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).

The genie of hyper-connectivity is not going to go back in the bottle, and moving to a mountain deep in the woods is not a career enhancing solution (unless you are writing a novel).

The genie of hyper-connectivity is not going to go back in the bottle, and moving to a mountain deep in the woods is not a career enhancing solution (unless you are writing a novel).

All the activity that is generated in a hyper-connected world can lead to the illusion of progress, to an illusion of importance and to force ineffective multitasking. Trying to put the genie totally back in the bottle would be difficult at best, since hyper-connectivity can be useful in the right circumstances. Measured steps can be used temper the some of the more problematic attributes of hyper-connectivity.

  1. Electronics free meetings. Specify some meetings as laptop and cell phone closed. Remove the potential distraction of the texting, email and other work by using the nuclear option. Recently I participated in a meeting that had a diverse set of participants most with different cultures and first languages. All of the participants were asked to close their laptops. Participation in the group increased even though one or two “members” were very reticent. While there were exceptions for long meetings, such as more frequent break to check in with the electronic masters or allowing the person with a kid at home sick to have an exemption, cutting the cord in meetings seems to have merits. In response to the article Hyper-connectivity and The Illusion of Progress, Chris noted:

I’ve been saying (and promoting) this for years as well. In a previous role, with Software Configuration Management, Build & Release, and QA Engineers reporting to me, I mandated that our weekly, short, team meetings were spend untethered to smart phones and laptops, except for the person charged with taking team notes. Very effective!

  1. Twenty minute sprints. Turn off the connections (think airplane mode) for twenty minutes. At the end of the twenty minute period turn them back on, open Outlook and read/respond for 5 – 10 minutes then repeat. I will admit that I am a connectivity addict, but this has become one of my favorite techniques to reduce connectivity distractions. I have settled on the twenty-minute rule because the time frame is long enough that I can get real work done and short enough not induce panic from being cut off. Note, I have modified the rule to allow going to the internet to look up a fact or to find a synonym (if I am not in my office with a paper thesaurus). The sprint technique has been used at more macro level in some organizations with days without email or meetings.
  2. Don’t reply to emails after hours. Compartmentalize your work and home lives when possible. Some companies such as the Volkswagen, Puma and BMW have tried this technique in an attempt to reduce the burnout hyper-connectivity can generate. I have not found any data to suggest the technique has been effective and obviously there are a few issues that are critical enough to require a response (FYI . . . I suggest picking up the phone and calling someone in those circumstances). This technique help create separation between home and work life and slow down the the expectation of immediate actions and responses.  .
  3. The Two-Email Rule. If a discussion or issue spans two emails or text messages, call the person or persons involved in the discussion and talk. I personally have begun to try to implement this rule and have found it very effective in reducing text or emails being volleyed back and forth without resolving anything. When emails are being volleyed back and forth it seems like the progress is measured by passing the issue on rather than resolving it. The biggest issue I have found is that in some circumstances people are using the volley technique to avoid having difficult conversations.

The genie of hyper-connectivity is not going to go back in the bottle, and moving to a mountain deep in the woods is not a career enhancing solution (unless you are writing a novel). There are a number of techniques that can create an oasis in the communication storm. You can practice some of these  techniques individually and change your own behavior.  When you are working on a team, change will require a vision of the future and leadership to make even incremental changes to how work is done by the team.

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I recently attended a meeting and after about ten minutes I was brought up short.  Everyone was paying attention; not one laptop was open nor was anyone reading an email or text under the table.  People were taking notes “old school way”— on paper. The meeting ended on time after 25 minutes, meeting the objective and with the promise of meeting minutes.  I was shocked by the efficiency and effectiveness, and as a result I lingered after the meeting to discuss my observations with my sponsor.

Why is the more typical behavior to be tethered to multiple devices while juggling several projects or tasks? It is more than just a new corporate culture; rather our need for connectedness is based not just on how we see each other, but on how we see ourselves.  Our behavior is grounded in a combination of interlocking facts, self-knowledge and illusion. The keystone illusion that drives this need for hyper-connectedness is the illusion of control. The Illusion of control that we embrace allows us to believe we can script our progress through our career and that we can understand and predict the future like some sort of omnipotent being. In order to build that illusion of control we need build on three basic separate and distinct illusions. Each of these illusions is self-reinforcing.

Returning to my “old school” example, my sponsor indicated that recently meetings at her company were a mirror of many other organizations, lots of hardware and lots of miscommunication. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a senior management session where the CIO was asked the same question twice in less than five minutes.  The CIO levied a $50 fine for an open laptop that is not being used for the projector or the use of a cell during one of his meetings.  Extreme?  Even without the fine, the behavior change filtered through the organization. My sponsor indicated that the meetings had become shorter, as a result, and more effective and happened less frequently.

Passing aside what, without measurement, might be just the party line, why is this an important discussion?  Because once upon a time answering email during a meeting would have been viewed as rude. None of this would make any difference if there weren’t consequences. The whole hyper-connectedness, which has permeated even our most private spaces, causes us to spread our attention, our greatest asset, too thinly. Fractional attention makes you think that we’re progressing; it makes us think that we are important; it makes us think that we can multitask. In reality, fractional attention means that we actually get less done. The three illusions that are required to support the illusion of control are the illusion of progress, the illusion of multitasking and the illusion of importance.  Each of this can be issues in their own right, but together they shape how we behave.

First, the illusion of progress
Focusing on activities such as starting many tasks, participating in many projects or simply texting and answering emails while pretending to listen at a meeting gives an illusion of making progress. The thought is that we can switch in between these activities when we get downtime so that we can perfectly fill our day and be highly effective and efficient.  In reality, we are masking issues by confusing being busy with effective progress.

Second, the illusion of multitasking
In past essays I have dealt with this topic. We don’t multitask; we fast switch. Additionally, lean theory tells us that trying to split our attention between multiple tasks increases the possibility of doing none of them well.  In the work place, true multitasking is rare.  The data shows that generally humans are not really very good at true multitasking in the workplace. Linda Stone noted in the Huffington Post that people tend to stop breathing while they answer email. She even named the malady email apnea. If you need more examples just reflect on the data concerning cell phone usage and driving. Or if data doesn’t work for you, then try writing code while answering emails. Computers, on the other hand, are really good at multitasking and no matter the number of processors we have on our desktop we have not crossed that chasm to become full cyborgs yet . . . or perhaps that will be the outcome of hyper-connectedness.

Last, the illusion of importance
Hyper-connectivity has both positive and negative traits.  It allows us to connect with people and teammates across the globe, a positive except losing a few hours of sleep here or there. Advocates argue that this promotes greater collaboration and facilitates the sharing of ideas.

But it has a darker side in that it can lead us down deep rabbit holes through the implied urgency that each new message creates.  It can also make small issues appear larger and more influential than they really are which again demands our attention.

In a recent talk at Ted, Sherry Turkle stated that hyper-connectivity, with the problems it creates, has become more pervasive than just in a few meetings.

People text or do email during corporate board meetings. They text and shop and go on Facebook during presentations People talk to me about the important new skill of making eye contact while you’re texting.  People explain to me that it’s hard, but that it can be done. Parents text and do email at breakfast and at dinner while their children complain about not having their parents’ full attention. But then these same children deny each other their full attention.

Our electronic tools have been presented to us with the promise of delivering an ability to more closely integrate networks so that tasks, issues, changes, gossip and noise never fall through the cracks.   Content is always available. How many of you sleep with your smart phones next to the bed (or closer) just in case something you need to know happens during the night. Frankly, few of us are that important. However, instant and indiscriminate communication provides an illusion of importance, which reinforces the need to share information as well as to seek it. The act of constant foraging for data makes it difficult to focus on the speaker in a meeting or even responding to an important text message.

 

Hyper-connectivity and Illusion
Thomas M Cagley Jr.

Audio Version:  SPaMCAST 193

I sat in a meeting a few weeks ago and after about ten minutes I was brought up short.  Everyone was paying attention; not one laptop was open nor was anyone reading an email or text under the table (by the way you really can’t hide by texting under the table).  People were taking notes “old school way”— on paper. The meeting ended on-time after 25 minutes, meeting the objective and with the promise of meeting minutes.  I was shocked by the efficiency and effectiveness as a result I lingered after the meeting to discuss my observations with my sponsor.

Why is the more typical behavior to be tethered to multiple devices while juggling several projects or tasks? I suggest that it is more than just a new corporate culture; rather, our need for connectedness is based not just on how we see each other but on how we see ourselves.  Our behavior is grounded in a combination of interlocking facts, self-knowledge and illusion. The keystone illusion that drives this need for hyper-connectedness is the illusion of control. The Illusion of control that we embrace allows us to believe we can script our progress through our career and that we understand and can predict the future like some sort of omnipotent being. In order to build that illusion of control we need build on three basic separate and distinct illusions. Each of these illusions is self-reinforcing.

Returning to my “old school” example, my sponsor indicated that recently, meetings at her company were a mirror of many other organizations, lots of hardware and lots of miscommunication. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a senior management session where the CIO was asked the same question twice in less than five minutes.  The CIO levied a $50 fine for an open laptop that is not being used for the projector or the use if a cell during one of his meetings.  Extreme?  The behavior change filtered into the organization though without the fine. Was that the correct move? My sponsor indicated that the meetings had become shorter, as a result, and more effective and had happened less frequently.

Passing aside what without measurement, might be just the party line, why is this an important discussion?  Maybe because once upon a time answering email during a meeting would have been viewed as rude however times have changed.   Therefore just passing this type of behavior as rudeness will fall on deaf ears therefore nothing will change.  I would suggest, none of this would make any difference if there weren’t consequences. The whole hyper-connectedness which has permeated even our most private spaces causes us to spread our attention, our greatest asset, too thinly. Fractional attention makes you think that we’re progressing; it makes us think that we are important; it makes us think that we can multitask. In reality fractional attention means that we actually get less done.

The three illusions that are required to support the illusion of control are the illusion of progress, the illusion of multitasking and the illusion of importance.  Each of this can be issues in their own right but together shape how we behave.

First, the illusion of progress
Focusing on activities such as starting many tasks, participating in many projects or simply texting and answering emails while pretending to listen at a meeting gives an illusion of making progress. In many cases the thought is that we can switch in between these activities when we get downtime so that we can perfectly fill our day and be highly effective and efficient.  In reality, we are masking issues by confusing being busy with effective progress.

Second, the illusion of multitasking
In past essays I have dealt with this topic. We don’t multitask; we fast switch. Additionally lean theory tells us that trying to split our attention between multiple tasks increases the possibility of doing neither well.  In the work place, true multitasking is rare.  The data shows that generally humans are not really very good at true multitasking in the workplace. Linda Stone noted in the Huffington Post[1] that people tend to stop breathing while they answer email. She even named the malady email apnea. If you need more examples just reflect on the data concerning cell phone usage and driving or if data doesn’t work for you then try writing code while answering emails. Computers, on the other hand, are really good at multitasking and no matter the number of processors we have on our desktop we have not crossed that chasm to become full cyborgs yet . . . or perhaps that will be the outcome of hyper-connectedness.

Last, the illusion of importance
Hyper-connectivity has both positive and negative traits.  It allows us to connect with people and teammates across the globe; a positive except losing a few hours of sleep here or there. Advocates argue that this promotes greater collaboration and facilitates the sharing of ideas.

But it has a darker side in that it can lead us down deep rabbit holes through the implied urgency that each new message creates.  It can also make small issues appear larger and more influential than they really are which again demands our attention.

In a recent talk at Ted, Sherry Turkle stated that hyper-connectivity with the problems it creates has become more pervasive than just in a few meetings.

People text or do email during corporate board meetings. They text and shop and go on Facebook during presentations People talk to me about the important new skill of making eye contact while you’re texting.  People explain to me that it’s hard, but that it can be done. Parents text and do email at breakfast and at dinner while their children complain about not having their parents’ full attention. But then these same children deny each other their full attention.[2]

Our electronic tools have been presented to us with the promise of delivering an ability to more closely integrate networks so that tasks, issues, changes, gossip and noise never fall through the cracks.   Content is always available. How many of you sleep with your smart phones next to the bed (or closer) just in case something you need to know happens during the night. Frankly, few of us are that important. However, instant and indiscriminate communication provides an illusion of importance which reinforces the need to share information as well as to seek it. The act of constant foraging for data makes it difficult to focus on the speaker in a meeting or even responding to an important text message.