Experience Improves Systems

Setting up systems is one of the quickest ways to improve efficiency. Experience within a system shows us how to improve the system itself.

A few weeks ago I went to a community organization to pick up some supplies. Their offering was well received and a lot of people showed up around the same time as me. It was terrible. The line was long, the service was slow, and everyone was grumpy. I felt bad for the volunteers. They were doing their best to help everyone, but they really didn’t know how to handle the situation and it made the experience terrible for everyone involved.

I debated whether or not I would go back the next week, but decided to give it another try. The second week was much better. They learned from the mistakes of the first week and had a much more robust and efficient system set up. The wait time was reduced, time in line was used for tasks that would speed up time at the front of the line, and the volunteers were better trained.

By the fourth week it was a well oiled machine. One of the fun things to watch was how the experienced volunteers trained the new ones. Unlike the first week when everyone was new and there was frantic discussion and on-the-fly changes, now the experienced volunteers trained the new ones on how the system works and why. The questions new volunteers asked were answered from a place of experience.

In our work, creating systems improves processes and efficiency. But don’t overlook the value of tweaking the system based on experiences within it. Those small changes can be the difference between a good customer experience and a great one.

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“The Battle Against Them Would Be in the Shade and Not in the Sun”

One of the most difficult things for me is starting something new. I love learning new things. Researching, comparing, reading about others who have done the same thing, I enjoy all of it. What’s hard is when it’s time to stop reading and start doing.

Here are a few methods I’ve found that can help.

Reframing the situation can make something difficult look less daunting. This takes a good sense of humor many times, but can help more than you’d think.

One of my favorite stories is of the Spartan army at Thermopylae. Herodotus, the Greek historian, recorded this scene:

(…) the Spartan Dienekes is said to have proved himself the best man of all, the same who, as they report, uttered this saying before they engaged battle with the Medes:— being informed by one of the men of Trachis that when the Barbarians discharged their arrows they obscured the light of the sun by the multitude of the arrows, so great was the number of their host, he was not dismayed by this, but making small account of the number of the Medes, he said that their guest from Trachis brought them very good news, for if the Medes obscured the light of the sun, the battle against them would be in the shade and not in the sun.

Yes, the battle was hopeless. Yes, they were facing certain death. But at least they could fight in the shade. You can imagine the cold laughter that followed Dienekes’s quip, but that laughter also broke up the fear in many hearts. Reframe the situation and see if things don’t look better than you thought.

The second method is to remove alternatives. Boredom can be a powerful motivator, though it’s something most of us don’t experience often enough. When we remove more pleasant activities it’s easier to get started on the hard ones.

In his autobiography, Langston Hughes tells the story of a trip from New York to Africa on a ship. The first night of the trip he threw all of his books overboard.

Melodramatic maybe, it seems to me now. But then it was like throwing a million bricks out of my heart when I threw the books into the water. I leaned over the rail of the S.S. Malone and threw the books as far as I could out into the sea—all the books I had had at Columbia, and all the books I had lately bought to read….

You see, books had been happening to me. Now the books were cast off back there somewhere in the churn of spray and night behind the propeller. I was glad there were gone.

With no books around to read, Hughes started to write as never before. It was the true beginning of his writing career.

When it’s hard to start, that means the thing you are doing is worthwhile. Nothing good ever comes without resistance. Fight through the resistance, however you can, and as you get to work you’ll know more from the doing than you could from just studying and preparing.

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We Will Only Break Through Together

During the 10 years I lived in Taiwan, I learned a lot of things that surprised me. One that’s applicable to our lives now is that wearing masks can become a normal, accepted part of life. The thing about wearing a mask, and what helped me be comfortable with it, is that it’s really about others rather than about you.

This was really impressed on me was when my younger son was hospitalized with the H1N1 flu. He went from being a kid with a light fever to a very sick little boy in a short time. We were taking him to our family doctor’s office (for the second time that day) when he had a seizure. Holding him while he seized was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced. The doctor was great and got him stabilized, then sent us off to the hospital.

In the ER my son tested positive for H1N1 and was admitted. (The quality of the care he received in the nationalized healthcare system was amazing, but a topic for a different post.) The morning after he was admitted a nurse woke me up to check in and then she handed me a mask. I was surprised, and asked her why. “You’ve probably already been exposed, so it’s important for everyone around you that you wear a mask.”

I’ll admit that I had never thought about diseases in that way. My concern was always for myself and my immediate family, and less for the nebulous “others out there.” Yet in Taiwan I saw over and over again how wearing a mask to protect the people around you was normal and encouraged. Once I understood this my attitude completely changed.

Have the sniffles? On with the mask until they are gone. Visiting an older relative? Put on the mask. As a teacher I appreciated that wearing a mask helped to keep the kids in my classes from getting too close (and this meant I tended to get sick less). On the subway or the bus when I saw someone wearing a mask my immediate reaction was gratitude. That person is taking care of me by wearing a mask.

Wearing a mask puts your community above your own needs. It’s natural that this became a common practice in East Asia because family and community are so important there. For people in the US, the emphasis seems to be on personal liberty and freedom. This is a striking difference in many ways (again, a topic for another post), but during this pandemic we Americans need to learn from the Asians. The only way for the pandemic to ease, for infections and deaths to go down, is if we take care of one another. Wearing masks and social distancing are the two easiest ways to do that. Simply wearing a mask sends a signal that you care about the people around you.

In the early days of the pandemic there were many messages going around that masks don’t protect you from the virus. If you look at the data, that’s probably a true statement. Cloth masks are not a completely effective defense against airborne viruses. What a simple cloth mask will do with great efficiency is stop you from spreading disease.

We can beat this together. We just need to put our community first, our neighbors first, our family first. It’s the only and best way to break through this pandemic. We can do it. And we’ll come out stronger on the other side if we do.

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Seek Out Time for Deep Work

If you’ve never read it, Cal Newport’s book Deep Work should be on your reading list. It proposes a radical philosophy of work: you need time to concentrate deeply on tasks in order to do work that matters.

Recently on his blog Cal mentioned that Outlook, the email and calendaring app, has added a focus plan option where you can “establish a daily focus time routine.” If you use Outlook as part of an Office365 subscription, Microsoft’s AI service will try and schedule focus time for you based on your availability.

You don’t need an AI assistant to do this for you. If your working hours revolve around a calendar, simply schedule time for deep work. At SpiderOak, we have an open culture of booking meetings based on calendar availability. If someone has a block of time marked as Unavailable, then meetings won’t be scheduled during that time. Creating a block of focus time is as simple as scheduling it on your calendar.

I’ve also seen examples of people scheduling their meetings for just the afternoon so that they can have the morning for deep work (or vice versa). This won’t work for everyone, but through basic daily planning and a bit of support from your coworkers you can carve out a time each day that’s dedicated to deeper, more foundational work.

Investing in work like this pays huge long-term dividends. It may be months or years before you see the gains, but they will come. Make time for it!

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Focus Your Windows to Block Distractions

On my computer I love the option to have a window take up the entire screen. Not just to maximize it to cover the desktop, but filling the entire screen. As I write this I have only one window visible, no menu bar or icons in the dock. Do Not Disturb mode is enabled. Right now this computer is only capable of doing one thing.

Knowledge work, the kind of work many of us do all day, revolves around writing. For hundreds of years writing was a pretty simple task. Whether it was a letter, a recipe, or a novel, the person writing had a pen and some paper. The paper could be a loose sheet or part of a bound book. The pen could be a fountain pen or a quill or a ballpoint. The essential ingredients for this kind of work were simple.

Typewriters were a new tool in knowledge work, but the essential task was the same. One sheet of paper and one typewriter. The writer pressed on keys, letters and symbols were imprinted on the paper, and that was that. It wasn’t very efficient and if you made a mistake it meant some sort of manual correction, but pen and paper had the same challenge.

Computers and mobile devices changed this. Fixing mistakes was so easy! Press a key and delete the mistake. Sharing the work was much easier too. Email meant sending your work cost nothing and it arrived in an instant.

Technology made things better in so many ways, but it has also changed the equation. Rather than facilitating the basic tasks we do, it actively tries to take our attention away from that task. How many of your phone’s notifications do you really need to see right now? How often does a computer ping take you away from something you are doing in real life?

I don’t know that I have very many answers, but I know that when my focus is on only one thing at a time I get much more done.

It seems counter intuitive to work this way. Computers have trained us all to try and multi-task. They call out that this is the only way to do knowledge work. It must be right!

Remember that long before computers dinged for every email and pinged for every new YouTube video, people like you worked by single tasking. You don’t have to revert to pen and paper or a typewriter to get the benefits that kind of work brings.

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The Applied Physics of Efficient Work

Sometimes we forget how powerful small actions can be. Each time the seasons change and it’s time to switch from heat to cool (or cool to heat) I’m reminded of a simple lesson in applied physics.

We moved into our house in December. The heat in our house worked fine. When summer came and we were ready to switch on the air conditioner, I couldn’t figure out why the upper floor of our house was so hot. It seemed that no matter how low I turned the thermostat, the upper floor just wouldn’t cool down.

I googled it and learned a trick that solved my problem. Hot air rises, so in the winter you should close all of the vents on the upper floor of your house and open the vents on the lower floor. This allows the lower floor to get heat, then the hot air rises and heats the upper floor. In the summer the opposite is true. Cool air falls, so the vents should be open on the upper floor and closed on the lower floor. The air cools the upper floor, then naturally falls to cool the lower floor.

There aren’t hacks for everything in life, but there are principles that can be applied across domains to make our lives easier. Just as cooling the upper floor of my house was hard when the downstairs vents were open, doing work with the wrong tools and in the wrong way makes it harder than it needs to be.

For example, when you’re writing an email it makes no sense to use a smartphone. Yes, there are some people who need to have email on their phone for work, but not most of us. Save your email for a computer with a keyboard. This has the dual benefit of making you more effective at processing your email and sending useful replies, and saves you from constantly checking email on your phone or receiving notifications.

Removing email from my phone was something that made a huge difference to to my happiness and my productivity. Even if this isn’t something that will directly apply to the work you do, you can find similar applications of this principle in the work you can do. Look for ways to affect a large improvement from a small change.

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You’re Not the First Person to Think of This

That’s actually a very comforting statement.

It can be discouraging to think that you aren’t totally unique, but knowing that someone else has had the same idea as you means a few more things:

  • This idea is important enough that others are thinking about it
  • Someone out there can help you extend on this idea (because they already have)
  • In the future you can help someone else who thinks of this

Being the first or the original just isn’t that important. Understanding that your ideas build on the work of others will help you to take them farther than you might otherwise have had the ability too.

Learn from and acknowledge the thinkers that came before you. Pay it forward to the thinkers who’ll come after you.

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Starting Can Be the Hardest Part

Recently I’ve seen a trend in my life: it’s hard to get things done. Doing the little things that add up over time seems much harder than before. None of these things are new or difficult. I’m talking about working out, writing, meditating, or reading.

As I’ve pondered why, the common thread I see is trouble getting started. The things I want to do are easy. I’ve done them all before, most many times. Once I start a workout I have no problem completing it. I enjoy writing once I start. The stumbling block is just getting going.

I don’t think I’m alone. 2020 has done a number on all of us in one way or another. At some point, however, we need to reestablish a new normal. That can be painful. Humans have an amazing ability to avoid pain. My goal for July is to push past avoiding pain and establish a new rhythm. To find my new normal despite discomfort.

I believe that one of the keys to success is daily actions. Don’t let the fear or discomfort of starting hold you back from gaining the long term benefits they will bring.

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