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.

The cost of things

I’m a big fan of the ‘slow’ movement. For those not familiar with the concept, ‘slow’ is about doing things mindfully, taking the time to focus on what we are doing and making a conscious effort to do it well. ‘Slow food’, for example, encourages people to choose fresh, high quality ingredients, to cook them with care and to take the time to enjoy eating them, preferably with family or friends.

This approach has spread – slowly – to other disciplines, so that we are now starting to see things such as ‘slow cities’, ‘slow working’ and, indeed, ‘slow living’. Often dismissed as a new-age, lefty indulgence, it is, rather, a welcome rally against the cult of speed that threatens to take over so many aspects of our lives. For adherents of slow, life is something to be savoured and enjoyed. The journey is as important as the destination.

One of my favourite slow concepts is that of ‘eigenzeit’. It comes from the German ‘eigen’, meaning one’s own, and ‘zeit’, meaning time. The idea that everything, if we are to do it well, requires a certain amount of time. Now, the particular amount of time required clearly depends on the specific task in hand, but if you try to do it any quicker than its ‘eigenzeit’, then you will inevitably do it badly or not at all.

Take my garden, for example. I know that it’s going to take me an hour to cut the grass, if I include trimming the edges and tidying up the clippings afterwards. I’ve done it quite a few times now and it has never taken me less than an hour. It sometimes takes me more time, particularly if I’m having an off day or stop to chat with my neighbour, but never less. Now, I could save time by only cutting the more visible parts of the lawn, by leaving the edges to fend for themselves or by not bothering to tidy up afterwards. But that’s not ‘cutting the grass’ as I’ve defined it. My task has an eigenzeit of sixty minutes. It’s a fact.

In a similar vein, I would like to propose the concept of ‘eigenkosten’. We already know what ‘eigen’ means, and ‘kosten’ is German for – and you may be able to guess this – costs. If we are to produce a good or a service to a certain standard of quality, there is – in my view – a minimum amount that it must cost. We might be able to shave a few pounds off here and there by being more efficient or whatever, but we will eventually reach a point where we can’t cut costs any more. That’s the ‘eigenkosten’.

If we try to drive down the cost of something below its eigenkosten, bad things happen. Some producers will just stop what they are doing and go off and try something else. We’re seeing this at the moment in the dairy industry, where farmers are selling off their herds due to the unrealistically low price that they are able to get for each pint of milk that they – or, rather, their cows – produce.

Alternatively, producers might simply struggle on, making a loss on what they do, in the hope that something will turn up or that circumstances will change. Or they might change the goods or services that they provide, sticking to the ones that they can afford to deliver or reducing the quality of what they produce. This is the situation, for example, in local government across the UK, where funding cuts are having a direct impact on the nature, scope and quality of public services.

Sometimes, however, producers will opt to respond to cost pressures by trying to hoodwink us. They will cheat. They will reduce the cost of their goods or services below the eigenkosten by using sub-standard raw materials, by cutting corners in production or by claiming to have done things that they have not. It is looking increasingly likely that this is what is happening across Europe with the substitution of horse-meat in beef products, for example, but this is hardly the only instance where producers have responded in this way.

The slow movement tells us that we need to think carefully about how much things cost to produce and how much we are willing to pay for them. We need to be prepared to pay a fair price for the things we need and to challenge those who seek to do otherwise. We need to recognise that everything  has a minimum cost – its eigenkosten – and that to seek to drive prices below this is to pay disrespect to the goods and services that we consume, as well as to those who work hard to produce them.

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?

 

Yoga and fresh berries in the morning? Not so much.

I was reading my wife’s copy of Red magazine yesterday evening* and came across a short feature in which various contributors gave readers an insight into their morning routines. Yoga, soothing cups of tea and granola with fresh berries featured strongly. So much so that I could imagine the fluffy white bathrobes, the designer breakfast bars and the tall shiny fridges full of healthy and nutritious ingredients.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my mornings bear little resemblance to this. (And I doubt the contributors’ mornings do, either, if we’re being honest.) So in the interest of fairness and balance, here’s what a regular morning looks like in the real world. Namely this morning. In my world. Please try to keep up. And don’t read any further if you’re eating.

I wake at 5.21am** when the boiler comes on and the pump lets out its usual screech as it warms up. I spend a couple of minutes worrying about whether today’s screech is longer than yesterday’s, meaning that I might have to do something about it, but conclude that it’s about the same and go back to sleep.

I wake again around an hour later when I feel a nuzzling against the back of my neck. I turn to greet my lovely wife, the presumed source of the nuzzling, and come face to face with a  slobbery, grinning Labrador, who has somehow managed to wiggle her way (unnoticed) up to the pillow***. I fend off the dog as best as I can and try to go back to sleep.

Natalie’s alarm goes off and a startled snort emanates from the pile of duvet next to me. A hand reaches out and presses the snooze button. Everyone lies expectantly, and completely awake, for four minutes until the alarm goes off again. The dog’s tail starts to wag uncontrollably. Sleep time is clearly over, so I roll out of bed. I land squarely in my slippers (result!) and then walk confidently into the wall next to the door.

The dog and I spend the next ten minutes wandering around the garden. I’m glad that I remembered to put my ‘outside’ Crocs on, but wish that I’d remembered my dressing gown. It reminds me of the time, back before we’d repaired the fence (and, luckily, before we’d got a dog), when I wandered out into the garden in my dressing gown and met my neighbour, also in her dressing gown, who’d clambered in to retrieve her chickens. Such is life around here.

The dog starts to dig up one of the vegetable beds. I wrestle her out from among the raspberry canes and encourage her to go to the loo so that we can have breakfast. (Oops, that doesn’t sound quite right. I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that I can’t go in and get breakfast until she’s… Oh, sod it. You know damn well what I mean.) The dog catches a scent and tries to climb over the fence. I hustle her indoors before she realises how high she can jump****.

I weigh out the dog’s breakfast and make myself a quick coffee (using my Nespresso machine) while Molly hoovers her way through the kibble and Pedigree Chum. I feel briefly like George Clooney as I lean against the counter and sip my java. Then I realise that I’ve got dog slobber down the front of my pyjamas. And mud from the vegetable bed. I’m sure George doesn’t have to put up with this.

We still have a bit of bread left, so I make myself a honey sandwich for breakfast (no granola here, I’m afraid) and munch through it while I wait for Natalie to vacate the bathroom. Natalie wanders out and the dog queue-jumps me to get at the water bowl next to the shower. I bet George doesn’t have to put up with this, either. To be honest, I’m not sure why I put up with this.

Once everyone’s washed and Natalie’s headed off for work, Molly and I set out for our walk. We return an hour later well exercised and, predictably, covered in mud. Molly thinks this is excellent, so I grab her and wipe off the worst of it with a towel. She wipes off the rest on the settee. I put a throw over the settee to cover up the mud and the dog hair.

It is now 8.50am. Time for work. I put the kettle on.

* Yes, I read Red magazine. It’s important to be in touch with one’s feminine side. And it’s actually quite a good read. Get over it.

** It’s really set for 5.30am, but the clock’s wrong and I can’t be bother to go through the faff of resetting it for the sake of a measly nine minutes.

*** Yes, the dog usually sleeps on the end of the bed. It’s winter. It’s cold. What are you going to do? Report me to the RSPCA?

**** She can easily jump a six foot fence, but I’d really rather she didn’t figure that out.

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.