Monthly Archives: June 2009
For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to spend less time as a slave to my inbox and so I’ve disabled email notifications on my blackberry and iPhone. That makes it easier to resist the temptation to jump on every single email that comes in, personal or professional. Then I can go through these at my leisure when I have time to think and respond.
I used to pick up my phone anytime it buzzed or dinged or rang or made any other of 100 goofy noises. I’d gotten really used to that and once I stopped it was hard to get over the urge to grab my phone and check messages every 10 minutes like I used to do. I’d get bored quickly and my attention wandered to who might be sending me some critical email. But eventually the urges subsided and I realized I hadn’t missed any critical emails and the world hadn’t crashed to a halt. More importantly I was able to concentrate on a single task and get through it faster.
Most of the time when I was checking emails constantly, I was forth from task to task like crazy. It’s similar to the computer systems’ multitasking functionality, such as last-in-first-out (LIFO) processing (whatever piece of information has just arrived, process that first and delay the current task) and extreme hard drive thrashing (going from the inside to the outside of the platter on each subsequent read or write). Obviously this isn’t very efficient. You lose a lot of time changing tasks and it’s stressful having them all open at once.
When you look at every email as it arrives, you’re basically saying “Anything that hits my inbox is more important than whatever it is I’m doing right now.” That is almost never the case, and even when it is, anything in an email can usually wait 3-4 hours before you answer it. For the really critical stuff, you can still grab calls. Many times you’ll find that the problems solve themselves before you can take care of them.
Now I find that I am much more efficient and this has probably cut out 5-10 hours a week (that’s a consulting week of about 80 hours) in wasted time and I feel more relaxed and in control. You can apply the same principles to anything you find hitting you in intervals. And most likely you already do – unless you run to the store every time you need a paper towel.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the building in Shanghai that collapsed, as well as a bridge that partially collapsed. Today on the radio they said that the building developer’s license had been expired since 2004. This obviously does nothing to bolster the peoples’ confidence after last year’s Sichuan earthquakes where several schools collapsed (while other buildings still stood) and thousands of children were killed. This tragedy was linked to corruption in the construction and approval processes.
Also from the recent news, the Chinese government wanted special censorship software installed on all computers in their country. Called Green Dam-Youth Escort, the government eventually backed down after its citizens and PC manufacturers protested and after several vulnerabilities were discovered. But it turns out that the company hired by the government the software stole much of the code from a US software developer’s freeware version. Now that US developer is being attacked with custom written malicious code and phishing attacks, tenuously linked to Chinese sources.
When we were in China, Brian and I joked that “Chinese engineering will save us!” But that’s clearly not the case as this past week has shown us. No doubt that these are exceptions to the rule, but they are very public embarrassments for a government which tries to avoid them at all costs.
You can use the iPhone as a map, even when you have no cell service. This is a trick I used abroad when I was going to a new country and knew I wouldn’t have a new SIM card before I needed to get somewhere. The trick is, you have to preload the maps.
The easiest way to do this is to pre-plan your route before you set off. From the train station or airport to your destination. Then you can scroll around a bit and download those maps. I usually like to zoom in or out just a bit and try and load as much of the map area as I can to help me out. I wouldn’t use this as my sole means of getting to where I’m going, but it’s pretty handy in a pinch!
When I get to where I’m going I can then access those maps even without a SIM card in the phone. This trick works even if you turn the phone off and back on and it should survive playing music and things. But don’t load other places in the map – you might lose some of the data you need. Also, the GPS is kind of spotty some places in Europe, and without Internet connectivity you can’t use the wifi or cell tower location services.
The WSJ has a good article about research linking daydreaming and “Eureka” moments. One interesting thing I noticed is that the brain works harder during daydreaming than working on complicated problems. Another is the fact that there is a brief period of calming activity just before an insight is made – almost as if the brain is trying to clear out the competing ideas and focus in on the right one.
I think that there is an explanation for this finding in a 1977 study (warning: PDF link) by Nisbett and Wilson where people were asked to tie two ropes together that were hanging from the ceiling. The ropes were just far enough apart so that if you grabbed one you couldn’t reach the other. In the control group very few people got the answer. But in the experimental group an experimenter accidentally nudged one of the ropes, turning it into a pendulum. In this group, within seconds most of the people immediately solved the problem by doing the same thing. When asked how they came to the right answer, nearly none of them could say where the idea came from.
So my theory is that in our daydream we see something that points us toward a solution to a problem that we’re concentrating on. It’s kind of like in a movie or TV show where the character will be listening to a story or will see something and then get a blank look on their face and then get a spontaneous new idea that solves the problem. The movie The Hangover has one of those moments in it and is very funny, in case you are looking for something to do. Maybe that’s where my stroke of insight came from and I just don’t remember it.
Human communication used to be one person talking to one other person and face-to-face – call this conversation. Then it was one person talking to many through writings, books, pamphlets and magazines – call this mass communication. In the electronic age, the telephone and telegraph joined the ranks of the conversations; radio and television were introduced as mass communication. But now with the Internet, we’ve entered an age where many people talk to many other people through email, blogs, twitter, facebook and the like. If this doesn’t yet have a name, I’ll call it “mass conversation” – not to be confused with mass conservation.