Taking it One Unitask at a Time

So while I write this blog post I’m also drinking a coffee, checking Twitter, replying to a text message and printing out some documents…

Anyway yesterday while eating my lunch and sunbathing in the garden I read an interesting article in Saturday’s Guardian magazine (OK I’m a bit behind with my reading) on unitasking. The article was an edited extract from AJ Jacobs book entitled My Experimental Life. He spends a month cutting out multitasking to see if it improves his concentration.

Quite a bit of data is now piling up that suggests that multitasking not only reduces our ability to concentrate (the Google is making us stupid train of thought) but is also dangerous (accidents caused by distractions at the wheel).

While being distracted all the time at work isn’t going to cause me to kill anyone I do personally feel that I’ve suffered recently from too much going on at the same time.

Multitasking makes us feel efficient, but it actually slows down our thinking. Our brains can’t handle more than one higher cognitive function at a time. We may think we’re multitasking, but in fact we’re switchtasking, toggling between one task and another. The phone, the email, the phone, back to the email. And each time you switch, there’s a few milliseconds of start-up cost. The neurons need time to rev up.

I’ve written in the past about the need to take time away from your PC, have a coffee break, manage your time effectively and take some alone time. Taking time out to work on a task is really important. Last Friday I turned the PC off for the whole day, took my felt tips outside and created lots of mind maps for a new project I’m working on.

Having everything turned off really worked. I actually got a lot more done.

Peter Bregman talks about the six things he discovered while unitasking:

  • First, it was delightful. (He noticed amazing things he wouldn’t normally notice.)
  • Second, I made significant progress on challenging projects.
  • Third, my stress dropped dramatically.
  • Fourth, I lost all patience for things I felt were not a good use of my time.
  • Fifth, I had tremendous patience for things I felt were useful and enjoyable.
  • Sixth, there was no downside.

I don’t think I’ll be able to stop multi-tasking. I have 3 young children so I need to able to switch my concentration in a matter of moments.

I can remember a few years back I was at a Christening party. It was the height of summer and we were drinking in the garden. I was chatting to someone and 1) caught a knocked over wine glass in one hand and 2) a toddler who had gone flying in the other whilst 3) finishing my sentence. My conversation partner seemed fairly impressed at my skill, I’m sure most Mums would be just as quick.

I need to be able to concentrate in parallel on several things and now unfortunately doing one job at a time feels like I’m being lazy. Yet I can see it isn’t always the most productive way to work.

So if I don’t answer your email or reply to your message then maybe I’m unitasking, and that takes real concentration!


Remote Worker Awards 2010

Last year I entered the Remote Employment Remote Worker awards and was lucky enough to win the accolade of Remote Worker of the year. The time has come for this year’s call for entries, I won’t be entering again but really recommend other people do. There are 10 award categories and they will appeal to a wide audience across the country, both from the commercial and public sector. They include:

The Microsoft Remote Worker Award

The Microsoft Remote Worker Award is for employees whose employers promote flexible working solutions with home working options or remote working.
The Arise Be Your Own Boss Award
Not one, but several entrants will be given the opportunity to work from home.
Lucent Vision New Internet Business Award
This Award Category, worth £1,500, is open to anyone who is NOT in business and wants to start up a new internet business.
Helen O’ Grady Special Award
Entrants NOT currently working from home who want to use their teaching and drama skills to work interactively with children could win a £15k home based franchise from Helen O’ Grady! Read more details about The Helen O’ Grady Special Award.
The BT Home Business Award
The BT Home Business Award Category is open to anyone running a home business, large or small, who can demonstrate how they promote flexible working solutions with home working options or remote working.
The Babyworld Parentpreneur Award
The Babyworld Parentpreneur Award is open to businesses, large or small, who can show the most successful business and family combination.
The OfficePOD Award
The OfficePOD Award is for employees and employers who want to change the way they work and be involved with the next workplace generation.
BlackBerry Remote Employer Award
The BlackBerry Remote Employer Award is for employers and companies that promote flexible working solutions with home working options or remote working. Also open to companies planning to implement a remote workforce.

A full list of the other award categories and details on how to enter can be found at http://www.remoteworkerawards.com/.

Remote Worker in association with BT will be shortlisting for semi-finalists during the awards, with finalists being announced at the end of July soon after the entries close. Due to popular demand, they are now offering an individual critique service for entries to any Award Category. They aim to deliver a fair and constructive assessment of your entry application that will help you improve your chances of being shortlisted.

Why not give it a go?!

Reaching out to Remote Workers at Bath Uni

As part of their staff development quota Bath University Computing service (BUCS) provide a series of Internal Lectures. I was invited along yesterday by Dave Cunningham to give a talk on remote working. They are a technical bunch so this was a bit of daunting prospect! I made sure I started off with a disclaimer about being a user rather than a support person! Anyway my talk seemed to spark off a fair amount of discussion and there were lots of encouraging noises about remote working. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the University of Bath making moves in this direction in the near future.

As an aside I have heard unconfirmed rumours that investigation is being carried out into locating a wind turbine up at the Uni (seems to me to be a good place for one, the University is located up a very big hill and has it’s own windy climate!) This would be a progressive way to provide renewable energy for general electricity use and its data centres. It would be great if the University could add encouraging remote workers to it’s green efforts. My talk was actually given in the video conferencing suite, another area that I really hope they do more with in the near future.

Anyway here are my slides (on slideshare) for those interested. They are embedded below if your browser supports this.

The abstract was..

Working away from your office can often be a daunting and isolating
experience, but it needn’t be. Today there are a huge amount of tools
that can support you, and one of them is your IT services team! This
session will look at the communication challenges and opportunities
remote working and virtual teams pose for both the employee and those supporting them.

… the talk will appeal to remote workers, those supporting remote workers, those who occasionally work from home or are thinking about it, those working in virtual teams and anyone interested in Web 2.0 and communication technologies.

Using JVCS for Live Helpdesk

Zak Mensah works as an e-Learning Officer at JISC Digital Media, a JISC Advance service, which provides advice, guidance and training to the UK’s Further and Higher Education community. Zak’s role is to advise and support HE and FE the on the subject of digital media for teaching and learning. He writes advice documents, speaks at events and runs workshops on a wide range of digital media topics. Zak can be contacted on zak.mensah@bristol.ac.uk or followed on Twitter (zakmensah).

At this year’s JISC conference the JISC Digital Media had a go at using the JANET Video Conferencing Service as part of an informal helpdesk session. I was one of the question askers and thought the set up was a clever idea and worked really well. Here Zak tells us more about the processes involved and the lessons learnt.


One of JISC Digital Media’s core service provisions is to provide a free helpdesk service for the community. The purpose of the service is to answer any questions around creating, managing and using digital media. So for this year’s annual JISC conference, held in London, our team decided to provide a live helpdesk session for any interested delegates.

The JISC Digital Media team inside an Apple Macbook laptop

Instead of being an invisible bunch of people behind a website we thought it was a nice opportunity to show delegates the team who actually answer most of the questions. We decided to approach this idea with the use of a live video session. For this type of activity we initially considered Skype as an obvious choice. However with a new idea of running the live helpdesk, we thought we may as well try a new (for us) video service and so decided to use the JANET Video Conferencing Service (JVCS).

Anybody who wants to use new technology knows to test ahead of any such event where the technology is critical to the success of the session. Our success criteria would be that the service needs to be reliably available when we needed it and that it could handle the video stream across the networks we’d be using – always a concern when using a web service, especially video. We setup a test meeting with the helpful folks at JANET and were very happy with the service.

Now here it is worth noting one mistake we made, its slightly technical so feel free to skip this paragraph if you don’t use Apple computers. We use a Apple Macbook laptop for external events. The JVCS software is Microsoft Windows only, which makes sense, as Apple computers are few and far between in the community. No problem, Windows can be installed on the Apple laptop and problem solved right? Not quite so. There was some issues with the type of install we used and so the Apple operating system had to be completely removed…. effectively making it a Windows laptop.

The downside of this, which we didn’t realise until we were at the conference venue, ready for our practice run-through, was that we couldn’t use the supplied large screen TV, as the cable connectors did not function in the Microsoft Windows environment. So in hindsight, borrowing a Windows laptop would have saved this from happening.

For the live sessions, the JVCS service worked well and a range of topics were asked by conference participants, and answered, by the team members back in Bristol, before each other’s very eye’s. If you need to do live video conferencing or a similar session to ours, then the JVCS service should be considered.

The use of live video is a great opportunity providing benefits to the community, save on mass transport costs at events and provide a friendly face to your service.
I cannot stress enough just how valuable a service such as JVCS is.
For now, we are back to our regular free helpdesk service.

Eduserv Symposium: The Mobile University

Last week I went along to the Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University at the Royal College of Physicians, London.

The day looked at the increasingly important role mobile technology will play in the delivery of UK higher education in the future. There were a number of really interesting plenaries and things going on. Here are some of the highlights for me.

Mobile, Mobile, Mobile

Paul Golding presenting

Paul Golding, CEO and Lead Innovation Architect at Wireless Wanders and self-proclaimed ‘mobilist’, gave the opening plenary entitled Mobile, Mobile, Mobile. He had a lot of really interesting statistics on the recent ubiquitousness of mobiles. For example there are 1.2 billion mobiles sold annually and in 59 countries there are more mobiles than people. Although mobile has been around for a while the recent surge in use (Mobile 2.0) is being driven by more data-friendly tariffs, increased device usability (smartphones and the like), faster networks like 3G+ and greater user participation. Three recent trends – cloud computing, social computing and the real time Web have all contributed as tipping points. One area that Paul touched on that I’ve mentioned on this blog in the past is augmented reality. He suggested Google Goggles, Junaio and Wikitude as places to start. I found Paul’s ideas about the transformative nature of technology really interesting, Neil Postman has much to say in this area. Paul’s big question to us was how can UK institutions lead in this space?

The role of a University Computing Service in an increasingly mobile world. Or: “We don’t support that…”

Christine Sexton, Director of Corporate Information and Computing Services at the University of Sheffield, gave a great talk on the implications for universities and their Computing Services of an increasingly mobile, 24/7, always-on world. Chris explained how in recent times IT services have been left in a bit of a pickle. They no longer own all the hardware or software, they can rarely control access and their equipment goes anywhere and everywhere. Even buildings built less than 3 years ago (the information Commons in Sheffield) can no longer cope with wireless needs. Her team’s approach has been to look at different support models: a control model (where the institution controls the devices and apps and they offer full support), a choice model (which takes into account user satisfaction and user choice but fewer services can be supported), an innovation model (which empowers the users to innovate but offers little direct support) and a hands-off model (take as little responsibility as possible, security and control are zero, apps and service might work – they might not). The result is a type of ‘managed diversity’. Her feeling was that when one asks can we afford to support mobile, the question should actually be can we afford not to? At Sheffield they have brought out a web app called Campus M. Christine has blogged on the symposium and her talk.

Christine will be the opening speaker at the Institutional Web Management Workshop I organise. Bookings are now open and we have quite a lot of sessions on the mobile Web.

QR Code Readers

As an experiment Mike Ellis of Edsurv gave us all QR Code badges. This meant that using a QR code reader we could scan the badge of any one we spoke to and would be emailed with their contact details. Almost like a virtual business card. What a great idea. An outline of the demo and some analysis is available.

Lightening talks

This year the Eduserv team tried something new and had a series of lightening talks relating to the mobile university. The talks were 6 minutes each and required speakers to express one point really clearly and then move on. I felt the talks worked really well. Speakers stuck to timings and there was no worry over talks being of little relevance to you as they were there for a moment and then gone. The speakers (Nick Skelton, University of Bristol, Wayne Barry, Canterbury Christ Church University, Simon Marsden, University of Edinburgh and Tim Fernando, University of Oxford) touched on a number of interesting subjects: a manifesto for mobile IT (don’t think technologies, think data), iBorrow (a laptop borrowing service), a student survey on required mobile content (they actually want quite mundane stuff) and project Erewhon and Molly, two open source, non-device specific projects looking at geolocation.

Remote Audiences

Last year I wrote a post on Amplified Conferences: Are We There Yet? which praised the high quality of amplification of the Eduserv Symposium 2009. This year I was actually there so didn’t get to experience it as a remote attendee. They had a few teething problems with their streaming but all the comments on Twitter suggested that once again the quality was great. The videos of talks will soon be available online.

Other Talks

The other talks given during the day were: Andy Ramsden, Head of e-Learning at the University of Bath, on to what extent will learning and teaching change in a mobile university? Tom Hume, Managing Director at Future Platforms looking at four ‘case study’ mobile projects and John Traxler, Professor of Mobile Learning and Director of Learning Lab at the University of Wolverhampton, on Mobile and connected – the challenges and implications. All were really interesting but time prevents me from writing about them in any detail. Tom’s talk was in some places pretty philosophical and left me with a lot to digest. It gave me my favourite photo of the day (a leopard skin coloured taser – we put the ‘cute’ in electrocute!) and my favourite sound bite (“mobile devices diluting the here and now“). All the slides are now online.

Art at the Royal College of Physicians

Drinks, Food and People

I didn’t like the quails eggs but the cakes and biscuits were great. It’s always a big bonus being able to meet the people that you follow and admire (through Twitter) in the flesh. I declined the offer of a visit to a real ale pub over the road and thoroughly enjoyed the drinks reception in the Royal College of Physicians’ garden instead.

To Sum Up

So are mobiles now such an integrated part of us that they are almost like the daemons from Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials Series? I’m not convinced that this is the case everywhere but they are increasingly becoming an integral part of mine, and I often feel like a troglodyte in comparison to many of my peers. Paul Golding told us that the peak time for Web browsing on mobiles was not commuter time (as one might expect) but 10/11pm at night. Mobile Web surfing is becoming the new reading in bed. I can really relate to this. Over the election period I found myself watching BBC news, on Facebook and tweeting away using a mobile device when really I should have been fast asleep. The people I chat are my virtual community. Who needs an election party, I had one in the comfort of my own home! The blurring of what is virtual and what is real is where we are now, and mobile technologies are the catalyst that will make us forget that the world was ever any different. But as Neil Postman explains “Technology giveth and technology taketh away“, there is always a trade off and in HE we need to be well informed of what this new world will mean to us.

You can see a sum up of Twitter usage on Summarizr.

Top Tips for a Successful Virtual Meeting

I met Clare Aitken (@LibClare) at the Cambridge Cultural Heritage Web 2.0 workshop I ran earlier this year. Clare is an information specialist working for a global Fortune 500 company. She runs one of the company’s research libraries, based in Cambridge, UK, as well as contributing to a small multinational team offering virtual library services to their 70,000 employees of 140 nationalities in 80 countries.

Last Week Clare attended a virtual meeting and has jotted down her thoughts and advice for us.

I attended a two-day meeting as a remote participant last week. In a different time-zone to my own. That sounds like the definition of hell doesn’t it, but it was a surprisingly positive experience. I tweeted about this a few times during those couple of days and as a consequence Marieke asked me to write this post. I thought it would be a very good opportunity to reflect on the experience as although I have attended quite a few webinars and teleconferences in my role as a librarian in a multi-national company (mostly training sessions from our US vendors), I had not attempted to attend a professional meeting in this way.

The meeting was organised by one of our small specialist vendors, and was hosted in the US. I’d gone to a meeting (face-to-face) they organised a few years ago and found it well worth attending – it was set up as a forum for fellow librarians in the same industry to share experiences and best practice. So I felt it was worth the effort to dial in.

A lot of credit must go to our hosts, who recognised that many potential attendees were not able to travel for budget, time, or other reasons (child care, for example). They signed up with a web conferencing service with the aim of not only hosting this meeting but holding virtual training sessions throughout the year. They took the trouble to arrange a practice meeting a week beforehand so that we all (there were six groups or individuals calling in) could make sure we were comfortable with the technology, the features of this particular system, and the ground rules for the meeting itself.

So, here are six tips for making the most of remote meetings:

  1. Take it seriously
    It’s tempting to feel that as no one is watching you can multi-task throughout; answer emails, make tea, work on that next project. I must admit I tend to do that. But I found in this case, with a small group of participants (the six dialling in and about the same attending in person) it really didn’t work. I found that if I didn’t give a session my whole attention I didn’t get any benefit from it.
  2. Plan, and be prepared to contribute
    In this case a schedule was provided in advance. But your meeting organiser may not have thought to send you a virtual pack so you may have to retrieve documents from various emails and websites ahead of time. Decide which sessions you want to attend, as for any conference. Our organiser helpfully chunked up the teleconference into four different segments over the two days, so we could pick and choose if we wished (I think it’s also related to the charge made by the web conference vendor). As it was a small focused meeting I liked the look of everything so I did attend each session. However the advantage of not being seen can become a drawback, as the host can suddenly decide to ‘go around the table’ and start with you (I’m alphabetically disadvantaged in that way). One thing the organisers could have done was provide a table plan (including the remote participants), as I never quite got the full ‘picture’ of who was in the room. All in the meeting were experienced teleconferencers and mostly remembered to say who they were when they chipped in with a comment, even if they were in the room, but that wasn’t always the case. One session consisted of a round-table where each person gave a short account of their library’s activities in the last year. Each account lasted several minutes and when it came to my turn I felt very conscious that I was broadcasting to a room full of people who may be bored, interested, amazed, or incredulous at what I was saying, and signalling it in outrageous mime-style to each other, but I wasn’t getting any of those cues. Not quite the same as a telephone meeting where all are in the same boat. I know I’m being overly sensitive about this but it’s fun to imagine too!
  3. Make sure you have a decent technical set-up
    I recognise that I’m fortunate to have an excellent IT environment where I can download the conferencing software plugin without resorting to grovelling to IT, I have a good quality telephone headset (which I use all the time, not just for teleconferences – I cannot imagine not having one), and a fast network connection. However I also joined the afternoon sessions from home as it was evening UK time, and the speeds provided by my ISP were fine to carry both the presentations, and the audio, which I then selected to take through my computer. That did lead to my one technical hitch of the two days, where I found that my computer headset wasn’t working correctly and no-one could hear me. I then had to type my responses into the chat box, and then hear the host read them out (which is an odd experience).
  4. Practice beforehand
    As I mentioned above, a familiarity with the software and the conventions from all participants helps a great deal, as it’s just as impolite to be late joining a meeting online as it is in person. I find that setting a calendar reminder at least 10 minutes before a meeting starts helps me to get organised to click-in and dial-in. And making time to get a mug of tea to hand, of course!
  5. Keep to the teleconference conventions
    The big one is to mute your phone. Mine has a big red button that makes it really easy, but it’s sometimes necessary to find the key sequence needed – usually *6 to toggle on and off. The next is to take turns and not interrupt – that’s made much easier with a virtual table plan as I mention above. And don’t shout “helloooo” as soon as you are placed into the teleconference, particularly if you are late, as you may be interrupting the Provost of the University giving 5 minutes of his valuable time with a welcome message (as an unfortunate participant did this time).
  6. Accept that you won’t get as much out of it than going in person
    When you ask someone about the benefits of conferences, they say “it’s all about the networking”. Yes, you do miss out on those chance conversations. But – you will avoid all those travel hassles, sore feet, and being laid low by a hessian bag full of vendor literature that you ditch at the first opportunity. You can use the travel time productively, wear your killer heels (or whatever you want), switch seamlessly between parallel sessions, and there’s still that Twitter back-channel!

I’m not able to attend the SLA annual conference in New Orleans in June, but they are offering a virtual option. That sounds like a real challenge, but after this positive experience I may give it a go!

Election Mayhem 3: Green Issues

Tomorrow (if you haven’t already taken the postal vote option) you’ll hopefully be taking yourself down to your local polling station.

For many it feels like we could be at important a turning point politically. Personally, who to vote for in this election has been the easiest choice so far since I first got to officially mark down my X in 1992. My choice has been made on a number of different fronts: the economy and the current job situation, education and the potential school life my children will have, plans for national security and more.

However for me probably the biggest issue is how the different parties propose to deal with the climate change chaos that we are about to face.

The Ask the Climate Question coalition organised a debate between Ed Miliband, Greg Clark, Simon Hughes and Darren Johnson. The event also featured video blogs from the leaders Brown, Cameron and Clegg available in the Independent.

Last Monday was the election agenda’s ‘Climate Change Day’ and the three main parties published their green’ manifestos:

To sum up:

Liberal Democrats

  • Set target for a zero-carbon UK, but allow 10% of emissions to be offset overseas.
  • Spend £3.1bn in the first year on a green jobs stimulus which will lead to 100,000 jobs.
  • Tax planes, not passengers, to discourage empty flights, and tax short-haul flights more if trains or coaches are available.
  • A road-pricing scheme, making motorists pay for their use, offset by scrapping the vehicle excise duty tax disc.
  • Tax financial transactions and aviation and shipping emissions to help poorer countries moderate and adapt to climate change.
  • Rule out a new generation of nuclear power on the grounds of expense – a “big hole” in electricity generation, says Labour.
  • Scrap the new Infrastructure Planning Commission and return decision-making to local people – risks delays to renewable energy projects.
  • Commit the UK to a target of 40% emissions cut by 2020, breaking step with the EU.
  • Cut rail fares and make Network Rail refund one-third of ticket cost if rail replacement bus services are used.
  • £400 eco cashback scheme for new double glazing, boilers or solar panels.
  • Double woodland by 2005 and policies to “increase tranquillity” in the countryside.
  • Prevent “garden-grabbing” development by designating them as greenfield sites.


  • Introduce an Emissions Performance Standard to set a legal limit on the emissions from power stations.
  • Deliver a 10 per cent cut in central government carbon emissions within 12 months of coming to office.
  • Create four carbon capture and storage equipped power plants;
  • Deliver an offshore electricity grid and establish at least two Marine Energy Parks.
  • Allow communities that host renewable energy projects like wind farms to keep the additional business rates they generate for six years.
  • Provide incentives for smaller-scale energy generation.
  • Putt in place supply guarantees in the gas and electricity markets – ensuring that sufficient electricity generating capacity is maintained and setting an obligation on gas suppliers to ensure that supplies are in place throughout the year.
  • Reform the Climate Change Levy to provide a floor price for carbon, delivering the right climate for investment.
  • Transform electricity networks with ‘smart grid’ and ‘smart meter’ technology.
  • Clear the way for new nuclear power stations – provided they receive no public subsidy.
  • Create a ‘Green Deal’, giving every home up to £6,500 worth of energy improvement measures – paid for out of the savings made on fuel bills.
  • Ensure that every energy bill provides information on how to move to the cheapest tariff offered by their supplier and how their energy usage compares to similar households.
  • Reform the Post Office Card Account to give up to 4 million people access to lower tariffs.


  • Use industrial policy, which has seen wind turbine and electric car makers invest in the UK, to create 400,000 green jobs by 2015.
  • Use “active government” – ie intervention – in markets to deliver a low-carbon energy sector.
  • Up to £5,000 discount for electric cars and 100,000 charging points by 2015.
  • Reduce aviation emissions to 2005 levels by 2050.
  • Ban all recyclable and biodegradable waste from landfill.
  • Back a third runway at Heathrow, but rule out any other new runway until 2015.
  • Back new coal power stations without requiring that all their carbon emissions are captured and stored.
  • £100 extra towards energy bills for those over 75.
  • Prosecution for a car owner if litter is thrown from it, plus seizure of cars used for fly-tipping.
  • Treble the number of secure bicycle parking spaces at railway stations.
  • Ban wild animals in circuses and maintain the fox-hunting ban.

The Reality

The three main parties have much to say on climate issues. I haven’t mentioned other parties in these posts but it seems wrong to not mention the natural party of choice for many environmentalists, the Green Party, who have green policy at the heart of their manifesto.

Who you vote for, whether it be a strategic vote to keep another party out or a heart felt vote, potentially has the power to change the UK. Whatever you do use your vote wisely, but most of all use your vote.