The List #21

Time for the first the first The List of 2015. As usual, here are a handful of links from across the internet that caught my eye over the past week (or in this case, the past several weeks). If you ever come across something you think I'd like, feel free to send me an email or connect with me on Twitter (@samspurlin).

Re: New Wired Offices - The Awl

This memo shows what leaders putting aesthetic personal preference ahead of employee needs for doing great work looks like. My already low expectations for Wired are dropping lower.

Something Slightly Less Terrible -

Interviewer: Do you mostly focus on one project at a time, or are you a multitasker?

Loren Brichter: I’d describe my work schedule as cooperatively single-threaded with a heavy context switch cost, so I try to keep time slices on the order of about a week. So I have lots of projects going at once that usually relate to each other in some way, but I only consciously work on one at a time.

I can’t consciously multitask at all, but I think my brain works a bit like libdispatch. The subconscious can chew on a lot of stuff in parallel. So when my conscious mind switches back to some other work it put aside earlier, there are usually a couple good ideas waiting for it.

The Pleasure of Practicing: A Musician's Assuring Account of Creative Homecoming and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome - Brain Pickings

Together this pleasure in music and the discipline of practice engage in an endless tussle, a kind of romance. The sense of joy justifies the labor; the labor, I hope, leads to joy. This, at least, is the bargain I quietly make with myself each morning as I sit down. If I just do my work, then pleasure, mastery will follow. Even the greatest artists must make the same bargain.

Your Best Work - Rands in Repose

In the past five years, the teams I’ve seen work at impressive speed are the ones who self-organized themselves elsewhere. They found a dark corner of the building, they cleared out a large conference room, or they found an unused floor of a building and made it their own. While this might strike you as a case for shared common open space, it’s not. It’s an argument for common space that is not shared because these teams have work to do and don’t want a constant set of irrelevant interruptions. This is why I’m in favor of pod-like set-ups where teams working on similar technology and projects have their own enclosed space. I believe this is the type of set-up that encourages the most efficient forms of collaboration.

The Ultimate Construction of Conversation & How Do You Know When That Itch Has Been Scratched? - The File Drawer

Eric and I are starting to get much more comfortable with who we are and what we're creating with our podcast. These are two of our latest episodes and I'd love if you checked them out (and subscribed to the podcast if you enjoy what you hear)

Photo by Julie Rae Powers

Workologism #8: Use Your Workspace as a Tool

Actual photo of my workspace as it exists in November 2014. 

When you look around your workspace what do you see? I think our workspaces should not simply be a space where we get our work done, but a tool to help support us in actually doing our work. Everyone's space is a unique extension of themselves and I would never argue that we should all have the same type of space. I do think, however, that there are a few things that should characterize every knowledge worker's workspace.

If you're a knowledge worker I think you should be able to look around your space and easily see:

  1. The plan for what you're going to do this week.
  2. The plan for what you're going to do today.
  3. Your "hard landscape"
  4. Some projects that aren't active but you want to "percolate."
  5. And at least one thing that inspires or motivates you.

For me, this looks like:

  • A whiteboard that has a list of the projects I'm working on this week, any upcoming due dates, all my "hard landscape" items for this week, and a short list of "percolating" projects I want my subconscious to work on even though I'm not going to actively work on them this week.
  • An index card that has my daily plan written on it and it is clipped to the front of the notebook that sits on my desk.
  • A picture of my four younger brothers, which motivates me to work hard and be a good role model.
  • A meaningful quote either written on the whiteboard or written on an index card and stuck to the wall.

Photo by me

The List #19

I hope all the American readers out there had a great Thanksgiving and all the non-American readers out there had a great end of November. I come to you bearing a gift for your weekend relaxation -- The List #19!

I Was Looking Forward to Gummy Bears - The File Drawer

Shameless self-promotion. Episode three of my podcast with classmate/BFF Eric Middleton is out. Pretty good episode minus our newb status with getting our microphones setup correctly. We just recorded episode four today and I think we've finally ironed out all our mic issues. Now you can say you listened to us back when we were clueless, or something.

The Habits of Highly Productive Writers - The Chronicle of Higher Education

I aspire to be a highly productive writer and this article is better than many I've read recently offering advice for being just that. It's tailored toward academics but I think mostly applies to anyone trying to do something with the written word.

This 15 Minute-Activity Will Make You More Successful at Work - Business Insider

I'll save you the suspense and tell you the 15 minute activity is writing at the end of the workday. I'm working on a chapter along with some classmates about metacognition (thinking about thinking) and leadership development. As part of my research for the chapter I came across a study that showed students who kept a learning journal over the course of a semester learned more than their classmates who did not. I think this is probably a similar thing that's going on here.

Zen and the Art of Cubicle Living - The Atlantic

Interesting to see what organizations are doing to push forward the art and science of workspace design. I think it's fairly obvious there is no best design and the best workplaces of the future will have a variety of different types of spaces available for the various types of work to be done and then personalities of the people doing that work.

Photo by Mario Acosta Garcia

Weekend Reading #1

Each Friday I'm going to share a couple of the links that caught my eye over the previous seven days. This week, two articles from the Wall Street Journal and one from the thought provoking (like usual) Rands. Throw these into Instapaper (or your read later app of choice) and enjoy them over a Saturday morning coffee, eh?

How to Avoid That Sinking Feeling When in a Fishbowl - The Wall Street Journal

Steelcase is creating "quiet spaces" to sell to organizations looking to provide work environments for their resident introverts. Ignoring the fact that introversion seems to be a hot topic nowadays (Sean Blanda has a good take on it), I like the movement toward diversifying workspaces. It doesn't make sense that every person in an organization (given their strengths, preferences, and working styles) should complete every type of task (from brainstorming, writing, communicating, etc.) in the exact same environment. For employees this means management has to do things like providing different spaces for different types of work and types of worker. For indie workers, it means you have to think deliberately about what you're trying to do and the best environment in which to do it (more on this coming in an article next week).

Work Creates Less Stress Than Home, Penn State Researchers Find - The Wall Street Journal

"In a new study, published online last month in Social Science & Medicine, researchers at Penn State University found significantly and consistently lower levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, in a majority of subjects when they were at work compared with when they were at home. This was true for both men and women, and parents and people without children."

This study didn't include people who work for home which makes me wonder if this means indie workers who work from home experience work to be more like home-life (i.e. more stressful) or if they experience work to be more like home (i.e. less stressful). My guess is that indie workers who have developed routines and norms (for themselves and their family) are able to bring some of the stress reduction of work into the home. Otherwise, and this is probably more common, I imagine indie workers are experiencing greater stress at home and at work.

Chaotic Beautiful Snowflakes - Rands in Repose

"I am actively watching zero leadership experiments in progress at Medium, GitHub, and Zappos, but I am a firm believer that you need a well-defined leadership role to deal with unexpected and non-linear side effects of people working together. You need someone to keep the threads untangled and forming a high-functioning web rather than a big snarl of a Gordian knot."

The experiments currently happening with holacracy are interesting on both a practical and academic level (at least for an organizational theory/structure nerd like myself) but the leadership coach in me is siding with Rands regarding the importance of leadership. A good leader serves to amplify and organize the work of those he or she works with -- not as a bottleneck. It'll be interesting to see how these experiments work out -- especially in highly complex environments.

Photo via Sameer Vasta

Utilizing Space to Improve Your Work

The power of physical space on our minds and ability to do work is fascinating to me. When I was younger I was convinced I wanted to be an architect. I wanted to build incredible houses with slides from second floor bedrooms to pits of foam and indoor hockey rinks. I was eventually persuaded to direct my talents elsewhere when I learned I didn't seem to have much interest in learning to actually draw well. However, I've recently rekindled my interest in the interaction between space and mental state.

Your space and your work

Think about the different places you work throughout a typical week or month. How do you feel when you sit down at your workspace at home? What if you work someplace else in your home? What is your mental state like if you go to a coffee shop to get some work done? The library? Or, even more dramatically, have you ever experienced the hyper-productive mental state of working on an airplane? Or perhaps the complete opposite? The specific mental states aren't necessarily the same for two people who are sharing the same physical space. However, I think it's hard to argue that physical space has no effect on the way we think and work.

Thinking vs. doing

A recent article from 99U illustrates this point nicely. In "The Thinking Mindset vs. The Doing Mindset," Art Markman describes two "ways of being" that many independent and knowledge workers seem to face; the days where the ideas come pouring in and the days where you just want to get things done. I can certainly relate to this feeling as I've noticed my own productivity seems to ride certain cycles. Every hyper-productive week I've ever had seems to be followed by a lull (or, perhaps Mr. Markman would call this a Thinking period?). Regardless, we aren't constantly in the same mindset day after day.

In the article, Markman offers a couple suggestions for ways to alter your mental state, to shift between Thinking and Doing and vice versa. Getting some distance between you and your work can help you shift into a more creative and brainstorming-esque mindset. Literally moving away from your typical workspace and the problem you're working on may help your mind re-engage with it on a different level. Your typical workspace is strongly associated in your mind with getting work done so moving away from it could provide the spark to enter a more Thinking mindset.

The wandering desk

I can see this clearly in the way I work. My typical workspaces are my home and the university library. However, at home my desk has occupied three different spaces over the course of the past few months. It started in the most typical place -- my bedroom. However, I quickly decided that spending my days working inside were a waste of beautiful Southern California weather so I moved my desk to the covered porch behind my house. After several weeks of doing most of my work sitting outside I decided to move the desk back inside (SoCal nights get surprisingly chilly!) -- but not back to my bedroom. Now my desk is in the living room and right next to the sliding glass door to the backyard. Even though my desk never left the premises, each position has put me in a much different mindset. I like the change of pace of working somewhere different, even if I'm ostensibly in the same location (which is part of the reason I don't have a "regular" table when I work in the library, either).

Independent work, knowledge workers, & spacial liberty

Obviously, my fascination with independent workers and coworking spaces also fits into this model. I think individuals who aren't required to come into an office every day quickly realize the power physical space can have over their mental states and work. Whereas the typical knowledge worker doesn't have a whole lot of say in their physical surroundings if they work for a company, an independent worker suddenly has nearly complete control of the environment in which they work. I think this is why so many end up seeking places like coworking spaces. There is something lacking in the typical home office or café workspace that many people seem to be finding at coworking spaces. I could speculate about what that is -- but I'll save that for another article. The important thing to think about is your own work habits and how a tweak of your physical surroundings may result in a myriad of benefits.

If you have the freedom to do so, try changing your workspace. You can be like me and move your desk to a new room (or even outside) or try working at a coffee shop you've never been to or drop into a local coworking space for a day of work in a new environment. We may be more of a product of our environment than we realize -- but we also may have more control over our environment than we realize, too.