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…)

10256811344_99ebc7f2b5_k

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.