Are We As Productive As We Think We Are?
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
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
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
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
08:29 - Angela Andrews
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
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
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
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
14:46 - Angela Andrews
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
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
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
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.