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Monday, January 01, 2007

2007 Undistracted: Zawodny's on Point

Wow, it's like looking in a mirror reading the Jeremy Zawodny post about "too many distractions" and resolving to be more streamlined in 2007. This isn't a New Year's Resolution post, but just for fun I'll assess my messy workday using Jeremy's points as a framework. I'll follow up with a couple of New Year's "hey, maybe you should..." points. (In essence, this is an Other-Regarding New Year's Resolution. Also known as "gettin' preachy".)

A little preface before turning to Zawodny's bullets on distraction causes.

I've heard people say things like "I delete three or four spam a day now!" and other weirdly underwhelming stuff about workflow difficulties to which I have trouble relating. To paraphrase a former client who spends far too much time in corporate meetings, "someday you will feel my pain!"

There are a lot of people who are just now getting ready to go down the same paths of overdo, over-network, over-message, and overenthuse that many of us have already been down (in an online-ish, emaily sense) in spades. Trust me people: the reason I may occasionally bristle at "displays of commitment and initiative" such as too many casual coffees, or fun side projects, is that at a certain point, for reasons outlined below, it all blew up.

I don't mean everything did, I just mean the available time needs to be better managed now, and the "no" I am about to say to some fun idea (in the context of continuing to work long rewarding hours, as ever, on a variety of fronts) is based on saying no to *additional* overload layered on the core stuff and the overload stuff.

Distraction causes according to Zawodny:
  • Longevity. (Zawodny, a Yahoo employee since 1999.) This strikes probably the biggest chord with me. If you're at Yahoo and lots of new people came on board and a whole world of outside people became connected to your writings, I can imagine that's a recipe for always having someone willing to talk with you, like being the most popular kid in a class of 100,000. :) We just run a small dog & pony show here (blog plus consulting company, etc. - both started basically in 1999, at least as far as domain reg. goes). But the fact of having networked so much and having been a conduit for so many ideas, regrettably conducted largely through email and using email addresses not easily abandoned, means just a ton of potential for distraction (to say nothing of spam). Put spam aside for a moment. There is also "soft spam." 75% of external email is soft spam, even after I don't count all the spam. One thing we've always done here is kicked the tires on a lot of products and services - in part to get our jobs done at low cost but also in order to write about them. That leads to vendor relationships, PR contacts, and more email. That's not a complaint, but it's the reality. If you've just started doing this kind of thing in the past two years, you haven't hit the wall yet. Eventually you too will have to balance your healthy attempts to expand your universe with ruthless filtering.
  • Difficulty Saying No. Speaking gigs that take me far afield, and don't pay, had better be for a really good cause, because exposure is just another name for frostbite :). Local speaking gigs that don't offer a really tasty lunch, the opportunity to play squash with Mayor Miller, or some similar perk, had better be a damn good idea. I am going to learn to say no more often. But that won't change the underlying bias towards "yes". I'm just repricing "yes."
  • Many Interests. I think people should have many interests, but the key to enjoying them in both work and play, I think, is to be ruthless in structuring ordinary work so that life can be enjoyed too. You're going to go stale if you don't have many interests. In a Long Tail world, you'll lack empathy in the extreme if you can't get around a bit.
  • Availability of Information. Indeed. The stuff just flows. Avoid pedantic people like the plague: they want to prove they wasted a bit more time than you getting a nuance right. In this environment there is a definite balance to be struck between the sensible "you could look it up" comment, if you're basically correct in your factual assumptions, and the erosion of credibility that comes if you didn't bother to look anything up for a protracted period of time, thus coming off as if you're from the Clued-Out Planet of the Offline. I have to be clear on this. I consider looking it up to be part of my job, a professional responsibility. I am quite impatient with those lazy enough to expect me to look it up for them, or who are willing to conduct an argument from hearsay or guesses when you could just look it up. So the advice to self and others is: do look *it* up. Just don't look it *all* up. Know how to look more of it up when the time comes. Please don't question and argue with someone who took the time to look it up. (Life isn't all about opinions. There are things called facts, just as there are misleading "facts" that should be debated. But it's not all just perspective.) So if you did look it up, and are being questioned by a pedant who wants to out-look-up everyone in the world, don't let these overdoers get you down. They may well have been born that way and cannot help it.
  • Lack of an Obvious Penalty. Define obvious, Jeremy. :) For those with kids, I think the penalty can be pretty obvious: you run out of time too much. And the kids start noticing your strange glowing appendage is getting all of your attention. For me, the penalty has even become pretty obvious: trying to leave the office when it's bedlam at the bars outside (our office is in the nightclub district). And the ergonomic drawbacks of too much computin'. Actually, it makes pretty good sense. When your physiotherapist can't understand why you're in more pain than the construction workers she sees, it's time for a change in routine.

Other-Regarding General Resolutions (My New Year's Gift to You):

  • Here's a great timesaver: don't waste time on the same stupid shit that occupies the days of 15-year-olds! I don't play computer games for hours on end (though I had a funny conversation with a fellow former Civilization addict, who is, gasp, starting to lose her grip on reality as she gets into the new version). I don't spend a bunch of time constructing my library of "personal favorite" tracks running into the tens of thousands, or otherwise fiddling with music. I quite enjoy the themed organization of Shoutcast while working, when I want music. Right now, I'm listening to the Blues. The stations that play it are better than organizing it than I would be. And then I set my Google IM to "show current music track" because sharing is fun. Fun! And not pedantic because someone else picked the track, at the end of the day. Timesaver #1: I don't have a clue about music, or at least don't try to act as if I do. And yet somehow I can still access it in seconds!
  • Please stop telling me to get a Blackberry! I know this is so you'll get an immediate reply to your urgent messages. The thing is, I've read people's messages, the ones they send me, from their 'berries. They say things like "OK". My emails are always longer than that. I guess the 'berry concept of email is more or less for the high-powered decisions and appointment scheduling, which is fair enough, but that's a narrow use. The fact that some of us do so much more with email and other types of messaging (IM, Skype) means we may feel like the 'berry is "yet another device" that will lead to redundancy. I actually have four email addresses that are used for quite distinct purposes! Getting a 'berry will be no guarantee that I even respond faster, unless of course I prioritize certain kinds of messages over all others, which is probably what the argument is really about. I had been planning to get a Pearl, but tried it and found it wanting (too small). So, yes I actually do plan to get a Blackberry but now I'm waiting for the newer, thinner, conventional Blackberry to come out in Spring. Until then, yes, I'll answer my phone and get back to you within 2 hours. And when I'm driving on the QEW, I will *not* be replying to you on my Blackberry. I might even choose to be safe and shut off my phone. Also, my gym requires all members to shut off all cellphones and mobile devices because "the King's Mill Club is supposed to be a place away from work and other distractions." (That replaces the "stop walking around with that camera phone, creep" warnings that apparently aren't good for their business.) I'm thinking of changing gyms, anyway. They have crappy equipment. Sigh. Checking the 'berry in the locker room... is this what I'm to become!?!
I do have an official New Year's resolution. I really need to learn another language, and to get my French back. To do this, I'll need to cut out distractions even more ruthlessly, but probably that won't happen until July.

Keep it busy and keep it fun, friends! I have the feeling we'll be seeing a lot of each other at the Workflow Support Group this year. :)

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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