A quick update

To say that things have been a little hectic recently would be somewhat of an understatement. And they haven’t really calmed down, to be honest. So I guess I’m just going to have to live with this new level of frenzied activity. Which means I’m going to have to become a whole lot more disciplined about setting aside time to, you know, eat, think… and write! Continue reading

Does setting goals really work?

Goals are good, right? Practically all organisations set goals for themselves and for their people. Goals for sales. Goals for market share. Goals for personal performance. And not just any goals, of course, but SMART ones. Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bounded. We all have them. And we all grumble about them. But the question is: should we really be setting goals at all?

In his new book, ‘The Antidote’, journalist and writer Oliver Burkeman asks this very question. And his conclusion might surprise, irritate or even horrify you. Because setting goals, it turns out, might not be the key to success after all.

Antidote

The first problem with goals is what organisational behaviour expert Chris Kayes calls ‘goalodicy’, or the way in which an external target can become part of our own identities. To fail to achieve the goal means to admit failure as an individual. And this can drive us to take ever greater risks, sacrificing everything to achieve the goal.

This unquestioning focus on the goal leads to an unhealthy single-mindedness. Even in the face of mounting evidence that the goal is an unwise one, rather than revise the goal, organisations simply invest more effort and resources in achieving it. So when things inevitably go wrong, they go very wrong.

The second problem with goals is that they can stop us thinking for ourselves. Burkeman gives the example of New York taxi drivers. When it’s raining, he observes, it can be more difficult to hail a cab than when it is sunny. The obvious response is that there’s more demand, so of course it will be more difficult. All the taxis are already full.

But when economist Colin Camerer and his colleagues looked into this phenomenon in more detail, they found that while demand for taxis did indeed go up when it was raining, the supply of taxis actually shrank. It turned out that New York taxi drivers set themselves daily targets for earnings, which they reached more quickly when it was raining, as there was more business.

But rather than sticking around to earn a bit more from people desperate to get out of the rain, the drivers clocked off and went home once they had reached their target. Achieving the income goal for the day took precedence over rational behaviour and, indeed, basic common sense. The drivers had, explains Burkeman, invested in their goals beyond the point that doing so served their best interests.

The third problem with goals is that, contrary to academic experiments in the laboratory, the real world rarely allows us to focus on just one objective. What we do in one aspect of our work or of our lives invariably exerts an effect on other aspects. We can never change just one thing. Striving to achieve a goal in one particular area will inevitably have unintended consequences – and not necessarily positive ones – in other areas.

Burkeman gives the example of an executive who had set himself the aim of becoming a millionaire by the age of forty. He had achieved this goal, but he was now divorced from his wife, had health problems and was not in contact with his children. He had achieved his goal, but had suffered probably irreparable damage in other aspects of his life.

So why do we do this to ourselves? We set ourselves goals, explains Burkeman, in response to uncertainty. We don’t know what the future will hold, so we use goals as way of investing in our preferred vision of that future. Not because they will necessarily help us to achieve that vision, but because they help to us rid ourselves of the uncertainty that we encounter in the present.

What we should do, though, is turn towards uncertainty. We should learn to develop a tolerance for it, or even to embrace it. We should free ourselves from the shackles of the goals we set – and have the courage to face the future as it comes. Uncertainty, argues Burkeman, is where things happen. “It is,” he writes, “where the opportunities – for success, for happiness, for really living – are waiting.”

This post was first published at www.sockmonkeyconsulting.com.

What it’s like to work for me, by me

I’ve been working for myself for a little over a year now, so I thought it was about time to reflect on what it’s been like so far and how I see things going in the future. For anyone who doesn’t already know, I run a small business consultancy that works with organisations across the public, not-for-profit and social enterprise sectors. I used to work for a much larger, international consultancy, but had always harboured a desire to set up on my own. And early last year, I finally took the plunge.

Overall, it’s been a hugely exciting twelve months. Having started off with no clients and no money, I’ve now built up a small client base and have worked on some really interesting projects with some great people. I’ve enjoyed the work, my clients are happy, and everyone’s paid their bills on time. I’ve even managed to pay myself a salary, which is a great relief. (Not least to my wife and to my bank manager.)

The best thing, though, has been the flexibility. Sure, I’ve worked harder over the course of the last year than I have ever worked before, but I’ve been my own boss. I’ve been able to do things my way, to decide what I will do and when I will do it. This does, though, that I also bear all the responsibility for everything. So no delegating the tedious things to some hapless minion, unfortunately. But I do, for the first time in a long while, have complete control over my day and my life. Which is a very liberating – if somewhat terrifying – feeling.

As the owner, director, manager and sole employee of my company, I’m involved in all aspects of what it does. From finding new clients and planning the work to sending the bills and preparing the accounts, it’s all me. This has brought some new challenges. For example, while I’m good at the actual work I do, I’ve always been a little less confident when making contact with people and seeking out new clients. But now I have no choice but to grasp the bull by the horns and just get on with it. And, thankfully, I’m slowly getting better at the business development side of things – and have developed a whole lot more confidence, too.

So where do things go from here? Well, I certainly can’t ever go back to working for someone else. No way. I love what I do and I love my (admittedly still quite new and quite small) company. And I want it to do well. And, perhaps, to become a little less small over time. I need to continue to find new clients and to look after the existing ones. I need to get out and meet more people. And I need to get the company’s name out there a bit more, for example by writing articles and getting invited to speak at conferences. All very exciting. And all, quite frankly, a bit scary. But all, without a doubt, most excellent fun.

A brief foray into poetry

I’m not a big writer of poetry, but I stumbled recently across this short poem that I wrote a couple of years ago. I’d just spent a long day in the office at my previous job and was in the middle of a three hour train commute home. I felt absolutely rotten and found myself pulling out my pad and pen to try to express how I felt.

It was only when I read the poem back to myself a few days later that I realised how urgently I needed to change the way I lived. And now, a couple of years on, you’ll be relieved to hear that I’m much happier and working hard to live my kind of life. Anyway, enough waffle. Here’s the poem. It’s called ‘The Roar’.

 

The Roar

I hear a quiet voice from deep

somewhere inside my soul.

It tells me that I’m going too fast;

the roar is in control.

 

This constant drive to be the best,

my fervent need to win.

The voice wants me to still the roar,

to let the silence in.

 

I try to listen to the voice,

to what it has to say.

But soon the roar just drowns it out

as life gets in the way.

 

The roar gets louder, louder still;

leaves chaos in its wake.

In time, the means becomes the end –

a roar for roaring’s sake.

 

What is this life I choose to lead,

indentured to the roar?

Why can’t I listen to the voice

and be myself once more?

 

Working, not shirking

We have recently survived a short visit by the in-laws. I say ‘survived’ not because they’re particularly unpleasant or because they leave a trail of destruction in their wake. In fact, as far as in-laws go, they seem to be fairly reasonable. No, I say ‘survived’ because we seem to have opposing views on, well, pretty much everything. And principal among the topics of disagreement is what, precisely, qualifies as ‘work’.

(I should perhaps mention at this point that this view is not limited to my in-laws. I have had similar discussions with my parents, too, as well as with former colleagues and people I have met whilst walking the dog.)

For my in-laws’ generation, it seems, work involves getting up early in the morning, commuting some distance to an office in a city somewhere, being bored all day doing something that you don’t particularly like, coming home late, grumbling about your idiot colleagues, eating, sleeping – and then repeating the whole thing over and over again until you’re sixty five (or until you conk out, whichever occurs first). Anything that doesn’t meet this definition, in their view, is not work.

Which is a bit of a problem. Because what I do really doesn’t look like that at all, and I’d be horrified if it did. I’m not saying that I don’t work, though. I run a successful consultancy business and spend most of my time on research and consulting assignments for my clients. And when I’m not doing that, I’m generally working on some writing project or other.  But I’m my own boss and run my own life.

While I’m sometimes out at my clients’ offices, I’ll often be working at home in my office / spare room here…

My desk

Though sometimes I’ll be here…

Living room

Or here…

Garden bench

And while I don’t have colleagues as such, I do have an assistant…

Molly

Who can be of varying degrees of usefulness…

Molly asleep

This, it would appear, does not count as ‘work’. As far as my in-laws are concerned, being at home is not compatible with working. Nor is having almost full control over what your day looks like. Nor, indeed, is having fun. So despite my best efforts to explain what I do and how it does indeed qualify as a ‘job’ of sorts, they still seem to think that I spend all day loafing around the house while their daughter labours all hours to support my indolence.

(We’ll gloss over the fact that Natalie was only working such long hours because she’d decided that it was better to hide out at work rather than come home and face awkward parental questions about her own non-standard career.)

I don’t blame my in-laws for this. I think it’s more a generational thing. The way in which we work, facilitated by the internet and other technologies, is changing so quickly that people who spent their lives working in the old-fashioned ‘job for life’ culture in large bureaucratic companies find it difficult to relate to the more flexible and varied career paths that are rapidly becoming the norm.

But to avoid future misunderstandings, here are a few key principles that I’d like to clarify:

  • Work is something you do, not somewhere you go. So just because I am sitting in the garden drinking a cup of tea, this does not mean that I am not working.
  • Similarly, going for a run, doing the hoovering or playing on the beach with the dog are also not incompatible with being ‘at work’.
  • I do know what I am doing. In fact, people pay me money to do it. I am a highly skilled professional. Even if I do happen to be sitting at my desk in my pyjamas.
  • I am not asleep. I’m thinking. It’s called the knowledge economy. It’s what we do nowadays. Wake up and smell the coffee.

I’d like to think the in-laws will eventually come around to my way of thinking. But, if I’m being honest, I think we’ll just have to accept that times change. They do things their way and I do things my way. It doesn’t mean that either of us is wrong. As with all families, it just means that it’s one more thing on the list of stuff we try not to talk about…

A micro-farmer’s dilemma

I’m starting to detect a slight problem with my food-growing exploits. Nothing to do with the plants themselves, fortunately, which are growing well and looking good. In fact, I’ve started to refer to our garden as ‘the micro-farm’, in anticipation of this becoming a recognised (though haphazard) model of agriculture at some point in the near future. No, the problem is definitely me, rather than my future foodstuffs.

It started on Sunday evening, when I packed my bag and headed off to London, in preparation for a seminar that I was delivering on Monday morning. In itself, of course, no big issue (provided we brush over the fact that I was going to work at the weekend). But before I left, I was compelled to leave Natalie with a detailed list of care requirements for my various seeds, seedlings and young plants.

Keep the seed trays slightly damp, so that they don’t dry out – but don’t let them get soggy. Water the pea plants well and check that they haven’t got tangled up with each other again. Check the chilli plants and water any that are particularly dry, but only first thing in the morning as they don’t like to go to bed with damp feet. Untangle the hop from its preferred home tangled around the bench and try to convince it to stay on its support this time. Open the cold frames once the sun is up, and close them just before dusk – or if it gets windy. Oh, and feel free to eat some salad, but not the micro-leaves as they need a couple more days. The list went on. (Though was, I suspect, mostly ignored.)

I’ve spent the last few years learning about how best to grow the various fruits, vegetables and flowers that I enjoy, and try to make sure that I look after them well. I’m used to doing the rounds first thing in the morning and in the early evening, watering the crops and checking for bugs, as well as generally keeping an eye on things during the day if I’m around. So the thought of leaving them alone, with (let’s be honest) essentially a substitute teacher in charge, was harrowing in the extreme.

The same thing happened last month, when we went over to Germany for a few days. Admittedly, I didn’t have so many young plants at that stage, so things were a little easier. But even then, I spent the days before our departure desperately hoping my chilli and mint plants were hardened off sufficiently, so that I could leave them in the greenhouse for the neighbours to water in my absence. What if something comes up when everything needs planting out? I’ll be a nervous wreck…

I guess this is the problem when you have living things of any form, whether plants or livestock, that require daily attention. You get into a routine of caring for them and then need quickly to come up with a Plan B when other things demand your attention, such as the job that actually pays for you to own the garden and the plants and everything else. And then you end up in London first thing on a Monday morning, trying to deliver a seminar to a roomful of serious people, when all you can think about is whether or not your wife has remembered to water the courgettes.

Eight ideas for a fun life

When I read through books and magazine, or talk to people when I’m out and about, I’m constantly coming across new ideas or new ways of doing things. As someone who is on an ongoing quest to ‘do well, be nice and have a life… all at the same time’, I get very excited about these things but invariably never get around to doing anything about them.

So rather than consign them to my little black book of ‘things to do when I’ve got a spare month on my hands’, I thought I’d share them with you here on my blog. I’m not saying that these are necessarily good ideas, or that they’ll make you the next Richard Branson, but they’re all things that sound fun to me.

If you want to give any of them a try, then please feel free. And do let me know how it goes. I might even try one or two myself, at some point, if I ever get around to it.

1. The veggie van. Get a van, preferably an electric one or one of those really old Renault things, and set up a mobile shop selling local fruit, vegetables, bread and preserves. Collect produce from local suppliers in the morning and spend the afternoon and evening driving to wherever your customers need you to be, such as outside offices or by the railway station. We all love farmers markets, after all, but they’re usually either only once a month or during the week, when everyone’s at work.

2. The mobile coffee cart. Get a little motorised coffee cart and set up a regular round in your local area, selling tea, coffee and home-made pastries. Smile at everybody, ask how they are and become a local icon. Not necessarily the biggest money-spinner, but a great way to get out, meet people and generate a sense of community.

3. The market garden. There’s a field on the edge of our town that was bought by the Council a couple of years ago. They’re currently deciding whether to turn it into a football pitch or a children’s playground. What it would make, though, is an excellent market garden, growing fresh, organic fruit and vegetables for the local population and bringing people closer to the food they eat. So find a small plot of land and get growing.

4. The guerilla gardening campaign. I’m a big fan of guerilla gardening (see http://www.guerrillagardening.org/ if you don’t know what that is) and think that it’s a brilliant way to make boring, overgrown or derelict parts of town more beautiful and more inspiring. I’ve never really got around to doing much about it, though. But what’s to stop you (or me, for that matter) from sowing a handful of sunflower seeds on a roundabout or growing a few radishes in the planter by the bus stop?

5. The virtual orchard. I’d really love an apple orchard, but like most people have limited space. So for the moment, at least, I’ll have to be satisfied with the couple of little trees at the bottom of the garden. But why not a ‘virtual’ orchard? Go around your community and map out where the different apple trees are and who owns them. Then, at harvest time, recruit volunteers to pick the apples, turn them into juice or cider or anything apple-y, and share them with the ‘owners’ of the orchard and everyone else in your community.

6. The heritage trail. The town I live in has a fantastic history dating back through the centuries, but nobody really seems to know very much about where they live and how it has developed. My (currently very vague) plan is to develop a guided walking tour of the town, highlighting the key elements of its social, cultural and industrial heritage. This would be accompanied by a guidebook, an audio download, a colourful map and perhaps even some display boards. Why not do something similar for where you live?

7. The guerilla art campaign. I’m a big fan of art, especially things that challenge me or make me think about things in a new way. In a wood near where my mum lives, someone has made tiny little front doors that they have stuck to the trunks of some of the trees. Inspired. Or check out some of Slinkachu’s little people. I like drawing and I like making things, so why can’t I find the time (or the talent) to do something like this? It’s fun, it’s cool and it makes people smile. There really ought to be state funding available…

8. The community bookshop / coffee shop / bakery. I like books, I like coffee, I like baking and I like bringing people together. So my wife’s suggestion that I find a group of local people and open a not-for-profit community bookshop, coffee shop and bakery probably isn’t too far off the mark. A group of similarly-minded folk have opened a community bookshop in the next town and it seems to be going great guns. After all, who doesn’t like coming in for a coffee, a good read and a bit of a chat?

Regaining my balance

The best thing about being self-employed is being able to plan my own time and to do pretty much whatever I want. The worst thing about being self-employed is, inevitably, being able to plan my own time and to do pretty much whatever I want. I say this because, in the last couple of months, there’s been an awful lot of doing, but precious little in the way of planning. And I’m not really striking the right balance between the different things that I do.

I find that I’m fine with the big things, like my ongoing consultancy projects, which start to make a fuss (metaphorically, at least) if they don’t get the attention that they need. But when it comes to the less vociferous but equally important things, like my longer term writing projects, the plants I’m growing and (as you’ve probably noticed from the unforgivable lack of posts recently) my blog, then I’m a little less consistent than I would like.

In order to at least attempt to rectify this appalling lack of focus, I’ve tried to figure out what I do in my consultancy work that I don’t do with everything else, in the hope that I might be able to apply this discipline to some of the other aspects of my life. And what I found out was, in fact, remarkably simple. In my work, I set goals for each activity, assign a deadline and then set aside a specific time to do it. So whether it’s a meeting with a client, some data analysis or writing a report, each gets an appropriate slot in my diary.

So why, I asked myself, does this rigour have to apply only to the more ‘traditional’ aspects of work? Why can’t I use the same approach for everything else? And the answer, of course, is that I can. The best way to make sure that I get everything done is, clearly, to set aside a specific time to do it. (And then actually do it, of course, but that’s a different story.)

It reminds me of something someone once told me on a management course that I went on for my old job. There are the important things, he said, and there are the urgent things. The important things wait patiently to get done, while the urgent things jump up and down like the kid at the front of the class desperate to answer the teacher’s question. “Pick me! Pick me!”, they insist. And so we invariably do the urgent things, while the more important matters (which are generally the things that we actually want to do) remain forever on the ‘to do’ list.

The answer, the guy explained, is to think of the important things as big pebbles and the smaller ones as tiny bits of gravel. Imagine that you have to fit them all into a jar, which represents the time that you have available. If you put the gravel in first, then it fills up the jar and there’s no room for the larger pebbles. But if you put the pebbles in first, you can then use the gravel to full up the gaps around them. In essence, then, I need to make time for the more important things first, and then spread the smaller, urgent-but-not-necessarily-important things around to fill in the gaps.

So this is what I’m now trying to do. I’ve been through my to-do list and have decided for each item whether it is important, urgent, both or neither. Things that are both urgent and important come first, so I’ve allocated each of them a specific time in my diary over the next few days. The important things come next, so I’ve set aside some time each day to work on one or more of them, such as my writing projects or potting-up my chilli plants. The things that are neither urgent nor important have either been wiped off my to-do list entirely (very liberating!) or scheduled in when I know I’ll have a bit of down-time, such as when I’ll be travelling on the train or when I have a gap between meetings. (I wrote this blog post on the train, for example, and am now posting it online in Starbucks.) As new to-do tasks arise, I’ll do the same sort of triage with each one.

The end result is a to-do list where I now have a date and time allocated to do each thing, which makes it look a whole lot manageable. I also have a diary where at least two thirds of each day is planned out, which will make it much easier for me to manage my time productively. It also makes me look a whole lot more busy, even if some of the slots are for things like ‘sow beetroot seeds’, which don’t look particularly executive. And the unscheduled third of each day gives me some flexibility to respond to other things that come up, such as a sunny day that requires my urgent attention in the garden!

This doesn’t mean that I have to stick rigidly to my schedule, of course, as things will inevitably crop up from time to time that mean I need to change my plans. But I’ve made a deal with myself that if I have to ‘cancel’ an activity that I’ve planned in, then I will reschedule it for a later date, just as I would do if I had to push back a meeting with one of my clients.

I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t an earth-shattering change to my life, particularly as it’s basically something that I’ve been doing for many of my ‘work’ activities for some time now. But it does give me hope that I’ll be able to create and maintain a harmonious balance that lets me devote time to all of my activities and interests. Which, after all, if why I became self-employed in the first place.