Sunday, June 26, 2011

Workplace Myths

I’ve been in the corporate world for over a decade. I started late, so I knew I would have to learn the rules quickly. I soon discovered that many of the rules people took for granted were actually myths. Recognizing these myths has been key to my effectiveness and peace of mind.

Myth #1 – Emails require immediate attention

Truth – If it can’t wait, you’ll get a phone call or an instant message (IM). I’ve often found that by not replying, the sender figures things out on their own, or gets just as good a response from someone else. In fact, by responding immediately, you condition your co-workers to expect instant answers. 

What should you do? Pick 2 or 3 times a day to respond to emails; don’t even look at your inbox in between. (And turn off those pop-up notices.)

Myth #2 – People who work long hours are more productive

Truth – If you know you’re going to be at work for 12 hours, you have less incentive to use your time wisely. When I started on salary, I set boundaries for my work hours. I would arrive by 7:30 and leave at 4:30.  I didn’t want to be the absent husband who spent all night in the office.

I found that as the end of my day approached, I looked at my tasks more critically. Which ones were really important, and which could wait? Was it more important to socialize around the office, or finish a key task?

Every few months there would be something that required me to stay later than normal, which I counted as part of the give and take. But I noticed a lot more socializing took place after 5pm. I realized that people who stayed late weren’t being any more effective than I was.

What should you do? Set a schedule for yourself. Stick to it. Let your team know that you’re going to use the schedule to be more productive.

Myth #3 – Multitasking gets more accomplished

Truth – Multitasking is inherently less efficient than focusing on one thing at a time. You’re not focused on two things at once, like a conference call and a chat session, you’re really just switching back and forth. A lot. Maybe you can time it right and answer the chat questions when you’re not needed in the meeting. Or you’ll time it wrong, and you won’t hear the question that was directed at you, and you’ll waste everyone’s time by asking it to be repeated.

What should you do? Make a habit to focus on one task at a time. If someone interrupts, tell them you’re busy and ask if you can get back to them. If you’re in a meeting that you don’t need to be a part of, excuse yourself.  Most of all, be honest with yourself. If you’re not willing to focus on a single activity, then you’re going to short-change all the activities that you’re trying to multitask. Sometimes that’s OK, and sometimes it’s really frustrating to the people you’re meeting with or instant messaging.

Myth #4 – Instant Message is the most effective communication

Truth – Instant messages are only effective under very precise conditions. First, the question has to be very clear, and the answer has to be just as easy. Second, IMs have to be limited to times that are not dedicated for focused work. Third, the sender has to be able to type reasonably quickly. The perfect storm is when someone asks a vague question, while I’m trying to create a financial model, and then they’re either not focused on the chat session to begin with (i.e. they’re multi-tasking) or they only type 5 words per minute.

What should you do? Set your IM status to “Do Not Disturb” when you are doing tasks that require critical thinking. When you get an IM that is vague, ask the person if they can take a phone call.

Myth #5 – You get more accomplished if you work without breaks

Truth – You were built for sprinting, not marathons. After 45 minutes, your productivity drops off. You will get more done in two hours by taking a 15 minute break in the middle, than if you worked the full 120 minutes non-stop. Two factors contribute to this. One is the same “time-limit effect” that helps you be more efficient in a 9-hour day than a 12-hour day. The second is the “na├»ve observer effect.” By walking away from your desk for a break, your mind separates itself from your work, and you come up with new ways of looking at what you’re doing. You’ll see what’s important, what’s not, and what’s related.

What should you do? Set a reminder to stop after 30 or 45 minutes (use Outlook, your phone, or a cooking timer). Get up from your desk and walk around outside (or down the hall). Breathe deeply. Let your mind wander and then come back. Think about what the next steps should be.

This advice should reinforce what you already suspected. So pick one area to test out for a month or so. Don’t try them all at once, and don’t stop after just a few days or weeks. Give it enough time to see if it works for you. Either way, when you’re done, pick another area to try.

What workplace myth have you disproved?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Apple Addict

Apple IIe -
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by secretagent007
My name is Marcus Chance, and I’m an Apple Addict. The seeds were planted in the ‘80s, when my parents came home with an Apple IIe; the kind with a monitor that showed green text on a black screen. I wrote programs in Apple Basic to help me study Spanish vocabulary.

I strayed when I got to college. My parents sent me off with a PC running MS DOS. It was convenient to have in my dorm room for late night work on my Pascal assignments. But when I dropped my plans to major Computer Science, the Macs in the computer labs did just fine. The environment was more social, and even the Macs seemed friendly.

Mac Powerbook -
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 Some rights reserved
by calamity_hane
In the Peace Corps, I didn’t have a computer at my post at all. I did lesson plans by hand, graded tests by hand, and read books and magazines. Sometimes I counted ceiling tiles. On weekends I would use the Macs in the lab at the Peace Corps office in the capital, but the real attraction was the air conditioning in the lab. I tried bringing a Mac Powerbook to Africa for my 3rd year, but either the humidity or the power grid was too hard on it. Then another volunteer showed up with a Toshiba PC and the game “Civilization”.

Computer games nearly squashed my interest in Apple forever. At grad school I used student loan money to buy a Gateway Pentium PC with Windows ’98 (’98!). Then I bought Civilization II and sometimes spent the whole weekend playing it from start to finish. The Boston Acoustics speakers were a nice touch.

When I joined the corporate world, I truly entered the land of the PC. We just lived with the fact that they would crash all the time and occasionally get completely taken over by some random virus. Still, they were half the price of the candy-colored iMac, and even cheaper with my Dell discount. I replaced my Windows 98 machine with an XP box with more storage than I knew what to do with and a flat panel monitor for good measure. Now we could rent DVDs and basically have a home entertainment system.

iPhone 4 - Courtesy of Apple
But then Steve Jobs came back. And he brought the iPod Touch. And the iPhone 4. And the iPad. Who needs to check email on your PC when you can check it on the iPod? Who needs to play 72 hour Civilization games, when you can finish a game in 2 hours on the gorgeous Retina screen of the iPhone 4? Who needs to stream Netflix on your flat panel, when you can watch the movies from anywhere on your iPad? (Well, I need to, because I don’t have an iPad. Yet.)

iPad 2 - Courtesy of Apple
Now I’m in so deep I’m even watching the iOS release conferences. I’m reading the “live” blogging. I eagerly wait for the release date so I can…not buy anything. Because that would be really impulsive. Do I really need another device? How will my iPod touch feel if I abandon it for the iPad? I want to be an early adopter, but I don’t want to spend the money. Or deal with the stuff. But I’m still eying that iPad.

What technology are you addicted to?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dream Vacation

I recently responded to a question that Mensa Bulletin posed to its readers: What is Your Dream Vacation?

My submission:

I dream of a year-long vacation to make friends, learn new languages, and discover beautiful landscapes. I would start in Argentina in January, where it would be summer. I have friends there, and a head start on Spanish. In April I would continue to Italy. Cinque Terre is gorgeous, and I love the sound of Italian. In July I would leave the EU for a month in Turkey. I have heard so many great things about it. I would return to Germany for August, September, and Oktoberfest. German would be a challenging switch from the romance languages, but I’m sure the beer would help. When it got too cold or I overstayed my visa, I would zip down to Madagascar for the rain forests and the beach resorts. While I’m in the neighborhood, my final stop would be Tanzania, to climb Kilimanjaro. Three continents, three languages, and as many landscapes as I can fit on Flickr.

What would be your dream vacation?