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Take Time to Give Time

Jeff Finkelstein

"My favorite things in life don't cost any money. It's really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time." – Steve Jobs

"Many people mistakenly think a new technology cancels out an old one." – Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners)

As someone who has been in the workplace for more than 35 years, I have seen a number of incredible technologies that have promised to change how we live, the way we work, and the relationships we have with our peers, friends and significant others. There have been innovations to grow hair, soothe our aching bodies and make our teeth whiter. All promise to be new, improved, better than anything before. Yet somehow, each technology is surpassed by something even better. But is it really?

I am going to take a divergent path in my blog this month and talk not about technology, but about something basic to all of us: the way we interact with each other, and how we see information, learn about it and share it. I do not have any professional background in any of these areas, but I do have a lifetime of lessons learned. So please give me some leeway in discussing this lofty topic.

What got me thinking along this meandering path was an article I read in the Harvard Business Review -- which is a worthy investment if you enjoy learning about different technologies and business practices. This article discussed how a Princeton University/UCLA study showed that students learned better and remembered 65% more of lectures when they took notes in longhand. I won't go into the details, but it was fascinating to me because I started taking notes a few years ago using an electronic data collection package called Evernote, which is fabulous as it worked on all my devices and synchronized across all of them. It has become my storehouse of knowledge, as all my notes, links, articles and documents go into it.

However, when I find myself referring back to my notes to review them, I realize they are not as complete as they should be. In fact, they are often so lacking in details I have to look to a second source, or go back to others from the meeting for more information. I would chalk it up to getting older, but given that I remember many details and general concepts, I prefer to think that it is the process of capturing information I am failing at, not the retention of it. Maybe I'm delusional, but as I've learned, I am not alone.

Many months ago, this led me to my search for how we learn, and I started observing people in meetings, which led to a disturbing observation. Like many of us, I spend a significant amount of time in meetings gathering nuggets of information, which I then go to another meeting and share, collect a few more, wash-rinse-repeat. The cycle goes on and on, with one meeting leading to another, and another, and another.

What I see in these meetings is that many people have their laptops open but are not using them to take notes. Instead, they are reading and answering email, working on other documents, surfing the Web, chatting with people through IM, looking at Facebook, and more. Even if they are not on their laptops, it is not unusual to see people with one or more smartphones out doing the exact same thing. I am as guilty of this as everyone else. I realize that some, especially younger folks, multitask much better than us old fogies, but I find even the young'uns asking about topics that were covered in meetings that they attended.

After starting to count how many are doing this, I moved on to the next step. How many of us who are distracted end up needing this information later? I asked people how often they needed to go back and ask for more information on a topic that was covered in a meeting. It turned out that it happens quite frequently. I asked if they knew whether it was covered in the meeting, and many did not know, as they were caught up in other activities. So this led to the next, very uncomfortable question: Is the information at these meetings not being shared correctly, or are those in attendance who will likely need the information distracted by other important tasks?

I am posing a question to which I have no answer. But I do know that if I am distracted at a meeting, I will likely need the information I missed and have to go back to someone to find it. As a result, I have wasted not only their time, but also the time of my peers who are depending on me to share it effectively.

Another point I realized is that when I do this at meetings, I am exhibiting very bad manners. The person who is speaking feels they have information to share, and that I will be in need of it. If I can't give them my full attention for the 10-60 minutes they need, then I am not showing them the respect they deserve as part of my extended team.

I speak at many events each year and have noticed a similar trend with audience members at these engagements. I know I am not the most erudite speaker, but I do hope the information I am presenting is of interest to those in attendance.

Which leads me to my quotes at the top of this blog. The first from Steve Jobs is about how time is the most precious thing we have -- not just our time, but the time of others. It is the greatest gift we can give to anyone, and when it is given, it should not be taken lightly.

The second quote from Judith Martin is about manners. Technology does not remove the need for manners in business settings. In fact, it amplifies the need, as we have a means to be easily distracted from the very person who is sharing their time with us. As an ending to this blog (and by the way, thank you for the time you have given me by reading it), let me ask you to participate in a simple experiment:

  1. At your next few meetings, leave your electronics at your desk or someplace you cannot reach them. Ask others to do the same.

  2. Take notes in longhand, either in a notebook or some scraps of paper. I like scraps of paper, as they are being recycled and can be sorted more easily than a notebook.

  3. Focus on the person speaking. Ask questions. See if you retain information better.

My belief is, if we do this more often, we will need fewer meetings to share the same information, create better business relationships by focusing on the speaker, and reach consensus quicker. Most of all, we will all gain more time in our lives for the act of creating, not explaining.

If this resonates with you and is something you are willing to try, please send me a note and let me know how it goes. My email is jeff.finkelstein@cox.com. Until my next blog, cheers...

— Jeff Finkelstein, Executive Director of Strategic Architecture, Cox Communications

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User Rank: Light Sabre
8/20/2014 | 10:13:38 AM
Let's hear it for focus
You are right about better focus during a meeting or other event will lead to better retention of information -- multi-tasking is not all it's cracked up to be. While someone at a meeting might bring up a relevant data point from the Internet, he or she is just as likely to be checking Facebook status.

But I don't know that long hand notes are the best answer by itself. A recording can be a decent backup. 
User Rank: Light Sabre
8/18/2014 | 6:06:51 PM
Doing it the Long(Hand) way
When I took AP Physics in high school, the way I learned is this.

Every day, after school, I would pour through each page of the current chapter (our book was Halliday & Resnick, the classic small footprint, but thick "bible").   And I would summarize it, basically reducing it down to just the formulas and some accompanying text.  I did this for every page, every section.   I would take these notes on blank sheets of white paper, and then punch them with a 3-hole, and keep them in plastic binders.

It took hours and hours, but somehow the connection of physical writing with learning helped.   And I got a 5 on the test.   (Of course, I wouldn't exactly say I had much of a social life, at the time!)
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