“It’s possible,” Tom DeMarco writes, “to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That’s what happens when you drive out slack.”
The myth of efficiency
The relentless pursuit of efficiency has the unintended result of eroding our effectiveness. Daily, our attention is consumed by the immediate and the urgent. Overall the consequence is less time spent thinking as we are consumed by doing. The capacity to think, create and innovate has been driven out of organizations along with the perceived slack. Somewhere along the line “slack” has become a bad thing.
In his book Slack, Tom DeMarco illustrates the issue clearly with a simple puzzle. The challenge is to move the numbered tiles into numeric order.
Filling the empty space achieves an impressive 11 per cent ‘efficiency’ gain but renders us incapable of solving the puzzle. We have no room to move. No slack.
The need for reflection
Our brains filter out most of the sensory data we encounter daily. Yet the connections we make between the information that does register don’t always happen automatically. Sometimes we need to think things through to build relevance, connections and insight in response to what we experience. For knowledge workers, in particular, this is critical. Gaining insight from thinking is hard cognitive work. We don’t respect the time and conditions needed to do it well. Interrupting a programmer who is working with a complex mental map of a system is guaranteed to cost time and effort to reconstruct the cognitive state he or she needs to work well.
To a degree, this is influenced by cultural norms. In some countries, a worker sitting quietly at his or her desk, deep in thought, is unlikely to be approached. In North America it’s an invitation to be interrupted.
Stop being busy
The inability to carve out time for reflection can be self-inflicted. We sometimes make poor choices about where to spend the currency that is our attention. A powerful ‘litmus-test’ is a simple question: “Is this useful or merely interesting?“ Pausing to ask this question can steer us to more effective use of our limited attention, time and energy.
Decide where to spend your attention
So how do we create slack for ourselves? There are many sources of advice on time management and setting priorities. Stephen Covey’s matrix has stood the test of time as a useful approach. Assessing activities by contrasting importance and urgency gives us a visual guide to what’s consuming our attention. Working to spend more time in the upper right quadrant (the reflection space) provides the slack we need to think about how to address the important and urgent events in our lives more effectively.
“Procrastination is the thief of time.” – Edward Young (1683-1765)
We all do it. But for some, the practice of procrastination – delay without good reason, can become a chronic habit.
Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird , tells this poignant story of the consequences of delay:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
We now know that procrastinaton isn’t a time management issue. There are powerful cognitive issues at play and our brains are not being our friends. But like any learned behaviour, we can displace it with another learned behaviour.
The irony of procrastination is that we succumb to it to feel better (in the short term) but the result is usually the opposite. Annoyance, stress and guilt quickly erode the fleeting sense of satisfaction provided by the distraction of the choice we make in the present moment. Procrastination simply doesn’t make us feel great. This distress seldom prevents the development of a procrastination habit.
A good place to begin
Whatever it is you need to get done – just start. Then revise and improve.
You need to give yourself permission to do less than a perfect job on the first pass. It’s considerably easier to edit, expand or criticize something than it is to wait in suspended animation with nothing in hand.
The key is to assess, realistically, the cost of delay – to you and others. There are many reasons to delay starting. But, at least for me, the fleeting pay-off of delay seldom exceeds the cost of anxiety.
Two inspirational resources
If Google search results are any indication, I’m convinced interest in conquering the scourge of procrastination ranks with achieving world peace. But among the overwhelming options here are two resources that I’ve found enaging and useful:
Dr. Timothy Pychyl has spent his career exploring procrastination. He makes his research accessible to those who need practical guidance through his blogging at Psychology Today and now, in an excellent short ebook called The Procrastinators Digest. If you want to understand and counter procrastination tendencies I think it’s the best $2.99 you could ever spend.
Dr. Piers Steel conducted a meta-survey of formal academic publications that analysed over 800 scholarly papers on procrastination. This effort, along with his own research, has provided the insight he shares in his new book The Procrastination Equation (available December 28, 2010)
In it Steel debunks long-standing theories (and myths) regarding procrastination and proposes a new explanation that provides guidance towards overcoming our tendencies to delay. Based on previews and testimonials alone, this is not to be missed if procrastination is on your mind.
If you’re keen to see where you rank in Steel’s procrastination continuum and are willing to further his research you can take his survey.
We all like to think we’re instinctively creative thinkers but we’re not. Overcoming the constraints our existing mental maps impose and the unconscious pattern-matching that filters our senses and thoughts makes the process of thinking of and assessing new ideas hard cognitive work.
So we avoid or are deflected from doing it. When it comes to creative thinking our brains often are not our best allies.
When you feel you’re stuck in a rut, succumbing to groupthink or simply at an impasse with respect to generating options try looking at the flip side.
This is a straightforward technique called “reversal”. Consciously thinking about the opposite position or situation – however contrived – can be a powerful catalyst for new ideas and insight. If you’re trying to change: How can you guarantee the status quo? If you’re trying to improve: What can be done to make things worse?
Sounds too easy? Here are two short videos (~5 minutes total) that drive the point home and provide visual and emotional hooks to hang the idea on.
The first is an award-winning video from UK publishers Dorling Kindersley called the Future of Publishing. It addresses the view that physical books will become less relevant in a digital world populated by a cynical new generation of digital natives. In a stunning (and literal) reversal of the opening argument we may think otherwise (Be sure to watch past the midpoint!)
The second offering comes from Derek Sivers in a presentation made at TED India. He introduces thought-provoking examples from his travels that illustrate viable options exist as opposites to aspects of the world we take for granted in urban western society. His advice: ask the question “Could the opposite be true?”
So the next time you feel blocked in your thinking, whether alone or in a group, try asking: Could the opposite be true? Even if the answer isn’t useful the process certainly will be.
Attention, focused and conscious thought, is a scarce resource. It requires effort and consumes energy – something our brains strive to minimize.
It’s further constrained by the number of waking hours we have. We only have so much time in which to express ourselves and do things that matter. Yet, without fail, a multitude of things manage to distract us from the things we really want to achieve.
In today’s “always on” environment these distractions seem to multiply and the opportunity to dilute our attention is usually only a click away. There are so many sources of practical advice on how to focus, from time management practices to “Getting Things Done” frameworks, that it seems we have no excuse to be distracted – but it happens.
How then to decide what to do? Here’s an interesting question to ask yourself before (or while) you disappear down a rabbit hole following a unplanned thread of activity: “Is this interesting or is this useful?”
I happen to be interested in many things and love to explore ideas and connections between them. My wife and business partner calls me an “info lush.” This is highly entertaining (for me) and sometimes yields useful discoveries or insights, yet it’s often dysfunctional in the broader context of life.
What, then, is worthy of our attention? Or, more to the point, the attention of folks you want to help. Clearly the intersection of these two sets, the interesting and the useful, is where we should focus.
I know it’s difficult at times to place ourselves on the “interesting versus useful” scale, but simply being mindful of the distinction and and asking the question can us help decide where to spend our most precious resource – our attention.
If we take this economic view, we can decide to spend our limited attention resource where it will have the greatest return. Isn’t that a worthy goal?
Have you ever tried to win someone over with a clear, fact-based proposal only to have them become even more fixed in their current (in your view, misguided) position?
Earlier I wrote about the resistance to give up ideas being as difficult for us as giving up more tangible things we own.
A useful variation of this notion is examined in an essay called How Facts Backfire. by Joe Keohane in the Boston Globe. A key insight: “In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts.”
The essay looks at the findings of political scientist Brendon Nyhan, who studied the puzzling behaviour of people who become more entrenched in their beliefs when confronted by contradictory facts. Unfortunately, this behaviour is as common in the workplace as it is in the political arena that Nyhan examined. Our default position in the “rational” business world is to make fact-based decisions based on clear evidence. When we propose change based on the facts of a given situation we’re often puzzled when met with “irrational” resistance.
If you’re like me, at least a little bit, you want to know why stuff works. I’ve a long history of pulling things apart to see what makes them tick. It’s just something I need to do. I can appreciate magic but I can’t help thinking of an explanation for the effect. Perhaps you do too.
That’s why I was initially a bit sceptical about coaching. I know there are lots of great true-to-life examples of coaching success, especially from the sports world. Which great Olympian doesn’t have a coach? And team sports just wouldn’t be the same or, perhaps exist, without the Coach alongside the players. So why the hesitation?
I just had to have a framework, some foundation, to understand why a coach isn’t simply an expensive nag. Well I found it when I started to explore the neuroscience-based approach taken by David Rock. He’s built on relatively recent discoveries about how our brains actually work to construct a coaching model and process that takes advantage of our innate behaviour to instill new thoughts and habits without undue pain and stress.