feel guilty that we still can’t keep up. Gee, that sounds like a resourceful emotional state for reaching our goals.

Yes, we’re getting more info. Yes, some of it’s useful. But that’s not the point! We need to ask: is it useful enough? Are the benefits—financial, social, or emotional—worth the cost?

For Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy (mentioned in the article), the answer is Yes. In email, they say things they would never say otherwise. Like that comment about the chocolate mousse, telephone pole, and garter belt. Who would ever say that out loud?

Of course, an anonymous suggestion box would fill the same function. Even better, the tipster could actually include the original garter belt. But apparently, those emails are amazing enough that Anne devotes a lot of time to her email. Since she’s gotten great results at Xerox, for her, the benefits might be worth the cost. (Assuming, of course, that her success is because of email, rather than in spite of it. Maybe a weekly suggestion box would be just as good.)

If you’re top dog, no one pays attention to how you use your time as long as you produce business results. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. Our pointy-haired boss gives us specific goals, and email can suck up a lot of time without moving us towards our real goals. That “Top 10 Reasons Working Here Sucks” email will only help you reach your goal if that goal is a new job at your major competitor’s firm.

When you’re deciding how much time to spend with your inbox, think long and hard about the benefits you’re getting. After all, there’s lots you could be doing with that time. Ask yourself if there is any other way to get those same benefits? If you hired a $50/hour assistant to read and answer your email every day, what would you tell him/her to process versus ignore? Are you following those same guidelines?

Being perfect in every way, I follow my own advice and am ultra careful with my email habits. Even so, I often get sucked in for up to 30 extra minutes a day. Since I’m perfect, that must be the perfect amount of time to waste. But there’s still a nagging feeling: that comes out to three weeks per year. If I’m going to spend three weeks a year blathering mindlessly, I’d rather do it wearing a bathing suit on a sunny Caribbean beach than sitting hunched over my computer in my basement office, looking like one of the Mole People. At least on the beach, I might get a tan.

So don’t take my word for it. Don’t take Tim Sanders’s word for it. And don’t take Business Week’s word for it. Your email time is productive to the extent it helps you get what you want out of life. Hold it to a high standard and if it isn’t performing, drop it from your life faster than that stalker you accidentally dated in college. With email, only you can take control; there’s no way to get a restraining order.

Give Yourself Some Slack Time

One of the most important things that I’ve learned is that you can only be up to 100% efficient –  you can’t get 25 hours of work done in a day.  How do you know when you’re at the point of diminishing returns?

We all want to believe we can add one more thing to our plate without it being a problem. But there’s only so much time in a day, and that tiny one-more-thing can be what tips the balance. Have you seen the last scene in the Meaning of Life by Monty Python? A huge man is eating a gigantic meal. At the end, he’s offered a tiny, wafer-thin mint. He eats it and explodes.

The two indicators I look at are my stress level and my slack space. If I have so much on my plate that I’m constantly thinking about the next thing and always rushing to get stuff done, that’s an indicator that my time is pretty much full. I’m at that point a lot at the moment, actually.

You can also consider whether you have enough slack time in your schedule. You need slack to handle unexpected work and personal things that crop up. If a single slipped schedule or car breakdown throws your whole life into chaos, you probably have too much on your plate and need to drop something.

Becoming more productive at what you currently do can, of course, free up some time. But even that isn’t a panacea. It takes time and effort to find alternate ways of doing your work, and then more time and effort to implement those. At some point, it takes more time and effort to improve your performance than the time and effort you actually save from improving. When you’ve reached that point, you’re doing as well as you can. If you’re still overloaded, it’s time to remove things from your plate so you once again have room to breathe, relax, and cope.

I’m still not convinced Inbox Zero is necessary

My [intlink id=”inboxzero” type=”post”]previous Inbox Zero post[/intlink] has generated a lot of disagreement and controversy. I can’t say I didn’t expect it. I’m really torn. Part of me certainly agrees that if you work in a culture where everything of value happens via email and no one is willing to talk face-to-face or by phone, then email may be the only way you can work. But I just don’t believe that you have to be a victim of such a culture.

Email is not just paper mail put online. People use it quite differently. Email is fundamentally different from prior forms of communication in that it comes at virtually no cost to the sender. The size of your inbox is not under your control. It is under the control of those who want to send you stuff. Back when written letters required effort, addressing, stamps, and delays, people did not use them to pass off work, delegate things they could do more easily themselves, and so on.

By removing all barriers to sending, email has made all of us recipients of whatever drivel anyone wants to send. Given the slowness of the medium (even very fast typists can’t type nearly as fast as they can talk) and the poor use of it by most senders, my observation is that it fails to make us more productive in many cases; time spent working towards Inbox Zero increases our activity and feelings of accomplishment while actually reducing measurable results. (The exception to this is when email is used to communicate reference information, shared documents, etc.)

A Couple Of Tips That Help

Am I advocating ignoring messages in your inbox? I guess not. But I am advocating adding back barriers to having people send you email in the first place. Don’t respond immediately. Ask people to come talk in person if they have anything of substance to discuss.  Use short, almost  useless answers (or don’t answer!) for messages that should never have been sent in the first place.

Sorting your inbox by subject or sender can also help you quickly identify the messages you want to respond to, and keep your brain on one topic long enough to make some progress, but it’s only a partial solution, since you are still at the mercy of other people’s subject lines and time-wasting messages. (And besides, Gmail won’t let you sort by sender, only by it’s idea of what a conversation is.)

Challenge Me With Data

Want to challenge me? Log your email for a week. Write down (or put in a spreadsheet) each message that hits your inbox, whether it really required your attention or not, and what job outcome would have been affected had you ignored it. Also note how much total time you spent on email. Then give me a call and we’ll examine the log message by message, and decide how useful your email is. Cries of “I just HAVE to do it all” won’t convince me, but data will. (And though I’m willing to change my mind, I’m going to bet that no one reading this is actually willing to do the experiment for fear of having data that contradicts the justification for their email addiction.)

But saying “I need to process all my email every day” does not regain the time you’re wasting on email, nor does it make you more productive, nor does it change the fact  that email buffets your attention and uses up brain power that then can’t be used for anything else. (See the book “The Power of Full Engagement” for a discussion of how our attention and willpower is limited, and gets used up by activities that require thought, regardless of whether those are the “right” activities or not.)  Email is a communication tool, nothing more. Like any tool, its use should be measured in how much more work it helps you do.

Email is Still an Incredible Time Suck

The fact remains that an hour of email triage a day is six work-weeks a year. That’s an awful lot of time to devote to email unless you can make a convincing case that a month and a half’s worth of your results wouldn’t have been possible without doing it over email.

Personally,  I like saving my brainpower for the things I care about. Not everyone has the same priorities. But as I get older and find I have less energy to spend on trivia, email stands out as the number one drain of my energy that’s high on dopamine punch, but low on measurable results.

Inbox Zero and the Critical Mistake That Saps Productivity

Everyone loves the concept of “Inbox Zero.” The idea is easy: make it a priority to empty your email inbox every day. It feels great. I agree that it feels great. One member of the Get-it-Done Guy community said it’s how he knows he has control over his email.

I respectfully disagree that inbox zero means you have control over your email. You don’t control the content, the order, or the volume of email that arrives. Inbox Zero is basically a reactive strategy—it says that your inbox is so high priority that you should attend to everything in it every day. Since you don’t control the content, that means shifting your brain through several topics just to scan your inbox in a single session. The order you have to think about those topics is determined by the order messages arrive, not by the importance or relevance of the topic to you. Brains don’t do well with rapid, random context switching. You’re using up brainpower just in the process of triaging the whole inbox. This isn’t just a philosophical issues. In “The Power of Full Engagement” by Tony Schwartz cites research that we only have a certain amount of mental capacity between each sleep cycle. Your brain doesn’t care what you use it on. You can use it up triaging your inbox just as easily as you can use it actually doing good, high-quality work. When I’ve paid close attention, I’ve noticed that email saps my actual productivity.

The amount of your email is determined by others, and the amount of time it takes to scan your inbox is proportional to the amount of email they send. Unless you’re in a completely reactive job and the only people who email you are people whose agenda aligns with yours, taking your time to sort through their email can waste a lot of time. I get about 100 emails a day. If I spent as much as 30 seconds on each one, that would take up the equivalent of a month and a half a year. There’s simply no way that’s a productive use of time in aggregate.

I believe that an empty inbox just means you’ve ceded control of your thinking and priorities to everyone who emails you. They control the volume, order, and substance of your attention for the time you’re processing your email. It *feels good* to have an empty inbox, but it also feels good to gorge on Oreo ice cream cake. That doesn’t mean that Oreo ice cream cake is good for you, only that it feels good. Inbox Zero has the extra sugary bonus that since *some* email is an essential part of our job, it’s easy to believe (with no evidence at all) that therefore it’s useful to spend some time on *all* email.

Rather than striving for inbox zero, I advocate learning to identify the truly relevant emails very, very quickly, with an absolute minimum of cognitive load or context switching.

Hint: consider the concept of semantic priming. When you consider a topic (or even just a word), your brain unconsciously brings to mind associated concepts. I’m assuming that this is part of what happens to drain the mental energy that email drains. How would you use semantic priming to your benefit while processing your inbox?

Hint #2: Consider that humans find it easier to choose between 2 things than 3, and that the framing of a choice–e.g. the choice to read/respond to an email versus to ignore it–will dramatically change the amount of mental energy needed to process that email.

Hint #3: Consider the behavior of people who send mail. Contrast their pre-email behavior (stamps, envelopes, etc.) and post-email. What was different? Why? What implications does this have for responding to senders?

Google destroys productivity

Google is trying to “organize the world’s information,” presumably to help us be more productive. But they make their money selling advertising. By definition, ads are things that distract us from what we’re trying to do and entice us to go shopping, instead. Whether or not the thing we’re shopping for is related to what we were doing is irrelevant; ads knock us out of the Zone in favor of shopping.

Even if we don’t click on the ads, if you’re like me, their mere presence is a bit of a distraction. Especially if they are animated or flashy or move.

As I discuss in chapter 4 of my book, restore focus by eliminating distractions. Use a plug-in like Firefox AdBlock Plus to eliminate as many ads as possible. And while I appreciate the convenience of Google products, if you find yourself getting distracted because you’re living in your Web browser, close the browser and use desktop applications that don’t pull you away from your task at hand.

Productivity Before the Cloud

I said to my friend, “I’m so happy!!! I have DropBox configured so I can access my important files from anywhere. What in the world did we do before the cloud?”

Then I stopped. I realized I was alive before the cloud. How did I access my important files back then? Oh, yeah. They were in a notebook. I popped it in my $29 knapsack and carried them around with me. All my important files, available everywhere I wanted to go.

These days, I pop my laptop into that knapsack. The laptop is heavier than the paper files used to be. Then I add the power cords. And the wireless USB dongle. And my headphones. Then I lug it all until I find someplace that has WiFi, pay $14.95 for the privilege of accessing their WiFi, and access my files that I can view 2/3 of a screen at a time. And by the way, I now pay a substantial monthly fee for my internet connection at home for all this convenience.

“But this way, you don’t have to think about what to put in your knapsack! Everything’s at your fingertips,” my rationalizing gadget-loving brain cries. Uh, huh. That sounds good, but when I watch my actual behavior, literally 30 seconds’ thought before  I leave would be all it takes to figure out which files I need for a given day and pop them into my bag. In fact, I could do that faster than the time it takes me to pack up my power cord. And stopping to do that thinking would probably result in me doing more targeted, more important work, rather than just spazzing from thing to thing in a frenzy of mock-productivity.

Help me understand. Every individual step from there to here felt like progress. But I’m hard-pressed to consider the additional cost (in dollars, complexity, etc.) of the current state of affairs worth the additional output (mainly printing with proportional spaced fonts).

Progress? Or is there a high tech marketing person laughing her head off in some hidden back room, as she jots down notes in pencil, on her yellow pad, that fits neatly inside her thin, lightweight, fashionable backpack?