John’s Hierarchy Of Focus

15th January 2017

If you prefer a podcast version of this article look here under Analytical

"Focus means saying no…" so once said Steve Jobs though the context he was mentioning it in was more related to products and features for those products, it applies on many levels. Individually our time is precious and that’s buried within that statement at a deeper level.

To be productive you need to decide how to say no, and if you possibly can - perhaps avoid needing to say no altogether. It’s not always a good coping strategy to just say "no" in all situations nor is it realistic to expect people to "just leave me alone" so you can focus on getting something specific done. When working in groups you can look at which situations allow you to say "no" since they’re not all created equal.

Productive time in businesses fall into four basic time groupings:

  • Collaborative time (meetings, group discussions)
  • Planning time (usually the individual, planning what needs to be done, sometimes in consultation with others)
  • Consulting time (obtaining information and direction from specific individuals - i.e. You’re disrupting others to further a requirement you have upon yourself but you need to consult with others to deliver it)
  • Lock-down time (individual, with full focus on the task at hand and minimal distractions)

Lock-down time is the best way to shut-out the rest of the world and the best way to control the single biggest source of distraction: communication. These days we have about four levels of communication distraction: Emails, Instant Notifications, Phone Calls, and In Your Face.

John’s Hierarchy of Focus

Scale: 4 is the least distracting to 1 as the highest distraction meaning: it’s the hardest to escape once you’ve been drawn into it.

EMail (#4)

Email was the first major use of networking for businesses in particular and it’s been around for decades and ironically was originally intended to replace nuisance office memos. For those that have been working long enough there were these "In Trays" and "Out Trays" on everyones desk at work. You’d get some special paper with a carbon copy sheet underneath (or multiple thereof depending on how many copies you wanted) and you’d write or type up that paper Memo, keep the original and give the copies to those people you Carbon Copied via the carbon paper sheet(s). The electronic form was so easy to send to so many people, that’s exactly what happened. Previous limits of Carbon Copy layers were gone and the result was email memo spam. People just copied everyone even if they weren’t directly affected:

  • "Oh I should copy Bob - he was involved in that project about 2 years back - he might be interested…"
  • "Oh I should copy my boss so he knows what’s going on…"
  • "Plus the person I’m sending it to, and their boss and the project manager and the other developer and blah blah blah oh my god I’ll just send it to 20 people…"

I get about 75 Emails every day, most of which don’t require a response I’m just copied as an FYI. Great. Thanks everyone. Every one I need to read, comprehend and decide if I need to do something. The problem is that reading takes time and evaluating takes time and that’s time I don’t have if I’m trying to focus on something else.

Turning off Email for me looks like muting all Notifications on my iPad, my iPhone and my Laptop, which ultimately means that I can’t see if Emails are coming through in real time and at that point it’s down to my own nerve - my internal resolve NOT to check my Email. Avoiding a habitual "refresh" of the Inbox is easier said than done for those where it has become a learned behaviour.

But is that okay? I think most people expect that Emails aren’t real-time communications and don’t expect a response immediately even if they set an Important flag for the Email. So if I don’t respond for a day, it’s probably okay. If I don’t respond for a few days, it’s probably annoying to others. If I don’t respond for a week, it’s probably pushing the friendship a bit there, but overall it’s okay with the risk of offence being quite low for most people. The benefit of the eliminated distraction is great and real and the more Email you get, the more gain you’ll get from turning off your Email notifications.

Instant Notifications (#3)

There are so many different messaging platforms out there I’m not going to list them all but some of the bigger ones at the time of writing are Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. Instant Messages are sent specifically to you unlike most Emails and they’re not "Fred just built yet another sandcastle and posted a photo on Instagram" types of messages. There’s a difference when we get a personally directed message that puts it a cut above an Email such that there’s more of an expectation that you’re going to respond. It’s like a quick verbal conversation except typing requires more cognitive load than talking does for most people and when you think you’re done with a conversation, it doesn’t mean you ACTUALLY are.

You type "See you later," hit send and think that’s it, I’m done, put the phone down to refocus and then it’s another message back. Quick now, stop what you’re doing to read it and probably respond again. If you don’t respond to an instant message in a little while there’s really two flavours: instant messaging systems that track when you’ve read the message (read-receipts) and ones where the other person doesn’t know you’ve read their message. My suggestion: if you can turn off read receipts - do it. It makes you look like a jerk when you read the message and then choose not to respond immediately. Turn read receipts off and leave them off and set expectations early on in your texting ‘relationship’ that you’ve done that.

Assuming read receipts are turned off and someone instant messages you, you choose not to respond, what’s the consequence? After a few minutes they’ll probably forget all about it anyway and after a day it’s ancient history. It will annoy people more than if you ignored their Email but not too much more especially if you turn off your read receipts first. For most it’s a case of taking the application(s) instant messaging you and turning off their notifications or if there are too many switch your messaging device(s) to Do Not Disturb mode. The risk of offence is higher than Email but not by too much and the benefit of the eliminated distraction is as great and just as real as Email and in some cases worse for a lot of younger people that have grown up with instant messaging at their fingertips. For a lot of people though, this one is a harder habit to break than shutting out Email.

Phone Calls (#2)

Yes…people still make phone calls. It’s been around for a hundred years and the expectation has long ago been set: when the phone rings, you answer it. In the last thirty or so years has it become possible to call you wherever you go, wherever you are, any time of the day or night rather than only ever at home or at work. No answer meant "they weren’t at home" or "they weren’t at their desk" and that was it.

Now it’s assumed phones are on you at all times, always charged, always on, and that level of accessibility is very hard for a lot of people to resist intruding on. Hence it’s above text-based messaging it’s like a tap-tap-tap ring-ring-ring are you there? They test your instinct to not answer the phone. That said, there’s the send to voicemail option and if you’re trying to avoid people then send them voicemail. Sometimes a variant of this is called "call screening" where you listen to the first 2-5 seconds to see who it is before answering or not. Then again you could just send them all with a divert to voicemail.

Always diver can be problematic because certain people will start to get offended if you just divert all calls to voicemail. There’s an expectation in business that whilst Emails and IMs might not require an immediate response if I call twice or three times then it’s urgent and I need you to pick up. That said, the phone ringing suggests they’re not in the same room which means they technically can’t tell if you’re there or not. For people that get lots of phone calls: I’ll get about 20 on an average workday for example, it can be quite frustrating when you’re trying to concentrate. If you answer that phone, you’re stuck with a conversation where you need to go through pleasantries, get to the nut of what they actually want from you, answer or try to give them what they want or need, or make a commitment to get them something that they want or need, more pleasantries and then hang up, followed by taking some notes, setting some reminders and oh wait - here comes the next phone call.

I have a policy that I’ll answer calls when: (Your list of rules may vary and this is just what I do)

  • I’m not in a business critical meeting
  • I’m not in training (or giving training)
  • On call - no matter what or when, during business hours

When I put myself into self-imposed lock-down (I’ll talk more about that shortly…) I only answer if it’s my boss or about a pressing issue I’m aware of already and I’ll send the rest to voicemail and if they don’t leave a voicemail I never call them back. If it was important they’d leave a voice mail or call me back.

I think people get very annoyed if you repeatedly and consistently ignore their phone calls but it’s also relative to position. I’ve found that people with higher positions in companies get cut more slack and the lower you are in the hierarchy the more expectation there is that you’ll just drop everything and answer the phone. Repeatedly screening calls from the same person carries a definite risk you’ll offend that person since there’s no chance to provide context as to why you’re doing it, but generally it’s not much more offensive than ignoring IMs.

There’s a huge saving in terms of focus to be had in sending all of your calls to voicemail but do so with caution. I prefer call screening and checking my VMs periodically as a better balance.

In Your Face (#1)

Sometimes I’ve heard it called "Cubicle Bombing." You’re at your desk, trying to work and they just rock up and say "Hi!" For added impact, sometimes they hunt in packs. They’ll stand and look at you, or tap you on your shoulder, or talk loudly next to you, pretty much anything to get your attention. Humans are social animals and we don’t usually like to offend other people but if you’re like me and you tend to wear your emotions on your sleeve it’s hard to hide annoyance and frustration when you’re genuinely busy and get cubicle bombed.

I think that people need to know that you’re busy and you really can’t talk but rather than come across as impatient and disinterested I’m getting more direct in my old age. I try to be firm and say "I need to finish this Email/report/whatever for [insert name of important person here] so can I drop by later?" or something similar and most people will respect that. Then comes the "Oh it won’t take long…" and yeah, sure, there you go for an hour or longer conversation.

Some people think that work is just going and talking to other people but the reality is that talking is not actually work for the vast majority of the workforce pretty much of the time in an average day. If you’re in Human Resources even then it’s not really true since there’s plenty of paperwork or data entry to do too.

Then there are the cubicle bombers that just won’t leave. I’m not saying I’ve tried all of these but here’s few I’ve seen others pull:

  • Faking a phone call on your mobile
  • Needing to visit the restroom/washroom/bathroom, but not really needing to
  • Having an "help me" sound or gesture with your cubicle mate across the way and get them to interrupt somehow

People generally come to see you as a last resort these days, not the first. Which is both good and bad. The truth is though if they can find you, just ignoring them will offend them and telling them to go away will also offend them. You might be in a position in the organisation where the risk of offending them is far too great to risk for fear of loss of your position.

So if you need focus, you need to find a way to make yourself harder to find.

The Bottom Line

Why these distractions annoy me so much centers around when someone needs something from you, it’s all about them and what they need or want, not about how they’ll make your job/life easier. They distract you from the task that you care about or are accountable for delivering, to make you refocus on the task that THEY care about or need to deliver themselves. The truth is when they distract you, almost always they win and you lose.

The flip side is clear: what about when you need something from someone else? Do you have the right to distract THEM? If you do because they’re the nominated person what’s the right way to do it? I suggest working your way up the list from bottom to top. Email first, if there is no response, message second, phone call third, plan a meeting about it (30mins or less if possible) and finally if there is no other choice, track them down physically. Waiting more than 10 minutes between each escalation is also advisable.

If you need to get something done, you need to focus and you need to say NO then lock-down is what you should do.

Eliminate the distractions that will cause minimal offence to others and maximum your potential for distraction-free time. I’d suggest this order of hierarchy:

  1. Turn off and don’t check your Email.
  2. Go to Do Not Disturb for your IMs.
  3. Screen your phone calls and let unimportant, non-urgent calls go to voicemail.
  4. Get out of the office, or if not find a place in the office where you don’t normally go and can get a quiet spot to work without distraction. If they can’t find you they can’t get in your face.

Even if you don’t do them all, do as many as you can because focus does mean saying no and it sometimes means saying no without saying it at all and putting yourself and your focus ahead of others.

Everything Is Cyclic

20th February 2016

Wash - Rinse - Repeat

So says the instructions on the shampoo bottle, or was that Lather, Rinse, Repeat? Either way the idea that sequences are part of our lives is pervasive in ways we often don’t recognise cognitively. The sun rises, it sets, the seasons change and repeat each year and so on.

Yet when it comes to personal desires we seem to not recognise this cyclic nature in ourselves. Though in humans it seems to be more driven in some people by the urge to refine, to iterate and to improve. A perfect example from my own life is commuting to and from work. A common problem set at the foot of many people in the world.

Your options: Drive or take public transport.

For a few years I drove to work whenever I could, which was never exclusively, but when a project had a downtown car park that I was able to utilise every day for a few months I took that option. I had been on a combination of buses and trains for the preceding 2 years and grew tired of the scheduling problems, late trains, breakdowns and so on.

All of that was replaced by traffic jams and being stuck on a freeway unable to get off. Large accidents setting me back 3 hours on one occasion from getting home.

Back on the train again for another 2 years, drive for 6 months, back on the train for 2 more years and so the cycle goes on.

The more I think about it the more it’s about forgetting the frustrations that drove us away from the previous pattern to explore a different pattern, or to tweak a previous pattern in the hope of finding an improvement. Hopefully there’s progress towards the ultimate goal of optimisation but I fear in some cases the cyclic nature drives itself with no end.

I’ve seen it time and again in management circles: We need to centralise to reduce bottlenecks, followed by a decentralisation to improve efficiencies of each department, only to become centralised once again years later.

The same cyclic nature seems to be pervasive in technology circles as well. I started with a MacBook Pro 15" and tried that for 3 years, then I switched to a Mac Pro and used a 1st Gen iPad for mobile work, then switched to a MacBook Air 13" for a few years then back to the MacBook Pro 15" again. The rough sequence of events was:

  • Old MBP wasn’t getting used as a laptop (always connected) so let’s switch to a desktop instead
  • Desktop/iPad combination wasn’t flexible/powerful enough for my needs to let’s use a light laptop
  • Light laptop not powerful enough for audio/video editing so let’s switch to a MBP
  • MBP is to heavy too lug around with me so let’s try an iPad Pro instead
  • and so on…

Of course my usage requirements changed at some points along that journey and that drove some of those changes but ultimately no single requirement ever wins out and we romanticise the good elements of our previous cycle which drives the idea that we should try something different.

Is this attempt to refine our life-flows actually beneficial? I begin to wonder how much money and time is spent worrying about little niggling details we try to optimise and lose sight of the bigger picture.

"Oh you’re never happy," my wife sometimes tells me in my endless pursuit of a refinement or a tweak that to her seems trivial. As I sit here I think she’s right.

If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, so I’ve been told. And mis-remembering past experiences doesn’t mean present experiences are broken at all. And if the problem is just our memory, then we need to carefully examine the truth about our past cycles, and make a pragmatic choice, not an emotive, selective-memory driven decision. Much as it would disappoint the many thousands of companies that want you to upgrade or try their new widget that will "make you more efficient" maybe you just shouldn’t.

Maybe everthing isn’t cyclic after all. It doesn’t need to be. In many cases that choice is up to you.

Good Notes

10th January 2016

The iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil are amazing products but they aren’t any good without good software that supports their hardware features. Naturally the Notes app on the iPad itself has been optimised for the Pencil, and it shows with excellent pressure sensitivity and tilt support with some of the cleanest lines you’d like to see.

It has one big drawback though: there’s no OCR and with it no searchability. Maybe I’m asking too much but this isn’t the days of the Palm Pilot where I learned to write in "Graffiti" one letter at a time. OCR is becoming quite common and honestly with support now in OneNote it’s becoming very mainstream as Microsoft are leveraging their decades of experience with pen support.

Apple don’t have a native solution for it on iOS and whilst I recognise that typing will always be significantly faster than handwriting, in engineering I spend a significant amount of my time making hand-written notes and drawing diagrams with a reasonable amount of text. Being able to search that handwritten text would be a dream come true.

OneNote to the rescue - kinda…

The problem is that in my office environment access to the servers is firewalled and I have to tether to get external access to my OneDrive for OneNote sync and Microsoft do OCR on the notes on the server side, feeding the results back to the document when they’re done. They suggest 5 minutes but I’ve waited hours. The advantage of that method is it’s genuine image OCR and it should therefore work for any image of sufficient quality in the OneNote document (more on why that matters later) but it requires the server side and that’s a problem for me in my use case.

I need something that works locally on the device. Maybe it’s coming someday but for now, OneNote can’t help me.

Good Notes 4

I’d spent a week or two of work with my iPad Pro just prior to Christmas and used Notes and it was fine, except it began to mirror my real-world notes problems: they were an unsearchable, poorly indexed mess but at least I could look at them wherever I was without having to drag my engineering notebook everywhere with me.

I’d researched a lot of software and after watching several how-to videos forked out the $7.99USD ($12.99AUD) for the iOS and shortly thereafter another $7.99 for the Mac version because it blew me away so completely.

GoodNotes 4 allows you to create Categories for your notes starting you off with "Uncategorised" and "Trash" but I simply added Work and Home and went with those. When you create a Notebook you can choose several different kinds of Covers with options ranging from Bright, Calm, Dark, Enclosed, Plain and Simple: each with a subset of interesting patterns. Being me, I stuck with the default cover: Simple Blue.

The first page (and each subsequent can be added prior or after any page you’re on quite easily) gives you options for different paper sizes with pre-ruled and graph-style papers. My two favourites I use are Standard (A4) because that’s the standard in Australia, and I always choose between Narrow Ruled (if I’m writing a lot of words), Narrow and Quad Ruled (aka graph paper for sketching diagrams) or just Plain (just for freehand sketching).

Swiping between pages is easy with a two-finger slide left or right, with pinch to zoom works as expected plus there’s a handy zoom in close function for fine work that all worked nicely and were quite polished compared to the standard Apple Notes app.

A single tap along the top selects your drawing implement be it a stylus as a pen, a highlighter, an eraser or to enable the handy Lasso tool for selecting areas of your notes and cut/copy/paste/resize them as required. A second tap for those drawing implements with colour selectivity brings up a palette with line thickness control as well. There’s shape recognition which I found to be passable but Grafio does a far better job as does OneNote.

There are options to sync your content via iCloud which works fine between my iPhone 6S+, iPad Pro and Macbook Pro, but also includes Import/Export options for Google Drive, OneDrive Box and DropBox as well as using DropBox for Automatic backup beyond iCloud if you so wish. You can also import content from other iCloud Drive sources, Photos or the Camera directly.

Ultimately though that’s not what hooked me.

Searching Handwritten Notes

Open a workbook and select the ellipsis in the top right corner then "Search" and type in the text you want to find. GN4 then does a real-time handwriting recognition search through the workbook and highlights in yellow all instances it found of the text. It works on the device in isolation, which I tested by killing the WiFi, writing something then searching for the text I’d just written.

Selecting the search entry takes you straight to that occurrence as per any standard typed-text search. My handwriting cursive is terrible so I switched to printing when I was in Grade 7 to make my handwriting legible. It’s not as fast as cursive but it works and you can usually understand what I’ve written. Unlike the days of the Palm Pilot and Grafitti, GN4 had no problem recognising my handwritten notes provided I didn’t overlap too many letters.

I’ve only used the English (US) handwriting recogition so for other languages I can’t make comment. I did try to trip-up the software by underlining through y’s and g’s but it didn’t skip a beat.

Speed

As you can see my cursive (bottom) is terrible, and my slow printing is quite readable, with my normal writing speed for notes is, relatively okay. That said, GN4 found the search text "speed" in all three sentances.

Friend

GN4 also found "friend" in the cursive section. Not that I’m intending to write in cursive though.

The Not So Good

Like all things, it’s not perfect and it would be remiss of me not to mention the issues I’ve encountered.

  • Palm rejection is somewhat twitchy when I’m taking notes in Landscape the most common annoyance is the iPad bringing up the app-switcher randomly and drawing a line across the document in the process that I see when I return to the app. There is a hand-angle adjustment I’m playing with to try and improve that but it throws me out about once every 20 minutes or so of writing. The Notes app never does it, so I’m assuming that will improve with time.
  • Broken lines appear from time to time when I’m writing quickly and it might be based on pressure sensitivity though it’s hard to be certain. Notes does a better job but the broken lines don’t seem to affect the handwriting recognition as it’s only a 2 or 3 pixels and it’s really only a visual annoyance if you zoom in closely.
  • Handwriting search being restricted to the open workbook only is honestly my biggest gripe. When searching workbooks at the top level screen it only text-searches the workbook titles. To search for handwritten text you need to open the workbook and then search within it. If I’m trying to organise my workbooks for different purposes but need to find something I wrote I need to open them all in turn and search individually.
  • Handwriting search is not OCR in a traditional parlance and at first that doesn’t seem to be a show stopper until you try and import notes taken in another app, like Notes. To get handwriting recognition to work on my old notes I’d taken, I saved them as images to the Camera roll, imported them into GN4 then I traced them over the top and deleted the original image. That’s fine if you have 20 pages of notes like I did, but if you have more it’s a big deal.
  • Desktop app is an iCloud viewer for the moment at least as it’s only been out for four months. It’s what I mainly need (handwriting search works here too) but I’m hoping in future they add synchronising to other sync-services and some editing features but honestly I’m using it as a reference on my desktop/laptop. I enter/write all of my notes on the iPad Pro anyway.

Standard Zoom

It’s a rare issue but broken lines aren’t too bad at normal zoom.

Zoomed In

Zooming in the broken lines are quite pronounced. It’s not a common problem but I never experienced this with Notes app.

How I’m Using It

To overcome the restrictions on search I’ve created two Categories, one for work and one for home each with a small number of workbooks in them. For Work in particular where I’m going to need as much searchability as possible I’ll be keeping a single workbook for every 3 or 6 months (let’s see how unwieldy it gets after 3 months) before starting a new one. This is analogous to how I operate in the real world and in future hopefully they will add searching across multiple Workbooks or I could just copy and paste each into a master "searchable" file.

Conclusion

I’m still hoping for an open-pen format that’s widely supported for pen-captured data that would allow handwritten notes to be copied and pasted between documents. We have that for text but OCR can’t be the answer for every such problem. That said, searching handwritten text allows me for the first time ever to take notes the way I always have with handwriting but not require paper or a pencil, and then have all of my notes available on all of my devices; not stuck in a set of physical notebooks that turn ragged and fall apart and requires storage for years.

We are so close to going paperless. I can feel it.