In Search of Time: Productivity Tips in the Age of Tesla

Nearly everyone I talk to wrestles with the same problem: How to make the most of a 24-hour day? Even Elon Musk, modern-day inventor extraordinaire and human force behind Space X, Tesla and The Boring Companyhas been known to agonize over the time it takes to eat a meal. We all know people who through a combination of drive, geneticsor other random mystery variables, seem to accomplish more in a 24hour period than the rest of us. 

Forget about those individuals for a moment. Instead, consider the simplest, most effective tools and methods ordinary mortals like us can use to maximize the standard workday. 

A Simple List Fails No One 

Here’s a trouble-free technique to make sure tasks get done. Make a list. If you don’t, important items slip under the radar or are left to the end of the day inadvertently, and don’t get done at all. A visual list allows you to prioritize and move methodically through it, point by point, checking items off one by one or finally scrubbing out the item with a big, bold, satisfying line. A list with no items checked off is a wake-up call, a slap in the face, a signal to get moving. 

Embrace the Tomato 

The Pomodoro (Italian word for tomato) time-management method was developed in the 1980s by Italian student Francesco Cirillo with the use of a simple, mechanical, tomato-shaped kitchen timerThe technique consists of breaking the day down into increments of 25 minutes. Focus on one task for an uninterrupted 25-minute interval, known as a pomodoro, after which point a 3 to 5-minute break is taken. After four consecutive pomodorosyou are allowed to enjoy a larger break of 30 minutes. Then the process starts again with another block of 4 pomodoros. The low-tech system has gained momentum and followers and is available via a smartphone handy app. 

Don’t Let Mind “Clutter” Hampers your Ability to Concentrate on the Stuff that Matters 

Much of what the mind churns through every second, minute and hour is irrelevant to the present moment and the project at hand. We are easily distracted into worrying about future “crises” that may never materialize or past mistakes we can do nothing about now. Ignore the voice that chatters incessantly and ultimately slows you down. Don’t let trivia and non-essential matters creep into your core work time. Turn it off. 

Avoid Multi-Tasking 

Studies show that multi-tasking not only quietly stuns brain cells, it also slows you down. Typically, people don’t finish anything at all when multi-tasking. Keep it simple: one task for one block of time. 

When Solution Needs to “Stew”, Revisit it Briefly During Off-Hours 

Maybe this point states the obvious, but time spent in the car or folding laundry is not necessarily lost work time. Consider using that time to mentally tackle a work challenge. In ten minutes or less, you can identify the points you want to cover in next week’s PowerPoint presentation or hash out the wording for a business memo. Rehearse your speech for tomorrow’s business lunchUse what would be considered “empty” time (when you tend to contemplate weighty matters like whether Tesla’s new Cybertruck should be offered in a shade of forest green) to focus and mentally work out solutions to projects that are on your plate now. Note that this is not the kind of multi-tasking that is described above and that can cause you to spin your wheels unproductivelyThis is brief and focused use of down time to consider difficult problems. 

Know What You Need to Reenergize 

If you know what you need to reenergize, do it. Stepping away from your desk to stretch, release tension and completely reboot your brain is necessary part of working productively when it countsSlow downregroup, and stay sharp. 

We are not Elon Musk, But We Can Still be Productive 

Do you detect a theme running through all these ideas? Hopefully you do. With a few simple steps you can stream-line and amp up your productivity. Create a simple list and rank these items in order of importance. Choose one task at a time and stay laser-focused for a defined block of time with the Pomodoro method or something similar. Be disciplined about it. If you need more time to crunch out the solution to a problem, tackle it in the car or on your way to the grocery. There you have it… a few simple tools to greater productivity. 

Surviving Covid-19

From astronauts on the ISS (International Space Station) to crew members on submarines, to scientists conducting research on remote islands, people throughout history have survived challenging living arrangements; some have even thrived despite them. The coronavirus pandemic has been referred to as ‘unprecedented’ because pandemics of this scale and scope in modern history have been scarce. But over the course of hundreds of years, in some form or another, by choice or by force, people have experienced some version of self-isolation and sacrifice: access to the usual employment, people, places or routines is suddenly reduced, if not eliminated entirely. At a minimum, the situation mandates resourcefulness, resilience, and a significant restructuring of the day-to-day. For those that are newly unemployed with no income, the situation is more desperate and more will be required to survive. Drawing from the vast reservoir of experience and wisdom out there and with the recognition that each person’s experience with COVID-19 is unique, let us structure a very basic, “applicable to most” COVID-19 survival toolkit.

Respect the Emotional Roller-Coaster

We are dealing with a raw and jarring new reality. Even experts and national leaders with historic composure are suddenly without words. If you find yourself in a panic or acting in ways that are completely atypical of your norm, do not be alarmed. We have witnessed a range of emotions within our own households as quarantine orders kicked in and large-scale changes brought about by the pandemic gained momentum across the globe. Fear over the well-being of loved ones and friends becomes real. You may hit an entirely new level of depression, the likes of which you have never before experienced.

Anxiety and Fear is Normal

Our ‘fight or flight’ reflex has been triggered. Multiple unknowns that range from whether your job will survive the pandemic, to where the world will be in 3 months, to whether your supply of basic essentials will last, loom large. Experts have pointed out that feelings of helplessness may linger well after the threat from COVID-19 has lessened. This, too, is normal. But if you need help now, do not hesitate to seek it out; many sources of assistance can be accessed remotely.

Recognize What You Can Control

The modern philosopher, Eckhart Tolle, is famous for pointing out that we bring unnecessary stress into our lives by dwelling on what we cannot change. Although it is a hard concept to internalize, we actually have no ability to change the future in fundamental ways. We can adjust our lives now to place ourselves in a better position to deal with future situations, but we cannot change major outcomes. Tolle advises us to focus on what we can do at this moment—whether trying to find remote work, tending to a child’s needs or our own—and avoid worrying about the future. Don’t listen to the news (or take it in small doses) if it has the effect of increasing your level of anxiety.

Maintain Physical Exercise

Experts stress the importance of physical exercise for the healthy release of emotional energy. My daughter has built a small obstacle course in her bedroom out of simple furniture and random objects. My son is pushing himself to do more sit-ups every day. A neighbor is playing ping-pong on his dining room table (at least that is what it sounds like). Add some new yoga positions to your daily program. Even submariners, with no access at all to an outdoor space, have managed to find ways to stay fit with little or no exercise equipment. If you are limited to a small space or an apartment, you can still find creative ways to move. This part of the COVID-19 routine is called 101 ways to maximize the use of four walls and a chair.

The Life-Saving Benefits of Structure and a Routine

Routines and structure could not be more important than now. You may not be able to control the global environment, the risk of infection or any other side effect of the pandemic, but you can control what happens in your home. A routine creates structure for daily goals and helps you stay productive and moving forward, all of which is key for your mental well-being.

Shift Thinking from Yourself to Others

If there is one certainty, it is that you can always find someone that is in a worse situation than yourself. So, think about these folks and what they may need. Studies have shown that becoming engaged in work that benefits others has significant benefits for your mental health. Inquire if older, frailer neighbors are in need of assistance. Volunteer to make PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) or help at your local food pantry. Masks will be an important staple for months to come. Bolster the community’s supply by making them.

Find Points of Light in Your Day

Let us take a moment to put this situation in perspective. In most cases, even though our circumstances are far from ideal, we have more space, freedom, and flexibility available to us than many. We may have access to an instrument (or something that can be made into one), a book or two, paper and other material that can be repurposed, a few family members, and our good health, if we’re lucky. Carve out time in your life for the things that bring you (and potentially others) joy. An example of just this kind of resourcefulness can be found within the archives of the International Space Station. Hats off to Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield for his ISS-inspired version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Now that is putting limited space and a can-do spirit to good use!

Mindfulness at Work

technology company can be a beast to run on a day-to-day basis and Highlands is no exception; our tech company wrestles with its share of hassles and urgencies on a daily basis. Looming deadlines, personnel issues, software glitches, or any other set of troublesome, but inevitable business concerns are here to stay. The question is not how to avoid thembecause we can’tbut rather how to address the daily headaches calmly, thoughtfully and with as little unnecessary upheaval as possible. 

We have our corporate “coping mechanisms”: the office protocols, hierarchies of people with specific responsibilities, and SWAT-like teamdesigned to swoop in and fix criseas efficiently as possible. But is there another tool we can use to both improve employee well-being and gain a competitive edge? 

Turns out that GoogleIntelGeneral Mills and many others have implemented their own training programs for a field of study once considered incompatible with the no-nonsense climate of businessGoogle’s “Search Inside Yourself” program, in use since 2007, has presumably reduced stress levels, and helped employees across the organization develop greater levels of empathy and inner calm. As abstract as it may seem on one levelmindfulness has a very real and concrete part to play in the tech world. 

Mindfulness Moves out of Medicine and into the Office Breakroom 

Mindfulness as a program got its start some 50 years ago when Professor Jon Kabbat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center developed the course as supplement to traditional medicineMindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teaches people how to cope with stress, chronic pain and depression by changing thought patterns and encouraging patients to focus their energy on meditation and openness to the presentMedical practitioners noted that patients practicing some aspect of mindfulness generally had more positive experiences when dealing with serious medical conditions. 

Mindfulness principles have become mainstream in recent years as their ability to benefit areas outside of medicine, like the work environment and everyday life, have become more apparentTbetter manage the stresses of a typical workdayfrom interacting with clients to coping with deadlinesmany have found mindfulness principles useful and clinical studies have supported these findings as wellCompanies have found that mindfulness training helps employees develop a higher level of emotional intelligencegreater creativity and focus, and helps with a company’s productivity as well. 

At Highlands we believe that practices that can help employees maintain a balanced emotional state and outlook are beneficial to both the individuals and the company as a wholeHere are some key points about mindfulness to consider and use right away: 

Determine What is Important NOW and Focus on That 

Eckhart Tolle, a well-respected spiritual leader who has amassed a substantial following writing about the destructive patterns of living in the past or fearing the future, writes in his book, The Power of Nowthat the present moment is all that really matters. Everything else that you may be thinking of is a distraction from what you could be doing now. Thoughts that lead you to worry about future scenarios or past mistakes clutter your focus and prevent you from taking action or fully enjoying and maximizing the present moment. 

Don’t Dwell on the Past or Fret about the Future 

In the context of work, once you have carved out time in your calendar to work on a future project, stop thinking about it. Similarly, don’t dwell on past mistakesRuminating on yesterday’s flawed PowerPoint presentation won’t allow you to go back in time and fix it. Instead, make a mental note of how to approach the project differently next time and then move on to the assignment that needs your attention now. The more time we spend dwelling on a past incident, the more negative power it has over our thinking. Random thoughts about the past or future that swirl around in your head add up to mental “clutter” and don’t allow you to move forward. 

Listen More and Judge Less 

A workplace where people listen to each other is the ideal but is rarely the normAdopting a more mindful state of being means listening more and resisting the urge to speak first and judgeTake the time to hear and understand another’s point of view. Consider your own strengths and weaknesses as you relate to your peersApproach questions that come up at work with careful thought and deliberation. Greater openness and understanding of another’s point of view and greater self-awareness leads to a calmer, more productive work environment. 

Tap into Calm Energy to Fuel Work at Highlands  

It may just take 5 minutes or less to feel the energy in your hands or feet, become aware of your senses, listen to your breathing, and center on the present momentYou won’t find yoga mats at Highlands, but we do encourage you to try mindfulness techniques to refocus and recover a balanced state of mind. 

Project Management in the Age of Covid

If there is one positive to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that we’ve been knocked out of our comfort zones, forced to recalibrate and reevaluate the important things in life and in business. The virus and global economic downward spiral have driven home the fact that we and our businesses are significantly more vulnerable than we thought. Seasonal flu and its annual culling of the human population have always been a fact of life, but COVID-19 is now one more potentially deadly and unknown variable in the mix. Clearly, modern medicine can only do so much.

What does all of this mean in the context of running a business? We’ve always known that time is valuable, and that lost time is lost money, but these clichés seem more relevant and poignant today than ever before.

If you only had so much time available and your business’s financial viability depended on making the right decisions and effectively executing on them, how would you go about it? How, in other words, would you manage a project in the age of COVID-19?

Planning: Identify the Mission (and then Carve it to Down to Core Objectives)

Beware the nonessential in any plan. If your plan of action is cluttered with multiple objectives and ambitious vision statements, you are wasting time. This is the time to be clear, concise and ruthless: What is primary to the mission and what is secondary?

Identify the essential goals without which the mission is certain to fail. It can take time and substantial effort to whittle it down to the bare bones of the mission, but it is necessary. Accomplished businessmen have always understood this. Steve Jobs once remarked, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” Ideally, you identify three or four essential goals to control the scope of your project. Examples of essential goals: A new product line must be preceded by extensive market analysis. The development of effective drug therapies cannot move forward without an exhaustive period of controlled research and study.

Prioritize Your Objectives as if your Life depended on it

If you only had so much time to execute on the goals identified in the exercise above, how would you do it? Clearly, you would prioritize and deliver on the most important objectives first. Among the essential project goals identified above, which are absolutely vital to the mission? If time is short, these get done first.

Find Darwin’s Fittest and Delegate to Them

Who would you trust with your life? If this seems too extreme a criterion, consider who you would trust with your business, or better yet a particular business task? Identify the team members that have specific strengths and leadership skills. These are the people you want at the helm of the project’s sub-teams. The principle of “survival of the fittest” applies here; in the age of COVID-19, raw talent wins. It is that simple.

Execution: Identify Non-Negotiable Benchmarks

A plan needs to include measurable benchmarks that show that the project has reached key targets. Identify business metrics, like response rate to email campaigns, or statistically significant study results, that are an indicator of success. Design your plan of execution so that attainment of benchmarks is a condition of moving forward.

Identify the Timeframe to hit specific Milestones

When do the project’s objectives need to be met? Time your own benchmarks so that they are in sync with key user group timelines or the larger industry. Examples here could include peak customer use periods, product conferences or holiday sales.

Monitor your Progress with a Sharp and Uncompromising Eye

Early signs of dysfunction need to be addressed as soon as they become apparent. Don’t dither and lose time hoping that flawed systems will magically turn around on their own. Take steps to remediate flaws in process or execution.

Value proactive measures. If there is one lesson we’ve learned in the age of COVID-19, it is that a business cannot afford to be reactive. The time to act, as they say, is now.

A Day in the Life

I’ve been told that software engineers are a mysterious bunch. I suspect that even my own family doesn’t really understand what it is that I do every day. Too polite to probe further, they stay quiet. I feed and support my family, take vacations, and seem to enjoy a good life; people close to me reason that all must be well. Here’s my take on life as a software engineer for those that are too shy to ask.

From Chaotic Morning Commute to Quiet Campus in Electronic City

The morning commute for people who live in the neighborhoods surrounding Noida, India is going to be pretty much the same whoever you are and wherever you work. We know traffic is snarled and difficult in the morning and that it can take up to an hour or more to get where you want to go. But the morning commute is probably as stressful as my day gets.

Once I get to Noida Electronic City and the “Graphix” building, which is where Highlands is located, the day improves, in large part because the office is located on a quiet, 5-acre campus well away from the noise and chaos of Noida. For the software programmers and engineers at Highlands we have the flexibility to start the day at variable times, anywhere from 9:00 to 11:30 am, depending on how late we worked the previous day.  We are granted some discretion in how we structure our workday, a freedom that is greatly appreciated.

A note on the building itself: A few have compared it to the high-tech office buildings of Microsoft or Google. It is one of the newest buildings in the area, with floor to ceiling windows, large open spaces, filtered air via Blue Air Systems, and other amenities that I’ll discuss shortly. Highlands occupies the entire 3rd floor. The programmers at Highlands have state-of-the art equipment, two to three computer monitors, and large desks for their own use. The programmer’s workspace doesn’t have the feel of a coding mill or factory; it’s more like a low-pressure think-tank or creative space found on the campus of a university. Some people have headphones on as they work to play music to help their concentration and enjoyment.

Once I arrive at work, I review the notes I wrote at the conclusion of the previous workday. These permit me to get up to speed early on what tasks I need to tackle first. I also review the benchmarks that were set at yesterday’s stand-up meeting and assess what I need to do to prepare for the day’s meetings. I review and refine code until the stand-up meeting, which takes place daily around 12:30 pm.

The Stand-Up Meeting is at the Center of a Programmer’s Universe

Here’s a key insight into the spark that fuels the direction of a programmer’s day: the stand-up meeting. The stand-up meeting is integral to the agile development process (more on this in a future post) and nothing much is accomplished in the way of coding without it.

Hard Work, Midday Break at a Cricket Field and Flexibility

Lunch at Highlands can be anywhere between 1:00 and 2:00 pm. We have a cafeteria in our office and a full restaurant and coffee bar on the top floor overlooking the city. People can also take their lunches up to the rooftop terrace as well, which can be pleasant when the weather is good. Did I mention that everyone’s birthdays are celebrated at Highlands? We eat plenty of cake, and we eat it pretty regularly.

The remainder of the afternoon, which can stretch to 7 pm or possibly later at times, consists of carrying out the goals outlined at the stand-up meeting. Programmers work independently, writing or refining code for most of the day. The daily stand-up meeting, combined with a company culture that depends on team effort and collaboration, means that we check in with each other regularly to see if there is need to change direction or alter course slightly.

If we have a particularly intense morning due to deadlines or other factors, we take breaks as necessary. We are encouraged to unwind in the cafeteria or leave the office and walk the campus grounds for some stress-release; perhaps even play a short game of cricket at a nearby field.

The job of a software engineer at Highlands is not as mysterious as it seems. We are intensely focused on the mission at hand, which is to write code for software that tackles important engineering tasks. Our software is used on very important engineering projects throughout the world and it feels good to be working on something that has such important global implications. In my opinion, working as a software engineer is one of the best jobs you could have at Highlands.

Grit for the Ages

Several years ago, psychologist Angela Duckworth triggered national interest when she shared research findings on grit in a well-viewed TED talk. With the use of pointed survey questions that gauged a test subject’s likelihood of giving up in the face of distractions or other obstacles, Duckworth and her team tried to predict who in West Point’s entering class of freshman would make it through the rigorous pre-training period and who among National Spelling Bee contestants would advance to later rounds of the competition.

Duckworth discovered that the people who were successful were not those with the highest IQs or other competitive advantages; rather the people that pressed on through challenges to arrive at successful outcomes had something she defined as “grit.” Grit is the quality that makes a person stick with a task and follow through on long-term goals even when obstacles mount. Grit, in Duckworth’s words, is “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

Grit is Inversely Related to Talent

Even though it is tempting to attribute someone’s accomplishments to natural ability, what is really at work, Duckworth claims, is grit. Talented people frequently give up if they hit a “wall” enough times. Successful people, on the other hand, don’t give up easily. High achievers are not so much naturally skilled, Duckworth says, as they are conditioned to accept obstacles and hard work as a necessary part of working towards a goal. Our culture tends to romanticize the superstars of our times and gloss over the fact that countless hours of work went into the flawless performance that we ultimately see. An acclaimed soccer player didn’t learn how to score goals overnight. Thousands of hours of practice (and countless moments of frustration and despair) shaped the success we see today. Interestingly, Duckworth discovers that talent is inversely related to grit, a finding she emphasizes in her famous TED talk.

From the Lab to the Field: Grit at Work

Highlands looks for grit among new hires because grit is what it takes to build and grow a business. Today’s business climate is such that the unexpected is often the norm. The figurative “wrench” is almost certain to disrupt business on a daily basis. Cheers to the employee who catches the wrench and creates a win for the company regardless. A dogged, single-minded employee with plenty of grit is a blessed thing for a business.

How does grit come into play at work? Let’s suppose you have a deadline that is approaching for a new software release. Customers have been asking for an updated version for several weeks and many are grumbling that the release is long overdue. Within 48 hours of the projected release date, software testers discover a significant bug. What do you do at this point? Give up? Or do you regroup, figure out what needs to be done, and press gamely on? Employees with grit don’t skip a beat but roll up their sleeves and target the software bug with more gusto and passion than before. (i.e., “We will fix this bug and we will go the extra step to make sure it never happens again!”).

Similarly, let’s say the market is crowded with a particular product. The chances of developing a product to successfully compete with existing brands are slim; the players are seasoned warriors and won’t go down without a fight. Nevertheless, an opening in the field becomes apparent because existing products are deficient in one or more key features. A business with grit buckles down, develops a laser-like focus on the end game, and moves forward, prepared to do battle and take the product from conception to final shipment.

Encouraging a “Growth Mindset”

Duckworth focuses on a “growth mindset” as key to understanding the motivation of people with grit. A growth mindset means believing that failure can eventually become success or that the ability to learn can grow with enough effort and determination. With this attitude, failure is merely a step in the process of achieving mastery. With a “can-do” approach among employees at Highlands Infotech, obstacles become a launching point for innovation and “failure” becomes the new catchphrase for opportunity.

The word grit (and everything that it represents) resonates now with people more than ever because it is the fighting word of champions, underdogs and any business that works hard to be competitive. Grit means your fortune can change. Grit means positive outcomes are on the horizon with enough effort and determination.

What makes a Technology Firm Work?

We can’t escape the obvious fact that technology plays an increasingly dominant role in our everyday lives. Many of the world’s biggest economies are fueled by high tech innovation. Venture capital and public funds are quick to chase the next big breakthrough in science or engineering. With this culture, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that programmers, scientists and other techies are the only ones that can propel innovation forward. If your end goal is to find employment, some say, the only fields that are worth the cost of a college education are the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). The logic of this argument is apparently hard to dispute; students from the United States, China and India opt to study math, business or engineering over history or philosophy. But if there is one thing that can be learned as an engineer and businessman, it is that there are many skills that are needed to effectively run a corporation—not just the ones gained through a purely technical education.

The Myth that STEM is Best

Several universities in the U.S. made headlines a few years ago by threatening to cut academic departments in the humanities. (Humanities courses delve into subjects that explore the human condition and its institutions. Think political science, language and philosophy.) Where STEM subjects focus on hard analysis and fact, the study of history can explore the grayer areas that are subject to interpretation. Why are schools cutting these programs? The reasons are varied, but most did so in order to reroute funding to programs with more “practical” outcomes, producing graduates equipped with immediately marketable skills. People opposed to these initiatives argued that these programs help students to think deeply, empathize with their peers and tackle problems creatively. Many of these colleges and educational institutions back tracked and revised their proposals, but the movement is still active, and these programs are still under fire.

What do Microsoft and Google Look for in a New Hire?

Microsoft Corporation is arguably one of the most successful technology companies in the world with annual revenues exceeding $120 billion dollars. Surprisingly, however, this tech empire’s hiring practices do not focus on technical skills to the exclusion of everything else. Rather, like powerhouses Google and Apple, Microsoft looks for strong technical talent, but qualities that indicate a high level of emotional intelligence are equally important in a new hire. These are the qualities that provide the “grease” for the company’s “mechanical”, day-to-day processes and these are the qualities that help a company manage people and thrive in tough times. Would the person work well with co-workers and tackle problems in a collaborative style? Is this person able to manage a lob from left field or sort through a major crisis? Today’s business culture depends on people who can do all these things and more.

A Meeting of Minds (and Skills) at Highlands InfoTech

Technology is not developed in a vacuum. Maybe it once was, but it isn’t anymore. People need to talk to one another, listen, compromise and collaborate. Never before has the development of technology been so interactive. Agile software development is based on and frankly thrives on teamwork. Every department at Highlands, from software development, to human resources, to tech support, is grounded in teamwork. Not only do we need people who are creative, analytical and good at communicating, but we need team players who are empathetic and balanced. We need people who approach problems resourcefully and people who can turn difficult circumstances into positive outcomes.

What does this mean in terms of recruitment at Highlands? We are looking for creative, hard-working and gritty individuals in STEM fields, yes, but others as well. Those with backgrounds in the humanities can help our team as well, especially if they approach work and learning with a “can do” spirit. If you think you have what it takes, step up and apply!