Category Archives: Personal Productivity

Tools, Productivity, And Bright Shiny Distractions

Is this you?  Over and over again, you fall off on regular consistent organizational practices like to-do lists, emails, planning, backing up your computer … then you run across some cool new productivity tool. You jump on the bandwagon enthusiastically, promising yourself that you’re finally going to get organized and stay organized. You spend happy hours reorganizing everything to fit the new tool. Then, over time, as the novelty wears off, you end up right back where you started, with the same problems. Cool productivity tools, no productivity.

And then you find a new cool tool and run the same cycle over again.

This is me and productivity tools

I will tell you that this is definitely me. I’ve done this all my life. I veer off to a new organization system like a dumb fish following a shiny new lure in the water. And I see other people doing it too, all the time, all around me. You don’t need a new spreadsheet, or to-do list software, or project planning system; you need to use what you have regularly.

I end up wasting the time it takes to reorganize to the mindset of the cool new tool, repeatedly, instead of managing to follow up on any one thing consistently over a long time.

And what works in the real world is not the tool, not any of the damn tools, but rather the following up. It’s the human behavior that matters, the good habits, consistently applying methods, not getting bored with it, not rationalizing out of it.

I apologize for mixing metaphors with this, but I can’t resist referring to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” Given the world we live in, computers and the Web, it’s something like: “tools, tools everywhere, and not a drop of productivity.”

Or so it seems.

Now, the question: what are we going to do about it?

Productivity Tip: Walking Meetings. In the Park.

File this one under the general category of things business owners can do to preserve physical and mental health, despite the rigors of running a business. It goes along with getting regular exercise, and shutting down every so often out of range of devices. Do as many meetings as you can walking, instead of sitting. And when you can, walk in a park, with trees and bushes, noty on a sidewalk.

I know several CEOs and team leaders who conduct walking meetings. Steve Jobs, was known for his walking meetings. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also been seen holding meetings on foot. Consider that for your business.

Obviously we can’t all go take a walk during the day, and much less a walk in nature; or even a park. There’s the job thing, and working for a living. Still, last week I happened upon two different research studies related to walking. And one part of a normal work day that’s basically just talking is the meeting. Especially one on one meetings.

Where you walk matters

First, Stanford researchers find mental health prescription: Nature. I summarized the findings in the image below.

Amazon Park Eugene Oregon

I realize not everybody has a park within striking distance; several of my loved ones live and/or work in Manhattan. Still, lots of us do, and even some Manhattan offices are close to Central Park, or a riverside park. The picture here is where I walk, in Eugene, Oregon. It’s two minutes from my office.

The study, by Gretchen Daily, Gregory Bratman, and two others, looked at comparing the value of a walk in nature vs. a walk on city streets. The brain reacts differently to each, and the study found advantages for walking in nature.

In the study, two groups of participants walked for 90 minutes, one in a grassland area scattered with oak trees and shrubs, the other along a traffic-heavy four-lane roadway. Before and after, the researchers measured heart and respiration rates, performed brain scans and had participants fill out questionnaires.
The researchers found little difference in physiological conditions, but marked changes in the brain. Neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.

Walking and creative process

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”

A second, completely different research study (despite the similar them), Stanford Study Finds Walking Improves Creativity, looked for a connection between walking and creativity. Done by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz, this one set up experiments comparing results from people walking vs. people sitting. This one found no significant difference between walking inside vs. walking outside, but noted a big advantage to walking vs. sitting.

Here are some interesting details

The overwhelming majority of the participants in these three experiments were more creative while walking than sitting, the study found. In one of those experiments, participants were tested indoors – first while sitting, then while walking on a treadmill. The creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when the person was walking, according to the study.

Think about it. Better yet, take a walk, and think about it while walking.

Disturbing Questions About Productivity and Technology

Have you heard the standard cliche: “Necessity is the Mother of Invention?” In business productivity and technology, in my experience at least,  the old standard is reversed: the new truth is that “Invention is the Mother of Necessity.”

Huge Changes in Productivity and Technology

For example:

  1. Spreadsheets and Budgeting: When I started in business analysis back in the middle 1970s we didn’t have spreadsheets, and a budget was rarely more than a list of numbers on a yellow pad processed with a calculator and a pen. Then came Visicalc, and shortly after that Lotus 1-2-3 and then Excel. Now, not at all by coincidence, everybody in business does a whole lot more budgeting and spreadsheets than we ever would have imagined back then.So what’s happened is that because spreadsheets made budgeting more accessible, the world started demanding more budgets. To me, this is a good thing. Budgeting is good for business. You could argue, however, that maybe the world of small and medium-sized business was better off when the world summarized budgets into a few key items.Ultimately, in this case, I think it’s obvious that we do more budgets because budgets are easier to do
  2. Desktop publishing and business documents: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the same thing happen with desktop publishing. Before desktop publishing appeared with the Macintosh and the Apple Laserwriter in the middle 1980s, people put business correspondence onto simple pages printed onto letterhead paper. Nowadays we take desktop publishing techniques for granted. People routinely merge graphics and text onto simple memos and letters and standard business documents, without thinking twice about it.
  3. From paper to online: Speaking of documents, the idea of the paperless office was first popular in the 1980s but is still largely a dream. I checked for this post, and was surprised to discover that the use of printer and copy paper in the U.S. continues to grow. What? What about the cloud, accounting and bookkeeping online, electronic documents, and email, all of which is moving to mobile phones? It hasn’t cut into paper consumption. Yet. Well, to be fair, it has in my office … but not for the world, or the U.S., according to available statistics. Why is that?
  4. 24×7 connectivity and availability: How often do you get the delightful experience of somebody complaining that they had to wait an hour or two to hear from you, or get your answer, or your response to some question or business issue? It may seem odd now, but it wasn’t that long ago that people were disconnected for hours at a time because they were in a meeting, or driving, doing errands, or having a life. A two-hour drive was two hours alone, to collect ideas and review thoughts. There’s research indicating we’d all be better off with an hour or two a day of reflection, meaning silence, dealing with thoughts. But take a look at the line of people waiting for coffee. They are all connected.

Did This Improve Productivity?

That’s an interesting question. We can answer this for ourselves, anecdotally, and probably come up with a better answer than what the statistics give us. Is budgeting better now than in the days of yellow pads and calculators? Are we communicating better? Are we getting more done? There was a time when I would have been tempted to say no, that it hasn’t improved productivity.  More recently I’ve changed my mind.  Having built a business makes me sure that we benefit from the power of more detailed budgeting, and running through the daily process of management made me pretty sure that business documents are generally better communicators with desktop publishing than without.

Statistics are very hard to work with in this area. I’ve found that the average hours worked per week have declined significantly since the 1950s; but so has the work itself, right? We were an assembly line nation in 1955, and now we’re a keyboard and thumb nation. Who’s counting the constant availability by phone?

US Work Week

On the other hand, there’s this, from Why is Productivity so Weak, in the New York Times, just last month:

“Despite constant advances in software, equipment and management practices to try to make corporate America more efficient, actual economic output is merely moving in lock step with the number of hours people put in, rather than rising as it has throughout modern history.

“We could chalk that up to a statistical blip if it were a single year; productivity data are notoriously volatile. But this has been going on for some time. From 2011 through 2015, the government’s official labor productivity measure shows only 0.4 percent annual growth in output per hour of work. That’s the lowest for a five-year span since the 1977-to-1982 period, and far below the 2.3 percent average since the 1950s.”

US Productivity Trends

Here too, what is productivity? The labor department has a global measure of output per hour, but that’s not the way we work anymore.

I still worry that the increased productivity that technology offers us has just raised the bar of what’s acceptable. Now that we can do the numbers powerfully, we do more numbers, which drowns us in numbers. Now that we can do documents that look way better, without the hassle of publishing and layout, we demand better looking documents. And now that we can communicate from anywhere, at any time, we demand more communication.

What do you think? Are we better off?

You Need to Understand the Business Principle of Displacement

DisplacementImagine a bucket of water full to the brim, on a table, right next to a phone and a computer. Now take a brick and drop it into that bucket. Imagine what happens. Water splashes out, right? And that’s probably bad for that phone and computer next to it.

Business Principle of Displacement

That simple story is how I explain the business principle of displacement, in small business, startups, and entrepreneurship. I write it out as:

Principle of displacement: everything you do rules out something else that you don’t do.

The reason this matters so much is that we can’t do everything. So we have to do the most important things. We can’t please everybody. So we have to please the most important, biggest volume groups.

When you decide to add outlier features – used by a few, requested by a few – to a product you are also distracting your team and your product from the main function. And displacement is a legitimate concern as you deal with strategy. Can we expand into schools, from mainly offices? Can we sell to consultants as well as users? In normal growth strategy you have to sort through lots of questions, many possibilities, all with the awareness that you can’t do everything.

Paradox and Strategy

There’s a lot of paradox in managing focus, displacement, and growth.

On the one hand, if you don’t change, you suffer. You can’t just stay focused on the main thing. You have to deal with new possibilities, which sometimes means new products, or new markets.

On the other hand, if you are constantly after the latest shiny new thing, you risk losing focus on what matters most. You don’t want to lose your core while you’re looking to expand.

What I like about real-world business strategy, for startups and small business, is that there is always an other hand.

Invention is the Mother of Necessity: Technology and Productivity

Productivity SoftwareHave you heard the standard cliche: “Necessity is the Mother of Invention?” In business technology and productivity, in my experience at least,  the old standard is reversed: the new truth is that Invention is the Mother of Necessity.”

For example:

  1. Spreadsheets and Budgeting: When I started in business analysis back in the middle 1970s we didn’t have spreadsheets, and a budget was rarely more than a list of numbers on a yellow pad processed with a calculator and a pen. Then came Visicalc, and shortly after that Lotus 1-2-3 and then Excel. Now, not at all by coincidence, everybody in business does a whole lot more budgeting and spreadsheets than we ever would have imagined back then.So what’s happened is that because spreadsheets made budgeting more accessible, the world started demanding more budgets. To me, this is a good thing. Budgeting is good for business. You could argue, however, that maybe the world of small and medium-sized business was better off when the world summarized budgets into a few key items.Ultimately, in this case, I think it’s obvious that we do more budgets because budgets are easier to do
  2. Desktop publishing and business documents: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the same thing happen with desktop publishing. Before desktop publishing appeared with the Macintosh and the Apple Laserwriter in the middle 1980s, people put business correspondence onto simple pages printed onto letterhead paper. Nowadays we take desktop publishing tecniques for granted. People routinely merge graphics and text onto simple memos and letters and standard business documents, without thinking twice about it.

Did This Improve Productivity?

That’s an interesting question. Ten years ago I would have been tempted to say no, that it hasn’t improved productivity.  More recently I’ve changed my mind.  Running a company makes me sure that we benefit from the power of more detailed budgeting, and running through the daily process of management makes me pretty sure that business documents are generally better communicators with desktop publishing than without.

What do you think?

Creativity and Clutter – Friends or Enemies?

ClutterDoes clutter affect creativity? I can give you quotes that say it does, and research that says it doesn’t. There’s lots of anecdotal evidence for either side. What do you think? My own experience goes either way. So I decided to look into this question on the web.

Some Research Shows Creativity and Clutter go Together

For formal research, the first thing a web search turns up is a study done by University of Minnesota Psychologist Kathleen Vohs. According to this web summary, the researchers put subjects into either tidy or messy rooms and asked them to generate creative ways to use a ping pong ball. Here’s what they found:

Participants in both tidy and messy rooms generated about the same number of ideas, which Vohs believes indicates they exerted about equal effort. Yet further analysis revealed that the participants in the messy room suggested more creative ideas for the Ping Pong balls (on average their suggestions were 28% more creative) than those developed by the participants in the tidy rooms. Even more striking, the messy room people had five times (!!!) as many ideas deemed by judges to be “highly creative” than those in the tidy room. Moreover, the effect has been replicated and extended by other researchers at other universities examining how messy environments lead to quicker solutions to brainteasers and the production of creative drawings than research participants working in tidy surroundings.

Other Research Shows Creativity and Clutter Clash

Jeff Goins, in Clutter is Killing Your Creativity (And What to Do About It):

The relationship between clutter and creativity is inverse. The more you have of the former, the less you have of the latter. Mess creates stress. Which is far from an ideal environment for being brilliant.

In the Uncluttered, Erin Dolan summarized a Princeton study on the impact of clutter:

The conclusions were strong — if you want to focus to the best of your ability and process information as effectively as possible, you need to clear the clutter from your home and work environment.

My experience goes either way.

I’ve done a lot of programming in my day. That includes a complete general ledger system, a spreadsheet-like business forecasting system, Forecaster, all of my company’s spreadsheet template products, and a third of the code in the original Business Plan Pro. And all of that programming was done from very messy, cluttered, desks and office space. I’d like to think I always had a clean computer and a focused mindset. But my space was messy. It used to drive my wife, and some of my office mates, crazy. So I was cluttered and creative.

More recently, especially the last eight years, I’ve done a lot of writing. I’ve finished three published books and more than 4,000 blog posts, plus an online course and videos. During this more recent period, I’ve focused on fighting the clutter in my workspace, keeping my desk clear, and my papers organized. I’m convinced that all of this helps my creativity.

My hypothesis is that it has to do with the individual, our specific natures, and particularly, how we focus. In my most productive programming times I focused into the computer itself, the code, so much that the externals became insignificant. During my more recent writing years, we all multitask much more, including me. And clean work space helps me avoid distractions.

The real question is: What works for you. Don’t listed to experts. Figure it out.

I’m Too Busy To Read That Book on Busyness

This interesting book review came out this morning on slate.com:

Slate.com book review Overwhelmed Brigid Schulte

In her new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte calls this cultural epidemic the “overwhelm,” and it will be immediately recognizable to most working adults. “Always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door.”

I haven’t read the book and I probably won’t. But I certainly recognize the condition. 

I also like the title on the Slate piece, which you can see in the illustration, and you probably can’t see the subtitle there, which is:

Also, by talking about it so much, you’re wasting time.

Exploring the book, post author Hanna Rosin discovers:

busyness of a certain kind—meaning not the work-three-menial-jobs-and-put-your-kids-in-precarious-day-care-by-necessity kind—became a mark of social status, that somewhere in the drudgery of checklists and the crumpled heaps one could detect a hint of glamour. 

And I liked this thought too:

The answer to feeling oppressively busy, he says, is to stop telling yourself that you’re oppressively busy, because the truth is that we are all much less busy than we think we are. And our consistent insistence that we are busy has created a host of personal and social ills which Schulte reports on in great detail in her book—unnecessary stress, exhaustion, bad decision-making, and, on a bigger level, a conviction that the ideal worker is one who is available at all times because he or she is grateful to be “busy,” and that we should all aspire to the insane schedules of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Last Sunday was a particularly gorgeous Spring day like we don’t often get this time of year in rainy Western Oregon. About mid morning I sat down with a really good cup of coffee and a really good computer looking forward to writing, editing some video, revising a website, and at some point taking a good walk through the university campus. I paused, thought about how I had multiple interesting rewarding things to do, but trouble choosing.

And it occurred to me, at that moment, that having too much to do is a blessing, not a curse. 

Why Steve Strauss Hires English Majors

By the way, did I say I was an English major for my BA? Yes, software entrepreneur, yes, business planner, erstwhile programmer, and MBA … but I carry around a degree in English Literature. I don’t push that up a lot in my bio, but it’s there in the fine print.

English Major hired

So I like what Steve Strauss, Mr. Small Business, USA Today expert, says in his post Why I Hire English Majors in yesterday’s Huffington Post. Here’s some reasons he likes us. He starts with (you can see why I like this post) “smarts:” 

They are taught to think critically, and that is exactly what I want in my business. … They know how to think, to think for themselves, and how to analyze a problem. Business majors are fine, but they are preoccupied with theory, proving themselves, and doing it “right.” But the English majors are used to getting a tough assignment, figuring it out, and getting it done, (usually) on time.

Yup. That’s me. 

And how about this one: boldness. Wait. What? Steve says: 

… these folks have to be bold simply to make such a choice of majors at a time when everyone is advising them to think about making themselves as practical as possible in this shrinking, global job market, but the nature of their gig is that they have to be bold. Reading Chaucer, making sense of it, writing a term paper on it, and then being able to defend it, takes far more bravery than, say, analyzing the fall of the Soviet Union.

Well, that’s maybe a stretch. 

Then his third point is writing ability. Of course. One of my favorite clients in business plan consulting told me his group liked me more for readable communications than for anything else. I think that was only half a compliment. 

And his last point:

Easy to work with: This is an underrated trait that I think many people applying for a job don’t get or appreciate. People like working with people they like. I find that, usually, English majors are interesting, well spoken, can take a position and defend it with logic and reason, are (obviously) well read, and are, well, pleasant to be around.

Who could argue with that? 

(Image: istockphoto.com)

50 Great Productivity Tips from Famous People

The blog at onlineMBA has an interesting post called 50 terrific productivity secrets of the rich and famous. It’s a lot of fun, and some good tips too. You can see the highlights here in the graphic. But click the post … it’s hard to stop reading.

They aren’t all straight lines to productivity, like Bill Gates’ “go paperless,” Warren Buffet’s “say no,” or Winston Churchill’s “take a break away from your desk.” They also include some really good life tips like Richard Branson’s “don’t forget to work out,” Arianna Huffington’s “get enough sleep,” or –one of my favorites — Mark Cuban’s “avoid meetings.”