Being Smarter by Not Thinking

There’s a popular
myth that says we only use 10% of our brains
.

It’s simply not true. Studies (including the source of all scientific truth: an episode of
MythBusters) have proven that all areas of the brain have a function, and while
the percentage that we’re “using” at any given time varies by task it can
certainly exceed 10%.

image

One thing that seems very obvious to me without needing to
cite a study about it, however, is that I certainly have unused brain capacity,
and it can do amazing things when you leave it to its own devices.

As an example of what I’m talking about, I refer you to a
link I posted on this very blog some time ago: Why
Great Ideas Always Come in the Shower (and How to Harness Them)
.

In the brief commentary I added, I mentioned that never in
my life have I had a good idea in a meeting. Great ideas come to me while I’m
doing other things. Specifically, other things that do not take much in the way
of thought and offer little in the way of distraction: things where my brain
gets left to it’s own devices and has an opportunity to wander – showering,
certainly, but also commuting, trying to get to sleep at the very end of the
day (infuriatingly), and when I’m at the gym.

Talking of the latter one, I haven’t been to the gym for
quite some time.

When we lived in our apartment there was a gym in the
building, and that was great. I could easily fit in a solid 45 minutes there at
lunch. Any spare 30 minute window in my schedule could be turned into 20
minutes on the stationary bike.

I want to go back, but now that we’ve bought the house there
is obviously not an on-site gym. There’s a gym at the office (20 minutes away)
and a Goodlife Fitness close by (10 minutes away) where I’d get a discounted
rate, but small though it is even that travel time is putting me off. I will
most likely join Goodlife, since I rarely go to the office these days and
installing a home gym just isn’t in the budget right now, but I’ve been missing
the ability to easily take 30 minutes and get some exercise, and I’m sad that
none of the solutions will offer me that. In the absence of a perfect solution,
I haven’t done anything at all… until yesterday.

Since the weather here in Calgary is distinctly spring-like
these days, I went for a walk before I started my work day. I didn’t go far – a
little less than 2km, according to the Google Fit data from my phone and watch
– just down the road a bit and then back along the pathways that run through
our neighbourhood.

I liked it so much I did it again at lunch time, and then
for a third time this morning.

The physical benefits of this, though I’m sure not huge by any
means, are probably much needed at this point. Really though what I like about
it so much are the mental benefits. I’ve never been much of a morning person
and I would never consider going to the gym before work, but rolling out of bed
and attempting to be productive more or less immediately is not a recipe for
success either. Feeling like my day has already started by the time I sit down
to get some work done definitely gives me a mental boost that I’ve been able to
capitalize on. More significantly though, there’s a lot to be said for the kind
of problem solving that can only come from not thinking about something too
much and letting my subconscious guide me in ways that I’d never have come up
with if I were sitting at my desk consciously trying to focus on something.

It’s amazing what you can do when you’re not trying to do
anything.

The Curse and the Blessing of Arbitrary Deadlines

The organization that I work for has a fiscal year. I dare
say the organization that you work for has one too. For us, it runs from April
1st to March 31st.

Each year around March there’s a mad rush to get work items
completed, closed out and signed off before March 31. Everyone is running
around like chickens with their heads cut off, and this bothers me hugely. Why
is this largely arbitrary line in the sand so important? Are our accounting practices
so deficient that we can’t deal with a body of work that crosses this boundary?
(Hint: no, they’re not). Nobody has ever been able to adequately explain it to
me because, I suspect, there is no adequate answer.

image

To add to my frustration with this situation, I have in the
past experienced a distinct and noticeable lull in my workload in April. The
nature of what I do is such that there’s often definition and even planning
required of others before work lands on my plate, and if this effort doesn’t
start until April 1st then I will have nothing to do until at least
the middle of the month. So tell me again why I tore all my hair out trying to
get everything I was working on complete by the end of March?

In fairness, I’m exaggerating the picture I’m painting here
and in recent years my team especially and my organization generally have
become much better at this. Nevertheless, it illustrates my point: arbitrary
deadlines are very much a pet peeve of mine and you don’t just find them at year
end, they’re everywhere – from the project completion date that was estimated
before anybody understood the effort required but somehow became set in stone,
to the two hour meeting that somehow fills exactly two hours even though, upon
reflection, there was only 50 minutes of valuable content (that’s the opposite issue
to the chicken-with-its-head-cut-off scenario, but the same root cause).

Thinking back over the past couple of days, however, it
occurs to me that I may be a massive hypocrite.

I’ll be away from the office next week. Actually, I’ll be
away beginning at about lunchtime tomorrow, but the specifics are unimportant
and I digress.

Over the last couple of days I have been extraordinarily productive. Seriously,
it’s been amazing. I have amazed myself. Things are getting completed, closed
off and delivered all over the place. Why? Because there’s going to be a few
days where I’m not around and I don’t want any of these little outstanding
items to still be on my plate when I return or, worse, on my mind while I’m
away? I’m pretty confident in saying that in the normal course of things, if I
weren’t taking some time off, some of the smaller tasks would have sat
languishing at the bottom of my to-do list until well beyond the date when I
get back to the office. One or two of them, I suspect, I would quite literally never have been done

– I’d have just sat on
them until everyone else forgot that they were ever asked of me. So why,
really, has the arbitrary deadline of tomorrow at noon become so critical to me?
Don’t know. I can’t adequately explain it to you because, I suspect, there is
no adequate answer.

I’ll leave you with two thoughts:

  1. Why am I apparently not capable of this week’s
    extraordinary levels of productivity in a more typical week, where I don’t have
    a looming arbitrary deadline to contend with? I actually have a theory. I’ll
    post about it soon (but not by any particular arbitrary date. I only commit to
    those in my professional life).
     
  2. I’ve sucked those around me into my arbitrary
    deadline world too. I don’t work alone, I have teams that I work with. If set
    myself an arbitrary deadline for a task, let’s call it a, then that means I need others’ input and contribution by a-2, or end of day a-1 at the absolute latest, please. And low, the circle of arbitrary
    deadlines becomes self-sustaining and spreads across the land.

I hope those affected by #2 are also congratulating
themselves on this week’s extraordinary productivity, and I hope they enjoy the
distinct and noticeable lull in activity while I’m away without questioning it
too much. I hope they don’t take to the internet to bitch about it on their
blog, but if they do choose that path then that’s OK. There’ll be no hypocrisy
from me.

At work we’re making a collective effort to get better at responding to messages in a more prompt manner.

I’m sure my boss Matt appreciates the helpful countdown timer I attached to my most recent email to him, then.

Or maybe I’m doing it wrong?

How email became the most reviled communication experience ever

This is an interesting read.

At Google I/O in 2009 Google introduced Google Wave, a re-imagining of email. I still maintain this was a much better tool for business communication than email is. The product was killed off only about a year later. Wave had some great technology, but Google failed to even try to sell it to the enterprise. Ultimately the problems Wave solved weren’t technical ones, they were business ones.

That all being said, is the way to solve the current problems with email overload really to replace it with a different tool? I don’t know the solution, but I certainly agree there’s a problem.

How email became the most reviled communication experience ever

How to Recover From an Unproductive Day Like It Never Happened

There was one day last week where I accomplished more in the last hour of my day than I did in the previous 6ish. This happens to everyone from time to time: despite our best intentions, there are all sorts of things that can cause a workday to go sideways on us.

We all have unproductive days. Maybe an unexpected event throws your schedule for a loop. Maybe you’re not feeling well. Whatever the reason, it can be tough to get back on track. Here’s how to get past the dip in productivity and back into gear.

For me, key to recovering when a day turns unproductive is to find a way to reset and tackle the remainder of the day with a renewed focus. I spend 15 or 20 minutes at the start of every day composing a to-do list and defining my action plan for the day, and when I find myself unable to execute on that plan for whatever reason I repeat that exercise and re-define my action plan based on my new reality. I also find it helps a lot to have a change of scenery: if I’m in the office and my day isn’t going the way I wanted it to then I’ll go home and work the rest of the day from there. If I’m already home then I might head to my favourite coffee place and spend an hour or two working in that environment.

I also find that as part of redefining my to-do list it’s important to be fully inclusive. My day consists of both big and small tasks, and it’s tempting when putting a list together to omit the small ones and just do them immediately, but of course this only leaves the big tasks where I’m more reliant on others and unforeseen things are more likely to occur. When things don’t go to plan it’s entirely possible to end up with a to-do list that has nothing checked off at the end of the day, and it’s important to me not to finish my day that way – I’d much rather spend my evening relaxing with at least a small sense of accomplishment than worrying about a perceived lack of achievement. If I’m only able to achieve smaller things that day then so be it, but that’s better than nothing and cause for correspondingly small celebration, but celebration nonetheless.

If you’re not able to recover your productivity within the working day? Well, that happens to the best of us and isn’t cause for panic. The article I’ve linked to above has some tips and tricks to help us get back on the metaphorical horse the following day.

How to Recover From an Unproductive Day Like It Never Happened

Link Roundup – Thursday April 9th, 2015

I read a lot.

I have a reading list of blogs and other websites in Feedly that I read throughout the day, every day.It includes everything from traditional news through to cartoons.

Often I find something that I want to share on this blog. I
quite often share links here to other articles, but I always try do it in the
context of providing my own commentary and thoughts on the content. What I’m
getting at is that sharing links on here is not a quick, one-click process,
because I don’t want this blog to be merely a long list of links to other
people’s content. I’m much too egotistical for that.

Anyway, the result of all this is that over time I build up
a handful of flagged articles that I’ve been intending to share but never got
around to doing so.

This is the first of what may become a semi-regular feature,
where I spew those forth with (in the interests of time) only a sentence or two of comment instead of the full-blown article I was originally planning. Enjoy!

  • Three Communication
    Strategies for Building Strong Relationships from Far Away

    Working in a ROWE is great, but is not without its
    challenges. Communication is by no means impossible, but can certainly suffer
    when the face-to-face aspect it lost: particularly with a team that’s become
    subconsciously reliant on bumping into people in the hallways. This article
    lays out some strategies for addressing that.
     
  • Why
    Resource Management is Better from a Dedicated PM

    Another post from the excellent Brad
    Egeland
    , this one talks about why a dedicated project manager is better
    than using somebody with another role (like a lead designer) to occasionally
    manage projects as the need arises.
     
  • Fluency
    with Excel and Word are Key to Getting a Higher-Paying Job

    I wanted to link to this article because it surprised me. Higher-paying
    compared to what? Isn’t fluency with office applications a prerequisite for getting any
    job? Maybe “fluency” is the key word here, and a basic understanding is a prerequisite
    and those with more advanced skills will find more opportunities to progress up
    the corporate ladder, but the article doesn’t really say that. This is the
    knowledge economy here, people! We don’t make things anymore, unless of course
    you count spreadsheets. Get on board!
     
  • How to Put an End
    to Workload Paralysis

    I absolutely suffer with this. As the author notes about herself, “there seems
    to be a tipping point for me when I go from being really busy to so-busy-I’m-paralyzed-and-can’t-do-anything.
    The four steps to fighting this paralysis are not rocket science, but of course
    nor should they be, and it’s well worth a read if, like me, you’re an
    occasional sufferer. At least you now know you’re not the only one.

Meeting Pre-Work (and Why I’m Bad at It)

Last week I linked to and wrote about an article
that gave some tips on running effective meetings.

In addition to posting it here I also posted it, in advance,
to my workplace’s internal social media platform to share it with my team and
get their thoughts on meeting best practices.

My boss Matt
commented that one of his tips was to highlight any meeting pre-work that may
exist: information that participants need to bring with them to the meeting, or
documents they should review in advance, for example. Matt suggested that it
may sometimes even be worthwhile to go so far as to include these expectations
in big bold text within the invite so they jump out.

image

This was an interesting topic to me, because I am certainly
an occasional offender in this regard.

Basically, if you send me an email that includes a call to
action
then I will notice it and deal with it appropriately. I may not take
the requested action immediately, of course, but I’ll flag the email for
follow-up when I know I’ll have time to get it done, or maybe even schedule
some time in my calendar if the situation warrants it.

A calendar invite is different, though. No matter how hard
you try and how good your writing skills are, the instruction in the body of
the invite is not the primary call to action when I receive it: instead, that’s
something that’s defined for me by Outlook (or your client of choice) which is
demanding that I choose to accept, tentatively accept or decline the invite
itself. Once I’ve done one of those things the invite is forever gone from my
inbox, and the meeting (along with whatever instruction you provided) is now on
my calendar.

I’ll get to your email on whatever schedule my workload
allows for, but my calendar by its very nature is a schedule, and it tells me when I should get to something. The
next time I’ll look at your meeting invite is probably going to be two minutes
before it starts, when I’m looking for conference line details or checking
which room it’s in. By then of course it’s too late.

Recently I’ve started employing a new trick to deal with
this kind of thing for meetings that I host. First I send an email to the group
explaining what needs to be done (pre-work), suggesting that we collectively
discuss to share our thoughts, and mentioning that I will set up some time to
achieve this. Then I immediately follow-up with a meeting invite, into which I
embed that first email.

I haven’t heard any comments, good or bad, but it seems to
be working.

What does everyone think, though? Am I spamming people and
over-contributing to their already burgeoning inboxes? Am I solving a problem
that people don’t actually have and unfairly assuming that everyone shares the
same lack of organizational skills that I possess?

Let me know in the comments below, or contact me!