Handling Distractions In The Distracted Workplace

A recent article by essayist and venture capitalist Paul Graham has gained a lot of notice, and not just because Graham is a partner in startup boot-camp Y-Combinator. Graham’s piece describes what looks to be a fundamental difference in the work rhythms of two different sorts of people: managers and makers.

Here’s how he puts it:

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour. . . .

But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

This is one reason that “makers” dislike meetings so much: one meeting doesn’t just take an hour out of their day. It ruins a whole half-day.

It’s a really great essay, and very helpful. Judging by the Twitter buzz it got, this piece struck a nerve. And no wonder: it combines three very powerful things — hatred of meetings, dislike of bosses, and a positive self-image as a “maker” of things.

Blindfolded Typing Competition by Flickr user Foxtongue
"Blindfolded Typing Competition" by Flickr user Foxtongue

Who doesn’t want to see themselves as a “maker,” put upon by distractions and needless interruptions from idiotic “managers?” I work on my own and I feel that way all the time! When I am heavy into a writing project, the half-day schedule is exactly right. I can “do” something in the morning, and something in the afternoon. Plunk a meeting into the middle of one of those chunks of time and it’s blown.

But there are a few holes here.

To be fair, Graham did not write his piece to dump on managers. He’s a manager too! He was trying to explain one point of friction, when scheduling rhythms collide.  He also does not claim that he’s written the be-all and end-all of workplace tools. So I’m not criticizing him.

But there are a couple of points that I think we need to think about:

  • Managers hate meetings just as much as anyone else; and
  • Even for “makers” the average duration of any given task is far shorter than the time allotted for it.

We’re not going to get rid of meetings, and we’re not realistically going to be able to schedule them all for the end of the day. We live in a world where distraction is the norm. This affects both managers and makers — and while we can minimize it, we can’t force it away.

So I think the key is to control how we respond to distractions. Especially, as individual workers we need to get a handle on our ability to get into and then get out of tasks. Sometimes we have the luxury of unplugging for a day to work on something. Mostly, we don’t and we have to answer that phone, have that conversation, run that errand even though we’re coding a new app or writing that new report.

So we need to get a handle on how we respond to interruptions and distractions. We need to handle our transitions.

This is especially true of makers, but it’s also true of managers — they get interrupted too.

Here’s some things I have learned in trying to handle interruptions. They aren’t the best techniques, or the only ones, and some of them may not work for you. Not only that — some of them don’t even work for me all the time! I am always trying to improve. But at least they’re a start.

  • Quicken my rhythm. Rather than fret about “my afternoon getting blown,” I try to work in smaller chunks of time so that I can more easily respond to things that come up. Sometimes I’ll even start a timer and say “I am giving this task thirty minutes only.” You’d be surprised how much you can write in thirty minutes.
  • Multitask on purpose. Rather than unplug when I need to concentrate, I will sometimes try to just let my Twitter, Facebook, and email streams continue to flow, responding here and there as necessary and as the spirit moves me. I have a fairly large stream, too, and it can work. The benefit of this is that I don’t dread opening up Gmail when I’m done writing. I can use these interactions as mini-breaks too.
  • Tier my work. Sometimes, I really do have to unplug in order to concentrate. But over time I have figured out when those times are. Just because I am “writing” does not mean I need to unplug. Some writing can be done while still plugged in. Research, boilerplate creation, some editing — that can be done without solitude. Writing new pieces, or taking care with first drafts — sure, I unplug.
  • Make an appointment. If I really must buckle down and get something done, I’ll often put that work on my calendar. That can help me make sure it happens, and it can also give me a way to handle my next point:
  • Quicken meeting tempo. I have written before about shortening the default meeting time. Sometimes I meet with people whose default meeting duration is far longer than mine, though. One way around that is to announce at the beginning of the meeting how long I have and when I have to go.
  • Prepare to re-enter. If I have to stop working on something, I try to make sure I have written down what I need to do to get back into it. That way when the distraction is over, I can get started on my task more quickly.

What tips and tricks do you have to manage distractions in the distracted workplace?

Three Friends Teach Self Reliance

I am not the kind of person who posts motivational quotes and aphorisms to my Facebook status or to my Twitter account. And when my friends do, I usually just skip over it, as those sorts of things are not why I hang out in online social spaces.

But earlier this week, in very short order, three separate Twitter friends posted such things, and for some reason it hit me in a very positive way.


This is a wonderful trio of self-reliance reminders. Read them from the bottom up, and it’s almost like they are three people talking to one another about the issue.

I like that final motto: Do hard things.

It’s worth a try.

Video Interview: Public Leadership Beyond Institutions

John Creighton and I have been thinking a lot about a big shift that’s been happening over the last 20 years. It’s a shift that’s been happening everywhere, but it is having a big impact in our public life. This is the shift from a world ruled by institutions to a world where individual people are at the center of life. We’re going to talk about a few different aspects of this idea in a series of conversations. This is the first. Here’s the video:


Creighton And Rourke Interview: Public Leadership In A New World
from Brad Rourke on Vimeo.

Here is one facet of this shift. The expectation in the past has been that institutions will do things for people. The new expectation is that individuals or citizens will do things for themselves. These changes mean public leaders have to start playing new roles. If institutions have to adapt to this change, that means their leaders have to as well. So what is the role of a public leader?

All of this leads to a set of questions that public leaders and institutional executives must deal with. There aren’t clear or easy answers.

For instance, in an era of citizen-centric power.

  • What are the important roles for public leaders? In what ways should public leaders seek to influence, shape and guide public institutions?
  • How should public institutions change their relationship with the public? If the role of the institution is not to do things for people, what is it?
  • Should institutional executives be giving more time and attention to figuring out how to support people to make decisions and do things for themselves?

And, there is room to really examine what the role is of institutions overall. There may be some institutions, in the current formation, that no longer serve an essential purpose.

That’s hard for anyone to confront. Organizations like people have a survival instinct. Leaders and executives tend to try to protect an institution’s survival at all costs.

Public leaders who are effective in a citizen-centric society must rise above survival instincts.

That’s not easy for anyone to do. We should strive to support public leaders who try.

(The text of this post is based in part on notes that John Creighton shared with me as we prepared for this conversation.)

Personal And Public Security — What's The Answer?

lax security by Flickr user Abulic Monkey
"lax security" by Flickr user Abulic Monkey

By now, most users of Twitter know of what’s come to be called “Twitfail” — French hackers gained access to the personal email accounts and passwords of top executives at Twitter. To prove it, they emailed a large cache of internal strategy documents to the widely-read Silicon Valley blog TechCrunch. After agonizing over it for a bit, and after informing Twitter executives, TechCrunch published some of the documents.

According to a recap of how the hacker (“Hacker Croll”) got it done: “The list of services affected either directly, or indirectly, are some of the most popular web applications and services in use today – Gmail, Google Apps, GoDaddy, MobileMe, AT&T, Amazon, Hotmail, Paypal and iTunes.”

Hacker Croll didn’t crack the main Twitter network first — he cracked the founder’s Gmail password. Once into that playground, he had access to almost everything. Twitter executives shared and interacted on a number of publicly available platforms, just like many people do. For any email user who uses Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or any other public “cloud” service: imagine if you were a high profile person. In other words, a target. Now imagine what damage a dedicated person could do if they got full access to your email. You probably have usernames and passwords in there. You probably have password reminders too (pet names, for instance). On your public profile on Facebook or somewhere else, maybe you’ve mentioned where you were born.

With all this information, it’s possible to to do a lot of damage. According to Nik Cubrilovic of TechCrunch:

Taken individually, most of these services have reasonable security precautions against intrusion. But there are huge weaknesses when they are looked at together, as an ecosystem. Like dominoes, once one fell (Gmail was the first to go), the others all tumbled as well. The end result was chaos, and raises important questions about how private corporate and personal information is managed and secured in a time when the trend is towards more data, applications and entire user identities being hosted on the web and ‘in the cloud’.

It does indeed raise a few questions. The first is, “What can I do to make sure this does not happen to me?” You are probably already doing it — by not being famous. While it is straightforward for a dedicated person to crack another’s accounts, it takes time and energy (unless you do something silly to make it easy like use an obvious word like “password” for your password).

More interesting to me, though, is a question about current online culture in general. The space rewards funky startups with moxie and attitude. Enterprises started on a good idea, Red Bull, and (later) a small tranche of VC capital. This is a culture where even between competitors there is a high degree of trust and everyone is using the same tools (Gmail, Google Apps, etc.). It’s like everyone is locking their front doors, but they leave their cars unlocked and park them in the same lot.

Video producer Loren Feldman has a scathing critique of Twitter’s security (which uses a few bowling words, so you might want to put earphones on if you are at work):

It’s easy to say this has got to change. But a rampant culture of collaboration is part of what makes so much creativity possible. People can work together on new things seamlessly, with very little friction. So it’s a trade off.

In such a situation, if you are the owner of a business — at what point do you realize you need to get serious about your personal security? Sure, the easy answer is “When you form your company.” But that’s not the issue. When do you decide to take the large step, perhaps, of resetting every one of your personal passwords? The inertia against doing that is high. Knowing what you now know, are you going to run out and change all your passwords so each one is different, unique, and unguessable? I didn’t think so.

One answer, I think, is that a few large sites ought to become just a little less user friendly. It should be much harder to regain a lost password or reset a password. (If I know your dog’s name, I might be able to fool the “remind me my password” function of your favorite site just by guessing what your username might be.) But the user-friendliness is what has allowed such comanies to thrive. Again, a trade-off.

How do we secure a system that relies on ease-of-use? That’s the key question. The very thing that has allowed today’s culture is the thing that could be its downfall. This is something we need to pay attention to.

Whoever answers it will become very wealthy.

How Does The Current Economic Climate Benefit Civil Society?

I got a note over the weekend:

I’m student [at an Israeli university]. I’m doing a Seminar work about Civil society in USA. I’m trying find an answer for the question: What have happened to the civil society in USA through the financial crisis. Is the civil society is getting stronger or weaker from it?

Kevins Utopian kettle bell workout by Flickr user ~ggvic~
"Kevin's Utopian kettle bell workout" by Flickr user ~ggvic~

This is an interesting question and I thought it might spark a good dialogue. But I’d like to shift the question slightly, as it’s easy to claim that civil society is hurt by the current economy.

More interesting, to me, is this question:

How is civil society helped by the current economy?

Here are just a few ways that spring to mind:

  • Better talent: With middle-management increasingly out of work, there is a broader talent pool to draw from at this important level.
  • More with less: Tough times are forcing everyone to do more with lest. Without the iron fist of a profit motivation, many community benefit organizations have a fair amount of flab in their operations. They’ve had to cut.
  • Revolutionary change: More with less is a the idea that you can do more by being efficient. Some new organizations are coming up with revolutionary ways to get the same things done, because.
  • New partnerships: Consolidation in some areas of the social benefit sector is removing duplicated effort and forcing organizations that used to compete over turf to partner up, pool resource, and behave in complementary ways.
  • Wake up call: My friend Hildy Gottlieb says that the current climate can jar people — especially governing boards — into taking actions that have been long-delayed or ignored because they are uncomfortable. (I am paraphrasing and probably getting it wrong, so Hildy correct me.)

Those are just a few. What do you think? What other ways can these tough times awork in the favor of the community benefit sector?

This Is What Leadership Looks Like

Kindling by Flickr user oskay
"Kindling" by Flickr user oskay

Last week, a story was circulating through social media platforms that illuminated a real bonehead move by Amazon. It was deleting copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from people’s Kindles without their knowledge.

Turns out the books being deleted from the popular e-readers were unauthorized editions, and in the Kindle terms of service it is made clear that Amazon is within their rights to do such a thing . . . but still. The passionate community of Kindle users (our household owns two) was up in arms.

Of course, the irony of going Big Brother to delete 1984 was not lost on most commenters.

Amazon made a quick announcement admitting the mistake, but it was pretty generic. It wasn’t enough.

So yesterday Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos issued this statement:

An Apology from Amazon

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos
Founder & CEO

Often, when a CEO is forced by circumstances (or her or his own boneheadedness, or other events) to issue an apology, they don’t go all the way. It’s a “mistakes were made” kind of statement that satisfies no one.

If you are telling me you are sorry, I want to know you are truly remorseful.

This statement is the clearest, most forthright, most constructive corporate apology I can remember. It takes courage, as a leader of a public company, to stand up like this.

Vibram Five Fingers Shoes — My Review

Many of my friends (both in-person and on Facebook) know that a couple of months ago I bought the strangest looking shoes you can imagine: shoes with toes. They’re called Vibram Five Fingers.

Before I told you what I thought of them, I wanted to wear them for a goodly period of time, to be fair. I wanted to get past the novelty factor as well as the strangeness of wearing shoes with toes.

Here’s my video review:


Vibram Five Fingers Shoes — Review from Brad Rourke on Vimeo.

Bottom line: They aren’t for everyone, but I really love them.

At a minimum, they are incredible conversation starters! Everywhere I go someone wants to talk to me about my feet.

P.S. Sadly, I shot the video in 16×9 and somehow it ended up 4×3 . . . so I am all squishy. You will just have to deal.