The Importance of Taking Breaks

October 17, 2019

I read this remarkable story on GTD Focus:

At some point though, we need to shut it all down, kick back in our metaphorical Barcalounger, and let our minds float off on their own for a while.

Franklin Roosevelt understood this. Throughout his adult life, as Governor of New York to President of the United States – on the day the stock market crashed and the day the Pacific Fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbour – Roosevelt paused every late afternoon for cocktail hour. He brought together the people working around him, often made the cocktails himself, and paused from the day’s occupation.

On Pearl Harbor day, this pause was between drafting his “Day of Infamy” speech, and his speech to the nation in front of the joint session of Congress he was asking to declare war.

Roosevelt’s best was essential nearly every day of his adult life, and no day more than this one.

Essential to our best is rest and recovery. Roosevelt offers a formidable example of how strength is nurtured and refreshed.

The story vividly illustrates the importance of taking regular breaks (long or short) to relax and refresh. Annoyingly this can happen when you feel you have the very least time for them. Hindsight often reveals that the tasks that seemed so important diminish and the bigger picture appears and it’s then difficult to understand not being able to take a break. A ritual, like Roosevelt’s, might help.

“Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” – Dolly Parton


Personal Bias

August 28, 2019

“Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works… We’re all biased to our own personal history.” – Morgan Housel


Delivering Results

August 22, 2019

Interesting tweet from the productivity writer James Clear:

“Results = (Hard Work*Time)^Strategy

Working hard is important, but working on the right thing is more important. A great strategy can deliver exponential results.

Of course, the best strategy is worth nothing if you never get to work. Zero to the millionth power is still zero.”

Note the power law for strategy! So worth reviewing whether other strategies are possible.


How to See Things Through

March 26, 2019

After prevaricating on a couple of personal projects, I fortunately came across a list of suggestions for seeing things through (see here for full details):

  1. Share less of your plans with those around you – doing it first and then sharing is a much better approach;
  2. Work on a long-term task regularly, dedicating a certain amount of time to it (daily for 20 minutes, weekly for 1 hour, monthly for half a day, etc.);
  3. Adjust your plans all the time – that way you will cross the finish line having wasted no time on the way;
  4. Don’t accumulate new tasks in the meantime – try not to start anything new until you’ve finished the current task;
  5. Hit the ground running – as soon as you’ve got a new task, do your best to handle all aspects of it without delaying, even if those may appear as little things;
  6. Get inspired all the time – inspiration makes you more active and positive, so look for potential sources in music, a hobby, being around your friends etc.;
  7. If you haven’t gotten around to the task in the first three days, you might as well forget about it, since 72 hours weren’t enough to get started;
  8. Don’t be afraid to dream – remember that thoughts are material, so if at least 50% of your wildest dreams realize, that’s great already.

The most relevant ones for me are the first two. I’ve tried telling people about achievements (even if small ones) rather than ideas and it’s certainly heightened interest. The second one, of regular determined effort towards a lengthy goal, is also delivering results. To increase motivation and focus, I’ve started doing ‘realistic’ weekly reviews to monitor progress. This has lead to me stopping doing quite a few things (the famous ‘not to do list’). It was quite a surprise to see how easy it is to fritter away time on all sorts of relatively unimportant tasks!


Risk versus Uncertainty

March 21, 2019

From the FT recently, on the difference between risk and uncertainty, and its implications:

“It (the distinction) was first made back in 1921 by the University of Chicago economist Frank Knight. Risk, he said, is something we can quantify, as when we say there’s a one-in-six risk of a die rolling a one. Uncertainty, however, cannot be quantified…

The biggest uncertainty is: technical change. Only one in eight of the US’s largest 500 companies in 1955 are still in the largest 500 today. And only two of the UK’s largest employers in 1907 are independent stock market-listed companies today: Prudential and WH Smith.

Herein lies a big difference between risk and uncertainty. Some risks diminish over time as losses are followed by gains…

Uncertainty, however, increases with time. We have a fairly good idea of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunuties and threats facing a particular company over the next 12 months. But if we’re honest, we haven’t a clue about them over the next 30 years.”

In this context it’s revealing how tricky it is to forecast long term change, say through research planning, see here.


The “Iceberg Illusion”: Some Career Insights (Part 2)

February 8, 2019

This is Part 2 of a description of a talk I was invited to give to staff at the legal firm of Lima and Falcao by the owner Tiago Lima. It took place in Recife, northeast Brazil in November 2018.

In a previous post I discussed some of the attributes for a successful career and the tricky art of learning from mistakes. The rest of the talk focused on the role of taking and giving strategic advice and the importance of listening skills.

The Benefits of Taking Advice

To illustrate this I gave an example from my own career, when I was doing my PhD in particle physics at Imperial College, London (it’s to be found embedded in a much longer article entitled The Higgs Effect).

On one occasion word went out that he (Prof Abdus Salam, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979) wanted to interview each of the particle physics PhD students. There was a handful of us and no reason was given. This was quite unusual as we interacted with all the other staff on a regular and easy basis and communication was excellent.

In my interview somehow or other I started going on about the low public profile of particle physics even though some amazing advances were being made and they weren’t being well communicated to the public. He agreed with me, said it was an important topic and suggested I seize the opportunity and do it myself! This totally shocked me as this wasn’t the sort of career or activity I had in mind, although with hindsight it might have been excellent advice.

I’ve often thought about this and how best to benefit when being in the (rare) situation of talking to someone who can give advice from a genuinely big picture. My guess is that they’ll always say something you don’t expect and you might even find a bit odd! That’s because they see things completely differently (years of experience, wider network, deeper insights).

However I think the smart thing to do is to write the idea or suggestion down, leave it a while (let it incubate) and then just openly think about it even if it contradicts practically everything else you’re doing. I’m not saying I would have been good at popular science or that I would (in reality) have enjoyed it but I did lose an opportunity by not giving it the attention it deserved.

As we’re often told, chance favours the prepared mind. In this case, being prepared for the unexpected!

The general point is to listen carefully to the advice given and not be judgemental. If the suggestions are not what you were expecting (as in the example above), let the ideas incubate slowly and try to keep an open mind on new possibilities. There may even be connections or opportunities that are relatively easy to develop and try out. In the example above, I could have written a short article for a popular magazine to see what was involved (namely the time and effort required). It would have been a diversion from my main research but a low cost and low risk ‘experiment’.

Nowadays, writing articles and books popularising modern science is fairly common and whole areas of bookshops are devoted to this area.

Listening Skills

Whilst involved in technology transfer projects in a very large science and technology company, QinetiQ, I became interested in the topic of corporate knowledge management. This covers the different ways people create and share knowledge (as opposed to information). One important way is through conversations, where explaining something to someone else can let you see something in a new light or perhaps a question might spark a new idea. A fascinating topic is ‘how do we listen’. Listening to what someone says is actually quite hard as explained in the quote below:

“Very few people are good listeners. A good listener listens slowly to what is being said. He does not jump ahead nor does he rush to judge nor does he sit there formulating his own reply. He focuses directly on what is being said. He listens to more than is being said. He extracts the maximum information from what he hears by looking between the words used and wondering why something has been expressed in a particular way. It is active listening because the listener’s imagination is full of ‘could be’ and ‘may be’ elaborations.” – Edward de Bono

Just try it, it really is hard although presumably gets easier with practice.

The table below indicates the common way we converse (discussion) and an improved way (dialogue). If you’re not convinced, just eaves-drop on most conversations, you’ll see that they are usually very one-sided and limited.

The differences between dialogue and discussion

As a practical tip, you could experiment with inserting some dialogue in place of discussion and see what results. This may be especially useful in situations where there is a conflict or established set views or the matter is very important.

In fact this slide created the most interest which is revealing as energetic conversation is a strong feature of Brazilian culture!

The pdf of the slides of my talk can be downloaded here: Career Insights

Many thanks to Tiago Lima for the invitation to give a talk and Artur Pimentel and Kathiana da Silva for organisation and questions.


The “Iceberg Illusion”: Some Career Insights (Part 1)

February 6, 2019

In November last year I was visiting the city of Recife in northeast Brazil. During the stay, I got to know Tiago Lima, the owner of the law firm Lima and Falcao. He was interested in the variety of career changes I had made and he invited me to give a talk to his staff on the insights I’d gained. As I was thinking about career insights in general this was a fortunate meeting of minds.

I decided to focus on telling stories that were general enough to be transferable to other areas and focused on four main points:

  • The Iceberg Illusion (Skills for Success)
  • Learning from Success and Failure
  • The Benefits of Taking Career Advice
  • Developing Listening Skills

A theme for the talk was to emphasise the realities of career decisions and events and to contrast this with the often simplistic stories of success found in popular business and personal development books.

This and another post will elaborate on the talk.

I started with giving a brief overview of my career so far. The main point is that it spans the academic, government and commercial sectors. Each sector has it’s own strengths and weaknesses and you learn different things in each one as well as with the interactions between them.

The Iceberg Illusion

I spotted this graphic whilst browsing one day and it neatly visualised quite a few things I’d been thinking about. It was produced by Sylvia Duckworth who is an award-winning educator, author, and brilliant sketchnoter.

The picture illustrates the difference between a superficial and deeper analysis of success. What interested me was that the attributes on the bottom were a mixture of ‘character’ skills (determination, hard work etc) and ‘emotional’ skills (handling disappointment, failure). Just having one set of skills is unlikely to be sufficient.

For this slide I explained that the ability to deal (emotionally) with failure and disappointment was essential as it is certain that every task you carry out or aim you have will not always be successful. There will generally be a continuum of results; some really good, a lot average and some rather abject. If you are perceptive and reflective you should be able to learn from all of the results to increase your overall impact.

I was impressed that this advice was given to students, a very mature move. I don’t ever remember anyone saying these sorts of things to me at any time during my career but I think I would have benefitted if they had (and said them at regular intervals, it’s always easy to forget the obvious or unpleasant).

There’s also a fun graphic which illustrates what you think or hope might happen on a project and what can easily happen (the rocky road to success, see here).

In general you have to be able to cope with grimy reality and not just it’s idealisation.

Learning from Success and Failure

Given that not everything will be succesful, it’s helpful to reflect on results to try to learn from mistakes. This is not easy as people often indulge in the blame game ie it was everyone’s fault but not mine! This avoids getting to the heart of the matter.

An associated viewpoint is summed up by this quote:

“Problems are only opportunities with thorns on them.” – Hugh Miller

In other words, it’s sometimes possible to turn a problem (perhaps a mistake) into an opportunity but this may not be straightforward and need some creative thinking.

John Cleese and the Fawlty Towers team

A vivid example of this is given by a Monty Python story, featuring the famous comedian John Cleese. It illustrates how open and closed thinking can yield very different results coming from the same situation. 

The details can be found in my article as well as some tips on creativity by Cleese. They’re simple tips but nonetheless helpful:

  • try and learn something new each day
  • sleeping on problems can be very effective
  • losing something and then recreating it from scratch often yields a better result
  • no distractions (at all) – it’s hard to get back into the flow
  • no one knows where ideas come from
  • create a mood that encourages creativity (the ‘tortoise mind’)
  • establish boundaries in both space and time (an oasis where it is ‘safe’ to be creative)
  • being busy and being creative are probably at odds with each other
  • if you’re purely busy, it probably means that you don’t really appreciate creativity

Although not mentioned in the talk, two other posts are also relevant, the preoccupation with success and the fascination of failure.

The pdf of the slides of my talk can be downloaded here: Career Insights

Many thanks to Tiago Lima for the invitation to give a talk and to Artur Pimentel and Kathiana da Silva for organisation and questions.