Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Resolutions in Web Time

In the beginning there was agrarian time.   We all rose when it was light.  We slept when it was dark.  We extended our work day when the sun was long and warm in the sky, and stayed huddled in our caves when it was not. 
Then, something funny happened in the monasteries of seventh century Europe.  In Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford tells us that Pope Sabinianus ordered bells to be rung seven times in 24 hours to mark the canonical hours.  As the Roman Empire crumbled, the monastery provided sanctuary, and—for the first time--count and repetition unrelated to the sun or seasons brought a sense of order.
By the 13th century mechanical clocks had appeared in European cities, and sometime around the year 1345, hours were divided into 60 minutes and minutes into 60 seconds.  By the end of the 16th century the small, domestic clock had been introduced in England and Holland. 
It was during the Industrial Revolution, however, that clocks and watches became common and positively necessary, especially in urban areas largely separated from agrarian cycles.  Let’s call this new phenomenon factory time.   Mumford writes that before long, "Time-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing.  As this took place, Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions."  (Whoa; Lewis had a way with words.)  In fact, Mumford makes a powerful case that it was the clock, not the steam-engine, that was the essential machine of the modern industrial age.  “Even today no other machine is so ubiquitous."
Needless to say, the clock changed everything; a world governed by daylight and seasons, and remembered as a collection of experiences, had became a collection of seconds and minutes and hours marked by bells and whistles.   "One ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it," Mumford wrote. 
It’s hard to fathom the profound change this must have made in the lives of men and women with hundreds of thousands of years of agrarian time stamped in their DNA.
Factory time taught us that time could be saved, measured and expanded (by labor-saving devices)--even stolen by unscrupulous factory managers who intentionally mis-set clocks to expand the work day. 
But we were just getting started, because after factory time came (what I’ll call) railroad time, designed to support an industry so large and ubiquitous that it required national, standardized time zones.  By 1875 Americans had all agreed that 8 a.m. was different, depending on where one lived.  They also understood that time was a tool that could be used to coordinate hugely complex systems.  And, when time was ignored, the consequences—even the destruction and death brought by two trains on the same track—were sure to follow.
If agrarian time was gentle and predictable, then factory time could be aggressive and bullying.  But railroad time was something entirely new:  In Revolution in Time, David Landes writes that rail passengers "found their entire consciousness of time altered by the requirements and opportunities of a railway world. . .Train schedules opened new possibilities for appointments, for work done within time limits, for long-distance comings and goings, hence for ordering of movement and multiplication of activity."
What came next, however, would put railroad time to shame.  Something even more powerful and ubiquitous raised its antenna in the mid-twentieth century: television time.  It was a force that could gather millions of Americans together at the same time, leave them perpetually stupid and underslept, and shape their very conversations around the water cooler the following morning.  Television time consumed huge amounts of productive energy while turning its users into zombies.
It seemed like the evolutionary end of time, until now.
Because, for all its seduction, television time had one Achilles heel: it could be turned off.  In fact, those of us with Tivo (or its kin) have done something even better by taking back television time to meet our own schedules.  We can still be stupid and underslept zombies, but at least we’re stupid and underslept when we choose to be.
All of which leaves us with the latest and perhaps most insidious of all incarnations of the clock: web time.
Web time says the following: You must use the computer to do your work, you must use the web to communicate and research, you must be online to be productive--but it is my job to distract you at every possible opportunity.  I am going to sit on your desk, migrate to your kitchen table and ride in your pocket.  I beep.  I chirp.  I play Lady Gaga.  I send you an important note from your boss right next to an ad for Viagra.  I make you read when you need to skim, and skim when you need to read.  
I vibrate, Baby.
I blow my nose in your general direction, factory time. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries, railroad time. Leave before I am forced to taunt you again, television time
You cannot turn me off.  I am web time.  Hear me roar. 
See what I mean? 
So, after I listed my handful of resolutions for 2011 a week ago, I took a general, resolvatory swipe at web time.  If not successful there, I thought, the resolutions don’t have a prayer.
With that (and recognizing I am hardly an advice columnist), I offer these three simple ideas:
1.   Revert to human time.  Ever wonder why a week is seven days?  The truth is, nobody really knows.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the sun or the moon (or clocks, trains, TV or the Web).  Some people think it was created by God, which would give it a pretty good pedigree.  Some people who don’t believe in God think it was created by the same wise, ancient people who created God.  That’s not a bad pedigree either.  In any event, it is an intensely human measure, doing for people what the jigger does for bartenders and sixty-feet-six-inches does for baseball: it just works.  Seven days is a kind of perfect human period, especially in which to look forward.  So, I’m using it.
Stephen Covey crafts the solution in his First Things First.  Once a week—say, Sunday evening—lay out your entire, upcoming week--visually (on a screen or paper) if you can.  Look at your goals.  Look at your resolutions.  Look at your existing commitments.


Look at your week.
Ready, set, go:  I need to research a particular company we’re looking at acquiring?  Why don’t I take 90 minutes in that free period on Wednesday afternoon to do it.  Schedule it in, in fact, just like it’s a meeting with my boss.  Or event with my wife or child.  Immutable.  
Do it again.  And again.  Don’t fill up the entire week, but nail the things that will really advance your goals, and make the time to do them.
By the week.  Every week.  Trust me on this: If you do nothing else Covey recommends but this, you will be ahead of the game.
Be gone, Web time.
2.      Find your natural unit of efficiency.  Last year a friend introduced me to the Pomodoro Technique, which forces a unit of intense concentration as follows:
a.      Choose a task to be accomplished.
b.      Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is a kitchen timer that looks like a tomato—but an iPod alarm, or a watch, work just as well).
c.       Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
d.      Take a short break (5 minutes is OK).
e.      Rinse and repeat.
It all seemed simple enough, so I tried it.  For me, anyway, 25 minutes turned out to be far too short a time to get anything useful done, even stuff I didn’t want to do.  So, I tried an hour.  Still too short.  I doubled to two hours.  Now it was too long.  I found myself pining for a cup of coffee, or making excuses to go to the bathroom, if I had to last two hours doing something I hated doing.  So, I settled on 90 minutes.
No coffee break.  No cookie.  No bathroom.  No email.  No LinkedIn.  No OccasionalCEO.  No Facebook.  No chatting with wife or colleagues.  No shopping.  No adjusting Pandora.  No cookie.  Just 90 minutes of concentration on a single, important task or project.
(And NO TRADER JOE'S SUTTER'S FORMULA RICH & CHEWY PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES WITH MIKE CHOCOLATE NUGGETS, Eric.)
I was amazed.  90 minutes turned out to be my natural unit of efficiency.  Short enough to hang in on rotten work.  And, on good stuff, sometimes a launch pad for a three or four hour stretch of focused work.
If I can get four of those 90-minute sessions stuffed into a single day, plus all of the email and calls and meetings, I can guarantee it will be a good day.
Take that, Web time.
3.      Finally, honor the squirrel.  We've done some damage to squirrels on this blog and it's a good time to remedy that.  Have you ever seen a squirrel gathering acorns for the winter?  He does NOT stop at each acorn and admire it.  He does not stop and try to eat each one.   Indeed, that would only leave a cold, starving squirrel come wintertime.
In the age of the Web--which will undoubtedly be with us for the rest of our mortal coil--we will be offered a steady stream of bright, shiny, fascinating acorns.  And we will be distracted.  Click here.  Click there.  Watch this.  Buy that. 
That is the very essence of Web time.
And, if not careful, we will also be cold and starving in the harsh winter of technology, unable to focus long enough on anything to be productive.  So, like the squirrel—and like our beloved Tivo--we need a nest.
I offer you two solutions among many: Evernote and Instapaper.
Evernote is Tivo for the Web.  It works (from the cloud) on every platform and stores voice messages, email, Web clippings, notes, photos—you name it.  See it and send it to Evernote for later viewing.  (Instapaper works the same way for things you want to save and read, and is especially good on the iPad.)
I started this post in Evernote on the day after Christmas, and added to it in bits and pieces over the holiday from my iPhone, computer and iPad.  I had my annual physical this morning and knew I wouldn’t remember my weight and blood pressure so took a picture of the screen and sent it to Evernote.  I have a dozen articles camped there for future reading and research.  I have some consulting stuff I’ll need next week.  I have two voice messages, one reminding me to buy salt for the water softener this weekend.  I have a couple of songs I want to remember to buy on iTunes, and a video that a friend sent that I won’t have time to watch until Saturday.
See?  (Those of you who are David Allen fans will recognize this "find a place to store all the flotsam and jetsam" technique as one of the critical elements to actually getting any real thinking done.)
Let the Web drop all the acorns it wants; you can now gather up each one, send it to its nest, and schedule a 90-minute Pomodoro session on Saturday morning to read and dispatch all that you have gathered.
From agrarian time to factory time to railroad time to television time to Web time.
From Lewis Mumford to tomato timers to Evernote.
Good luck with your resolutions and, as Mumford might wish, "May eternity once again serve as the measure of your activities in 2011."