Slow, stress and life

Planning to do some talks and workshops with the DeStress Show in the UK. We filmed this as a primer.

Enough is enough

As recession bites, the excesses of the last boom look that much more absurd. Of course, many of the products sold during the largest spending spree the world has ever seen were designed to save time by speeding up even the most simple chores.

As a judge for the UK Landfill Prize, which compiles a Top Ten list of the most ridiculously unnecessary and wasteful products of the year, I saw some of these gadgets first hand. A few of the nominations were so silly I thought they were a made up. But they weren’t.

The grand winner was the motorized ice-cream cone. This is for people who are too lazy to turn the cone with their wrist. You stick out your tongue and the gadget swivels the ice-cream for you.

Third place went to the motorized fork. Yes, a fork that twirls the spaghetti for you.

One reader has just told me of another product that isn’t on the 2009 Landfill Prize list but would not have been out of place there. Give it up for: Selfy The Self-Making Bed. It was originally conceived for the infirm but its Italian inventor also hopes to sell to the able-bodied. Using a system of rails and runners, Selfy reportedly saves you 15 seconds a day. That’s a whole 105 seconds a week.

I think I’ll stick to Slow bed-making. Which means rearranging the pillows and pulling the duvet back up by hand.

Or not bothering to make the bed at all…



Are you listening?

The other day I gave a talk at Microsoft headquarters in Seattle. It was a bit like entering the belly of the beast. Technology companies worship at the altar of speed and their products are designed to help us do everything faster.

They also condition us to expect everything to happen at the click of a mouse.

A couple of hours before the talk, I was watching TV in my hotel room when a Microsoft ad came on. It featured animated drawings dancing on the screen while an ambitious CEO talked about how Microsoft software was a godsend for his company. I can’t remember the exact wording, but towards the end of the ad he said something like “…in business you have to do everything at the speed of light.”

Not a very Slow sentiment.

So did I get scalped and lynched during my lunchtime lecture at Microsoft HQ? Far from it. The Slow message seemed to strike a chord with the employees who came to hear me speak. The crowd hung around asking questions and sharing their own reflections even after the 90-minute session was over. This morning one of the organizers emailed to say that my visit has sparked a lot of discussion within the company.

I’m not surprised. Increasingly, it’s people inside the technology companies that are realizing there is too much speed in the system – and they’re looking for ways to slow down a little. Microsoft is no exception.

After my event, I spent some time hanging out with some of the company’s researchers. One of them was Eric Horvitz, who specializes in the interplay between technology and culture – how we use our gadgets and why, and how that use affects us.

Eric is overseeing some new research into what happens when people use laptops while attending public lectures. This particular brand of multitasking is now commonplace. At conferences, you see loads of people listening to speeches with their laptops open, reading and typing away in the eerie glow. Some are taking notes on the talk, but many are handling email, surfing the Web on unrelated topics or updating their Facebook pages. Or they’re tweeting.

Is there anything wrong with this? I think so. For a start, it’s just plain rude. When you attend a talk, the least you can do is give the speaker your full attention. Or at least give the impression that you are listening. Just think how irritating it is to share a dinner table with someone who constantly turns away to deal with incoming emails on a Blackberry. Or how important it is to look a person in the eye when you talk to them.

A public talk is different from a social gathering, of course, but don’t the basic rules of courtesy still apply?

You could argue that the world is changing and that people no longer expect to receive anyone’s full attention. But even if that is true – and I hope it’s not – then we should be worried about how that change affects our understanding of what is being said to us.

Back to that study at Microsoft HQ. Researchers are filming audiences during public talks and then asking them questions about the content. By plotting a time-line, they hope to work out how comprehension waxes and wanes during a speech and how those peaks and troughs correspond to laptop-users looking up and down from their screens.

My guess is that people absorb less when their attention turns to the computer – and that their general comprehension of the talk also suffers. I suppose that as a public speaker I would say that. Like anyone else who stands up on stage, I want to feel like I have the full and undivided attention of everyone in the room. But there is more at work here than my fragile ego.

What brain scan research is teaching us about multitasking is that it doesn’t work: that the human brain cannot process two streams of information at the same time, and that attempting to do so is a recipe for confusion, inefficiency and errors.

Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world where everyone can devote their full attention to everything they do. Some Microsoft employees argue that their workload makes it impossible to unplug for 90 minutes during the day. So they choose to multitask through the lunchtime lectures: giving speakers some of their attention rather than staying away and giving them none at all. Maybe they have a point. Maybe some Slow is better than none.

Either way, I’m looking forward to hearing the results of the Microsoft research and will report back here on the findings in due course.

In the meantime, if you’re reading this blog entry while attending a public talk, you might want to consider…


Jobs for the boys (and girls)

I’ve just returned from a speaking tour of the US and Canada (more on that to come), and someone at a talk/workshop I gave in Edmonton sent me this snippet from a blog. It’s amusing in a sardonic way. And maybe the punch line can be read in more ways than one.

Anyway, here it is:

If you think the coming nuclear winter will make the job market tough for employees, you need to hear about the job offer my daughter got recently.
The job has:
  • $0 salary and no equity (you’re supposed to be compensated in experience)
  • no benefits other than vacation and sick time – no insurance, for example
  • no possibility of promotion or raise, ever
  • no job description – just do what you’re told
  • micromanaging boss asks about project status every hour
  • strict hours, starting at 8:30AM sharp
  • if you’re late even a few minutes, your boss sends you to her boss
  • rigid workweek, but then you’re expected to work from home a ton
  • open-desk seating, not even a cube, with a hard chair
  • the work is boring and demeaning, like adding digits and copying text
  • all your useless work gets thrown away
  • if you want to use a computer, you can buy one or just scribble on paper
  • no supplies room
  • my daughter can’t drive so commute was complicated
  • can’t even put the job on your resume until you work there for a decade
I wish this was a joke or I was making it up.
Having consulted with me, my daughter of course rejected this ridiculous offer and is now just working on side projects while looking for a better opportunity.
But millions of other 7-year olds accepted identical offers.

Slow feedback?

Feedback is king these days. Wherever you go online, the pressure is on to pass judgement: Was this site useful? How do you rate this article? Please take a minute to fill in our user experience survey. In the same vein, gamers are forever monitoring their progress on leader boards.

The hunger for feedback is also starting to reshape the workplace. Many younger employees now expect a running commentary on their performance. Not for them the old annual or semi-annual review: they want to know how you think they did in this morning’s presentation, and they want to know now. You can even buy special software to create a round-the-clock feedback loop for staff and clients.

Yet this begs an obvious question:Is being constantly ranked, rated and evaluated a good thing?

True, there is much to be said for knowing what your colleagues and boss think of your work and to hear this more often than once or twice a year. Input from a wide range of people can also enrich many decisions and projects a principle known as the “wisdom of crowds“.

But there are limits. Otherwise the wisdom of crowds can start to resemble groupthink.

We are social animals, after all, so we have a natural desire to fit in, to please our peers – to earn good feedback. Research into online behaviour suggests that other people’s opinions can narrow our horizons. When visiting a site where movies, books, etc are rated, users tend to click on the items with the highest rating first.

It’s like buying a song on iTunes: if there are multiple versions available, which do you listen to first? I know I always click on the one with the highest popularity ranking. I follow the herd, in other words.

This raises the possibility that too much feedback too fast can close down avenues of inquiry and pull us away from the fertile soil of serendipity.

It may also hamper our creativity. Some acts of creation are intensely private. You cannot orchestrate them by committee. A person has to sit alone with his doubts, fears, frustrations, dreams and demons untangling, parsing and processing these at his own pace.

Many creative triumphs have come from someone toiling away alone, free from the tyranny of other people’s judgements. James Joyce wrote Ulysses without a daily critique from his editors; Mozart composed his Requiem and piano sonatas without hourly feedback from his patrons; Picasso only unveiled his paintings to the world when they were finished.

Would these giants have produced the same imaginative breakthroughs, the same revolutions in thought, if they had worked with a constant drip-feed of other people’s feedback? I’m not so sure.

Surely the answer is to strike a balance. Feedback at the right speed: sometimes fast, sometimes slow and sometimes no feedback at all.

It goes without saying that any feedback on this post is more than welcome…