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When your wetware has too many threads - Tips from an ADHDer on how to improve your focus

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When your wetware has too many threads - Tips from an ADHDer on how to improve your focus
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Somewhere between 5% and 12% of adults have ADHD. Even if you do not have the disorder yourself you probably work, live or know someone who does. But the world is not designed for people with ADHD, so to be successful I’ve had to develop techniques to keep my concentration and procrastination in check. In this talk, we’ll briefly look at what ADHD is and how it impairs not only concentration but also executive function. Then we’ll explore how changes in the workplace can benefit not just those with ADHD, but anyone whose work requires creativity or extended periods of focus. Next, we’ll look at some persistent myths about productivity, and what you can do personally to increase your concentration and output without burning out. Then I’ll present some techniques you can rollout within your team to remove distractions while improving the quality of communication.
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(upbeat ukulele music)
- Hey, thanks first for the introduction. Yeah, so I am Aaron Bassett, as you heard there. I do have ADHD so this talk's gonna be about some of the things that I've had to, kind of the adjustments I've had to make to my work life in order to be able to focus and to get my job done, essentially. And that job is a, I work for a place called Nexmo.
I'm not gonna give you like the entire sales pitch though, that's not why I'm up here to do today. If you're interested in what we do, we do have a booth out there. What I do want to point out though is I wouldn't be here without them, like, not just being able to do this conference, people do the job that I do, like I'm very supported by them, and in fact I do have a mental health issue. They're very supportive about me coming out to the community and talking about having a mental health issue. So, you know, they're paying me to be here today, to come up here and talk to you about mental health and not about what we do or what products we sell. So I'd really appreciate if you do have a couple of extra minutes to come find us in the booth and find out more about us. Okay, so who am I? So, this is me.
I think I was maybe about like five years old in this photo. Yes, I was incredibly cute. No, I have no idea what happened either. I had a pretty normal childhood.
But I grew up in the '80s.
And in the '80s, we had the best music, we had the best fashion, we had the best shoulder pads. But unfortunately we didn't have the best mental healthcare. We didn't have the best ways of identifying developmental issues in kids in schools. So unfortunately I did go untreated, or undiagnosed, for ADHD for 34 years. Okay, so the majority of my adult life, the majority of my career. I've developed, or I've built my career, I've run through so many different jobs while not knowing I had ADHD. So I've the had the kind of, yes, now I'm medicated, it's awesome, I love it, but before then I had to try and develop additional coping mechanisms. So for those people who don't know what ADHD is or how it affects you, I've got like a really short video
that I just want to play first. - The prefrontal cortex, PFC, is the cerebral cortex which covers the frontal part
of the frontal lobe, the brain region that's been implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviors or personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. The basic activity of the brain region is considered
to be an orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals. The most typical psychological term for functions carried out by the prefrontal cortex area is executive function. Executive function relates to the ability to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectations based on actions, and social control. That is the ability to suppress urges that if not suppressed could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes. The frontal cortex supports concrete rule learning while more anterior regions along the rostral caudal axis or the frontal cortex support rule learning at a higher level of abstraction. - Okay, that's kind of a bit of an overview then of what the prefrontal cortex is. And in ADHD, your prefrontal cortex doesn't develop
at the same rate as somebody who is neurotypical. So the image up there, that's showing a, essentially a comparison between the mass of the prefrontal cortex in somebody who is neurotypical and somebody who has ADHD. So the glowing areas there is where we see a difference in mass, so essentially the prefrontal cortex, my prefrontal cortex, isn't as developed as somebody who would have a neurotypical brain. And that sounds pretty awful, and it does kind of really impact your day to day life.
It does have some benefits, however. I love this quote, "The good part about having a mental disorder "is having a valid reason for all the stupid things we do "because of a damaged prefrontal cortex." I would be lying if I didn't say that every now and again I go, sorry, ADHD, as an excuse. It also does mean as well that your prefrontal cortex is also what is impaired whenever you're drunk, so having ADHD is basically like being slightly drunk all the time and not just because I'm Irish. It also, as you saw on the video, it affects a bunch of stuff including your social control. So, if I can manage not to break the code of conduct then none of you have any excuse. One of the other things it does in fact as well is dopamine.
So dopamine is this here, dopamine is essentially your brain's reward system,
it's its way of saying, you know, good job. You know, anytime you go to the gym or you tick off a Jira ticket, or you do something where you brain goes, hey, this is gonna help your survivability, you get a nice little kick of dopamine. Dopamine is what helps you start to build, to build good habits. So, you get used to having this kick of dopamine, you get your little fix, and you want to do the same thing again to get another fix, and so on and so forth. And people with ADHD, unfortunately, we don't produce dopamine in the same way as other people do, so we don't have that same reward system. I also have a, oh gosh, what's the actual technical term for it? Major depressive disorder, or depression, as everybody calls it. And that's basically caused by lack of dopamine as well. Anything really that you're trying to do where you're supposed to be getting this, like, nice kind of kick for your brain that goes, hey, good job, it's a little bit harder when you don't have a prefrontal cortex.
So, you read these how to be successful books, and in them, I haven't come across one that says, to be successful, be flaky, have bad time management, you know, forget what you're doing, work on the wrong thing, you know, all this stuff that the prefrontal cortex is supposed to control and supposed to help you do. I don't have that, so, you know, being successful based upon what comes in these self help books is never gonna really be an option for me. And for most people, defining success can be different.
You know, some people it's like, success for them is their salaries, or remuneration. It's how much they earn. You know, they're all about those dollar dollar bills y'all.
I know it's an old meme. I'm also old. I like it, get over it, it's fine.
For some people, it's maybe power or success in the workplace. They want to move up the corporate ladder and that's how they view their own success. Hopefully for some people,
they view success as being able to help others. You know, for me, how I find my success in business is just avoiding being bored.
For me, that's my biggest indicator. If I'm currently feeling that I'm bored in a job then I know that I'm not being successful, neither for myself nor for the company I'm working for.
I'll give you a little story about just how often I do switch jobs. Everybody here that's in tech, probably, or tech adjacent, you know that normally you start a new job, the first thing you do is they give the t-shirt, they give you the hoodie, they give you the baseball cap, you know, all branded, turn you into the giant walking billboard. My friends used to joke that I really must dislike clothes shopping because as soon as a t-shirt would get tatty I would just go get another job. (laughter) Big shoutout to Nexmo. They gave me two hoodies when I started. They doubled by life at that job. But yeah, for me it's like
I just want to avoid getting bored. And what I mean about getting bored is I want to hit these flow states. You know, if I'm not focused on what I'm doing then I'm going to be, my attention is going to be all over the place, I'm not going to fill fulfilled. I'm going to be bored, essentially. So there's a really interesting book
by a guy called Cal Newport that I read. That I skimmed, let's be honest. I had ADHD. It's really hard to finish an entire book. But in this book he talks about this thing called deep work. Around deep work is these three elements.
So deep work equals time times focus. So if we look at this equation, we can't really change the time part of it. You know, some people, we sometimes try to do it. We'll hit crunch period, and we'll increase our hours from a 40 hour week to a 60 hour week. We're trying to make the T side of that equation larger. But it's unsustainable. Really, the T is fixed. So if we want to increase the amount of deep work, of high quality work that we're producing, then the only thing that is really within our control is F, is focus. You know, we need to increase the amount of focus that we have. That's actually one of the things I really hate about the description for ADHD. You know, it's attention deficit disorder. If anything, I don't have a deficit of attention. I have way too freaking much attention. I just don't have the ability to focus that attention on where it's required. Sometimes I'll not be able to focus at all, and I'll get nothing done.
Other times I'll focus on the world's best researched Reddit comment. It's trying to figure out where that focus should be. And if I'm constantly fighting with myself about what I should be focusing on or how I should be changing my focus, then eventually I'm gonna run out of spoons.
If people are not familiar with the spoons metaphor, it actually came out from people who have chronic pain. You know, so, it was a metaphor to explain how they got through the day. At the start of the day you have a certain number of spoons. Say you have 12 spoons. And as you progress through your day and you complete tasks, that costs you a spoon. So you get up in the morning, there's a spoon. You go, you have a shower, that's a spoon. You go to work, that's a spoon. You know, all these small things you do throughout the day, you have to pay for each of them in spoons, which essentially is willpower. It's for each thing that you do that you're forcing yourself to complete, it's gonna sap a little bit of that willpower. Now, each person has a fixed amount of spoons that they can spend each day. Sometimes you can borrow some spoons from tomorrow, but eventually you have to pay them back and settle your books. As well as spoons, creativity is not a faucet.
We can't just turn it on anytime that we want. Sometimes you're not going to be productive. Sometimes it's just not going to happen. You know, you can sit there and you can stare at the screen for as long as you want and nothing is going to happen because it's not a faucet. It's not something that you can just turn on anytime you want to. You know, there's a lot of factors that go into being productive and being focused. And sometimes you're just gonna have to go, hey, it's not gonna happen for me today. I'm gonna go do something else. I'm gonna go, like, walk the dog. I'm gonna go watch a trashy TV show, or play some Xbox, or do something, anything to stop you sitting there burning spoons while you try to turn the faucet on. But unfortunately what we actually end up doing
is what he calls shallow work. So in the absence of deep work, what we tend to fall back on is shallow work. So shallow work is where you're, you're just doing anything to appear to be productive to the other people in the office. We're so conditioned now that we have to be seen to be productive all of the time that we actually create work. We send those emails, we write that memo, we schedule that fucking meeting. You know, we do anything that makes it appear to other people in our offices that we're being productive that day when actually we're not doing anything. We're just burning spoons, we're spinning our wheels, we're not getting anything done. Like the expectation of that
is throughout our entire industry. This is a tweet. It was just before Christmas, I think, 2017. Nathan Hubbard, for anybody who has not heard that name before, he's Stanford educated. He was a VP at Twitter. He was CEO of Ticketmaster. This is somebody who's at the pinnacle of business, and this is what he was saying. "Whatever you're hustling for, take note: "most people/companies are shut down until 2018." So he's saying like, this is Christmas period. All companies are closed now until 2018. "That means you get two extra weeks "to outwork your competition. "That's 3.8% more time. "For perspective: Usain Bolt won his gold medals "running 1.2% faster. "These two weeks are a gift. "Get to work." It's fucking Christmas dude, give it a break. (laughter) Like seriously, we're so ingrained now that we have to be productive all the time that you can't even take a break at Christmas? No, this is not how we're supposed to be. This is not how we're gonna be productive either. So you get that extra two weeks at Christmas where none of your vendors or anybody else is available, so you're probably not being very productive as it is, and then suddenly you're burnt out in January? No, take the two weeks off. Go relax.
Thankfully not everybody sees it this way. This is another quote from Jason Fried, the co-founder of Basecamp. I love it. He's like, "Workaholics aren't heroes. "They don't save the day, they just use it up." And for me, that really sums up this whole idea of shallow work. Just because somebody is there in the office all day every day doesn't mean that they're actually being more productive. It just means that they're using the day up. From my own personal experience, I once worked for an edtech company, and I had a two hour commute each way every day. And I was, like, getting really, really burnt out on the work. It was really, really difficult work, lots of technical debt, everything was running way behind. But I still needed to be seen to be there every day. You know, I felt if I didn't come in,
be sat in that seat, I was letting the team down. And this is not an exaggeration. I once came in and spent eight hours staring at that. That's actually my literal terminal. Isn't the unicorn cute? But I sat for eight hours. I didn't go for lunch. I didn't go up to get a drink. I did nothing. I sat, and I stared at that screen, that blinking cursor, for eight hours, willing myself to be productive. But I was so burnt out that I just couldn't concentrate. There was no way at all that I was gonna get anything done. In fact I wasn't, like, being successful. You know, I wasn't helping the company's mission
or anything like that. In fact, I was a detriment to my team. By sitting there, I was part of that sprint, which meant that I was supposed to be taking on some of the tickets, which meant that actually, our burn down charts would have been better if I wasn't there. You know, all I was doing was just keeping a seat warm. But we tend to focus on the shallow work
because deep work is hard. You know, it's difficult to get into these flow states. So if something is difficult and there's something easier we could be doing, sometimes we just take the easy route. And that becomes self-perpetuating. You know, you get into this habit of that's what I do when I come to work. I come in, and I send the email, or I schedule the meeting, or I write the memo, or I do any of these other things that actually really aren't productive and are not benefiting me or the company. Okay, so how can we improve our focus, and how can we get into these states of flow? There's a bunch of different techniques that people use.
This is a Pomodoro timer. Essentially it's a kitchen timer that you set for 15 minutes, 20 minutes, whatever time period you want to use. And whenever the timer goes off, you take a five minute break. You set it for five minutes, it goes off. When you take your break, when it goes off again, you set it back for 20, and so on and so forth. Doesn't work for me. I'm building in, like, a distraction every 15 minutes. You know, I've barely opened up my editor and remembered which file I'm working on by that set of 15 minutes. You know, and then this thing goes bing, and suddenly I'm like, oh crap, right, I've got to take a break for five minutes. And I come back off my break, and I go, what was I doing? Oh yeah, I was on Hacker News, wasn't I? No, I was on Twitter. Yeah, it just doesn't work. I spend the entire time just trying to remember what I was doing rather than actually getting anything done. Then you have Getting Things Done,
is another really popular one. Getting Things Done is a workflow that you go for anytime a task comes in where you're basically going, you know, can I work on this now, or does this need some additional information. And you follow the workflow and you put it into these little buckets to get worked on later. That's essentially the problem with it for me is you're just putting things into little buckets that I will then totally forget about. The only thing I actually really like from this is the can you do it in under two minutes. And if you can, you should just do it there and then. Last time I gave this talk I said that I follow that rule. Now that my colleagues are in the audience I'm gonna say I try to follow that rule. But yeah, that's the only part I really take away from this that kind of helps for me. If it's under two minutes, just try and do it there and then. Then we have, oh, bullet journals.
Bullet journals are excellent. I have no idea if they actually work for to-do lists and stuff, but they look beautiful!
(laughter) These things are like an art form!
I don't know, is this this person's job,
is just to make really pretty notebooks? I don't think I would have time to get anything else done from this. I'd be like, oh, you know what, I'm gonna get my color scheme together, I'm gonna do stationary shopping, I'm gonna get some new color. It's gonna be awesome. And I would never get any work done at all. But they are beautiful.
Like, they really are. If you're somebody who can actually use one of these, I'm so jealous. I would love to be able to do that but unfortunately I can't. Oh, one thing I did discover
is they're not called bullet journals. They're BuJos. You know, like freaking J-Lo, or Kimye.
I don't think I'm hipster enough for those.
Eat the frog. Another task management one that's pretty popular. The idea behind it is you pick your worst task and you do that first thing in the day. So it's like eating a frog. You know, if you eat a frog first thing in the morning, there's nothing worse that's gonna happen to you that day. It's actually probably one of the better ones for me because I am quite productive in the morning, so I do try to tackle some of my more difficult tasks when I'm most productive. And that's a lot of, you'll find a lot for this talk, is I'll be talking about things that work for me, and really what I'm saying is these are things I've discovered over time. You know, I'm not trying to change the way in which like, my mind works. Instead I'm trying to change the way that I work to fit the way that my mind works. And that's probably what I would advise most people. But the part of organization for people who have ADHD,
organization becomes an unsustainable task because organizational systems work on linearity, importance, and time. So all the systems we we looked at there, I can take little bits and pieces from them, and I adjust them to the way in which my mind works rather than trying to adjust my mind into these different systems. Because really, the only system
that actually works for me is these. You know, they're visual. They're easy to create, so I can just write my task down straight away. You know, I can immediately see what I should be working on and what I should be doing. And they're still stuck on my monitor at home because I travel about 75% of the time. So, everything has got its downsides. Other thing then we can do to really help ourselves get into these flow states is our working environment.
If anybody doesn't recognize it, the background of the slide, actually this is Facebook. This is their actual engineering floor.
I'm actually finding it difficult to concentrate standing here, knowing this is on the screen behind me. It's that busy. That looks like a hellscape for me. Like, there's open plan offices, and then there's this. I would get absolutely nothing done there. There's so much distraction, there's so much noise, there's so much probably movement and things, that it wouldn't work for me at all. And to be honest,
open plan offices don't work for many people. And we've known this for a while. So, this is a quote from a BT futurologist saying that, "The trouble with open plan offices "is they're a one size fits all model "which actually fits nobody." For anybody who doesn't known, BT is British Telecom, a publicly funded company which is now private. Thank you, Margaret Thatcher. They do some good research every now and again. Some of the research is Steelcase. I'm just gonna read some of these. A company called Steelcase polled 1,000+ office workers. They found that 95% of them said that having privacy in the workplace was important. 41% felt they had privacy. So the vast majority of people say that privacy is important and less than half actually feel they have it. 31% of the people polled said they had to leave work to get anything done. You know, does that not seem insane, that you would set up this office for people to come to do work and then they have to leave it to actually get anything done. Most people said they lost an average of 86 minutes per day to interruptions, to breaks in their concentration. So if we take that 86 minutes per day and we multiply it out over a regular work year, that's 10 weeks over the course of a year. You know, two and a half months of unproductive time just from those little micro-interruptions every day. Canada Life find that people in open plan offices take 70% more sick days. You know, we've all seen it. There's that one asshole who comes into the office with a cold or a flu and gives it to everybody. Like, it happens. And again... That was disingenuous. I shouldn't have been mean to that person because the reason they come into the office is because of the whole shallow work, and we have to be seen to be productive. You know, it's so ingrained in us that if we're not there bum in seat then we're not getting anything done, we're not being productive. In fact, you don't even need to have an open plan office. If you're working in an office that's got one other person in it, your chance of taking a sick day increases by 50%. You know, we are filthy, dirty people, and we spread our diseases really quickly. Queens University of Technology, Institute of Health, and Biomedical Innovation, did a test where they find that people in open plan offices had 90% higher levels of stress. They had higher levels of conflict, and they had higher blood pressure. Like this is not even affecting just our mental health. This is actually affecting our physical health, is working in open plan offices. In fact, we don't even need to be in an open plan office. Cornell University did a study where they just played the noise of an open plan office to people for three hours. They didn't actually make them work in the office themselves, they just played the background noise that they would hear from a regular open plan office. And their levels of adrenaline spiked. That's your fight or flight response. And not only did they notice that they obviously were feeling a lot more stressed with just the noise going on, but 50% of the people studied didn't make any ergonomic adjustments to their workplace. So they were so distracted just by the noise, they didn't even realize that they were uncomfortable in the way that they were sitting. You know, this is a huge impact. And it's not something that this is like new studies. Like, we've known about open plan offices, and we've used open plan offices for a while.
This is one from 1896. This is the counting room in Cambridge.
1900, the long room in Wellington.
1902, this is architecture and tier design firm. 1939, this is probably actually the only open plan office
where I would enjoy working. This is Frank Lloyd Wright's cathedral of work. This is probably the pinnacle of open plan offices. It's designed to look like a forest canopy, you know, with lots of natural light coming through it. Each of the tables, or each of the desks that we see there, were individually designed to maximize the space but while still allowing kind of free movement between departments. If you're deciding for your business that you're actually gonna go co-located and you're gonna have an open plan office, this is what you need to be aiming for. If you can't manage to do this, then just don't. You know, because we get lots of these copies,
and normally when you make a copy of something, it's just not gonna turn out anywhere near as good. 1968, Henry Miller came along with the Action Office.
Well, he likes to say he came along with the Action Office. He actually stole it from a German firm
where they called it organic offices. And action offices are this concept that you can take kind of modular furniture and you change the office based upon what you need at that time. So you can create different pods that people work in, or you can create little breakout areas, or you can chop and change it. I would say that most people
have worked in an office that looks like this. You know, they all come out of the same IKEA catalog.
They're pretty much like cookie cutter. And they're better than what we had before. You know, they're not quite cubicle farms, but they still have a little bit of privacy. But still, there's issues there with privacy. There's issues there with noise. There's issues there with distractions, et cetera. And even companies like where I work, like for Nexmo,
we recently did a redesign of our office. It is beautiful.
You know, we've got these lovely, like, areas where people can sit and watch films or meetups,
and we've got little cubby holes for people to get away if they do need some quiet time. You know, even areas that should be noisy,
like whenever we're doing our standups in Scrum, we've got noise canceling curtains and stuff. And then they plunk all the engineer desks
down in neat little rows. You know, it's even companies who are trying to do it really, really well, they're gonna make some mistakes. That's why this is actually my favorite desk.
It's because I have full control here. If it's too hot, I can open a window. If it's too cold, I can turn on the heating. Okay, so I don't get like foosball tournaments.
I don't have like a fridge full of Sprite and stuff. But I do have full control of what's there.
I have a second laptop that all it's doing is showing Arrow, the TV series. You know, the ADHD part of my brain is sometimes like a small child. It's just like, you know, got to ask me constant questions, looking for input while I'm trying to get my work done. So like any good parent I just turn on Netflix, and plunk it down in front of it, and ignore it. These trashy TV shows are just the right level of stimulus without actually being distracting. I've gone through the entire Marvel Universe doing this. It's fantastic. But yeah, the whole point is, I've got control. If I want to dance about
in my zombie freaking slippers I can. This is all stuff I can't do in an open plan office. Well, I could, but probably once.
But here I control that environment. It makes such a difference. Okay, zombie slippers aside. Things like being able to control the temperature, being able to control the light, being able to, you know, to take a break and not feel guilty about it whenever you need to. So if you want to go play some Xbox, or watch some TV, or whatever. All these minor adjustments are things that will distract you and will prevent you from hitting flow. It may seem like a very, very small thing to be able to ensure that your temperature is set just the way that you want, but if anybody has ever tried to work in an environment where it's too hot or too cold, it's incredibly distracting. You need to remove all this external stimulus that is potential to distract you from what you actually want to do. The second thing then is routine.
So, once we get our area setup the way we want it, we're removing all our barriers to getting into flow, the next thing then is routine, is training your brain that this is work time now, this is when I should be getting into flow, this is when I should be concentrating. For me this is kind of my optimum.
So, I get up early. I said that's when I can concentrate the best, so I get some work done. To like 8:00 and 10:00 is when kind of the rest of the world is now going to work and stuff and it starts to get noisier. After 10:00 to 3:00 then I'm back at work again, you know, I'm concentrating as well as I can. And then by 3:00 o'clock, I'm pretty much done. I'm out of spoons. I don't have any concentration left, so I don't force it. That's the time I go, okay, I now recognize that this is the best times for me to work so this is the times that I should be working. Let's not try and force it into different time slots. And I've go like usual, kind of gym and stuff like that. And part of trying to build this routine up is because, as I said, you got that whole dopamine thing,
and the you rock.
And beside that, you've got to really be very strict about your routine yourself. If you don't have the ability to... If you don't have the chemical kick from your brain to help you build these routines, then it's something you're gonna have to be pretty strict on doing it manually. For me, unfortunately, it's a little more difficult.
This is all the travel I could remember from this year so far. So trying to keep this kind of schedule
tends to be a bit problematic, but you do what you can. Okay, so all this really kind of points to you being able to control your environment, control when you work as well. So most people are gonna go, well, my manager is not gonna let me do that, you know? They're gonna want me in the office between 9:00 and 5:00, like sat in front of a desk. Because that's obviously what a manager's job is.
They're just a glorified clock in clock, obviously.
But it's not. Like, a manager's job is this quote.
It isn't about walking around and seeing if people are in the offices. It's about creating conditions for people to do their best work. Any good managers I've worked with, that's really what they've seen their position to be. It's not about, like, making sure I'm actually doing my work. I'm an adult, I should be doing that myself. It's about ensuring that I have the opportunity to do the best work possible I can. And sometimes that is really easy to do that. You know, equipment. You see all these job ads for technical roles and it's like, you'll get the latest MacBook. That's like hiring a fireman and going, you'll get some hoses. (laughter) It's a basic requirement for the job. Why is this a selling point for somewhere? And it wouldn't be a selling point unless some companies were actually nickel and diming on it and weren't paying for the best equipment. We spend so much money hiring good people and then we put barriers up to their success because we don't want to pay 300 for a monitor? Come on, seriously. But then it can be managing up as well. So, I worked for a company once. It was a product based company. And the CEO there used to, like, phone the developers directly with product requests. You know, he would skip the entirety of the product development lifecycle and just phone the developer and go, hey, I want the change to this page in this way. So, it was impossible to manage that situation because now, suddenly all of our burn down charts meant nothing because people were getting pulled out to work on stuff that weren't within that sprint. You know, we might as well not have had ticketing. We might as well not have had our entire QA process because suddenly everything is run out of whack because a page has just changed on somebody's whim. In that situation you try to manage up. You speak to the CEO, you explain the situation to them, and nine times out of 10, it doesn't change, because they're the CEO, it's their company. You know, that's their developers sitting in those seats. If they want to speak to them they will. And that's a very difficult situation to deal with. So what I did is I spoke to the developers, and I asked them, so, the telephones on your desk. I was like, do you phone other departments? They're like, no, we get up and walk down the stairs. You know, it's a small company. Okay, so do your partners or your significant others phone you at work on them? No, everybody has cellular phones. Like, why would they call the company landline and get passed through? It's like, okay, so you don't phone other departments. You don't use them for private calls. Is there anything you do use your desk phones for? And like, well yeah, sometimes the CEO phones me up, and he makes demands upon my time. I was like, okay. So I got a big ass box, and I walked through on every developers desk, and I unplugged the phone, I put it in the box, and I sent that box outside of the facilities. You know, they were a distraction. They were of no benefit at all to any of the developers there. The only thing that they were causing them was additional stress, and ruined their productivity. So, I removed that distraction. And sometimes it's just thinking about that and thinking of different ways that you can overcome obstacles. It may not be completely obvious to begin with that it helps you with flow as well. Okay, so we've got everybody now
scattered all over the world. How do we communicate? Because communication is key for any kind of development, and any kind of software development or engineering.
I sent a test message today and I'm so glad I hit Edit message and not Send it now because we're a fully distributed team, and I'm sure there'd be people in different timezones that would not have been very pleased with me if I had woken them up just to get a screenshot for this slide. We use Slack an awful lot for communication. And weirdly, we use Slack, but we use it for asynchronous conversations a lot of the time, not synchronous. And that is one of the big adjustments you'll need to have if you are going to let people work from wherever they want to work and whenever they want to work, is you're not going to be able to get in touch with everybody as soon as you want to get in touch with them. And to be honest, that's a good thing. If we get into the habit of just being able to interrupt anybody anytime that we want, you know, that's actually detrimental to their flow. Just because we need that answer right now does not mean we should be able to interrupt them in whatever they're doing. So moving to this asynchronous kind of conversation or conversation flow actually helps a lot. And we have lots of rooms, with very,
obviously serious business talks going on about like, mac and cheese and stuff. Yeah, mac and cheese is serious business apparently, and Amanda will fight you if you don't agree. We also have some tools installed there.
Like we have geekbot that allows us to do kind of our daily standups in chat and things. It's fairly useful. Apart from it's really patronizing. It's like, yes, you've got crippling self doubt, and it's like, great, have a nice day! Yeah, but it does, it helps.
Everybody is updated about what people are doing. We don't need to be phoning them up all the time and finding the status on things. We use it as our watercooler as well. We keep up to date. Because we are a remote team, and we don't see each other often, mostly just these kind of conferences. So it is kind of nice to be able to keep updated what people are getting up to. And then for projects we use channels.
You know, we use a lot of different channels. And they're really useful because it means then that all the conversation is kept in one place. And you don't need to be a member of all the channels all the time. You can just dip in and out as you need them. So if you suddenly get added to different projects, you can load up that channel and you can get caught up on what's being discussed. I have quite a few different ones in there.
I have some that are just muted as well. As you can see, I don't read all of them all the time. But it's a really handy way to communicate between the teams. All right, so the last thing I'm gonna talk about then
is kind of planning. So all this stuff is like best case scenario. So, you're controlling when you work, you're controlling where you work, you're controlling how you work. And that's gonna be fine 90% of the time but then what about during crunch? You've all heard of crunch, that period of time before some big release, or there's some deadline looming or something, and suddenly it's like all hands on deck, we need to get this done right now. And during that period of crunch, can we just turn that creativity faucet on? I just want to mention one thing.
People have been following this whole thing about Red Dead Redemption 2 where they work 100 hour weeks.
100 hour weeks, like...
How can anybody think that is in any way at all,
like, reasonable to have someone working 100 hour weeks?
It's just not sustainable. They did post like a press release today where they got somebody saying it was only for three weeks.
Like, oh yeah, three weeks, that's so much better. And apparently as well, it was optional.
Mhm, yeah, totally optional, I'm sure it was, uh huh. And the problem is, like...
So this is how productive you are during a regular 40 hour work week. And it is temping to go, okay, we're gonna hit crunch time, so we'll increase it to 60 hours. Because you are gonna be more productive. So here is like the equivalence. It does fall off over time as you get more fatigued, then your productivity does go down. But for those first kind of, what, four and a bit weeks, you are more productive. But what we don't normally see whenever we see these kind of graphs is the fact that yes, you are more productive, but your error rate goes up as well. So I did a lot of research in a couple different industries looking at different industries where they have studies on essentially error rates. So the two that were obviously, had the most information available, was the military, and medical. Two industries where... Awesome, no speaker notes. This is gonna be fun. (chuckles) Can I just change this? Perfect, thank you. Sorry, lost my timings and everything there. Panic attack! So two industries where there's a lot of research into error rates, medical and military. Because obviously in both of those industries, you know, if you're starting to make mistakes, then people are going to die. The wrong people in the case of the military. And they looked at, like, junior doctors. 57% of junior doctors have had or have nearly had some form of accident on the way home from their shift. After an 18 hour shift, their fatigue level is equivalent to a drunk driver. You know, it's incredible the impact that just a small amount of fatigue can have on our mental capabilities. So that's our regular kind of error rate. So let's adjust it then for what they saw
people started to get fatigued. So this is what your error rate would actually then become. So we can see that, you know, you have this huge spike after you've been running crunch time for a few weeks, and then it starts to fall off. And the only reason it's actually falling off there is because you're actually writing less code. You're less productive, so you're writing less code, so you've got less errors. Your error rate is still way above what it would be before. So let's adjust our actual productivity. So let's say each error takes us a couple of hours to rectify. So now we've adjusted the line down a little bit. Let's be honest, if we're creating errors we're also creating technical debt, so let's knock off a few percentage points from our productivity for that as well. If you're working in the kind of company where they're gonna make you run crunch for a few weeks, then they're probably not gonna care if you don't write tests either, so tests are gonna go, let's be honest, they're the first thing out of the door. If you're not writing tests, then you're not writing docs either. You know, so suddenly that four or five weeks of additional productivity you had is suddenly down to a week. Awesome, so we run a week of crunch, and we take a week off, and we run a week of crunch, and we take a week. No. They discovered in the computer games industry, because who would have thought they run crunch a lot there, the computer games industry, apparently every employee needed two to three weeks recovery time after any period of crunch time. So if you do a week of crunch then you're gonna be less productive for a fortnight to three weeks afterwards. So you need to really, really be sure that that's gonna be a major benefit to getting something released.
And again, you're probably not gonna be able to produce your best work anyways because creativity is not a faucet,
you've only got so much spoons, et cetera, et cetera. So the last thing you might do then is throw more people at it. This is a pretty common thing that they think we can do if you need to increase productivity, is just increase the number of people. We can't work one person into the floor so let's work 10 instead. But what actually happens is something like this graph is what they normally say it looks like. So you add a bunch of people, productivity decreases as you have to onboard those new people, get them up to speed, and then once they're onboarded, productivity goes back up again. What it actually tends to look like, especially if you're adding people during crunch, is a bit more like that. So you start off, and then okay, you're running a little bit behind so everybody is kind of a bit neutral. So you add a bunch of new people, but everyone was already stressed because it's crunch time, so they didn't really have time to onboard these new people anyway. So productivity takes a lot longer to start to recover. It starts to recover a little bit. Your project managers decide it's not recovering fast enough, and obviously it worked so well last time, let's add a bunch more new people. So now you have people who were never fully onboarded from the last time you added new people trying to onboard even more new people, so productivity just goes way, way down. It starts to recover a little bit again. Everybody is incredibly unhappy at this point too because they're all stressed, and we're probably writing ridiculous code that's incredibly ugly because nobody really knows what's going on because we've added so many new people that we don't have enough people to train anybody. And about kind of week 10, 11, there will be somebody on the team, probably somebody who has been there from the start, he'll just get so freaking fed up that there will be this major heroic effort to try to get everything finished. And what's actually probably gonna happen, if you're really unlucky, they'll also do a partial rewrite, and I've been in that situation before. Like, you know what, you know what this project that is running way, way behind needs? It needs us to start over! (laughter) And that person is gonna burn out straight away, and they're gonna get all sick or something. Your productivity is just gonna completely hit rock bottom because now you've also got to deal with their partial rewrite that they just left at their backside whenever they went off, like burnout. And you might start to recover in a couple weeks time, but really, your project is now on that slow, slow decline to death where it's just gonna be quietly killed off because it's ran way over time, way over budget. So there really isn't any kind
of shortcut apart from planning. That's kind of like the end of my slides. I just want to reiterate a couple little things. You know, remember, try to figure out what success is for you. It makes things so much easier, actually, if you're working on something that you enjoy, to get into that flow state, so figure out what you regard as success and try to work towards that. Find a company that will allow you
to work towards that success, where you have team members that support you, that buy you squirrel t-shirts to give an ADHD talk in. Look after your spoons.
And even if your brain doesn't tell you often enough that you rock, I think you do.
So, I'm Aaron Bassett. That's my Twitter handle. Our company Twitter handle is there as well. I don't think I'm gonna have enough time for questions, unfortunately. I also know it can be a little bit awkward for people to ask questions anyway in a public forum about what is essentially a mental health talk. I am however gonna be about for the rest of the conference. So, we're gonna be in a booth out there. Please come ask me any questions you want. If you want to go somewhere private to ask me any mental health questions, I'm more than happy to get a coffee or a beer. If it's right after this talk, preferably a beer. I much prefer writing technical talks. Like, these things are really difficult to get. Or hit me up, my DMs are open, so if you'd rather not do it face to face and just want to send me a DM, I'm more than happy to answer questions that way as well. So yeah, I've been Aaron Bassett. This has been my slightly disjointed talk about ADHD. Thank you very much. (applause)