How does Focus work?

If you’re interested in personal performance like me, no doubt you’ve read a lot about focus and energy management the last few years. New Studies claim that focus and willpower is like a tank of gas that runs dry if you use it to much during the day. Other New Studies shows that meditation (the practice of focusing and refocusing for short periods of time) increases focus.

So which is it? How does focus work? I think their both right.

Focus seems to work very much like a muscle, if you deliberately practice it, you can focus deeper and with more control (i.e. it gets easier to start and stop focusing). But it also seems to work a lot like endurance, the more time you spend focused, the less mental energy you’ll have at the end of the day.

Which is why I try to focus deliberately, constantly nudging myself when I get distracted, and take resting very seriously. You can’t work with perfect focus forever. You might be able to effect how much you can focus, but always be aware of your limits. When I step beyond my limits, I get annoyed, cranky, feel frustrated about not getting anywhere, and spend even more energy that I don’t have. It’s a slippery slope.

How do you manage your focus?

Blood clot watch

In January on 2019 I was shocked to find myself with a foot long blood clot in my upper thigh to lower abdomen. Deep vein thrombosis usually affects people in their senior years, and correlates pretty well with being overweight and smoking.

I’m fitness athlete thin and I’ve never smoked. I was 34.

I’ve been on blood thinners ever since, and my body is supposed to solve the issue without any direct intervention. Since the blood clot is a partial blockage of a vein, we apparently don’t measure the clot itself, that would be too costly for the free healthcare system of Sweden. Instead we measure the circumference of the leg. The swelling should correlate pretty accurately with the remaining size of the clot.

Being the person I am, I naturally measured my leg every morning to track any progress. I figured it’s worth sharing. This is my blod clot watch, updated daily. When the blue line hits the bottom of the chart, I should be back to normal. The red line is a trailing average of 7 days to help show the progress.

What are you optimizing for?

A thought struck me today while rushing from the my doctors appointment to my office. I was listening to a podcast and checking out the stock market. I was distracting myself from a pretty dreary subway ride. But I was also using the time to be productive, plan out my tasks for the afternoon so that I could optimise my time.

Todo lists. Email. Quick meetings. Lunch at your desk. 6 minute abs. Fast Food. It’s all about optimising our time. Finding a way to cram more stuff into our days.

The thought that struck me was; what am we optimizing for?

One day you will be scanning the headlines and listening to a podcast in 2x the speed, and that will be it. That was life. Optimised to the extreme. Forcedly pushed into ever longer caffeinated days. But optimised for what?

I think I’ll take my dog for a slow walk. After that I might have a glass of wine with the love of my life. Maybe call my mom. But whatever I do tonight, it will be because I wanted to, and unoptimised.

Blood clot

During Christmas break I ate too much and drank too much. Like most people in Sweden, Christmas is a time for gluttony. And being a recovering compulsive eater, I’m not exactly holding back.

To counter the unhealthily lifestyle I hit the gym a lot as well. Nothing makes extra room for cookies and chocolate like a few sets of heavy deadlifts.

This year though, I felt over exerted. I felt drained come New Years. And when I woke up on New Year’s Day with a throbbing right hip and thigh I sort of shrugged it off and knew I’d get back to normal in a few days. Coming back to healthy food and rest would solve it. It always had.

Only this time. It didn’t.

This time, my right leg swelled up to cartoonish proportions. I still assumed this was due to over exertion, and just did a bit of stretching and took it easy. Three days in though, my life partner Agnes started getting worried. She convinced me to call the health hotline, and in less than an hour we were waiting at the emergency room. A blood test later and I was injected with blood thinners, told to take a taxi home for the night and be back early for an ultra sound of my thigh.

Turns out I have a 20-25cm blood clot through my thigh into my hip, and possibly a malformed vein in my hip. I’m now on blood thinners and trying to come to terms with the fact that this will change my short term life dramatically.

Normally blood clots affect people at 60 to 80 years of age, with more risk if they smoke and are over weight.

Not really that common in 34 years olds who eat fitness diets and lift heavy weights as a lifestyle.

But I guess I beat the odds on that one.

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2018 in review

2018 was a life changing year for me. In the last days of 2017 I met Agnes, whom I instantly fell hopelessly in love with. Something I’ve never experienced before.

I quickly changed my plans for 2018, cancelled trips, got a year long consultancy. I’d be staying in Sweden for 2018. And I haven’t regretted it, though I dislike the cold intensely.

A year is hard to boil down, so I’ve split this review into three sections, enjoy.

Timeline of Events

What I learned

Fitness & Health

Timeline of Events

Spring

January was a blur of rapid changes. Setting myself up to be with Agnes. I also gave a talk on the Ethics of Design at a major networks offices in Stockholm. It was well received.

February was spent celebrated my mothers 70th birthday and working like mad to put my own projects on hold, while getting to grips on my client project.

In March I was the sole witness to my friends wedding, they wanted a small one, and I’m incredibly grateful to have been there.

April my client took off to Rome for a conference, Agnes joined us for the last day and a half. It’s my second time in Rome and I love it. The history nut in me is excited about everything, and the food is fabulous.

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Summer

The summer of 2018 was generally considered to be the best summer in Sweden for a hundred years. I’ve certainly never experienced anything like it. For a solid four months we had sun and warmth. It was epic, but it also lead to overheating offices and a lot of summer colds. Agnes spent our two week vacation in a fever.

In May some friends from 500 startups visited Stockholm, it was great to reconnect and hear about life inside the US startup world again.

In June Sweden is never really dark, it’s a magical time. I did a lot of great work when everyone else was trying to find refuge from the heat, and we even managed to go sailing. Something I’ve been yearning to get back to.

July was a furnace of heat, which we spent living on the balcony. Walking the dog as early and late possible so he wouldn’t over heat, and visiting the archipelago.

When August rolled in and the evenings started darkening again I could hardly believe how much fun I’d had over the summer. We lived on that balcony until it was cool enough to go to sleep for almost two months. it was beautiful.


Fall

As the shadows lengthened work picked up speed again in Sweden. The fall was a lovely cavalcade of colors, and in September we spent some time in the archipelago enjoying autumn and feeding the little dog too many hotdogs. I did a Netcast about the Future with a couple of friends of mine.

On our first date, we talked about Oktober Fest in Munich. So when oktober rolled around, we went and had an absolute blast. We made sure to visit Neuschwanstein when we were in the area. If you haven’t seen Bavaria in the late summer or early fall… You should. It’s like a fairytale.


Winter

I don’t like the cold and the dark. In fact I get colds easily and slightly depressed. Thankfully Agnes kept me awake and excited about Christmas. Which was amazing (the dog did not like it though). I also had the opportunity inn November to visit Marbella for a workshop with a Swedish startup. That was a very welcome respit from the dark.


What I learned

Over the year I’ve discovered many ideas and had several insights that I’d like to share. Some of them are rediscoveries, which is both amusing and slightly worrying. I’ve detailed most of them on my life strategies page. This is the broad strokes summary:

Consumption and wasting time is extremely comfortable. But mostly time we will regret spending. Most consumption will not create memories for life, but rather just tick some minutes away. Stepping back from consumption completely can show which is which. And give you time to create, which is my next point.

Creating is always scary. More than anything else, I spend a ton of time trying to prepare myself for the real work. This is simply just procrastination. You cannot be prepared to create, or do real work. You just have to do it. I’m going to try to be aware of this during 2019, and really ship work.

Learning is fun. And anything that is fun can be used to distract yourself from the real work. Are you sure you need to learn more before doing the thing you’re putting off? More often than not, the answer is no. Just do it.

Love is rare so enjoy it. Beauty is not, so enjoy that too. Life does not need to be a grind. Anything can be beautiful and we can even learn to love the hardest work.


Fitness & Health

If you’ve followed me over the years, you’ve probably noticed that I spend a lot of time and energy on fitness. I used to be heavily overweight in my teens and have had problems with food and health ever since. But in 2018 I can proudly say I’ve been both healthier and fitter than ever before. The journey is never over, and I’m excited about 2019 in this regard too.

Five day media fast

The week before Christmas I decided to try a radical experiment. I was rereading an old book on productivity that recommended a week long total media fast. And for some reason, I put the book down and did it.

The fast is designed like a media diet. For 5 days, you are only allowed to consume music and less than one hour of fiction in book form (perfect for me as I read when going to bed). That is no TV, no shows, no podcasts, no audiobooks, no Facebook nor Twitter. Nothing readable at all, except directly related to any work you are doing right at that moment. No research. No distractions. The idea is to force yourself to completely give up mindless consumption of information.

I honestly didn’t think this would be very difficult since I didn’t consume much TV, don’t really listen to music all that much, and see very few shows. Turned out I was massively underestimating how much media I consumed.

The first few days felt… wierd (for want of a better word). I had to stop myself putting on my headphones several times, there was nothing to listen to. I spent many long minutes just looking at people while waiting. Waiting for the subway. Waiting for my coffee. Waiting for some website to load.

On day three it started becoming difficult. I went home that night and didn’t do anything.
Nothing.
For hours.
Eventually I started reciting lines from old movies and books just to distract myself. I wrote down thoughts like I was pitching someone. And I’m pretty sure I started to stress my girlfriend out. In a phrase, I was bored. Incredibly bored, but not tired. Which came as a huge surprise!

I was more productive than usual. I got more done in less time. But the interesting thing is that was less mentally drained from work. Even doing taxes took less willpower than it ever has before.

I’m not sure I can continue living without media. And I am pretty sure the benefits will wear off if this was to become the new normal. But having experienced the difference has been eye opening.

I recommend you try this media diet. It’s only 5 days. And you might learn a lot about how you spend your mental energy.

Participation medals for moral panic

I’ve always wondered about why some words are deemed to be more dangerous than other. I’m not referring to offensive language here, that’s an entirely different conversation. But words that are simply shunned for their perceived power. Words like “problem”.

A problem is a complication in your way. Something to be solved, worked around or on. In engineering and design a problem is not a negative word, it’s what you’re there to straighten out. Not exactly the focus of your work, but an important part.

In other fields, like politics, a words power comes from the perceived effect it might have. So Problems get renamed into Challanges, and recently I saw the next logical step; Opportunities.

The problem with this second way of working with language is that we’re shooting the messenger. We’re reframing and retooling language instead of working on the problem.

Instead of doing PR about a crash we’re pretending new words can achieve less crashes.

Language has power, and choosing the right words is important. We should continue to do so. But not to absurd extremes.

Fear of problems will not diminish because we change the vocabulary every five minutes. Showing that problems can be worked on and overcome might diminish that fear.

The truth about our shortening attention spans

Attention spans are rapidly shortening. Social media, texting and the always-online lifestyle is destroying our ability to focus for more than seconds at a time!

You’ve probably heard this a hundred times, maybe experienced it yourself on occasion? The strange thing is, it isn’t true.

How do I know? While we’re reading about shortening attention spans the same sources also report new trends like binge watching shows on Netflix, long form articles, and the popularity of book long podcast episodes the likes of Hardcore History. These two ideas contradict each. Both can’t be true.

The truth is that media consumption is changing radically. We are so inundated with content that we simply have no tolerance for things we don’t like. At the same time we will put in every effort to indulge in the things we love.

If your content needs to be trivially short to catch your audience attention, chances are your content just isn’t that great. On the other hand, it might just be suited for very short consumption?

Jony Ive's wisdom about design problems

Speaking with the Independent Jony Ive, chief design officer of Apple, gave us this insight into design. I think it’s one of the most wise things I’ve read about design problems in a very long time.

I think that is a huge part, a fundamental part, of my job. When you’re talking about the future, and as a designer that’s where my head is, then it’s extremely rare that I feel that I’m working in response to an articulated problem.

I could count the occasions that I’ve done that in the last 25 years on the fingers of one hand. It’s extremely rare that what we do is a response to somebody articulating a problem. By definition, you didn’t know it was a problem until you were aware of a better way of doing it. The tremendous challenge here is that when you have been solving a problem a certain way for a long time, so many things convince you that, of course, that’s the best way of doing it, not least habit.

When you have been solving a problem a certain way for a long time, the very idea that there could be a better way of doing it, can seem almost sacrilegious. It can seem extremely unlikely, so what you have to do is work by taking a leap of faith. That faith is based on the thought, ‘I’ve been here many times before and many times before we have found a better way of doing this’. And you just have to believe that’s the case and you keep on.

Sometimes, the vast majority of times, we are able to find a better way of solving a problem.
— Jony Ive

It’s extremely rare to solve articulated problems. Because normal users don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what the real problem is, they simply discover annoying details. And most often, the habit of how things are done, is not the best way of doing things.

Time to challenge the internets visual conformity

I wrote a few weeks back about the fact that the internet doesn’t need to be quite as bland as it is. The prerequisites have changed which opens up a lot more choice in design. This idea seems to be becoming a trend, this morning I found another great article on the topic: “Why do all websites look the same?”.

How will you break the mould?

Define and execute - managing my energy like a resource

I’ve used the Getting Things Done method of organising my tasks and projects for years. While I admit that it has, more than once, become a distracting hobby of optimisation instead of helping, it has also freed up a lot of mental energy.

In my work I’m constantly switching between creative problem solving and mechanically grinding something out. Normally I just do a task from start to finish, but quite often it’s hard to start being creative when I’m already in a grinding out mindset.

The great people at Basecamp has an idea to solve this issue, they call it a Hill Chart, and it represents how well defined a task is and how far along execution it is. This could really help with picking the right thing to work on depending on mood and energy levels.

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To apply this strategy in my GTD setup I’ve created a new context I call Definition, which has two tags Define and Execute. I label all my tasks with one of these, and depending on which state I’m in I sort my tasks accordingly. I’ve only been doing this for a week so far, but I really enjoy the difference.

What do you think? Any better tips on how to manage your energy?


Etching patterns into your mind

Playboy: Why is the computer field dominated people so young? The average age of Apple employees is 29.

Jobs: It’s often the same with any new, revolutionary thing. People get stuck as they get older. Our minds are sort of electrochemical computers. Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them. It’s a rare person who etches grooves that are other than a specific way of looking at things, a specific way of questioning things. It’s rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to really contribute something amazing. Of course, there are some people who are innately curious, forever little kids in their awe of life, but they’re rare.

We have to actively work on etching effective patterns. And we can never stop.

The real reason diversity makes better companies

Here in Sweden it's common, maybe even mandatory, to say that diverse companies are more innovative and even more profitable. But why are they?

Normally when something as good as this is being discussed, people are so afraid of looking like idiots they avoid discussing the reasons. Or better yet, just shout loudly about how good it is. I don't think this is good for society. Not only are we shaming smart people into silence, but we're also spreading ignorance by not discussing why good ideas are good.

Therefore here is the reason, as I've understood it, that diverse companies are better than no- diverse companies.

To make sure we're on the same page I need to explain how a company works: Companies are the sum of the people working at them. A company culture is just the accepted behaviour of individuals at the company. The profits of a company is the margin between the value the people at the company delivers, and the effort they have to put in.

This is why a company can do more than individuals. Cooperation leverages the employees efforts and smarts.

This is really - really - hard to do well, and the larger the group, the harder it is. The reason for that is that every individual has biases and points of ignorance, putting them all together you might start leveraging stupidity instead of smarts.

This is where diversity comes in

One really simple way to make sure you're not leveraging stupidity is to make sure you have a wide range of ideas floating around at the company. Having different points of view does not stop a company from having a culture. It does demand more communication between employees though.

The easiest way to make sure you have many points of view is to put people from many different backgrounds in the process.

Diversity limits the risk of taking stupid actions, and it can push people to communicate more instead of leaving things unsaid.

So the next time you hear diversity is great, now you at least know one concrete reason why.

A handfull of great ideas for a better life

Some time ago Tynan wrote a list of life rules for Zen Habits. Perfectly in line with my current project of trying to discover what strategies or principles I should live by. This is a great post in it's entirety, just see this excerpt: 

1. When you say you’re going to do something, do it. I believe that without his word, a man is nothing. This rule applies to things I tell others I will do as well as things I tell myself I’ll do.

[...]

5. Walk out of movies, stop reading books, leave parties. If I’m participating in some sort of entertainment and I realize that it’s not going to be worth the additional time spent, I leave. The fact that I paid $10 and watched half of the movie is irrelevant. The real decision at hand is: how do I want to spend the next hour of my life.
— Tynan

Optimisation your life away

I've thought a lot about optimisation of the last decade, always looking for better tools, productivity systems, and efficient ways of doing many, many, things. Until a few years ago when I started thinking about over-optimisation instead.

I now believe I've been using optimisation as a crutch, to procrastinate from doing the important, but scary, things in life. 

Optimising up front is usually a bad idea, it's a worse idea for every day life. Optimising should have a clear outcome of freeing up time.  If it doesn't, maybe you shouldn't be spending your time on that?
Maybe that time is better spent on the real work, or life?

Leo said it better.

(Update: This is a life strategy worthy idea.)

It's time for a radical rethink of web design paradigms

I love the current state of visual design online, don’t get me wrong. There’s so many beautiful apps and services that I’m constantly feeling the pressure to up my own game. Oddly though, in this sea of great design, there’s a strange aspect of conservative conformity. I’ve only started to wrestle with this myself, but this article will detail why I think web design needs a reboot.

There’s no reason for the web to look like the 90s

Most design today is based, at least in part, on context from the 90s. At that time design was constrained by bad browsers, small screens with poor contrast and bad system font typography. The results were frankly fantastic. Since then most of these constraints have changed radically, but design trends still closely resemble their forerunners.

Screen size and layout metaphor

Screen size should have little to no impact on design. In the early days of the internet, screens were terribly expensive and for the first couple of decades they were more or less standardised into a handful of sizes. TV and Cinema did the same thing, it was a great way to ensure affordable cost and mass market.

Today there are hundredsof screen sizes being used in large numbers. So many that simply testing a design on the most common screen sizes becomes an exercise in futility. Instead we tend to settle for flagship devices. An iMac Pro and Google Pixel Phone? Then we’re all set. Never mind the other 89 screen sizes that are used in more than a million visits per week...

Designers all over the world try to adapt to this by padding their layouts as if they were cinema screens. Just like Hollywood in the 60s we show the same things in almost the same size and then add white space fill the full width of the screen. Making sure the proper elements align above the "fold" (whatever that is on screens today).

This is nonsense. Screen size actually affects user behavior. The iPad technically isjust a large iPhone, but people sure don’t use it as such. Windows 10 does work on mobile devices, but no one would use software designed for a 4k monitor on their cellphone.

I believe that the only useful metaphor left over from the early days is scrolling. Scrolling is arguably more useful than ever because it is the main user inputon the most common type of device used online today — the touch screen phone.

Instead of seeing web pages as a full width scrolling sheets, there are two other metaphors in use that are more useful with todays technology:

Specifically sized cards.

Possibly made famous by the failed Palm OS. Look at any mobile app today and you will see cards everywhere. Usually they are made to be one size, and are then stacked horizontally or vertically depending on the available screen real-estate.

Infinite canvas

Facebooks infinite scroll is probably the most commonly used one. But infinite canvases are everywhere just like Cards. Presentations zoom and pan, web pages scroll, app windows show only part of the document. The use cases go on.

User Interface Inputs

The web is primarily used through graphical user interfaces, and mostly on mobile devices. Based on this premise isn’t it strange that so many designs still use the desktop hunt-and-peck-with-your-mouse style of elements?

Why do we right click links and chose to bookmark or open in a new tab? Why don't we drag the link to the side of the screen for a new tab, and to the bookmark icon to store it?

Despite huge success on mobile apps, the web still fails to recognise touch as a first class user input. Mouse clicks are already optional on many laptops. Ten years after the touch device started it's rise to power it is time for us to make the web reflect that.

Grid & Typography

In the last few years typography has turned the web from computer science book into a beautiful print poster. Finally we have access to technology like CSS grid that allows us to recreate any print layout. But why print?

Print design is all based on a set of constraints that have no value on the web. Most typography is created to fit fixed size sheets of paper. Worse still, fonts are set in rows with fixed heights. Do we really always need to scroll?

In stark contrast with layouts, why aren't we type setting based on screen size instead? Imagine if the font size was set to 80 characters across the screen. Or 200 characters vertically? What sort of grid could that produce?

So where do we go from here?

I don’t really know. The situation is extremely interesting. I’ll keep working on this, and post everything I think of right here. If you’d like to join in the fun, please contact me! Honestly, I'd love your help.

Your next steps