More than a century and a half before our modern malady of confusing productivity with purposefulness and the urgent with the important, Thoreau wrote in an entry from the last day of March in 1842:

The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.


Visual distraction and productivity

Visual distraction: a behavioral and event-related brain potential study in humans

Astract: Recent studies reported that the detection of changes in the visual stimulation results in distraction of cognitive processing. From event-related brain potentials it was argued that distraction is triggered by the automatic detection of deviants. We tested whether distraction effects are confined to the detection of a deviation or can be triggered by changes per se, namely by rare stimuli that were not deviant with respect to the stimulation. The results obtained comparable early event-related brain potential effects for rare and deviant stimuli, suggesting an automatic detection of these changes. In contrast, behavioral distraction and attention-related event-related brain potential components were confined to deviant stimuli. This finding suggests that deviancy from a given standard adds a genuine contribution to distraction.

Neural Mechanisms Underlying the Impact of Visual Distraction on Retrieval of Long-Term Memory

Filtering information on the basis of what is relevant to accomplish our goals is a critical process supporting optimal cognitive performance. However, it is not known whether exposure to irrelevant environmental stimuli impairs our ability to accurately retrieve long-term memories. We hypothesized that visual processing of irrelevant visual information would interfere with mental visualization engaged during recall of the details of a prior experience, despite goals to direct full attention to the retrieval task. In the current study, we compared performance on a cued-recall test of previously studied visual items when participants’ eyes were closed to performance when their eyes were open and irrelevant visual stimuli were presented. A behavioral experiment revealed that recollection of episodic details was diminished in the presence of the irrelevant information. A functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment using the same paradigm replicated the behavioral results and found that diminished recollection was associated with the disruption of functional connectivity in a network involving the left inferior frontal gyrus, hippocampus and visual association cortex. Network connectivity supported recollection of contextual details based on visual imagery when eyes were closed, but declined in the presence of irrelevant visual information. We conclude that bottom-up influences from irrelevant visual information interfere with top-down selection of episodic details mediated by a capacity-limited frontal control region, resulting in impaired recollection.

Auditory distractions and productivity

I’ve been thinking of the effect of music, background noise or periodic sound events might have on a persons ability to learn and be productive and creative. I’ve long felt that music or sound helps with known repetitive tasks but what effects on short term or long term memory? Another question, are purposely created sound effects an aid in concentration? Some software features background sounds as an aid to concentration, is this effective? And if it is are some sounds better than others (ticking clock, nature etc).

Some reading.

A comparison of auditory and visual distraction effects: behavioral and event-related indices

Infrequent task-irrelevant deviations in the frequency of a tone may distract our attention away from the processing of task-relevant tone duration. The distraction obtained in the auditory paradigm is reflected in prolonged reaction times in duration discrimination and in P3a. The P3a is followed by a late negative component, which may be related to a re-orienting process following distraction (RON, re-orienting negativity). The present study aimed at comparing effects of the auditory and a corresponding visual distraction paradigm. Distraction elicited a deviance-related negativity which revealed a modality-specific distribution. It was followed by P3a (350-ms post-stimulus) and by RON (500-ms post-stimulus). RON did not occur with long-duration visual stimuli indicating a difference in visual and auditory distraction. Moreover, the results suggest that in both tasks irrelevant deviants were detected by modality-specific processes which caused an attention shift.

Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect?

Research suggests that listening to background music prior to task performance increases cognitive processes, such as attention and memory, through the mechanism of increasing arousal and positive mood. However, music preference has not been explored with regard to a more common and realistic scenario of concurrent music and cognition, namely the ‘irrelevant sound effect’ (ISE). To examine this, serial recall was tested under quiet, liked and disliked music sound conditions as well as steady-state (repetition of ‘3’) and changing-state speech (random digits 1–9). Results revealed performance to be poorer for both music conditions and the changing-state speech compared to quiet and steady-state speech conditions. The lack of difference between both music conditions suggests that preference does not affect serial recall performance. These findings are discussed within the music and cognition and auditory distraction literatures.

Effects of Music on Cardiovascular Reactivity Among Surgeons

Objective. —To determine the effects of surgeon-selected and experimenter-selected music on performance and autonomic responses of surgeons during a standard laboratory psychological stressor.

Design. —Within-subjects laboratory experiment.

Setting. —Hospital psychophysiology laboratory.

Participants. —A total of 50 male surgeons aged 31 to 61 years, who reported that they typically listen to music during surgery, volunteered for the study.

Main Outcome Measurements. —Cardiac responses, hemodynamic measures, electrodermal autonomic responses, task speed, and accuracy.

Results. —Autonomic reactivity for all physiological measures was significantly less in the surgeon-selected music condition than in the experimenter-selected music condition, which in turn was significantly less than in the no-music control condition. Likewise, speed and accuracy of task performance were significantly better in the surgeon-selected music condition than in the experimenter-selected music condition, which was also significantly better than the no-music control condition.

Conclusion. —Surgeon-selected music was associated with reduced autonomic reactivity and improved performance of a stressful nonsurgical laboratory task in study participants.(JAMA. 1994;272:882-884)

Auditory distraction from low-intensity noise: a review of the consequences for learning and workplace environments

The ‘irrelevant sound effect’ in short-term memory is commonly believed to entail a number of direct consequences for cognitive performance in the office and other workplaces (e.g. S. P. Banbury, S. Tremblay, W. J. Macken, & D. M. Jones, 2001). It may also help to identify what types of sound are most suitable as auditory warning signals. However, the conclusions drawn are based primarily upon evidence from a single task (serial recall) and a single population (young adults). This evidence is reconsidered from the standpoint of different worker populations confronted with common workplace tasks and auditory environments. Recommendations are put forward for factors to be considered when assessing the impact of auditory distraction in the workplace.

A simulator study of the effects of singing on driving performance

This study aimed to investigate how singing while driving affects driver performance. Twenty-one participants completed three trials of a simulated drive concurrently while performing a peripheral detection task (PDT); each trial was conducted either without music, with participants listening to music, or with participants singing along to music. It was hypothesised that driving performance and PDT response times would be impaired, and that driver subjective workload ratings would be higher, when participants were singing to music compared to when there was no music or when participants were listening to music. As expected, singing while driving was rated as more mentally demanding, and resulted in slower and more variable speeds, than driving without music. Listening to music was associated with the slowest speeds overall, and fewer lane excursions than the no music condition. Interestingly, both music conditions were associated with slower speed-adjusted PDT response times and significantly less deviation within the lane than was driving without music. Collectively, results suggest that singing while driving alters driving performance and impairs hazard perception while at the same time increasing subjective mental workload. However, singing while driving does not appear to affect driving performance more than simply listening to music. Further, drivers’ efforts to compensate for the increased mental workload associated with singing and listening to music by slowing down appear to be insufficient, as evidenced by relative increases in PDT response times in these two conditions compared to baseline.

The following has a nice summary of some of the answers I am looking for.

Stress and open-office noise

Forty female clerical workers were randomly assigned to a control condition or to 3-hr exposure to low-intensity noise designed to simulate typical open-office noise levels. The simulated open-office noise elevated workers’ urinary epinephrine levels, but not their norepinephrine or cortisol levels, and it produced behavioral aftereffects (fewer attempts at unsolvable puzzles) indicative of motivational deficits. Participants were also less likely to make ergonomic, postural adjustments in their computer work station while working under noisy, relative to quiet, conditions. Postural invariance is a risk factor for musculoskeletal disorder. Although participants in the noise condition perceived their work setting as significantly noisier than those working under quiet conditions did, the groups did not differ in perceived stress. Potential health consequences of long-term exposure to low-intensity office noise are discussed.

Look around any open-plan office today (especially one full of younger employees) and you’ll see that many workers deal with this problem by wearing ear buds or headphones. Although it might seem that importing one’s own noise wouldn’t be much of a solution, experts say that this approach could be effective on at least one dimension. Part of the reason office noise reduces our motivation is that it’s a factor out of our control, so the act of asserting control over our aural environment may lead us to try harder at our jobs. But does having a constant soundtrack to your day also distract you from the task at hand? That depends on the task. Research shows that under some conditions, music actually improves our performance, while in other situations music makes it worse—sometimes dangerously so.Via

“One of the easiest things to do is to realize that maybe it’s your distractions, not your goals, that are the problem,” said Steel. “So you make the distractions harder to get to. Make them less obvious.”
Getting Over Procrastination

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork. Before there was email, there were letters. It amazed (and humbled) me to see the amount of time each person allocated simply to answering letters. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon). Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. But if the amount of correspondence was similar to today’s, these historical geniuses did have one advantage: the post would arrive at regular intervals, not constantly as email does.

Sarah Green summarises some of the ideas in the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Curry.

I loath checking email and I resent the amount of time I have to devote sorting through the noise to get to those 2-3 meaningful letters I receive a week. If Gmail’s spam algorithm stopped working I would abandon it completely (like I would if I had to depend on Apple mail). Would you continue to use postal mail if you received 3000+ spam letters a week?

But the older I get, or perhaps the less the sheen of new devices and services fails to dazzle me, I find much of what we/I experience online has little in the way of importance, value or permanence.

Keep Meetings Short: Anna Wintour

R.J. Cutler sums up what he learned about business from Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, during the making of his film The September Issue.

I work in the film business, where schmoozing is an art form, lunch hour lasts from 12:30 until 3, and every meeting takes an hour whether there’s an hour’s worth of business or not. Not so at Vogue, where meetings are long if they go more than seven minutes and everyone knows to show up on time, prepared and ready to dive in. In Anna’s world, meetings often start a few minutes before they’re scheduled. If you arrive five minutes late, chances are you’ll have missed it entirely. Imagine the hours of time that are saved every day by not wasting so much of it in meetings.

Before coming to Taiwan I was largely saved from the meeting culture that seems so prevalent in many organizations here. Hours wasted in meetings that have little to no relevance to you and unpaid overtime to make for the loss in productivity. The meeting culture at Vogue is a refreshing change from this experience.
Via Kottke

The Successful Adoption of Web-Based Collaborative Software

I’m currently reading The Successful Adoption of Web-Based Collaborative Software from the journal e-Transit: Electronic Business Strategies for Public Transportation (Vol.7). It’s not entirely current as it was published in 2005 but it’s a useful case study for those wishing to convince larger organizations to adopt web based or ‘web 2.0’ tools for project management and collaboration. Thus far, experience has shown me that user adoption of tools such as these tends to be far behind the curve set by smaller studios and companies.
The focus of the study is on the adoption of web based collaborative tools by the Chicago Transit Authority, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Raytheon.
In short, here are the conclusions set by the study:

  • Enhanced productivity. In Chicago, on the Douglas Blue Line Construction project, CTA senior technical personnel were able to process 260% as many RFIs per business day per person with the implementation of web-based collaborative software. At the PANYNJ, project managers were able to audit the expenses on their projects in a much more thorough and consistent way. At Raytheon, employees can work on a project 24/7 as it travels around the globe.
  • More accurate information to decision makers. All three organizations reported that although decisions may be made by the same people in the hierarchy as before, the web-based tools created an opportunity for more people to see the information and to give input about it to decision makers. We can assume this leads to higherquality decisions and fewer unpleasant surprises. • Enhanced speed for information exchange. The CTA has been able to quantify that its RFIs are processed 20% faster with the web-based collaborative software. At the PANYNJ, RFIs have been processed 18% faster. These gains in speed translate to reduced delays in construction, which, in turn, translate into cost savings.
  • Role enhancement for project managers. In Chicago, people appreciated the opportunity to have input into many new decisions. At the PANYNJ, easier access to cost information has begun to turn project managers into able financial managers.
  • Enhanced accountability throughout the system. In a web-based system, everything is time and date stamped, and the whole system is transparent. Anyone looking in can see the status of an RFI or change order request and can see where the delays are. Initially, this transparency is what people are afraid of, but once the system is operating, they come around to appreciate the heightened accountability. This accountability is equally shared across workers, managers, and outside contractors.

You can read the entire journal here.

Communication through micro-blogs and IM [Bits]

Will Microblogging at Work Make You More Productive?
The central question on Twitter, “What are you doing?” is transformed on Yammer to, “What are you working on?” There are other features specific to the office. Unlike Twitter, which limits users to 140 characters, Yammer’s users can type as much as they want and reply to specific messages. They can attach photos, documents or videos. Yammer also has user profiles and will soon add groups, so people can have conversations that other employees cannot see. It has plans to include vendors or consultants outside the company network. Users can check Yammer and post updates from the Web, instant message services or phones.
Instant Messaging Proves Useful In Reducing Workplace Interruption
Employers seeking to decrease interruptions may want to have their workers use instant messaging software, a new study suggests. A recent study by researchers at Ohio State University and University of California, Irvine found that workers who used instant messaging on the job reported less interruption than colleagues who did not.
Communicating Persuasively: Email or Face-to-Face?
Our intuitive understanding is that face-to-face communication is the most persuasive. In reality, of course, it’s not always possible to meet in person, so email wins out. How, then, do people react to persuasion attempts over email? Persuasion research has uncovered fascinating effects: that men seem more responsive to email because it bypasses their competitive tendencies (Guadagno & Cialdini, 2002). Women, however, may respond better in face-to-face encounters because they are more ‘relationship-minded’. But is this finding just a gender stereotype?
Helping Others Adjust to Your Communication Style
Twitter is usually for mass sharing, wikis or collab apps are for project discussions, while email is for almost everything else.
We all have our own preferences when it comes to communicating with others. I prefer email for general communication, instant messaging for answering quick questions, and my land line for long, personal conversations.
But not all people understand this – especially if they aren’t web workers. In fact, before I had a system in place, I felt like a doctor who was on call 24 hours a day. The good news is that there are some things we can do to get people to reach us through the channels we prefer.

McKnight Principles of Innovation

William L. McKnight’s (3M chairman of the board from 1949 to 1966):

“As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.
“Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs.
“Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”


Yojimbo your life

I have been spending allot of time lately writing for weblogs and performing some general research for other projects that I am working on. It’s not unlike the the activities I performed when I was writing my thesis where I would want to record and create all kinds of data from many different sources. When I was writing my thesis I didn’t really have a great workflow and I am sure that I wasted a great deal of time as a result.
Currently I am using a workflow based on using simple text files and Quicksilver. But I don’t really find it as enjoyable a process as many do and I have been interested in finding a better tool that can save me some time. A wiki of some sort might even accomplish allot of what I need but it isn’t as efficient as many applications that integrate themselves with OS X. I might still take the time to set-up a wiki in the future for longer and more permanent bits of data.
Bare Bones software’s new Yojimbo seems to be a simple tool that will do what I want it to do and thankfully nothing more. And though I am sure that I have seen other tools in the past, they all suffer from offering a complex set of features that have no real use for me. From the Yojimbo site:

Yojimbo makes keeping all the small (or even large) bits of information that pour in every day organized and accessible. It’s so simple, there is no learning curve. Yojimbo’s mechanism for collecting, storing and finding information is so natural and effortless, it will change the way you work.
There are as many uses for Yojimbo as there are users of it. It accepts almost anything—text, bookmarks, PDF files, web archives, serial numbers or passwords—by dragging, copying or importing. You can get anything out of Yojimbo you put into it, in its original form—no lock-in.

Yojimbo allows me to tag and organize the type of information I collect sufficiently – and the search function works fine too. I particularly like the persistent tab on the side of my screen. I can drag and drop all kinds of data onto it and it will immediately organize it by type. I can then go in later and further categorize it. Yojimbo is a Tiger-only application because it relies on the latest Mac OS X advances. For instance, it’s a Core Data application, so that your items are kept easily and automatically in a SQLite database. Yojimbo also makes all non-encrypted items individually available to system-wide Spotlight searches, by representing each one as a stub in your Caches folder. All in all pretty cool.
Mac OS 10.4.3 or later is required to run Yojimbo.

Creative Jam

When coming up with ideas for the smenms project the team used methods somewhat like this. We had specific constraints in the project which we either defined or were defined for us. Within these constraints we set-out to come up with as many concepts as possible – I think our goal was 100 in an hour. It was exhilarating, fun, and quite fruitful.

It’s been said that art, creativity, and innovation are about the recognition and mastery of constraints.
“Man built most nobly when limitations were at their greatest.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
One of the best ways to be truly creative–breakthrough creative–is to be forced to go fast. Really, really, really fast. From the brain’s perspective, it makes sense that extreme speed can unlock creativity. When forced to come up with something under extreme time constraints, we’re forced to rely on the more intuitive, subconscious parts of our brain. The time pressure can help suppress the logical/rational/critical parts of your brain. It helps you EQ up subconscious creativity (so-called “right brain”) and EQ down conscious thought (“left brain”).”

Embrace your constraints and use them to your advantage.
Read:Creativity on speed

Multitasking Myth

tasking.jpgGraphic and thread courtesy of Tim Morgan
“Although there have been plenty of studies to show otherwise, the belief that multitasking will let us get more done continues. Our brains can’t do even two independent things that require conscious thought, especially if those two things involve different goals.
If you want to get more done, be mindful.
If you want to have more time, be mindful.
Mindful means one thing at a time.”
Read more at Creating Passionate Users: Your brain on multitasking and listen to more at 43F Podcast: The Myth of Multi-tasking.

Not Enough Seconds in a Day

I watched television last night and it inspired me (gasp!). Not real TV since I don’t have cable nor do I have a real TV by Canadian standards, just one snagged from the dust bin. It was a show tapped to vhs then digitized to vcd. I hate television generally but watching this sweet slice of life from the hallmark channel made me realise something. It seems I am always busy but never get anything done. I have an aunt like this but the key difference between us is that I do stuff. The days are too short for me. I would work all night if I could.
The slice of life I was watching from the Hallmark channel was illuminating. Here was an old couple driving place to place actually doing things in the real world – you know that place not formed from pixels and bits but that lives outside of your screen. However simple there life was they were getting things done. This was circa 1980 so no distractions from a blackberry, no mobile phone, no email, no weblogs you have to check every hour, no flickr, and no chat IM. Go here go there, do this do that.
Computing and IT suck at allowing you to get things done.I’m doing so much more, and getting so much less done.
In the grand to do list of life I got more things done in a day driving a tractor cutting grass for the City of Charlottetown (back in 1985) than I did at a job where I “think” for a living. I’m getting tired of thinking – I just want to do.
Todd Levin says: “If I were to make a list of things I am “doing” right now, it would be long and impressive and possibly even make you wonder how a man of my size living in a universe of such constricted physical laws – 60 seconds in a minute, 24 hours in a day, etc. – can get it all done.” You can read more on his site.
Perhaps at the least it is time to unplug the wireless router or just unplug.

Open Loops: Sleep and Productivity

“As we rob the night of sleep hours to get more things done, we are depriving our body of much needed time for it to repair and rejuvenate itself. Sleep is what we need to stay alert and focused on the day’s activities.”
“Exhaustion, fatigue and lack of physical energy are common sleep deprivation symptoms. Exhaustion and fatigue affect our emotional moods, causing pessimism, sadness, stress and anger. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) has suggested that social problems such as road rage may be caused, in part, by a national epidemic of sleepiness.”
Open Loops: Sleep and Productivity

Change of habits

I’m sitting here in Bangkok drinking bad coffee and missing the ubiquitousness of fast internet that exists just about everywhere else. Downloading hundred’s of new e-mail (most of which will be spam) and rss feeds here harkens back to the early 90’s when you used to download your email for later viewing while you had a shower, made breakfast and coffee, and were generally ready for the day. No instant information here.
I appreciate this approach in some ways. It forces a certain discipline that I might not always have. For people like me, having instant access to information means getting trapped in a endless cycle of reading and discovering and reading. With so much information readily available it is hard to stop trying to absorb it all. Put a small barrier in this process, in this case speed, and you are forced to be far more goal directed. I plan out exactly what I need to see ahead of time.
Working out of Bangkok tends to change your habits too. Elsewhere I tend to treat a remote web server much like a local drive. But here you are forced to do all your work locally and then when you find a good upstream upload all your work to the remote server. There are advantages to this approach I suppose.
In a beautiful country with such happy friendly people it’s hard to want to spend anytime in front of my Mac anyway but it’s interesting to reflect on the changes to your habits when access to fast networks become the exception and not the rule.