Tag Archives: Rework

“Just One Thing at a Time” – More on the Myth of Multitasking (reflecting on Cathy Davidson, Now You See It)

Cathy Davidson loves, loves, loves everything digital.  “She likes anything that departs from the customary way of doing things, especially the customary way of educating children.”  Her new book is Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.  She leads an interdisciplinary program at Duke.

But Annie Murphy Paul pretty much rejects everything about her view and approach in her Slate.com article:  Who’s Afraid of Digital Natives? – Let’s not get intimidated by kids and their Internet savvy.  She especially rejects Davidson’s fascination with the idea that the digital age is teaching us how to multitask.  Here are brief excerpts from the article:

Her position ignores the inflexible and near-universal limits on our working memory, which allow us to hold only a few items of information in our consciousness at a time, or the work of researchers like Clifford Nass of Stanford University. “Human cognition is ill-suited both for attending to multiple input streams and for simultaneously performing multiple tasks,” Nass has written. In other words, people are inherently lousy at multitasking. Contrary to the notion that those who’ve grown up multitasking a lot have learned to do it well, Nass’s research has found that heavy multitaskers are actually less effective at filtering out irrelevant information and at shifting their attention among tasks than others.
…focusing one’s attention, gathering and synthesizing evidence, and constructing a coherent argument are skills as necessary as they were before—in fact, more necessary than ever, given the swamp of baseless assertion and outright falsehood that is much of the Web. Some day not too far in the future, the digital natives may find themselves turning down the music, shutting off the flickering screen, silencing the buzzing phone and sitting down to do just one thing at a time.

“Just one thing at a time.”  In Rework, Fried and Hannson write about the value of the  “alone zone.”

You should get in the alone zone.  Long stretches of alone time are when you’re most productive.  When you don’t  have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.
During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, e-mail, and meetings.  Just shut up and get to work.  You’ll be surprised how much more you get done.

Here’s what I know.  When I close my e-mail program, close Safari, put on just the right kind of soft/truly quiet background music, open a book, and dig in, with no interruptions, I seem to “get” the book better.

Here’s what I have come to think – at least about myself.  I really can’t do two things at once.  I just can’t.

But, I could be wrong.  For a more positive/objective take on Davidson and her new book, check out The Science of Attention Spans by Casey Schwartz at The Daily Beast/Book Beast.

“Inspiration is Perishable” – And a Few Other Valuable & Useful Lessons from Rework by Fried and Hansson

I just presented my synopsis of Rework for some folks at Gaylord.  Terrific group – wonderful session.  It’s been a while since I’ve looked at this book.

Here are some takeaways:

• Some over-all observations from the book:

1)    This book is a blinding flash of the obvious (that’s what many good books are!)
2)    Results really, really matter – almost nothing else does.
3)    Be happy with good enough – but remember, good enough is never shoddy.
4)    Revenue in has to surpass expenses out.  This is the first law of business.  Otherwise, you don’t have a business – you have a hobby.
5)    Do what you need; make sure your product pleases you, meets your needs…  Then your customers will get what they need.

And, I concluded my synopsis with these:

• Six things you can do to respond to the counsel in this book:

1)  Spend only what you have to – be frugal.
2)  Focus on results – and nothing else.
3)  When you have a moment of inspiration, go with it.  Don’t let up.  — “Inspiration is perishable.”
4)  Single task – spend long stretches of time alone to make something happen.
5)  Take (better) care of yourself.  — “Forgoing sleep is a bad idea.”
6)  But, when you work, work hard – with focus – until you get something done.

• And remember – you are a manager of one.  “You come up with your own goals, and you execute.”  (Look for others who are successful at being a manager of one; hire only those, and, only when you have to).

Rework is a good book.  The chapters are short, “bite-size.”  Perfect for a few minutes of reading here and there.  Check it out.


You can purchase my synopsis of Rework, with audio + handout, from our companion web site at 15minutebusinessbooks.com.

The Office – Interruption Factory, Or Idea Factory? (Is Jason Fried Right, Or Wrong?)

So, what do we do when the wisdom sounds so right, so obvious – but may be wrong?

I am a big fan of Jason Fried.  I have presented a synopsis of his book (co-authored with David Heinemeier Hansson), Rework.  I have blogged about his ideas, quoting him, reflecting on his ideas a number of times.  And I like his writing style, and think he is right.

Except…  what if he is wrong?

Here are excerpts from his latest (special for CNN – read it here):

The modern office has become an interruption factory. You can’t get work done at work anymore.

When people walk into the office, they trade their work day in for a series of work moments. It’s like the front door is a “time Cuisinart” — shredding it all into little bits.

When you’re in the office you’re lucky to have 30 minutes to yourself. Usually you get in, there’s a meeting, then there’s a call, then someone calls you over to their desk, or your manager comes over to see what you’re doing. These interruptions chunk your day into smaller and smaller bits. Fifteen minutes here, 30 minutes there, another 15 minutes before lunch, then an afternoon meeting, etc. When are you supposed to get work done if you don’t have any time to work?

People — especially creative people — need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get things done. Fifteen minutes isn’t enough. Thirty minutes isn’t enough. Even an hour isn’t enough.

If I had read this a month ago, I would have said something like:  “Amen! ~ Preach it, brother!,” or words to that effect.  But, now, I’m not so sure.  Because I have just read Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson.  And that book is filled with story after story about the creative/innovative energy that is created by folks interacting constantly.  It praises the conference table, and the design of buildings that are intended to enable/encourage constant, “accidental” and “on-purpose” interaction.  “Interruption,” if you will..  Consider this quote from Johnson’s book:

The ground zero of innovation was not the microscope.  It was the conference table…  The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.

So – who is right?  Jason Fried or Steven Johnson?

Maybe both…  but, maybe, if we follow Fried too closely, we might lose out.  Having just finished Johnson’s book, I suspect that Fried’s counsel would have some anti-innovation unintended consequences.  At least, that’s what I think this week.

So – what about all of those interruptions.  Some of them are good, and feed the idea factory.  Others?  Well, maybe we just need to put up a sign that says “I’m in the alone zone – check with me later” an hour or two a day at work.  (“Alone zone” is one of Fried’s phrases, by the way).

Do You want to Communicate Clearly? – Economize words! (“The Future Belongs to the Best Editors,” says Jason Fried)

My colleague Karl Krayer teaches eight principles in his sessions on writing skills.  One principle is this:  economize words. It is a valuable principle.

Jason Fried (37Signals; co-author of Rework), recently put this up on his blog.  (I first read it through Andrew Sullivan, here).

I recently took some Q&A. The last question was asked by a guy in the front row. He said “What’s your take on the true value of a university education?” I shared my general opinion (summary: great socially, but not realistic enough academically) and ended with a description of a course I’d like to see taught in college. In fact, I’d like to teach it.

It would be a writing course. Every assignment would be delivered in five versions: A three page version, a one page version, a three paragraph version, a one paragraph version, and a one sentence version.

I don’t care about the topic. I care about the editing. I care about the constant refinement and compression. I care about taking three pages and turning it one page. Then from one page into three paragraphs. Then from three paragraphs into one paragraph. And finally, from one paragraph into one perfectly distilled sentence.

Along the way you’d trade detail for brevity. Hopefully adding clarity at each point. This is important because I believe editing is an essential skill that is often overlooked and under appreciated. The future belongs to the best editors.

I do think this is right; good; useful.

On the other hand, the details matter too.  “You’d trade detail for brevity,” said Fried.  Yes, you would.  So, study the writing of both Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell.  I think they both have learned how to provide great detail, with few words.

So – learn what Fried suggests, then work on getting detail back in, in few words.  Economize words, even in your details.


And remember this from Frank Luntz.  Provide the “perfectly distilled sentence.”  Then the one-page executive summary.  Then, for those who want more, in a click away, provide the three pages of details:

(A Luntz Lesson)  The number one priority:  information.  More is better than less.  Details are better than generalities.  Comprehensive is better than simplistic.  Long term is better than immediate…  Summarize the material for those who want to read less, but provide the fine print for those who want to know more.
(from What Americans REALLY WANT…REALLY:  The Truth about our Hopes, Dreams, and Fears)

Singletask, Don’t Multitask – The Jury Really is In!

As I have observed many times, there are themes that crop in multiple books.  And when this happens, I think they hint at true truth.  That is, the kind of truth that is genuinely important, something to pay a lot of attention to.

Here’s one that was reemphasized again this morning.  My colleague Karl Krayer presented his synopsis of The Way We’re Working isn’t Working, the new book by Tony Schwartz.  And the book, with lots of really useful counsel, says this about our multitasking world:

The most surprising drawback of multitasking is the growing evidence that it isn’t even efficient…  Once we’re distracted by something new, we often forget about the original task…  The ultimate consequence of juggling many tasks is not superficiality but rather overload.

There are so many books and articles that are making this point in one way or another.  The point is this:


Singletasking is the need of the hour, not multitasking.

Here are some other quotes to reinforce this now seemingly everywhere-present theme:

From ReWork by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson:
Instead, you should get in the alone zone.  Long stretches of alone time are when you’re most productive.  When you don’t  have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.
During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, e-mail, and meetings.  Just shut up and get to work.  You’ll be surprised how much more you get done.

From The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp:
The irony of multitasking is that it’s exhausting; when you’re doing two or three things simultaneously, you use more energy than the sum of energy required to do each task independently.  You’re also cheating yourself because you’re not doing anything excellently.  You’re compromising your virtuosity.  In the worlds of T. S. Eliot, you’re “distracted from distractions by distractions.”

From Superfreakonomics by Levitt and Dubner:
A person using a computer experiences “cognitive drift” if more than one second elapses between clicking the mouse and seeing new data on the screen.  If ten seconds pass, the person’s mind is somewhere else entirely.

I think the jury is in.  Learn to singletask, really well.  Work with depth and attention and focus on one-thing-at-a-time.

You can leave the multitasking to those who will be left behind by their lack of focus.

Rework’s “Alone Zone” And Its Unexpected Application To Customer Service

Yesterday, I presented my synopsis of the terrific book Rework by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson for a corporate client in Dallas.  In the midst of the presentation, we had some energetic conversation about this quote:

If you’re constantly staying late and working weekends, it’s not because there’s too much work to be done.  It’s because you’re not getting enough done at work.  And the reason is interruptions…  you can’t get meaningful things done when you’re constantly going start, stop, start, stop.

Instead, you should get in the alone zone.  Long stretches of alone time are when you’re most productive.  When you don’t  have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.

During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, e-mail, and meetings.  Just shut up and get to work.  You’ll be surprised how much more you get done.

I have presented this synopsis a few times, and the idea of “alone time” is one that resonates.  We all live in a world of constant interruptions.  And the advice from this book, which I have followed by carving out “chunks of time” for work, is invaluable.

Later in the discussion, we talked about customer service.  I observed that there has been no shortage of customer service programs and initiatives and training and haranguing for decades, yet fewer than 10% of companies are actually rated as providing excellence in their customer service.

One of the participants stated that it is tough to get in the “alone zone” when your job is a customer service job.  In other words, customer service is, by its very nature,  one interruption after another.  But as I thought about it, I decided that, in fact, this provides the exact approach we all need to take.

If your job is customer service, then you, and the individual customer with an issue at hand, need to be totally alone – that is, you need to be totally focused on this customer and his or her situation.  You, the customer service professional (and we are all, in moments spent responding to a customer, expected to be a customer service professional) need to give undivided, uninterrupted attention to that specific customer until the issue is resolved.  No hurry – no hassle – total attention to one customer at a time.  Alone zone – together, you and one customer.

It reminds me of the great advice once given by a radio personality (sorry — I do not remember which person said this):  “when you are on the radio, always picture one individual listener.”

So, when you work in customer service, focus only on that one, single, individual customer – one customer at a time.

Rework: back cover