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


Applications of Complexity

August 23, 2019

I’ve written previously on various aspects of complexity (eg here) as it’s an interest of mine (I did data visualisation in this area quite a while ago when I worked at the IBM Scientific Centre in Winchester, see below).

One post, from 2009, gave an overview poster for the development of the key ideas starting from the 1940-50s and ending at 2009 with Web Science (see below). 

I’ve just checked to see if there is an updated version and here it is (up to 2018):

There’s another recent poster for the techniques used to handle complex systems. I’ve found it helpful to use such perspectives to think through problems (even if you are not an expert in the methods) as they can motivate new insights simply through a fresh way of looking at things.


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.


The Sleep Business

April 5, 2019

I suffer from insomnia so am always interested to read the latest thinking on the subject plus (hopefully) some new ideas or approaches. It’s now become apparent, with the flood of articles, books and courses on the subject, that it is also now a booming business niche. It may be that all this attention is in some ways counter-productive.

There’s a thought-provoking piece by Darian Leader in the Guardian on this topic. Here’s a couple of extracts:

Just as we are both evaluated and pushed to self-evaluate in so many other areas of life, so now sleep itself becomes the first point of our daily review. We wake up not simply to worry about the tasks of the day but, first of all, to assess whether we have had our required hours and then, inevitably, worry about the consequences of our failure. A few decades ago, variety shows on Saturday night would showcase performers singing and dancing, but today we also get a panel of judges evaluating. How long would it be, indeed, before this merciless culture of evaluation came to colonise other aspects of our lives, including sleep?…

The sleep industry needs a reality check here. Although many of us have our own individual problems with sleeping, this should not act as an excuse to move attention away from our political landscape. In a world of massive job insecurity, long commutes, economic precarity and the pressure to maintain a positive image, how well can we really be expected to sleep? Should we be blaming ourselves and our mattresses, allowing ourselves to be duped in this latest chapter of marketing the human condition?


The Two-Device Solution

April 5, 2019

Interesting observation from Seth Godin (whilst talking about productivity and distractions):

“One reason for this confusion is that we’re often using precisely the same device to do our work as we are to distract ourselves from our work. The distractions come along with the productivity.”

This leads him to this possible solution:

“Simple but bold: Only use your computer for work. Real work. The work of making something.

Have a second device, perhaps an iPad, and use it for games, web commenting, online shopping, networking… anything that doesn’t directly create valued output (no need to have an argument here about which is which, which is work and which is not… draw a line, any line, and separate the two of them. If you don’t like the results from that line, draw a new line).

Now, when you pick up the iPad, you can say to yourself, “break time.” And if you find yourself taking a lot of that break time, you’ve just learned something important.”

I’m about to upgrade my aging iPad to the alluring 2019 iPad Air so this is the perfect opportunity to give it a try. Simple solutions have a chance of working….

On a related note, I came across this recent tweet from Dr Bendor Grosvenor

“About a year ago, our school made the decision to do all schoolwork and homework on iPads. It has been a disaster. Kids just can’t cope with the distraction of everything else iPads have to offer. Schools – stick to paper and pen!”


The Art of Listening

February 21, 2019

In a number of articles on this blog I’ve talked about listening skills and how, on the whole, they’re under-developed and usually under-appreciated (see for example here). This has implications for both personal and business life.

Suggestions are sometimes given on how to listen better but these are often general and vague. Some more practical advice would be helpful. An article that addresses this is The Art of Listening from The School of Life.

The author points out that:

The real pleasure of talking about ourselves lies in understanding ourselves, becoming clearer about who we are, what we feel, what we want and what we might do next. The pleasure of talking about ourselves lies in self-clarification, not merely in hearing our voices.

It compares this to reading an engrossing book, where we can be totally immersed in one-way communication. The reason is that we’re always thinking about how what we’re reading applies to us:

Novels are stories of other people that we don’t mind hearing; because they are also, at their best, stories that teach us about ourselves. We’re prepared to spend hours hearing other people – like Tolstoy or Proust or Virginia Woolf – talking about their ideas and adventures. And remarkably, we don’t mind not getting a single word of our own into the arena because we’re actively understanding bits of ourselves by listening to their stories.

I’m reminded of a quote

“No one really listens to anyone else, and if you try it for a while you’ll see why.” – Mignon McLaughlin (American journalist and author)

And the riposte is:

We might well reply that this is all very well, but that the average person we have to listen to is a lot less interesting than Marcel Proust. So no wonder we want to listen to the novelist and not the average person. But the people we have around us are a lot more interesting than we think – if we knew how to listen to them and edit them properly.

How can we mentally edit conversations? They give the following tips and common errors:

a) We keep latching onto factual details: we go on about times, places, external movements – not realising that things become interesting only when people say what they feel about what happened, not merely what happened. 

b) We often get overwhelmed by an emotion we experienced and insist upon it rather than attempting to explain it. So we say, again and again, ‘it was so beautiful’ or ‘it was the scariest thing in the world’ but without accurately unpacking the feeling and thereby being able to make it live in someone else’s mind. 

c) Just when we promise to get a bit interesting with our narration, we take fright. We get scared of our own emotions, which can threaten to trigger feelings of unbearable sadness, confusion and excitement. We take flight into superficiality. 

d) Then we don’t stick with one story. There is so much in our minds, we keep opening up new subplots.

So when listening, stop your companion digressing; say things like, ‘So a minute ago you were saying that….’ Bring them back to the last coherent and emotionally ‘alive’ part of the story. Draw them away from numb surface details to deeper emotional realities. Ask: ‘what did that feel like for you…?’ 

It ends with the optimistic:

That way, listening is no longer a chore. It’s about the most interesting thing we can do.

Why don’t you try it and see?


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.