I have long believed and now I know that is backed by research that multi-tasking doesn’t quite work. When you switch context to check that beep from your phone, it takes your brain about 15–20 minutes to come back into the flow state. A surprising research in the last month showed that a phone kept upside down on your desk has a detrimental impact on your productivity.
That said, it is extremely hard to manage your focus when you are sitting in an open office space, with the web right in front of you, emails shouting for attention and time and again I find that I am lost.
I use the Pomodoro technique to manage my focus when I find that I am off the beaten track. I was surprised to hear that a colleague hadn’t heard about the technique. So here goes…
The name Pomodoro, is based on kitchen timers in Italy. The timers looked like tomatos and you twist them to start a 25 minute block.
The technique itself is very easy. Whenever, you want to focus, you start the timer and focus on 1 task for 25 minutes. Once you reach the 25 minutes time frame, take a 5 minute break and start again. Run through four pomodoro’s and take a 10 minute break.
To be candid, I have never been able to run through 4 pomodoro’s back-to-back but getting to 2–3 improves productivity significantly.
Another iteration on the technique is that your daily plan should include a certain number of pomodoro’s that work for you. For example an 8–10 pomodoro day would be an extremely productive day. In this case, you drop your checklists, find slots to make progress and get through items in those focus blocks.
From a tooling perspective, timer on your phone works easily. There are a number of Chrome extensions that keep track of your pomodoro on the web.
About 3 months back, when I heard that Prem uncle passed away in his sleep, I broke down and cried. I cried like I haven’t in a long time. His passing away has left a huge hole that can never be filled.
I was 18 when I had my last substantial interaction with him. I must have met him about 3-4 times since I left Mumbai in 1992 and 26 years later, he (and his wife) still remains one of my favourite human beings. For that matter, his parents were fantastic human beings too.
I got thinking in the last month or so – In a fast moving world, filled with short interactions — why do I miss him? Why was he special? What are the lessons that I can bring in my life and hopefully in yours too from him? What made him an extra-ordinary human being?
He wasn’t my teacher, relative but a neighbour who became much more.
Prem uncle and Sangeeta aunty, lived in our apartment complex were in their 30s when we met them. Presumably, I saw him at his peak — financial and health wise. He had a fantastic business going, the confidence that comes along with having made it and made it very fast. As a 16 year old, going down his career path was something that I seriously considered.
Then, it came crashing down — he had to go through two heart valve replacement surgeries, one anticipated (and I think triggered by chain smoking) and another one because the first valve was defective. Followed by a paralytic attack. Between these three events, he suffered a betrayal by his business partner who pounced on the opportunity to take over the business and drove him out. All of this in a span of 2 years :-(. Having recently suffered a betrayal myself, I can truly empathise the pain and the hurt that he had to go through.
The financial success then wasn’t what made him extra-ordinary. It isn’t his material success in the world that mattered to me. The people who hung around him who craved the reflection of his material success evaporated very quickly.
Here are the lessons that I learnt from him:
As I got thinking, I realised, the reason I loved him, or my sister loved and now his son and nephews and nieces loved him was because of unconditional love and acceptance that he radiated towards us. I truly have never seen any other human as generous as he(and aunty) was in sharing his love. And when he accepted you in his life — he truly well accepted you for all the good and the bad.
When he interacted with you, you were truly the centre of his attention. There were no half measures in terms of looking at others. This was important for a 15 year old kid — a human/an elder paying complete attention to me and acknowledging my viewpoints.
Bringing joy and fun in every interaction with friends and family. Be it the nightly carrom sessions or the hours of Nintendo games or forcing me to play Antakshari (an Indian singing game). The focus was truly to enjoy life and bring joy to everyone involved. To this date, when I miss him, I reach out to my Nintendo and play it. Consequently, I never play antakshari because it reminds me too much of him and wonderful time gone by that can never be recaptured.
Playfulness in relationships. I loved how he brought play in relationships. Minor irreverence perhaps — not the right word perhaps gentle ribbing are the right words. A minor playful drama with his wife, father and mother pretending to hide his smoking habit while it was out there in the open. Jumping in the car to go get paan in the middle of the night or for that matter getting me to sit on the hood of the Jeep and drive in the beach. It was all great fun.
That’s really it! Living a well lived life doesn’t need trappings of success, huge amounts of money or too many accomplishments.
Looking back at his life and seeing how well I embody those lessons. I find that I fall woefully short. Life today has become too serious, attention fragmented by devices perhaps a small bit of playfulness is what I embody from his life. His passing away has been a wake up call for me to refactor my life to the qualities that I admired in him and admire in others.
It is worth repeating that a life well lived doesn’t need trappings of success, huge amounts of money, too many accomplishments, status but what it needs is unconditional love, joy, fun, playfulness.
Prem uncle – you will be forever missed but you will continue in our hearts. Thank you for all the fun times and the love and congratulations on a fantastic life and life well lived!
2017 was the year I agonised over buying a Tesla Model X. I ran through all the reasons I needed it — beautiful, gorgeous, drives fantastic, best technology and green. I just couldn’t come to a conclusion, because the price was a serious consideration. The problem at hand was that the reasons I wanted to buy it were intangibles.
That brings us to a key component in decision making — what do you do when you are facing a decision and there are numerous intangibles at hand? Paraphrasing Lord Kelvin, the famous British physicist, “The challenge of intangibles — when you can measure something and express something in numbers, you know what you are speaking about. If you cannot speak about it in numbers, then the knowledge is meager and you have scarcely advanced the state of science.”
As I looked around in other areas of my life, I saw that there were a number of other decisions that I couldn’t make progress on. They were also stuck because of intangibles. Some good examples that come to mind in the life of a product manager are: the value of open source software, when your product is driven by OSS; the value of adoption of open source software; what does virality mean for success of a product — how much should we be investing in virality; how to choose between competing features to make the most impact for the organization. I could talk to these decisions very well, had anecdotal evidence and experts backing those decisions…but they fundamentally were intangibles.
I have always been fascinated by literature on decision making and find that most recommendations range from “Just do it” to mind-numbing, if-then-else analysis. Douglas Hubbard presents a scientific, probability-based framework to reduce uncertainty through your decision making progress.
Paraphrasing Hubbard, “Decisions fundamentally are about a choice in the path ahead where decision makers have imperfect information. This lack of information causes uncertainty. Measurement is a type of choice among others to reduce this uncertainty. For any decision, you can typically measure a large combination of things, but you can never achieve perfect certainty.”
Thus, the right way to think about decisions is that a decision is a decision because one cannot articulate the right value of each of the choices ahead. The way to reduce the uncertainty, then, is to measure the things that reduce that uncertainty, knowing fully well that you cannot — and should not — measure everything that informs the decision, because too much information causes information overload. The key part of measurement is to assign an economic value to the measurement. Let’s say, you as a decision maker are looking to improve delivery of value from the organization. Measuring productivity of employees could be a type of measurement, and instead of measuring how much time an employee spends on each of the activities, quantify the business value of each of the areas she spends most of her hours on. Thus, if you get the employee to spend more time on activities that drive more business value, you can get more productivity from the system.
So how does one proceed, so that one isn’t stuck at the end of a spectrum that has “just do it” as the starting point and “analysis paralysis” as the ending point?
The ladder of better decision making starts by stepping back and questioning the decision. Check if you are asking the right question. Most hard problems in life and business can be solved by asking the right questions. If you are indeed asking the right question, then do the following (Hubbard calls it Applied Information Economics; with some color from my past readings on this topic).
Define the decision. If the decision isn’t informing a significant bet, don’t measure anything. If the decision is easily reversible, just make a decision and move on.
Determine what you know about the decision. Identify the key informational vectors that inform you more about the decision (hours working, vs hours spent on the most impactful activity).
Compute the value of additional information (if none, go to step 5). Additional information is the information that you need to drill down into and measure.
Measure where information value is high (return to steps 2 and 3). High information value implies tying some sort of economic benefit to it (improving productivity implied measuring and identifying most impactful hours). This really is the key to better decision making — tying some sort of economic value to your intangibles.
Make a decision and act on it (return to step 1 and repeat as each action creates new decisions).
Typically, as you do steps 3, 4 and 5, you will find that each decision opens a cascade of micro-decisions that may have their own measurements to help build the case for the overarching decisions that you will rinse and repeat on.
So how did this framework help me?
I made the call on the Tesla before I read the book and was pleasantly surprised that my mental model roughly followed the framework. I put an economic value on each of the subjective axis, compared with the cost of the vehicle and came up short. I passed over the Tesla for a Lexus RX 350, knowing full well that I will evaluate my decision in the year ahead and these values may change — c’est la vie.
On the “business value” delivered by my team, I have instituted a “business value pointing” system offered by a tool called Aha. The vectors that constitute the business point are subjective. That is okay, because the scores on the vectors are informed by the expertise that my team has built up so far. We are drilling down on step 3 right now.
On understanding the “value of adoption of OSS” or “virality of a product” — I am on a journey and am hoping to find the right measurements to taking the decisions from “expert-led” to a state of science.
What decision frameworks work for you? Let me know in the comments section, below.
– Article heavily influenced by How to Measure Everything, by Douglas Hubbard.
I am in Maui this week and spent 2 days learning the theory on scuba diving only to discover that I failed and hated it. A blog coming next week about it. Meanwhile, here are the 9 things that I thought were worth sharing this week. Enjoy!
[Leadership|Startup] My article on 4 key principles to become a good leader .