Hey, give me back my day

Commenting on web forums can be a lot of fun, and what’s wrong with that? Nothing, except that it can divert your creativity away from more productive work.

A useful rule for me: Participate only when you have deep knowledge of a subject, so that the airing of your authority can help you and others.

Social media such as Facebook can be just as addictive and time-wasting, and this is well-documented. Still, their purpose is often personal, and we all need diversions from the serious stuff of being in business.

Professional forums undoubtedly have a social aspect too, so the delineation isn’t clear-cut.

TOP COMMENTER

Forums encourage activity by rating contributors on the number of posts, upvotes or karma points. You can become a Gold account holder, Pro level, VIP, Established Member, and so on. Who doesn’t want to be a prestigious and recognised contributor?

On one forum that I read, though don’t comment on, the top person has posted 77,000 times since he joined in 2002. He no doubt believes that he “owns” the forum, as he’s willing to slap down contributors whom he feels are not up to the mark.

I’ve happily spent a whole morning commenting on sites that have left me hot as a scramjet by lunchtime, though completely uninterested in doing any other meaningful work for the rest of the day.

EMPTINESS

The buzz is wonderful but is also addictive. It’s hard to resist doing the same thing the next day and the next.

The result? An empty sense of time and creativity wasted.

For the purposes of productivity, it’s good to set a strict rule for yourself on the conditions in which you may or may not post – in the same way that a gambler needs limits on when she or he can continue.

Otherwise you end up asking what happened to your day.

Photo by Andy T

 

Planned, or just an accident?

“I was never particularly ambitious. Things just happened.” So says cricket legend Ian Chappell.

Think about your own successes, those that put you in the top one percent, or even one-in-a-thousand. Were they chosen goals, or did the good outcomes just occur?

Example 1:  Mark Zuckerberg didn’t plan on being a business star with Facebook. It began as a sort of game, an online jest.

Example 2:  Supermodel Kate Moss was discovered at JFK airport in New York at the age of 14 while returning from a holiday with her parents.

Instead of having big audacious goals, perhaps all we need is to place ourselves in the way of opportunity, watch for natural or accidental gains, then develop them as far and fast as possible.

Goals are often applied to activities in which feel “behind” or inferior, eg weight loss or passing exams. These goals help us succeed, although the results are unlikely to be world-beating. They may simply raise us to normal levels.

This type of achievement can be even more satisfying than where we outrun a lot of people and finish up in the leading bunch.

But the really top results may be those that were never actually planned.

Photo by Elisa Ventur

 

No, boredom isn’t always bad

In a previous post, we talked about having more than one project going at once, to provide continuing progress. When one gets stuck, you can switch to another.

This sounds fine, but there’s a caveat. Changing projects can undermine the boredom that got you going in the first place.

Huh?

OUT OF BED

With luck, our work provides not only an income, but also the fun of creating, problem solving and completing. Work can be interesting and stimulating, something that gets us out of bed in the morning, ready to take on the challenges of a new day.

sleep

An antidote to dullness and ennui, in other words.

However there’s more than one way to slice this apple, and the truth is that alternative projects can undermine interest in the first one, killing the urge to complete it. This isn’t just about using up the energy or time that can be spent on something else. It’s about the hunger that impels the task.

Example 1: After jousting with your editor on the phone for an hour, you’d rather slit your wrists open than make those marketing calls.

Example 2:  Designing your new kitchen online was fun. Too bad about the client newsletter that’s now overdue by a week.

Ideally, our ventures should work to satisfy different internal masters, rather than competing to achieve the same ends. Otherwise there’s a chance we’ll lose interest forever.

Don’t let your projects fight each other to keep the boredom at bay.

Photo by Nastya Dobryvecher

 

Blowing your nose in space

We all know that goal-setting is an important forerunner to improvement. And hard goals are supposed to be better than easy ones.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon,” said John F Kennedy in 1961.

The Americans met the deadline, although three astronauts died in a capsule fire in 1967 because of an untested escape process.

Big goals stretch our resources and make the adrenaline flow. We therefore become successful, faster. Or so the theory goes.

Alright, I’m going to grow my business by 15 percent each year and retire before I’m fifty. That’s a nice hard goal. Should help me get there.

Problematically, it doesn’t.

FOCUS ON PROCESS

Leaders are fond of thinking up quantitative goals, sometimes call performance goals. But the troops can do better when working for qualitative outcomes, often called learning goals.

There is a difference. Instead of saying “I’m going to reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon this year”, it’s more effective to declare “I’m going to improve my best weapon, my backhand slice.”

Focus on the process, and the outcome will look after itself.

SMALL OR LARGE STEPS

Performance goals look attractive, because it’s simple to adjust the quantity in order to get the right degree of difficulty. If Wimbledon 2021 seems too hard, let’s aim for 2023. If 15 percent business growth is too tough, we’ll cut it back to 12.

Yet learning goals can be just as easily tweaked. One big step can be divided into two smaller steps, or vice versa. For now, the ambitious tennis player can aim for a great slice into just one side of the court.

It’s said that what can’t be measured can’t be managed. But a quantifiable goal (which looks great on a graph or spreadsheet) assumes a degree of control over the outcome that in practice often isn’t there.

The moon within nine years? How about scratching my nose in a spacesuit?

Photo by Fionn Claydon

 

Over the top, almost

I recently went to a performance of Verdi’s nineteenth century opera, La Traviata. Like modern musicals, it was a multi-media spectacle, combining singing, dancing, narrative, an orchestra, scenery and lighting.

The outdoor harborside setting boosted the opportunity for grandiose effects, including fireworks and cast members arriving by boat. An enormous 3.5-tonne chandelier with 10,000 Swarovski crystals overhung the stage.

SWEET SPOT REACHED

The whole enterprise was over the top – almost.  This is surely the key to success in entertainment, communication or almost anything, which is knowing how far to push and when to ease back.

The sweet spot is the point just before the effort falls over the line into absurdity or ridiculousness.

Changing entertainments, watch any motor race and check the lead car. You’ll see lots of small evidence of the traction limits being approached, such as brief wheel locks during braking, sideways judders on the bends, tail wag under acceleration.

The winner is the person who can drive fastest without spinning out, colliding or failing to take a corner.

JUST THIS SIDE

The skill of motor racing is not to drive safely and under control, but to keep the car just this side of catastrophe. Similarly, an accomplished producer or communicator knows exactly where the traction limits lie.

Of course each medium has its own parameters or variables. Opera is not the same as motorsport or a politician’s speech.

But people who have mastered the sweet spot principle are invariably the most successful. This was just as true in Verdi’s time as it is today.

Photo by Borna Bevanda

 

A Fool Such as I

It’s humiliating to make business mistakes – especially the habitual ones that have gone undiscovered until now. “Why have I been doing this, all these years? How idiotic.”

After that, it’s gratifying. Embarrassing realizations are forerunners of steps forward, precursors to progress. 

RED-FACED

In a sense, continuous improvement is a matter of moving from one mistake or omission to another, seen in retrospect.

  • Color blind people can’t read our logo.
  • Google isn’t indexing a lot of my pages. Why didn’t I submit a sitemap? 
  • We qualified for that subsidized loan 24 months ago, without being aware of it.

Continuous improvement, once you’ve got over the red face, can feel like a dull way to make progress. How much more exciting to create breakthroughs.

But when viewed closely enough, “continuous” actually looks like small steps or innovations. It’s just a matter of scale.

On that basis, make a fool of me anyday.

Clear and hot – or strain and pain?

focus

Focus is good, they say. It’s supposed to be a key to success – concentrating on what works, and not getting distracted. Whole books have been written about it.

Short-term focus means fixing on a task and not wasting your day on side activities. Then there’s sustained focus, over a longer period. Enemies of this are said to include acquisitions, new ventures, and sitting on too many eggs at once.

Unrelenting focus isn’t always for the best, though. It can lead to number watching, impatience and unnecessary fiddling.

Not everything happens just when we want it to. Projects get stuck. Trying to push them forward isn’t always going to work. We need to rest, wait for inspiration, let time to pass. 

NO ITCHES

That’s when alternative ventures are valuable. They allow us to lie fallow on the prime one, without the feeling of going nowhere. We can move from one to another without getting itchy. 

Two side projects are good. Three may be even better.

Contrast between activities is useful, for example gardening as a break from book writing. The secondary projects need not be profit-related. When business progress is stubborn, you can switch to improving your tennis slice.

Everyone wants Unicorn rates of growth, like those of Airbnb or Uber or Clubhouse, but mostly this isn’t how it happens. Growth typically occurs on a compounding basis, which means that the first few years show modest returns.

Maybe it’s like planting an orchard. No matter how ambitious we are, or how much effort or intelligence is applied, a few seasons have to pass before the first crop. There’s a natural maturation process that can’t be rushed.

Focus sounds clear, hot, laser-like. Just what we all want to be. But it can also lead to forced thinking, strain and pain.

Focus isn’t always sharp.

Photos by Michael McAuliffe and Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum

How not to end a business connection

We’ve all been jilted at the office. By that, I mean we’ve had to face the end of a business relationship. Sometimes it’s done well, other times poorly.

ghosting

The worst kind of ending is ghosting, where a client or customer goes silent, not contacting you or returning calls or emails.

In dating, when your current love becomes an ex, the effect can be brutal, tolerable, or even welcome, depending on the state of the relationship.

NOT JUST INCOME

In business, the pain can depend on how long you worked together. If that was years, the effect can be devastating. We’re not just talking about the end of an income – though of course that matters.

Ghosting creates a feeling that the good bond you thought existed is of little value to the client, who doesn’t care if you drop out of their life forever.

This surely isn’t the right way. All business tie-ups end sooner or later, but the finish deserves a full explanation to the other party, preferably face-to-face, no matter how uncomfortable this process may be.

Ghosting should be something that went the way of the black and white television.

Photo by Stefano Pollio

2021: A Break Odyssey

Instead of making new year resolutions for 2021, here’s a better idea. Break something, pull it apart, and remake it.

The problem with resolutions is that the associated actions have to be continued for at least three months in order to convert them into a habit.

The brain pattern – and the muscle memory that goes with it – needs to be replaced by another. No easy task. Each time that we fall back into the legacy, comfortable way of doing something, it continues to be strengthened. A clean break is needed.

One problem with forming a new pattern is that until it’s properly in place, we keep making silly errors and causing ourselves to look stupid to others.

Too bad. It’s an unavoidable part of the process.

Most people don’t attempt to build a new habit. Instead they try to get a better result from the old less-than-optimal pattern of thought and action. That’s as likely as persuading your dog to bring in the letters instead of chasing the mailman. 

If you’re a cruel-minded kind of person who loves to win against others, their habits are invaluable. You can use them as a guide as to what these people are likely to do next. They rarely alter their routines.

Still, in a year that’s been a nightmare for many, there’s been progress. Folks have been forced to adapt to new situations, which has meant changing the old ways of doing things.

Let’s make that a harbinger of 2021 – a year for the dissolution of bad habits. Many of them are not actually bad, just not as useful as they could be.

Break, pull-apart, remake. A tenet for the twenties.

Where did it all go?

Most of us have heard of the resources curse. The notion is that countries blessed with natural resources don’t end up doing as well as those that start out with nothing. Think Venezuela with all its oil, versus Japan, possessing few natural advantages.

The concept can apply equally as well to people.

Those endowed with gifts sometimes cruise along, not as diligent as others, and often accomplishing less with their lives.

GIFTS GONE

Having never worked for their blessings, these people may not know where these came from. Consequently, they don’t know how to protect them or reclaim the gifts when gone. 

Possible types of bestowed advantages include sporting talent, family money, social connections, educational opportunities, good looks and intelligence.

Big achievers often come from behind, spurred on by an acute awareness of what’s lacking in their lives. They get enormous satisfaction from filling this deficit.

The “lucky ones”, meanwhile, sit back and wonder where on earth it all went. 

It’s not how you start out that matters, it’s what you become.

Tried and tested devices

Black Lives Matter. Indeed they do, and the snappiness of the slogan is an important factor in burning the saying into people’s minds.

It has a nice rhyme, plus the alliteration provided by the repeated Ls.

How about these?

  • Twenty-First Century Fox
  • Apple Mac
  • Starbucks
  • Boris Johnson
  • YouTube, TikTok, Google, Samsung
  • Gone With The Wind (oldie but a goodie)
  • Tyranny of distance
  • Battle with cancer

If you want your name, slogan or saying to be remembered, don’t be bashful about using these devices. Tried and Tested.

At some stage, you have to clean engines

Do what you love, we’re told, and it won’t even feel like work. Sounds good, yet the truth is that you’re not going to embrace everything about a job.

A friend recently announced that she was giving up writing fiction, because she didn’t enjoy the process enough. Other people, she said, loved creating novels. She realized that she didn’t.

Hold on, what didn’t she like?

LEARNED COMPETENCE

Fiction writing has a number of components, including plotting, crafting sentences, writing dialogue, and editing the raw drafts. A bunch of skills are required.

Some people are natural story tellers. They get carried along by the power of their tale and can hammer out a first draft in weeks, though the prose may be unexceptional in quality.

Other folk love crafting sentences and paragraphs, while having trouble shaping the whole thing into a coherent narrative.

The tasks you don’t like doing can be a grind, but they’re part of the skill-set. You learn to be competent at those aspects that don’t come naturally or easily.

This is why any profession or trade is a love-hate affair. You can delegate or contract out stuff you really don’t want to do, but some of it can’t be avoided. It’s difficult to be a mechanic who refuses to clean engines, or a general practitioner who won’t talk to patients.

Too bad about my writer friend. You can’t love it all.

The glitter behind the lockdown cloud

Every cloud is trimmed with gold braid – even lockdown.

  1. It reduces our range of activities. This hurts, but also allows us to focus. We can concentrate on two or three important areas, rather than six or seven.
  2. Normal activities often involve conflicts. For example, R&D and sales can be in opposition. If we can deliver on one of these we’ll achieve something.
  3. Stressed systems, such as hearing, nerves, or our livers are given a compulsory rest.
  4. Lockdown forces us to do old things in new ways, as many of the historic routines can’t be sustained. Often the new ways will be found to be better.
  5. Fewer resources means we have to do things more cheaply or simply. Some of these economies will survive the ending of the crisis.
  6. Inevitably, lockdown will put firms out of business and reduce competition. This is a grim fact. If you can survive, you’ll find a clearer field afterwards. The enterprises that were struggling in normal times will have folded.
  7. On that topic, Bill Gates has said that every business should aim to have a year’s reserves – in other words, be able to last 12 months without sales. Who the hell can do that? Still, you can see his point.

Too greasy to be true

Online products and services depend on favorable reviews. It’s easy to gain an unfair advantage by asking staff, friends or associates to add their flattering comments.

This is despite the efforts of sites like Amazon to stamp out the practice by deleting the goods for sale or banning the vendor.

There are ways of identifying user feedback that isn’t genuine.

  1. It’s often one of the first reviews to appear, posted with the intention of seeding more responses. The prose is casual, but grammatically correct.
  2. It uses exaggeration such as brilliant, amazing, a dream! Exclamation marks are common.
  3. The review criticizes the product a little in order to look like the real deal, but only on matters that aren’t important.
  4. It covers all the marketing bases of price, functionality, delivery and appearance. No genuine reviews are that ordered or comprehensive.
  5. It often starts with “I was initially wary of this kind of product, but decided to give it a try”. And ends with “I’m so glad I did.”
  6. Other brands or competing products are heavily panned.
  7. The review is signed off with a common first name. Genuine reviewers are unafraid of suppling their real, full details.

Any site moderator soon learns to identify the phony reviews. They’re like a red flag. With a little practice, you can too.

Successful by choice

There’s usually more than one way to accomplish something. Ideally, you’ll want to have at least three methods open to you.

If fitness is your goal, for example, try not to rely on jogging alone. Also have a choice among swimming, weights, exercise machine and sport.

WHICH TODAY?

Varying your activities will “keep your body guessing” and make you fitter faster. It’s also great to be able to get up in the morning and ask “what one will I do today?”

If yoga is your thing, train regularly with more than one group. Self-employed? You’ll want at least three clients.

Not only does variety stop you getting bored, it also creates a buyer’s market. The providers of activities will have to compete against each other for your attention, which means you get the best possible deals. 

A range of alternatives isn’t usually possible at the start. Let it evolve. Begin with a single activity, than add to that as opportunities arise.

Achievement – it’s a matter of choice.

For now, hang loose

It’s great to be in control, but sometimes this can throttle your efforts.

Early-stage enterprises are ambiguous, uncertain animals that are never a perfect fit with the market. They need a lot of tweaking and changing.

Being imprecise over goals and methods can be an advantage.

During the Vietnam War, the insurgents and North Vietnamese used the Russian AK-47 semi-automatic rifle, which was very effective in battle because it was engineered slack. U.S. forces, by contrast, were saddled with the fine-tolerance M16 weapon that in its early form needed frequent cleaning and often jammed, resulting in unnecessary loss of life.

LOOSE AND EASY

Anyone who plays tennis knows the virtue of a floppy serve and a relaxed grip. This allows a whippy racquet motion, using the pivot points of the fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder and back. The grip is tightened up before the racquet contacts the ball.

Ever listened to Bob Dylan’s early songs or read the prose poems on his album covers? Their meanings are often vague and impressionistic. They say almost whatever you want them to, which gives them wide applicability.

So too with business. Hang loose until the moment when you have to tighten up. Let market forces and other uncontrollable variables tell you what you need to know.

Be free, people.

No deadline, nothing done

If you want to get things done, place yourself under pressure or accept external pressure. You’ll work more effectively.

Build it into your schedule – without going so far as to cause panic. One person’s pressure is another’s ease, so choose the amount of push that enhances your efficiency.

Russian concert pianist Konstantin Shamray says: “Once you are busy, really busy, you get more organised and get more done. It is as if some hidden reserves open up within you.”

YOUR LEGACY

Without some urgency Parkinson’s Law applies. Restrict your working time, by say booking an afternoon round of golf before going into the office in the morning.

Another hack is to make a list that’s too long, knowing that all the items don’t have to be knocked off in 24 hours – although you will try.

The scope of projects that benefit from self-imposed deadlines will vary greatly, from “This is what I intend getting done before bedtime” to “Here’s what I want to make my legacy.”

Lifetime’s work or a well-filled hour. A firm schedule can benefit both.

Invent – or just get better?

Who isn’t hoping for the breakthrough that will transform their enterprise – the innovation that will set the world on its heels?

Hard to find, and more progress can be made by the less exciting method of continuous improvement.

Well, it’s not exactly continuous. More ‘fits and starts’. Still, if you’re always on the look-out for these minor opportunities for moving ahead, you will find them. And they do add up.

DIFFERENT SCALE

In a sense, innovation and continuous improvement are the same thing. It’s just a matter of scale. Breakthroughs look like a continuum when they’re viewed from a sufficient distance.

You’re more likely to advance with accumulating baby steps than if always looking for the transformative ‘smash hit’. Occasionally you’ll enjoy one of these, but it’s difficult to plan for.

Bust the charts or succeed by stealth? The answer is at your feet.

Can’t face another day

Write every day, we are told. It’s intended as good advice, whether we’re creating fiction, a blog, or other forms of non-fiction.

The idea is that a regular habit will maintain the flow of thought and get the job completed faster and better than a spasmodic effort.

Yet if we undertake other focused disciplines on a daily basis, we run the risk of overtraining. Anybody who has worked out hard knows the bad feeling of not being able to face another session at the gym because neither the body nor the mind is ready for it.

What’s so different about writing?

In defiance of commonsense, people are expected to be able to push beyond a funk, favor perspiration over inspiration, force themselves through the wall.

This makes little sense. The mind can become exhausted, no less than the body.

DAILY CHURN

By all means look at your writing every morning, assess it, think about where it’s come from and where it’s going. But don’t feel you must churn out another 500 or thousand words, just because today is another day.

Nothing is as good as coming back fresh from a period of rest.

Boris sets a rumpled example

What’s Boris Johnson’s main appeal? Anti-slickness.

The new British prime minister is notorious for his undignified stunts and sloppy personal appearance. But in an age of presentation coaches and instant feedback, this isn’t necessarily a liability.

Marketing guru Don Peppers in Life’s A Pitch calls it de-slicking your production. The idea is that a sharp and faultless presentation can intimidate people and work against you. Don recommends injecting a note of humanity, for example by giving some of your pitchtime to an unpolished junior who will likely make a few harmless slip-ups.

SCRATCHING IT

A handsome and imposing manager I met early in my career recommended rubbing your backside on the way out of the room to show you’re just a person.

Boris Johnson metaphorically scratches his ass in public. It’s both funny and deplorable. But slick it ain’t, and that should work in his favor.