Writing things down

I was at the gym listening to an episode of Invisible Office Hours where they discussed rituals. One thing that I related to was Jason mentioning that he hand writes his to-do list. He tried every to do list app out there and nothing stuck as well as writing on a piece of paper.

I had this same issue in the past few months. My work uses a project management website that I despise (and nobody ever uses properly), so putting my tasks in there was a pain and I hardly ever did it. I tried putting them in Evernote, didn’t stick. Tried using Keep to host my to do list, didn’t help much either. I go the Todoist browser extension, that flopped after just a few days.

I found that writing on a big sheet of paper and crossing things off worked much better.

Why is writing better?

I shouldn’t necessarily say it’s better than typing, I would not want to hand write this whole blog. But writing by hand helps you commit things and ideas to memory better than typing.

I found this out myself in college. I was usually one of the only people in my classes to not have a laptop. I didn’t bring the laptop because it was too heavy and I had to bike. I would see people on Facebook (most common) or just on a random site, but rarely did I see them actually taking notes (at least the screens I could see).

I took tons of notes, because I didn’t have the distractions that a laptop and internet connection can bring.

For 3 years I took all my notes by hand and did really well. That’s not to say that hand writing my notes led me to do well in class, but I think it is a factor. If you’re disciplined enough to forgo the laptop and write things down and pay attention, you’re probably more likely to remember what’s happening in class.

The science

There’s an article in Scientific American that talks about the benefits of writing longhand to remember more and understand material better when in class.

The study they cite called “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard” is from Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, which “demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more”.

“Across three experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information.  Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand.  As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes.  In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.”

They liken the findings to different types of cognitive processing that go on when you’re taking notes on a laptop versus taking them by hand.

“Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture.  Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.  Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention.  By contrast, when typing students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.”

In the study’s abstract, they also mention that even without distractions on the laptop, those focused just on taking notes on their laptop “may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower process.”

One of the major issues is that laptop note-taking students are writing their notes verbatim, and that this “high verbatim note content was associated with lower retention of the lecture material.” It seems like students are just taking notes as they hear them, and not really processing them resulting in a shallow understanding of the lecture.

The study’s authors tried to combat this verbatim note-taking issue by instruction students “to think about the information and type notes in their own words”. But those taking notes on the laptop still “showed the same level of verbatim content and were no better in synthesizing material than students who received no such warning”.

The authors even proved that whether you ask the note takers to take a memory test immediately after taking thewriting-on-hand notes or letting them know they would be tested a week later, the longhand note takers still outperformed those on laptops.

“Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session.”

Why don’t more people hand write?

I get it, the act of handwriting can be cumbersome at times, especially since we have our phones always nearby. When I’m at the gym or out away from my desk and have an idea, I will jot it down in my Keep app. I don’t carry a notebook around with me.

Notes on apps are searchable. In Evernote, if you just remember one keyword of something you knew you wrote in there a year ago you will likely be able to find it. If you try to do the same with a notebook, good luck.

Most of the time, if I need to jot down a quick note I will put it on my hand. Maybe it’s something I need from the store or an appointment to remind myself of, I will always remember because I see it on my hand all day long. I’ve even thought of tattooing the words “To Do” on my hand because I write stuff on it so much.

 

How can handwriting be made better?

There are journal systems out there, yes it’s true.

One that I’m looking to try that seems very popular is the Bullet Journal.

Here’s an illustration of some of the concepts from Kim at tinyrayofsunshine.com.

bullet-journal

 

Other than that, I’m not really sure how handwriting can be made to be more enticing. It’s slow, cumbersome, and your hand will cramp after a full hour of note taking.

But if you read the studies and want to improve how you take in information, you’ll want to try handwriting for yourself.

 

Flexible Schedules & Remote Work

I both like and dislike schedules. I like when I can set my schedule, but I hate when it is dictated by others.

My semi-rigid schedule does not allow too much flexibility in the mornings, but it does help me keep on track and reduces the cognitive load of having to think about what to do next.

Mornings

I wake up at 7 each morning. Sometimes a little earlier if I can. I go to the bathroom, put in my contacts, get dressed, and go out for a walk.

I come in after about 10 minutes and I start making coffee and breakfast.

The laptop is turned on and booting up. Once food and coffee are made, I get to work.

At around 10 am, I make more food before I work out at around 10:30 or 11.

Afternoon

I go to the gym for 50 minutes: 20-30 minutes on the elliptical and 20-30 minutes of weight training.

I head home, shower, and do some more work.

At 3-4pm I have another cup of coffee and finish up my work.

Night

After 4 pm my schedule is pretty open. I can hang out with my girlfriend, go outside, read, watch a show on Netflix. I might work on my other project (Mission Marketer).

At around 8-9pm I go for another walk. I try to read right before bed in the living room, then go to bed around 10-11pm.

Why have a set schedule?

I enjoy not having to think about things that shouldn’t require much attention. Now that my schedule is ingrained in my mind, I work on autopilot until about 3-4pm. Everything is already planned out without me even having to think about it.

I leave the rest of the day open in case of errands or something else I need to go do.

On the weekends I let my schedule go. I wake up when my body tells me to and I spend the day in any number of ways from reading to going to the store or just hanging out.

It also helps because my work schedule is up to me. I set up my routine so as to get the major responsibilities out of the way earlier in the day. I used to wait until night time to finish my work, but I found I would make excuses or get tired and leave it for the next day.

This article on Bidsketch.com tries to make a case for fixed schedules and flexible ones. I like the argument for the flexible schedule that says to manage your work around your energy instead of around time. I do find that after a few hours of work in the morning that I need a break, and that’s why I go to the gym after about 3-4 hours.

Flexible Schedules & Remote Work

I have the ability to set a schedule that allows me time to work and time for necessary breaks. I think this is how all jobs should be, because sitting at a desk for 8 hours straight doesn’t do anybody any good. Employees get tired and drained, and employers are paying for less-productive employees. I remember being in the office for just 4 hours a day and hating every minute of it. I would work on whatever was given to me, but when I had nothing to do I would find some distraction to make the time go by.

I think we need a move toward a 5 day flexible workweek. For myself, if a project is time-sensitive, I will do it right away. Otherwise, I work at my own pace and it doesn’t matter if I get something done on Monday at 10am or Wednesday at 10pm. It does nobody any good for me to work on a blog post when I have a headache or feel tired. If I’m awake and refreshed, it’s likely that my work will reflect that and I’ll be more motivated.

The problem is employers putting their trust in employees to do the work. There are some people who will have a hard time staying focused and disciplined enough to get their work done, especially working at home with distractions. But if you can’t trust employees to work from home, how can you trust them to be doing great work at the office?

The problem often isn’t “trust” but rather a fear of not being able to see what they’re working on, or not being able to come up and ask them a question when you want. For me, working from home makes me more productive, not less. I spend more time focused on my work, not having to field questions and constant interruptions that I would get while in an office. I still get the occasional phone call or text from work about something, but it’s a lot less distracting than if I was in an office.

There are tons of communication tools like Slack or Zoom to help keep up with employees working out of the office. You can do stand up meetings to see what everyone is working on each day. Allowing employees even just 1 day of working from home or having a flexible schedule will likely make them happier and more productive.

The Harvard Business Review has an article called “To Raise Productivity, Let More Employees Work From Home“. The author mentions a study in which half of call center employees at Ctrip (a Chinese travel site) who volunteered were allowed to work from home and the other half worked in the office. They found that the at-home workers were “not only happier and less likely to quit but also more productive.”

The telecommuting employees completed 13.5% more calls than those in the office. Also, having these employees at home saved the company $1,900 per employee for the 9 months they did the study.

I love the “cake in the break room” effect that one of the study’s authors, Nicholas Bloom, mentions. The last place many of us want to be is in the office, so every little distraction like a birthday party in the break room means we want to get up and go waste time, or that we hear the noise and feel distracted which makes us less productive.

Working from home, the study notes, helped increase productivity because the home environment tends to be quieter and have less distractions than the office.

The resistance to telecommuting is often from middle management, Bloom mentions.  They’re afraid of poor performance for the business, and likely don’t want to disrupt the status quo of traditional office work.

It will take time, but I see more and more companies going the way of remote work and flexible schedules. The companies that are best at this tend to have strong cultures which motivate employees to stay on task and work hard.

Is bad weather good for productivity?

Short answer: I think so.

This is just my personal opinion, but here in Texas it gets crazy hot. I used to live in Florida as well which is also crazy hot but also disgustingly humid.

Any chance I got, I would head outside to work if the weather was nice. But now I find myself wanting to read outside and think, not do work.

I feel that being outside should be a pleasurable experience, not one where I have to work on some automation strategy or be writing blog posts.

When it rains here, I sit at my laptop and get to work. What else am I going to do? I have no distractions because I can’t sit outside and don’t want to go out driving.

There are actually some articles on this same subject.

One from the Harvard Business School is called “Rainmakers: Why Bad Weather Means Good Productivity“.

The authors researched a Japanese bank and found that worker productivity was higher on bad weather days than on good weather days.

“By reducing the potential for cognitive distractions, bad weather was actually better at sustaining individuals’ attention and focus, and, as a result, increasing their productivity. Overall, findings deepen understanding of the factors that contribute to worker productivity.”

They suggest that “Organizations could assign more clerical work on rainy days than sunny days to tap into the effects of bad weather on productivity, assigning work that does not require sustained attention but does allow for more flexibility in thinking.”

Another article titled “Blue Skies, Distractions Arise: How Weather Affects Productivity“, also from Harvard Business School discusses the above paper.

“The findings indicate that workers are indeed most productive when the weather is lousy—but only if nothing artificially reminds them of good weather.”

“Although weather conditions are exogenous and uncontrollable, organizations could assign more clerical work on rainy days than sunny days to tap into the effects of bad weather on productivity, assigning work [on sunny days] that does not require sustained attention but does allow for more flexibility in thinking,” the researchers write.

 

The Rainmakers article seems to be the only one I could find on the subject. It was interesting to read that the authors found that people believe that bad weather makes us less productive.

For companies where work can be done from a laptop, it seems that allowing work to be done outside may be a good compromise. Instead of sitting inside, looking out the window, and being distracted by the nice, sunny weather, employees can be outside enjoying the weather and getting work done.

I try to make use of this strategy. Since I work remotely, I tend to bring my laptop outside on nice days either to my balcony or Starbucks. On rainy days, I do often feel more productive, but an interesting experiment would be to chart how much and what type of work I get done on “good” vs. “bad” weather days.

I would classify “bad” weather as rainy, humid, muggy, or extremely hot. These would be days where it would be uncomfortable to be outside for long.

“Good” weather would be mild temperature, sunny, or partly sunny. A day where you could sit outside for a few hours in comfort.

The weather has been cooling off here lately, so I have been enjoying more good weather days. Hopefully I will be able to chart some good data and see how the weather affects my work.

Content Threshold

Is there a point at which we start receiving so much content that we will choose to opt out?

The thought came to me when I was going through the promotions tab on Gmail for an email that I don’t use too often. I ended up just deleting everything because it was so overwhelming.

On my main Gmail account, I like signing up for newsletters from people I follow like Jason Zook, Paul Jarvis, Justin Jackson, Neville Medhora, Noah Kagan, etc. This is on top of all the other emails I get. I enjoy reading their newsletters and getting their latest articles. But I feel that often times I get multiple of these per day and I end up skimming or deleting them.

So where is my content threshold? At what point is there too much stuff in my inbox that I decide to delete it all and just not read it?

I think it will become like my relationship with the news.

I don’t watch the news. First, I don’t have tv so I avoid the tv news trap. But I used to be a news junkie. Every morning in high school I would check Flipboard and the NYTimes app (before it had a paywall). I had to go through it every single day.

But now? I don’t check any news sites, don’t watch the news, don’t subscribe to news on Twitter or anything else. I even removed the “trending” section on Facebook.

Why?

Because if there is important news, it will get to me somehow. I don’t need to keep up with the news all day and learn about a robbery or a missing kid or an alligator that walked into someone’s yard.

But something important like 9/11? I would find out about it.

Luckily right now, my Gmail inbox is not extremely overwhelming. I like to hit Inbox Zero every day which leads me to either read the email or delete it if I’m not going to read it right away.

But I feel that constantly subscribing to more and more emails (even if it is great content) is going to end up forcing me to opt out altogether. Sure, I could cull my subscriptions down, but I think there will be a point where I just don’t want any of it anymore. A lot of the information I get from these emails are useful but not necessary.

If there is an article I MUST read, I’m sure I’ll find it eventually through Reddit or Twitter. If not, am I worse off for not having read it? Probably not.