Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: work

Calendars, concentration, and creativity

Via Lifehacker, a nice little essay on “the chokehold of calendars,” and how we’ve accidentally (or thoughtlessly) designed them to kill our productivity and concentration:

The idea of a calendar as a public fire hydrant for colleagues to mark is ludicrous. The time displayed on your calendar belongs to you, not to them….

The problem with calendars is that they are additive rather than subtractive. They approach your time as something to add to rather than subtract from. Adding a meeting is innocuous. You’re acting on a calendar. A calendar isn’t a person. It isn’t even a thing. It’s an abstraction. But subtracting an hour from the life of another human being isn’t to be taken lightly. It’s almost violent. It’s certainly invasive. Shared calendars are vessels you fill by taking things away from other people.

“I’m adding a meeting” should really be “I’m subtracting an hour from your life.”

Amen to that….

Revising the social scanning article

At Kepler’s, in Menlo Park.

My HipstaPrint 0.jpg

Against Multitasking

Peter Bregman reports on multitasking and its perils:

Doing several things at once is a trick we play on ourselves, thinking we’re getting more done. In reality, our productivity goes down by as much as 40%. We don’t actually multitask. We switch-task, rapidly shifting from one thing to another, interrupting ourselves unproductively, and losing time in the process.

You might think you’re different, that you’ve done it so much you’ve become good at it. Practice makes perfect and all that.

But you’d be wrong. Research shows that heavy multitaskers are less competent at doing several things at once than light multitaskers. In other words, in contrast to almost everything else in your life, the more you multitask, the worse you are at it. Practice, in this case, works against you.

I decided to do an experiment. For one week I would do no multitasking and see what happened. What techniques would help? Could I sustain a focus on one thing at a time for that long?

For the most part, I succeeded. If I was on the phone, all I did was talk or listen on the phone. In a meeting I did nothing but focus on the meeting. Any interruptions — email, a knock on the door — I held off until I finished what I was working on.

[To the tune of Tabla Beat Science, “Magnetic Dub,” from the album Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove (a 3-star song, imo).]


I’m spending the morning trying to finish up revisions to Futures 2.0, which has been accepted for publication in Foresight, an academic journal on futures and forecasting.

This morning's workplace
via flickr

I have lots of other work on my plate, clients and editors who I don’t want to disappoint, and am taking the family to Colorado for the weekend (to see my folks before they relocate to Singapore in January). So I’m trying to focus.

[To the tune of Norah Jones, “Lonestar,” from the album Come Away With Me (I give it 1 star).]

Reflections on SciBarCamp

SciBarCamp is done. Other than a lot of excellent leftover Pakistani food, a surprising amount of beer, and a photo set on Flickr, you’d never know we hosted 60+ people for two days. Time for a bit of reflection.

Wednesday morning, as I was getting the Institute’s conference space ready for SciBarCamp– hauling tables, moving chairs, trying to figure out how to get sixty people into our large conference room, calculating how many and what kinds of signs we needed to put to up to help guests find the wifi, bathrooms, etc.– I overhead someone say, “What I love about these things is that you don’t have to do any preparation. You just show up.”

Yeah, right.

Events like these may look like they’re spontaneous and free, but that’s only because someone has set up the environment in which it takes place. That labor shouldn’t really be visible to the participants– like all infrastructure, its purpose is to be useful, not to call attention to itself– but it is essential to the success of even the loosest and most improvisational event. To make a brief comparison to music: the most brilliant jazz improvisers, people like Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman, aren’t brilliant because they just get up onstage and do whatever comes into their heads: they’re brilliant because they’ve played for thousands and thousands of hours, are highly disciplined, have great training… and bring all that to the concert hall. [Update: See Fred Kaplan on creativity in jazz.] Likewise, when I travel, I like to be able to wander around and explore things; but I can do that because I carry a pack that has all kinds of things that I find useful, and come in handy under a variety of circumstances. (Preparation is likewise important for biking and cooking, and other things.)

The Institute’s conferences are scripted to the minute, the presentations are rehearsed endlessly, group exercises are agonized over. There’s a lot of top-down structure, because we have a lot of content to share, and because it’s hard for most people to think about the future in an orderly way. People, we assume, need the structure we provide in order to translate our work into terms that will be useful to them. So the bar camp model is one that I find very interesting.

But the camp isn’t just the absence of organization: that wouldn’t be a bar camp, it would just be chaos. There is structure here, and I want to understand what it is.

I was talking to Jamie McQuay, one of the organizers of this year’s camp and a veteran of the bar camp scene, about the ingredients for a successful bar camp. He said that the two things you really need are free space (which saves the organizers money and time, and cuts down on the number of sponsors you have to look for), and interesting people. Tantek Çelik, a camp veteran, told me that all you really need are physical and virtual spaces– a conference venue and a wiki.

But my sense is that there’s more to it than that.

There’s a cultural element to the camps that I think is important. People here are veterans of academic meetings, scientific society conferences, and industry trade shows, and know that world well enough to be intelligently dissatisfied by it. (I had a professor who said you couldn’t rebel effectively against Catholicism unless you had been educated by Jesuits. Not Franciscans or Dominicans, mind you– Jesuits. Truly, give me the child until he’s seven, and he’s ours forever.) When you have an event that’s a mirror-world of the traditional conference, you need to know what the traditional conference is like, so you can do the opposite. I would draw a comparison to Wikipedia. One of the usually unacknowledged reasons Wikipedia works is because people know, or think they know, what encyclopedia articles are supposed to sound like: readers and creators alike share a basic understanding of what they should be doing.

I also suspect a good bar camp also requires some minimum number of people who are veterans of the camp scene, and can catalyze others and acculturate novices. I’m not sure what that number is. Tantek said that return attendees are like culture in yogurt, which I think is a good comparison.

I think there are also some practical things that you can do that I’ve listed after the jump. None are especially profound, but they’d all make the event work better, and are worth paying attention to. But what else is there? Besides physical and virtual space, interesting people, a familiarity with conventional conferences, and perhaps some elusive bare minimum of people who’ve been to bar camps before, are there other things that a successful camp needs?

[To the tune of John Coltrane, “Out Of This World,” from the album The Classic Quartet – The Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings (I give it 3 stars).]

Very practical things

  • Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. You can’t have too many signs for wifi, Twitter tags, arrows pointing to the bathrooms and exits, put the agenda in a very public place, etc..
  • You can’t have enough mobile whiteboards, flipcharts, and other public writing surfaces.
  • 5-minute breaks between sessions. People need time to get from one room to another (or find out what room they’re headed to next).
  • Work in time for longer breaks. We tend to want to pack a day as full as possible. Don’t. People will take breaks whether you schedule them or not.
  • Clocks in the rooms. Also having someone go around and announce how much time is left in each session is good.
  • Cloakroom. People tend to put bags and coats on chairs, which inhibits their use by other people.

A few of my favorite things: What I enjoy about travel, biking, workshops, and cooking

In the last few days I’ve been doing a lot of stuff: biking, organizing a Memorial Day dinner, preparing for a week-long trip to the East Coast, thinking about the craft and design of workshops. (These are the expert workshops that I organize all over the place.)

In many ways these are very different activities, but I really enjoy them all. I recently realized that despite their differences, they actually share a few qualities.

1) They’re active, embodied knowledge.

Obviously bicycling is physical, but cooking is a nice combination of fine motor skill and lifting big heavy things (or in my case, avoiding setting myself on fire); you’re always on your feet in a workshop; and travel is pretty physically strenuous, for good and bad reasons. Maybe I’m getting older, I’m less of a couch potato, or my ADD is increasing (and I know these are somewhat mutually exclusive explanations), but I find my patience with sitting for long hours and just reading is decreasing. I can do it, but I’m happier engaging my body. And nothing is better than activities where you’re involving your body, but you have to think about what you’re doing. (Gregg Zachary had a great piece last year on the rediscovery of the virtues of manual work. I’m part of a movement.)

cycling hunter’s point, via flickr

Like Richard Sennett’s craftsman (and I really recommend his book), I enjoy things that are physical or tangible, but also engage the mind. Thoughtful action is where it’s at.

gestural interface missile command, via flickr

2) There are real deadlines.

My capacity for finishing things that have open-ended deadlines, or fake deadlines (“so we all agree that we’ll finish our tasks by next week, right? right?”), is plummeting to near zero. I have too much other stuff in my life that absolutely has to get done.

hard deadlines: flames don’t wait, via flickr

So hard deadlines are good for me now. Essential even. The workshop starts at exactly this time, the plane leaves at exactly that time, the guests are arriving now.

Hard deadlines also put a nice bound on craftwork, by preventing you from tinkering forever with something. A paragraph could always be better, but as Sennett writes, the demands of the trade force craftsmen to accept limits, to do the best job they can within the time they have, and to learn to be satisfied with that. As graphic designers say, “Finished is Good.”

3) They require preparation.

The day of the cookout, I spent hours chopping vegetables, checking marinades, cleaning off platters (you can never have too many platters at a BBQ), locating plates and cups, setting up staging areas for food and drinks, laying out tools, etc. (I noticed, though, that this wasn’t tedious, it was pleasant. It was a classic example of what Csíkszentmihályi calls flow.)

Likewise, when you travel, you’ve got to think a lot about what to pack, how to structure your time, how to get among different places, etc.. A bike won’t work with a flat tire, nor will a cyclist work if he’s dehydrated, so you’d better be prepared for those possibilities. Every ride requires some kind of adjustment: technical climbs mess up gears; thorns flatten tires; I get hungry. Having the resources to deal with those things lets me keep riding.

With workshops, you have to think in advance about everything, and I mean everything: you have to go over the agenda minute-by-minute, think about the flow of the day, tinker with questions and exercises to eliminate ambiguity and focus people, lay out materials, move the furniture around, make sure the caterers know when to appear, etc., etc. (Indeed, there are things that we normally don’t think about that I’d like to start experimenting with, like lighting and ambient sound, making some activities more embodied and physical– sitting is exhausting– and playing with the day’s menu to keep people from getting weighed down by muffins and too much coffee.)

Good preparation doesn’t require you to think just about one thing. It requires you to think about a lot of different things, big and small; to think about timing and process; about division of labor; about contingencies and strategies. That’s part of what makes it pleasant.

future of science workshop, malaysia, via flickr

But here’s the important thing.

Some of that preparation is meant to help you keep things on track, and do things exactly the right way. But most serious preparation isn’t about scripting. Rather, its about making it possible for you to adapt to whatever actually happens. I’ve never had a workshop run exactly the way I imagined it would: more people show up, they turn out to be interested in other things than we’d discussed before, the room isn’t laid out the way we expected– a thousand different things can go akimbo.

I used to think that the point of planning workshops in such great detail was so I’d have more control over them. Wrong. You never have control. You have whatever you have when you get in the room. The point of doing all that planning is to deeply understand the intentionality and philosophy behind the workshop, so you can improvise your way to the same end-point, and you have the tools at hand to do so.

perimeter institute, waterloo, via flickr

[Update: I’ve realized that this is my complaint about humanities graduate training: it socializes you to believe that you possess skills that are useful only in a very specific future– namely tenure track jobs in your field– and train you to believe that you’re less qualified to succeed at a different future, and that any other future is a failure.]

If you know that you’re going to go off the map– if events are going to conspire to send you in another direction, and they will– the best that you can do is have the right gear, and a clear picture of where you want to go.

4) They have serendipity.

The upside of plans not working out the way you expect is that they can work out better. Sometimes the very coolest thing isn’t on the map, and the only way to find it is to venture into the unknown.

One of the great pleasures of having a big party is that mixing up friends who don’t know each other can have pleasant results for everyone. The best rides are ones that have a brilliant hill and view that you didn’t know about. The best trips are the ones that expose you to something you’ve never seen before, or didn’t even know was cool. I fell in love with Budapest not because I’d always wanted to go there, but because it’s an amazing, complicated, Old World post-socialist place that I find alternately fascinating and frustrating. I love London because it rewards walking: I know it well enough to be able to navigate by Tube or on foot, but every time I go out in the evening I discover something— a little square, a park, a row of businesses– that charms and captivates, and that I’d never heard of.

surprise in the london underground, via flickr

Workshops have serendipity too. Tons of it. You want to build connections between ideas or fields that even experts hadn’t seen before, or explore the cross-impact of trends that people normally think about separately. When that works, the results are awesome– and the amazing thing is, the results are awesome a lot more often than you’d expect. You never know what the outcome of a workshop is going to be– and if you do, there’s really no point in having it in the first place. This doesn’t mean that a workshop shouldn’t have certain goals or deliverables; far from it. But it’s like an evening walk in London: you know where you’re going to end up, you know that there are certain landmarks you’ll pass, but you don’t know what else you’re going to see along the way. Your job is to be open to the serendipity, so you can take advantage of it.

5) They draw out people.

I mean this in two senses. First, they can push you do things you didn’t know you could. Good rides challenge you to do things you didn’t think you were capable of, or leave you exhausted by happy with your performance.

Second, they open up a space for people to contribute. My wife used the cookout as an opportunity to repot a bunch of flowers in the backyard, dig out and repot some aging bamboo, and do other things on her gardening/home improvement list. Once kids started arriving, my daughter made (or taught the kids how make) balloon swords, which they then played with all evening. I hadn’t thought of either of these, but people commented on how nice the backyard looked, and the kids all left exhausted and uninjured. Win.

perimeter institute, waterloo, via flickr

Workshops require both kinds of drawing out. Running a workshop isn’t an exercise in controlling other people, but it’s a hard task to create a venue in which everyone can think seriously, think differently, and think together.

It’s also not about getting a certain result, but about creating the conditions out of which interesting new things will emerge. Of course, workshops have objectives, but as a facilitator, you have to approach them obliquely, and recognize that the actual work and thinking will be done by participants: you’re just (“just” isn’t quite the right word!) there to help make it happen.

workshop in laxenburg, astria via flickr

6) Sometimes you can push, but mainly you have to flow.

You can challenge people, but you can’t order them to be innovative. You can try to get guests to mingle or introduce them to each other, but you can’t make them be chatty and friendly. You can also push yourself, but you must recognize that pushing doesn’t get you everything: you can get to the airport on time, but you can’t control the weather and need to be able to go with whatever the situation presents.

my son on a happier ride

This morning I got an unexpected lesson on pushing versus flow from my son. We were biking to school, and he has the habit of standing up while pedaling. I can’t get him to stop (he’s seven, after all), so I was trying to teach him how to do it in a way that maintains his balance. He got frustrated and mad, which made him distracted; and so he took a spill. Bad enough to break the mirror on his bike, add a couple nicks to the brakes or handlebars, and require some ice and band-aids when he got to school. Fortunately nothing on him was broken, and he’ll be fine.

As I try to tell the kids, biking is one of those things that demands mindfulness: you have to watch the road, know what gear you’re in, know where the cars are, know how tired you are. You can push yourself, but if you lose your concentration– if you lose the flow– you’re likely to crash. In the course of pushing him, I made him lose what little flow he had.

Still, any spill that doesn’t send you to urgent care is a learning opportunity, not an accident. And as a friend of mine wrote after hearing about the crash,

But falling is an essential part of growth. It teaches you where the boundaries are. If you never push hard enough to fall, you will never know if you could grow twice as much or twice as fast– because you are playing it safe.

So across all these activities– and maybe across everything you do– hitting that mix of pushing and flow, planning but staying open to serendipty, and being active is key.

[To the tune of Keith Jarrett, “Hourglass, Part 2,” from the album Staircase (I give it 4 stars).]

My new cafe… and bank

I’m spending the morning at Cafe Zoë, writing to a lot of people. I never expected, when I started working as a futurist, that I would have to calculate what time it was in Beijing and Budapest, and make sure to get some e-mails out while people are still in their offices or awake. But that’s my life these days.


I’ve been coming to this cafe for a couple years now (actually, a quick check of my external memory– aka the blog archive– reveals its been four years and one month), and this morning I discovered a new function. I got to the counter, realized I didn’t have any money, and apologized and told them I’d be back.

“It’s okay,” the owner said. “You can owe us. It’s not the first time you’re here.” She pulled out a book with IOU on the front– I guess there are plenty of people who come here a little absent-minded– and wrote down my order.

It makes perfect sense. Unless I want to never come back here, I’m good for the $3.60. And they want to keep me as a regular customer, so it’s a reasonable risk for them.

Fortunately they seem to be doing pretty well, despite the downturn: there are a core group of us who are here regularly, and they seem now to have multiple clienteles at different times of day: stroller jogger moms in the morning, people coming in for lunch, freelancers or people who aren’t working and home and don’t want to work in the office (hello!), and people from nearby businesses, popping in for a cup of coffee. It’s a real slice of the neighborhood, and very nice to see.

2009: The Year of Unplugging

This is my prediction for 2009: in addition to the global recession continuing to play havoc with all of our lives, we're going to see more people explicitly trying to balance their time online and offline. Zeroing and digital sabbaths will become more popular.

The latest data-point: Lucy Kellaway's Financial Times column:

This is our first experience of recession in the internet age, and so far I don’t like it one little bit. You could say that the internet makes the recession more bearable as there are all those networks to help people get jobs and there is Ebay for buying things second-hand.

Yet such things are trivial compared to what the internet is doing to our confidence. The internet has created a global psyche. The web has mentally joined us at the hip, so we can no longer put our heads in the sand. If that sounds painfully contorted, it is because it is. Just as no country can decouple itself from the ailing global economy, none of us as individuals can decouple ourselves from the ailing global psyche.

Through blogs, websites and e-mails the world’s economic ills are fed to us on a drip all day long. It is not just that we hear about bad things faster, we hear about more of them and in a more immediate way. My worries become yours, and yours become mine. On the internet, a trouble shared online is not a trouble halved. It is a trouble needlessly multiplied all over the world. After reading this article, people in Australia will surely start worrying about my paint colours, too.

This would not matter so much if it were not for the fact that confidence is the medicine that cures a recession; and all this sharing of bad news leaves one with no confidence at all.

If I had been alive during the last comparable recession, over 60 years ago, I would have limited my news injection to reading The Times every morning. In those days it had a front page given over not to big scary headlines, but to small classified ads. The news inside would probably have left me a little depressed over breakfast, but I would have had the rest of the day to recover my equanimity.

Instead, I sit over my computer all day and feed my anxiety.

Packing and planning

I leave tomorrow for the Association of University Research Parks winter conference, in St Petersburg, Florida.

This is the first time I’ve traveled anywhere with my iPod, and already it’s having an impact. Rather than putting the address of phone number of the hotel in my trusty Moleskine notebook, I put the hotel, Supershuttle, airline, and a couple local art museums in my address book, and created a new group called “Alex’s Current Trip.” I figure whenever I go somewhere, I can fill it with local stuff. It should be handy.

I also find myself doing two things differently when I create addresses. First, I grab the complete address, not just enough to tell a cab driver. And second, I don’t bother to copy the directions. Why? Because I figure that I’ll use the map program and built-in GPS to generate directions when I’m on the ground. But to do that, I need good (i.e., comprehensive) street address information. Thanks to the map program, my personal economy of information has changed. I don’t need directions. I need the information that will help me generate accurate directions.

I’m staying at the Renaissance Vinoy, which is one of the few hotels to have a marina, golf course, AND tennis. Not that I’ll use anything more sophisticated than a bar or hot tub. And for some reason the pictures remind me of the Hollywood Tower Hotel. However, it’s within walking distance of two decent-looking museums (alas the Salavador Dali museum is not one of them), but I’m not sure I’ll have time to swing by either one. But I know they’re there.

One thing I wish I could do with iCal is set up an event that has several different dates associated with it. So, for example, if I’m going on a business trip, I’d like an event (or a reminder) a week before that says “Take everything to the dry cleaner / shoe repair.” Five days before, “Read c.v.s of people you’re meeting.” Two days before, “Find suitcase and do laundry.” The day before, a whole slew of things: pack clothes, print out confirmations, check weather, etc., etc.. I don’t want to have to create these; I want them to be automatically generated when I create a trip.

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