Distraction isn't anything new. It is just taking on new forms. And is becoming easier and easier because those of us who are designing products and media and everything else are getting better and better at grabbing attention.
When the radio first came out, many parents were worried it would be too much of a distraction for kids. I remember my mom worrying about our TV being too much of a distraction in our home. So much so that she threatened, on multiple occasions, to throw it away. And we only owned a single TV. And didn't even have cable. Now we have phones and tablets and smartwatches and all sorts of other devices to distract us.
So it's not so much about the device, but more about the fact that we can be distracted if we're not careful with our attention and deliberate with our focus.
So what can we do?
In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport gives the example of Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman:
"To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time...it needs a lot of concentration, if you have a job administrating anything, you don’t have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, 'no' I tell them: I’m irresponsible.
"Feynman was adamant in avoiding administrative duties because he knew they would only decrease his ability to do the one thing that mattered most in his professional life: to do real good physics work."
We have to prioritize what is most important and really block out the things that aren't. That means actually saying no.
In another book about the subject called Indistractible, Nir Eyal relates the story of Tantalus from Greek mythology:
"The ancient Greeks immortalized the story of a man who was perpetually distracted. We call something that is desirable but just out of reach “tantalizing” after his name. The story goes that Tantalus was banished to the underworld by his father, Zeus, as a punishment. There he found himself wading in a pool of water while a tree dangled ripe fruit above his head. The curse seems benign, but when Tantalus tried to pluck the fruit, the branch moved away from him, always just out of reach. When he bent down to drink the cool water, it receded so that he could never quench his thirst. Tantalus’s punishment was to yearn for things he desired but could never grasp.
"The curse is not that Tantalus spends all eternity reaching for things just out of reach but rather his obliviousness to the greater folly of his actions. Tantalus’s curse was his blindness to the fact he didn’t need those things in the first place.
"That’s the real moral of the story. Tantalus’s curse is also our curse. We are compelled to reach for things we supposedly need but really don’t. We don’t need to check our email right this second or need to see the latest trending news, no matter how much we feel we must."
Ultimately, we have to make up our minds as to what is most important. We only have so much time each day. We can either use that time on what is most important or we can waste it on things of lesser importance. It is easier and easier to become distracted. And I fear that it is a trend that will only increase. So we have to decide now, and take the necessary steps to safeguard our time and attention.
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It's easy to talk about empathy. We often talk about how we need to empathize with other people. We need to see things from their perspective or need to understand their side. But that's often as far as it goes. I feel like I see this frequently as a product person. We talk frequently about empathy in our profession. It is a staple in articles and at product management conferences. We need to empathize with our users and customers. But too often it is easy only to pay lip service to empathy. Not to truly empathize and understand.
Empathy vs Sympathy
It's easy to mistake empathy and sympathy. We may feel for someone. That's sympathy. When we see someone in a bad situation and feel sorry for them or sad for them, that's sympathy. There is an important difference between sympathy and empathy. Empathy is feeling with someone. It is about feeling, or trying to feel, the same emotions that that they are feeling.
Brene Brown has a great video about empathy and sympathy. When someone is in a pit, sympathy is looking down on them and telling them you're sorry that they are in that pit. Empathy is about getting into the pit with them.
It can often be difficult in product development to fully embrace empathy, despite all our talk about it. No matter how many conference talks we hear or articles we read, it is so easy to think that our users just don't understand the beauty of our products. Or our users are just dumb. You all know you've thought it at some point.
But your users aren't any more dumb than you are. The truth is that we all don't really care about products any more than we care about ourselves and our own lives. Why should we? I don't really care about the apps I use, but only how they improve my life. And if they don't do that in a way that makes sense to me, then why should I use them? Or why should I care?
So as we look around, we need to take a moment to go deeper into the "why" behind what people are doing. Understanding their true motivations, and then finding within ourselves the similar emotions that drive our motivations, will allow us to much better understand and empathize.
We were with our son at a restaurant recently when he spilled some water on his shirt. He was horribly embarrassed since we were out in public and he was wearing a nice shirt. It wasn't a big deal. It was only water. But it was a big deal to him. Rather than try to convince him it wasn't a big deal or that it would dry, I tried to practice exactly what I'm preaching here. I told him how frustrating it is to spill water on yourself in public. I then showed him the place on my sport coat where I had spilled water earlier that day and told him how frustrated I was too. We talked about the frustration together and he really enjoyed having someone to commiserate with whom knew what it was like. To not be alone.
Ultimately, embracing empathy is about finding the emotions within ourselves to find understanding. We may not fully understand everything that someone else is going through, and that's okay. Sometimes it's just about understanding that we can share the same pit together for a time.
As we embrace empathy, as product professionals and as people we can build the products that will not only move the world forward, but we can build the communities and the organizations that will make the world better. We can build the understanding person to person to make each other better.
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Favorite Books of the Month
Being in software product development, I've long been of the opinion that we should be equipped to deal with randomness. Software development is complex. The world is complex. Life is complex. Random things happen and we have to deal with them. We can't predict everything and we shouldn't think we can. Things tend to spiral out of control (especially in product development, but in many other aspects of life) when we think can plan out every detail and run things as if no variable will ever surprise us.
Good luck with that.
This idea applies to everything though. Randomness is everywhere. Complexity is everywhere. It is easy to take for granted or forget. But I've been finding it more and more important to not only accept randomness, but to actively seek it for myself and my teams/products/endeavors to make them better.
This should come as no surprise, but we are individually complex systems. Everything about us is complex, from our bodies to our hormones to our biology to how it all interacts. Modern medicine barely scrapes the surface of how it all interacts. If you've ever had anything seriously wrong with you or a loved one, you've likely realized how quickly we reach the edge of understanding. It is scary.
So with that, we should be very judicious about adding unproved complexity to our complex systems (medicines with little benefit but potential hidden risks are good examples). But we should also be readily using time-tested randomness. Many religions and diets have randomness in the form of fasting, either intermittently or sporadically. The benefits have been time-tested. And the randomness is meant to help push our bodies, to make us stronger.
We're built to adapt and become stronger in this way. If we don't vary our workouts, we won't build muscle. So
adding randomness or variability is a key to pushing our physical ability. The same idea is true for mental abilities. Learning takes place over time by varying the tasks and context. You can pass a test by cramming, but that's not how long-term learning happens.
Planning for Randomness
While it may seem like an oxymoron to plan for randomness, this is a key to preparation. Many of us do it in some areas of our lives. It is why we buy insurance. We can't predict certain situations, so we buy insurance to prevent big losses from random events. Hopefully we also are saving money as another way of preparing for random events.
On a little less dire note, planning for randomness also allows for some of the happiest times. Think about the best vacations you've had. Were they planned out to the last detail? Or was there some room in there for some random events or chance happenings? While planning out what you will do is important, leaving room for fun to happen will be where memories are made. The random stop on the side of the road. Or the detour to see the historical site that wasn't on the itinerary. Picking the restaurant that feels like the right option in the moment.
Professionally you could look at this as contingency planning. How might your meeting go wrong? What might take things in the wrong direction? How could the upcoming budgeting season get derailed? On the flip side, what unexpected opportunities might arise? As a product manager, I'm always looking for these types of opportunities, especially with the software we're producing. How are customers using our software in ways we weren't expecting? How can we capitalize on that?
Going beyond planning for randomness, injecting randomness into our lives is the next step to building our strength. It's not just about preparing and planning for randomness, it's about finding areas where we can add some randomness to help ourselves.
We already talked about it with working out. Lifting weights is an ideal example. If I lift the same weight every day, I can get great at it. It will get easy. But I won't build any muscle that way. I need to inject some randomness. In the way I lift (not using a machine). In the actual weight (increasing it).
We can say the same for diet. I've found some good foods that I've grown accustomed to. But as I've been thinking and reading, I've realized that I need to inject more randomness into my diet. Eggs every morning have been great, but I need to inject some randomness into my diet. Part of that is different foods. Part of it is skipping breakfast altogether.
I've also found the same principle holds true for work and teams. Approaching problems in a new way, trying out a new method, changing up the routine can all inject some randomness that may make things more tumultuous in the short-term, but will add long-term benefits by challenging our assumptions and forcing us to grow.
When we boil it down, the point is to continue to grow. We want to grow personally, and allowing for randomness is part of that. Embracing randomness is even better. When we allow for it on our teams, in our businesses and ultimately in our society, we become far stronger than if we tried to plan every detail or manage every interaction.
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Favorite Books from the Month
It was another lighter month for reading, but a really good one. I finished the Incerto series that I started last month, and highly recommend it. More to come on that soon.
I've been thinking a lot this past month about how to gain better understanding. I'll probably have a few more posts about the topic soon, including how to think more critically about everything as well as how to better read and retain information. But a few thoughts for now:
One key to understanding is writing. I wrote about this a few weeks ago in my post Why Writing Out Your Ideas is the Key to Better Understanding.
If you can’t concisely and clearly write about a topic, you don’t understand it. Writing about a topic means really thinking about it. And not just superficially, because all of us can tell within a few sentences if someone is bullshitting. Hopefully you can tell that about yourself even quicker. To write something out helps to drive thinking about the topic."
This is one of the reasons why Amazon adopted writing over presentations. It can be too easy to BS your way through a presentation. But its much tougher to do that in a document. Especially because you have to fool yourself first and then fool everyone else.
Another key to understanding I believe is finding insight. This can be a process in itself, involving thinking deeply through a problem, studying it, probably writing about it per my suggestion above, but then also allowing space for our subconscious mind to ruminate on an issue.
In an interesting podcast episode, John Kunios explores how we can get more "Aha" moments in our lives. Personally, I'm a big fan of finding these Aha moments. I like to take frequent walks throughout the day to allow myself some time to think as well as allow myself some time to let my mind wander.
To gain understanding, you have to be willing to ask questions as well. It is so easy to assume that we know all the answers. Most of us want that to be true. It is difficult to think that we don't know all the answers. We may fear losing face, losing credibility, or simply looking foolish in front of friends or colleagues.
I wrote about this in a short story this month as well, called Speaking Your User's Language. It was about my son being able to get to the heart of a problem my daughter was having by understanding what she wanted. He got there by asking the right questions.
Finally, in order to truly understand, we need to have empathy. As a product person, I talk about this a lot. Most product managers and people in product development talk about empathy for users all the time. It's funny though, because often our calls for empathy are very siloed. We seem to fall into the trap of domain dependence, where we call for empathy for users of our products but forget to call for empathy in other areas (like the person who takes the escalator rather than the stairs on the way to the gym).
So I'll call for empathy here. Not just for our products or users, but everywhere. As we try to gain a better understanding of people in general, as well as the problems we're facing, we'll be better able to tackle issues and make things better. Not just for our users or customers, but for everyone.
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Additional Links of Interest:
Favorite Books from The Month:
Got through fewer books this month, but there were some really good ones:
A key theme from some of my posts over the past few weeks has been the idea of intentionality. Being intentional with what we're doing, whether it is forming teams or eating.
From my post Co-Located vs. Remote/Distributed Teams: What Works and Why:
When managed correctly, distributed teams perform just as well as their co-located counterparts. But therein lies the rub: you can’t simply put any team together and hope for success.
The key to creating a good team, whether it is a remote team or a co-located team, is being intentional. Sometimes good teams can simply happen without much effort, but that is likely the exception, not the rule. So being intentional in the creation and leadership of a team, especially when it is distributed in some way, is going to be a key to success.
The same can be said when it comes to losing weight. While this isn't my normal writing vein, it is another helpful illustration of the point. To be successful at losing weight, you have be very intentional, especially with your eating. At least that is what I discovered for myself. While I would love to be able to exercise my way to fitness, that turned out to be impossible. From my post about weight loss:
I used to believe that exercise was the most important key to fitness. With that mindset, I used to exercise frequently with little regard to what I ate. When that didn’t work, I continued to increase my level of exercise more and more, spinning my wheels endlessly. At the same time I was spinning, my wife was taking the opposite approach. She didn’t have a massive exercise regimen like I did, but focused on eating right, both in quantity and quality. And she managed to lose weight and look great. This was especially pronounced after she gave birth to our kids. She was able to rapidly return to her pre-pregnancy weight while I struggled to do anything.
Life, in general, requires a degree of intentionality. While we may have some success for a time without being intentional about our direction, I don't think that will be long-lived. We'll find much more success, and much more joy in life, by being intentional about our decisions.
What does that mean?
I'll be exploring this topic more in some other posts and in weeks to come. If you have thoughts or ideas, let me know.
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Additional Links of Interest:
Favorite Books from The Month:
It was an awesome month for reading. I'd recommend a bunch of books, but trying to keep it to a manageable list, here it goes:
Agility and Flexibility are Core Elements
I wrote about this topic a while ago, and it has been top of mind recently both from personal experience as well other articles that have come out. So I wanted to dive a little deeper.
From my original post:
SAFe is another embodiment of project thinking. While product thinking is the solution for product development, it is easy to slip back into a project mindset where the goal is to map out features and outputs and then simply focus on delivering them on a specific timeline. And that is what SAFe does: it puts the focus on outputs rather than outcomes. Success is measured on committing to features and then delivering them throughout the quarter. Of course, this is great if you’re right about all your guesses ahead of time, but that won’t generally be the case. And when processes take the place of outcomes, it’s not good for teams, organizations, or users.
Simply throwing around the term "agile" does not an agile team make. But everyone wants to think of themselves and their teams and their organizations as agile. Unfortunately, simply using the term or using frameworks loosely associated with agile will not make you agile or flexible or dynamic.
SAFe, as a framework, is way too complex and puts too many barriers in place. It literally removes teams several steps back from customers and the impact of that becomes obvious quickly.
You can read more about it here: The Major Problems with SAFe
Understanding Fake Agile
"A particularly worrying variant is the Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe. Essentially this is codified bureaucracy, in which the customer is almost totally absent."
Stepping Back from the Scaled Agile Framework
I saw Al talking about this on Twitter, and found this article about stepping away from SAFe. It's not as dramatic a call out as "Fake Agile", but it does acknowledge SAFe as generally too complex.
The Horror of the Scaled Agile Framework
A quick rant, but it's fun to see the emotion that SAFe can elicit. I often feel the same way.
Favorite Books from the Past Month:
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions
This was a great read that dove not only into computer science, but how we can apply it (or not) to our lives. Really worthwhile.
I'm preparing to start a new role, so the idea of building credibility has been on my mind. I actually wrote about it last year, so I've been revisiting some of my own advice to see how well I think it will hold up.
I’ve realized that credibility is very much like like an investment account. You add a little bit to it at a time, and it starts to grow. And once you’ve made enough deposits, you can start tapping into it without drawing down too much. But you can’t make withdrawals if you haven’t made deposits, at least not without seriously damaging yourself."
That comes from 4 Ways to Make Credibility Deposits: Starting a New Role Right
It is interesting because we often have to build trust in so many contexts, especially as we move jobs or roles or neighborhoods. We often go from a place of high credibility (a place we hopefully have earned with good work) to a place with lower credibility as we move into something new. So bridging that gap, and doing it quickly, is a key element of success. I'll probably need to explore that some more, especially as I go through the cycles soon.
The Trust Battery
This is a really good interview with the founder of Shopify from last year. It has stuck with me.
How Leaders Around the World Build Trust Across Cultures
A good article from the Harvard Business Review that I think reiterates some of the key ideas I had as well, with the rigor of HBS of course.
"Starting with the right mindset is key. The executives we spoke with understood that the process of trust building can take different paths, different amounts of time, and different sets of criteria in different parts of the world and with people from different backgrounds. Patience and understanding are of the essence."
The Secret to Rebuilding Trust in Tech: More Emotionally Intelligent Humans
This will continue to be an interesting space as trust in technology and technology companies is questioned.
"We don’t like what we don’t trust, and we don’t trust what we don’t understand."
Favorite Books from the Past Month:
Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World
Thoroughly enjoyed this book and its look at dealing with complexity in war. It is incredibly applicable to all of us given how networked we today and how much complexity we all deal with.
The Gods Themselves
If you're a fan of science fiction, Isaac Asimov is a go-to for great stories. And this one didn't disappoint. Especially if you like the idea of alternative universes and what the implications of that might be.