Sunset at the beach is a moment of clarity!

Silence is a powerful tool to guide conversations and mine information from the stream of consciousness that flows around us. If silence was just a tool to improve our connections with people and to improve listening, it would be worth practicing. But, silence is also a tool to peer deeper into our minds. Silence improves relaxation and helps individuals to focuses. On the other hand, sound and input also have physiological impacts.  (more…)

Tight stairway to the sky

Block Out Distractions

As the New Year’s celebration approaches, it is useful to reflect on how we can become more efficient and effective.  Continuing breaking down nine of the techniques I have found useful over the past year we explore a selection ranging from saying “no” to time boxing. The goal is to not only get more done but to get the right things done.   (more…)

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Listening, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, is “to hear something with thoughtful attention.” Listening is more than receiving audio data. You also need to interpret that data. If you are a parent, I am sure that you have experienced the joy of asking your child if they were listening only to have them rattle off the conversation verbatim without them having a clue of the meaning. Listening requires hearing and interpretation. This formula sounds simple, but is more complex than it appears.  There is a number of requirements for effective listening. (more…)

Boy looking at cake

Don’t get distracted…

I am experimenting with a set of time and task management techniques that include personal Kanban, The Pomodoro Technique® and retrospectives. I use the term ‘experimenting’ advisedly. Getting stuff done requires a pallet of techniques to tackle the complexity of the day-to-day environment. Unfortunately, I have not found the perfect set of techniques that work in every circumstance. There are a number of hurdles that I have had to address during this current experiment. (more…)

Boy holding a pencil

Sometimes you need some focus.

Whether you are working alone or in a collaborative office, finding a way to focus is important. I am currently experimenting with The Pomodoro Technique® as a tool to generate an environment where focusing is possible. In my experimentation, I have begun to hybridize Pomodoro to ensure I am working on the highest value activities in the right order and then to identify process improvements. I have added Kanban as a work entry technique and daily retrospectives to Pomodoro. (more…)

One finger

Focus on just one thing for a 25 minute interval.

Over the years, I have experimented and tweaked how I manage the laundry list of activities that I want or have to get done. At some point along the way, I learned that the more activities I had in progress the fewer that actually got done. Lean practitioners understand the need to limit work-in-progress in order to get work done effectively. Techniques such as Kanban are often used, in part to control work-in-progress for manufacturing and software development processes. I have recently begun experimenting with Pomodoro as an adjunct to my personal productivity pallet. Pomodoro is a technique that is useful for attacking the productivity killers: procrastination and multitasking. The technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s that combines strategies of fixed blocks of time, cadence and focus which limit work-in-progress to get work done.

The basic Pomodoro process is fairly simple and straightforward:

  1. Decide on the task or batch of tasks to be done
  2. Set a timer to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the timer goes off
  4. Take 5-minute break
  5. Repeat for four pomodoros then take a 20-minute break
  6. Repeat until the end of the day

As I have implemented the Pomodoro Technique, I have had to surmount a few hurdles.

The first hurdle in my use of the technique is deciding on a task or a batch or related tasks to be done. I leverage a Kanban approach to my backlog of work; segregating work, podcast/blog, and personal activities into different to-do lists. Each of these lists is prioritized. In my case, the first two or three pomodoros each day are focused on podcast and blog activities (a run and breakfast are layered into the time also – I get up early). Once the work day starts I shift to the work backlog selecting tasks in their prioritized order. The backlog has to be groomed and prioritized. Grooming in this case typically means either breaking work down into manageable chunks or putting related small pieces of work together so that it can fit into a Pomodoro. Unlike an Agile sprint, work does not need to be completed during a pomodoro.

The second hurdle I have had to wrestle with revolves around working on a task for 25 minutes without being distracted. This is where turning off email, shutting down chat windows, putting the phone in do-not-disturb mode and putting headphones on are important tactics. There are tools to cut you off from specific internet sites (typically social media), however I do not feel the need to use tools. Distractions siphon off time and focus and, therefore, are to be avoided if at all possible. Depending on your work environment this step can be nearly impossible. For example, just try cutting yourself off from distractions in an airport waiting area. Overall the 25-minute structure is a bit arbitrary. I have experimented with longer pomodoros (generally I lose focus after 30 minutes) and shorter (useful for some tasks that are very intense and less useful for tasks like writing). I am considering trying longer pomodoros in the morning and shorter in the afternoon when I know my attention span tends to wane.

The short break after every pomodoro is useful to take care of basic human needs and to select the next task. I have found it very useful to get up and move around a bit during the break. When I am working from home I generally play a bit with my dog during the longer break. Breaks generally represent two hurdles. The first is taking the break. I have had to train myself to stop when the timer on my phone goes off. Stopping is difficult if you are on a roll; however, I have found that taking a break generally provides more value than pressing on for any length of time. The second is not getting side tracked, during the breaks. I have found that the siren call of email can’t be resisted, perhaps is the fear of being overwhelmed when I final check email. Email, unfortunately, is a lot like potato chips (crisps for our UK readers), you can eat or read just one. Suddenly an hour is gone and while the email stack might be smaller the work someone expects to be delivered isn’t more complete. I have dealt this problem by assigning two pomordos to email during the day.

The Pomodoro Technique has been a great addition to my bag of tricks that I use to manage my time AND attention. Pomodoro is not a silver bullet and it does not work for all scenarios. Here we explore scenarios where the technique does not work and steps I have taken to hybridize the technique to fit my particular work environment.

blurry reflection in a mirror

Are you in focus or out of focus?

It is common to work in an environment where you have email running in the background, one or more chat windows in the foreground and an office full of chatty neighbors all competing for your attention. There are times when it is important to reject the noise and distractions of the collaborative office in order to focus. There are three types of strategies you can employ to find a little bit of focus:

  1. Noise control techniques – Open offices have become the rage again, driven by the concept of the team room commonly embraced in Agile. The two most common noise control techniques are withdrawal (leaving the team room) and headphones. Maxwell Smart had the cone of silence; today headphones play a very similar role.
  2. Interaction control techniques – Open offices, team rooms and even cube farms have been engineered to shorten the lines of communication between team members. If you have a question, comment or even a story to share it is incredibly easy to interact with a team member. The ability to quickly interact can be a huge benefit, or alternately, a huge focus-killer. Three common interaction control techniques include: withdrawal (does double duty with noise control), turning off collaboration tools (most useful in virtual scenarios) and do not disturb signs. In the 1980’s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, Les the newsman placed a line in front of his cube entry to indicate a door in order to control interactions. The 21st-century version of Les’s line is the do not disturb sign. I recently saw a tri-fold sitting on a desk that said, “I am testing, leave me alone”, “Listening to a webinar – emergencies only” and “Let’s talk about lunch”. The tri-fold sign was amusing, but was used to send a strong signal that the person did not want to be constantly interrupted. Most desks in the office had the same sign. I use this technique at home when my wife and I are working from our separate home offices.
  3. Focus control techniques – Much has been written about the diminution of attention spans. Time Magazine published an article on May 14, 2015 that asserted that we now have an attention span shorter than a goldfish. I must admit that I only read the headline and first paragraph before checking ESPN to see whether my football team’s quarterback had been suspended (I did go back and read the whole article later). Attention span is an important factor in generating focus. There are numerous techniques to help with attention span and to generate focus. My wife uses Getting Things Done (GTD) and I am currently experimenting with a combination of Personal Kanban and Pomodoro. Each technique is different and has their own pluses and minuses; however, the central thread though each is guidance on how to focus on one thing or group of things at a time. We explore Pomodoro in another essay.

Working in a team requires collaboration and coordination, which means that people have to interact (and in some case actually have to speak to each other). Interaction is often an enemy of focus at the individual level. What collaboration and coordination doesn’t mean is that the work environment has to mimic Penn Station during rush hour. Noise and interruptions need to be managed so that work can be done effectively.

Getting work done is directly related to focus.

Getting work done is directly related to focus.

The discussion of hyper-connectivity and the techniques to combat the downside of hyper-connectivity has convinced me that in many cases we are dancing around the bigger workplace issue of how can you stay focused on delivering real business value in an environment that seems to be designed to promote making incremental progress on lots of projects rather than getting any one of them done. For those that are not steeped in the theory of lean, that translates to making progress on lots of tasks without finishing the bigger project to which the tasks belong. This focus on activity might be an artifact of workplace cultures that have been downsized and are attempting to get more done with less or the management by objective type behaviors that foster generating silo behaviors. Regardless of workplace I have observed this type of behavior different national cultures. For example, in conversations with Brazilian and Indian friends they have told me the same story of having to juggle multiple priorities and finding it difficult to stay focusing. The causes of the problem include: the after effects of downsizing, a belief in multitasking, lack of prioritization or plain poor management. These are important to understand for a long-term solution, however in the short-term, tactics are needed to generate focus in order to get into the flow! A few of the techniques I use or have been shared to help generate focus include:

  • Organize your workspace to avoid distractions – Clutter is not your friend. My desk is a hodgepodge of pictures, magazines waiting to read, piles of paid bills, several monitors, hard drives, microphones and an audio mixer. All sorts of cool and interesting stuff that screams for attention. I don’t do work that requires focus in my office anymore. The dining room table that no one uses provides an austere environment that promotes focus. I go back to my office to play.
  • Prepare to focus – A friend that writes for a living suggested that you have what you need close at hand before you start on a task. In other words, get that cup of coffee, tea or water before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Preparation includes making sure you laptop is plugged in or has a charge and literally visiting the bathroom upfront.
  • Have a routine – Frameworks like Scrum or Kanban have a very specific, built-in routine. Each project, release, sprint and day begin with a planning exercise. Time management technique like Getting Things Done (GTD) include planning specific next steps as soon as the previous step is completed. In recent Slate Working Podcast titled The “How Does a Cartoonist Work?” Edition, David Plotz interviewed Washington Post cartoonist, Tom Toles. Mr Toles said that he learned early on that routine was required to continually generate creative content. Routine liberated him from have to think deeply about mundane decisions that needed to be made on a day basis, allowing more time to be work on what really delivered value.
  • Plan – A corollary to having a routine. Plan and re-plan as needed. If nothing else, spend the first few minutes of every day planning the day ahead, and then re-plan as “stuff” happens.
  • Share your “rules” – If you work in a team and you are going to try techniques like the 20 minute sprint or the two email rule, let your friends, co-workers and boss know what you are doing. Also consider asking for their support in enforcing the techniques (thanks to Mauricio Aguiar for the addendum).
  • Airplane mode – While listening to an introduction to a speaker at the Brazilian Metricas 2014 conference, the conference chair suggest to the audience that turning their phones on airplane mode was a better choice than setting their phones to silent.  Airplane mode would ensure they were not interrupted so that they could pay proper attention.  Point well made.

In a response to Hyper-connectivity and The Illusion of Progress, Gene Hughson stated “The illusion of importance also applies in that the need for constant connection can be a conceit – “I’m too important to be out of touch, even for a minute”.” That conceit can lead to a reduction in productivity and effectiveness that hurts everyone. Re-focusing on focus requires sacrificing some of the distractions that make us feel that we are at the center of the importance universe (at least for 20 minutes at a time).

Planting one section at a time.

Planting one section at a time.

Motivational Sunday

I suspect that many of the Daily Process Thoughts readers are driven to go above and beyond the call of duty, just spending the time reading this blog is prima facie evidence. Going beyond the call of duty, in many cases, means that if you see a need you step up to the challenge of meeting that need. In some extreme cases, some of us might think that yes is the only answer acceptable to enhance our career. It is easy to fall prey to the belief that there are always a few more minutes in the day that can be found, and let’s face it, you can always sleep when you die. The data support neither supposition.

In a recent Software Process and Measurement Cast, Patrick O’Toole talked about the principle of slowing down to go faster. In essence, Mr. O’Toole suggests that we stop multitasking and take each task one at a time. By focusing on creating a continuous flow of value, we will deliver more than is possible by wasting effort through starting and stopping each task. The veracity of this simple change in focus is borne out by the explosion of techniques like personal Kanban. Saying “no” or “not now” is an important tool to create focus so we can create a steady stream of completed work, which will equate to more delivered value.

Once you have established the principle of “flow” for any process, the question turns to how to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the process. A tired brain produces tired results (excuse the gasp from the peanut gallery; I am aware of my own shortcomings). According to Jim Maas, a sleep expert[1], “almost everyone is running a 47 to 60 minute sleep deficit.” This deficit impacts creativity, alertness, mood and productivity. The answer is to get an additional hour of sleep. Many sleep experts admonish us to turn off our electronics before bedtime (read a dead-tree book versus an electronic version) or at least place them in a silent mode or in another room. Bottom line, create an atmosphere that is conducive to getting the maximum amount of sleep when you can. Then find the time!

Where does the extra hour come from, given our overflowing calendar and the incessant torrent of email? It starts with the simple phrase “not now,” and turning off the smartphone. This is followed by the productivity gain from doing one thing at a time (reduce task switching) and the reduction in rework that comes from a clear mind. Patrick O’Toole was on to something with the principle of slowing down to deliver more value. It is easy to let being overly busy define our value, rather than measuring the value of what we actually deliver.

Thanks to Meghan Cagley for contributing the picture for today’s Daily Process Thought.


[1] Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Added hour of sleep makes better workers,” Cheryl Hall, Dallas Morning News, Friday, July 19, 2013, Section C, Page 2.

3-20 2013 dog leash

There is never a good reason to be surprised by what is normal. Generally, however, when it does it means we are distracted or thinking about something else.  Focus is fine unless it blinds you to what is happening around you.  Save being surprised for those things that are out of the ordinary; the dog or child that jumps out from between two cars or the car running the red light.  If you are driving into a dog park and you are surprised to see a man walking a dog you simply aren’t using common sense.  If you keep your eyes open there is always a sign or signs that something new and interesting might be in front of you.