Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Overwhelmed? You're not alone

Ah finally. There's scientific evidence. It had to come in - that multitasking beyond a limit is bound to hit the law of diminishing returns. Coincidentally, there were two articles on one day in different publications about the same:

The New Atlantis - The Myth of Multitasking

The NYT - Fighting a workplace war against distraction

The articles make their case - I'm not going to repeat ad nauseum what they say. I've had my share of issues with trying to do any serious 'thinking' work with the amount of interruption a typical office environment provides - hallway chatter related to work that you may want to tune out, your neighbor's phone ringing, email...

There are, however, things that help me cope. These articles talk about cutting back distractions, but you need to push back hard yourself. My favorite tricks:

- Close that office door: OK. I work in a company that has long held a policy of individual/shared offices to be better than having cubicles. I have an office all to myself. I close the door. "Open" workspaces with the collegial atmosphere they provide are IMO overrated. When you need to get work done, you shut yourself off for 3-4 hours if you need to. Simple. If people need you, they can knock.

To make my office seem more "open" even though the door is closed, I always leave my blinds open. People can see me working in there and I've not visually shut myself off from what's going on.

If you're not in crunch mode, door stays open. Maybe you put candy in your office and people swing by to chat you up. Of course, if you have a cubicle, a nice pair of noise-canceling headphones should do the trick.

- Manage email: People can be harsh and talk about shutting down email while working. I'm not that hardcore. I use Microsoft Outlook for my email and one of the first things I do now when configuring my email client is - lots of rules, no alerts. I have rules for a gazillion things - emails go into different folders based on who sent the email, whether they were sent directly to me or to a particular alias. Different aliases have their own folders. There's a whole level of complexity I have in my rules with exceptions etc. so that stuff is classified and I know what to prioritize based on which folder that email falls into.

And yes, no alerts. When I mean no alerts, I mean that. Absolutely. No. Alerts. No sound when email pops in your inbox, no pop-up from your system tray with subject and some blurb of email. Nothing. I don't know I've received email unless I actually go to my inbox and check. This may not work for some people whose life revolves around replying promptly to emails, but believe me - except in very rare cases, answering someone in 15 minutes or even an hour versus 30 seconds is not going to be the end of the world. Plus, we have corporate messaging at work. Urgent things go on IM immediately.

- Calendars are not just for meetings: I'd like to think I'm not overscheduled. However, there are things that are important long-term which I'm likely to neglect simply because there are other things that suddenly gain urgency. The simple thing to do is block time on your calendar. I have 30 minutes blocked on my calendar post-lunch for answering customer questions. I drop everything I'm doing then to look at queries on newsgroups, internal mailing lists and some external forums I monitor. Unless there's something earth-shaking happening, I spend this time on that.

Focus is something that's becoming an obsession with me at work. Any ideas on how you fight distraction?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Zindagi Badi Honi Chahiye, Lambi Nahin

What would you do if you had only one opportunity left to pass on what you've learnt to the world? CMU's 'Last Lecture' series stems from that - "What if you (in this case, a professor) had only one lecture left before you died?". Various academic luminaries and alumni have delivered this lecture in the past.

This year one of these talks took on particular urgency, since Randy Pausch was literally going to give his last lecture. Diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, Pausch battles on. In parts heart-warming, funny, poignant and triumphant, Randy Pausch delivers his Last Lecture, the talk of a lifetime.

Links to video and various other Randy Pausch information here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Viva La Vida!

Coldplay's new album Viva La Vida drops tomorrow. Excited!

Sneak preview here - very promising. The title track is lovely.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A tale of two concert films - as close to musical heaven as a non-concert experience can get.

First, let's get the commonalities out of the way. The two bands - U2 and Rolling Stones come from across the pond - Ireland and Britain. Both have defied expectations in terms of how long a band is expected to last. In one case (the Stones), the key band members have unchanged for over 40 years. In the other , all members of the original line-up are still around after over 25 years. Even as age catches up with them, they are still vital, wowing audiences worldwide with their skill, craft, virtuosity and showmanship.

U2:3D plays on the near-myth status of U2 as one of the biggest rock acts in the world. Using latest digital technology, the dazzling visual feast that is a U2 concert is milked to the limits. Spare (there's no one on the dimly lit stage through the whole concert except the four band members) and grand ( huge video screens with dazzling visual effects) at the same time, the concert film too is akin to the religious experience that a U2 concert is purported to be.

Visually, it's stunning. The 3D effects that are used only for a few kicks in movies like the latest Harry Potter film are showcased to their full potential as Bono reaches out his hand and you high-five him in the middle of Vertigo. Vertigo does ensue as a camera on a lift zooms in on Larry Mullen Jr.'s drum calisthenics from behind him as the camera gives you stage access like you'd never dream.

Then there are the songs. Be it old staples like Sunday Bloody Sunday, Pride (In the Name of Love) and Where the Streets Have No Name or new favorites like Vertigo and Love and Peace (or Else), bombast isn't a term lost on the Irish quartet. I wouldn't tolerate this from any other band, but to paraphrase another superstar, they make this look good.

For a U2 junkie like me, it's manna from straight above.

Shine a Light is a complete contrast. While U2 has always been about changing the world and making a point, the Stones, it seems, are just out to have a good time. Musically inspired by the blues, they make being melancholy look like fun too. Brightly lit stages, red costumes for Mick Jagger and a whole retinue of backing instrumentalists all combine to make Shine a Light an absolute joy.

As Mick Jagger shimmies his way through classics like Brown Sugar, Miss You and does a twist with lesser known songs and covers of blues pieces, a different kind of genius shines through. The visual pace here too is frenetic with quick cuts from multiple cameras under the assured guidance of movie rock star Martin Scorsese. Old yet new, cocky yet respectful (of the blues) and sad yet happy only in the way blues (and ghazals) can be, the Stones show just why they are such a class act. 

As the encore winds down, they've also played a few radio and soundtrack staples including Start Me Up, (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction and that rocking ode to Lucifer, Sympathy for the Devil.

In the process, they win over a fan for life.