Mary Roach is one of the more entertaining non-fiction authors and I've been enjoying Gulp over the past few days. Highly recommended, but I'm afraid this isn't what I like to be doing. Don't get me wrong - I love to read for pleasure, but there are other things that are better. Things like tithing my time.
I've written about it before - the short version is I was looking at a few practices in religion that didn't make much sense on the surface to see if there was anything I could adapt. I started tithing my time as money seems like a silly thing for the purpose if it is to be meaningful. First it was about four hours a week to a variety of causes, but I wasn't learning. Somehow I started working on the projects of friends and the epiphany came. I was getting back much more than I offered.
I'm lucky enough to have friends with a range of very different interests and this has become a rich source of new learning and even serendipity.1 These days my practice is to tithe my waking hours - about 11 hours a week. I read for pleasure is there isn't a project to work on...
My goal, of course, is to be as poorly read as possible.
This is centrally important of my practice and to me as a person - perhaps something that differentiates my work from others. It has given me a rich set of connections far removed from my normal boundaries. One of the brilliant features of the old Bell Labs was its rich diversity in research interests. While perhaps not optimal for some tasks, it was fantastic for discovering new areas.
Mentoring fits in with this, but there are times when you are working with people of different interests that the act of mentoring has a strong two-way flow and you find yourself being mentored. It can be a waste of time if you lose your curiosity and just try to teach.
Jean has been talking about time lately and Charlie has suggested I put together a post on the subject. I'm not exactly a model user of it so caveat lector...
I don't multitask well when I'm supposed to be thinking deeply about something. Multitasking is something that is generally inefficient - while there are a large number of processes running in our brains, the conscious mind seems to like single tasking and context switches from task to task when presented with multiple tasks. There is a cost in context switching .. somehow the state of what you're doing needs to be saved and the new process started. When you re-enter the original process you have to somehow re-create the state of where you were. For simple tasks this may not be difficult, but deep thought can be a disaster. There are cases where it is impossible to recreate where you have been.
To single task I give myself blocks of time where I cut distractions. The phone goes off, no net, no distractions from other people or even the critters. The go is to find a state of Csíkszentmihályian flow - largely because it feels so wonderful and it has traditionally been very useful to me. The first lab I was in at Bell Labs had this as policy. Researchers could pick a three hour block in the morning or the afternoon. When I moved to different organizations I had to create blocks of time. If they were adverse to it I would come in before others started work leading to my practice of arriving at about 5:30am. Others feel into the same practice - more than a few people in the Labs referred to going into cave mode.2 I find it interesting, talking to some friends who teach graduate courses in physics at some of the best schools in the world. They note that few of their successful students have any major involvement in social media and they tend to focus - no laptops during lectures, no smartphone use, etc ... very much in contrast to what one sees in undergrad classes.
When I'm working on very deep tasks I tend to not work on them all day. I do them as long as I can manage and then shift to other, usually easier, tasks. If I haven't made progress in a month, and that is common for many tough problems, I set things aside and do something challenging that is completely different. It doesn't have to be formal work - sometimes physically building something or getting heavily involved in a drawing is sufficient. The remarkable thing is, during the different task, the mind seems to be continuing on with the original, but at a lower layer so I'm not conscious of it. Sometimes there is a realization of what should be done, but more often the problem is much easier when I finally get back to it.
I mentioned drawing... I'm no artist, but I draw recreationally. It is a very convenient way for me to empty my mind and prepare to move to focused work. I'm picky about my drawing tools and usually throw the results out, but it is probably the closest I come to meditation. A lot of people do variations on this - an athlete friend does photography and writes poetry to get into a state where she can focus on training and playing.
Play is centrally important. Playing with others and their ideas when I can and approach work playfully where possible. This means not being afraid to fail assuming you can learn from your failures. It means that you have to budget time to allow for this. Sadly many forms of work don't allow a playful approach. I suspect it is not only useful for creative work, but at some level necessary. Probably something for a future post.
There is more to say (the importance of exercise and the use of iPod time-shifting to give myself the luxury of at least 90 minutes a day), but I'm approaching my one hour limit. I find it useful to put a limit on some tasks as it gives focus and forces single tasking. It also prevents me from reading and editing what I've written, which for the purpose of this blog is a feature.
Drop a line or leave a comment if you want to talk about this at a deeper level... and if you're looking for an entertaining read try Gulp.
1 I gave a TEDx talk on the subject of serendipity and collaboration. Time tithing is central to that practice. I should note that I use the old definition of serendipity - namely it is the act of paying attention and having the sagacity to notice there is something new and interesting.
The talk isn't well done - I'm not a good public speaker. Also the format of these talks is very restricted and not something I feel works well.
2 One of the companies I've worked with decided to try this internally. My understanding is several hundred of their people use a two hour slot every day. They can focus on their own work or use it for collaboration with others who agree and don't want external distractions. It should be noted the employees have separate offices and a flag that indicates they can't be disturbed. They've told me they consider it an important tool and something they hope their competitors don't adopt.
Many types of work don't adapt to this as interruption is a necessary feature. There is a lot of very interesting research on the subject and some HCI workers are trying to offer the right interruptions at the right time - not an easy task, but potentially valuable.
I'm a big fan of soups - particularly easy soups. This one is mostly for a food processor, is simple and easy to modify. It is particularly good with a warm crusty baguette
Avocado and Corn Soup
° 1 avocado
° 3 cups almond milk
° 4 cups corn kernels
* tbl finely chopped yellow onion
° 1 tsp cumin
° 1/8 tsp turmeric
° sea salt (I use Maldon)
° freshly ground pepper
° coriander chopped (you could use parsley)
° blend everything but the corn and coriander in a food processor.
° add the corn, season and heat until warm - I think it is better warm that hot
° serve into bowls and garnish with the coriander