Categories
Process

Four tools I use to work better from home

There’s plenty being written at the moment about staying sane whilst working from home, adapting to the change of lifestyle, and maintaining effective communication with distant colleagues. But here are four tools that have helped me to actually get good work done whilst I work from home (which I did two or three days per week until October 2018, and have done full-time since). Most of these are equally applicable in an office, but can seriously improve your output at home.

1. The right music

Carefully chosen music can encourage deep focus and boost productivity. The best tool I’ve found for this is Brain.fm. The service boasts of ‘Functional Music to Improve Focus in 15 Minutes’. Regardless of whether the science behind the music stacks up, I find it invaluable for tasks requiring concentration (most of my PhD so far has been written to the ‘Cinematic Music Focus’ station). This link provides a free trial.

A free alternative (but be wary of adverts interrupting your flow) is computer game soundtracks on YouTube – or playlists of such music on Spotify or other music services. These are designed to engage you in the task at hand and for background distractions to fade away. This YouTube channel is a good place to start.

2. Laptop stand

A very basic recommendation, but an essential one. I use an AmazonBasics laptop stand that cost a little over £10. It will save your back and neck. Requires separate keyboard and mouse, which are also worthwhile investments.

3. Distraction blocker

Stop yourself from mindlessly browsing the news or social media with a distraction blocker. I use Freedom which can block websites and applications – useful to shut off email for set periods of time or on a schedule. The very act of turning it on helps me to get into work mode, and once running it enables me to work more deeply on tasks for longer. There are several open source alternatives that I’ve used in the past, but Freedom offers more control and customisation.

4. Pomodoro timer

Depending on the task, the pomodoro technique provides great results. You’ll need to experiment, but I find tedious tasks or reading articles and reports are perfect. Seriously applying the pomodoro technique also allows you to track and increase your focused work time.

I use an open source application called Tomighty. There are more advanced options for Mac discussed here.

Opportunities

Working from home offers an opportunity to experiment with new routines, workflows, habits, tools and ways of working. Through experimentation I’ve developed ways of writing, researching and managing flows of information that have worked well for me and I will post more about in the coming weeks.

Categories
Universities

When higher education interventions don’t work

I am currently supporting a higher education project in Tunisia and came across an interesting World Bank study considered to be the first of its kind. Final year undergraduates were given the opportunity to graduate with a business plan instead of following the standard curriculum, and were offered 120 hours of training that included ‘most of the components that are considered best-practice for entrepreneurship education’. The optional entrepreneurship track started in 2009/10 and has been running since.

In the first published analysis, short-term impacts were studied:

the entrepreneurship track was effective in increasing self-employment among applicants, but that the effects are small in absolute terms. In addition, the employment rate among participants remains unchanged, pointing to a partial substitution from wage employment to self-employment. The evidence shows that the program fostered business skills, expanded networks, and affected a range of behavioural skills. Participation in the entrepreneurship track also heightened graduates’ optimism toward the future shortly after the Tunisian revolution.

A second paper, published in 2019, examined the medium-term impact using the same cohort:

The medium-term results show that the impacts of entrepreneurship education were short-lived. There are no sustained impacts on self-employment or employment outcomes four years after graduation. There are no lasting effects on latent entrepreneurship either, and the short-term increase in optimism also receded… the lack of medium-term impact holds across sub-groups based on gender, family wealth, skills or social capital.

There are several possible lessons to draw, beyond the clear difficulty of achieving lasting impact. The first is that integrating enterprise education alongside existing curricula, rather than a separate stream, could be an effective alternative. The second, as the second study suggests, is that other limitations are a bigger constraint than the nature of the training, especially accessing capital (there is evidence from Nigeria, cited in the paper, of monetary grants having long-term, positive impact). The third is the importance of continued coaching, training and mentoring beyond the initial period of study.

But what really struck me was how relatively unusual it is to come across randomised control trials of interventions in higher education (and especially published studies of those where the intervention did not work). Fields such as medicine abound with multi-year trials. Primary education has also seen its fair share – this years Nobel prize recognised the work of Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer popularised in the excellent book, Poor Economics. There are plenty of large-scale evaluations and analyses of higher education, particularly around student outcomes, but I struggle to think of large-scale, experimental interventions. My hunch is that, as recognition of the role of higher education in development and social change has increased, so too will demand for randomised control trials within the field.

Failures wanted

Tunis, Tunisia

The Tunisian study is helpful as it shows that a ‘common sense’ prescription (give students business and entrepreneurial skills instead of writing an academic thesis as part of their degree) to a commonly-perceived problem (unemployable graduates) simply did not work. I’d love to see more such studies. Sharing examples of what doesn’t work through large-scale, rigorous testing can be hugely valuable, albeit with the caveat that the results may not always be generalisable to other contexts. As I see it, several things need to be in place:

  1. The basic parameters of an academic study: a control group who do not participate in the intervention, careful analysis of the context and environment, benchmarking and continued evaluation, etc.
  2. An acceptance that the intervention may fail. This is why the World Bank is perhaps better placed to fund such a study than the Tunisian government, who would be less willing or able to share widely the outcomes if the project failed, or to experiment with public funds.
  3. A longer-term (multi-year) perspective with no expectation of clear answers in the short term.
  4. A process of freely disseminating the findings and sharing what has (not) worked.
  5. A sufficiently big budget to launch and maintain a long-term effort, and to provide the capacity for effective experimentation, iteration and evaluation. The World Bank’s Tunisia Tertiary Education for Employability Project runs for over five years and commits 70 million USD.

Crucially, these conditions combined distinguish a rigorous, experimental study from a public policy intervention. If you know of any other experimental, evidence-based studies in higher education – especially those that have been deemed to have not worked – please let me know by email or in the comments below.

Photos of Tunis, Tunisia from Unsplash. Credits: main image, article image.