Here’s One Reason E-mail is So hard to Deal With – (Insight from Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind)
Bob Morris just posted his (very helpful) review of this book to our blog today. I will present my synopsis of the book this Friday at our October First Friday Book Synopsis. And I’ll post my lessons and takeaways, probably later in the day on Friday.
Here’s one of the great lines from the book — true, sad, pretty funny…
When the ten-year-old son of my neuroscience colleague Jeff Mogil was asked what his father does for a living, he responded, “He answers e-mails.”
I get that…
And, though we follow rules (“check your e-mail only twice a day”), we cheat – constantly. Thus, at almost any time, our “focus” can be hijacked. Even if we decide to “answer it later,” it is on our mind now, always…
Again, from the book:
If you’re checking e-mail every five minutes, you’re checking it 200 times during the waking day. This has to interfere with advancing your primary objectives.
So, one thing I have done is reset my e-mail automatic check feature. I have added substantial time between “automatic checks.”
And, consider this:
There are also important differences between snail mail and e-mail on the receiving end. In the old days, the only mail we got came once a day, which effectively created a cordoned-off section of your day to collect it from the mailbox and sort it.
This sort of captures the dilemma, doesn’t it? In the old days, mail arrived once a day. And the expectation was that if you decided to respond, it would take a few days. This allowed time to ponder, reflect, craft a true appropriate response.
Now, the expectation is, read now, respond NOW – RIGHT NOW!, I‘M WAITING ON YOUR RESPONSE – RESPOIND NOW!!! No wonder we feel so stressed, so buried.
You think I’m exaggerating? Consider this paragraph about life at Apple, from the article ‘These People Are Nuts': 2 Former Managers Reveal What Working For Apple Is Really Like:
Apple employees needed to be available 24/7: If you forwarded something to one of your people at 1 o’clock in the morning and they didn’t reply promptly, you got a little annoyed at them … When someone came into my office and said they wanna be a manager, I asked them, “How did you sleep last night?” And they said, “Oh, fairly well,” and I said, “Good, ’cause that’s the last good night’s sleep you’re gonna get.”
I admit it. I love e-mail. It is brilliant. It is wonderful. And yet, there are times I would like the person who invented it to be sentenced to meals of nothing but asparagus and lifelong reruns of bad television…
In other words, handling information overload is a challenge… maybe beginning with, and always including, e-mail management.
There are times when one simple quote is worthy of standing alone…
“Creativity doesn’t come from doing what you already know how to do…”
Steve Wozniak, from The Wisdom Of Woz — Apple Cofounder Steve Wozniak Shares Nine Tips For Starting Companies, Solving Problems, And Finding Happiness
How to “recapture a sense of order and thereby regain the hours of time wasted by a disorganized mind”
Clutter can fill up our minds the same way it fills up closets, drawers, cabinets, attics, and basements of residences. The problem is even more serious in offices, given all the places in which clutter can accumulate. Climate-controlled storage has become a multi-billion dollar business in the United States precisely because so many people have so much “stuff” that there is insufficient room for it anywhere else.
Don’t blame the human mind. It is what the brain does and is remarkably well-organized but our use of it is certainly not. Pretend for a moment that you are behind the wheel of a Ferrari F12berlinetta, a vehicle that combines superior design and performance. Start the engine and begin to drive it. Oh, I forgot to mention, you don’t know how to use the accelerator, brakes, and steering wheel. The challenge is to understand what this magnificent vehicle can do and then master the skills necessary to take full advantage of those capabilities. I realize that citing the hypothetical situation of driving a Ferrari F12berlinetta without any control of its speed or direction is a bit of a stretch but the fact remains that many human beings feel overwhelmed by the velocity and complexity of their lives. Cluttered thinking results in a cluttered life.
Daniel Levitin wrote this book to help as many people as possible to meet this challenge, to increase their understanding of (a) the human mind and (b) how effective use of it can help them “recapture a sense of order and thereby regain the hours of time wasted by a disorganized use of mind.” He notes two of the most compelling properties of the human brain and its design: “richness and associative access. Richness refers to the theory that a large number of things you’re ever thought of or experienced are still in there, somewhere. Associative access means that your thoughts can be accessed in a number of different ways by semantic or perceptual associations.” These are but two of countless functions and capabilities of the human mind. “The cognitive neuroscience of memory and attention — our improved understanding of the brain, its evolution, and limitations — can help us to better cope with a world when more and more of us feel we’re running fast just to stand still.”
The best business books tend to be research-driven and that is certainly true of this one. Levitin provides 83 pages of annotated “Notes” (Pages 397-481), a clear indication that the abundance of information and insights he provides has a rock-solid foundation of authoritative sources.
These are among the dozens of passages of special interest to me, also listed so as to indicate the scope of Levitin’s coverage:
o The Inside History of Cognitive Overload (Pages 3-13)
o Information Overload, Then and Now (13-32)
Note: How serious has the problem become? According to Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, “From the dawn of civilization until 2003, humankind generated five exabytes of data. Now we produce five exabytes [begin italics] every two days [end italics]…and the pace is rapidly accelerating.”
o How Attention and Memory Work (37-45)
o The Neurochemistry of Work (45-48)
o Where Memory Comes From (48-54)
o Where Things Can Start to Get Better (77-87)
o Home Is Where I Want to Be (106-112)
o How Humans Connect Now (113-120)
o Aren’t Modern Social Relations Too Complex to Organize? (120-135)
o When We Procrastinate (195-201)
o Creative Time (201-215)
o Thinking Straight About Probabilities (220-230)
o How We Create Value (268-276)
o The Future of the Organized Mind (329-337)
o Where You Get Your Information (365-369)
o Browsing and Serendipity (376-383)
Levitin acknowledges, “There is no one system that will work for everyone — we are each unique — but in [this book] there are general principles that anyone can apply [begin italics] in their own way [end italics] to recapture a sense of order and to regain the hours of lost time spent trying to overcome the disorganized mind…Getting organized can bring us all to the next level in our lives. It’s the human condition to fall prey to old habits. We must consciously look at areas of our lives that need cleaning up, and then methodically and proactively do so. And then keep doing it…The key to change is having faith that when we get rid of the old, something or someone even more magnificent will take its place.”
Long ago, I began to realize that our lives are the results of the decisions we make, for better or worse. Also, that making no decision is itself a decision, usually with consequences and sometimes with serious consequences. I am deeply grateful to Daniel Levitin for all that I have learned from this book, especially during a second reading when preparing to compose this brief commentary. It seems ironic — and is perhaps a paradox — that we need the human mind to enrich our understanding of the human mind. The material in this book can help anyone to make better decisions about what’s important — and what isn’t — so that better decisions can be made about what to keep and what to eliminate.
It really is true: Cluttered thinking results in a cluttered life. The choice is ours.
Time is precious.
Calendars are full.
But, not so full, not so precious, that you should not carve out some corners in your schedules for some content-driven thought.
If your leadership team is only meeting about “what are our problems this week?,” then you will never take a bigger-picture look at what you should be focusing on.
Enter the Book Briefing.
Since April, 1998, Karl Krayer and I have been reading the best business books, and presenting synopses (briefings) of these books. Once a month, two books every month, for 16 ½ years.
For each presentation, we use our comprehensive, multi-page handouts to accompany our presentations. And, after years of refining these, we have added a “My Personal Action Plan” worksheet exercise at the end of each presentation. In other words, if you attend, pay attention, and listen, and commit to follow through, you can leave with some tangible steps to put into practice.
Over the course of these years, we’ve seen key patterns emerge. And I have developed a couple of visuals to capture those patterns.
How could our sessions be useful to your leadership team?
Companies and organizations have discovered that a book briefing is a very good way to help their leadership team “think about the bigger-picture issues.” And, we have presented these in two ways. First, in a systematic learning schedule. (Kind of a leadership team up-to-date curriculum of the best business thinking). AND, we have presented these for leadership teams when they realize “we’ve got a problem; we need a briefing on this issue.”
A few of these have become the “beginning” of more extended training sessions. For example, we combine a briefing of the book Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath into a longer session on making better decisions.
So, take a good look at these two visuals The first one is one I created that captures the themes and issues that leadership teams face in thinking about their over-all challenges. (I summarize each of these “bubbles’ in my e-book, 12 Vital Signs of Organizational Health, available from Amazon).
And, here is my latest visual. Think of this as a “Leadership Team Big-Picture Flow Chart.” Your team could schedule a book briefing, and either conclude “we’ve nailed this one in our organization,” or, “we’ve got work to do on this one. Help us do this work.” Again, take a good look.
This chart shows the value our book briefings can bring to your leadership team. But, whether you use book briefings, or some other “let’s take a look at the big-picture” approach with some other kind of content, this chart reveals your challenge. It does little good to be ignorant of your current over-all health. It does little good to have a session, realize “we need to work on this,” and then not work on it until you solve it.
I have found that a book briefing is an effective tool to help you think about the issues you face, but all too frequently “ignore.”
There are a lot of meetings that waste a lot of time. And they feel like a waste of time. And, maybe they are, because little is accomplished in far too many meetings.
But, the evidence is clear – effective meetings can really lead to progress.
So… what to do?
There are a lot of “approaches” to reach the goal. That goal:
for a team to have an effective meeting, a meeting that moves the group, and the organization, forward.
And what is an effective meeting? How about this?
An effective meeting is a meeting that identifies the “what’s next?” very effectively, and then provides clear marching orders to accomplish that “what’s next?”.
Those “what’s next?” conversations are critical. And, there are a number of ways to arrive at the “what’s next?” that a group needs. Here’s one approach. Frequently, the “what’s next?” is the idea that:
We need to START DOING something we are not yet doing.
We need to STOP DOING something that we are doing.
We need to CONTINUE (KEEP) DOING what we are doing, (but, maybe, with some improvements – or, maybe, among more people and groups throughout the organization.).
(Here’s a Gazelles work sheet to help you work through this leadership team meeting exercise).
Whatever your situation, I suspect that well-run, purposeful meetings will help you make progress.
How are your meetings going?
How and why a wider perspective (System 2 thinking) will guide you toward more effective decisions and fewer disappointments
I agree with Yogi Berra: “You can observe a lot by just watching.”
However, as Max Bazerman explains in this brilliant book, more than watching is necessary: we must also notice and then, of perhaps even greater importance, we need to have developed a mind-set that enables us to recognize what is especially significant. This is what Isaac Asimov has in mind when observing, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny…'” Hence the importance of anomalies. It is impossible to connect the dots to reveal patterns, trends, causal relationships, etc. unless you know what the right “dots” are and connect them in the right way. The same is true of accumulating disparate data (viewed as pieces of a puzzle) and know how to assemble them in proper order.
As Bazerman explains, “The Power of Noticing challenges leaders to also be noticing architects. Leaders too often fail to notice that they have designed systems that encourage a misspecified goal (booked sales) rather than a more appropriate one (actual profit to the organization). I encourage all leaders to become better noticing architects and to design systems that encourage employees to notice what is truly important.” All of the great leaders throughout history were great noticers. With rare exception, they helped others to become great (or at least competent) noticers.
In the second chapter, Bazerman suggests that inattentional blindness “is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our failure to notice. Much worse — and well-documented — is the common tendency to willfully ignore inconvenient evidence of others’ unethical behavior. In Dante’s Inferno, the last and worst ring in hell is reserved for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. Inattentional blindness has been a problem for several centuries. Consider this observation by Thucydides: “When a man finds a conclusion agreeable, he accepts it without argument, but when he finds it disagreeable, he will bring against it all the forces of logic and reason.”
These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Bazerman’s coverage.
o The Broader Argument: Our Failure to Notice (Pages xix-xxi)
o From Bounded Awareness to Removing the Blinders (13-15)
o Jerry Sandusky Scandal (16-25)
o Broad Oversight (36-42)
o Implicit Blindness (50-61)
o Negotiating the Wrong Deal (78-82)
o Not Noticing on a Slippery Slope (88-92)
o Sherlock Holmes in “Silver Blaze”: The Dog That Didn’t Bark (101-109)
o Not Noticing the Ingredients of a Financial Collapse, and, It IS Too Good to Be True (126-132)
o The Market for Lemons (139-145)
o Cynicism: The Dark Side of Thinking One Step Ahead (146-150)
o Walking the Customer: “We Reward Results!”(159-162)
o Failing to Notice Predictable Surprises (171-172)
o The Power of Noticing Predictable Surprises (178-180)
o A Noticing Mind-Set (182-185)
o Nothing Is Easier for Outsiders (187-191)
Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of information, insights, and counsel that Max Bazerman provides in abundance. However, I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of his book. He concludes: “As I hope you have learned by now, focusing is important, but sometimes noticing is better — at least when you are making critical decisions. In hope that this book has provided useful guidance to help you, as a focuser, also become a first-class noticer.” I presume to add a few points of my own. First, we tend to see what we expect to see and notice little else. Also, as Thucydides suggests, we tend to embrace that with which we agree and reject that withwhich we don’t. Finally, it is extremely difficult but nonetheless possible — and perhaps imperative — to establish a culture within which noticing is not only a core competency but an embedded value.
Last week, Simon and Schuster published a provocative new business book that flew to the # 3 spot in the best-seller list revealed in the 9/27/2014 edition of the Wall Street Journal.
The book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate, written by Naomi Klein, is a certain selection for one of us at the First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas. Watch our web site for the exact month we will present this one.
Who is Naomi Klein? She was educated at the University of Toronto, and is known as a social activist due to her criticism of corporate globalization and her candid political analyses. She is only 44 years old, and became well known in business circles with her 2007 New York Times best-seller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador). In that book, she argued that those who wish to implement unpopular free market policies do so by taking advantage of particular societal segments following major disasters, including political, economic, military, or natural varieties. Her analysis was that when a society experiences a major ‘shock,’ a widespread desire for a rapid and decisive response to correct the situation follows. In the light of that desire for swift action, unethical and unscrupulous individuals have opportunities to implement policies that are self-serving and illegitimate. The shock doctrine allows such responses, including manufactured policy changes, to go into immediate effect.
You can read an interview published on September 25, 2014, on Slate.com, about her new book, by clicking here. Note that the bottom of the interview contains two important corrections.
In This Changes Everything, Klein argues that the climate crisis provides a challenge for us to abandon free-market thinking, restructure the global economy, and rethink current political systems.
This descriptive paragraph about the book comes from Amazon.com: “Climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies. She exposes the ideological desperation of the climate-change deniers, the messianic delusions of the would-be geoengineers, and the tragic defeatism of too many mainstream green initiatives. And she demonstrates precisely why the market has not—and cannot—fix the climate crisis but will instead make things worse, with ever more extreme and ecologically damaging extraction methods, accompanied by rampant disaster capitalism.“
And, later on the same site, “Klein argues that the changes to our relationship with nature and one another that are required to respond to the climate crisis humanely should not be viewed as grim penance, but rather as a kind of gift—a catalyst to transform broken economic and cultural priorities and to heal long-festering historical wounds. And she documents the inspiring movements that have already begun this process: communities that are not just refusing to be sites of further fossil fuel extraction but are building the next, regeneration-based economies right now.“
You can bet this book will produce many stimulating conversations. Watch the major editorial pages of national business magazines and newspaper sections. I am sure that some will include personal attacks on her own credibility. Time will tell what is actually true.
Remember that we do not select books to present at the First Friday Book Synopsis that we agree with. And, we don’t try to get you to agree with the books we select. We are merely reporters – transferring the information in an objective manner from the author to our audience.
But, when we do this one, I would sure like to stand in the hallway to listen to our attendees talk about it.
Here’s the lesson for this blog post.
When a problem is threatening to get out of hand, we should act earlier than we do – much, much earlier!
When we wait, waiting can have very bad consequences. (Even, in the case of Ebola, very deadly consequences).
Consider these three items:
All these people spend a great deal of time trying to think about all the ways that something might go wrong, how they might prevent it, and how they would recover if it does.
Sounds like wise counsel and advice to me.
#2 – In What Matters Now, Gary Hamel includes this stark warning:
Problem is, deep change is almost always crisis-driven; it’s tardy, traumatic and expensive.
So, when we wait for the crisis, and then act, we pretty much blow it… This usually is, as Mr Hamel put it, “tardy, traumatic, and expensive.”
#3 – Consider the Ebola crisis. In the Business Insider article We Screwed Up On Ebola, And Now The Crisis Is Getting Much Worse by Lauren Friedman, we read:
Back in April, when the Ebola outbreak in West Africa had killed less than 100 people, Doctors Without Borders urged the world to mobilize a significant response, warning that failure to act could result in an “unprecedented epidemic.”
Instead, the world responded with what Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times called “a global shrug.” Over the summer, as residents of the developed world comforted themselves with the knowledge that an outbreak on our home turf was highly unlikely, the death toll in one of the poorest corners of the world climbed sharply.
Now, take a look at this chart (from the Business Insider article).
So… the lesson. Start looking at everything you do much more closely. What is set up to go wrong? What warning signs are you missing? What crisis might be (sometimes, almost certainly will be) coming “‘round the bend?”
Identify early; act quickly. Don’t wait. Don’t wait to see if things will get worse. Chances are, they will…
Waiting is “tardy, traumatic, expensive” – and can be pretty devastating.
I am in the process of reading John Dean’s newest book about Richard Nixon and Watergate. The book is entitled The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It (New York: Viking, 2014). I am about 4/5 done, as I write today’s post.
Dean, who was chief counsel during the Nixon era, arranged for transcription of all of the audio recorded tapes, and has painstakingly listened to and interpreted them to write this book. Some tapes were of very poor quality and Dean professes to have spent hours trying to decipher them with the most sophisticated equipment available. The book is a well-written, although not always well-proofed (there are typos), account of the major events and players in this infamous era. His first, and most famous book, was Blind Ambition (New York: Simon and Schuster), written in 1976, which Dean frequently cites in this book.
I listened to some of these tapes before they were made available to general public. Once on a trip to D.C., in the early ’90’s, I spent most of a day at the National Archives selecting sessions of interest to me. At the time I did this, many of the tapes that are available today on the Internet were still classified. This book reinforces the startling reality that we had an American president who stumbled and rambled in an inarticulate manner, presenting himself in front of others as confused, disorganized, and uninformed. He adapted well to whom he was speaking, but in a manipulative and unethical manner. What I did not know until I read this book was that he was also horribly sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic. The tapes reveal that he was no fan of women, African-Americans, or Jews, in spite of any presidential appointments that he awarded them.
The most interesting portions in the book to me are the reflections that Dean includes from a perspective 40 years later. He frequently explains what he was thinking then, and what he thinks now. He provides corrections and updates to what he heard on the tapes. This is not a book that simply includes transcriptions, but rather, that weaves in information and accounts from multiple sources that correspond with those transcriptions.
People criticize Jimmy Carter as president for surrounding himself with the wrong people. They were no match for “all the president’s men.” I always thought that Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, was machiavellian and controlling. I never believed Charles Colson back then, or when he found Jesus Christ in jail and wrote books for personal profit, or now as I read what he said in these transcriptions.* Until I read this book, I never thought that John Ehrlichman, the counsel and Assistant to for Domestic Affairs, was so stupid. The tapes reveal how often he spoke before thinking, how limited his knowledge of civil and criminal law was, and how dismissive he was of alternative positions that were not aligned with his own. Without doubt, the great unraveling of the Watergate cover-up as well as the Nixon presidency was the gradual interest each person had in protecting himself by twisting facts and spinning tales to fit individual concerns. At one point, Ehrlichman, in a meeting with Haldeman and Nixon, actually provides word-for-word false testimony that he wanted Dean to recite under oath. At another, with the same audience, he assumes a broadcaster’s voice, and provides the content of a potential news story that he thought could play out in the media. In so many conversations, all of these men provided Nixon partial information about damaging circumstances, omitting any content that could implicate themselves. That is even true when they spoke about each other with Nixon while one or more were not present. Dean was brave for bolting the scene and baring himself to prosecutors, but why did it take him so long to do so?
But the president himself was the problem. If you read this book, you may be amazed how much time Nixon devoted to Watergate-related business. He devoted entire days and weekends to gathering facts about it, creating scenarios, providing instructions, and examining options. How many times he asks the same questions and gets the same answers from the same people – again and again. He forgets, or pretends to forget, facts received from the same person, sometimes in the same conversation. I wonder how the rest of our national affairs could possibly have progressed with this much attention paid to Watergate in the Oval Office. His subordinates purportedly were trying to distance the president from their own involvement, but they could not do that, due to his own. Ultimately, I believe it was not John Sirica, or Sam Ervin, or Leon Jaworski, or any other characters who brought down Nixon. I think it was the American people. They could not tolerate, nor trust, a man in this office who once implored the country to put Watergate behind them. Nixon’s picture on the cover of Dean’s book is extremely sinister.
I find myself constantly returning to two sections in this book. First, I find the footnotes informative. These are both print sources and recording references. I occasionally will listen to a tape after reading about it in the book. Maybe that is why I have not finished this yet. Second, I like to go back to the list of the cast of characters. There are many, and I always want to refresh myself on a person’s exact title. Interestingly, there are no photographs, and I presume Dean knows they are readily available to readers elsewhere.
The two appendices are also revealing. Appendix A is an account of the Watergate break-in. Appendix B focuses upon the missing 18 1/2 minute gap in a recording, supposedly created by Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods. You will be surprised about the actual account published here about what happened, especially from expert testimony.
I will post final reflections about this book when I finish. I am interested to see how I feel about this when I can reflect about the entire book.
But, for now, this is an amazing work-in-progress. Why did I not wait until I finish to post this? Because, like many biographies which are careers-in-progress, so is this account for me.
* – I am in a definitive minority about my feelings concerning Colson. Almost everyone I have spoken to thinks Colson genuinely found the Lord in jail, and that his books indicate a sincere revelation of a changed personality. I wish I could also feel that way, but I just don’t. I simply believe he wrote them for profit, knowing that a public hungry for good news from such turnabouts would buy them. I will say, however, that I think Colson’s non-profit agencies and organizations have helped many people, and that overall, he provided a legacy with more good in the last years of his life than he did with the bad during the Watergate years. But, I just can’t shake my opinion that he wrote these books for the wrong reason.
Thor, has written numerous thrillers, one of which, The Lions of Lucerne (New York: Pocket Books, 2002) will be adapted for the big screen in 2015. You can read more about him at his web site by clicking here.
There are only a few books that I can honestly describe as not being able to put down. This is one of them.
I believe that one reason Thor is a great writer is that his books focus. There are not too many characters and not too many scenes, but just enough to keep the reader moving.
The key character is Scot Harvath, a former Navy SEAL and presidential secret service veteran, who returns from Thor’s previous books. He finds his hands full with the CIA, FBI, and local law enforcement when a critical quest for a terrorist provides startling information. The novel revolves around a top-secret operation developed by high-level individuals in the Chinese government. They have the objective of bringing the United States to its knees through multiple terrorist activities. At every level, their plan seems to have a strong chance to succeed in a swift and devastating manner. Harvath is pressured by the American president who stays on top of all the activities. He approves two missions that if Harvath cannot keep secret would end his career, and even his life. One of these Harvath controls, and the other is a chilling attempt to send a group secretly into North Korea. Time remains prominent and of the essence at every point in the story.
Readers will tell that this is a well-researched book. Thor provides a long list of acknowledgements, indicating the extensive scope of historians, military and law enforcement officials, and various other contributors who make this book believable.
I won’t tell you more so you can read this yourself. Since this is fiction, it does not qualify for the kinds of books we present, so you won’t be able to hear this at the First Friday Book Synopsis.
However, maybe in a few years, you will watch an adaptation of this at a theatre. I think it’s that good.