Smart Phones and Drained Brains

As we use our mobile phones to do more and more things, we are paradoxically able to accomplish less— even when the phones are face down and turned off.

My last column explored how smart glasses (“heads up display” or “HUDs”) will increase the amount of digital information we look at, with the ironic twist that these same devices will erode our shared experience of reality. But we don’t need to look to a future technology to see how challenging it is to pay attention to what’s around us. We already carry a dislocating technology around in our pockets: our phones.

I’m deliberate when I say “dislocating” rather than “distracting,” because we’re not necessarily distracted: often we’re fiercely focused on our phones, but we’re dislocated because unless we’re taking pictures or videos we’re not engaged with our immediate physical environments. Distraction is a subset of dislocation.

The charts below show the many ways we use our phones, as described in the newest version of Center’s longitudinal “Surveying the Digital Future” report (it comes out next month):

As the report will observe, texting (93%) has edged out talking (92%) as the most common use of a mobile phone because texting increased six percent year over year while talking stayed flat.

It’s easy to get sucked into data on the individual functions (for example, 67% of people take videos with their phones, a nine percent increase), but doing so misses the big picture: with the exception of talking, Americans have increased their use of every mobile phone function over four years (2012 to 2016).

Phones and the Future of Focus

As with all technologies, increased mobile phone use has both a plus side and a downside.

On the positive side, we’re more connected to our loved ones and the information we want than ever before. We get news of the world instantly and store our important information — from shopping lists to medical documents to that pinot grigio we liked so much in that restaurant that time that we took a picture of the label — in our phones and online where we can always get to it. (I’m the king of productivity apps and can no longer imagine life without Evernote.) With games and apps and email and social media, mobile phones have engineered boredom out of our lives because there is always something fun to do.

But on the negative side, we use our phones more often to do more things, and that time and attention have to come from somewhere — they come from our engagement with the physical reality around us, including the people we are with who increasingly feel ignored unless they too have their noses in their smart phones. If we’re playing Candy Crush waiting in the supermarket checkout line, then we’re not chatting with the cashier or the other people in line who might have something interesting to say. While it sucks to be bored, boredom leads to daydreaming, and most of the great ideas in human history started with a daydream.

Brain Drain

First we’re dislocated, then we’re distracted. In other words, when we finally want to focus on the world around us, it’s getting harder to do so because of our mobile phone use. This is the finding of an important study that came out in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research in April.

The article — “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity” by Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy and Maarten W. Boz — usefully distinguishes between the things we think about (the orientation of our attention) and how much energy we have to think about those things (the allocation of our attention).

Mobile phones, the authors find, suck attentional energy away from non-phone-based activities, and since we have a limited amount of attention to spend, we’re less capable when we have a task at hand and in front of us.

What’s startling about the study is that mobile phone distraction does not just happen when our phones are on, beeping and flashing and vibrating for our attention. Our mobile phones reduce our ability to function even when the phones are turned off and face down on the table or desk where we’re working. As the authors observe, trying to increase your focus using “intuitive ‘fixes’ such as placing one’s phone face down or turning it off are likely futile.”

Performance gets slightly better if the phone is out of sight in a pocket or bag. Performance substantially increases only when the mobile phone is in another room, entirely out of sight and somewhat out of mind. And the more dependent you are on your mobile phone, the more your focus blurs when your phone is in sight or nearby.

It gets worse: the data shows convincingly that our ability to perform erodes if our phones are nearby, but we do not recognize that degradation of performance:

Across conditions, a majority of participants indicated that the location of their phones during the experiment did not affect their performance (“not at all”; 75.9%) and “neither helped nor hurt [their] performance” (85.6%). This contrast between perceived influence and actual performance suggests that participants failed to anticipate or acknowledge the cognitive consequences associated with the mere presence of their phones.

In other words, we think that we can handle the distraction that comes with our phones being around, but we can’t. In this regard, mobile phones are a bit like drunk driving or texting while driving: we think we can do it without consequence, but often we aren’t aware when we’re impaired and not able to function until it’s too late. (Psychology Today has a nice summary of the study findings.)

Implications: Budgeting Attention

We have a limited amount of attention: this is why a common metaphor for directing our attention towards someone or something is “to pay attention.” Attention is like a currency that we can budget or hoard, but we tend not to do so. Instead, we are attention spendthrifts, throwing our cognitive capacity at all the tasty tidbits that come out of our screens.

The problem with the “pay attention” metaphor is that it obscures something important: our attention can disappear without our having made a conscious decision to pay. For example, when we have notifications enabled on our laptops, tablets, and mobile phones — especially the latter — those bleeps and flashes and buzzes are attention taxes that we don’t realize we’re paying.

What the “Brain Drain” study shows is that even if we have our phones turned off and face down, we’re still paying an attention tax that acts like hidden fees on credit cards.

Brain Drain is different than Information Overload because with Brain Drain there is no information: just the potential for information. Likewise, Brain Drain is different from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), because Brain Drain happens even when we aren’t fretting about what might be going on somewhere else.

The paradox of mobile phones is that as we use them to do more and more things, it becomes harder and harder to do any one thing. Always using our everything devices mean that we’re often nowhere in particular, and in order to be somewhere we have make a pre-emptive, conscious decision to put the everything device into an entirely different room.

That’s hard to do.

[Cross-posted on the Center for the Digital Future website.]

Don’t Miss Adam Grant’s new book “Originals”

Of the many compliments that I can give to Adam Grant’s remarkable new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, a rare one is that I will have to read it again soon.  Grant is an unusual social scientist in that he’s also a terrific writer, a gem-cutting anecdote selector of real-life stories that illuminate his points with a breezy, swallow-it-in-a-gulp momentum so I found myself racing through the book with a smile on my face.  I didn’t even take notes!  That doesn’t happen.  So, I’m going to read it again, slower, pencil in hand.
In the meantime my first tour through Originals haunts my waking life, an insightful shadow nodding in at unexpected moments— as a professional, a thinker and as a parent.
For example, when an academic friend told me she was trying to salvage as much as she could from her recent articles to put into a book she needs to write for tenure, I replied, “Don’t do that. You are prolific and have tons of ideas: only chase the ones that still excite you.”  That’s lifted straight from Grant, who talks about genius as a surprisingly quantitative endeavor: it’s not that creative masters have better ideas than the rest of us, instead they have have a much greater number of ideas so the odds go up that some of those ideas are terrific.
One of Grant’s opening anecdotes explores a non-causal correlation between success in a call center and an employee’s decision to change the default web browser on her or his computer.  If the employee switched away from Internet Explorer to Firefox or Chrome (this isn’t hot-off-the-presses data, I think), then that switch demonstrated a kind of “how can I make this better?” mindset that led to higher job performance.  I’ve thought about my own default choices repeatedly since then. noticing how sometimes I work around the technology when it’s too much bother to make the technology serve me.  Looking at the pile of remote controls near the entertainment center in my living room is one example: I haven’t bothered to research, buy and program one universal remote.
Grant’s notion of strategic procrastination has also proved actionable faster than I might have predicted.  I’ve often been a pressure-cooker worker, mulling things over for a long simmering period before rolling up my sleeves.  Grant has persuaded me, though, that getting started first and then taking a mulling break at the halfway point leads to higher quality outcomes, and I’ve used this to my advantage — and the advantage of the work — on a research project that is taking up most of my time.
Originals isn’t perfect but it’s always provocative.  Another phenomenon that Grant explores is the correlation between birth order and creativity, with younger children — particularly the youngest of many children — often becoming more successful as ground-breaking creatives because they inhabit a different social niche in their families than rule-making parents and rule-abiding oldest children (of which I am one).  Grant’s birth order argument focuses so much on the nuclear family that I wonder if it’s too Western, too settled, too suburban.  My mother, for example, grew up in a close, hodgepodge, overlapping community of immigrant parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and oodles of cousins.  Her closest peer group were her cousins, with whom she roamed her city neighborhood unsupervised.  The cousins, with whom she is still close decades later, influenced her as much if not more than her sister, eight years her senior and a more distant presence in her childhood than, say, the presence of my 14 year old daughter in my 10 year old son’s day-to-day in our little suburb.  Still, Grant’s birth order research has made me rethink some of my own parenting choices with my older child.
Perhaps my only real complaint with Originals is that I want some additional product that will help me to apply its powerful insights in my everyday life.  As I gobbled up the book, I wanted something like a deck of playing cards with distilled versions of the chapters that I might rifle through to help sharpen my thinking… something like the Oblique Strategies or Story Cubes.
I was a big fan of Grant’s first book, Give and Take, and Originals is just as good if not better.  It was a pleasure to read the first time, and I’m eager to dive in once again… perhaps I’ll make my own deck of helpful playing cards using my friend John Willshire’s product, the Artefact Cards.

Daniel Kahneman kicks my ass, or Reading Fast and Slow

Like Moe, the schoolyard bully in Calvin & Hobbes, Daniel Kahneman has taken away my cognitive lunch money for the last four years. 

Moe

To be clear, it isn’t the 81-year-old Nobel laureate himself: it’s his best-selling 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Let me back up.

I read fiction quickly, sometimes gobbling up a novel during a plane ride or a rare quiet evening. Nonfiction, though, goes down more slowly. Even delightfully-well-written nonfiction books (Adam Grant’s Give & Take, anything by Steven Johnson) go into my mind with kidney-stone-passing-out perceived slowness when compared to, say, the latest by Neil Gaiman.  I inhaled Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl so quickly last month that I belched afterward, metaphorically, of course.

But I can speed up my non-fiction reading rate by having a project at hand.  Right now, for example, I’m working on two different, oddly-echoing projects: the first is about the future of technology and user behavior and the second is about Shakespeare as a business innovator.  These projects are my cognitive rudders, helping me sail through non-fiction arguments and implications at higher speed, evaluating their relevance to my own work while making notes about interesting other bits for later.

So getting back to Kahneman, this is my third attempt at Thinking Fast and Slow, his remarkable book about how humans are not nearly as rational as we think we are when it comes to making all sorts of judgments and decisions.  I’m about to start the fifth and last section, and this progress is because of the projects.

My first try was on the iPad, but what that copy of the book taught me was that I read, metabolize and retain nonfiction better on paper, with pencil in hand, underlining, annotating and making notes in the back of the book.  If I let you borrow a copy of any of my nonfiction books, then I must trust you a lot because I’m giving you a voyeuristic window into my mind, and you’ll see any number of checks, asterisks, “yeahs,” and longer marginalia.

Susan MacDermid, my then-boss and now-business partner, then gave me a hardback copy of Thinking Fast and Slow.  I attacked it, pencil in hand, but that was around the same time that I was jetting all over the planet on business, and the hardback copy was greedily taking up most of my precious briefcase space, so I stopped lugging it around.

Over the last few weeks, though, my thoughts have returned to Kahneman time and again as my two projects have come into focus, so on a weekend jaunt to England from Norway I picked up a paperback copy at Waterstone’s and dug back in. 

Now, with projects in mind, I’m now able to place Kahneman’s arguments in context, tweak them into different directions, and think through what the book isn’t talking about as well as what it does claim.

This is great news, and a good rule-of-thumb for difficult books in the future: projects speed progress.

On the other hand, it’s bad news for when I’m between projects, as general reading without the frame of what I’m trying to do with it will slow back down to my normal molasses pace with nonfiction.

I expect I’ll finish Thinking Fast and Slow tomorrow.  It’s a magnificent book— and also laugh out loud funny in many places.  It has been a pleasure and a privilege to read it, and I expect to read it again. 

With luck, the next reading won’t take four years.

[Cross-posted with Medium.]

“Change Your Life” Productivity Apps & How to Use Them— Updated!

I first wrote about the suite of applications, services, products and gadgets I use to keep my head above water almost three years ago.  In the intervening time things have changed (Smartr/Xobni, for example, has gone away), hence this fresh list.

Here are my 14 “Change Your Life” apps and how I use them. Please share yours in the comments.

Artefact Cards: Not all productivity apps are digital.  The Artefact Cards are a new entry on this list, one developed by my friend John V. Willshire of Smithery.  These cards are deceptively simple: small, blank playing cards with a bright color on one side and white on the other.  Add a fine-point Sharpie and you have a playful, tactile medium for ideation, iteration and collaboration.  The physicality of the cards is what makes them so useful: I have the sense that when you touch something you own it, at least in part.  When John and I met for coffee in London a few weeks ago, he brought me a couple boxes.  When we opened them up and started writing and drawing the ideas came flying fast.  The cards are different than Post-Its at least in part because of the slide-around quality… it’s easier to ideate, rearrange and juxtapose.  Use these cards, and you’ll find that group think-it-out sessions become more interactive— I keep a few with me in my pocket Moleskine notebook all the time, and just ordered a Desk Set because I’m almost out!  John is eloquent on how these things came to be here.

(Smithery has created a companion app for scanning and organizing the written-upon cards, but I haven’t used it yet.) 

Blank Index cards: I’m a fan of writing things down on pieces of paper rather than just taking digital notes, although I’m also a passionate scanner and tagger (see Evernote section, below).  The Artefact Cards are great for taxonomy and exploration, with one idea per card in atomic style.  But when I need more space to write down or organize more information, I use blank 5 x 8 index cards like these.  These are always in my backpack, and they also make handy entertainment for kids when trapped in boring grownup environments (my kids both love to draw).

Cozi: A shared family calendar that divvies up activities in columns by family member, so, for example, if my wife and son are doing something together it’s easy for me to see that I’ll be the one to pick up our daughter.  Cozi is my least favorite daily productivity app because the UI is cluttered (the iPhone app is just icky).  Another ding is that Cozi has zero interoperability with other calendars, but it’s in the cloud, easy for either me or my wife to update and keeps the different strands of family activity separate but juxtaposed.  The ads are intrusive on the free version, so I pay $5 per month.  Wayne Yamamoto, the CEO of Charity Blossom, once quipped to me that calendaring technology is the hardest problem in computer science, and I think he’s right.

Dropbox: Drop dead simple file sharing across my two computers, iPhone, iPad and the web.  It’s also fantastic for sharing big files, so you don’t have to cripple your correspondent’s email with that 1.3GB video.  It’s a better interface and user experience than Google Drive (see below).

Evernote: One of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services.  Evernote isn’t an app, it’s a movement.  It’s my prosthetic memory, storing brainstorms, receipts, flight and car rental reservations, PDFs, articles, account information… all sorted and tagged and searchable.  The free version is enough for most people, but I happily pay $45 per year for premium because that lets me keep full copies of all my notes on all my devices– rather than just one copy on one device and the rest in the cloud. When you’re on as many planes as I am, this is necessary.

Evernote is for asset management rather than task management: its focus is on nouns (information to keep track of) rather than on verbs (actions to be performed).  If I had one wish for Evernote, it would be that it should acquire ToodleDo (see below) and integrate it.

Guy Kawasaki is a fantastic apostle for Evernote, so go run “evernote guy kawasaki” through your favorite search engine to see his helpful posts on this.

My love for Evernote became even more profound (hard though that was) when I added…

ScanSnap Evernote Edition Scanner (by Fujitsu):  Small, fast and powerful, this scanner integrates seamlessly with Evernote: I shove all business cards, receipts, PDFs, notecards, Artefact cards and the like into Evernote.  If you buy this, then get in the habit of sorting and tagging things daily: it will only take a couple of minutes, but when you later need to find that thing that happened that time, you’ll be glad you did.  Evernote released the Scannable app a few months ago for on-the-fly scanning via a smart phone.  It also integrates with the ScanSnap.

Follow Up Then: Such a simple and helpful idea.  When you need a reminder as you’re sending an email, simply BCC this service with when you want the reminder and it will send you a message at that time.  So, if I ask a client or colleague to make a decision on something by Tuesday, I’ll BCC “tuesday@followupthen.com” and at that same time on Tuesday I’ll get a message back.  You can also use 11amtuesday, or 1week or 1month, et cetera.  The free version is robust, and at $2 per month the lowest level of the premium service is probably all you’ll ever need.  From my friend Adam Boettiger.

Google Drive: Formerly Google Docs, Second of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services.  While the capabilities of the word processor and spreadsheets aren’t as good as Microsoft’s, Google gets collaboration better than anybody.  For example, their simple, easy and clear cloud-based spreadsheet got me back 50% of an employee’s time a few years ago, and the ever-better integration with Gmail and Google+ make this a killer.  Google is trying to eat Dropbox’s lunch, but I still use them both: sometimes I don’t want everything to go through Google.  On the other hand… 

Google Voice: I’ve been using this since it was Grand Central, which Google acquired.  Call me and all the phones I’m associated with ring (home, cell, work) and I can pick up the one want.  Missed calls get transcribed and emailed to me, domestic calls that I make are free, international calls are cheap, I can TXT from the computer and receive TXTs, and a virtual concierge announces calls when I pick up the phone so I can screen easily. Another benefit is that if I have multiple cell phones I don’t have to think about which one to carry because all calls get routed through one number.  Google Voice now integrates nicely with Google+ and Gmail.  During my time in Norway, I only wish that it would forward to my Norwegian mobile number, but at least it goes to my Vonage VOIP number, which is virtually in the USA.

Instapaper:  A Niagara of information and links come at me every day via email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (I sometimes think of those as un-productivity apps) and general surfing.  Often I don’t have time to dive into something right then and there, but Instapaper’s handy “Read Later” button on the browser toolbar saves the article, makes it easier to read, and queues it up for later absorption.  If you ever see me squinting at the iPad while on the elliptical machine, I’m probably looking at Instapaper. Smart phone and Tablet apps are must buys.  I also recommend upgrading to Premium, as it gives you quicker and better access to the archive of things you read once and are now trying to remember.

Moleskine Volant Mini:  I have one of these cute little notebooks in my pocket at all times.  It’s rude and distracting to whip out a smartphone, tablet or computer to take a note when I’m meeting with somebody (after all, I could be looking at Facebook), and despite my inhumanly fast typing speed on a conventional keyboard my thick fingers make tapping on a virtual keyboard a slow process.  Old fashioned paper and a nice pen help me to capture ideas and convey the truth about what I’m doing: engaging with what the other person is saying.  The detachable sheets at the back also make it easy to write something down for a person and then hand it over.  Find these in a lot of bookstores, art supply stores and online.

Rory’s Story Cubes: These are more of an insight pump than a productivity app.  Nine six-sided dice have pictograms on each side.  Roll the dice and see what combination of icons and images come up.  The dice are handy for changing your perspective on a situation that might have become sclerotic, or help you break through a barrier in your thinking.  Along these lines, just yesterday I saw a real copy of Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck of cards, and I may buy a set since the iPhone app I’ve tried is unsatisfying.

The Story Cubes have helped my son in a regular battle with his Daily Journal assignment from school.  He’s a talented writer, but sometimes has trouble coming up with something to write about.  Tossing the cubes and then selecting a few of them helps him get started.

Randomness has its uses.  Way back in college, I stumbled across my friend Karen Schiff throwing Tarot Cards and nearly passed out in judgmental shock.  Karen, serene, then explained that she didn’t think the cards had mystical properties, but that throwing them made her think in directions that she wouldn’t think natively.  It was a powerful moment that stuck with me, so I look for implements of controlled chaos like the Story Cubes.

Toodle Do: This member of my daily web services was introduced to me separately by Kevin Doohan and Adam Broitman.  Don’t let the stupid name fool you, this is a robust to-do-lists service with easy filtering, sorting and prioritization.  The free service is probably enough for most users, but don’t Scrooge out and neglect to buy the smart phone and tablet apps: that’s $5.98 that will accelerate your use and organization.  Fans of GTD will love this.

As I mentioned above, Evernote should buy Toodle Do and integrate it.

Trello:  Another from my friend Adam Boettiger: it’s a digital index card bulletin board of tasks, who is doing them and how close something is to done. Trello is great for a shared set of tasks or when you’re closely tracking somebody else’s work.  I think of it as a light form of project management, since it lacks the necessary history functions (who did that and when?) of a true deliverables matrix. Inside the Trello space, it’s easy to absorb and prioritize tasks and manage assets. The iPhone app is handy, if a little squished.

So what killer productivity apps have I missed? Please leave comments!

My 2014 in Books

I read a lot — magazines, two newspapers, email newsletters, and countless social-media-shared links I chase down digital rabbit holes. I’d never know anything, for example, without Jason Hirshhorn’s magnificent daily Media Redefined.

But I’m lost without books.  Actual books.  Whether paper or digital, if I’m not reading at least two books then I get grumpy and feel IQ points oozing out of my ears and down the shower drain.

So one year ago, inspired by my friend David Daniel who keeps a list of books he wants to read, I decided to keep a list of books I finished in 2014. Since it is now 12/31/14 and I’m not going to finish any of the three books I’m reading at the moment, what follows is my 2014 list with brief remarks added.

Note: with the exception of My Side of the Mountain I am not counting re-reads. Often, at night, or when I’m in need of a visit with an old friend, I dive back into a novel I’ve already read. My kids are the same way. Since I tell the two of them that this doesn’t count for their reading, I’m not counting it towards my own.

Looking back, there’s a lot of fiction in this list.  I need fiction like I need oxygen (except when I’m writing fiction), and most of the business writing I read comes in articles.  I wonder what the fiction/non-fiction balance will be next year?

So here’s the list:

Dashner, James.  The Maze Runner.  Finished 1/1/14.

I read a fair amount of YA or children’s books, usually in quest of reading matter for my kids, but in this case it was for a project a friend and I were contemplating. Not bad but not good enough for me to read any farther.

Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Finished 1/4/14.

A fun ride, albeit only pancake deep. I inhaled this over a day or so at the start of last year. A good yarn for any of the digerati who mourn the loss of bookstores and wonder about the future of book-length reading in a digital age.

Elberse, Anita. Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking & the Big Business of Entertainment. Finished 1/22/14.

Interesting and thoughtful, and powerfully presented. What I wanted, though, were more connections outside of entertainment to the rest of business and human endeavor. A missed opportunity.

Eggers, Dave.  The Circle. Finished 1/23/14.

A frustrating book… it annoyed but compelled me in a similar way to Aaron Sorkin’s just-finished HBO show “The Newsroom.” There’s a smugness to Eggers that grates, and I don’t think he understands how companies like Facebook and Google work.

Asaro, Catherine. The Spacetime Pool.  Finished 2/5/14.

Novella in Asaro’s fantastic “Saga of the Skolian Empire” series, which is great fun for people who like space opera with good physics and a bit of romance.

Aaronovitch, Ben. Broken Homes: a Rivers of London Novel. Finished 2/15/14.

#4 in Rivers of London. I saw #5 on the shelves at Foyle’s in London last week and am excited to read it when the e-book comes out in a few days. This series is delightful fantasy set in modern-day London, written by one of the many “Doctor Who” alumni who go on, like Douglas Adams, to write novels.

Semmelhack, Peter. Social Machines: the Next Wave of Innovation; How to Develop Connected Products that Change Customers’ Lives. Finished 3/09/14.

A good introduction to the Internet of Things, more practical than visionary.

Craighead George, Jean.  My Side of the Mountain.  Finished 3/11/14.  

I read this when I was a kid, found it on my son’s shelf, and re-read it with lip-smacking pleasure.  I was looking in particular for a discussion of how you want a machete rather than an axe, which I remembered from a book I read decades ago, but didn’t find it in this terrific book. Anybody out there know what I’m talking about?

Thomas, Rob.  Veronica Mars: the Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.  Finished 4/3/14.

Loved the Veronica Mars movie that came out around the same time and couldn’t get enough of it, so I read the novel. Fun. Nailed the voice and sensibility of the series. I look forward to the next one, which comes out soon.

Grant, Adam. Give and Take: a Revolutionary Approach to Success. Finished 4/11/14.

One of the best business-y books I’ve read in the last few years, I tore through this after Dana Anderson praised it at the AAAA’s, and had the pleasure of trading notes with Adam Grant subsequently. I can’t say enough nice things about this book. It’s brilliant, and — perhaps more importantly and certainly a surprise coming from a social scientist — it’s beautifully written.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Cocaine Blues.  Phrynne Fisher #1.  Finished May sometime.

Between May and July I inhaled seven of these murder mysteries set in Victorian Australia.  Karen, a woman who practices Tae Kwon-do with my son back in Oregon, and I talk books, and she was flying through them. These are like McNuggets: I kept tearing through them at high speed until I hit a satiation point and stopped.  Formulaic and with a bit of the Ensign Mary Sue about them, I recommend these to historical mystery lovers who also like a recurring cast of characters. The Australian TV series based on these (streaming on either Netflix or Amazon Prime) isn’t bad, although not as good as the books. Things rarely are.  Just this note for all this series.

Greenwood, Kerry. Flying Too High. Phyrnne Fisher #2.  Finished May sometime.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Murder on the Ballarat Train.  Phrynne Fisher #3.  5/28/14.

Greenwood, Kerry. Death at Victoria Dock.  Phynne Fisher #4. Finished 6/13/14.

Greenwood, Kerry.  The Green Mill Murder. Phynne Fisher #5. Finished 6/16/14.

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Finished 6/20/14.

A friend — either Ari Popper of Sci Futures or Brian Seth Hurst of Story Tech — recommended this to me at CES.  Good popular science journalism, but I don’t have clear memories of it now, which is a bit of a ding.

Deaver, Jeffrey. The Skin Collector. Finished 6/24/14.

I read it because of my affection for The Bone Collector, but it wasn’t very good.

Miller, Derek B.  Norwegian by Night.  Finished 7/13/14.

My friend Rishad Tobaccowala recommended this to me when he found out I was moving to Norway for the school year.  It’s fantastic: an emotionally engaged and heart-stopping thriller starring an 80 year old Korean War Vet set in Oslo. I can’t believe this hasn’t been made into a movie yet. Clint Eastwood should direct and star.

McKeown, Greg.  Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.  Finished 7/13/14.

This book taught me a lot about how I sabotage my own productivity: I read it with passionate intensity in paper, and then bought a digital copy to bring with me to Norway. It’s on my “to re-read in January list,” which isn’t a long one.

Greenwood. Kerry.  Blood and Circuses. Phynne Fisher #6. Finished 7/18/14.

MacLeod, Hugh.  Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.  Finished 7/23/14.

I admire MacLeod and hadn’t gotten around to reading the book for no good reason. It’s short, sweet and smart. Don’t miss, particularly if you like his cartoons.

Greenwood. Kerry. Ruddy Gore.  Phynne Fisher #7. Finished 7/24/14.

Russ, Joanna.  The Adventures of Alyx.  Finished 8/14/13.

Back in college, my friend Keylan Qazzaz wrote her senior thesis about women in science fiction with a particular focus on this book. I picked it up a few years later, but never got around to reading it.  Then, as I was packing for Norway and grabbing books from the “I’ve been meaning to read this” pile (a big pile), I saw this.  Turns out, it’s a collection of short stories and novellas featuring a terrific protagonist who seems to have amnesia between each story.  More strong space opera.  A bit hard to find now, but quite good.

Shenk, Joshua Wolf.  Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.  Finished 8/31/14.

I enjoyed the Atlantic excerpt of this book and decided to read the whole thing, which I did in short order.  It’s a powerful antidote to the “genius alone is his garrett” Romantic myth that still pervades western notions of creativity and genius. However, I’d have liked more on how groups collaborate, and think that his focus on the pair is unnecessarily limiting.  Still a worthwhile read, and in addition it lead me to Carse (see below).

Huizinga, Johan.  Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Finished 9/9/14.

Play is important to how I think about disruptive technologies (much more about this in 2015), and a few years ago my friend and partner Susan MacDermid mentioned this book from the 1930s.  It’s a tough read — continental philosophy that seems deliberately, almost hermetically sealed away against non-specialist readers — but worthwhile and interesting and useful for my thinking.

Powers, Tim.  Expiration Date.  Finished 9/20/14. 

Powers wrote my all-time favorite time travel story, The Anubis Gates, but I never managed to get into this one or it’s quasi-sequel (see below) even though I’ve had them for years.  Powers’ imagination is powerful and intricate, and it takes time to settle into the worlds he creates.  By the time I made it to page 50 I was hooked, and then I was sorry when it ended.  Don’t give up on this one too easily.

Wilson, Daniel H.  Robopocalypse.  Finished 10/10/14.

My friend Renny Gleeson recommended this, and it’s yummy sci-fi candy along the lines of the Terminator movie series only updated to include how the world works post-internet.  For paranoiacs worried about AI, this is either something to embrace or something to avoid for fear of never sleeping again.

Carse, James P.  Finite and Infinite Games: a vision of life as play and possibility. Finished 10/12/14.

As I mentioned, the Shenk book turned me onto Carse.  Like Huizinga, this is far from an easy book to read or understand, but it’s an important meditation on play.  It’s particularly important for Americans, I think, with our cultural tendency to bottom line everything and be more concerned with the final score than how the game was.

Gawande, Atul.  The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Finished 10/21/14.

Gawande is one of those people who does so much in a day to make the world a better place that he makes me feel like a loser, even though I’m sure that if I said this to him in person he’d charm me into feeling like a superhero until the next morning.  He’s a terrific writer, and in our information-overload era this book is both moving and useful for anybody who despairs of getting the important things done.

Mann, George.  The Affinity Bridge: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation. Finished 10/28/14.

The Steampunk genre and movement appeals to me, but I keep holding back because it feels like it will turn into an addictive time-suck that will pull me far deeper than just reading the novels.  Suddenly, I’ll be going to maker fairs and dressing in lots of metal-studded leather.  I just don’t have that kind of time.  This is also why I rarely play video games and don’t drive a motorcycle.  Still, I ran across this book at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto and was so interested that I found myself reading it while walking down El Camino Real on my way to a dinner.  For Sherlock Holmes lovers as well as Steampunks, this is great fun.  I also read the sequel immediately thereafter (see next entry) and a cluster of free short stories on Mann’s website.  Like Ben Aaronovitch, Mann is a Doctor Who alum.  I’ll read more of this series eventually.

Mann, George.  The Osiris Ritual: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation.  Finished 11/6/14.

Scalzi, John.  Lock In. Finished 11/16/14.

Fascinating notion about telepresence for quadriplegics (a reductive description, I admit) as background for a compelling near-future science fiction adventure story.  Scalzi’s voice is the closest to a 21st century Heinlein that I’ve found, particularly with the Old Man’s War series.

Bach, Rachel.  Fortune’s Pawn. (Paradox Book 1.) Finished 11/22/14.

IO9 compared this to Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, and since she is my favorite living science fiction writer I immediately bought the first one.  Bujold it ain’t, but it’s not-bad space opera.  One key difference (literature geek spoiler alert) is that while Bujold practices Austen-like free indirect discourse, Bach’s narrative is first person, which is harder to carry off if you’re not practicing the skaz a la Mark Twain in Huck Finn.  I really like how Bach’s protagonist is a kick-ass woman mercenary soldier, but I wish the writing was better.

Catmull, Ed.  Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Finished 11/29/14.

Rishad and Renny both put this on lists of influential books, and I loved every page both as a Pixar fan and as a consultant who watches businesses get in the way of their own success time and time again.  I managed creatives for many years, and wish I had this book on my desk when I started. Don’t miss. Like Adam Grant’s book, this one will stick with and help any business leader.

Powers, Tim.  Earthquake Weather. Finished 12/22/14.

See above note on Powers’ Expiration Date.  I was delighted to discover that Earthquake Weather was a quasi-sequel, because that made it easier to get over my usual 50 page learning curve with Powers.

Connelly, Michael.  The Burning Room: A Harry Bosch Novel. Finished 12/29/14.

My last completed book of 2014, which I finished on a plane this Monday.  Is there anybody who doesn’t love these books?  Connelly seems to be easing Bosh towards retirement or a dramatic death, and while I’m eager to see how it all ends I despair at the notion of a fictional Los Angeles without Harry Bosch solving crimes in it.

Looking forward to 2015: I’m currently reading four books that I hope to finish in January or February:

Daniel J. Levitin’s Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston’s Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness.

(After I finish these two, I’m ambitious to dive into Daniel Goleman’s new Focus, which seems to be along similar lines to both of these.)

James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson’s Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology.

And although I haven’t read it, I picked up Lamentation, the sixth Matthew Shardlake novel by C.J. Sansom in London. If you want murder mysteries set in the same time as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, don’t miss this excellent series. 

Any must-reads for the coming year?  Please share in comments below…

In Praise of Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist Manifesto”

I first smacked my forehead (ouch!) against a wall of decision fatigue when I was the Editor in Chief of iMedia Connection (a daily trade journal covering a different collision between marketing and technology). The best part of editing involves coaxing order from mess, making points pointier and helping writers to say what they want to say. The part that makes the days long is having to make a lot of decisions that matter in the moment but not in the long run: yes, let’s run with that one, the other one, and, oh wait, did that thing we’ve been waiting for come in? Editing — like management — is an endless series of arbitrary decisions, but somebody’s gotta pick and that’s the EIC.

I wouldn’t feel my decision fatigue until lunch. If we were heading out for a group lunch, the editorial staff would look to me. “You’re the boss, so where do you want to go for lunch?” Something in my hungry stomach would sink and I’d chose a place. Eventually, I changed my response. “I’m happy to pay for lunch, but I’ve made dozens of decisions already today.” I’d then point at one of the editors. “You pick the place. Nobody is allowed to complain.”

That was years ago, and in the interim — even though I’m no longer in that job — the scope and number of decisions I have to make each day has grown. Email vexes me in particular: do I check it when I first wake up? If I do, then I risk falling down a rabbit hole for the rest of the day. If I don’t, then I might miss something important. On top of that, the number of things bleeping at me, vibrating and waving their electronic hands like importunate fifth graders who know the answer to a question, keeps increasing year after year. I joined Ello because I was curious, for example, but now it’s another damned thing to check.

Greg McKeown’s remarkable book Essentialism helped me to recognize some of this and to intervene in my own behavior, but with smart phones breaking down all barriers our environment no longer does the work it used to do to help us know who we are at a given moment and what we’re supposed to be doing or not doing.

It’s not just me.

For the past dozen years or more I’ve been reading books tracing the same picture: life is getting evermore complicated. And, even though the human brain is the most sophisticated and powerful comprehension machine in the world, we just can’t keep up with the onslaught of information coming from new gadgets, screens, media and the increase in chatter from the old ones like radio, TV, books and the like. These are books with titles like Chaos, Frontiers of Complexity, Think Twice: Thin Ice, but also other books like Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), Predictably Irrational, and Thinking Fast and Slow.

Like the old saying about how people complain about the weather but nobody does anything about it, most of these books were of the point and exclaim variety rather than being helpful. “Look at how irrational we are!” “Look at how things appear chaotic but actually have hidden patterns of order!” “Look at how you can never make a smart decision, but don’t give up!”

On the other side of the bookstore (when I can find one), the self-help books don’t help much. They’re too involved in a method to which I must enslave myself before seeing any benefit. I can Get Things Done, but only if I start managing endless lists that suck up a ton of time. I can Hack my Life (yuck) but that involves having a gadget or twist tie for everything. Often, when I read these books I feel like I’ve just shelled out twenty bucks for a commercial for the author’s consultancy.

All this is why I’m excited by Atul Gawande’s 2010 book, “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right,” which I read in a day. Gawande is a globetrotting Harvard Medical School surgeon who works with the World Health Organization and writes for the New Yorker.

Gawande is intimidatingly smart and eloquent with an eye for evocative detail, but he didn’t write a book about himself. Instead, it’s a passionate defense of the simple checklist as a tool for embracing and mastering the complicated tasks in front of us day to day.

Wait, didn’t I just backhand David Allen’s list-oriented Getting Things Done approach a few paragraphs ago? (Answer: yes.) How is Gawande different?

First, The Checklist Manifesto isn’t a self-help book. It doesn’t have a handy appendix that helps you to create your own list, nor does it advertise how there are other books in the series that you can buy, or how you can hire Gawande as an efficiency expert to make your business run better (you can’t, although my sense of the author is that he would probably come up with a referral for you if you asked).

Second and more importantly, The Checklist Manifesto isn’t about self-help at all. It’s not about individuals doing things, it’s about how groups of people working together can work together better, and how empowering the group is more important than empowering an individual… even if the individual is the boss, like a surgeon, editor or CEO.

This is different than crowd-sourcing (another raft of books I’ve read in recent years) where trusting to the mass can reveal information uncloaked by individual or observer bias.

Instead, this is about teams working in environments of massively overlapping subspecialization. We have lots of technologies that help us to track and manage the what of collaboration, but surprisingly few to help us with the who.

That’s where the checklist comes in.

Here’s an example that Gawande articulates from skyscraper construction when he talks with a man named Finn O’Sullivan about two lists in O’Sullivan’s field office. The first list is the microscopically detailed construction schedule:

But the list on O’Sullivan’s other wall revealed an entirely different philosophy about power and what should happen to it when you’re confronted with complex, nonroutine problems– such as what to do when a difficult, potentially dangerous, and unanticipated anomaly suddenly appears on the fourteenth floor of a thirty-two-story skyscraper under construction. The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works. (pages 72 to 73)

Gawande’s vision of the checklist isn’t merely another device (albeit a simple one) to outsource our increasing cognitive burden somewhere else. Instead, The Checklist Manifesto puts that device into the moments where tasks move from one person to another. It puts interaction at the heart of a project, not at the periphery.

For anybody working as a member of a team (and this pretty much means everybody), managing a group or leading a company, The Checklist Manifesto will help you to rethink how to collaborate to enhance the work at hand and avoid avoidable mistakes.

It’s also a spritely read with terrific stories.

Ahhh– the right email filter at the right time

Sometimes a tiny adjustment can make a huge difference.

Example: I have a backup email address where copies of emails that I might otherwise miss are routed. Recently, I started using this backup email address for other things as well– a new use case.

The problem, however, was that suddenly I couldn’t see the new use case emails because my attention was drowned out by the copies of all the other emails.

PLUS, I now had to process each email twice— once in my main address and then “select + mark as read = enter” on the backup email address.  This was pointless busy work.

Solution: I opened up the filter rules on the backup and simply added “mark as read” to all the incoming backup copies.

Now I’ll only have to process the original copy, but will still have an archive and a backup in case I miss something.

I did this just minutes ago, but already my stress has decreased since every time I look at that email address I don’t see 47 new messages (I get a lot of email).

Little tweak, big impact.

 

Short Post: ToodleDo printing woes…

Oh ToodleDo, Oh ToodleDo, you know I love you for your sensuous tagging and sorting, for your alluring ease of task capture, and for your promiscuous spreading of my tasks across the cloud to computer, laptop, tablet and smart phone alike– you saucy service, you.  I’ve trumpeted about my love for you here, and verily hath been the apostle unto the worthy and — lo! — the unworthy too about thy glory.

But why can’t I print out today’s tasks easily?

Why, oh why, ToodleDo, must I print out the entire first page of my tasks — and forsooth, ’tis a mighty list that spans many pages like a colossus in the desert — and then take to my hand a metal scissors like unto that which I first used in kindergarten and snip snip snip?

Why must I trim the paper like my great-great-grandfather did the Tsar’s trousers before the Tsar kicked my family out of Russia with less singing and more torture than in “Fiddler on the Roof”?

Why can’t this be easier?

11 “Change Your Life” Productivity Apps & How to Use Them

Note: I’ve revised and updated this post here.

Over the last year or two I’ve been tweaking the suite of applications and services I use to keep my head above water– here are my 11 “Change Your Life” apps and how I use them. Please tell me about new ones in the comments.

In alphabetical order…

Cozi: A shared family calendar that divvies up activities by family member, so if my wife and son are doing something it’s easy to see. This is my least favorite of my daily productivity apps because it’s hard to use and the UI is cluttered (the iPhone app is just icky) and it has zero interoperability with other calendars, but it’s in the cloud, easy for either me or my wife to update and keeps the different strands of family activity separate and overlapping. The ads are intrusive on the free version, but I’m OK with that as it keeps them in business. Wayne Yamamoto, the CEO of Charity Blossom, recently quipped to me that calendaring technology is the hardest problem in computer science, and I think he’s right.

Dropbox: Drop dead simple file sharing across my two computers, iPhone, iPad and the web. I saved the .txt document I used to write this post onto Dropbox automatically. It’s also fantastic for sharing big files, so you don’t have to cripple your correspondent’s email with that 1.3GB video. However, Dropbox faces a tough challenger in the upcoming Google Drive.

Evernote: One of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services. Evernote isn’t an app, it’s a movement. It’s my prosthetic memory, storing brainstorms, receipts, flight and car rental reservations, PDFs, articles, account information… all sorted and tagged and searchable. The free version is enough for most people, but I happily pay $45 per year for premium because that lets me keep full copies of all my notes on all my devices– rather than just one copy on one device and the rest in the cloud. When you’re on as many planes as I am, this is just necessary. I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of Evernote’s capabilities. Guy Kawasaki is a much better apostle for Evernote, so go run “evernote guy kawasaki” through your favorite search engine to see his helpful posts on this.

Follow Up Then: Such a simple and helpful idea. When you need a reminder as you’re sending an email, simple BCC this service with when you want the reminder and it will send you a message at that time. So if I ask a colleague to make a decision on something by Tuesday, I’ll BCC “tuesday@followupthen.com” and at that same time on Tuesday I’ll get a message back. You can also use 11amtuesday, or 1week or 1month, et cetera. The premium service is $14 per year and lets you check all your pending followups, but most folks won’t need it. From my friend Adam Boettiger .

Google Docs: Second of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services. Google gets collaboration better than anybody. Their simple, easy and clear cloud-based spreadsheet got me back 50% of an employees time five years ago, and the ever-better integration with Gmail and Google+ make this a killer.

Google Voice: I’ve been using this since it was Grand Central, which Google acquired. Call me and all the phones I’m associated with ring (home, cell, work) and I can pick up the one want. Missed calls get transcribed and emailed to me, domestic calls that I make are free, international calls are cheap, I can TXT from the computer and receive TXTs, and a virtual concierge announces calls when I pick up the phone so I can screen easily. Another benefit is that if I have multiple cell phones I don’t have to think about which one to carry because all calls get routed through one number.

Instapaper: A Niagra of information and links come at me every day via email, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ (we might think of those as un-productivity apps) and general surfing. Often I don’t have time to dive into something right then and there, but Instapaper’s handy “Read Later” button on the browser toolbar saves the article, makes it easier to read, and queues it up for later absorption. If you ever see me squinting at the iPad while on the elliptical machine, I’m probably look at Instapaper. Smart phone and Tablet apps are must buys.

Smartr: I’m still not sure why Xobni rebranded (if partially) as Smartr, but it’s a plugin for Outlook or Gmail that scrapes your correspondence, tracks when you’ve last communicated with somebody and cross-matches that against Facebook and LinkedIn. In another post I’ll outline how I moved 13GB of email into the cloud and how I check it many times per day in order to remind myself of conversational context. Smartr is a service that sits on top of that process. No Microsoft Exchange server can withstand the amount of email I sift through, so this was my workaround.

Toodle Do: The latest addition to my daily web services was introduced to me separately by Kevin Doohan and Adam Broitman. Don’t let the stupid name fool you, this is a robust to do lists service with easy filtering, sorting and prioritization. The free service is probably enough for most users, but don’t Scrooge out and neglect to buy the smart phone and tablet apps: that’s $5.98 that will accelerate your use and organization. Previously, I tried running my To Do lists via Evernote, but much as I adore and can’t live without Evernote, it’s too big a tool for this precise and urgent job. Fans of GTD will love this. The iGoogle gadget was distracting, so I removed it. But iGoogle is going away anyway…

Trello: Another from my friend Adam Boettiger introduced me to this one: it’s a digital index card bulletin of tasks, who is doing them and how close something is to done. Trello is perfect for a shared set of tasks or when you’re closely tracking somebody else’s work. I think of it as a light form of project management, since it lacks the necessary history functions (who did that and when?) of a true deliverables matrix. Trello lets my part time assistant and me manage each other in an easy to absorb and prioritize shared space. The iPhone app is handy, if a little squished.

And finally…

Moleskine Volant Mini: Not all productivity apps are digital. I have one of these cute little notebooks in my pocket at all times. It’s rude and distracting to whip out a smartphone, tablet or computer to take a note when I’m meeting with somebody (after all, I could be looking at Facebook), and despite my inhumanly fast typing speed on a conventional keyboard my thick fingers make tapping on a virtual keyboard a slow process. Old fashioned paper and a nice pen help me to capture ideas and convey the truth about what I’m doing: engaging with what the person I’m with is saying. The detachable sheets at the back also make it easy to write something down for a person and then hand it over. Available in a lot of bookstores, art supply stores and online.

So what killer productivity apps have I missed? Please leave comments!