Avoid The Pseudo-Work Trap

As he was doing research for his book, published author and Georgetown University Computer Sciences Professor Cal Newport discovered that many straight-A students spent less time studying than most people thought.

Newport breaks it down on his blog:

If this sounds unbelievable, it is probably because you subscribe to the following formula:

work accomplished = time spent studying

The more time you study the more work you accomplish. The more work you accomplish, the better your grades. Ergo, straight A’s imply more work. Right? Then how do you explain me and my interview subjects…

To understand our accomplishment, you must understand the following, more accurate formula:

work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus

To further illustrate his point, Newport shares an example:

Intensity of Focus over Time for Marathon Session Approach
hour 1 : 10
hour 2 : 9
hour 3 : 5
hour 4 : 2
hour 5-10 : 1

[For math geeks, this is standard exponential decay.]

If we take the area under this curve, we see that the pseudo-worker has accomplished: 32 units of work.

Now let’s consider another approach. Assume, instead, that you break up the paper writing into two bursts. One burst you do for two hours Saturday afternoon. The other burst you do for two hours on Sunday morning. The long gap in between ensures your focus can recharge. Following the rates of focus decay used above, your chart looks like:

Intensity of Focus over Time for Short Burst Approach
hour 1 (sat) : 10
hour 2 (sat) : 9
hour 3 (sun) : 10
hour 4 (sun) : 9

Clearly, this work schedule is much less painful. Just two hours at a time. And a whole day separating the two sessions. However, when we calculate the area under this curve, we see that the short burst approach accomplished: 38 units of work!

Don’t expect better results simply by putting in more hours, and don’t do ineffective pseudo-work just because it makes you feel productive (or less guilty). Instead, work in short bursts in order to make sure your focus gets a recharge and become more effective and efficient.

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The Zero Notification Challenge

Bell by Sebastian Langer from The Noun Project

Bell by Sebastian Langer from The Noun Project

Ping!…Email.
Ping!…Tweet.
Ping!…iMessage.

Do notifications impact your workflow?

Co-founder and CEO of Buffer, Joel Gascoigne, undertook an experiment in which he disabled all notifications on his phone. Not only did he regain his focus, he was also able to convert his workflow from reactionary to proactive:

It is now completely up to me when I choose to check my email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I have no excuse that a notification came in. If I check it too frequently and find myself procrastinating, it is only my fault: I went out of my way to go and look.

Focus isn’t a magic ability. It’s simply a function of limiting the number of options you give yourself for procrastinating. 99U challenges you to turn off all notifications for a week, and let us know how it goes below.

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Are You Inspired or a Copycat?

User designed by Wilson Joseph from the Noun Project

User designed by Wilson Joseph from the Noun Project

It’s important to be aware of inspiration that simply influences us versus inspiration that turns us into a copycat. Knowing the difference can help turn us into the type of creative worker we strive to be. As Evernote designer Joshua Taylor explains in this interview over at the InVision blog:

Researching and seeing what others are doing is important. I try not to do that too much though because I think there’s a subconscious tendency to copy as soon as you start looking at everyone else’s stuff. My advice is that if you are going to look at others’ work, look at a ton of them so that there’s enough influences and you can’t distinguish between them. Constantly looking at other people’s work has a huge impact on who you are…We are all products of our environments, so surround yourself with great things.

The right inspiration, at the right time (and in the right amount), can be just what we need to improve our own ideas and creative work. It’s when we catch ourselves looking for inspiration as a way to solve the task at hand or complete the work we’re doing that we know we’ve stumbled into possible copycat territory.

Instead, we must strive to constantly surround ourselves with a lot of varied and high caliber work.

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Why Your Business Idea Isn’t Taking Off

Designed by Laurent Canivet for the Noun Project.

Designed by Laurent Canivet for the Noun Project.

Your business idea (be it for a design studio, an app, or consulting practice) has yet to become a success and you can’t figure out why. In an interview over at Entrepreneur with Scott D. Anthony, author of The First Mile: A Launch Manual for Getting Great Ideas Into the Market, the strategy and innovation consultant discusses the most common reasons why your business idea is stagnant:

One extreme is something called “paralysis by analysis,” where the business exists only in someone’s head. They’re trying to make the business plan perfect and remove all risk before taking the first step. The other extreme is “doing without thinking,” where you put something out into the market to see what happens. You can waste a lot of time and money learning things the world has already discovered.

 Do either of these two scenarios look familiar? If so, it may be time to take some focused action to get your business off the ground. The real answer lies in between the two extremes: the best action is usually securing your first customer and then building upon that success.

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How to Deal (or Not Deal) with Phone Calls

No Phone by Scott Lewis from The Noun Project

No Phone by Scott Lewis from The Noun Project

Do you get pissed off whenever someone asks you to setup a “quick call” to chat? Gary Vaynerchuk bets that you do:

We have gotten to a place where everything happens on our time. You watch the TV show when you want to watch it, not because it airs on Wednesday at 8 (7 central). You text because you can respond to that person on your time.

In a thoughtful tirade against phone calls, Dharmesh Shah, founder of HubSpot, left some important takeaways for how to deal with phone calls (and by extension, meetings), including:

To avoid the awkwardness around small-talk, try to outline what the topic of the conversation is going to be.  It makes you feel less guilty for transitioning into the purpose of the call.

Use email to get your high-level thoughts communicated first, and then use a phone call to add a personal touch or to have a higher bandwidth conversation.

If your work requires phone calls, that’s understandable. But remember that more often than not, synchronous communication puts you in a reactionary state. Don’t feel obligated to answer the phone every time it rings; what’s urgent isn’t always important.

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Learn the Rules & Then Break Them

dp_wrongtheory4_f

Scott Dadich’s spread for an article on Ridley Scott in Wired Magazine.

Editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine Scott Dadich says it’s time to start getting it wrong. In the field of technology design, we have figured out how to do it right. We have beautiful, sleek devices that are an ease to use – and it’s getting boring:

…once a certain maturity has been reached, someone comes along who decides to take a different route. Instead of trying to create an ever more polished and perfect artifact, this rebel actively seeks out imperfection—sticking a pole in the middle of his painting, intentionally adding grungy feedback to a guitar solo, deliberately photographing unpleasant subjects. Eventually some of these creative breakthroughs end up becoming the foundation of a new set of aesthetic rules, and the cycle begins again.

Dadich emphasizes that it’s not about throwing out design rules and starting from scratch. You need to master the rules so you can effectively break them. In his work for Wired Magazine, Dadich would apply his ‘Wrong Theory’ in small ways by only breaking one or two rules to regain visual interest. He would make large images small, overlap graphic and type and put headlines at the end of stories. Our future lies in failure as Dadich states, “…only by courting failure can we find new ways forward.”

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Use the Restroom Test to Make the Most of Conferences

Toilet Paper designed by Collectif Intro from the Noun Project

Toilet Paper designed by Collectif Intro from the Noun Project

Being shy or introverted doesn’t mean you can’t network like a pro at events. Over at Atomic Spin, Phil Kirkham gives us three tips on how to get the most from a conference or event. Our favorite is The Restroom Test, a way to check how well you’re doing at mixing and mingling with your fellow event-goers:

Take a walk to the restroom and back and see how many people that you did not know previously nod in recognition or say Hi. By the second day of the conference, I could count on getting at least 5 nods of recognition during my walk.

Even if you’re not overly shy, conferences can be intimidating thanks to the sheer number (and talents) of those around you. If at the end of the conference, you still find yourself among only strangers, it’s a good indicator that you’re not making the most of your time there. At the heart of it, Kirkham’s Restroom Test is a great way to not only help measure the number of new people you’re meeting during the event, but also to strengthen your memory of them. 

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