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.

Walk more, drive less

I went to a workshop earlier today on Green Marketing, held by Bristol’s Think Future Now and presented by green marketing guru John Grant. John showed us this video about a project developed in China to convince people to walk more and drive less. It’s a great example of how art can be used to convey a powerful message. I really like it and it’s given me loads of ideas for things we could do here in the UK.

The idea won the Grand Prix at the Green Awards in London back in 2010. According to the China Environmental Protection Foundation, the campaign reached an impressive 3.9 million people and increased general public awareness about the environment by 86%. Not bad for a few pieces of paper and some paint.

You know you’ve been in a hotshot accountancy firm too long when…

So I was at a board meeting yesterday evening of a small charity of which I am a trustee. This was my first meeting, so although I sort of know how these things work, the specifics were new to me.

One of the items on the agenda was the monthly financial report, which compares where we’re at with where we’re supposed to be. And as my eyes drifted down the columns of figures, something dawned on me. The numbers were in … wait for this … pounds. Yes, actual pounds.

Pound Coins

The Pound: Worth every penny (Image: William Warby)

This may not sound particularly unusual to you. But coming from a background of working with massive organisations with budgets to match, I’m so used to seeing figures rounded to the nearest thousand or million that my mind was temporarily unable to accept that £250 might actually just be, you know, £250 – and not £250,000 or £250 million.

What kind of crazy world do I inhabit that £250 counts as little more than small change? In my defence, I do recognise that this behaviour is somewhat unusual. And when it’s my own money, £250 is definitely worth looking after. So perhaps there’s hope for me yet. But to be honest, it looks like I got out just in time.

The buck stops here

Two weeks from today, things are going to get a lot more serious. Because in fourteen days time I will go to the office I’ve worked in for the last decade and hand over my laptop, my blackberry and my corporate credit card… in short, everything that the respectable corporate clone could possibly need. I will be well and truly on my own.

But far from being a calamity, this is a time to rejoice. Because this situation is entirely of my own choosing. That’s right. In this time of recession and rising unemployment, I have decided to leave my respectable, relatively secure job and start out on my own. Goodbye, regular pay check. Scrimping, saving self-employment, here I come.

The Buck Stops Here - Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum and Library - Independence, Missouri

(Image: Marshall Astor/Flickr)

The idea of setting up my own business started a few years ago, when I found that I wasn’t as engaged with my job as I used to be. I worked hard, but found it more and more difficult to drum up the enthusiasm that used to accompany me on my way to work. And I found that, despite rising up through the ranks of the company, I had less and less freedom in what I did and how I did it. The company wasn’t going to change, so it was clear that I had to.

So now I’m going to be my own boss. I’ll find the clients and I’ll do the work. I’ll make the decisions and I’ll pay the bills. I’ll fix the printer and I’ll make the tea. If I have an idea that I want to try out, then I can do it there and then. If a decision needs to be made, then I can make it without consulting with anyone else first. And if it all goes terribly wrong, then I’ll only have myself to blame. The buck truly does stop here.

So here I am. Standing on the brink of possibly my most daring venture to date. Leaving the swish office and IT support for the kitchen table and a laptop. Trading the certainty of a salaried job for the excitement and anxiety of being my own boss. And with a massive grin on my face.

The two body problem

There’s a thing in physics called the ‘two body problem’. It’s about predicting the behaviour of two particles (or stars or billiard balls or anything else) when they interact only with each other under the influence of external forces. And, in physics at least, this particular problem can be solved exactly.

In real life, however, things are not so simple. Like many couples, my wife Natalie and I both work – she’s a university academic and I’m a business consultant and writer. And because Natalie’s work is on a fixed-term contract basis, every once in a while her contract comes to an end and she needs to find a new job. Now is one of those times.

Green 'for sale' sign

There's more to relocation than just a job change (Image: Diana Parkhouse)

In the past, my work has been quite flexible, so we’ve been able to move around the country quite easily to wherever her new job happens to be. Which has been fine. But now at least part of my work is specific to where we live now. We’ve both made friends and generally put down some tentative roots. And we’ve bought a house and spent ages getting it and the garden just how we want it. In short, neither of us really wants to up sticks and move somewhere else.

I’m sure it’s not just Natalie and I who are grappling with this dilemma. Any couple must face the same problem of what to do when one half needs to move somewhere else. Do you stay where you are and see if something else comes up? Do you go and hope your other half can find a job too? Or does one person go and the other stay?

And how are we supposed to balance this need for flexibility, so beloved of government and employers alike, with a desire to form links with our neighbours and our communities? How are we supposed to set down roots when we’re always on the move? I know a few people around here who have never lived more than a few miles from where they were born. And while I mock them shamelessly, I can’t help but feel a little jealous, too.

So what’s the answer? To be honest, I’m not sure. But I do know that the household where both adults work is now pretty much the norm. And I know that none of us has a job for life any more. The two body problem, it would appear, is here to stay.

Help! is at hand

I’ve just finished reading a book that does exactly what it says on the cover, no more and no less. Which is quite refreshing in these days of media hype and rash promises. Sufficiently so, in fact, that I just had to tell you about it.

Help! by Oliver Burkeman

Help! by Oliver Burkeman

Subtitled ‘how to become slightly happier and get a bit more done’, Help! by Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman brings common sense and scientific evidence to the world of self-help books. It guides readers through the maze of hyperbole and seeks out things that may actually be useful in our personal, work, social and emotional lives.

There’s something in the book for everyone, no matter how organised, focused, gregarious or balanced you already are. Here are the eight things that I, for one, am definitely going to try to remember.

1. Goals aren’t always a good thing. We tend to set ourself specific objectives that we want to achieve (indeed, in many big companies, we have SMART goals forced upon us at every turn), but these can act as blinkers when it comes to recognising changes in the world around us or identifying interesting opportunities that may come our way. As Burkeman says, we can have a direction in our lives without obsessing about the specific destination.

2. You regret what you don’t do, not what you do. This pretty much says it all, really. So if you want to do something, just go out and do it. You’ll only kick yourself if you don’t. I can think of few things worse than reaching old age and thinking I’d wasted my life. Having no money and living in a box I could just about cope with, but regrets: not so much.

3. Cut people some slack. When we’re rude to someone or drive like a muppet, it’s because we’re having a tough day or because we’re in a hurry to get home. But when someone else behaves the same way, it’s because they’re an obnoxious so-and-so. Isn’t it possible, though, that they’re also a fundamentally decent person who’s also responding to less than perfect circumstances? So cut people some slack sometimes.

4. Meetings are (usually) the biggest waste of time on the planet. As Burkeman points out, meetings proceed at the pace of the slowest mind in the room. So all but one attendees are wasting large chunks of their time. If you have information to share, then write it down and email it to people. Only organise a meeting if you genuinely need people to bounce ideas off each other. Otherwise, don’t bother. Most people just want to get on with their work, not sit around and jabber about it.

5. Play to your strengths. People spend a lot of time trying to improve in the areas where they are weakest, but they’re only ever going to be mediocre at best. This is particularly the case in large corporations, where a uniform ‘skill set’ is seen as desirable. But we’re not uniform. Instead, why not play to your strengths? Take something you’re good at and get even better. And don’t care if you’re less than perfect at other things.

6. Don’t put off important tasks. When I have a large or important job to do, I have a natural tendency to put if off until I have a big chunk of time that I can devote to completing it. But you and I both know that this just isn’t ever going to happen. So the task remains not just unfinished, but unstarted. Burkeman’s response is to just get on with it, working on the task every time you have a few minutes to spare. Clearly, this won’t work with things that require a lot of set-up time, like painting the living room ceiling. But for most tasks it should do just fine.

7. Make collaborative decisions. Burkeman suggests a useful way for two people to choose between several options, such as which pizza to order or which film to watch at the cinema. The first person chooses five ‘potentials’. The second person narrows this down to three. The first person then picks the ‘winner’. This is great. My wife and I tried it last night when we were trying to decide which DVD to watch, and it worked a treat.

8. It’s OK to give up. We’ve had it drummed into us since we were kinds that once we’ve started something, we should see it through. But how many half-read books, for example, do you have lying around that weren’t as good as you thought they would be, but which you’ve convinced yourself you’ll finish when you get the time? Burkeman’s answer is simple. Just give up. Don’t do things simply for the sake of doing them. Instead, use the time to do something that you actually want to do. And take the books to the charity shop.

The search for the perfect briefcase

Forget the dog. In our brave new world of international jet travel and instant communication, a man’s best friend is no longer a drooling canine, but the ultimate in office chic. Out goes Scooby and in come Prada, Vuitton and Samsonite. What a man needs today is not a faithful four-legged companion, but a good briefcase.

A briefcase doesn’t chew your slippers or leave you a nasty surprise by the back door. It’s more than a bag. It’s a source of comfort and stability – a little bit of ‘me’ in a world of ‘everyone else’. A briefcase is with you whatever the world throws your way – when your shiny powerpoint presentation goes down like a lead balloon, when your top client rings to say she’s taking her business elsewhere, and even when you misjudge the revolving door and spill your freshly-ground americano down the front of your brand new shirt.

With its ubiquitous presence and practical charm, the briefcase is a fundamental part of the modern economy. So in this day and age, the age of silicon chips and the internet, why are so many briefcases so utterly rubbish?

Let’s take a look at the hand-luggage hall of shame. In the beginning, we had the good old chunky leather number, complete with cavernous open-plan interior and those twiddly little number locks where you had to get your kids to change the code for you. These titans of the boardroom could hold just about anything – files, stationery, even a flask and sandwiches for lunchtime. The only snag was that you could use them in one of only two states – completely empty or full to the brim. Anything in between and you lifted the lid to a scene that looked as if someone had ram-raided the stationery cupboard. Not quite the professional image you wanted to project.

Perhaps in response to this, the next generation of briefcases were slimmed-down versions of the older ones. More space age. Curves not corners. You could walk down the street with one of these slimline smoothies feeling as if you’d just stepped out of the latest Bond movie. What you couldn’t do, unfortunately, was actually fit anything into them. No more files, books or sandwiches – anything thicker than a floppy disk was history. This lead to the dangerous and traumatic ‘flat food syndrome’, whereby starving executives from Kingston-on-Thames to Kuala Lumpur had to get by on pitta bread and wafer thin Wiltshire ham. Clearly, revolution was in the air.

And such revolution came not in the guise of a bearded socialist, but in the form of a macho and tardis-like icon of the professional classes – the pilot case. These kings of the paperwork superhighway were everything their predecessors were not. Not only could they hold far more than the pen and a post-it note to which itinerant executives had previously been restricted, but thanks to their vertical orientation you could casually reach into them during a meeting to retrieve a specific document without upending your entire life onto the floor. And with the size and sheer mass of these behemoths, they doubled in an emergency as a handy way of stopping runaway trams.

Now in our health and safety conscious world, it wasn’t long before some bright spark started to worry that carrying the workplace equivalent of a baby elephant around with us all day could result in industry’s finest developing more than a passing resemblance to knuckle-dragging orang utans. And so, in a move that has changed the lives of overworked executives across the world, the wheely-trolley-thing was born.

We’ll ignore the fact that the only reason these cases have to be so big is to accommodate the wheel and handle mechanisms that they need because they’re so big. And we’ll turn a blind eye to the minor technical issue that the handles are so short that anyone over five foot five has to take those funny teeny-tiny steps to avoid being run over by their own briefcase.

But one question we really must ask is this: How much stuff do we really need for a day in the office? And things aren’t going to stop here. The size of wheely-trolley-briefcases is actually on the increase. And in a few worrying cases, overworked executives have been spotted heading into the office with what is tantamount to a suitcase. How will this end? Will we soon be accompanied on our commute by a four-drawer filing cabinet? Will a personal pack-donkey be the latest corporate perk?

It’s time to stop the madness. The gurus tell us that we’re all knowledge workers now, operating at the speed of thought in a paperless world. Yet we’re lugging around briefcases from a bygone era. What we need is a twenty-first century briefcase, something that does the job whilst still looking the part.

And our needs are simple. The modern briefcase needs to be big enough to hold everything we need but small enough to carry around without the aid of a fork-lift truck. It needs to be secure enough to protect confidential documents but simple enough to allow us to get into it without having to phone the kids for help. It needs to be smart enough to look professional but individual enough to make it stand out from the crowd.

And what would be really good would be if, when you get home in the evening, it would fetch your slippers, wag its tail furiously and then gaze at you adoringly as you scratch it behind the ears.

I wrote this ages ago but never really got around to finding anywhere to publish it. So I thought I’d put it up here. I have a few more articles like this, so will post them from time to time, as and when I feel like it.

A bit of an apology

Please accept my apologies for the deplorable lack of posts in the last few days. I’m trying to get my final year physics dissertation/paper/project finished by the end of this week, so that I can post it off and go on holiday with a clear conscience.

As you can perhaps imagine, it’s quite time consuming and requires a fair amount of focused, dedicated thinking and typing. Which doesn’t leave much time, when combined with my day job, with anything else but sleeping, a bit of eating and some dog walking. Sorry. Back to normal soon…

On balance

I’d like to think that one of my strengths is my ability to focus on a particular task to the exclusion of all else. Unfortunately, one of my many weaknesses – you’ve guessed it –  is my ability to focus on a particular task to the exclusion of all else.

Whether I’m writing an article, working on my studies or potting up plants in the garden, I can get so wrapped up in what I’m doing that hours can pass without me noticing. Which is fine, except that I rarely, if ever, have just one thing on my ‘to do’ list. So while I’m getting absorbed in one thing, there’s a whole load of other stuff that’s just not getting done.

Take this afternoon, for example. I was working on an assignment for my studies, and got so involved in it that it was six o’clock before I realised that I hadn’t watered the plants, prepared dinner or walked the dog. All relatively minor things, but things that I needed to do, nevertheless. And more importantly, things that I’d promised my wife Natalie that I would do.

We all have many roles to play in our lives. I’m a husband, son, brother, colleague, friend and pack leader (to a small orange Labrador). I’m a writer, employee, student, home owner and gardener. I’m also a hiker, runner, sailor, swimmer and lounge lizard. All of these roles need constant attention if I’m to do them well.

Life is a juggling act. While I don’t need to focus on each of my roles all of the time, I do need to make sure that I don’t neglect any of them. I need to strike the right balance between the things that I need to do and the number of hours in the day. And that’s going to take some effort (and a lot more lists).