In search of Stillness, or why personal high availability is a (generally) a bug

These days, 2.3 seconds seems to be the average time between sending out an email and getting a response.  We live in a world of immediate interaction and a general information immersion and real-time availability

Generationally I am pre digital native but I embraced the new communication and media consumptions paradigms early on, and though I have never had the patience or passion to be a bleeding edge adopter, I am a fast follower.   End result is a blog and an active Twitter presence and all the trappings of the world weary tech world participant (the multiple filtered gmail accounts, the Dropbox, a fully digitised personal life that I keep carefully  away from the public eye).


Real time is best left to Twitter

I have had a number of debates over the last few years with Max Niederhofer about whether high availability (the notion that one responds to emails within seconds) is "a feature or a bug".  Max thinks it's a feature; I am more batch oriented.  I thin it may be a feature in him but a bug in most.

For every person that manages "efficient high availability" well, I find 10 who respond too fast and with insufficient information and hence create more overhead and interaction than the problem at hand would warrant.  The result is a deluge of IM like conversation between pushed over email, SMS or twitter and leading to a feeling of busy-ness but a clear loss of control.  Dealing too fast with emails that were written too fast is a good recipe for absolute entropy and a fatal divergence that could I assume lead the world into an abyss of information chaos.  Thank god you can scroll down 300 emails, hit "Del" and see what comes back (the important stuff).   Entropy reduction at the touch of a key, heaven, it's like an emergency exit door.  A guilty pleasure :-)


Multitasking efficiency is a myth

There is a fair amount of research coming out that is highlighting what common sense would tell you is true: the human brain cannot deal sustainably with "continuous partial attention" and the perception that one achieves more is wrong: general efficiency on the tasks individually is decreased and overall output is of a lower quality (see this fantastic Frontline broadcast on the topic including a humbling moment for Stanford grad students and great insights from Douglas Rushkoff). 

In other words, cognitive ability goes down the drain and so does actual output, whilst the feeling of busy-ness creates an addictive misperception of hyper performance.  Hooked on fast tasks but achieving nothing much.  As Linda Stone puts it: "over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment".  [For a more structured and intellectual look at the issue, head over to Edge Annual Question 2010 and see contributions from Carr, O'Reilly, Shirky and others].


Slow can be (very) good

I was reminded of the negotiation we undertook when Stefan Dolezalek of VantagePoint Venture Partners invested in Inxight Software (since acquired by BOBJ).  Stefan would take his time answering emails even in the heart of the deal discussions.  It used to infuriate our CEO John Laing who was a high octane sales guy and could not get his arms around this particular close.  But Stefan would always come back with a thoughtful, studied response that would meaningfully move the negotiation forward with a good eye for win-win outcomes.  He would also get some benefit from letting us stew for a few days:-)  Net-net, he was an incredibly efficient communicator and once you understood that delay did not equate with dropping the ball, it was a great way to work.

Don't get we wrong, there are many aspects of real-time goodness I love.  But the web used to be something we do and now it's part of who we are.  So isn't it time to reassess how we interact with it ?  


Get back in control and write your own rules

  • We need to reclaim real downtime: Kids need downtime for their imagination to develop;  they thrive on boredom.  In the same way we need downtime and we need disconnected time to let the synapses reset and refresh.  Shoot email on holiday, it's an addiction and a disease.  The world can survive without you for a week, you're not that important.  "Don't try to reach me on holiday, you will figure it out without me".
  • Stop confusing speed and efficiency: momentum matters but it has little to do with your average response time to email.  Be precise, thoughtful, deep and action oriented.  if you want something done (such as setting up a meeting) spend the time to determine timeframe / urgency / participants / objectives / timeslots instead of exchanging 255 coordination emails and clogging everyone's inbox.
  • Prioritise and focus on outcomes: VC's are masters at creating entropy.  VC's only function on information (we don't actually "do" anything besides manage information and money flows) and hence information is perceived to be power.  So we spend an awful lof of time staying on top of said information, and hence asking other people (typically our overworked management teams) to produce this for us.  The right way to go is to to ruthlessly determine which are the priorities of the company (a certain milestone, a change of culture, a new release) and what specific action you are going to take within a measurable timeframe (a recruitment, a strategy session, a bus dev deal).  I try to determine 1-2 things a month or even a quarter that I want to get done with a company, communicate this to the CEO and get it done.  The rest is noise in the system. 
  • Allow yourself to reach the zone:  I am still struggling with the illusion that I can efficient and multi-task.  In recent months I have gone back to a more disciplined approach when taking phone calls — I take notes.  It forces me to stay absolutely focused on the task at hand. It takes me about 10-15 minutes to really reach a point of "flow" and any interruption can break that.
  • Automate information production: Information production should be systematized and automated.  Board meetings should be run without powerpoint slides and take a few hours to prepare.  Anything that can be mediated by tech should be.
  • Segregate (and mostly ignore) breaking news: one of the biggest drain on my neuronal ability has been "breaking news".  An unending daily stream of non-critical information that has social value ("did you hear…") but creates way too many open loops in my brain and ultimately serves no lasting purpose whatsoever.  I have now bifurcated my news consumption between real-time for anything that concerns the companies I look after (e.g. DMGT buys Globrix is relevant to Zoopla with immediate impact) and weekly or monthly consumption of everything else.  At the risk of shocking you, I did not not follow the Haiti developments day-by-day as the crisis unfolded.  I find the body counting and dramatic pictures are a way of making you feel better (you are driving your own awareness of the people; feeling "concerned" makes most people feel better about themselves), whereas the reality is you are better served getting a complete overview of the crisis ten days into and deciding where you may want to send charity money based on the actual needs as they are emerging.
  • Have a Continuous Partial Attention slot: it's fun and game-like to immerse yourself in the flow of twitter and facebook updates and to dip into the real time river.  A time to reconnect and socialise and waste time browsing around.  Just accept that your brain can only do so much of it and that you are not, actually, being productive.  You're hanging out. 

I don't care about the latest acquisition by X or investment by Y.  I will let you know when I am on holidays and you will do without me for a week.  I don't care about answering comments on my blog as they get posted.  I decide where and when and how I interact.  I decide when I am online and not the other way around. 

[Voila.  Written in one go with web shut off, 30 minutes, 15 minutes to find links and edit.  45 minutes round trip, but fun and interesting.  And now back to work :-)]

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