Sunday, February 23, 2014


"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof."

John Kenneth Galbraith

One of my favorite authors, by the way—with a true dry wit. Also, he was a master of clarity.

It was e-mail that convinced me to keep writing regardless of publisher, personal—and other—difficulties. I had received very little fan mail until I put my e-mail address in the paperback edition of my third book—and then suddenly, I started to receive fan e-mail in volume. It’s a truly incredible thing to be able to be in touch with your readers directly—and when I stopped counting, I had received over 7,000 fan e-mails (not including follow-ups).

For that reason, I determined to answer every reader e-mail personally. This took a vast amount of time—but it seemed important to me. Will I do so in the future? I haven’t decided that yet. These days—with blogging and social media needing attention—there is so much more to do that it may not be possible. And book writing must come first. But, we’ll see. I’m thinking of replying using audio—which will be faster—and I hate the thought of not interacting with my readers. It’s a very special relationship. 

Back in mid 2010, I made a conscious decision to reorganize how I work. That may seem an odd thing to do in one’s mid-sixties—you’d think I would have worked out a routine a couple of decades earlier (or even sooner). Well, of course I had—but technology had advanced so much that I was increasingly convinced I could do much better.

In the short-term, my reorganization was something of a nightmare because I spent so much time evaluating software, that my writing productivity suffered severely. Nonetheless, eventually I had a series of breakthroughs—and now I’m vastly more productive despite some handicaps. Probably the most severe is that I suffer from a form of dyslexia. Still, that’s why workarounds were invented.

E-mail still remains a problem—albeit a much diminished one. As a consequence I was extremely interested in a Business Week interview on the subject with Asana’s Justin Rosenstein. The following is an extract.

Where does e-mail rank in terms of problems of the modern workplace?
I would say that the use of e-mail and the problems surrounding e-mail are the No. 1 problem. McKinsey found that 30 percent of people’s time is spent literally just on e-mail and reading and writing e-mail. Another 20 percent of people’s time is spent on trying to get pieces of information that their co-workers already know. E-mail becomes this completely unmanaged to-do list that someone else created for you.

Silicon Valley keeps trying to fix e-mail, and nothing has caught on yet. Why?
The fact that you see all these different efforts is a real testament to how hungry everyone is for the thing that’s after e-mail. But when people try to make efforts at improving it, they often end up just adding one layer on top of e-mail. A lot of times these efforts are really just lipstick on a pig.

What’s Asana?
Asana kind of provides a team brain. If you’re leading a team, there’s a set of basic questions that you just want answers to all the time: What are all the steps between now and accomplishing our goal? Who’s responsible for each of those steps? What’s the state of each of those things? And yet, amazingly, when you go into the vast majority of organizations, people can’t give you answers to those basic questions. Rather than having the information decentralized over lots of different conversations and e-mails, we give you a canonical record of all the information. You don’t have to come over to my desk and ask me or have me forward them in an e-mail.

How does your software deal with distraction through over-communication?
We have a feature called focus mode. So if you’re working on a task, you can just hit one keyboard shortcut and if new messages come in we won’t tell you about them.

Can digital technology solve all the problems of the modern-day workplace? And if not, then what’s left?
A lot of times the problem is that people are unmotivated or can’t make the best decisions because they don’t have a bigger-picture understanding of why they’re doing this work in the first place.

Well, I don’t have a problem with either the big picture or motivation—but I do find it difficult to keep track of details outside the actual writing process. Simply put, I get so absorbed in writing that my mind goes blank on other issues. That’s the downside of absolute focus. It’s the writer’s version of the Absent Minded Professor syndrome. I’m endeavoring to cope with it through a mix of software and checklists. As it happens, I don’t use Asana but a web service called INSIGHTLY—which is based in Australia. It links with EVERNOTE which is where I keep all my unstructured data.

What other software do I use? It’s a frighteningly long list—though most are single use programs that I only use occasionally. I write in MS Word and blog in Live Writer. I browse in Google Chrome.

There was a day when a writer needed little more than a quill pen and paper. Today, it might well be an advantage to start off with a degree in computer science. Is this progress? I’m damned if I know—but, despite all the frustrations that I have experienced with computers, it’s fun.

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