This is part 5 of my series on the hyperbrain. If you’re just joining us, please have a look at parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 before continuing. If you’re wondering why there was such a gap between parts 1-4 and part 5, try this.
When it comes to immediate distraction, you should do your best to block it by shutting down unnecessary browsers and chat, letting people know that you’re busy, and making an effort to keep focused on the current task. This standard advice applies to everyone, hyperbrain or not. At the same time, you should keep tasks closed so that when you inevitably do get distracted, it won’t cause too much damage.
However, there is a different kind of distraction that works on a much slower cycle. Sometimes it can be mistaken for a general low of energy (and sometimes that’s what it is), but very often, if you’re a hyperbrain, you’ll get progressively bored of a previously enthusing piece of work and basically not feel like working on it anymore for a while.
Confusingly, immediate distractibility will hit hardest at that time too - you’re bored of your main task, so almost anything (even perhaps examining some strange defect on the wall to your right), seems more interesting than what you’re supposed to be doing. Not only that, but because you’re supposed to do that big task and you don’t find the energy to do it, you end up not doing any other useful tasks either (after all, those other tasks are lower priority).
I have a technique to deal with that too, though it’s not so easy to apply consistently. Yet even when applied only part of the time, it is still useful, in my experience.
#4 The butterfly approach
Remember, back in the first technique I said that you should accept and embrace your limitations, while figuring out how to work with them in the best way.
So, you feel like you don’t want to work on your most important task. The natural response, what society tells us is right, is: tough luck. Just take it like a man and soldier on. And if you can’t, you’re a weak-willed loser. That’s the advice that we get throughout our childhood, and somehow it perseveres through adulthood (“when the going gets tough, the tough get going”).
Unfortunately, this approach stinks for hyperbrains. When you’re excited and “into” a task, everything is easy and you can chop through a forest in a few hours. But when you’re not into the work, when you don’t care for it, it will take a disproportionate amount of effort to get even the smallest thing done. What’s more, because you don’t care for it, you won’t do it well - and it will show, to others, but, more importantly, to you. This creates a negative feedback cycle where you feel even less like doing that thing (because you don’t like to do things badly). Feeling less enthusiastic leads to further strenuous efforts to get the smallest thing done, which leads to more fudged work, which leads you to feel even more dispirited, etc.
You have to break that cycle.
Here’s my advice: when you don’t feel like doing something, don’t do it. Do something else. Like a butterfly, when a task has lost its nectar, flit over to another. Keep that up, happily flying away from (closed!) boring tasks onto other ones that you find exciting.
It’s a very rational choice. Option 1 is to spend 10 units of effort to get 1 unit of result in task A (that you’re supposed to do). Option 2 is to switch to task B (the one that’s looking so much more appealing right now), spend 1 unit of effort and get 10 units of result in task B. If you want to maximise results, you have to take option 2.
Of course, if task A is what you committed to do for someone else, this will have negative consequences. And the solution to that is: avoid making hard commitments that will hurt you in that way. We’ll get back to that a little later.
The important practices are that you should be working on several loose “clouds” of tasks (some related, some not) rather than focusing on a single direction, and that you should allow yourself to switch between those things without guilt.
Notice I said loose clouds, not loose cloud. I used the plural because this won’t work if all your tasks are still sitting under the same umbrella (e.g. “stuff I’m doing to get the next release out”). There need to be vastly different sets of tasks in your available “task-space” - things ranging from writing a blog post to coding some new functionality, from doing a bit of business administration to planning your holidays. If you find yourself dispirited by coding, switching to a different coding task is unlikely to improve your mode.
Those tasks should all be “productive”, in the sense that you should feel like you’ve accomplished something when you get them done. This is important, because this is what will break the negative feedback cycle. If you don’t feel like coding something and instead you spend a few hours playing World of Warcraft, you won’t feel any better about yourself afterwards - you’ll feel worse. This will vary for you, but for me, “worthless” tasks include things like shopping (unless I’m buying something very specific), cooking lunch… interestingly, cleaning my office or the flat doesn’t feel like a worthless task - but rearranging it would be. You’ll have to figure out for yourself which task are productive. Generally, if it falls under the category of “time-fillers” or “busy-work”, it’s not a productive task.
You may not get back to task A for some time. Don’t feel bad about it. So long as you’re doing worthwhile things, that are accumulating value for you and make you feel productive, you will be working to negate the cycle of low energy. At some point, maybe the same day, or maybe a few days later, you’ll feel like working on task A again. Then, you’ll be able to chop through it at your best efficiency, and you’ll probably catch up with where you would have been if you had stuck with task A. But you’ll have the added bonus of having also done tasks B, C, D, E and F in the meantime, instead of agonising over a single task for days.
This, if you play it right, will make you appear fearsomely productive, as if you were working 20 hours a day - because every hour that you do work will be at full efficiency.
To make this work, it’s important to not be too committed to doing tasks by a certain date. You need to influence your environment so that people don’t care when exactly you got something done, just that it was done.
Of course, not all tasks have this flexibility, so you’ll have to make allowances for things which have to happen at a certain time, but those tend to be a minority in careers that are good value accumulators.
For tasks which don’t require you to commit to a deadline, don’t. Be vague if you need to be. If you tend to deliver great stuff, most people will accept some element of vagueness.
Some of your coworkers will really dislike the vagueness and you’ll have to manage them appropriately. The ideal way to do this, in my experience, is to under-promise and over-deliver. If people won’t take “I think I’ll get it done in the next couple of weeks or so” as an answer, give them a clearly defined answer that leaves you plenty of leeway. “I can work on this next week on Thursday, for sure.” But then, try to deliver it this week on Friday instead. If you do this often enough, in my experience, people will stop pressing you for deadlines, because they’ll be happy enough that you seem to get everything done quickly enough for them to be able to rely on you.
Important caveat: put bread on the table
There is a subtle but necessary addendum to this technique: you must keep in mind which of those activities put bread on your table. It’s great to follow your interests and be super-productive every day, but it’s not so good if you end up starving. So when choosing tasks you should always bias yourself towards tasks which are fun and productive and also earn your salary.
This is actually the hardest part of this technique… because it’s easy to turn a bias into an overriding order - and then you fall back into the mode where you feel compelled to slog through the task that you “must” do at the expense of all the others. And yet, at the same time, you have to pay attention to your bread-winner, because otherwise you won’t earn money. I don’t have any specific tips for how to do this - this is something you have to play by ear, I’m afraid.
Beating the cyclical highs and lows is not easy, but you can really help yourself by following this advice:
- Have many unrelated “clouds” of tasks that you can switch to at a moment’s notice
- When you feel like your energy for a specific “cloud” is gone, switch to a different one
- Don’t feel guilty about doing this
- Avoid committing to hard deadlines where possible so that you have maximum flexibility to switch
I hope you find this useful. As always, your comments are welcome.
I’ve always had a tendency to get addicted to computer games. Not all kinds of games (I never really got into driving games, for example), but mostly games where you accumulate points - strategy games, role playing games, etc. My first “big” addiction was MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons… a kind of text-based equivalent of the recent crop of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft). I broke it off the first time, with a super-human effort, when I visited Oxford University and decided that I wanted to go there - and that I would clearly not get there while I was playing MUDs 6 hours a day (outside of school time!). It took all my will-power, back then, to quit cold-turkey.
Later on, my next big addiction was Diablo 2. I spent insane amounts of time playing that game, levelling up a variety of characters to level 80 or thereabouts, playing through the game countless times to accumulate precious items, experience, skill points, etc. One summer, after finishing my degree, I went through a phase where I burned myself out of Diablo 2 - by playing it so much, from dusk till dawn, that even I grew tired of it. That was another way of breaking off the addiction… it was easier, but costlier in wasted time.
So, when World of Warcraft came out, I knew that it was very important that I avoid playing it, because it clearly was a game that I would get instantly addicted to. Blizzard have a bad habit of making excellent games that got better with each version, and clearly WoW was the pinnacle of that progression.
To be fair, I lasted a good long time. It took until September 2008 before I finally gave in (on the excuse that I would only be playing with a friend, so that we would moderate each other’s gaming). The truth is, like an alcoholic having just one sip of beer, I was instantly addicted, even if I was more in control of that addiction than with any other game before.
I am not 16, or even 20, anymore. I am almost 29. Since the Diablo days, I have worked as a consultant in a large investment bank (not so trendy anymore these days, I know), managed teams, started two start-ups… I’ve achieved a few things that I’m proud of. One of the side-effects of those experiences has been a greatly improved degree of self-control. Ten years ago, WoW would have destroyed me, much like Diablo 2 did. I would have turned into one of those zombies with level 80 characters who spend every spare minute playing.
In comparison to how bad it would have been 10 years ago, I came out of this bout of addiction almost unscathed. The highest level I reached was a paltry 49. I flitted in and out of WoW, occasionally spending a few solid days on it (such as around the New Year). but mostly managing to keep it down to a few hours here or there. After all, I have responsibilities now - to my start-up, first and foremost, but more importantly to myself. I have no intention of devolving back to who I was 10 years ago. So, in all appearances, it was relatively harmless.
And yet, although the addiction was not as visible as before, it was still there, eating away at less obvious things. Of course, I wasn’t going to take time away from my start-up to play WoW, but that time had to come from somewhere. So I played in those spare hours where I didn’t feel like writing code. Sometimes, those spilled over into other activities. Often, they sneakily turned “I don’t feel like writing code but I could be doing something productive, like writing a blog post” into “I don’t feel like writing code, so it’s time to play WoW”.
“Extra-curricular activities”, like running a blog, learning chinese, or reading some fiction, help make us more rounded, more interesting - not just to others, but also to ourselves. For six months now, WoW has been eating away at those activities. I feel more hollow than before I started playing it. The progression towards being a better me was reversed for those six months, in all sorts of subtle ways. I was aware of this all the way through, but did nothing to stop it.
It was terribly easy to convince myself that I was overreacting in this analysis, that WoW could not be so harmful, that it was just a game, that I was in control, that I had taken breaks from it through that period and so therefore that I could just do that again. Yet each break came to an end, and was topped off by another day-long session, another set of “let’s play a little bit every day” compromises. So I did avoid the issue. Once, I raised it to my cofounder… “do you think it’s affecting my work?” He didn’t think so (and he was right, it wasn’t my main work that was being affected). Phew. I could play some more without feeling bad about it.
But though it was not affecting my work, it was affecting all those other things that make me who I am.
Bang! you’re dead!
Yesterday, as I lay in bed, tossing and turning for the umpteenth time, pondering this problem, I asked myself, once again “Can you just stop playing?” And I felt that I could not. I could not live with the idea that I would not be able to continue the progression of all those characters that I’d grown to think of as extensions to myself. That I would not be able to find out the end of this story that was unfolding on the computer but also in my imagination. That I would never explore that world, find out all about it, get to the top of it.
To me, not playing anymore was an impossible proposition. I lay wide awake, struggling with this as I would if I was about to make the biggest decision in my life - and yet fully aware that World of Warcraft is just a game!
It may sound trivial to those who have not been addicted to computer games before, but believe me, it is not. I struggled with this decision harder than I ever did about any business decision. It took more willpower to do this than anything else in my life (except, perhaps, the last time I did this, over 10 years ago).
And so yesterday, like I did when I broke off my MUD addiction, I did the impossible. I got out of bed, logged in to World of Warcraft, deleted every character, and then cancelled my account. I went to bed with feeling of immense relief. I won’t have to think about this topic again (well, apart from writing this blog post). And yet the relief was mixed with another feeling - something akin to mourning. I will never continue those stories. I murdered a handful of virtual characters who were a part of me. They are gone forever.
This is a good thing. I knew there would be negative after-effects to that decision, but here I am writing my first blog post in six months when instead I might have spent half the day pretending I was a paladin. This is a good thing.
Let’s put the house in order
I am not writing this post to point the blame at anyone, least of all Blizzard, who have created a fantastic game (though I could argue whether it is really ethical to create games that edge closer and closer to Red Dwarf’s BTL game). I am writing this post to put my thoughts and this blog in order.
First of all, I owe my readers a sincere apology for leaving the Hyperbrain series unfinished. It was not the right thing to do, and I will remedy this in the next week.
Secondly, I have, in those times when I wasn’t playing World of Warcraft, been thinking about the future of this blog, and decided that it was time to transition to a different format. Over the next few months, I will progressively start posting my new writings to some new sub-blogs (some of which are already semi-active), move the best posts from this blog to the new one, and eventually close down this blog. Inter-sections will stay up for some time, until I finish moving its more interesting posts to a new home.
Finally, I’d like to conclude by thanking all those who have emailed me and commented on this blog throughout this period to ask when the rest of the hyperbrain series was coming - you helped make it more obvious to me what impact my gaming addiction was having.
Some jobs are “process jobs”. They consist mostly of taking some sort of input (phone calls, support tickets, orders, sales leads), performing some work on them, and providing some form of output (a satisfied customer, a filled order, a new sale). These jobs exist at all levels and in all kinds of businesses - from a small business support technician to a large business sales director). A lot of people (in fact, most people) have jobs that fit this description, are happy with that work, and do it brilliantly.
If you’re a hyperbrain, however, this kind of job is your worst nightmare. Why? Because it is a job you will always screw up.
Imagine you’re a manager in charge of a process. What do you care most about when hiring people to put in the roles you’ve identified? Predictability. You don’t care if the person handling the support tickets is capable of churning through 200 tickets on a really good day. You want to be sure that, on any given day, they’ll handle the 20 or so tickets that come in on average. Unfortunately, the hyperbrain does not work like that. It can produce exceptional results, but it is lousy at being consistent.
This is a weakness that, once again, can be worked around. Read on for this technique.
#3 The value accumulator
As long as your worth depends on your consistency, you can never win in the long term. You might fool yourself and others into thinking that “this time, it will be different,” but it won’t. In order to win, you need to change those rules. The question is, what do you change them to and how?
First, the “what”. The best way I can come up with to describe what you should be aiming for is a “value accumulator”. You need to engineer your own job so that people focus on what you’ve accomplished rather than what you’re going to accomplish. You need to create a system that accumulates value and then rewards you based on accumulated value.
This can be done both in choosing a career or profession, and in deciding how to perform and evolve your work.
It’s worth noting that there’s another technique hiding in this discussion - how to smooth your output, within any environment - but I won’t be covering it in this article.
Careers that accumulate value
I believe that most smart and capable people benefit from doing work that accumulates value. For the hyperbrain, however, it’s essential, if you want a fulfilling, successful career.
Most human activities “accumulate value” in some respect, since experience is a form of value. Some careers, however, are better at it than others. Let’s look at some examples.
Let’s consider writing as a first example. You can be a writer in many ways: working directly for a newspaper, being a freelance writer, writing a blog, writing books… How do these compare?
While the first two (newspaper and commercial freelance) accumulate value in the shape of experience and contacts, they do little to turn the output of your previous work (your backlist, as Seth Godin calls it) into something you can keep deriving benefit from. Freelancing is sometimes anonymous, and writing a great article today will not keep returning you benefits for the months to come, unless you’re also the publisher. You’ll have to keep writing great articles over and over again.
On the other hand, writing a blog is a pretty good value accumulator. It takes time for the value of a blog to be realised, but, for example, I published my most popular post so far in November last year, and yet it keeps bringing several hundred visitors a day each day, and keeps my PageRank up.
A book is an even better value accumulator. Once written, it can be marketed and sold over and over again for many years, and you keep the credit for “having written a book about X” for your whole life. Of course, book writing is a difficult way to make money, but if you write just one brilliant book that captures people’s imagination, you can keep deriving value out of that even if you did little of value for years after writing that book.
As I touched on in this earlier article, a product business is a great value accumulator. The market doesn’t care how you built your product, through great spurts of inspiration or a long, consistent effort. It only cares about how great your product is. And a product is a natural value accumulator, since work that you’ve done on it remains there pretty much forever.
On the other hand, a services business might not be ideal for a hyperbrain, since clients naturally care about the work you’re doing for them now, rather than the work you did for other clients in the past. So if you’re running a service business, you might want to consider turning it into a product business instead.
In most corporate jobs, the high-level equation is not in your favour, since employers usually care more about your future output than your past achievements. However, even there, some jobs at least provide past achievements, whereas others are entirely process-focused.
Consider an IT support job, for instance. By default, it has no past achievements that you can point at. Your performance is mostly measured by the consistency with which you answer tickets. If you stop answering tickets for a week, you’ll take a very serious hit.
A development job, on the other hand, has natural “past achievements” in the form of features built, for example. A one-week lull in productivity won’t make anyone happy about you, but it won’t destroy you either, and if you can keep people focused on what you’ve done rather than what you were supposed to do, you can survive those lulls unscathed.
You should seek a job that naturally lends itself to accumulating past achievements that people care about, but even in the case where it doesn’t, you can still tweak the work in your favour, and slowly transform a process job into a project one. Read on to find out some ways to do that.
Accumulating value within a process job
Within a job, to make up for your inconsistency, you want to create value accumulators and then keep people’s attention firmly on those.
The best device for that is a “project”.
A project is a set of tasks that achieve a definite goal within a definite time. A project can be finished. This is important, because it means that once you’ve finished a project, it remains in your “achievement history” no matter what else you do (or don’t do) afterwards. If you wrote the competitor analysis report, you’ve done it, and no one can take the credit away from you. However, if you processed all the orders reliably for a couple of months and then go through a couple of weeks when you don’t process any, the credit for “processing orders well” will vanish immediately.
For a hyperbrain, it’s useful to structure every bit of work as a project. Even if you’re in a process-oriented environment, find projects to get involved in. If there aren’t any, create them.
You can create projects by looking for improvements that you could make to the process, and implement those improvements as projects. You can also create projects by packaging processes into chunks. If you can ensure that your work on a process has an end-point, it can be completed and put aside.
Find the projects, finish them, and then keep people’s eyes on the projects.
After you finish a project, keep other people aware of it. Blow your own trumpet, so to speak. Every once in a while, perform small additions to projects that you already completed, to give you an excuse to re-release them and keep them fresh in everyone’s mind. Those additions shouldn’t be planned, they should be things you do spontaneously.
As you accumulate more past projects and keep people aware of them, your credit will go up, since everyone will then be aware that you’ve done a lot of things, rather than seeing only the bits where you failed to do what you said.
In any work environment, look for ways that you can create value accumulators. Steer yourself away from work that’s purely process based. Ideally, find a career that allows you to accumulate value for yourself rather than for others.
I’ve been pretty busy this week, so haven’t had the time to write part 5 yet, but there’ll be another hyperbrain article coming next week. Keep your eyes peeled!
Subjectively, I think the greatest challenge about having a hyperbrain is distractibility. If not handled effectively, it can make you feel really useless. I’ve often sat in front of my computer, knowing that I’m supposed to be getting on with some piece of work that’s half done, and not been able to focus on it (whilst remaining quite capable of focusing on dozens of blogs and other wastes of time). Learning to work with your distractibility can make an order of magnitude of difference in your productivity.
Like a game
Have you ever played a computer game where your character could die at any point? First person shooters (Doom, Quake…) make for an excellent analogy to distractibility. What do you do when you have to complete difficult, complex, sometimes tedious tasks and your progress can be lost at any point?
A long, long time ago, there was nothing you could do. You just played the game until you died. A few palliatives were invented to try and deal with that, and eventually, they culminated into the ideal solution: saved games. Nowadays, if you’re playing a game like Quake, you can save whenever you’ve done something that was hard or lengthy. Then, if you happen to die in the next minute, you can reload from the saved game. If you save every minute, you can minimise the effects of dying to, at most, translating into one minute of lost time.
If you accept the fact that you are easily distracted (and, after years of fighting it, it’s something I’ve come to accept rather than fight), you could consider distraction to be similar to dying in a computer game. Accepting your own distractibility means that whenever you’re doing any work, you have to accept that you might be distracted and start doing something else for two hours, two days, or even two weeks.
So what can you do to mitigate this sword of Damocles? You need some sort of real-world equivalent of saved games.
#2 Keep tasks closed
A task is closed when you can ignore it for an indeterminate amount of time and there will be no direct negative consequences from doing so (other than the fact that this specific task won’t get done), and when it isn’t left in such a state that you will struggle to pick it up again.
A programming task (e.g. a refactoring) is closed when you can commit and push all your changes into the main codebase and not (knowingly) break the application.
A writing task (e.g. writing a book) is closed when you’ve finished a self-contained section or sub-section and can leave it without having to spend 20 minutes to re-immerse yourself in the subject to continue writing.
A managerial task (e.g. setting up a weekly meeting) is closed when no one is expecting anything else from you on that task.
A closed task is in a state of rest. It can be safely ignored while you do something more important. It’s like saving the game after killing all the monsters in the room, but before walking into the next room. An open task is either when you haven’t saved the game recently, or you’ve saved it in the middle of a fight.
Open tasks are risky
There are many risks with abandoning open tasks:
- They can prevent other people from getting on with their own tasks (which breeds resentment against you even though you’re working hard and enthusiastically);
- You might have been able to work on the task today on an inspired high, but you might be on the low for the next week. If you leave open a big, complex task, and go do something else, you may be incapable of picking it up productively again for some time;
- As long as the task is open, it will clutter your mind and your ability to do other things will be diminished. Keeping tasks open uses up your mental capacity and impacts every other task that you’re involved in;
- By the time you are finally able to complete the task, someone else might have rendered it irrelevant (if you’re working in a fast-moving environment);
- Say you finally complete the task and have taken five or ten times longer than expected; in hindsight, others may think it wasn’t worth spending that long on it - this will rob you of the praise that you need and expect when you complete something difficult.
And so on.
The key approach to surviving distractibility is to keep almost all tasks closed all the time. Only one task should ever be open at any one time, and it should only ever be open for a short amount of time. How long depends on your work. For programming, I like to make that time fifteen minutes. At least every fifteen minutes, I should be able to save all my changes and commit them to the central repository without any ill effects.
Some people present this advice as “you should not multi-task”, but that phrasing is not so useful to the hyperbrain. The reason is that the definition of a “task” is stretchy. A major restructuring of a codebase could be considered a single task, even though it is really composed of dozens or even hundreds of small tasks.
For the hyperbrain, the definition of single-tasking has to be time-based. You need to set yourself a limit for how long you will work on something before closing it.
If you don’t think you can close the task within that time, don’t do it.
Rethink the task until you can figure out a way to close it within a short time. If you can’t think of a way to do that, don’t start the task. You wouldn’t jump out of a plane before finding the parachute - don’t jump on a task without figuring out how to chip off a small chunk.
“Don’t multi-task” is correct advice, but not useful to the hyperbrain. Instead, think of it as: “Don’t do anything that you can’t close within fifteen minutes”.
This doesn’t mean that you need to break down the whole task into fifteen-minute chunks before starting. Don’t even try doing that, you’ll never finish. Instead, break off one chunk at a time. Ask yourself “what’s the next thing I can do that will help me get this task done, but that can finish in less than fifteen minutes?” Make sure that the next thing you work on can be finished in a short sprint. Each time you finish a sprint, break off another small chunk of the remaining work and do that bit.
Also, don’t feel that it’s a bad thing if it takes much less than fifteen minutes to complete a task. Some of my most productive stretches of work were long collections of 1-minute chunks.
What if you can’t seem to finish it?
What if you start a task that you thought could be finished within fifteen minutes, and you find yourself half an hour into it without any clear endpoint yet? This can easily happen with complex work, such as programming - after all, you don’t really know exactly what you’re going to do until you start doing it.
If that happens, you need to roll back to the previous closed state (discard your changes and reload the latest good version). Take the game metaphor: if you were playing your game and suddenly you find yourself dead? You simply reload. The unfortunate difference between a game like Doom and real work is that work doesn’t make it so clear when you’re dead. You can keep going like a zombie for a long time before you realise that you died three hours ago. And because, as a hyperbrain, you’re fairly optimistic about your own abilities, you keep soldiering on, thinking it will get better soon. Another way to phrase this advice would be: “When you’re in a hole, stop digging!” It won’t get better. You’ll just end up even deeper.
With work, it’s often hard to figure out whether you’ve lost your way and should back out, or whether it’s just a hard problem that you’re on the verge of cracking. Fortunately, there is an absolute, objective measure you can use to determine whether you should back out: time.
This is not a huge effort of discipline. It does take a little mental effort to “give up” on fifteen or thirty minutes of work that you’ve just done, and I’ll grant you that’s sometimes hard to accept. But if you can apply this simple discipline, you will see a several-fold improvement in your productivity (and that will make you happy and drown out any sorrow that you may have experienced when abandoning a small dead chunk of work).
You don’t need to be a super-hero to adapt to distraction, just to follow a handful of simple rules:
- Reduce the distractions in your environment as much as possible, but accept the fact that you will probably get distracted anyway, and be prepared for it
- Never leave a task open for more than X minutes (fifteen in my case, for programming tasks)
- Never open more than one task at a time
- If you are working on a task and it’s taking longer than your cut-off point, roll it back and try again from a different angle
I hope you’ve found this article helpful. Feedback is, as always most welcome.
This article follows a previous article. It’s part of a series of yet undefined length. If you haven’t read the first instalment yet, it might be worth going back and reading it.
This is addressed mainly to people who recognise themselves in the description of the hyperbrain, although it may be of interest to others. When you count up all the different ways in which your hyperbrain differs from the average, you might be tempted to think you’re not normal. Well, it’s true, you’re not. You’re different from the norm, but that can be a good thing. After all, you can’t be normal and expect abnormal results. The focus of these articles is to make you more aware of how you can deal with those differences, counteract your limitations, and build on your strengths, to achieve what you’re capable of.
So what are you capable of? Well, you can do anything you want (that’s the good news). But in order to do those things, you need to learn to work with your hyperbrain, otherwise you will constantly fail in public and humiliating ways at the worst moments (usually, on the cusp of victory, at least in my experience). And that will hurt you more than the average person, because you are far more sensitive to negative feedback than you’d care to admit. Let’s look at the first practical step to take to improve your chances of success.
The first step to success with a hyperbrain is to both accept your limitations and reject them.
Accept your limitations
You are not built for consistency. Putting yourself in situations which require you to provide a constant output, and which hurt you the moment you fail to do so, is a recipe for disaster for you. Yet you might be tempted to set up just such a system in order to generate motivation. To succeed, however, you need to engineer your environment to focus on what you’ve achieved rather than what you’ve planned to achieve.
Your focus can shift radically in an instant. This means you cannot rely on continued focus in a period of time, so, to succeed, you need to structure your (focused) work in a way that allows you to abandon it at short notice without downside.
You crave validation from yourself. If you can’t feel that you’re doing something really worthwhile, your productivity will shoot down to a hundredth of what it might otherwise be. You need to ensure your work is always presented in a way that makes you feel it’s worthwhile.
You crave validation from from other people, too. Most people like a pat on the back, but without that pat, you can’t go on. Putting yourself in situations where no one really cares about what you’re doing will demoralise you fairly quickly, unless you can come up with elaborate rationalisations for why they don’t care yet (e.g. secret projects). So, paradoxically, to succeed, you actually need to be on the front lines, where it’s most visible and most dangerous to fail, because that’s where you’ll feel most energetic and driven.
When you’re on a high, you feel you can take on the world. And you could - if only you could maintain that high. But you can’t. So, on a high, you actually do take on the world, and then the world chews you up and spits you by the side of the road. To succeed, you need to moderate that eagerness to ensure you don’t set yourself up for failure.
You get involved in too many things. All successful people do that to an extent, but you’re really pushing the boundaries. At any given time, you’re reading 5 books, pursuing 10 pet projects, and working on 15 things - and you constantly shift between them. To succeed, you need to structure your environment to allow you to shift between those things without negative side-effects.
You are extremely sensitive to negative criticism. Most people dislike being told they’re wrong, but the wrong bit of criticism from the wrong person can shut down something that you genuinely cared about permanently. To succeed, you need to develop a healthy scepticism for people’s negative criticisms (if only because success is always, inevitably, accompanied by harsh negative criticism from people who are mean, jealous, in a bad mood, or just simply disagree in overly harsh terms).
You have a strong tendency to martyrdom and self-victimisation. How better can you gain other people’s positive feedback than by sacrificing yourself? If only I had the support I needed, I could do so well! To succeed, continue reading.
#1: Reject your limitations
One of the hyperbrain’s tendencies is self-victimisation. Well, that’s not unique to the hyperbrain. Many people feel misunderstood, although the craving for external validation makes it particularly acute in this type of mind, because the only way to fulfil that craving is to succeed, and you cannot succeed while you feel the odds are stacked against you. This self-victimisation is crippling, though. It’s oh so easy to slip into thinking that you are doomed to fail at everything you try, because you’re just that way, and there’s always some bit of the “support system” that’s missing (tip: it’s a catch-22 - you will only be able to build a full support system when you’ve already succeeded).
If you take only one thing from these articles, take this:
Your limitations are not an excuse for failure.
You should never throw up your hands and accept that you will fail because of your limitations. Analyse past failures in terms of your limitations to see how you can make up for them, but never accept defeat as a given. This advice goes for anyone, really, but it is especially important for hyperbrains because of these self-victimisation tendencies.
Your environment is not an excuse for failure.
You may try to dodge the above advice by saying something along the lines of: “Well, I can deal with my limitations, but my environment just doesn’t work with my personality.” Bullshit. You can succeed in any environment. The match (or mismatch) between your limitations and your environment is just a puzzle to be solved. In later articles, I’m going to drill down into specific techniques for how to counteract those limitations without taking away from your strengths, and you’ll see that almost no environment is incompatible with the hyperbrain, so long as you know how to handle yourself. You are the sole factor in whether you succeed or fail.
You don’t need to sacrifice yourself in order for others to succeed.
People don’t need you as much as you feel they do. How many times have you been in a situation where you thought the project couldn’t run without you, and you got moved somewhere else anyway, and the project still went on? Because of your ability to pick up many different skills, you’re involved in everything, so it’s easy to end up feeling you’re indispensable. Then, you feel that you can’t possibly go and do what you want because everyone is depending on you. It’s easy to turn this into another excuse for not achieving your potential. Don’t let it be so. People don’t need you as much as you think they do, and they will not appreciate your sacrifice at all - so don’t do it.
Unless you accept this key point, that the key to success lies within you, that there is no valid excuse for not realising your potential, then the rest of my advice will be worthless. I’ve started with this high-level “tip”, even though it really applies to everyone (not just hyperbrains) because it is so very important.
In part 3, coming later this week, I’ll present my most important approach for how to deal with distractibility and arrange your work to survive the hyperbrain’s attention deficit without losing out on its ability for extraordinary focus (no, it doesn’t involve some fancy variation on GTD).
Do you have a hyperbrain?
A recent article posted up on HackerNews presented a list of symptoms (representing things that the author felt about himself). These symptoms are not common to everyone, but they are common to enough people to warrant this and further articles. Plus, I promised some of them that I’d write about this.
The characteristics exhibited there seem to touch on almost every so-called mental disorder out there: Bipolar-like ups and downs of energy and, sometimes, emotions; Obsessive focus (under certain circumstances); Compulsion to do certain things that just have to be done; Hyperactivity (with a tendency to start many things at once); Attention Deficit (hell yeah.. oh, shiny stuff!). Yet it is far from diseased. With that brain, you can achieve great things, so long as you apply a few simple, practical approaches to harness it.
The hyperbrain is full of contradictions
On the one hand, the attention-deficited brain can be easily distracted by almost anything (a dire condition in the age of blogs, RSS feeds, and social news aggregation). On the other hand, it is also capable of extraordinary focus on the right task, and can turn that temporary obsession into a spike of productivity that has a nasty tendency to result in previously impossible things being achieved over the weekend. Unfortunately, the typical productivity approaches simply don’t work very well for this kind of brain, perhaps because they attempt to cure the symptoms, not the cause, and perhaps also because while temporarily decreasing one’s distractibility, they also obliterate the focus ability that gives the hyperbrain all its power.
On the one hand, it is practically incapable of multi-tasking. On the other hand, it can, under the right circumstances, plough through an enormous to-do list in an astonishingly short amount of time. This makes it particularly galling when you go through a low-productivity day. Not only you haven’t done much that day, but you did so much only two days before! Not living up to one’s potential is always disappointing.
On the one hand, it seems incapable of organising itself, working in a glorious mess that would drive most people nuts. On the other hand, this very habit is a side-effect of its ability to make sense of vast, churning oceans of chaos, where most analytical approaches would fail repeatedly or take forever. The hyperbrain can devour a new, ill-defined topic, organise it mentally into a fractal tree of practical thoughts, and successfully apply it to a problem at hand or explain it to others - all in less time than it would take the normal brain to even decide to go on a training course, let alone book it, endure it, and apply it.
On the one hand, it is often extremely good at grasping technical subjects, such as physics or hacking, which makes it very likely to settle for an engineering career. On the other hand, it has powerful artistic aspirations, and a sensitivity to the world that is usually found only in dedicated artists - not in your stereotypical engineer.
On the one hand, it suffers from a truly compulsive obsession with details - for instance, it might be incapable of going through a document without noticing almost every typo and grammatical error, as if they were circled with a red pen. It might listen to a piece of music and hear every false note. This can make one wonder: “Am I some sort of minor savant?” On the other hand, it is capable of rapidly leaping to the larger picture and drawing big picture conclusions at the highest levels.
On the one hand, it is capable of extreme highs of energy and enthusiasm. On the other hand, it regularly goes through days or even sometimes weeks of bored semi-depression, where it simply cannot be moved into any sort of productive activity. Well, it can, but we’ll get to that later.
On the one hand, this brain is, I firmly believe, capable of acts of genius. It surprises and delights its owner with its irregular achievements, even as it disappoints with its unpredictability. On the other hand, the enterprise world values predictability more than excellence, and the hyperbrain is thoroughly incompatible with that environment, and so is regarded by many as inferior, worthless, a nuisance. It can lead to misery, as described by lispy in his follow-up post.
Many of these characteristics exist in most people, to an extent, but in the hyperbrain, they are essential, primary, central, and acute. It is not a superbrain (though it can occasionally produce some extraordinary results), it is a hyperbrain - a more extreme version of the average brain. Because of that, however, it can be quite challenging to make the best out of it.
Do you own a hyperbrain?
If you recognise yourself in this, like many people, then do stick around (bookmark this in your RSS reader, perhaps), as I intend to publish a series of articles going into various aspects of this. If it doesn’t sound like you at all (which will be the case for a large percentage of readers), you might still wish to read it to understand some of your friends who might exhibit these traits (and perhaps point them this way). Don’t feel bad about it - hyperbrains are not superior, just different.
What makes me qualified to talk about this hyperbrain? Well, I happen to be the proud owner of one such specimen that I’ve been living with for a while - as long as I can remember, actually. Moreover, having had to survive for 4 years in a large business consulting firm, and having since started my own business - both of which are activities rather unfriendly to the hyperbrain - I’ve figured out a good number of approaches to harness this gift of nature, and, since others seem interested, I might as well share what I’ve discovered, in hope that it may be useful to others who are similarly blessed.
For it is a blessing, so long as it can be harnessed successfully. Out of control, it will make you miserable, as you constantly fail to live up to the potential that you know you have, the potential to achieve things both great and just plain normal, including, perhaps, things that will make you happier.
As I post up these items, please do keep in mind that this is not an absolute, objective guide to all cases, but a series of subjective observations from my own case as well as from the cases of people I know. You should take each piece of advice as you would any piece of advice found on someone’s blog - with a pinch of salt. Then again, do try some of these, and see if they work for you. At the very least, they should provide a starting point to develop your own techniques, or interesting ideas to enhance your existing approaches.
Next: part 2, High-level approach to getting the best of the hyperbrain.
“Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?” - Thomas Mann
Whenever working on anything remotely artistic, I feel compelled to try and be original. After all, what’s the point of creating something just like everything else that came before? That seems like a noble aim: add something new to the world, rather than re-hashing the same old thing. It’s a desire that all artists share, to an extent. History appears (on the surface) to recognise those who brought forth something entirely new, and, particularly, to recognise them for the very reason that they brought something entirely new into existence.
Recently, someone wrote an adaptation of a famous Russian fairy tale by Alexander Pushkin, ”The fisherman and his wife”, adapted to the topic of greedy SEO tricks, and called it ”The web developer and his wife”. On YCNews, someone commented: “Sometimes it is better to not make bad copies of good things.”
I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I believe that this is the exact formula for making great things.
Bad artists copy
“Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.”
Quick. Who said this? Ah, of course, Picasso. Or was it?
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
That one’s from TS Elliot. Ok, so they both said. it. Wait a minute… what’s this?
“A good composer does not imitate; he steals.”
Damn. This one comes from Stravinsky.
This is just from ten minutes of googling. It is likely that this quote can be traced not only to many contemporary artists, but also to many before them. There are many deep, interesting, worthwhile ideas in the world, but the world has existed for a long time, and mankind has been thinking up ideas for well neigh on ten thousand years. Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentine author who wrote many interesting, mind-bending short stories. He was also the Head Librarian in Buenos Aires and spent much of his time researching ideas.
I am not an erudite scholar, so I cannot reproduce the intimately wide knowledge of the history of ideas that Borges was capable of. However, to illustrate the depth to which one can go when looking for the true origin of an interesting ideas, here is a passage from André Maurois’ introduction to Labyrinths, a fantastic collection of Borges’s short stories that I warmly recommend:
“[Borges’s] sources are innumerable and unexpected. [He] has read everything, and especially what nobody reads any more: the Cabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks, medieval philosophers. His erudition is not profound - he asks of it only flashes of lightning and ideas - but it is vast. For example, Pascal wrote: ‘Nature is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere.’ Borges sets out to hunt down this metaphor through the centuries. He finds it in Giordano Bruno (1584): ‘We can assert with certainty that the universe is all centre, or that the centre of the universe is everywhere and its circumference nowhere.’ But Giordano Bruno had been able to read in a twelfth-century French theologian, Alain de Lille, a formulation borrowed from the Corpus Hermeticum (third century): ‘God is an intelligible sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’”
Nothing new under the sun
Thousands of years ago, an unknown writer (purported to be Solomon the Wise) complained
“What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.”
In today’s world, that seems hard to believe. Nary a week goes by without some new-fangled gadget or website. This especially affects the start-up world. Everyone is always trying to come up with the Next Big Thing, and here again, it is easy to confuse and merge the quest for success with the quest for newness or originality. As with art, the latter is misleading, dangerous, and futile.
There were auction sites before eBay. There were classified sites before Craigslist. There were money transfer sites before PayPal. There were social networks before Facebook. There were search engines before Google. Each and every online success had precursors, some of them very successful. None can honestly claim that they did anything really new. At best, they can claim that they did something better.
The truth is, being the first to come up with a great idea for an online site would be more a curse than a blessing. If it happened to be a really good idea, it would burn a hole in your mind and never let you rest until you had seen it implemented. However, any idea that is truly completely new would likely be alien and bizarre to most people. You would need many years of bashing people on the head before they finally realised your genius. In a way, having such an idea would condemn you to decades of never-ending failure until the world finally caught on — and by then it would probably be someone else’s implementation of it that took over. This is the hidden sting beneath Howard Aiken’s quote, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”
Is it even possible to come up with something completely new, or was Solomon truly wise on this matter too? It all really depends on your definition of new, of course. What about the first person who created an online social network site. Well, it was new in the sense that it wasn’t online yet. But was it truly new? Hardly. Social networking is such a powerful concept on the web only because it is such a powerful concept outside the web. There have been many sorts of organisations, both businesses and others, who have focused on allowing people to extend their social networks. Societies, clubs, cafés, pubs and gala events, etc, are all social gathering places where people reinforce and extend their social network. Facebook, in a sense, is like an online club which optimises that process, but it is only new in small, ancillary ways.
The point that I’m driving at (and that I failed to quite explain in this comment thread on YCNews), is not that it’s impossible to come up with a new idea. Of course it is possible. Google’s PageRank algorithm was new in its application to search engines. I’m not denying the creativity of people who come up with new businesses or artistic creations. In fact, creating a successful new business doesn’t take one creative idea - it takes many thousands.
However, when you look at the ecosystem of ideas as a whole, there are only a few really powerful ideas out there. Depending on how you slice the cake, that “few” can be literally a handful or hundreds, but all of the key ideas have been uncovered already, and successful “new” business ideas are merely extensions and variations of existing, powerful business ideas in new directions. eBay is just a marketplace — that’s existed for many thousands of years — spread to the whole connected world. Facebook is the fireplace in the middle of the encampment — virtualised onto every computer. Craigslist is the town crier — multiplied by ten million.
When you’re looking for that new business idea, don’t bother trying to be original, or to come up with something completely new. If your idea is really different from each of those power ideas, chances are it won’t be a successful business. Far better to link your idea up to some powerful, key human concepts than to try and keep it separate.
Back to square one - the world inside your head
Let’s step back to the art world for a few more inspirational thoughts. Art is not just about what you express, but also about what the viewer, reader, listener — the appreciator of the art — takes in. A hundred million people throughout the modern and ancient world have probably said that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Even if your work seems unworthy, even if is is a bad copy, someone might see something in it.
Some years ago, I watched a movie, Jakob the Liar, which finished with a puzzling proposition. The protagonist was dead, shot in the head by a nazi officer for refusing to deny the hope of the people in the ghetto, and those people were packed into trains. The movie proposed two possible endings. In one, they ended up all dead in a concentration camp; in the other, they were rescued by Russian tanks halfway to Auschwitz. I’m grateful to this movie, as it presented a very powerful idea.
The world inside your head is yours to do what you please with. If you see something that is clearly a “bad copy of a good thing”, instead of putting it down, look for the good thing hidden inside, and see how it could be a better thing yet. If you feel so inclined and are capable of it, perhaps you should take that opportunity to make your own, better copy of that good thing.
Next time you catch a bad movie in the cinema, see if you can improve it in your head. You will be rewarded immediately with a better movie.
The web is an amazing thing for many reasons. One of them is that it makes the copying process quasi free and inherently allows anyone to copy anyone else. The result is a fascinating vortex things both great and appalling, many of them copies of copies of copies of something that wasn’t worth much in the first place. Start by making a copy of a good thing instead of a bad one, and you’re one step ahead already.
Even if your creation is imperfect, or even downright bad, let the world judge for itself. Others may see more into it than even you intended or imagined. I’ll close this with a translation of Yves Duteil, a French singer, from his song Regard Impressioniste:
“The world has the beauty of our own gaze upon it
The garden of Monet, the sun of Renoir,
Are only the reflection of their vision of things
For which each of us can be the mirror.”
Once or twice a year, the same thing happens to me. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I feel overwhelmed with simply too many different things to do. It’s hard to juggle a lot of unrelated balls, and I inevitably let a couple fall at the beginning, before I finally re-learn what I learnt the last time this happened, and juggle the balls effectively again. Once that’s done, I feel efficient, happy, on top of things.
Why do I have to re-learn it all over again each time? Each set of balls is different, but I think in this case it’s simply a failure of paying attention to my own failures and learnings. I’ve already successfully juggled “too many balls” a number of times, and each time I applied pretty much the same method.
Part of the problem when you get overwhelmed is that you feel stressed, and you don’t think clearly anymore. That may explain why I don’t automatically recall what I did last time, when this happens. So, in the hopes of helping the many future stressed me’s, and the many stressed you’s out there, here’s my way to keep on juggling when life and work (they always seem to do it in concert) throw you another half-dozen balls.
Image via Wikipedia
Many books and articles on productivity preach that multi-tasking hurts productivity. I don’t disagree with them. However, when one is faced with many tasks that are all important and urgent, some of which have distant horizons, single-tasking can be deadly. You start work in the morning, entirely focused on building a new piece of functionality or writing a business plan, and you finish late at night, having done all or a part of the task. You feel satisfied, proud of yourself, having worked your socks off and made some solid headway against a big task.
But what about all those other things you were supposed to do? Whether in the back of your mind or on a task list, they’re still there, nagging at you, and quickly replace that feeling of satisfaction with one of stress: I worked hard all day and still there are so many things to do! Even worse, you may not have completely finished the big, high-priority task, so even though you worked all day, you didn’t even cross a single thing off your task list.
This has a bad tendency to snowball into feeling stressed all day, and eventually even the big task during the day doesn’t get done very well. After all, it’s hard to focus on one thing when you know there are 10 other things that really need to be done waiting for you on the todo list.
The problem compounds itself when your tasks have different priorities, and when there is some potential for batching things together. “Batch similar tasks together!” say many productivity gurus, and this does work when you’re not completely overwhelmed and just trying to save some time. But the problem is, 5 small, non-urgent tasks batched together still don’t feel as high priority as one really important task. But when you let them slip week after week, those 5 little tasks multiply as more similar tasks slip into the batch. All too quickly, you have a monster that will take you 4+ hours to work through. So suddenly you have a lot of big, lengthy tasks, all creeping up the priority ladder simultaneously. This creates stress, a lot of it.
Here’s the method then: de-batch your tasks. You have a business plan to write? Don’t look at it as one single big task to be done in one go: split it into researching, thinking, planning, writing each section. You have 50 support tickets to go through? Go through them one by one. Yes, at first, it multiplies the number of things that “you have to do”, but it allows you to do them a tiny little bit at a time.
The next step is to de-batch your day, so to speak. Split your day into chunks. I use 30-minute chunks. A Mac application called FlexTime allows me to set up a 30-minute routine of 25 minutes of work + 5 minutes of rest that repeats itself endlessly throughout the day. Use whatever method and slot lengthy suits you best for splitting up your day.
So, now that you have a load of tasks and a bunch of time slots, start allocating small sets of tasks (usually fitting into a single theme) into each time slot. 25 minutes should allow you to process 10-20 support tickets. It should allow you to write part of a blog post (I’m still within my slot, at the moment). Whatever you do in your time slot, stick to it. Cut off all distractions and don’t multi-task, just do one thing at a time - but do it for only 25 minutes. When the slot is over, leave things in whatever state they are and move on to the next set of tasks, no matter how much you may feel like continuing. If you don’t stick to that discipline you’ll end up with the same problem again.
For the first day or two, it will feel like you’re not making any progress on the big important tasks, because you’re not getting that much completely finished in those time slots. But actually, what start to happen after even just a couple of days of this is that those many things you started start to finish, little by little. Not only that, but since a lot of the tasks on your list are likely to be short, you will actually finish a lot of things that had been nagging you, and your task list will clear up little by little.
Because you keep on switching, you don’t feel so stressed about all the stuff you’re ignoring, because you’re not ignoring nearly as much. Soon, you find yourself finishing a whole lot of stuff in one day. When you do that, it feels great. Your 25-minute slots start to feel very good and productive, and you get even more done in them. When that happens, you’ll feel on top of things, and you are - but at that point, it’s important not to stop following this method, or else you’ll soon fall back into the stressed out pattern you were in just before. It takes discipline to take a break during a task you enjoy, but do it. In fact, my time slot just ended here, so I’m going to take a break and finish this post later.
It’s now two days later, and here I am again, finishing up this blog post. Before closing this article, I wanted to add a few points and a summary.
- Do take breaks seriously. Resting for 10 minutes out of every hour is not a significant drain on productivity. In fact, if you don’t take those breaks yourself, your brain will take them for you by making you more distracted and less creative.
- Another advantage of the breaks is they force you to change tasks. If you ignore the breaks, your natural tendency will be to continue doing the same thing for the next slot, and the next, and the next… so take the breaks!
- It’s very important to cut out distractions while you’re focusing on one thing, or else you won’t be able to get enough done in those 25 minutes. Shut down chat, email, etc. If you’re in an office, put headphones on and be firm when people interrupt you (“Hey, do you have a minute?” “I’m in the middle of something. Is this urgent?”).
Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by having to do too many things at once, remember this trick to get on top of it:
- De-batch the tasks
- De-batch your day
- Deal with many tasks in a day, always one at a time
- Make sure you get some amount of rest each hour to remain productive
- Ensure you are 100% focused on the one task that you’re doing for the allocated time, then take your break and move on to 100% on next task
I hope you find this useful. Any comments will, as ever, be most welcome, particularly if you have done something similar or different to deal with this sort of situation and are willing to share your experience. Thanks for reading!
In this article, Adrian Hon, picks up on the idea (originally from Gregory Bateson, I believe) that time pressure creates what Bateson calls false endpoints, that reduce the quality of the final solution. He also proposes that the development process in creative fields should be altered to encourage “play” as a way of generating solutions, even as part of a business.
I believe this is misleading, because it’s partially correct. Time pressure does cause us to make compromises, but those are not necessarily to the detriment of the overall solution, particularly if one takes a long-term view, or if one considers just how unknowable a concept the “best” solution is.
So let’s examine this step by step. First, let’s look at the idea that the compromise solution of a “false endpoint” won’t be as good as the perfect solution of a “play” result. In pragmatic terms, what this means is that by spending more time on the solution (an unknown amount of time), some improvement on the solution will be obtained. So basically, you spend more and you get more. Then the question is, are you getting your money’s worth with the extra time you spend on a solution?
The pareto principle hints that 80% of the results will likely come out of 20% of the work. If the 20% was done first, and generated the 80% of results, then it is likely that spending another 4 times the initial time is not worth doing for a 20% improvement on the results (no matter what perfectionists may say), unless you have unlimited resources (but most of us don’t). Since we all prefer to deliver better results, I’d propose that time pressure forces us to become better, over time, at recognising what the useful 20% are and at discarding the rest. In a pressure-free environment, however, there is no incentive to focus on what really counts.
In the long term, what you might look at is the “value” that’s been added by all this work. Again, here, the pareto principle holds, and if you constantly, efficiently do 20% of the work in exchange for a “good enough” 80% result, once again, you win, since you’ll be able to produce 5 times as many products as you would otherwise. So adding time pressure for each task results in an increased number of “shots” at the solution - you could design 5 products targeting the same market, for instance, or 5 products targetting different markets (which would then perhaps have a better chance of being lucky and hitting a sweet spot).
The Unknowable Marketplace
Why would you want to do that, though? Surely, you know what the best market is, and what the best solution is going to look like, and how successful it will be… don’t you? Well, no. Business is not only a world of limited resources, it is also one of great uncertainties. Before you put a product in front of users, you don’t know what they need, and so you can’t even begin to aim for perfection (via play or otherwise). Instead, the best result is derived by getting the “simplest thing that works” out there and seeing how it fails, and then improving on it incrementally. Chances are, until you’ve got your product out there, you won’t be able to even recognise the best solution if it bashes down your door and yells at you.
There’s one last counter-argument here. What about creative activities? What about advertising? Writing? Won’t they benefit from a “play” approach and the removal of deadlines to allow doodling away until the best solution is reached?
For this, I turn to reality. My father used to be a journalist, and once of the things he told me is that as a journalist, you are required to produce creative output to an extremely tight deadline. I have friends in advertising who tell me the same. Many writers work by setting themselves a daily target. It’s perhaps not very surprising, but what works in a more engineering type of business (e.g. software development) also applies to softer, more traditionally creative activities.
In conclusion, what I believe it comes down to is this: deadlines focus the mind, enforce prioritisation, and ensure that some form of value is delivered. A pressure-free environment may or may not produce a great result by the end. A pressurised environment will produce a good enough result, and leave you with spare time to improve on it.
If you have any thoughts or comments, please feel free to post them up below or on your blog (I have trackbacks enabled).
When designing a feedback system to influence change (for instance, a status report to influence the project progress, or an attempt to lose weight or save money) it’s easy to fall into the trap of going for accuracy first. Countless hours can be wasted designing the perfect measure of progress, making sure it’s accurate as can be, ensuring everyone fills in the data as accurately as possible, etc. Most of that work is, however, pointless, because accuracy is not the name of the game here. Sure, feedback needs to be vaguely accurate, but it doesn’t need to be very accurate to work.
So what is good feedback then? In this post, I’ll look at what constitutes a good feedback system and what doesn’t. Finally I’ll propose a simple framework for figuring out what feedback system to use.
Feedback should be consistent
Inconsistent feedback drives irrational behaviour. In fact, giving random feedback is a proven, effective method of driving people to misbehaviour (or even to insanity). If your feedback can’t be consistent in its frequency (how regularly and often it is given) and its direction (ie positive feedback should always be positive), don’t bother with it at all - it will only make things worse.
Consistency of feedback is like consistency of logic - it’s a sine qua non, without which everything else becomes meaningless.
Feedback should be timely
I believe the next most important quality of any feedback is timeliness. Here’s an example: my previous phone company used to send feedback 2 months after the fact. It was very accurate (itemised billing usually is), but since the call went into the next month’s bill, and that bill came at the end of the following month, there was a very long lag time between abuse of the phone and feedback about it. As a result my phone bill was often over £100 per month (yes, that’s huge). This didn’t allow me to correct my behaviour - all it did was make me feel bad that I overspent on my phone again.
I switched to T-mobile UK, which provides a weekly text message reminding me of how much of my “Flext” allowance I have left for this month. Since then, my phone bill has not gone above £46, on a £42.50 tariff.
Similarly, every project has some form of feedback (at the end of the project). Either the project team gets congratulated, or they get told they screwed up and caused all sorts of issues within the organisation and to clients and the world. Unfortunately, by then, it’s far too late to take corrective action. All you can do is make everyone unhappy that they were part of a failed project.
What is timely? Well, in some cases, it’s instant feedback - but not always. You don’t want to be snowed under a mountain of white noise about the progress of everything you’re involved in. “Timely”, in the context of feedback, is related to the pace of change. For expenses, for instance, I define “timely” as instant. For a project, weekly feedback usually does the trick. For weight loss, try the daily feedback of a scale.
Feedback should be effortless
I used to try to save money by keeping a log of all my expenses. I carried a little notebook, or a PDA, with me at all times, and recorded all expenses. These were subtracted from my weekly budget, so I knew how well I was doing at any point. This system worked relatively well, but it had one fatal flaw: it required constant effort. I never managed to sustain it more than a few months at a time, after which I would stop tracking things, because it was too much hassle, and relapse into over-spending.
If your feedback system requires constant effort to maintain (particularly if the effort has to come from the person receiving the feedback), it is flawed in the long term and will eventually fail.
What did I do about the spending? Well, I came up with a new feedback system. Instead of counting expenses, I switched to paying for everything in cash. On Thursday of each week, I take out my weekly allowance from the cashpoint, and I spend from that. The instant feedback from seeing my little cash pile diminish works as well as counting expenses, but takes no extra effort on my part. The only effort was in thinking of the system in the first place (thanks Bob!). If your expenses are out of control, I highly recommend it!
In conclusion, the holy grail of any feedback system should be for it to be completely effortless, to continue working even when the attention of the receiver is somewhere else.
Feedback should be vaguely accurate
Of course, feedback needs to be somewhat accurate. But here, there is an expression that gets across the idea quite well: “it is better to be vaguely accurate than precisely wrong”. I’d add to this: “especially if the extra accuracy comes at the cost of timeliness or effortlessness”.
The feedback from T-mobile’s Flext is not accurate. It only tells me about my aggregate phone usage. But it’s timely, and so it works. Similarly, project feedback does not need to be very accurate to work. This is the approach that the typical agile burn-down chart takes. Ultimately, “story points” are fairly loose stuff. But what’s always true is that as long as you’re not making up silly User Stories with random estimates, it’ll always be the case that: “every point you deliver is a good thing”. So you get a vaguely accurate pat on the back at the end of each iteration telling you you delivered something useful. Or, if you delivered nothing, you get nothing - and that’s feedback too!
In contrast, I once had a long discussion with a project manager as to the most accurate way to measure completion of tasks (I supported partial completion percentages, whereas he thought that only a finished task earned any percentage). In hindsight, the discussion was futile, not only because we were both right (both approaches have benefits), but because the accuracy difference between the two was irrelevant. What was relevant was implementing weekly status reporting where there was nothing - Whether it was 10% too high or too low was irrelevant, so long as the error was consistent.
A typical example of accuracy that can be improved is the weight scale that I mentioned earlier. Weight scales are accurate at measuring weight, but the reason most of us want to lose weight is because we want to lose fat. Plain weight scales don’t give you that information. Without a Body Fat Percentage scale, you might measure things with the right frequency and with only a little effort, but since you’re not measuring the right thing (unless you weigh hundreds of kilograms, in which case most of it is certainly fat), it won’t help you achieve your goal of eliminating fat.
So, we have a few key elements of what constitutes good feedback. Good feedback should be:
- Vaguely accurate
This provides a simple framework for improving a feedback system, by providing you with four questions to ask about your current system, and an order of priority between them.
- Is the feedback system inconsistent? If so, can I make it more consistent, even at the expense of timeliness, effortlessness and accuracy?
- Is the feedback system timely? If not, can I make it more timely, even at the expense of effortlessness and accuracy?
- Is the feedback system effortless? If not, can I automate any part of it so it happens even if I don’t do anything, even at the expense of some accuracy?
- Is the feedback system accurate enough? Can I make it more accurate without hurting one of the other key qualities?
I hope you found this article useful. Thank you for reading. Any feedback (timely or otherwise) in the comments below would be most welcome!
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