Posts tagged time

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Working at the coffee shop: the right environment and the right distractions

Conor Friedersdorf has an interesting piece on why people are increasingly heading to coffee shops to get work done. He discusses four theories: that it’s “just enough distraction,” which forces one to semi-consciously tune out those distractions and focus; that “the weight of hours is lifted,” and having only a couple hours in the coffee shop can actually be beneficial; that it seems less like work than an office environment, and more fun; and from an academic paper, that being alone in the presence of others encourages one to have a purpose, and look busy.

When I head to a coffee shop to get something done — work-related or not — the main benefit seems to be that I’m there with intention. I’m there to work on something specific, and so that’s what I’ll do. The same is true of an office, but I think, as theorized in the article, that the environment has a significant impact. An office seems sterile and forced, while a coffee shop is fun, relaxed, and spontaneous. And most importantly, I’m choosing to be there for the purpose of work, whereas working in an office is simply what one does in an office. Perhaps the presence of others also has a positive effect on adhering to my purpose, because it does feel good to be in a coffee shop accomplishing something, even if I’m the only one who knows.

There’s also the element of change. Patrick Rhone mentions on The Minimal Mac Podcast how simply changing his work location can significantly revitalize his attitude and productivity. Compared to an office, a coffee shop can be a welcome change. And unlike an office, the coffee shop experience is not always the same. The overall environment may be consistent, but there are many different seats to choose from and different customers every day. A coffee shop is continuously changing, while an office remains largely static.

As for distraction, the distractions in a coffee shop are generally pleasant distractions, and I think when they’re not obnoxious, some distractions can be better than none at all. In an office (or at home), when we’re having trouble focusing, we create our own distractions — surfing the internet, eating, chatting, etc. That seems more disruptive than pleasant distractions provided by the environment, which we can easily tune out. It’s not just enough distraction as much as it’s the right kind of distraction.

Time definitely plays a role as well. A couple hours in a coffee shop seems like plenty of time to get lots done, whereas a day in the office can seem longer than desirable. Less time encourages better use of it.

Creativity does not exist in a vacuum; experiences, conversations, reading, writing, the constraints of time and the distractions of life are just as important as quiet moments of focus. And conveniently, the coffee shop is there to provide them.

Filed under work distraction focus coffee change time

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Reading time: a time-based reading service and recommendation engine

I remember last summer in Paris, in a great English bookstore, finding a book that collected poems and stories, categorized by the amount of time each took to read. Each section contained pieces of the right length for a specific situation, from elevators to planes. It was an attempt to solve the problem of knowing what to read when we have only a finite amount of time (which, ultimately, is all the time).

Nowadays, many of us read more on digital devices than from books. But the problem remains, of fitting what we read cleanly into the time we have.

A great solution would be a service or plugin that categorizes everything based on reading time. At the most basic level, this would be calculated by the word count. There are already a number of plugins for Wordpress that accomplish this1, and it can be done with less than 10 lines of PHP.

Cennydd Bowles’ ideal reading app, which is an entirely excellent idea, would include “An estimated reading time [with] each article, calculated from its word count.”2

While this is a good start, I’d like a much more advanced time-based service. Word count would be the basic benchmark, but the service would learn from behavior. Over time, average words per minute would be calculated for the specific user. Average words per minute would even be calculated separately for different sites. There are some sites where I tend to skim the articles and others where I read thoroughly, even re-reading pertinent sections, and the algorithm would (broadly) reflect this. For example, reading 500 words on Mashable or TechCrunch usually isn’t the same as 500 words on the New York Times website. Aggregate data would determine average reading speeds for sites the user doesn’t visit frequently. Other factors could also be incorporated into the calculation of reading time, like reading level (obviously, the more advanced the reading level, the longer it takes to read).

Ideally, this would be integrated with existing apps, like Instapaper, Read It Later, Readability and Google Reader. While anyone can add reading time based on a simple calculation, the real power would come from the customization and the way it would be tailored to each individual user, learning from behavior. Obviously, its integration would be up to the individual developers, but scripts can be used to add functionality to Google Reader, and browser plugins can blanket every site with additional functionality.

With the number of distractions today, time is the ultimate scarcity3, and a reading site or service built with available time as its focus would fit perfectly into our busy lives.

A platform for digital reading

A central focus of reading time provides a lot of opportunities for advanced features, and the idea could be extended into a very cool general-purpose reading engine4.

Recommendations would be given, based on how much time the user wants to spend reading, or how much time is available. For example, articles in Instapaper and Read It Later could be organized by reading time. Public transportation to work? Open up your app of choice, tell it you’ve got about 20 minutes, and it’ll make sure you’ve got something to read until you reach your destination.

Over time, with the consent of the user to have all reading tracked (for the sake of more accurate estimations), trends could be provided online. Overall reading time, average time spent reading each day, total time spent reading each specific site, and more could all be calculated, and even factored into recommendations (For example, “something different” could provide a site you don’t read often). Recommendations would have an element of serendipity, but always the right length for the right occasion.

The Internet and all of our portable devices provide more opportunities for reading than ever, but the Internet also provides more than we could ever hope to read. What we need is something to help reach a balance: a reading service (or app) with intelligence, and with an emphasis on fitting reading into our lives as they are.

  1. 1, 2, 3, 4

  2. I’ve had these ideas as a draft for a while, but the this post is thanks to Patrick Rhone’s tweet of that article, which inspired me to finish and publish my concept. 

  3. An idea I first came across in Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price (p. 185). Time scarcity is directly related to attention scarcity and the attention economy. For more on my thoughts about Free, see my post on the problem with abundance thinking

  4. seemed promising as a broad reading platform, with history and recommendations. The Next Web called it “ for News.” Unfortunately, the project was discontinued due to lack of funds. Instapaper’s latest update, which added the option to follow what others “like,” is also an interesting direction. 

Filed under Apps App Idea Service Reading Books Time Instapaper Read It Later Readability Google Reader Scarcity Recommendations Wordpress Chris Anderson Free Readness

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Why embracing waste and exploiting abundance is not always good

I recently read Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price for a communication course, and one of my reservations was with Anderson’s concept that in the age of abundance, waste can be good. Because “our brains are wired for scarcity” (we focus on and are motivated by the things we lack), abundance isn’t always recognized immediately, and must be properly understood before it can be used to its fullest potential. But once it’s recognized, Anderson says the best way to exploit abundance is to relinquish control — to embrace waste. Certain new abundances — like hard drive capacity and storage — can be wasted, so as to preserve other scarcities, like the time that would be spent organizing and managing the space (which used to be scarce — “One generation’s scarcity is another’s abundance,” writes Anderson). By letting go, abundance can be used advantageously.

The problem I have with this is that it seems like a short-sighted approach that will become an issue in the long term. While the concept of embracing waste does provide some useful models (like expansion and maximization of opportunities through waste), there are many cases where embracing waste is not preserving time but merely delaying its use and exacerbating the problem in the process. Take the example Anderson gives of storage space. Not worrying about space — like letting old, unused files stay on hard drives — may save time in the short term, but in the long term, it wastes time by creating clutter and more to search through later. Even with advanced search, it will eventually lead to information overload, which is a problem. It seems better, at least to me, to keep the system curated, relevant and organized, deleting old stuff along the way. Essentially, this is solving the problem of information overload at the root, before it even begins.

Seth Godin shares this sentiment: “More is not always better. In fact, more is almost never better.”

Filed under free chris anderson the future of a radical price abundance scarcity time storage waste information overload seth godin