Design Your Day is a book we have created with Nokia about the common challenge we all face: In an age of constant distractions and information overload, how can we organise our lives to get the best from each day?
Chinwag Psych was a great place to talk about this for the first time, as the book drew on insights from neuroscience and psychology. Often we found that this complemented and over-lapped with insights from experts and even the habits of some of the great over-achievers from history, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison.
The challenge we wanted to address in the book was best articulated by Dr David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Group, which looks at how to apply neuroscience to the workplace. As we say in the book:
“[Dr Rock] compares the scenario knowledge workers are facing with technology now to the one the first drivers faced 100 years ago. When cars were first used on first used on public roads, it took about ten to fifteen years for rules of the road to emerge: rights of way, traffic signs, speed limits and the like, and until these rules came into force, accidents were common.
There are no rules of the road for the connected age yet. Mobile devices connect us to everyone we know and work with, put the sum of human knowledge at our fingertips, give us limitless possibilities for entertainment – and distraction. It’s as if we’re back in those first days of the road again – we have access to these powerful machines, but we don’t really know how to use them effectively, safely and considerately yet.”
The book looks at design thinking as a starting point for creating a structure for your day and the role of mobiles, computers and the web. The inspiration for this came from a blog post by Tim Brown of IDEO last year that suggested we design our lives, and concluded with the rousing call to “treat each day as a prototype”. This is a lovely idea as it means we frame the setbacks and frustrations of each day as cues to do things a little differently tomorrow.
We shared some of the insights from our talk at the conference:
- Thinking is expensive: A fundamental lesson from neuroscience is that every decision we make or do not make has a measurable cost in terms of using up energy. Our mental energy – glucose powering the pre-frontal cortex – is finite, a lot more finite than we think when we load up our sometimes unrealistic task lists at the beginning of the day.
- You need to plan energy as well as time: We block out our diaries with little thought as to what is happening to our energy levels, to our brain’s ability to function effectively. We need to plan our whole day, not just the part we spend working, so that we have short breaks to re-charge, the right amount of sleep, time to eat, exercise and socialise.
- Thinking is sequential: We get a dopamine buzz from multitasking – it makes us feel like we are achieving a great – and certainly makes us look busy. The reality is that multi-tasking means we do a lot of things – including decision-making – a lot less well than if we handled them one at a time. As Caroline Webb, a respected advisor on leadership and change, put it in her paper for McKinsey multitasking is “procrastination in disguise”.
In the talk we also touched on the idea of Benjamin Franklin as a “day designer”. One of our favourite historical “achievers”, Franklin was, as Wikipedia notes: “a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat”. He invented bi-focal glasses, the lightning rod and a stove, held several political offices as well running a university and a fire department for good measure.
As you can see from this diagram based on Franklin’s own, he put a great deal of thought into structuring his day, and there are some things he was doing that the evidence from neuroscience would support as good practice. For instance:
- Chunking: Franklin divided his day into clear zones of activity. Reading and doing his account belonged in one section, while focused work took place in two four hour blocks, divided by a two-hour break.
- Closing loops: One of the most charming and useful insights from his day planner was that he ended the day by “putting things in their places”. Time for tidying up and odd-jobs is really helpful, as when we notice things like mess, or a light bulb that needs changing, it creates an “open loop” in our minds, and that loop carries a cognitive cost – we spend energy that could have been better spent on something else.
- Using the power of habit: Just having the clear parameters for how his day works meant that Franklin was using the power of habit. He didn’t have to expend mental energy thinking about what he had to do next, or when lunch would be – he knew, he was on auto-pilot.
As part of the Design Your Day project we’ve been working on tools and techniques to help think about and plan our days more effectively. We’ll be running more events with Nokia and sharing ideas and tools that come out of them soon.
Here are the slides from the session and don’t forget you can download your own copy of the book here.
Design Your Day was created as part of Nokia’s SmarterEveryday project, which looks at useful ideas for business and working more effectively. To find out more and follow the conversation you can…