My Writings. My Thoughts.

A phone to save us from our phone? Really?

// May 24th, 2011 // No Comments » // Uncategorized

I was recently sent the link to this article in HR Magazine (“hat-tip” to Neil Bachelor) about the inability of managers to separate work and private lives. The article covers research conducted by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) which found that:

“of the 76% of managers who can use devices including smartphones, laptops or tablets to work, almost half (49%) check their emails just before going to sleep at night and a quarter (24%) check them again on waking before they get out of bed in the morning.”

This is consistent with the research project I did as part of my MSc into over-connected behaviour among smartphone users. This compulsive checking is not great for a number of reasons including lack of rest and recovery during sleep and the crowding out of deep thinking and reflection.

The article is goes on to say that the CMI has done two things to help: 1) launch a free smartphone app and 2) run a competition to find the UK’s most helpful book on management. I was going to be a bit dismissive of the idea of an app to stop you checking your smartphone but I just got an email from my publisher to suggest entering “The Activity Illusion” for the competition…

Instead, I will simply ask whether we can really use more technology to address issues that are 100% about human behaviour. Microsoft and AT&T seem to think we can. If you haven’t already seen the “Really” ad for the Windows phone, check it out here.

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Why it’s not just ageing mice that need to worry about memory loss

// April 19th, 2011 // Comments Off // Information Overload

This news item on the BBC site refers to some published research that suggests elderly mice struggled to remember their way around a maze when subject to an excess of cortisol. Cortisol is one of those “goldilocks” hormones that we need a little of but not too much. We can end up with too much cortisol as a consequence of experiencing stress or burnout.

I had this article in mind on Friday evening when playing tennis with a few mates. One of them struggled to keep up with the score throughout both sets of doubles that we played and seemed genuinely surprised on a couple of occasions that the game had ended. This being men’s doubles, he was inevitably subjected to fair amount of banter. Afterwards, over a drink, I asked him what sort of week he had had. It turned out he had spent the whole week in a project management role dealing with multiple bosses, team members and frequent interruptions by phone and email. Naturally, he was dealing with each email as it came in. I left him with a few tips including putting his email on autoreply and checking messages only two or three times a day. I saw him last night – it’s early days but he said the tips were working.

Of course this is purely anecdotal and unscientific but how many of us are subjecting ourselves to short term memory problems because of the way we work? Neuroscientists are increasingly getting a grip upon the impact of the way we work on cognitive performance and are increasingly seeing symptoms recognisable in those with ADD, Accidental Brain Injury and Alzheimers. Worrying indeed.

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“Beware the BlackBerry Squint”

// February 18th, 2011 // Comments Off // BlackBerry

Here’s an impact of over-connectedness I hadn’t considered – Marie Claire attributes the rise in women having premature wrinkles around the eyes to squinting at phones, BlackBerrys and other small-screen devices. Another reason, I suppose, that we should be alarmed about the trend towards over-connectedness.

Help is at hand, however, as according to celebrity surgeon Dr Jean Louis Sebagh, “the problem is easily rectified with a bit of light Botox.”

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“I heard your email”: The latest worrying trend…

// January 6th, 2011 // Comments Off // Uncategorized

Just before Christmas, I received an auto-response from a contact of mine which had “I heard your email” as the subject header.

This follows a post I wrote a few months ago about BMW and RIM teaming up to enable you to sync your BlackBerry with your car. However, what my friend is using is one of a couple of BlackBerry/iPhone applications that are now on the market. This particular one is called and you can see a CNN segment about it here. The sales premise for seems to run along these lines: since it’s dangerous to check your email while driving [research from the University of Utah suggests that you are 23 times more likely to crash!], then having them read to you constitutes safe driving.

I’m far from convinced about the road safety implications as I think a computerised voice reading an “urgent” message from your boss will inevitably distract you from driving. More than anything else, however, I am depressed that the desire – and ultimately the requirement – to stay on top of new email messages is bleeding into all parts of daily life. I recently worked with someone in a client context who described his drive home as precious “defrag” time where he could think over everything that had happened during the day. We are losing these valuable opportunities for our frontal cortex to indulge in a bit of deep-thinking. This has consequences I think for productivity, cognitive ability and behaviours.

Feel free to email me about this post but it’s just possible I’ll be in the car and won’t hear you…

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The CEO’s Lament: Time to Reappraise Leadership in the 21st Century

// December 16th, 2010 // Comments Off // Uncategorized

I’ve just read the press release that Pfizer put out to announce that their CEO, Jeffrey Kindler, is retiring. Here’s what Kindler says:

“The combination of meeting the requirements of our many stakeholders around the world and the 24/7 nature of my responsibilities, has made this period extremely demanding on me personally.”

Such releases from public companies are normally sanitised so this admission suggests a real personal cost. There is a macho assumption that the CEO should take on a relentless 24/7 globe-trotting role and the technology makes it easier than ever. But what does this do to some of the fundamental dimensions of great leadership such as delegation, resilience to stress, work-life balance and so on? Surely time to think again?

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Premier Inn Survey: Are We Losing the Weekend?

// November 23rd, 2010 // Comments Off // Uncategorized

The Lost Weekend may have been one of Billy Wilder’s greatest movies starring Ray Milland but a survey conducted by Premier Inn and covered by the Daily Telegraph on Saturday suggests a new meaning.

Based on a survey of 4,000 workers, Premier Inn concludes that most Britons only enjoy a one-day weekend:

- they don’t unwind until 12.38pm on Saturday night

- by 3.55pm on Sunday they are starting to worry about work again

- nearly half checked their email over the weekend

- 53% were “too tired” to fully enjoy the weekend

Is the weekend under threat from the trend towards boundary-less jobs, 24/7 communication and the pressure to be virtually present? Maggie Smith’s Dowager asked in Downton Abbey “What’s a weekend?” This was a fair question as workers still worked Saturday mornings in 1912 and had only just got Saturday afternoons off, hence the birth of professional football. This was thanks in part to technological progress. Forty years further on and Churchill, then PM had a vision of “giving the working man what he’s never had – four days’ work and then three days’ fun.”

So where did it all go wrong? Why has an era of accelerating technological advancement caused us to go backwards with leisure time so that the weekend is steadily disappearing?

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Twitter: Can they innovate their way out of information overload?

// October 15th, 2010 // Comments Off // Information Overload, Social Networking

I am a big fan of Clay Shirky’s famous Web 2.0 talk on filter failure, particularly where he acknowldges the role of social norms that we have allowed to arise in the way we use communications technology. But it seems that the world now focuses its efforts exclusively on addressing filter failure rather than some of the behavioural issues that Shirky highlights.

There is a very striking example in this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek in which Twitter’s new CEO, Dick Costolo, is interviewed (thanks to Marty Bariff of the Information Overload Research Group for bringing this to my attention). Costolo says:

“One of the things that we’re seeing is that there’s more and more information coming at people on Twitter. And so we’ve got to do a better job of filtering that information.”

I’m struck by the mindset of Twitter feeling that the answer to being overwhelmed by Tweets lies in their technology. Costolo goes on:

“People have devices in their homes now that tweet. You know, weight scales that tweet, tennis shoes that tweet how fast you ran your 5k, an armband that tweets how long you slept last night. One of the things that we’ll have to do a much better job of is providing filters for that information, both human-curated filters and algorithmic filters.”

Algorithmic filters? Surely, if you are overwhelmed by tweets perhaps the first thing to do is follow fewer people. You might want to stop following your own tennis shoes as a starting point…

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Are the death notices for email premature?

// October 5th, 2010 // Comments Off // Information Overload

In a recent article on BNET, Inder Sidhu of Cisco predicts that email will be replaced by other communications media such as blogging, Twitter etc. I think this may be true for some individuals – I have read one or two blogs where people have announced “email bankruptcy” and said they will only communicate through blogs and tweets henceforth. Fair enough, although I wonder how anyone doing this can buy things online without an email address…

In an organisational context, however, email is far from dead. On the Guardian Tech podast last week, Jeff Bonfiorte of Xobni made the point that Microsoft Outlook, with upwards of 500m users, remains the largest internet application and the time spent by execs compulsively checking messages exceeds that spent on Facebook by the world’s twenty-somethings. Imperfect as it is – or rather our use of it – email is not going anywhere just yet.

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Things you’re unlikely to hear from a leader no. 1: “I’m just off for my afternoon nap…”

// September 24th, 2010 // Comments Off // Uncategorized

There have been a couple of interesting things out this week about sleep and personal energy. Tony Schwartz writes in his HBR blog that all leaders should be taking powernaps and urging their people to do likewise. And on TED, there is a new video from Jessa Gamble on our natural body clocks – it’s only a few minutes long and it’s worth watching just to hear what she says about what happens to crabs when you take them to a different time zone…

I can’t think of any aspect of the world of work where the science and what we actually do are further apart. Some great articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review from the likes of Charles Czeisler and Robert Stickgold on the value of sleep for our health, productivity, cognitive ability and effectiveness. And yet so much of what we do diminishes the amount and quality of sleep.

I am forever coming across people who admit to checking their BlackBerry when it buzzes in the middle of the night. But rather than stigmatise people that don’t get enough sleep, we do the opposite and celebrate people who work to the point of exhaustion. I recently met Marcus de Guingand of Metronaps and he tells me that in Japan, there is a concept called inemuri (literally translated as “sleeping while present”) which high-powered executives feign in meetings to show that they are so hard-working that they can’t help nodding off.

Tony Schwartz commends Google for putting a few pods in their office (supplied by Metronaps, I believe) but we are years away, I fear, from looking dispassionately at the science and re-thinking the way we work.

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Why are 20-somethings too exhausted to go out?

// September 21st, 2010 // Comments Off // Uncategorized

Yesterday’s Telegraph covered some research by Benenden Healthcare into the lifestyle of what they call “nifty-fifties” compared to people in the twenties. Although Benenden haven’t published the details in full, they surveyed 4,000 people and it appears that those in their 50s get out more, see more friends and exercise more than people half their age. One would have thought that financial pressures may be less for the older people sampled but the research doesn’t offer this as a cause. Rather:

“The 50s put their active lifestyle down to “feeling young” and making time for themselves, but the 20-somethings said they were too knackered to get out as much as they like to.”

Financial pressures aren’t mentioned at all – can 20-somethings really be too “knackered”? Or does this say something about the way 20-somethings work? The research is pretty compelling on the impact of multi-tasking on our cognitive ability and our resilience - is all that multi-tasking leading to mental exhaustion?



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