Ways to focus

Ways to focus

Dear readers, I have a confession to make: these weekly missives in which I expound upon the latest tech-related news of the weird that has caught my eye, and that I think you might find just as diverting, sometimes do not come easy. More often than not, I am sometimeWays to focuss less-than-inspired: the right words elude me; the empty word processing page sits brightly in mockery. I try to write an introductory paragraph three times over, then have to take a break for a coffee or possibly a sandwich lest I become overwhelmed by existential despair.

Which is why I was very interested to see this article out of Psychology Today, which breaks down the actual, physical steps one can take to more easily enter that mental sweet spot — the state of maximum concentration and minimum effort that you may have heard athletes call “the Zone,” or psychologists “flow.” Practical-minded me appreciates that, though the state itself seems magical, the three steps require casting no spells.

My personal favourite step is charming in its direct permissiveness: “build yourself a fortress against interruption.” Our working lives often require such endless interruptibility (see our recent article about multitasking) that taking the time to physically shut the world out seem like sacrilege. But author Christine L. Carter exhorts us to take care of:

“Anything that might distract or tempt you away from your task […] before you drop into The Zone. Think of yourself as going on a road trip: What will make you pull over before you reach your destination? Will you need to plug your computer in? Get a tissue? Adjust the thermostat? Something as small as an itchy tag on the back of your shirt can weaken your focus if you are tempted to go to the bathroom to cut it off. Here is what I have to do before I find flow: Clear my desk of anything that might distract me. Remove yesterday’s coffee cup, close books, put pens away, stack papers into a deceptively neat pile. As I do this, I note anything on my task list that will need attention later, and make a time when I will attend to it.”

The other two (only two!) steps also offer great tips for finding your elusive flow, allowing you to work at your peak efficiency, while actually having fun doing it. This, I believe, is a state we workers deserve to be in, and I look forward to trying the tips extensively. How about you?

On call while offline

Tonight is the beginning of a new year. No you didn’t go to sleep and wake up mid-winter; it’s still late summer in this northern hemisphere, at least for another week. It’s the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. It’s a celebration, but it’s also the start of On call while offlinethe 10 days of awe which are a time for personal reflection and contemplation; and observed by festive meals (of course) and prayers in synagogue. The synagogue services are long and no electronic devices are allowed. Yes, that means mobile phones are turned off – which can be a holiday in itself!

On Call while Offline: Decompressing in the Age of the Smartphone

It wasn’t too long ago that the tech revolution made multitasking a skill to strive for.  Today, we know of the hazards of multitasking – principally, if you’re using one brain to do two things, you’re going to do both things only half as well! While the working world may have caught up on this new development within the office environment, smartphones and 24/7 access to email make it harder to get the message across during off hours. And, it turns out, if you’re multitasking while also trying to relax, you’re going to relax only half as well – which can have a detrimental impact on your mental and physical health.

Craig Dowden goes into detail about this problem with “on call” culture in an article for Psychology Today. He cites a study of shift workers (folks whose working lives are literally spent on call), which showed that they had poorer sleep patterns, more physical health problems due to depressed immune systems, less responsive memory and learning patterns, and longer recovery time after illnesses. The unpredictability of being called into work was determined to be a major factor for each of these health challenges.

Dowden then extrapolates the results to today’s office workers, who experience a similar sensation of being “on call” while technically off work, primarily via our smartphones. And our failing is the culture of silence around this development:

“The sense of being ‘on-call’ is further reinforced by the lack of conversation about how we manage our smartphones. When I ask clients about the expectations of smartphone use after hours, my question is usually met with some discomfort. Most people tell me there has never been a formal discussion about it. People are reluctant to address it with their superiors for fear the subject will not be well-received or that they will be perceived as not being fully committed to their work.”

I agree with Dowden that the centre cannot hold. Sustained partial attention has certainly had an impact on me, and I can’t even imagine the difficulties of workers who aren’t self-employed, and feel like they can’t make their feelings known to their bosses. It’s time to fight back against the pernicious smartphone, and strike a blow for true productivity – and true downtime!

More good news on coffee


My new neighbors are shy and elusive. I don’t see them all the time and when I do see them, it’s usually first thing in the morning. I was so excited to see them when I first saw them, that I ran over to saw Hi, but they ran, no galloped away. Lately I’ve been more respectful of their More good news on coffeereticence and have gotten to know them better: I discovered that one of the neighbors is probably a single mom because she was feeding her child out in the open in their backyard…I took a picture of mom and baby and this time she didn’t care….One time they were talking so loudly among each other that my husband heard them mooing in the shower. Yes, my neighbors are cows, nature’s methane producers!

Methane finds a Home in Used Coffee Grounds, or: Is there Anything a Good Cuppa Can’t Do?

We at DFC do love our coffee – but have long been stymied about what to do with the grounds left over once the brewing is through. Sure, we’ve tossed a bit around our garden – but the acidic nature of coffee grounds means we have no place to put them all – except the green bin, or worse, the garbage.

But scientists at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in South Korea have figured out a stunningly practical way to reuse the leavings from the beloved morning beverage: as a methane capture and storage method!

The technique involves saturating used coffee grounds in sodium hydroxide, and then heating them up to 700-900°C. In less than a day of processing, you are left with a mass of carbon capture material, ideal for keeping hold of methane, for a fraction of the time and cost needed for traditional methods.

“The absorbency of coffee grounds may be the key to successful activation of the material for carbon capture. ‘It seems when we add the sodium hydroxide to form the activated carbon it absorbs everything,’ says [paper co-author Christian] Kemp. “We were able to take away one step in the normal activation process — the filtering and washing –  because the coffee is such a brilliant absorbant.”

Kemp and his colleagues had their bright idea during a coffee meeting for a completely different project. And now, a harmful greenhouse gas can be more easily and cost-effectively removed from the environment, and marshalled as clean energy. (They’re also looking at hydrogen storage too.) Coffee really is the miracle elixir!

My dirty floors and the five second rule

My house is a filthy mess. It has nothing to do with my housekeeping skills, (which I’ve never put on the list of things that help make me a whole person) I’ve been sweeping up at least twice a day and even the husband has been going around with the broom!

Dirty floors and the five second rule

The culprits are none other the dogs and my new landscaping out front. The grading was changed and there is topsoil seeded with grass that is trying to grow….Jill loves sitting in the soil, she loves burying her bones in it, she & Samson both like digging and of course rough housing. And try as I might they don’t clean themselves off before they come in the house. Did I tell you Jill can open the door herself, both to go out and come in; so she comes and goes as she pleases.

Enough for now, I have to go clean the floors…again!

It’s happened to all of us: you’re sitting at your desk, happily working away and munching on a mid-afternoon energy-building snack. Suddenly, you lose your grip on your Ritz cracker smeared with almond butter, your corn chip, your seedless grape, and it falls to the floor in a desperate bid to escape your hungry mouth. You briefly hesitate, until a voice in your head shouts “Five Second Rule!”  So you snatch the fugitive morsel up quickly, wipe off the dust, and pop it into your mouth — day saved.

Or is it? C. Claiborne Ray of the New York Times’ Science Q&A column cites a 2007 study from the Journal of Applied Microbiology which exposes the Five Second Rule as a health-compromising misconception. Researchers took turns dropping slices of bologna and bread onto different types of surfaces contaminated with salmonella, then tested to see how much bacteria had transferred to the food. Their results were shocking (and gross): From tile, wood, and carpet, more than 99% of the salmonella present transferred to the food almost immediately, with no difference between the exposure times of five, 30 and 60 seconds.

(Digression: I recall a couple years ago that Adam and Jamie debunked this particular belief in their own unique style on Mythbusters. (watch this video ) It’s great to see their methodologies confirmed! Isn’t Science grand?

The fascinating full study can be found here. (You may not want to read it while eating lunch!) The short version: next time you lose a snack to gravity, grant it its freedom and put it in the trash — participating in this particular science experiment may not be worth the stomachache.