Get, share, and use information well

Tag: time pressure

Back to School

The Labor Day holiday weekend is drawing to a close, and I have finished up my second week of the Fellowship.  Even though the start dates of the semester and my tenure here in DC were the same, I have gotten to notice how much the routines differ between the two environments.  Unlike my academic routine that can adapt and adjust based on the day of the week and the differences between class and no-class, committee and research schedules, things feel distinct here.  There is a bus I catch, most days, between 8:14 and 8:40.  On Wednesdays, there will usually be lunch with the other Fellows.  There are Monday and Thursday morning “huddle” meetings.


However, that is not what I notice the most from the past two weeks.  I admit that I have developed a particular appreciation for my manager.  Each day, there is a specific new thing I have to learn.  How do I send a particular type of email?  What is the formatting for this kind of documentation?  Who do I contact for this activity?  Of course, he’s seen this all before, but it’s my first time.  And it’s not like I have had 3-4 weeks of easing into the situation.  I’ve already worked on international memoranda, and meetings between embassy staff and local representatives, and sat in on planning discussions with the offices of some folks whose name might appear on someone’s bumper sticker.  (But notably, the importance of the office is communicated by an acronym, or even a single letter; the people whose names are used are names I don’t recognize, and even those names go with acronyms.)  The most appropriate phrase for this experience is one that I learned during my first few weeks as an undergrad at MIT: “Drinking from the firehose.”


In that environment, where I’m supposed to come up to speed quickly, it seems like a luxury to have someone check in with me as many as 3-5 times per day to help me with one task or another.  In truth, some of the help sessions seem a bit remedial, teaching me things I do already know.  But he doesn’t know that.  And more importantly, I don’t always know when something I think I know how to do isn’t exactly how this organization does it.  So, I find myself learning to be more patient when being taught, and listening all the way through the lesson.  I even have a guiding document for goals to achieve over the next month or so—distinct from a to-do list of tasks, and an in-process list of assignments.


One of the things that surprises me most about this firehose experience is a new-found empathy and appreciation for the situations that confront new students in the lab.  We’ve been working on SoS and PoSE conceptualizations of ICT use in the SHARK and DOLPHIN and PERCH* streams for years—why are you nodding blankly at me?  Of course.  I’ve been doing it for years.  You just got here.  I just used a bunch of acronyms—shorthand for me, incomprehensible jargon for you.  Even when we get to time for a thesis outline, or a prelim draft, or a set of PhD defense slides, it does take some reminders to recognize that two dozen years of practice and 75 or more iterations don’t get transmitted easily to someone who is experiencing it all new and in an intense, nervous state.


I would like to hope that this lesson comes back to Purdue with me next Fall.  For a new student, or new faculty member, each new item can be part of an overwhelming onslaught of novelty and complexity.  Maybe it won’t stay that way for long, but it feels like that now.  In the senior capstone design course I teach, I remind the students to take the time to capture those initial moments of novelty and first attempts at processing and decision making, because it will be really hard to recall those feelings (and assumptions, and senses of confusion) again later.  I can tell them that, but it was a long time since I have felt that at the level I feel it now.  It’s good to be reminded of what the first few, chaotic weeks of new experience feel like.



Photo of Little Kern Golden Trout by Middleton and Liitschwager (1988), hanging in the C Street entrance lobby of the National Academies.



*Acronym decluttering:

SoS: Systems-of-Systems. or a description of complex systems engineering settings where individual components of an overarching system represent complex systems in their own right (such as individual aircraft, with pilots and co-pilots, in the airspace over Washington, DC while Marine One is traveling across town).

PoSE: Perspectives on Systems Engineering.  This is a course that I developed to teach about four distinct traditions of systems engineering, ranging across systems thinking, cybernetics, component-whole relations, and project management.  Only in its second iteration as a hybrid distance / on-campus course, it is one of the most subscribed courses in Engineering Professional Education (and I’m not even teaching it this semester).

ICT: Information and Communications Technology.  When I first started as a faculty member, most computers had line-by-line display screens in single colors of amber or green; email and word processors and bulletin board chat groups were the most sophisticated information exchange tools available.  Even with all of the changes in capability, it’s still important to recognize that the point of these technologies were, and are, for humans to communicate.

SHARK, DOLPHIN, PERCH:  These are designations of project areas within the research lab, referring to knowledge sharing architectures, information flow delays, and applications to healthcare delivery improvement, respectively.  Check them out at

Timing is Everything

Although it doesn’t always feel like it here in the lab, things are actually going very well.  The work calendar is quite full, and the project to-do lists continue to grow—not just in the number of items, but in the number of projects which require to-do items.  Three different Institutional Review Board (IRB) applications, with three different students.  Four research projects active, with two or three more coming on line.  The “March Madness” travel schedule I had last year is even worse: the lab has now officially declared it “Winter Madness” (from January 24 until March 14, there is only one week where I am not in an airport on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday of that weekend—and on March 21-24, I will be driving back from Chicago on Friday, and flying again on Monday).


Last Thursday, though, I was able to appreciate what some good timing could achieve.  A day earlier, I had escaped from the ice and snow storm that paralyzed the Southeast US: leaving out of western Virginia early Wednesday morning, on a rebooked flight through Detroit (all flights through Atlanta had been cancelled as of Monday evening).  I was only a few hours later arriving home than originally scheduled, even with delays and flight diversions (let’s hear it for multiple daily nonstops from Detroit to Indianapolis!).  Thursday was bright, clear, and even relatively “warm” (about 5F that morning, with a high temperature of approximately 30F) for a drive down to Bloomington, IN for a research meeting.  That research meeting was in support of one of our new grants, a project with the Purdue Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS) to look at sensemaking, distributed expertise, and information presentation in cyberinfrastructure network operations centers.  The meeting was unexpectedly effective in highlighting both people to talk to and additional directions for the research to pursue.  A positive attitude to go down on the one nice day where my schedule permitted the trip was better than putting the trip off for later (given “Winter Madness” and the frequency of airspace-paralyzing storms, I am not thrilled about trying to create new one-day visits anytime before April).  At the end of the day, I even received one more treat derived from an awareness of good timing.  As I left the office, the nearly full moon was visible to the east, while the International Space Station was a fast-moving evening star traveling from northwest to northeast.  (No, I don’t have the orbital tracks memorized, but there are NASA websites and software apps for that.)  Yeah, that was some good timing.


Timing is a fairly popular subject of GROUPER research, even if there’s only been a couple of blog entries highlighting time pressure (and only one on time perception).  But the topic is never far from our mind.  In our direct research investigations, we talk about the sense of time pressure as the ratio of time required to complete a task to the time available to complete it (TR / TA), with time pressure increasing as you run out of time to finish faster than you run out of task to complete.  We worry about the challenge of the age and “freshness” of data when making decisions about the current state of a dynamic world (and what you need to do based on that state).  We consider how experts trade other resources for time, including the decision to create an interim solution (“safe mode”) to stabilize a degrading system to allow for more time to consider a better, more stable recovery and repair.  But how does that play out in the lab’s daily activities, other than a posting an ongoing (and continuing growing) list of deadlines?


Fortunately, we have been working on a set of very promising solutions (processes, really).  As I go through my travel schedule, the students get a strong sense of the “windows of opportunity” (time periods of available work capacity) where I can respond to a task request or help them make progress towards an external deadline.  A few months ago, I described some of my thought process in working in a distributed way on these tasks; I think in terms of a set of scaled answers to the student’s question.  In essence, my thought process and general formulation goes like this:


Student:  Dr. C., I need you to do xyz by time TD.


(If (TD – Now) is under 12 hours, I tend to get really upset.  Don’t do that.)


BSC:  What do I need in order to do xyz?


Student:  You need A, B, and Q.


(If I don’t have A, B, or Q, and the student doesn’t provide it at the time of the request, I tend to get really upset, Don’t do that.)


Then I usually try to provide one of a set of answers, ranging from:


  1. NO.
  2. Not by TD; the best I can do is Talt.
  3. I can do xyz’ by TD.
  4. I can do that, but can’t start until TS.
  5. Yes, working
  6. DONE.


What I didn’t expect was how providing this type of information to the students could actually change the style of interactions in lab.  It’s not that I declared some specific required email format, or that I would refuse to read emails that did not conform to that format.  But, within a week or two, I started noticing emails with subject lines including the words:





The body of the emails would specify details like:


Estimated time to complete: xxx

Date / time needed:  dd mmm yy hh:mm


So, rather than simply complying with a command, the students now understand my motivations, and my constraints, and my strategies for organizing my time.  I also pointed out that I try to set aside windows of time in advance for everyone—not just in the weekly 1:1 meetings (which, I confess, is much harder to achieve during the Winter Madness travel), but when I expect tasks towards external deadlines.  Knowing in advance how much time to set aside helps me with schedules, and allows for slipping in new tasks on an emergency or opportunistic basis.  It’s all part of a goal of “Better Information Now” that we have worked with in our projects with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the United Space Alliance.  Sometimes, it works very well, and sometimes it still needs adjustment and improvement.  But at least, we’re making progress.


It’s about time.



Inputs and Outputs

It’s not a great time to be a student–end of semester exams, project papers, and completing all of that work that seemed infinitely manageable back in October.  It’s not a great time to be a faculty member–thesis drafts to read, letters of recommendation and proofreading students’ research statements fall on top of grant proposal deadlines and all that grading.  So, it seems reasonable to be both a bit gentle, and a tad more explicit in clarifying the difference between “nice to have” and “required”.  Some extra data, or a couple more days to work on that draft of the term paper is nice to have.  What’s a challenge at the end of November is recognizing what is required, and how to get to all that is necessary in the too-little time available.


Most academics want to get grants to do their research.  That’s not an easy process, and the competition grows in complexity and sources of frustration.  Whether it be a development contract from a company, or a research grant from a governmental funding agency, the folks reading the proposal want to know “Who Cares” and “Why Should I Spend the Time to Read This?”  They don’t know about what you meant to say, and they probably aren’t in your field.  It’s your responsibility to communicate what’s so cool and new and shiny to you, to other people who may not even care until you show them why it’s valuable and critical and efficient to help them in what they do every day.  A challenge at the best of times; a burden worthy of Atlas if you’re trying to write five proposals in two weeks to different types of organizations.  Faculty usually talk about funding as an input measure (“Congratulations! You got the grant!  Now what are you going to publish, which students will graduate, and what new things will come out of that lab that other people also want to use?”) .  It’s also an output measure, of course: “I wrote nine proposals, and two of them got funded!  I’m a star!”  (Actually, that is kind of true.  Funding rates for proposals from the most competitive agencies are often described as being in the 6-12% range.  Hitting on 22% of your proposals would be good.  Like Ted Williams in baseball, hitting on 40% of your tries would make you a Hall-of-Famer.)  Either way, there is a big lag between the pain of creation and the success of the award.  (Maybe just long enough to forget how much it hurts.)


But faculty have another set of inputs and outputs: their students.   There was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the evolution from being your professor’s advisee to being his or her peer.  I was able to send this to the current GROUPERs, and even to my five most recent PhDs.   I’ve even gotten a reply already–the start of a thread.  This helps me feel good about the students as outputs–but I can still gloss over the importance of inputs.  Not just the students as inputs (you need good material), but what we can do to get the student where they want to go.


Unfortunately, Natalie is leaving us in a few weeks: she’s graduating with her BS.  Although an undergrad, she’s been one of the more experienced members of the lab for the past two years, helping to keep us aligned and sequenced (she’s been the project management software goddess).  Student as input, student as person needing inputs, student as providing inputs… (that’s also modeling project we’re working on as well, within the SMELT stream).  The greatest reward though, was the news we’ve gotten over the past week or so.  At the HFES Annual Meeting back in October, I met a researcher from an organization doing research on human factors in healthcare.  Have I got a student for you, I said.  She’s already developed her own research study.  She is fantastic as part of my lab.  She wants to work in this area.  And now, Natalie gets to announce that she got a job!  And then she said that being part of GROUPER was a large part of how that happened… as well as my work that went into it.

GROUPER is an input into the students’ lives and professional evolution?  What I’m doing is a transformation that gives someone a better outcome, a stronger trajectory, a more favorable future?  OK, maybe that is worth it, and a great reward that turns into inputs for the next cycle.  That, and a few extra hours’ sleep.  And maybe some visits by the proposal writing muse.


What are we waiting for?

Prof. Caldwell (BC) here….

One potential value of a blog like this is its grain size.  Ideas that are too small for a journal paper or full grant proposal, but still of some potential interest for later use, can be just the right size for a 1100 word blog entry.  Just a couple of references, the outline of a project or concept for further development, and a tease for those who might find GROUPER an appealing place to study, collaborate, or support.  Here’s the first of those items.

Last Monday, I was in Chicago (after a weekend of graduation parties for two new PhDs, Ashley and Karim) to submit a visa request for a trip to China.  When I arrive at the Chinese Consulate at about 9:45, there is a room full of people sitting and waiting, a line of people standing and waiting, and five windows of clerks.  Since I’m there for a visa, rather than something else, I select a ticket for that type of service, and sit down.  How long am I going to have to wait, and will it matter that the Consulate closes at 12 noon for lunch?

Other IE researchers sitting in this waiting room might start thinking about queueing models and arrival distributions, but my friend and I began to discuss the perception of waiting and the sense of time pressure.  This field of human perception research dates back to the laboratories of Wilhelm Wundt and William James (not to be confused with author brother Henry James) in the 19th Century, and the concept of the “perceptual now”.   In this model, one’s sense of time passage is tied to two processes—a sampling of an internal clock, and processing of one’s own task activities (physical or mental).  The more you are doing during a period of external (“objective”), the fewer samples of the internal clock one takes, and the larger the list of things done between sampling cycles.  The theory suggests that the sense of having the time “filled” leads to a lower sense of boredom, and less perceived time passage.  Conversely, with less to do, there are more opportunities to sample the internal clock, and less activity that is perceived as filling that period between samples.

Prior work in the lab has studied not only the issue of time perception, but of time pressure.  Instead of conceiving time pressure as just the amount of time until a deadline arrives, we have considered pressure as a ratio of time required for a task (Tr) to the time available (Ta) to complete it.  Waiting is a challenge, though, because there is both the time required to do the thing you came to do (file the visa paperwork), and the time waiting to get to the window to do the thing you came to do.  Thus, we have a compound task of passive waiting and active doing, both with their own Tr / Ta ratio and a composite ratio.

So, while I am working this out, I notice that time has passed, and the number called is closer to my number.  OK, the queueing folks have something to say here—I’m trying to estimate the average service time for my type of service.  But, I’m also noticing that by having something else to do, one source of stress (time perception) is reduced.  Because this is a Chinese Consulate, I also think about tai chi and meditation activities.  This leads to a consideration of four different ways that one could deal with the wait, and four different experiences of the passage of time:

  • Pause:  a quiet state, without attending to time (sleep or meditation)
  • Hold:  passive waiting, low activity / limited attention to other tasks (“watching the clock”)
  • Distract:  using the waiting time to do other tasks, not attending to time
  • Do:  Active involvement in the task one intended to do.

Time pressure, in terms of the Tr / Ta ratio, now looks like the sum of wait time (which is an estimate of the average service time * the number of people in front of me) + my service time, divided by the time from now until noon.  (Yes, I’m skipping over a lot.  If you want more, get in touch with us.)  It’s looking better, because some people are not there, and average service time is going down—but it’s getting closer to noon.

The sense of time pressure is another element of the psychological effect of the Tr / Ta ratio, but this has multiple factors including individual personality, cost of missing the deadline, “hardness” of the deadline (is 12:00 really 12:00:00, or a few minutes after 12, or something else?) , and prior experience.  There seem to be four stages of this sense of time pressure affecting the experience of waiting (especially when it’s hard to attend to something else):

  • Comfortable
  • Pressured
  • Panicked
  • Resigned

The lab has done some work in determining where the transitions are between these stages, but there is a lot tied to the complex interaction of person, situation, context, and experience.  There are different strategies to help the experience of a user dealing with pressure-laden delays.  I tend to like the distraction and pause responses, as well as ensuring that backup plans and additional flexibility keep pressured from morphing into panicked.  That’s for me, though, from the user’s perspective.  Some of our papers also discuss strategies from the provider’s perspective.

In the end, I got to the visa window at about 11:50, and only took about four minutes to provide the required forms.  I could talk more about the nature of service quality, but that’s for another time and venue (I will be working on a contribution to an edited volume on intercultural service systems later this spring).   I got a pickup slip indicating when I should return for the passport and visa—that Friday—and what to do—stand in the pickup line.  If I had gotten to the window with the documents by 11:00, I could possibly have gotten rush service and picked up the visa by 2:00 that afternoon.  However, there was no sense of pressure there, since I didn’t know about that earlier deadline and thus made no effort to arrive at the consulate early enough to meet that deadline.  (Hmmm… there’s no pressure from a deadline you’re not aware exists; one can create artificial internal deadlines where no external deadline or performance impact exists.)  All in all, a pretty good morning’s experience.

Oh, and why am I going to China?  Giving lectures on human factors and systems engineering for the development of a university program in industrial engineering.  How fitting.

For further reading:

Caldwell, B. S., and Wang, E. (2009). Delays and User Performance in Human-Computer-Network Interaction Tasks.  Human Factors, 51 (6), pp 813-830.

Caldwell, B. S., and Garrett, S.K.  (2010).  Coordination of Event Detection and Task Management in Time-Critical Settings.  In Mosier, K., and Fischer, U. (Eds.,) Informed by Knowledge: Expert Behavior in Complex Settings, ch. 22.  Florence, KY: Psychology Press / Taylor & Francis.

James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: H. Holt and Co.

Svenson, O., & Maule, A. J. (Eds.). (1993). Time Pressure and Stress in Human Judgment and Decision Making. New York: Plenum Press.