Productivity and Serendipity

Jean lookKinds of Work Time

I have been having a dialogue with Dorian Taylor. He suggested that manager time – where you take meetings by the hour – can eat into maker time for those who need long sessions of focus time. It has really got me thinking about the different kinds of activities and the optimal environments for each. Then today John Hagel posted an article on engineering serendipity. Huh, that isn’t the work of either manager time nor maker time, explicitly. So I want to consider it here with you.

Time Chunks

I know one of the ways I end up delaying a task is when I know I am going to have to dedicate two or more hours to wrapping my head around all the parts and then sorting them out and chunking it down into pieces to be accomplished. This is my maker time. I am a project manager by nature, or so my Kolbe test told me. So, if given a large project and a big chunk of focus time, I will organize all the actions required, by whom, and when. It is a bit compulsive. For me it has the pleasure of solving a complex puzzle. To get into a flow state doing it though, I need a chunk of time where no one calls, the computer doesn’t ping, and I don’t have appointments for several hours.

time spinInterruptions

A few years ago, my friend Steve pointed out studies on interruptions and productivity. Gloria Mark at Irvine revealed that it can take a shockingly long time, perhaps 25 minutes, once interrupted, to get back on task for these kinds of efforts. (Can depend of course on type of interruption and task.) Ah ha. So this is why I am delaying working on something I am really good at and makes me flow! I can’t stand how it gets messed up and extended by interruptions. And if interruptions come at half hour intervals, I won’t get far. So I am getting better at guarding that kind of time engagement.

Meeting Time

Which might be easier to do if the work that I did in the world didn’t also involve manager time. Up to a third of my time goes to meeting with clients, colleagues, and connections. And given that my work life includes collaborators around the globe, I often feel pressure to schedule those meetings whenever all the parties might possibly be free. For example, with ci2iglobal, we have collaborators in Chicago, Chaing Mai, Paris, and Buenos Aires, so we have to meet when all of us are awake. So how can I organize my balance of maker time which requires long tracks of flow states with the manager time of meetings sporadically placed in my schedule?

Serendipity Time

And now this article John posted about engineering serendipity. Neither the manager time nor the maker time seem to include this serendipity factor. And yet from years of conversations with Steve about Bell Labs and Valdis Krebs about social network analysis, I hear how powerful serendipity is to a network and to innovation. Steve has told me that Bell Labs, renowned for innovation, was phenomenal at catalyzing serendipity. The main campus had winding labyrinths of hallways with chalkboards everywhere, so as you got lost moving around you could bump into someone and start up a conversation. And the culture of the place encouraged time to be used this way.

Engineering for Serendipity Time

So how do we engineer for serendipity? Changing the architecture of your space might not be under consideration. And if you are a free agent (aka consultant) the space to consider is not your home office. First, you have to make time in the schedule to allow for it. And stop calling it social networking time and just collect business cards like the count of them makes a difference. It doesn’t. The quality of connection matters most. Reflecting on the best serendipity time I have had or hear about, I think it goes something like this:

  • Drop the mentality of busyness. If you are too busy, you won’t have a random encounter nor give it enough time to develop.
  • Seek out social events and social places where you will mingle with people who are on the periphery of your network or areas of interest.
    • Playing with the people who are at the core of your work is good for reinforcing what you do and know. Useful. Important. But, serendipity happens best with people who are a little strange to you. As Valdis often says, “connect on your similarities and profit from your differences.” So find ways to mingle with people who are a bit different than you. That is where you will discover something new.
    • By social spaces, I mean public or pseudo public places like cafes and atriums. And don’t sit there bent over a screen. Head up. Use it for some mindfulness time. Note your surroundings and the experience you are having in this moment. Breathe. Wonder. This gives an opening for people to connect with you – it is like putting a sign on your forehead that says, “I am open to connection and making time to explore.”
  • Cultivate a culture of serendipity. Spread stories in your networks of successful serendipitous encounters in your network or outside of it. A dash of awe on that can be just the right spice to make it juicy enough to pass along.
  • The article on engineering serendipity points to the work of Burt on Structural Holes. It suggests, “Rather than wait for their employees to cross paths, they could simply make the necessary introductions.” Yes, and, a good introduction needs to set a spark. You can’t just say, “you two can bridge a structural hole – go at it.” Say, “I would like the two of you to take the rest of the afternoon to work on some knowledge sharing. Come back later and tell me what your overlaps are and what you might be able to learn from each other. A map would be most helpful. And don’t contain it to work we are doing right now.” That gives the two people something to focus attention on. When they come back, ask them to circle on the map the things they feel passionate about and see if it evolves from there.

 3 Kinds of Time and 2 Factors to Consider

Okay, so we have some ways to engineer serendipity. And I pointed to these three different kinds of time engagement that require very different approaches to time. The combination of these activities and how much time goes toward each of them depends very much on two factors: you role and your stage. Maybe your job is to manage, so maker time is a small portion of what you do. Or maybe your role is a programmer and you need the majority of time to be maker time. Maybe your job is to develop innovation, so your core activity focuses on serendipity. What is the right balance of these three kinds of time for what you do?  And then, what stage of a project are you on? Early phases of innovation require a lot of serendipitous time where later stages need more maker time. And somewhere in the middle needs to be some manager time to gather the resources to keep moving.

Use your favorite method of graphically representing your effort and map out the right balance for your role and the change in that over time.

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10 Ways to Improve Your Productivity and Strengthen Self Discipline

You make the plan for productivity with the best intentions. You get started, bursting with enthusiasm. And all too soon you are behind schedule. Sound familiar? I have been through this cycle countless times. So I found ways around it. One thing I learned quickly was that forcing myself didn’t work. Now I know why.

Many productivity methods rely on self discipline. Self discipline is a great muscle to have and make strong. Research has recently shown that it is a muscle that practice can develop. Small acts of successful self-discipline make you more likely to engage self discipline successfully in unrelated areas. But, it also can fatigue. So if we start from the awareness that we have a limited quantity of self discipline, how do you leverage that limited quantity to be your most productive?

Let the fun begin. This is your first game. Let’s say you have 10 credits of will power to apply. How do you distribute them in just the right ways to get the optimal results? Here are some ways I have found to help game my own work systems. Each situation and person might come up with a different combination of strategies to deploy, so build your toolkit! Trick your willpower. Game your motivation approach.

Photo via No Frills Excursions

  1. Play fully. It doesn’t take will power to do something you enjoy. Make the task fun. Play music, create a little game out of it, bind the task to something you find fun. Imagine how you would make it fun for an eight year old to do the task – and then do that for yourself.
  2. Chunk it down. I really struggle to make time to get things done that I expect to take 2 hours. Tasks that take 2 to 15 minutes get done in the blink of an eye. What is the right time target for you to think the task is so small, getting it done is easier than keeping it on the to do list. Take the task of writing a blog post, for example. If I chunk that into: come up with idea for post, title the post, create outline or key ideas, and then write to each of those points, the pieces are so small it doesn’t take much will to do them. Most of the time I find doing the first one or two gets me going, and I finish the rest from sheer momentum. Also, knocking a few out builds my enthusiasm for tossing the next few on the done pile.
  3. Gift yourself. If the task isn’t rewarding and the outcome isn’t a sufficient reward, give yourself something else you want as a reward for doing the task. Even small rewards can be extremely effective. Whatever you do when you are procrastinating on the task – make that the reward for completing it instead. I procrastinate by getting on social media, playing a game, or chatting with a friend. When I say I will do those things after I finish one small task, I am surprised how fast that task gets done.
  4. Make it social. I get a lot more done when my pal Jerry and I get on chat, express the tasks we want to do, set a timer and then hold each other accountable to getting it done in the next hour. We will chat the other if we get interrupted by the mailman or catch ourselves checking twitter. The confession of being off task is quickly forgiven by our peer-worker and we gently nudge the other back to task.
  5. Play with the order of tasks. Some people are very strict about the order of their tasks. I tend to be running several projects at once, and I let myself follow my inclinations a bit. If a task feels compelling to me, I dive right into it and leave something else for later. This is usually fine within a limited time period, but it won’t work if I just keep pushing back the less pleasant tasks. Use sparingly.
  6. Are you a towards or away from person? Know which and use it. Is doing this going to get you away from something you find painful? Or is doing it going to get you somewhere you want to be? If you are someone driven stronger by pain-avoidance then the reward of what it gets you won’t excite you enough. Keep in mind how doing it reduces or avoids pain. Tie the task to something you want to move toward or get away from.
  7. Small first steps. Maybe you have some big bold goal. Great for you. But just like a game doesn’t have you kill the main monster right away, don’t try to get to your big bold goal in one giant leap. What is the smallest first step you can take. Do that one. Then do the next. Each one you get done builds your confidence in your ability to get the whole done. I didn’t write a book by sitting down to write a book, I sat down and wrote the first paragraph of the second chapter. (If you start with the first paragraph of the first chapter, the pressure is too great. Start somewhere else. Or time yourself and write whatever comes to mind for the first paragraph knowing you will change 95% of it after you finish writing a draft.)
  8. Redirect distractions. Lots of people get easily distracted by sights and sounds. Sure you can limit your exposure to distractions so you have less need for willpower, but you can also game it. Time how long it takes you to get back on task – can you cut those minutes down to seconds? Build up your ability to redirect your attention after a distraction and you will be less afraid of getting distracted.
  9. Switch mediums. Can’t get started writing? Step away from the keypad. Draw a picture instead. Interview yourself and record it, then use dictation software or services to make it into text for you.
  10. Role Play. Act your way into getting it done. How would your productivity guru get it done? Pretend you are them doing it now. Or get silly, imagine you are superman working at the newspaper on an article undercover. Impersonate him. Choose someone who would either be great at the task and pretend to be them or imagine someone that it would be absurd for. What if you were a pirate doing your accounting?

What ways do you work around your limited capacity for self-discipline?

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Photo by binary_koala

Do you work alone a lot? Do you work better when there is a social connection to someone else in the mix of what you do? Do you have that common bad habit of procrastinating?

I might have a solution that is super simple and fun for you. It is fun for me! But you have to play your way to see if it is fun for you.

I don’t live near anyone that I work with and there are no coworking places close to me besides a cafe. So I have taken to peer-working online. Here is how it works:

  1. A friend and I will say we are working at a specific time together, and we will meet on gchat or skype.
  2. We start by saying what our goal is for the 45 minutes to an hour of peer-working. We sometimes challenge each other to be more specific in the goals, but we don’t lose time discussing goal choices.
  3. We agree that we will report via text if we get offtrack of the work toward the goal. And we report any milestone in the goal that gets reached. Say the goal is to send 6 emails, we might report when we complete each one.
  4. We say, “ready, set go!” like it is a race. Because it is more fun that way. 😛
  5. We hold ourselves and the other person to the reporting. We never judge each other for getting off task, but we will then ask about getting back on task (need to break that goal down into smaller bits? have the right screen open? etc).
  6. We celebrate (however we think celebrating is good via the medium we are in).

I have found it surprising that, even though we aren’t really talking much if at all about what is going on in our lives or work, I experience that hour as quality connection time. And I am much more productive during those sessions than my regular hours on my own, most of the time.

I have to be careful, as a coach, that I don’t get lost coaching someone toward their task. So it is important for me to pick the right peer-working partners.

I am sure there is some optimal timing here where there is a tad bit of friend conversation to help feel connected, but a risk of just giving the whole hour to catching up. So it does require some self-discipline to get started. I make it easier on myself when I have recently already had a friend conversation with the peer-working, so there isn’t a backlog of catch up simmering in the background.

TIPS for making peer-working work for you:

  • be sure you have a clear task that can reasonably be accomplished in the time allotted
  • name exactly how you will know the task is done (email is sent, document shared, click publish, etc)
  • works best for tasks that have a clear process. May not work for researching time, design, etc unless you name exactly what you will review and how you will know it is complete

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Overcoming the Limits to Self Discipline

Somehow I think I may have always had an intuitive understanding that my willpower – my ability to self-discipline was limited. I used to think that might just be me. And when ADD rolled around, I attributed, perhaps wrongly, my lack of significant self-discipline to having hyper-focus ADD. That means that I can focus, as if with incredible discipline, on what draws me in, but I really struggle to force myself to maintain my attention on things that aren’t so alluring to me. Sound familiar?

image courtesy of

Recently I am learning, from a variety of sources, that everyone has a limited amount of self-discipline at their disposal. It acts like a muscle – you can build strength in it, but you can’t lift something too far outside your normal ranges (except under incredible conditions that include huge doses of adrenaline). Well, don’t try trigging the adrenaline to get your tasks complete.

And you know what I mean – that rush of being close to deadline and feeling like your life is the line if you don’t get it done right this minute. I used to use that as an antidote to procrastination (which is an antidote to my perfectionism). Then a bunch of mindfulness and spiritual training later, I can’t trigger the panic and stress that induced deadline-driven adrenaline. Unless someone’s life or health is actually on the line, I don’t panic anymore. And that is a good thing.

So how do you work within the constraints of:

  • self-discipline has limited capacity and gets fatigued
  • the strength of self-discipline is a muscle that develops strength and memory over time
  • inner peace and deadline induced panic don’t go together. Choose inner peace.

Peter Bregman posted in HBR about How to Stay Focused on the Important Things. And there are some great takeways from that, such as:

  • Make a firm agreement with others
    • Why: Social contracts with others help trigger a different muscle than self-discipline. They trigger social integrity muscles instead. Thus leaving you more capacity in the self-discipline realm.
  • Constrict your list
    • Why: We have memory limits. Don’t overwhelm your memory with a long list of possible actions. This is a big part of what GTD and personal kanban try to help you with. Narrow down what you actually need to be remembering to do and working on at any given moment.
  • Remove what you don’t want
    • Why: Don’t work near the tv if you need self-discipline not to watch a movie. Don’t turn social media on if you get lost there. Use one increment of self-discipline to remove the temptation instead of a continuous increment of self discipline to keep resisting the temptation.

Additionally, let me add:

  • Dedicate time to filtering. Feel free to add any task to a giant pile of to dos in a parking lot of potentiality, dedicate time to filtering that list down to what is urgent, important, and valuable.
    • It may seem crazy to have to be so emphatic about this. And, after working with clients that think divergently, I have come to recognize just how powerful and important taking all the possibilities into consideration and filtering it down to what is realistic and tangible makes a world of difference. And decreases stress more than just about any other action.
  • Start small. If you want to build your self-discipline muscle, start with a very tiny step. Don’t think you wake up one morning and implement a full-scale reworking of your processes. That would be like trying to run a marathon without exercising for 5 years.
    • Tie the small new act of self-discipline to something you already have a habit of doing. Say you want to be sure you drink 6 glasses of water a day. You already eat 3 times a day. Before you eat one bite, drink a glass down to the bottom. And when you finish, drink a full glass. Mark each glass off on your calendar with a check mark. celebrate or reward yourself at 42 glasses. Or you want to start a meditation practice. Tie it to brushing your teeth. Sit for 5 minutes after brushing your teeth in the morning or evening or both. Once you have added a new habit that took self-discipline, your confidence about doing it again will go up and you can THEN add another. And bring more strength to  it too.
  • Use rewards and celebrations. If this is a muscle of the mind, then you wont notice it getting stronger if you don’t stop and reward, celebrate or at least acknowledge you are getting better at it. Don’t save celebration and rewards for big things. You need to know that you know that you are doing well.
    • I had a productivity junkie as a client who set bold goals and then faced almost continuous negative self talk about not achieving those goals all of the time. It was a wake-up to me that I was doing the same thing on a smaller but nearly as much. So I started acknowledging any shift toward the goal as success. More recently I set minimums, goal, and epic win as three levels of success. Give attention and build on your confidence toward achieving the goal by acknowledging the progress – any progress – you make along the way. And if you aren’t achieving your goal, maybe you need to tweak your expectations about how long it takes instead of generating negative self talk about your ability to do it. Go ahead and set bold goals for the long term, but for today, celebrate the little steps you take towards it.

What do you use to limit your use of self-discipline and build the muscle you do have for it?

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Productivity Recovery

Ever notice that you slump in your productivity right after a big project completes? You should be elated, right? Or building on the success, but your system seems to crash instead? Ever finish a big win and feel pretty depressed shortly thereafter? But you didn’t want to tell anyone when they were busy congratulating you?*

photo courtesy of Sport Communities

Give yourself a break. You aren’t going to perform at peak productivity all of the time. And just like a runner at the end of a race, you need to catch your productivity breath.

Here is a general rule of thumb: for every week of peak activity, give yourself a day of recovery. If you can do short sprints, you can cut this time down. I am a three month runner, so I need a good week or two of downtime to catch my breath. After a year long project, I may need a month to six weeks of exploration.

It isn’t that you aren’t being productive during this down time. You are. It is part of your productivity to get this breathing cycle in. If you stop expecting yourself to be a task monster and start noticing what you might be doing during those “down” times, you are probably percolating. You are exploring a new idea, getting together the energy and confidence to burst into the next project.

Whether you like it or not, I have found it is better to embrace it. When I resist, I find myself in internal conflict which leads me to get easily distracted, seek out numbing or escapist activity, and then it lasts even longer.

Find your pace and see what you really need to catch your productivity breath. Note what you do during those spells and see how that emerges later. You just might find it is a different kind of productivity but productive nonetheless.

* I have also spoken with clients who are most thrilled during the design phase. They can get the project to completion, but they are already bored with it by the time it goes public and the praise comes in. If this is you, and you aren’t doing it for the praise, but for the rush of being in flow on work you love, pat yourself on the back and, after a little break, dive back toward the phase that you get a rush out of. Stop expecting yourself to be someone else. Be fully you.

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Play to Your Pace

credit: Sonal Bains

I am working on some new offerings for 2013. The series will be called Play Your Way to (followed by whatever that month is helping you to achieve). The series will include things like Play Your Way to a Collaborative Writing Project, or Play Your Way to New Habits, or Play Your Way to Crowdfunding. The goal of this series is to help people learn how to gamify their activities in a highly customized way that “plays” on their strengths, making it easier to achieve goals and maintain flow states.

Today, as I was reflecting on how we work and how to design games, I thought about pacing. I have learned that I am an initiator. I have a lot of energy and drive at the beginning of a project. I am much better at short sprints of 2 weeks and at most 3 months. So I have designed the projects I work on to usually have these timelines. When I have longer projects of my own or with clients, I break them up into short time frames.

But I know other people who have very big long term goals. They work like a marathon runner instead of a sprinter. And I have so much admiration for the productivity people who are somewhere in between – they have 3-6 month or even yearly goals and they maintain a strong running stride at a pretty stable pace over the whole “race to completion.”

So, are you a sprinter? A marathoner? Or do you want a solid pace for a mid-length race? Does your attention on a goal stay, unwavering, over months or years? Then design your game for such long term play. Does your attention span last a day or a week and at best a month? Then design little sprints of activity.

Play to your pace.

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Who is Happy?

Are you happy? Am I? Do I want to be? What does that even mean?

So much is being said and done around happiness these days. I want to share with you a few talks which really helped me clarify why the idea of happiness and the pursuit of it make me anxious. and decide what I want to do about it.

Experience and Remembering

First, Daniel Kahneman talks about the difference between the experiencing self and the remembered self. So it might be more worthwhile to decide if you want to remember being happy or you want to experience being happy. There will be different strategies depending on your choice. Watch the TED talk here:

Experience V Memory

For more surprising discoveries about how your brain and decision making works, read his latest tome: Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Types of Happiness

Second, from another giant in the field of psychology, Martin Seligman, the man who turned psychology from a science of disease to also include a science of health. Martin talks about three types of happiness: pleasure, engagement, and purpose. Again, your strategies for pursuing happiness will greatly depend on your conscious or unconscious preferences between these three.

3 Forms of Happiness

(to go straight to the highly relevant bit, fast forward to minute 9.)

So if you are questing for happiness, try drawing a 2×3 grid. Rate how important each is to you:

  1. Experience Pleasure
  2. Remember Pleasure
  3. Experience Flow/Engagement
  4. Remember Flow/Engagement
  5. Experience Purpose
  6. Remember Purpose

Be aware that experiencing pleasure habituates…you get less out of it over time. And if often differs from person to person based on an inborn ability. You have less agency about maintaining that form of happiness (while it may seem like you have some ability in any moment to seek it out). If experiencing pleasure is important to you, work on mindfulness. If remembering pleasure is important to you, give time to reflection and documentation. Engage in nostalgic activities: scrap book, journal, document your pleasure.


Flow and engagement has been deeply studied by Me High Cheek Sent Me High. I mean Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Check out his TED talk or read one of his books like Flow.


Flow, by the very nature of it is difficult if not impossible to be aware of experiencing. And, there are clear paths to doing it more. Remembering flow or engagement also is going to require reflection on how engaged you were while in the state of flow. Document that you experienced it, what it felt like, and what helped give rise to it.

Strangely, living for purpose can also seem to counter the idea of being happy or experiencing pleasure. And yet, it is the path to deep long lasting contentment. To experience more purpose, there are numerous books and articles on finding and living on purpose. To remember more purpose, again, do more to reflect on and document or harvest the purpose work you do.

I know I am really weak at the remembering purpose piece and it is where I want to get more of my happiness from, so it is where I think I need to start now.

Where will you begin?

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Innovation Time


Behavioral Economic research reveals that time pressure and monetary incentives both trigger analytical thinking instead of creative flowing.

There is often a tremendous amount of time gathering all the information relevant to a creation. Then the ideas seem to emerge fully formed and plop into the conscious mind ready for action. That can’t be scheduled.

On another dimension of time, when disrupted, it can take 20 minutes to return to the same deep mental activity. For creative activity, give yourself the time to explore without distraction.

How do you relate to time when innovating?

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By offering support wherever I can be useful, I developed abundant social capital. I was able to leverage it to put the agency together, capitalizing on years of developing relationships. I try to be mindful about the decay of this type of capital and refresh regularly.

How are you being prudent with your resources?

Are you leaving the door to the magical world of other people and resources open?

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nestingtogetherWhen do you put all or more of your “eggs” in a single basket?

In the dance between bold moves adequately resourced or careful risk management, when do you choose boldness?

In the fight against measles, the Red Cross teamed up with the CDC and several other organizations to launch the Measles Initiative. Staff was seconded from the CDC to the project. Each organization pitched in their highest ability, whether that was knowledge, staffing, logistics, or funding to do work together that would have been more costly and ineffective to do alone.

Where can you consolidate your resources or work to consolidate with others to get something bold accomplished?

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