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Episode 18

Are We As Productive As We Think We Are?


Show Notes

We live in what some call a "distraction economy." There are countless messages, emails, tickets, bugs to fix, and meetings to attend. For those who have to build software, platforms, and services, as well as those who maintain them and keep them running, it can be difficult to decide what to focus on first.

The immense pressure to be productive is challenging to balance with passion projects, personal responsibilities, or just with the need to rest. Our team spoke with tech-minded creators in the productivity space on how to achieve full focus, and how to make time for work, relaxation, and creativity.



00:00 - Kim Huang 

Okay, so without being overly dramatic, in a world where we can't pay attention to anything for more than five seconds before moving on to something else, where we work on many different things at the same time, where we have 20 different tabs open on our laptops. You know who you are if you are listening to me.

00:27 - Kim Huang 

Is it you, Brent? Is it you, Angela?

00:30 - Angela Andrews 

I feel so exposed right now, as I'm closing apps on my phone!

00:37 - Kim Huang 

Oh my goodness.

00:37 - Brent Simoneaux 


00:37 - Angela Andrews 

I'm sorry!

00:40 - Kim Huang 

That is legendary.

00:42 - Angela Andrews 

I didn't want to be distracted.

00:45 - Brent Simoneaux 

All right, Kim, you have my undivided attention. I don't know about Angela's, but you have mine. I am listening.

00:51 - Kim Huang 

Thank you. I appreciate this.

00:53 - Angela Andrews 

I'm sorry.

00:53 - Brent Simoneaux 

I'm kidding. I'm kidding.

00:53 - Kim Huang 

It's all right. You know what? But seriously, on a serious note, you know it happens. We never want to feel like we're not paying attention to people, right? We always want to give people our, what we say, our undivided attention, but that is harder to do than it has ever been, I would say, in the history of the human race.

01:11 - Brent Simoneaux 

So Kim, why is attention such an important topic for those of us who work in tech?

01:19 - Kim Huang 

Well, if you work in tech, you're maintaining servers, keeping them up and running. You're maintaining applications, keeping them up and running. You are working on vulnerabilities, security issues. You are working on different platforms. You are building new things, constantly deploying, and technology is supposed to make our lives more convenient, not harder, so that doesn't necessarily translate very well for a person who's keeping the technology running for the rest of us.

01:51 - Kim Huang 

I want to know how productivity comes into play when you're a person who is focused on keeping things running, but also, a person that needs to make time to make new things.

02:06 - Angela Andrews 

I'm glad we're doing this episode because you try to do these things that help you stay focused and get you more productive, and I'm wondering, do they really help? I need to figure this out because I struggle with this myself.

02:21 - Kim Huang 

Do you want to just dive into it?

02:22 - Angela Andrews 


02:24 - Kim Huang 

Let's do this.

02:32 - Brent Simoneaux 

This is Compiler, an original podcast from Red Hat.

02:36 - Angela Andrews 

We're your hosts.

02:37 - Brent Simoneaux 

I'm Brent Simoneaux.

02:40 - Angela Andrews 

And I'm Angela Andrews.

02:40 - Brent Simoneaux 

We're here to break down questions from the tech industry, big, small, and well, sometimes, strange.

02:48 - Angela Andrews 

Each episode, we go out in search of answers from Red Hatters and people they're connected to.

02:54 - Brent Simoneaux 

Today's question: are we really as productive as we think we are?

03:01 - Angela Andrews 

Producer Kim Huang is here with her take.

03:05 - Kim Huang 

So our first stop on this journey to productivity is in Canada with one Sam Milbrath.

03:13 - Sam Milbrath 

I am a freelance copywriter, and I write for several tech companies and actually, nonprofits as well, and I do that probably part-time and then other part-time, I'm also writing a fiction fantasy novel, and I'm running a wine business as well. My husband and I have a winery, and we're building it out.

03:36 - Brent Simoneaux 

She sounds busy.

03:38 - Kim Huang 

Yeah. Sam is one of those people, as you would guess from all the things that she's involved with, she's very, very busy. So it would kind of be in her best interest, and her prerogative to be knowledgeable about prioritizing and tasking things out and being productive.

03:55 - Kim Huang 

She also writes about productivity for Trello, which is an app that's all about productivity.

04:00 - Brent Simoneaux 

Oh. So what does she have to say about productivity?

04:05 - Kim Huang 

Sam has a background writing specifically for tech companies, and those companies have made a lot of changes to the way they work. I asked her about the impact of those changes on developers, engineers, programmers, and other people who work in that space.

04:23 - Sam Milbrath 

It's also just sort of ingrained into the culture of… this, like, sprints; which are great, but then, a sprint isn't like... I read somewhere... actually, I wrote about it too, but it was basically like, "Life is a marathon, not a sprint."

04:42 - Sam Milbrath 

So if you're always working in these sprints, it's just like, you're going to burn out, and that's kind of the ironic thing about all of these startup tech companies is that they claim that they're going to be moving so fast and that they can get things done and all this stuff, but it's like, "Yeah, but everyone has to take a break and at what cost, and at some point, you're going to slow down because you've become too big and then you're kind of a slow-moving, bureaucratic blimp."

05:13 - Angela Andrews 

The visual.

05:14 - Kim Huang 

Yes, a way with words. What are your thoughts?

05:18 - Angela Andrews 

I feel as though it's all theater right now. There's so much going on because we're... I don't know if we're trying to make up for something. And before that in the past 10 years, it was because technology's moving super fast and all of us are trying to keep up and all of us have multiple irons in the fire, and we're on multiple projects, and we're doing multiple things, and it's the number of things that we're engaged in, and everything has a due date, right, so you can't work kind of linearly. You have to kind of bounce around, like Sam mentioned. You have to move around and try to stay nimble and do a little bit.

05:59 - Angela Andrews 

But again, it feels like we're doing all this stuff and it... we're not really moving anywhere. To me, sometimes, it really does feel like that. This is a really personal thing for me, talking about productivity and maybe the lack thereof.

06:15 - Brent Simoneaux 

Yeah, what really struck me about what she was saying was that this is a marathon. It's not a sprint, and it's not a series of sprints either. And I think this really struck me because I'm a runner, and if you just sprint and sprint and sprint and sprint...

06:33 - Kim Huang 

Can't sustain it.

06:34 - Brent Simoneaux 

... you're going to get injured. There's no way to sustain that.

06:38 - Brent Simoneaux 

But when you're running a marathon and when you're training for a marathon, you always schedule rest days. You always schedule breaks, and you're never working at the same... or you're never training, you're never running at the same tempo all the time.

06:59 - Kim Huang 

That's a really good point, Brent, and I want to go back to Sam one more time to see what she has to say about technology and letting go so that you can make room for that rest and then that makes room for creativity.

07:12 - Sam Milbrath 

It's a complicated topic, for sure, because technology was made to make our lives easier. If it makes our lives more complicated, then we're doing something wrong, I think.

07:25 - Sam Milbrath 

What we bring to the table is the creativity and the innovation and human problem-solving. If we can focus on letting go of control of things that are... something that technology is supposed to be taking care of or managing and then focusing instead on things that are the creativity or innovation, it's kind of like separating the two.

07:53 - Kim Huang 

Sam says that in her work, she's starting to see a trend or a shift of how people, especially people who work in technology, who work in IT, are thinking about productivity now. It seems like her idea of making the technology do the busy work and leaving the human brain to solve problems and create new things is starting to catch on a little bit.

08:23 - Brent Simoneaux 

This is sort of the argument that a lot of people make for automation.

08:28 - Kim Huang 

Yes, exactly.

08:29 - Angela Andrews 

Very familiar.

08:34 - Kim Huang 

So we heard from Sam. She talked a little bit about how she works, how she writes about productivity, how she writes about distraction and the attention economy, but I wanted to talk to someone that was actually involved in the attention economy kind of explicitly.

08:52 - Ulf Schwekendiek 

My name is Ulf Schwekendiek, and I'm the CEO and founder of Centered app.

08:58 - Kim Huang 

Ulf may be actually a kind of a familiar name to some of our listeners. He's worked for years in Silicon Valley. He's worked as an engineer on a number of different prolific projects, and he's been very successful in his craft and his career, so it makes sense that he would be a poster child for productivity.

09:17 - Kim Huang 

I asked him how his app, Centered, helps people like him, people who need to focus and get things done in their working life.

09:25 - Brent Simoneaux

Oh, so the name of the app is Centered.

09:28 - Kim Huang 


09:28 - Angela Andrews 


09:29 - Kim Huang 


09:30 - Brent Simoneaux 

It's very descriptive.

09:32 - Kim Huang 


09:34 - Ulf Schwekendiek 

Just remember that feeling, being in an airplane and shut off from any distraction, opening up your computer and just knocking out a task. It's so much quicker than you would normally do that. That is kind of that feeling that we want to recreate with Centered.

09:53 - Ulf Schwekendiek

Centered is a productivity app that helps you to not just write down what you want to do, but it's the first app that actually tries to help you to get that work done.

10:06 - Angela Andrews 

That's fascinating.

10:07 - Brent Simoneaux 

This is so funny because I used to come back from a trip, and I would have, like, all this work done and I would have this new idea for whatever I was working on. And I would tell my boss this, and she would be like, "Were you just on a plane?"

10:27 - Angela Andrews 

Oh, whoa. 

10:29 - Brent Simoneaux 

And every time I would be like, "Yes, I just came back from wherever I was."

10:34 - Kim Huang 

Hi, folks. It's Pilot Kim Huang speaking. You'll see that the seatbelt sign has gone off. We're expecting a very...

10:42 - Angela Andrews 


10:43 - Kim Huang 

... we're expecting a cruising attitude to 34,000 feet. Brent Simoneaux, it's okay for you to be a genius now.

10:48 - Brent Simoneaux 


10:48 - Angela Andrews 

That's pretty awesome. I do not work on planes.

10:51 - Kim Huang 

Neither do I.

10:52 - Brent Simoneaux 

You just enjoy it?

10:53 - Angela Andrews 

I just enjoy it. Just headphones on.

10:55 - Brent Simoneaux 

There's something to that too, yeah.

10:56 - Angela Andrews 

Hoodie on backwards. That's me.

11:01 - Brent Simoneaux 

A hoodie on backwards.

11:02 - Kim Huang 

The Snuggie variation.

11:04 - Angela Andrews 


11:04 - Kim Huang 

Yeah. Got to be warm.

11:07 - Kim Huang 

Well, Ulf talks about how the app, Centered, turns your computer into a concentration machine. That's his words. Designed to eliminate distractions, so someone can focus on their work. It integrates with other apps to optimize focus time. It has an AI guide. His name is Noah.

11:27 - Brent Simoneaux 


11:28 - Kim Huang 

He kind of nudges you and keeps you on task.

11:31 - Kim Huang 

The app also has app-centric music that is a specialized beat pattern of 60 to 90 beats per minute, which is optimized for concentration.

11:42 - Angela Andrews 


11:43 - Kim Huang 

All of this sounds pretty typical of your concentration app or your focus app, except for the one feature where a person can actually turn on their webcam so that other people can see them work and they can see other people work at the same time live. It's just video. No audio.

12:03 - Brent Simoneaux 


12:04 - Kim Huang 


12:05 - Angela Andrews 


12:06 - Brent Simoneaux 

I do this.

12:07 - Angela Andrews 

That is so interesting. Now, I will go to YouTube. I will find a video of someone working at their desk. It's usually music in the background, and I'm working and...

12:20 - Brent Simoneaux 


12:20 - Angela Andrews 

... it almost feels as if we are just like... and when he gets up, it's like, "All right, I'll get up," right, because it's timed like this.

12:28 - Brent Simoneaux 


12:29 - Angela Andrews 

Oh, I am so telling on myself, but it really... it's almost like, "Well, it's work time. We're sitting here. We're working," and I tend to block a lot of things out because I don't know how I stumbled upon this thing, this genre of video.

12:46 - Kim Huang 

Yeah, how did you find it?

12:48 - Angela Andrews 

Well, I was trying to focus, and I needed something to help me stay on task with something because I am easily distracted. I am so easily distracted.

12:59 - Angela Andrews 

He's on his computer with this really soothing music playing, and I sit here and it's like, he'll get up, and it's like, "All right, it's time to get up."

13:08 - Brent Simoneaux 

So what... the reason that I think I'm having this reaction is because, like… so I do this thing, it's called Flow Club. And you sort of schedule it, and there's someone who sort of leads the hour or the two hours or the three hours, and you have a list of things that you want to do or work on. And you basically work together on the internet. Everyone turns off their mics, and you check in at the beginning.

13:33 - Angela Andrews 

I've never...

13:35 - Brent Simoneaux 

You work on camera with a lot of people and...

13:37 - Angela Andrews 

... ever heard of this. 

13:38 - Brent Simoneaux 

... then you're done after a while.

13:39 - Angela Andrews 


13:39 - Brent Simoneaux 

And it's some of my most productive time.

13:43 - Kim Huang 

That's amazing. I've never heard of anything like that. This was the first time I was actually introduced to this kind of style of working. There's actually a name for it. It's called the co-action effect.

13:55 - Brent Simoneaux 

Oh. Explain that.

13:58 - Kim Huang 

Both of you are kind of describing the co-action effect. It's something, in Ulf's words, there's some research done around this, and I'll let him explain because he does it in a way better way than I can. But it seems like when people are kind of working in the same space on different things that they're able to focus better? I'll let him explain.

14:17 - Ulf Schwekendiek 

And there has been some research done around this concept of being able to see others and feel more accountable to your own work and basically, having other people see you. Most of the time, you don't stare at them at all, but it's just nice working in a coffee shop to see that there are other people around, especially in these days where most of us are still working from home and feel very isolated. It gives you, really, this warm feeling of community around when you work.

14:45 - Brent Simoneaux 

That's interesting.

14:46 - Angela Andrews 

Yeah, that's-

14:46 - Brent Simoneaux 

I've never heard of that.

14:47 - Angela Andrews 

... that is very interesting, yeah.

14:49 - Brent Simoneaux 

But it rings true to my experience.

14:50 - Angela Andrews 

Mine too.

14:51 - Kim Huang 

You've been doing it. You've been doing it. You didn't know it had a name. That's all that is.

14:55 - Brent Simoneaux 

Exactly, yeah.

14:57 - Kim Huang 

Ulf says the app (Centered) is designed to get a person to the state that he calls flow, which you talked about earlier, Brent, having a really deep focus on one thing. And I say one thing and this is the part I was talking about earlier–we're going to make a lot of people kind of uncomfortable right now, so just bear with us–but Ulf says that multi-tasking does not work.

15:23 - Ulf Schwekendiek 

I'm pretty sure you have listeners and you might think of it yourself when you hear this, that you think you are a great multi-tasker. There is absolutely no research backing up that that is possible to do with the human brain. If you are a good multi-tasker, you can do up to two things well at the same time at most.

15:50 - Ulf Schwekendiek 

So what we are doing when we say we are multi-tasking is we are sacrificing brain power to do many things at the same time, pretty mediocre. I'm sure a lot of people listening to this had a very busy work day, listening to your podcast and think, "Oh my God, what did I actually do today? What did I get done today," and you cannot remember all of it, right? We have that all the time where you're just like, "I feel exhausted, but I actually don't really know all the things that I have done." Well, that is a clear sign that you multitask too much because your brain doesn't actually retain that information well enough.

16:33 - Angela Andrews 

He has literally dragged everyone for filth. This was the most honest thing anyone has ever said. And we put so much weight on this thing called multi-tasking, doing a lot of little things at one time. If you focused on one thing for that same amount of time, you would actually get something done.

16:57 - Angela Andrews 

This is controversial, but Ulf hit the nail right on the head, and I think some of us may have needed to hear that.

17:05 - Kim Huang 

Yes. So Ulf talks about multi-tasking in two ways, and neither way is it a thing that exists. It is more like our own perception of ourselves, conflating how productive we really are.

17:23 - Kim Huang 

I wanted to know why it's so common now. Why is it that you even have job descriptions that say "multitasking" as part of the job description?

17:33 - Brent Simoneaux 

I've written those job descriptions.

17:36 - Kim Huang 

Oh boy.

17:37 - Angela Andrews 

You're guilty of such things.

17:38 - Brent Simoneaux 

I'm guilty. Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.

17:41 - Kim Huang 

Yes, yes. So I wanted to know what Ulf thought about why multitasking, if it's so inefficient, it's so common.

17:50 - Ulf Schwekendiek 

It is easier said than actually executed. The concept around multi-tasking really came up with the rise of computing, where we built computers after CPUs, specifically after our brains in certain ways, and we figured if a computer can do millions of things simultaneously and do them really well and fast, of course, our brain has to do that too.

18:15 - Ulf Schwekendiek 

Well, it turns out, that's really not the case.

18:19 - Angela Andrews 

He told us.

18:20 - Kim Huang 

Exactly. According to Ulf, there is no scientific evidence that backs up multitasking effectiveness and don't just take his word for it.

18:29 - Kim Huang 

According to the National Institute of Health, the human brain lacks the architecture to perform two tasks at the same time, optimally. To kind of break it down: the areas of our brain that are dedicated to decision-making and attention have very limited capacity. And in short, those areas are forced to compete against each other about what is the most important and relevant while we're working on something.

18:54 - Kim Huang 

So have you ever sat in a room or been at your desk and felt kind of an information overload when working on more than one thing?

19:03 - Angela Andrews 


19:03 - Brent Simoneaux 


19:03 - Kim Huang 

That's what it is.

19:05 - Kim Huang 

So computers have been built with our brains in mind, but our brains are not computers, and they're never going to be a computer.

19:16 - Brent Simoneaux 

So Kim, bringing it back to Ulf, what do you think is his one insight into attention?

19:24 - Kim Huang 

In his words, productivity is about work and not planning for work, so-

19:28 - Angela Andrews 


19:29 - Kim Huang 

... yeah, trying to implement practices along those lines. That's going to make your self-image... that inner vision of you being this most productive person is going to make it closer to reality. You also have to carve out a little time for distraction, just like you make time for everything else. In Ulf's words, some of those bugs that you're working on can wait.

19:53 - Ulf Schwekendiek 

What I'm rather suggesting is make time for it. Actually make time for it. Say, "In my morning, I'm going to spend 15 minutes on my phone goofing off, whatever I want to do, watching seven snowboard jumps on Instagram Live or whatever it is that... this is just whatever it is that I want to do for a certain time."

20:20 - Kim Huang 

Another good point: when we're multi-tasking, when we're doing remote work, when we're constantly on our devices, for our brains, we know in our heart that that is not necessarily work. We might be looking at Instagram videos of snowboard jumps or, in my case, talking dogs. But to our brains, because we're on our devices all the time, it all looks like work and it never ends.

20:48 - Angela Andrews 


20:49 - Kim Huang 


20:50 - Brent Simoneaux 

And are you saying that that sort of, like… overloads our brains because it thinks it's work?

20:56 - Kim Huang 

Yeah, exactly. It's because that…  it's work that never ends. So if you're looking at your computer for eight hours a day and then you immediately look at another screen, but you're looking at things that are supposed to be, I don't know, looking at a live stream of somebody playing your favorite game, your brain still thinks you're at work because you're doing a lot of the same things that you've been doing for the last eight hours.

21:21 - Angela Andrews 

Okay, so this conversation that we're having right here reminds me of book that I will read on and off, and it's called, A Mind for Numbers, and it really talks about being intentional in your work, your studies, your whatever, and when a time is up, if we're putting time limits on when we spend on something, when that time is up, you must give your brain an opportunity to internalize everything that's just happened, so you have to do something different.

21:58 - Angela Andrews 

So if I sit here for an hour and I'm focused, I'm doing something, I'm studying, and my timer goes off. I get up from my desk. I go do something. I go walk my dog or wash out my coffee cup or iron my clothes, anything, anything. When your brain switches away, it gives it the opportunity to internalize and mull over and turn those memories into longer term memories. Sometimes and then you come back, you may have an aha moment that you couldn't have figured something out, but you've given your brain an opportunity to work on what you were just working on. So it's not for the sake of work. You're actually giving yourself a break, so your brain does what it's supposed to do.

22:45 - Angela Andrews 

I know multi-tasking is just a farce. I know it, and the culture that we are in, it just makes it... it's almost inevitable. And these behaviors, with or without an application, are almost clutch when you're trying to actually be productive.

23:05 - Kim Huang 

Yes, I agree.

23:08 - Brent Simoneaux 

When we start to talk about pro productivity, to me, it launches us into conversations about, "What are some hacks to do this, or how do you structure your day, or how do you do this and that?" But it also sounds like, kind of what we're talking about here is doing what's meaningful. How do you get into that flow state? How do you learn a new programming language? How do you build that app that you have been working on? How do we do those things that are most meaningful to us and do less of the other stuff?

23:47 - Kim Huang 

I think that the first step of really, truly hacking your productivity is to get rid of your kind of self-image of a very productive person that you have created over time. This doesn't say anything bad about you. It's just saying that this image that you have of yourself, especially if you're a person who multi-tasks, who has a lot of different things going on and a lot of different tabs open on your laptop, they may not be working at their best and certainly, not a sustainable habit.

24:21 - Kim Huang 

So getting rid of that kind of conflated image is kind of the first step of how people can make time for new things, learning a new language or creating a new app or learning other new things. And it's just a matter of being honest with one's self about what you're doing now, how it's working, and how it's not working.

24:47 - Brent Simoneaux 

Kim just brought it home. I think that was the end of the episode.

24:49 - Angela Andrews 

Yeah. Yeah. Mic drop.

24:52 - Brent Simoneaux 

It feels like that feels right.

24:55 - Kim Huang 

Well, today on Compiler, we want you to do nothing. Don't do anything. Go outside, read a book, go work on that painting project that you left in the corner two months ago, take a break, do nothing. That's what I want.

25:15 - Angela Andrews 

I want that too.

25:16 - Brent Simoneaux 

I want that as well.

25:17 - Angela Andrews 

And that does it for this episode of Compiler.

25:24 - Brent Simoneaux 

Today's episode was produced by Kim Huang and Caroline Creaghead.

25:29 - Brent Simoneaux 

Victoria Lawton is our concentration machine. Just don't ask her about multi-tasking.

25:37 - Angela Andrews 

Our audio engineer is Christian Prohom.

25:41 - Angela Andrews 

Special thanks to Shawn Cole. Our theme song was composed by Mary Ancheta.

25:46 - Brent Simoneaux 

Thank you to our guests, Ulf Schwekendiek and Sam Milbrath, for speaking with us.

25:52 - Angela Andrews 

Our audio team includes Leigh Day, Stephanie Wonderlick, Mike Esser, Laura Barnes, Claire Allison, Nick Burns, Aaron Williamson, Karen King, Boo Boo Howse, Rachel Ertell, Mike Compton, Ocean Matthews, and Laura Walters.

26:11 - Brent Simoneaux 

If you liked today's episode, please follow us, rate the show, and you can even leave us a review. It really does help us out.

26:21 - Angela Andrews 

Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.

26:24 - Brent Simoneaux 

All right, we'll see you then.


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Sam Milbrath

Ulf Schwekendiek

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