Listen To One Song On Repeat For Better Focus

I’ve been trying methods of improving focus with music at work. I’m in an open plan office, which is the modern layout compared to the cubicle farms of the previous generation. With the removal of partitions we need a new way to enhance focus and avoid distractions in and around the office, so most workers opt for a big monitor on their desk and a good pair of headphones, preferably noise cancelling.

Listening to music for me has always been distracting, I’ll spend time compiling playlists ready for my work day and find the time drift away. I’ve tried classical music and movie soundtracks but the continuous new input is just distracting no matter the style of music. I had a go with those natural sound generators where you can configure some woodland environment in the rain with a train chugging along and all that but it hasn’t become a habit for me.

I listened to Matt Mullenweg on Tim Ferriss’ podcast and they shared a conversation about the power of repetition, with Tim watching Shawn Of The Dead on repeat whilst writing, while Matt listened to a single piece of music on repeat to improve focus. So I gave it a go and found some success but nothing really settled for me until…

…I put Juicy by Notorious B.I.G on repeat. Now it might not work for everyone but the rhythm of the song syncs with me, the beat is simple, and the bassline feels good. The song itself is great for working too, the message of hustling is obviously relevant when you are trying to focus on your tasks.

Experiment with music you listen to and see what you can tolerate on repeat first, then narrow your focus to a specific artist, and finally a song. It might not be the most obvious genre of music so be open to what you might end up listening to, at the end of the day it is for your focus and you alone as you will likely be listening on headphones anyway. I tried Pitch Perfect movie soundtracks, Bieber, and Heavy Metal, before settling on Juicy.

Getting Better At User Stories

I’ve been running product teams for 3 years now and been part of product teams for 7, I’ve seen the failures and successes from both perspectives and there are 2 approaches to a given project that will definitely fail.

Approach 1 is for the delivery lead to go into a room alone and flesh out the requirements and subsequent user stories alone, finally emerging and presenting their vision to the rest of the team. This approach almost always results in questions from the team members and missing requirements identified.

Approach 2 is to involve the entire team and maybe even the stakeholders in a workshop to outline the requirements and subsequent user stories. The stakeholders will invariably end up having arguments amongst themselves about what they want and what is most important. The product team will outline the requirements and user stories to capture almost everything, but there will always be something missed that comes up later.

Either approach ends up with lost time but there is a strategy that will enable teams to leverage short meetings to focus their efforts. By conducting a mini-workshop focused on a single objective or minimum marketable feature, the right participants can be identified and invited. This also breaks down the greater vision to a single objective that can allow the team to see the wood for the trees, so to speak.

Story mapping is a good visual process that allows you to identify the sequence of actions in a user journey and the alternative paths a user might take. Each action is written in such a way that the word ‘then’ can be inserted between each pair…

Sign in -> Then -> Search Products -> Then -> Add Product To Basket -> Then -> Purchase Product

Post-it notes and a wall are ideal for this approach because you can easily move actions along the sequence axis as well as up or down the alternatives axis. The alternatives axis allows the team to agree what actions are most important and which are less important.

This approach of small workshops spread across a project leads to a better delivery of the product over time, compared with outlining everything upfront and finding everyones memory fails when they try to recall something 6 weeks later. Our modern brains are not designed to hold onto information for long periods, that is why computers are for, by having computers to store information we free up brain power to be creative and in the moment.

Twitter Is A Strange Company

While other social platforms are pushing into the realms of AI and other forward thinking initiatives, for some reason Twitter seems to have a bunch of 6 year olds making decisions. The latest ground breaking idea has been to increase the character limit for a tweet from 140 to 280, you can imagine the board room with the pensive faces and “deep” thinking going on, only the silence is broken by some wise soul who blurts out…

Idea man: “How about more characters?!”
Yes man: “I like it, but how many more?”
Idea man:”…”
Yes man: “How about twice as many?”
Idea man:”Brilliant! I will summon the engineers. Let the stakeholders know we’ve figured it out.”

Seriously. I use Instagram daily and every time I go on there I am being served fresh new content relating to my usage patterns and preferences. They’re not adding more filters, although that was the selling point in the first place, they are thinking outside of that box and making progress. Yes they are copying their competitors but frankly who isn’t, it’s a sound strategy to keep up with your competitors. Along with that though they are breaking the mould and stakeholders are reaping the rewards.

I only use Twitter for 2 things; joining the conversation during and event or TV show, or complaining to companies.

When a TV show is on and they have a hashtag it is easy to join the conversation and drop one liners, a creative endeavour where you try to form your thoughts into a short quip. Sometimes I’ll come up with something I am happy with and other times I can’t break it down to 140 characters, and that is ok and just means I have nothing to say. Pushing to 280 characters just means there will be more room for nonsense comments that haven’t been nearly as carefully curated.

Complaining to companies is my other joy, I know I can call a company out on Twitter and they will in most cases magically become more responsive than they would be through their other customer care channels. Making it public means I the consumer is held accountable for my approach and the company is held accountable for their response. The 140 character limit means we can have a conversation back and forth to resolve a situation without either party ranting on and on regardless of the character limit.

These 2 uses might not be the right answer for everyone but then I’m not being paid by Twitter to figure this out for them. They have the data, and maybe they’re reading it in such a way that it supports their original hypothesis. That echo chamber thinking and seeking data that supports your assumptions is what sinks companies. Twitter needs to let go of what it started out as and let the usage data drive their development, it could be very different but that should be the roadmap they build for themselves.

280 characters is possibly the weakest idea going and I’m embarrassed for Twitter to see that it is even in the news at all. That just shows how meaningless anything Twitter does is. For such a big player they are making ripples when they should be making waves.

You Can’t Write All The Time

I’ve started a blog a few times in the past and eventually ran out of steam, sometimes quickly and sometimes over a reasonable period of time. Maybe it was that I didn’t have enough to share, and maybe it was because I felt like an imposter to be contributing to a blog regularly. There is the other factor of finding the time to sit down and write, but I think there is a case for taking a break to consume information so you can form your own thoughts on a topic.

I don’t have a problem with topics for writing on this blog, I have 30 other topics to write on and that list grows faster than I can publish completed posts. Some are born from overheard conversations or the offhand remark with a friend/colleague, and other times it is a conversation I have had so many times before that I want to write my thoughts out in a cohesive way so that when someone asks me in future and I don’t have the energy to contribute but the want to put my point across, I can just say “I wrote an article on this very topic, please read and get back to me”, how bloody obnoxious would that be!

The answer is pretty obnoxious and I hope I don’t come across that way. Frankly I know there is a ton of content being put out daily and my meandering thoughts are hardly going to win me an award. I don’t mind if nobody reads any of this, it’s just a good outlet for me, and if by chance another soul gains something to help shape their own opinions by reading here then I would see that as a bonus.

I haven’t written anything in about a week maybe, I haven’t checked really and that’s ok with me. I don’t want to get hung up on how often I post or how long of a posting streak I can achieve, these are vanity metrics and I have no time for them. I’ve been spending my time reading more lately, I have a few books on the go at the moment and I might go deeper into each as I finish them. Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman is nearly complete and I’ve found some relieving insights from a very intelligent man that I can take into my home and work life, I’m particularly enjoying the topics related to students ability to memorise for exams but learn nothing of a subject that can be used in the real world – it’s not what you read, it’s how you read.

I’m also reading American Gods. I know the series is available to binge but I have decided I would rather read the book first because I rate Neil Gaiman as a writer. I’ve watched a few films and then read the books afterwards with varying levels of joy and pain when it came to comparing. I’m not in a rush to consume the information and get my opinion out there, so I settle in for the long road of reading and enjoying the book. I don’t need to write every day, it is a wise approach to listen more than you speak and the same holds true for reading and writing.

If you’re thinking about writing and getting your thoughts out there, don’t trouble yourself with the pressures of constantly putting out content. Quality is more important that quantity, this includes beer despite what other schools of thought might sell.

The Problem With Having A Goal

If you want to achieve a certain body weight or composition, or maybe a business achievement, you will often be told that it is important to have a goal. A goal will help you see your ultimate target and the steps required to achieve that goal. You might have read about S.M.A.R.T goals but I am not going to address that concept other than to say any backronym, should be distrusted or at least met with suspicion. I could easily concoct and sell the same concept under the name D.U.M.B goals, but you wouldn’t buy it because you don’t want to be considered dumb, do you?

When you set a goal you don’t believe that you will not meet it, it is just a matter of when. The enemy of a goal is time, and that coupled with discipline as a depleting reserve will eventually result in forgetting about your original goal and mindset altogether. We all have a finite amount of effort in ourselves, whether it is in a given day when you arrive at work ready to go but find yourself flagging come 4 o’clock, or a 3 month diet plan that you follow diligently on day 1 and tell yourself you’ve been pretty good and treat yourself on day 30.

I’ve set plenty of goals for myself and I have failed far more often than not. I’ve found that setting a time frame to achieve a far off goal is not the way to go for the reasons above. My best results have been from very short term goals that are achievable in less than a week and preferably in just a few days. This short time frame gives you the ability to really see your future self clearly, albeit a few days from now.

I’ve told myself I get a six pack more times than I can count and it has never happened. The only time I got close was when I was running around 10 miles a day, I looked like a skeleton frankly and it wasn’t healthy. The six pack wasn’t the goal I should have set myself however because it is a much longer process than a week. There were stages I needed to achieve along the way that I didn’t define clearly, like getting rid of the beer belly by eating and drinking healthy. My goal should have been to eat no chocolate for 3 days because that is easy to envision and I can see the end in sight, not to say that is the end of the process of course but breaking the process down into very small chunks in the grand scheme of things is the key to success. Small successes lead to big successes.

The goals you choose are risky because they come from over thinking things and discussions with friends and family. You have an element of commitment the moment you mention a goal idea to somebody and before you know it you are running the London marathon, planning training runs between pub crawls. These types of goals that sort of come together as if by magic are pipe dreams and will never end the way you believed when you started.

When a goal chooses you, that is when you know you have a realistic target you want to meet. When you attempt something and your internal monologue takes over and says this is within your ability and if it is not that is all the more tempting to go after. I’ve been bouldering at an indoor gym since February and I’ve been hooked ever since, I enjoy the challenge of both mental and physical, and the almost solitary endeavour each climber goes through as they compete against increasingly difficult grades. I was just enjoying going to the gym without actually going to the gym, feeling the aches after grappling with plastic holds and joking around like a grown up child.

I’m not particularly good at climbing and I started on my 31st birthday, I’m a little heavier than I could be and my strength is basic. I climbed the basic grades and learned the concepts, watched other climbers, young and old, and learned from the more experienced no matter their age. The early grades in the gym are full of nice friendly hand holds and it’s like climbing a wonky ladder that has seen better days, nothing particularly exciting. I’ve always preferred competing against myself and by myself, not being relied on by a team or trying to be better than my opposite number, I see that as a short sighted target being just good enough to appease my team mates or just good enough to best my fellow amateur. I enjoy most of all the relaxed nature of climbing, there is no requirement to follow the competition rules and you can basically make up your own games.

For a bit more fun I decided to try a grade that is about 2 grades above what I know I can climb, just to see what happens, and I fell on the final move. That was when I had a goal that effectively chose me. As I fell I realised it was literally within reach and if I could stick that route then there was no reason why I couldn’t, with time, be climbing the hardest climbs in the gym. The result has been that I am eating better any training more which is helping me see and feel the benefits without worrying about climbing V8+ by February.

So don’t set yourself a goal, just be you and do your thing and let a goal choose you as you go about doing the things you enjoy. Try new things and let the combination of interests develop you mind creatively to figure out what you care about inside. Don’t set weak goals, let a goal consume you and reap the benefits.

With Great Choice Comes Great Irresponsibility

We’ve all done it, open the fridge for something to eat we look past all the fresh fruit and vegetables, all the healthy stuff, and instead pluck the chocolate cake. Leaving work we plug in our sat nav and two destinations pop up; the pub or the gym. We know the choice we should make and we know the choice we are more likely to make. Choices are the enabler of a decision that is more likely to be costly to our wellbeing.

I eat a lot of crap food, mainly out of boredom and a lack of self discipline. I can remind myself it is not worth eating that huge chocolate bar, consuming a family size bag of tortillas, or  drinking that can of coke, and often that is enough to prevent me poisoning myself. No matter how often I tell myself this though, I always revert back to eating crap, because I have the choice.

I sit on the sofa considering going and doing something active, maybe even just a short walk or even a good climbing session. The choice is hard because I’m comfy and there’s that new episode of Breaking House Of Orange Narcos Thrones is on, the fridge isn’t far away and I have that six-pack of beer to deal with.

I like to attribute my poor choices in this respect to boredom, laziness, or lacking self discipline, but recently I have been wondering is there something else at place. Something less obvious that is overlooked because it appears harmless, and I have settled upon choices.

I read about a care home where the residents began moving the furniture in their rooms around to arrange the layout the way they each individually wanted it. The care home staff were fine with this but didn’t want the residents getting hurt moving around the furniture and so they offered to move the furniture around however the resident wanted it. The residents turned around and said they didn’t want to be told they could do something, they were independent and capable people, with the ability to make their own choices and they continued to defy the staff, even though the staff were happy with the furniture being moved.

This is a great example of the the danger that comes with choices, being able to make your own decisions is often more important than the result of those decisions, even if the result comes at a cost. The residents were willing to risk injury by moving heavy furniture because all they really cared about was having the choice and taking action on it.

When there are snacks in my house they get eaten, because they are there and I can eat them because I have the power of choice and I am a grown adult who can make their own decisions. The moment there isn’t a snack in the house I grumble a bit and consider going out to get something but then I remind myself I could just eat an apple or something else healthy and I’ll be sorted. In most cases I want a snack because I am bored – usually a distraction magically makes my craving disappear. The best case is the poor choice is not available so I forget about it and go on with my day.

If I said you had won a prize, a mystery box, you would be happy and take your prize away to enjoy. If I said you had won a prize and all you needed to do now was choose between mystery box A and mystery box B, you would have a choice to make. The choice comes with a range of emotions and unnecessary stress that you wouldn’t have if you did not have to make a choice.

The trick to making the right choice is to make a decision. It might be wrong or it might be right, it might be good but could have been better, the point is that making decisions on your choices is where the reward really comes in. Assess the known factors and make a judgement call, settle your mind with the fact that you might not make the right choice but do yourself a favour and don’t dwell on the decision or the outcome. Often decisions are final and when you make peace with that you let peace into your life.

Taking choices off the table is one option but better yet is not allowing those choices on the table in the first place. Holding yourself accountable works only for a short time, being held accountable by friends is better. Real friends are ruthless, they don’t care how much you might get frustrated at their efforts to compel you to do the right thing and make the right choice, because they know you can’t be mad at them forever and you’ll share a laugh about it later. Having an accountability buddy, or accountabilibuddy, is the best way to ignore the bad choices in the first place. Set real and serious stakes with your buddy and tell them if you don’t make the right choice that they make good on the stake – you’ll never fail to make the right choice again.

Control And Influence

Getting stressed at work is all too easy, it’s like the panic you feel before going into an exam. You know it is not going to be easy or fun but it needs to get done. There are 2 things I remind myself about when it comes to stressful situations and that is Control and Influence.

Anything that you can directly impact is something you can control. In the case of an exam it is revision, in the case of delivering a piece of work it is time management. These are the things that if you ignored you would be held accountable for and likely have to answer to you boss or teacher, or other stakeholder. Preparation is the key to addressing control so making sure you get things done early and avoid procrastination will see you in a strong position when it comes to a deadline.

There are however things that are outside of your control, these can be decisions or actions that are out of your hands. With items that you cannot directly impact, the only alternative is to indirectly impact them through influence. Influence usually boils down to communication, discussing unknowns with various parties, and even clarifying knowns to ensure there is no misunderstandings or false assumptions. The important thing to remember with influence is that there are no guarantees, you might find yourself up against a wall and you just have to work with what you have. So long as you have addressed a concern ahead of time you can always point back to that conversation when the boss comes hunting for heads.

Control and Influence is a coping mechanism for stressful situations and the event that a project might not go to plan or fail entirely. Often stakeholders will be looking for someone to blame but the truth of the matter is that the end result is a reflection of the top down communication. I hold this belief against myself all the time and when there is a misunderstanding in what is required and something else gets delivered, it is a result of my failure to communicate and not the developer or designer implementing a solution. I refer back to control here because this is what I have a direct impact on – defining the requirements. My favourite approach is to go at my job like there is someone at the other end of my effort waiting patiently to catch me out on a mistake.

It does happen, I’m not perfect, but I do aim to address everything and ensure I am not caught out and that is the best I can do in the situation. When I do get caught out I like it, because it means there is something I can improve, so that the next time I am in a similar tight spot I can address that embarrassing mistake last time. Getting something wrong and then getting it right next time is the most satisfying and character building version of succeeding.

Look first for things you can control and encourage others in your team to do the same, then look for things you can influence to ensure a greater chance of success. This is how successful teams work, doing their part and then looking outward to see where they can help. Communication is the fundamental tool of any successful team and nothing has been solved without it.