You're not the only one trying to find time to think

Posted by: Jena McGregor on July 31

I couldn't help but post this snippet of conversation between presidential candidate Barack Obama and Tory leader David Cameran at the Houses of Parliament. The New York Times ran the conversation, but I re-post it here for your own use or inspiration:

(According to the transcript...)

Mr. Cameron: You should be on the beach. You need a break. Well, you need to be able to keep your head together.

Mr. Obama: You’ve got to refresh yourself.

Mr. Cameron: Do you have a break at all?

Mr. Obama: I have not. I am going to take a week in August. But I agree with you that somebody, somebody who had worked in the White House who — not Clinton himself, but somebody who had been close to the process — said that should we be successful, that actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking. And the biggest mistake that a lot of these folks make is just feeling as if you have to be ...

Mr. Cameron: These guys just chalk your diary up.

Mr. Obama: Right. ... In 15 minute increments and ...

Mr. Cameron: We call it the dentist waiting room. You have to scrap that because you’ve got to have time.

Mr. Obama: And, well, and you start making mistakes or you lose the big picture. Or you lose a sense of, I think you lose a feel ...

Mr. Cameron: Your feeling. And that is exactly what politics is all about. The judgment you bring to make decisions.

Mr. Obama: That’s exactly right. And the truth is that we’ve got a bunch of smart people, I think, who know 10 times more than we do about the specifics of the topics. And so if what you’re trying to do is micromanage and solve everything then you end up being a dilettante, but you have to have enough knowledge to make good judgments about the choices that are presented to you.

Now, it's Your Turn

Posted by: Jena McGregor on July 28

A month of helpful posts from our guest bloggers, Linda Stone, Julie Morgenstern, and David Allen have generated some great ideas for staying organized, becoming more productive, and managing our time and attention. Julie reminded us to never check email in the morning. Linda suggested more time for reflection. And David reminded us not to get too attached to technology. Those are just some of the many helpful hints they've offered up.

Now that the experts have spoken, it's our turn. I spoke with someone the other day that gave me a tip I'm going to try to implement myself: Create a stop-doing list, along with a to-do list. Make a list of the things you're going to try to stop doing, and check that as often as the list of things you have to do. It's just as important to not getting overloaded with tasks that are unimportant, that others could be doing, or that just shouldn't be taking up your time.

Now, I'm asking you: What are the time management secrets you put to use every day? How do you manage the email deluge? What are the ideas you implement to get from your coffee-fueled commute and back home again to the people you really care about? Please leave your ideas here. We'll print the best ones in a reader-generated list of time management tips in BusinessWeek Magazine.

Continuous Partial Attention -- Not the Same as Multi-Tasking

Posted by: Linda Stone on July 24

People often say we’re multi-tasking ourselves to death. But is that really what we’re doing? I think not. I call what we’re doing today continuous partial attention, or "CPA"
for short.

Continuous partial attention and multi-tasking are two different attention strategies, motivated by different impulses. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. Each activity has the same priority – we eat lunch AND file papers. We stir the soup AND talk on the phone. With multi-tasking, one or more activities is somewhat automatic, like eating lunch or stirring soup. That activity can be paired with another activity that’s automatic or with an activity that requires more cognition, like writing an email or talking on the phone. At the core of multi-tasking is a desire to be more productive. We multi-task to create more opportunity for ourselves – more time to do more and time to relax more.

In the case of continuous partial attention, we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything. There’s a kind of vigilance that is not characteristic of multi-tasking. With CPA, we feel most alive when we’re connected, plugged in and in the know. We constantly scan for opportunities – activities or people – in any given moment. With every opportunity we ask, “What can I gain here?”

Why care about the difference between multi-tasking and CPA? Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert. We reach to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities. If we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus. What’s ringing? Who is it? How many emails? What’s on my list? What time is it in Beijing?

In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in. This is great when we’re being chased by tigers. But how many of those 500 emails a day is a tiger? How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.

Over the last twenty years, we have become expert at continuous partial attention and we have pushed ourselves to an extreme that I call continuous continuous partial attention. There are times when CPA is the best attention strategy for what we’re doing, and in small doses, continuous partial attention serves us well.

But more and more, many of us feel the “shadow side” of CPA -- over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment. The latest, greatest powerful technologies are now contributing to our feeling of being increasingly powerless. Researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and poorly.

And that’s not all. We have more attention-related and stress-related diseases than ever before. Continuous continuous partial attention and the fight or flight response associated with it sets off a cascade of stress hormones, starting with norepinephrine and its companion, cortisol. As a hormone, cortisol is a universal donor. It can attach to any receptor site. As a result, dopamine and seratonin, the hormones that help us feel calm and happy, have nowhere to go because cortisol has taken up the available spaces. The abundance of cortisol in our systems has contributed to our turning to pharmaceuticals to calm us down and help us sleep.

I believe attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit. We can enhance or augment our attention with practices like meditation and exercise, diffuse it with technologies like email and Blackberries or alter it with pharmaceuticals. In the end, though, we are fully responsible for how we choose to use this extraordinary tool.

Reflection Points can be Inflection Points

Posted by: Linda Stone on July 24

Over a year ago, I spoke to a group of senior executives at a Fortune 100 company. People had traveled from all over the world to attend the meeting, which had been organized by the COO. These executives were hoping to get some insights into trends and six lecturers had been carefully chosen.

When the first speaker finished, the COO announced, "Please take five minutes to be silent, to reflect, to jot down any thoughts or notes. After five minutes, we'll continue. I ask you, please, not to take a break at this time. Please enjoy these five minutes to reflect."

I was astonished. Typically at events, the schedule is packed and speakers follow one another, rapid fire. This audience of senior executives sat quietly. Some wrote, some sat quietly.

At the end of the day, after another quiet break, the COO led a discussion with the 50 executives in attendance. The conversation was intimate, and thoughtful. People referred to their notes frequently. Attendees left, having committed to investigating some of the ideas that were proposed. Within a year, there were signs that this company had integrated a number of the new ideas that had been proposed.

We enjoy both the notes and the rests in music. This COO took this notion and translated it successfully to organizing meetings. No matter how productive we are, if we don't take time to reflect, all that productivity will be wasted. How can this work for you in your day?

Cool Tech -- A Cautionary Tale

Posted by: David Allen on July 24

iphone.jpg

I was just talking with a friend who was boasting about all the nifty features of his new iPhone, especially all the capabilities it now has to collect data and input. Taking pictures of business cards that can then be text-searched, recording notes, etc. Seemed, indeed, like the result of lots of creative thinking and design. Then I asked him how often he cleaned up all that exciting new input – i.e. emptied his virtual “in-basket” the phone had assisted him in generating. He sheepishly admitted that was a major problem.

This is indicative of the potentially frustrating side of all the new technology. Lots of new and exotic ways to capture, slice, search, and retrieve data. But no matter how slick the gear, nothing has yet been able to replace the personal and individual executive function of actually deciding what, exactly, all that input means. What action, if any, do I need to take about that interaction that produced the business card I can now take a picture of? How critical is that data, for what purpose(s), now or later on? Until the very specific and discrete meaning of data is determined, there is no criterion for how to organize it.

The cool tech is cool, to be sure - but only if you have installed the best practices of processing the exploding plethora of miscellany it fosters. When they come up with an iBrain you can plug into your iPhone, so you actually don’t even have to think about the contents it collects any more – wow! Of course then you’ll have to choose whether you want the Fast-Track-Executive, Laid-Back-Retiree, or Liberal-Arts-Student version of the premier Decision-Support package add-on (for a nominal additional fee).

If you’re betting on the latest feature-laden nifty small and sexy tool to relieve the pressure of life and work, be careful. The weekend it will require to learn how to use it will be a mere drop in the bucket compared with the extra time you’ll need to wade through the additional stuff it may foster.

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Julie Morgenstern, Linda Stone, and David Allen Productivity guru Julie Morgenstern teaches us how to get organized, save time, and reclaim our sanity. Linda Stone, a former Apple and Microsoft executive and frequent speaker and consultant, helps us learn to manage our attention. And David Allen, the widely followed author of the popular book Getting Things Done, helps us accomplish things more efficiently.

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