To receive the Sideways Looks newsletter every week, subscribe using the box in the top left corner 🢅
Welcome to the second Sideways Looks newsletter. This week, thoughts on having a much emptier inbox; recommendations about good businesses & meetings; and a fun fact about German law.
You can find last week’s Sideways Look about making change, and also bears, here. Next week I’m planning to write more about good meetings. Thanks for subscribing, and please do pass on to anyone you think may be interested.
Thought for the Week: Where are my emails??
I don’t like default phone sounds. That’s not a hipster thing, an opposition to default-ism. I just associate them with annoying distractions in cafes, trains, or even (the horror) theatres. Before I went freelance, I treated myself to a new phone*. Naturally, I changed the notification sound. I found one – a deep shwob sound, a bit like a starship door opening – which I liked, and didn’t think any more about it.
One of my favourite books is Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams about attention in the digital age (it’s free, and short). I like it because it doesn’t make grand – and I think questionable – claims about social media ruining society/democracy/humanity. Instead it focuses on a simple point: these technologies are designed to give us what we want in the short term, but distract from what we really want in the long term. Enough minutes of dopamine-fueled scrolling adds up to not learning that language, or volunteering, or reading the book which changes your life, or whatever.
It’s a book that made me question my personality. I love multitasking. I love days that are full of meetings, and emails on loads of different topics. The civil service was good in that respect (especially a 'Rapid Response Unit' in No.10 Downing Street). ‘Spinning lots of plates’, as the phrase goes.
Going freelance has meant handing back 90% of those plates. I get fewer emails in a day than I used to in an hour. I’m doing fascinating work with the Centre for Analysis of Social Media, and various calls with interesting contacts, so the meeting itch is scratched slightly. But there’s a big void in my brain that used to be filled with demands.
So now I’m an experimental subject for James Williams’ book. If my attention isn’t being taken with things other people want me to do, can I turn it to things I really want to do?
Early signs aren’t good. As very rough experimental data, years ago I used speed reader tools a lot – but now I find myself struggling more than I used to. Maybe the civil service has permanently fried my attention. Also, new freelancing comes with a lot of its own distractions. When you open this newsletter (thank you!) or go on my website, a counter goes up. And I check that counter a lot. In the long term that will build up useful info for me, but at present it’s just dopamine hits.
But I’m learning. I’ve been using the Pomodoro technique, to focus my attention in manageable bursts. I’m using the group tabs function on my browser to hide websites that want to grab my attention. I’m starting to notice when I check my email inbox when I know I've had no new emails (that’s the positive side of notifications – you also know when nothing has happened).
So I’ve realised why I like my new phone noise. It’s not an excitable ping; it’s a subtle shwob. It’s calmly letting me know something’s happening. It’s not a terrier barking for my attention; it’s an old St Bernard bringing me my post.
But maybe when you’re comparing your phone sounds to varieties of dog, you know you need something else to focus on.
* For those interested in such things, my new phone is a Fairphone 3+. They’re ethical & sustainable; the cleverest part is they can be easily taken apart, so if a bit breaks you just replace that bit and thereby hopefully keep the same phone for longer. Also means it comes with its own teeny tiny screwdriver.
Fun Fact about: German data protection law
Hear me out on this one. In my old 'data adequacy' role I reviewed a lot of different European data protection laws. Germany is by far the most complex – each of the 16 regions (or Länder) has their own law, plus there’s a country-wide one called the Bundesdatenschutzgesetz (thankfully shortened to BDSG). Each of them is based on the GDPR, itself a pretty hefty document. So that was heavy going.
But there’s an easter egg right at the very end of the BDSG. The final article of the law basically says - if I've understood it correctly - that if you’re going to give someone a big government award, following the law would mean you’d have to contact the recipient in advance, giving the game away; so you can ignore some bits of the law to make sure you don’t spoil their surprise. Which is probably the cutest bit of data protection law – heck, any law – I’ve ever encountered.
As a postscript – the UK has something very similar. But it’s buried in paragraph 15, Part 2, Schedule 2 to the Data Protection Act 2018. It isn’t the very last article, a nice reward when you’ve finally reached the end of the law. The UK missed a trick there.
Today I took a virtual trip to Helsinki for a conference run by Systems Change Finland. Will give more recommendations once I have digested. But for now I enjoyed learning the Principles of Open Space for running events, and the difference between the roles for ‘Bumblebees’ and ‘Butterflies’ (short version here, longer version here). Wish I’d learned these for earlier, particular for Zoom meeting world. Thinking of making ‘good meetings’ the theme of next week’s letter.
In Search of Excellence is a book about high-performing companies written in 1982. Apparently it’s been influential and also (/ therefore) criticised; there’s also quite an amusing bit where they claim the term “word processor” will never take off and we’ll all be saying “No Problem Typewriter” instead. But I was struck by how a lot of stuff in this book from 1982 – particularly around the importance of soft skills, values, and respect – feels similar to the ‘new approaches’ Millennials are supposed to be driving in workplaces nowadays. Makes me wonder what happened in the 1990s. I also found it a good example of ‘messy research writing’, which foregrounds rather than smoothes over the idiosyncracy and ad-hoc-ness of the real world.