Steve Prentice

Go Back to Freelancing? I’m not Feeling the Burn

This is an article that accompanies my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Raising the Bar of Expectation. If you want to listen to it while you drive somewhere, you can access it here.

Let me start with an insult. I remember reading a comment someone made online about – well you know I can’t even remember what the comment was about. But I remember the burn. Some troll disagreed with the writer’s comment and wrote in reply, “go back to freelancing.” I remember being initially confused by this remark. What was wrong with freelancing? What did he mean by that? I have been essentially freelancing my entire career, and I feel I’ve done pretty well. What was the stigma that this troll was trying to push? That freelancing isn’t real work? That you only freelance if you can’t find a proper job?

I questioned the troll’s comments from three perspectives. The first was my own experience: two and a half decades of adventure, meeting new customers, devising new products and solutions, setting my own calendar and career path. Exhilarating and rewarding. Never dull or repetitive. What could be better than that?

Then I thought of the other freelancers I know. They, too, never stop improving their product. They are masters at finding work. They might change customers from month to month, but the work never stops for those who know how to find it. It’s job security anchored by your own talents and motivations, not those of an HR department.

Thirdly, I thought of the people I had met during one of my long-term contracts, where I taught groups of recently fired executives how to cope with the depression of job loss and the resulting loss of their identity. These people were truly at sea, with no compass and no hope. This is what happens when people get buried in their salaried jobs and allow no time for the entrepreneurial networking that is at the heart of freelancing. They don’t know who they are, and they don’t know where to go, because they never built the safety net that every freelancer owns. That’s why I wrote my third book, which is entitled, “Is This the Day I Get Fired?”

Go back to freelancing. Did that comment reveal a deep-seated fear held by the writer, who like most other bullies, projects his insecurities on those he tries to intimidate?

Well, I have news for that bully as well as everyone else, including worried parents, who fear that freelancing is not as secure as a career job or a unionized job. Not only is it more secure, since the power of mobility and self sufficiency rests with the individual rather than their employer, it is also the future of work. I remember a comment that a guest speaker once said at a networking session I was hosting: He said, “the chief difference between a salaried employer and a contractor is that a contractor knows when his or her last day is, and can do something about it.

We are in an age of profound transformation. Technology continues to change jobs and indeed make many of them redundant. It balances this out by creating new jobs in their place, as well as making it possible for networking and freelancing to flourish. But to anyone who grew up watching Dad and/or Mom leave the house every day at 7:00 a.m. and return home at suppertime year in and year out it becomes difficult to envision any other lifestyle, regardless how secure it ultimately is.

The Future of Work: The Gig Economy

Heavy hitters like RBC and McKinsey have publicly declared the following facts, for the benefit of employers and experts who are carefully watching the changing world of work:

McKinsey and Co. has stated:

  • 60% of all occupations have at least 30% of activities that are technically automatable.
  • Automation could affect 50% of the world economy

Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) envisions:

  • 4 million Canadian job openings in the next three years, of which
  • 50% will undergo a skills overhaul.

The skills that will be required include soft skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, empathy and social perceptiveness. The ways in which these will be learned will be more about lifelong learning in place of traditional linear education.

But to take this even further, consider these three rather stunning facts delivered recently at the World Economic Forum.

1.) Less than a decade from now, by 2027, the majority of the U.S. workforce will be freelance.

2.) Artificial Intelligence and robotics will create more jobs, not mass unemployment as long as we responsibly guide innovation.

3.) Cities will compete against each other to attract top talent, as they see economic ecosystems grow and flourish.

These comments were made by Stephane Kasriel, who is CEO of UpWork, one of the largest and most successful freelancing websites around. It would be easy to assume he has a vested interest in saying such things, being the boss of a company directly dependent on the fulfilment of this vision.

But it is important to recognize that freelancing is not a cottage industry. Large multinational companies like Pfizer and Samsung are part of this rising breed of enterprises that have turned online to find freelancers.

And there are others out there, looking for highly specialized talent and paying well for it. One of these is Innocentive, a company that “enables organizations to put their unsolved problems and unmet needs, which are framed as ‘Challenges’, out to the crowd to address.” In other words, it is seeking innovation through crowdsourcing; putting the bounty on a solution. Maybe it’s an industrial challenge, like how to get toothpaste into a differently designed tube, or how to economically prevent oil from freezing when stored in cold climates. You would think large companies would have all the engineering brilliance it needs to solve these problems from the inside, but sometimes they just don’t.

Very often I win writing or project management contracts from companies who have all the right people already in-house. The problem is the backlog. It might take six months to appear on these peoples’ radar, and the client needs something done now.

Similarly, it’s those experts on the outside, the ones who must stay constantly ahead of the knowledge curve, who are the ones who come with the solution, more quickly and more cost effectively.

It’s the As-A-Service Economy

Let me draw a parallel distinction. Companies the world over have, over the past few years, become familiar with cloud, and with it, related technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. What are these innovations doing for them? Far more than simply storing your data. The accessibility and data flow that these technologies have enabled has given rise to the as-a-service industry.  Where once companies shipped boxes of their products to their customers, they now see the value in many cases of actually giving the basic physical product for free, and then monetizing the services needed to support it, along with the data that becomes collectible.

Individual consumers see this daily when they use their computers. Products like Microsoft Office used to arrive in a box and required individual installation from disks. But now, Microsoft, and all other software applications are subscription based.  Sometimes even free. The manufacturers are responsible for testing and upgrading and they do so remotely via your internet connection.

The same principle applies to every other as-a-service enterprise, which is what makes cloud storage and security so attractive and practical in the first place. The supplier stays responsible for the upkeep of quality. It need no longer remain in house, where it might be prone to delays and budget cuts.

So, back to the workforce. I can speak from direct experience, when I teach new topics to a group of employees, they admit that they spend so much time closeted away, working on the internal problems of the moment, they never get the chance to look up and around at what the outside world is doing.

This becomes one of the key value propositions of the as-a-service freelancer. Just like cloud providers and software manufacturers, the freelancer is responsible for maintaining the skills and knowledge that a company needs. And now, with direct and immediate communication and the capacity for working remotely, there is no reason for them to ever physically visit the company’s brick and mortar operations if need be.

None of this is truly new. There have been freelancers for centuries. The very word freelance denotes a mercenary fighter whose weapons, including their lance, were available to whoever wanted to hire them. They weren’t free from a price perspective, but they were free from fealty to any specific lord, king, or country.

Companies have long outsourced work to other countries – call centers and tech support, for example – and even the notion of as-a-service machinery has its roots in leasing and rental programs.

But it’s more now. We have passed a tipping point. As-a-service is more than just leasing. It is about servicing, maintenance and aftermarket opportunities that go well beyond any physical machine. And freelancing is far more than hiring warm bodies to cover peak periods.

Freelancing is a new type of work, fueled by communications and data technologies that help bring customer and supplier together more efficiently. According to a study commissioned by Upwork, half of the millennial generation is already freelancing.

There is an inherent security in the freelancing business, reinforced by the ever-present reminder that you are personally responsible for your future. This might strike many as the opposite of security. After all, how can that compare to the permanence of a salaried position, especially when it comes to qualifying for a mortgage? But ask any salaried employee what their biggest fear is: it’s losing their job. And that is not a healthy way to live.

So, back to the insult that started this monologue. “Go back to freelancing.” Many people reveal their own fears in the insults and swear words they use against others. As I tell my audiences, I have been looking for work for 25 years now. And I keep finding it. It’s always interesting, it always adds something to my skillset, and it always keeps me in demand. It called, colloquially, the gig economy, and it is the future of work.

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Text Messaging in the 1700s and How it Affects You Today

This is an article that accompanies my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Raising the Bar of Expectation. If you want to listen to it while you drive somewhere, you can access it here.

Boy it’s annoying when things don’t load at the speed you want them to, isn’t it? I mean when we have to wait around for Microsoft Word to fire up, or for your browser to configure its updates, or for an app to download to your phone. And this is a serious problem. People have a tolerance of mere seconds before they give up and move on to something else. Ecommerce people know this, which is why they place such high priority on solving shopping cart abandonment issues. Music companies know this too, which is why artists are asked to write tunes that deliver the hook sooner. Consumers know they have a choice and they will move on quickly.

Texting Your BFF in the 1700s

Imagine what it must have been like 300 years ago. Imagine, for example, you walk four hours into town, maybe two hours if you’re rich enough to own a horse, and as luck would have it, a ship has just arrived carrying – among other things – mail from the old country. It includes a letter from your BFF, your sweetie, your betrothed, who writes, basically, “we need to talk.”

You re-read the letter several times, your heart is pounding as you see your happy future dissolving before your eyes. You run to the local apothecary, borrow a quill pen and a bottle of ink, and frantically write back a heartfelt plea to save your relationship. You proofread your letter, dab the ink dry, seal it inside an envelope. You dash down to the dock, leaping over barrels and boxes, you dash up the gangplank and hand your letter to the first officer you see.

Two weeks later, the ship leaves the harbor to start on its two-month voyage back across the Atlantic, where your frantic letter might stand a chance of getting into the hands of your betrothed another month after that. If, this was all happening to you in New Holland (Australia), just multiply all of these travel times by ten. Back then, you had to have a lot of patience when it came to sending and receiving information.

Rearranging the Text Messages on the Titanic

Did you know, by the way, that one of the contributing factors to the loss of life during the sinking of the Titanic had to do with the fact that the radio operators of the time were employees of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company – subcontractors, essentially, not crew – and as such, their primary responsibility was managing messages between passengers and their families and friends in Europe or in New York. These radio operators had no time or motivation to pay attention to the frantic calls of “Icebergs ahead” from the lookouts.

Over the century since the Titanic’s sinking, our communications technologies have increased in speed and reach, and so have our desires to stay ahead of them. Nothing seems ever fast enough. We humans thrive on communication. Today, for example, if someone does not answer your email within five minutes, you consider it within your rights to send another email that asks whether they received your first email.

Texting at 90 Feet per Second

So, what’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, nothing really, so long as you stay in control of the messaging. But most of the time we find ourselves not in control. For example, it is very difficult to resist the temptation to reply to a text while you’re driving your car. The compelling need to know what an incoming message says, and to then respond, overrules the logic of maintaining control of the vehicle. Evidence continues to mount that shows that even talking hands free, whether you’re chatting on the phone or dictating a text, is still an impairment. It takes a great deal of concentration to drive a vehicle, and that gets quickly eclipsed by the moment-by-moment activities of speaking and listening.

OK, you say, so why isn’t it the same when you have someone in the car with you?

Well, having a conversation with someone in a car can be distracting, especially if things get heated like in an argument, but when someone is in the car with you, they can see what you see, and are more likely to put the conversation on hold if there is a potentially dangerous situation unfolding up ahead. When a vehicle is travelling at 90 feet per second, that’s a lot of ground that can be covered during a moment of distraction. They can see that. But the person you’re talking to through your phone cannot.

The main reason why I am pursuing this line of thought though has to do with the bar of expectation, which continues to rise along with that increasing speed of communication. This rising bar does not just apply to messaging. It also applies to our own expectations of ourselves, and this anticipation of increased productivity sometimes exceeds our abilities. Let me give you an example.

Super Time Management Spray!

When I talk to my audiences about techniques for improving productivity, I deliver this offer paired with a challenge. My offer is this: I say to them, “I have, in the trunk of my car, a supply of time management spray. You spray it all over you and it will help you do everything faster. In fact, one spray of this patented elixir, and you will get at least four more hours’ worth of stuff done. Would you like some of this?”

Nobody actually believes I have this spray in the trunk, of course, but they play along, nodding their heads. After all, the truth is, there are few people who would pass up on the chance of being able to get a few more hours of productivity in a day.

“But wait!” I then say, like an old-time sales barker, “If you were to purchase this spray from me, even at this giveaway price of just nine dollars and ninety-nine cents a can, and you were to spray it all over you and you found yourself working at super speed, my question becomes, what will you do with this time you have found? Will you use it to answer more emails or attend more meetings? If so, my friends, you have won back nothing. You will call me back two weeks from now and you will be asking me for the extra strength spray.

This is the problem with best practices generally. They are not able to stick to the surface of a fast-moving culture in a way that ensures ongoing achievement. Instead they become part of the new normal. So, where you were once able to do five things in a day, now you can do ten. The bar of your expectations rises with this achievement and soon your expectation is that you can and should be able to do 15 things. And once you discover you are able to do 15, you start to expect to be able to do 20 things in a day and you start to make promises accordingly.

However, your body and mind have a hard time keeping up. Our instinctive desire to evolve and continue to make life better and safer for ourselves enthusiastically grabs this idea of doing more with less time, but our physical and mental selves really cannot do that.

So, you say yes to more and more emails, meetings, requests and tasks.

Or more precisely, you don’t actually say “yes,” but you don’t know how to say “no.”

The Smallest Word Is Also the Hardest to Pronounce

“No” is one of the smallest words in any spoken language, but one of the hardest to pronounce. Most of us have a profound fear of confrontation, or of offending or angering the person we are communicating with. After all, if you say no to your boss or your customer, you might lose your livelihood.

But the fact is, without that capacity to say “no” appropriately, the work simply piles up, but time does not expand to accommodate. And added speed is not enough. The extra strength spray just does not work.

The Future of Work: Cut Me Some Slack

That’s why, when it comes to looking at the future of work, many experts point to soft skills as the key. Skills like prioritization, delegation, and negotiation will become even more critical as timelines continue to shorten and the bar of expectation continues to rise.

I’ll give you an immediate example: Slack.

Now I love Slack. I am a devotee of online collaborative environments and I use them every time I am managing a multi-person project, which is all the time. There are other brands as well, of course, and Microsoft Teams will likely be the one most people encounter first, given the preponderance of Microsoft products in most workplaces.

Long story short, collaborative conversations grouped into channels are more efficient than email. There is an informality and immediacy to the communication that removes much of the mental overload and delay that email has been proven to cause.

But the pushback I get from people when they see a collaborative environment for the first time is, “how is this any different from email? What’s the difference between having a pile of unread emails in your inbox and a pile of unread messages in your Slack channels?”

It’s true. Even though I still think the collaborative messages can be handled more easily and more quickly over all, there is still an expectation that people be ready and available to respond to messages of any sort the moment they come in. The bar continues to rise.

But that’s where the soft skills come in. There is an ever-increasing need for people to be able to push back and say “no” in the most practical ways possible. “No” does not mean “go away, I never want to see you again,” it means, “let’s negotiate.” It’s a way of saying, let’s find a suitable alternative to the immediate.

So, whether you choose a collaborative environment like Microsoft Teams or Slack, or even if you choose to stay with email, it is up to you to let people know when and where you will be available. If you’re busy right now, or you plan to be traveling, then you’re not available to reply. This means you need to let people know this. You have to counter the rising bar of people’s expectations.

Get proactive and send out updates to those who are most likely to want to talk to you. Let them know the times that you will be available and when you will not be available. Give them access to your online calendar. Make sure to mark your busy times as busy, and your available times as available. If you use a collaborative environment, then update your status, and train your people to observe your status and availability notifications. This is a skill. It’s part of the skillset called influence, in which you get people to act in ways you would like, using positive emotion and positive reward.

A related and equally vital skill is that of following up. If you promise to be available at a certain time, then you need to ensure you are available. If you promise to return all emails and calls by the end of day, then you need to ensure you make the time to do that. People will believe in you and will accept these alternatives if they know they will be looked after within a reasonable amount of time. But if you break that promise, then the trust relationship will be broken.

The power is within you to manage the ever-rising bar of expectations – those you have of yourself with regard to workload, and those others have of you. It all depends on your ability to hone those soft skills of influence, planning, delegation, negotiation and prioritization.

Why “Manager of First Impressions” Is Not a Vanity Title

There are two principles of human memory called the Law of Primacy and the Law of Recency. They are similar in concept. They support the notion that when someone encounters a series of related items such as a bunch of different messages written inside one email, or a group of people in a receiving line, it is either the first or the final item or person in the sequence that is remembered much more vividly than the rest. This one item or person will color an entire relationship going forward.

That’s why I pay particular attention to the way in which companies employ the individual who works at the front desk, in the lobby or reception area. Perhaps I should replace the word “employ” with “deploy,” for I am not referring to employment as in providing a job, but instead how that person and that position are used to further the positive image of a company.

Reception work is not always seen as the most rewarding position in an office. It can sometimes be tedious, and sometimes overly busy, and it is seldom well-paid. I have often heard people make the condescending statement, sometimes unintentionally, when giving a speech or presentation about how a particular topic, product, or trend will affect everyone from the CEO down to the receptionist, as if this latter position is the lowest on the corporate ladder.

What people tend to overlook with such a statement is that the person at reception holds an unrivaled power of first and last impressions, a force that can impact the entire company and everyone in it. I once visited the head office of a large pharmaceuticals company whose gleaming and airy atrium served as the meeting point for hundreds of vendors and buyers every week. Each of these people encountered a polite and efficient person at reception. This individual carried the title of “Manager of First Impressions.”

To me this is not an overly cute vanity title. It is instead the manifestation of the company’s mission statement. First impressions will influence a visitor’s actions and attitudes forever (that’s the Law of Primacy). It shapes an individual’s behavior upon entering the place of business and will influence how they interact.

Back at the pharmaceuticals company’s main lobby, as visitors return their badges and sign out of the building, this Manager of First Impressions takes care to not only actively and sincerely wish the visitors a good day, but also thanks them for visiting. Such simple but well-placed actions demonstrate a degree of care that is becoming less and less common. These actions, demonstrating an above average level of care to each of the hundreds of weekly visitors extends into the brand, generating an image of above average-quality that every company seeks to attain. The reception person operates as a primary catalyst in the success of any business.

On an individual level, the first and last seconds of your interactions with anyone will color their actions and attitudes from that point on. Everyone knows the importance of making good eye contact when shaking hands for the first time, but what about using their name in your parting remarks? Are you able to remember the name(s) of the person or people you have just met? This is a vital skill for managing reputations and relationships. Including a person’s name to your “goodbye” makes things warmer and more personal. It shows indisputably that you care.

In this age where so much communication is done by text, it is still human emotion that guides actions and ultimately influences decisions. Investing some time to implement and practice proactive impression management is essential, for individuals and businesses alike.

King Street Pilot: May I See the Whine List?

Intellectual powerhouses at KitKat showing love to the community. Maybe time to update the website, boys!

Maybe I’m missing something here. How, exactly does the King Street Pilot affect the restaurant business? There are many times I have considered driving into Toronto to dine out or to see a show, and one of the reasons why I think about sticking with my car is because the GO trains are already packed.

Packed! There is always a game on. The Raptors, the Jays, the Maple Leafs, Toronto FC. When there is no game, there is a concert. Big name concerts. Yes, Toronto, we are world class when it comes to the touring superstars. And outside of the mega-acts, there are hundreds of clubs, pubs, and restaurants all offering a great time.

I don’t know if Mr. Ford or Mr. Mammoliti has ever taken an inbound GO train at 6:00 on a Friday or Saturday night, but they are always full. We are a sports and entertainment city. These are people coming in from the ‘burbs to spend their money in the Toronto core. This is not a city that rolls up its sidewalks at 5:00. Not everyone who works in Toronto drives home to huddle in some bedroom community until the Monday morning commute.

OK, so I choose to drive in. Well, guess what, the inbound roads are also packed. Commuting into T.O. along the Parkway or the QEW at 6:00 p.m. is as bad as doing it at 6:00 a.m. Face it. Thousands of people want to get into the city to have fun.

So let’s say I choose to drive in and I want to go to a restaurant in the Theatre district. Maybe I should call ahead to make a reservation? OK, well now the restaurant knows I’m interested. “But wait,” I say, “can you guarantee that I can park directly outside the restaurant?” Of course not. It has always been impossible to park on any downtown city street. That’s why we have parking lots! That’s why GreenP exists! If I want to go downtown, I pull out my app and look for a place to park. There will always be places to park. Even when every outdoor lot turns into a skyscraping condo, there will always be parking spaces in the basement.

So let’s say I haven’t decided where to eat. I want to chance it. This is where the King Street restaurateurs may base part of their argument. “If people can’t drive by, they won’t see us. They won’t stop to get out and buy from us.” Well, welcome to the 21st century, Mr. KitKat and Mr. Fred’s Not Here. Most people don’t make dining decisions on a drive-by. They choose based on one of three items:

  • Proximity/convenience. There are dozens of parking lots within a block or two of every King Street restaurant. Easy, convenient and easily findable on an app.
  • Reputation/recommendation. If your food and service are great, people will talk.
  • Social media/apps. Most consumers use their phones for everything, and that includes deciding where to go and eat. Along with great food and service, a restaurant today needs a top-tier website – mobile friendly and filled with detail to attract new customers. That’s the new version of the drive-by, spontaneous choice. People will search for you, and they will find you.

Hey! Here’s another idea. Instead of giving your city and your customers the finger, why not do promotion instead. Something like “Welcome to the King Street Pilot. Here’s a $5 discount or a free appetizer! Come back! Tell your friends!”

The restaurant business is tough, no question. Rents are high, and margins are thin. Competition is fierce. But success does not come from whining. It comes from innovating; moving with the times;  delivering consistently pleasing customer experience all the way along the journey, from the first notion of “where shall we go out to eat tonight” all the way through to the time the meal becomes a pleasant memory and the subject of a recommendation to friends.

Captain John’s. The vodka martini was actually vermouth soup. My bad for ordering an exotic cocktail.

There was once a restaurant called Captain John’s that sat at the foot of Yonge Street. Anyone who ever dined there knows its only redeeming culinary value was that it was a ship (kind of). For decades it used that novelty alone to lure tourists in from neighboring hotels. They would never come back. But that was OK. Until, of course, the restaurant got towed away for non-payment of taxes. If that’s what the King Street restaurateurs want to do, sucker in the tourists for a one-off, then perhaps they should flip the bird at the new high-rise hotels that surround them, each of which has its own inbuilt entertainment section to keep those people close.

To the smart guys who think that an extended middle finger will win back customers, I suggest you look at your business model instead. If you are an attractive place to eat, people will show up regardless how they get there.

Planning for a Successful Vacation

Show Notes From CoolTimeLife Podcast Episode 15

Note – this podcast was originally aired as a longer, one hour episode (Episode 1). We have been cutting them up and re-releasing seleted parts to make them easier to listen to (i.e. shorter).

To listen to this podcast, visit my Blubrry page here.

To subscribe to the series, click here.

Vacations – we all dream about them, but are they being put to the best use? Half of the therapeutic value of a vacation comes from planning – not just where you want to go, but planning the days leading up to departure date as well as your return to work after it’s done. If you do these right, your vacation will be doubly beneficial.

The Guardian article that I referred to was written by Jana Kasperkevic and can be found here.

Jana Kasperkevic in The Guardian writes:

In the U.S, the number of unused vacation days in the US recently was 169 million days, equivalent to $52.4bn in lost benefits. The reason for this, she writes, is that many employees are afraid to take it, while others just don’t get any at all, in fact she points out that only about 77% of Americans working for privately owned companies got paid vacation days. Those who choose not to go fear the face time problem, and they also feel that too much work will pile up while they are gone and they will be so stressed when they return that time off won’t be worth it.”

There are three distinct ways in which vacations work as a productivity and time management tool:

  • The most obvious is the vacation itself. It is supposed to be a time when you let go of all of the stresses and pressures of the working year and do the things you really want to do. Most people find the first three days or so to be a major period of transition as they catch up on all the sleep they have missed, and actually gear down from the pace of business. After those first few days, the restorative effects of the vacation start to take shape, and like so many other areas of life, this does not exist only in the mind. It has profound effects on the body, particularly the immune system, as you start to actually feel relaxed and feel good.
  • There is also the anticipation of a vacation to consider. If you find yourself in a stressful work situation, putting in extra hours and dealing with crisis after crisis, one of the best ways of mitigating the stress of that moment is to look forward to a break or vacation on the horizon – this is the light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing there is an end in sight has both a motivating and calming effect on your mind and body.
  • Third, there’s the memory of the vacation. Once you have had some time off, hopefully you have done something great with that time, those pleasant memories of the activities – or just the rest – will stay with you forever. Those are good memories, and feeling good always has long term physiological rewards. As the old expression goes, no one on their deathbed ever wishes they had spent more time at the office. Great memories flood your brain with endorphins. They make you feel good, and this too serves as insulation against the stressors of the workday.

HOW CAN YOU PREPARE FOR A VACATION?

Your vacation should be treated as one of the most important parts of your job, because that’s just what it is. Consequently, vacation days must be defended if year-round productivity and achievement are your goals. This means you must take the time to plan your vacation period carefully to help ensure a smooth, stress-free departure and a smooth, stress-free return.

First, plan ahead to avoid that pre-vacation crunch. The last few days at the office before a vacation can actually be more stressful than usual, because it seems that all the work that you would have done if you were not going on vacation becomes immediate top-priority. Everyone around you feels you absolutely must get it all finished before your departure. Start planning your departure a few weeks or months before the actual date, and you can influence the timelines of your projects, meetings, and other office events.

Draw a protective barrier around the period of your vacation, especially including the ten business days leading up to it and the ten immediately following it. Make sure those days before your vacation are carefully planned, so that you can hand off responsibilities to others and wrap up your projects. The days preceding a vacation should not be just business as usual for you. They should be about winding down and handing off. If you try to keep on working on your normal tasks at your normal pace on these days, you will simply generate more stress and overwork than the holiday could possibly alleviate.

Plan your return before you leave. Though most people don’t want to even think about their return to work as they start their holiday, a smooth return will help to ease the stress of stepping back into the rat race. The day of your return should not include any meetings. It should be a transition day, in which time is given over to catching up on the events that happened during your absence, returning returning calls and emails, updating your agenda, and getting back up to speed.

Why is this so important? Because too many people simply return to the office and hit the ground running, trying to immediately regain the pace they were at when they left. They return straight away to the stress levels and pressures that they left behind, erasing much of the therapeutic benefits that a vacation brings. Remember: your vacation is a tool for relaxation and rebuilding. It is part of your job. You benefit, your family benefits, and your company benefits. Ease your way back into the momentum of work, just like a runner warming up before a marathon, and you will be better prepared to handle it. Start planning your next vacation immediately.

The Shift from Monolithic to Microservices: What It Means for CTOs.

The shift in application development strategies is moving from monolithic design to isolated and resilient components known as microservices. As a result, applications that were designed with platform entanglements such as database and messaging layers have become more complex and costly to operate and maintain. This provides new challenges to CTOs, who must stay aware of the most dynamic, cost-efficient, and secure methods of managing their company’s data, while navigating the inexorable slide toward a microservices economy.

Mike D. Kail, CTO of Security-as-a-Service firm Cybric.io, points out that “with the rise in popularity of Docker Containers, there is an associated belief amongst many that by simply moving an application to leverage containers instead of virtual machines or bare metal, that you then get microservices by default.” But, he says, “that is certainly not true.” Microservices is an architectural pattern, and containers can be part of the technology using that pattern, but containers remain a “thing” while “microservices” is still a “notion.” This pattern can be used to either re-factor an existing application, or more easily leveraged for greenfield initiatives.

Central to the popularity of microservices is the ability to overwrite or replace an individual component without taking down the entire application, leading to less downtime and faster deployment or redeployment of software into an operating environment. Immutable infrastructure also helps with overall security as an APT can be rapidly mitigated by “refreshing the deployment”. This is also a concept shared by microservices – a modular and agile codebase, each part maintained by individual teams.

Microservices is an approach that is still evolving. It is a process being spearheaded by some of the biggest players in the business, like Walmart, Amazon, and Netflix. It is a technological ideal intended to ensure an organization’s ongoing agility and flexibility. This in turn allows faster and more intelligent response to immediate market demands like volume spikes in online shopping or movie watching.

Microservices need not be small, as the term “micro” might imply, but each service is dedicated to a single task or process. This allows for the components to be taken offline and edited, rebuilt, or replaced, without having to take an entire application down with it. This in turn allows for improvement on the fly, with less scheduled downtime, which leads to better business continuity.

The switch away from monolithic applications to collections of compartmentalized or containerized components seems to offer a much more practical approach to managing application development. They can be scaled separately and deployed as needed. They can be designed and programmed separately using different platforms or languages. And testing becomes more affordable, targeted, and frequent.

So What Problems Do Microservices Pose?

According to JP Morgenthal, Managing Editor of Microservices Journal, as applications get decomposed into microservices there arises a range of challenges around managing the sprawl. “In short,” he says, “no one knows the whole picture. They only know what’s wrong with their part.”

He points out that the previous generation of monolithic applications were expensive to maintain because of the high degree of entanglement of the components. Changes required more complex releases and longer testing cycles, yet at the same time, their design fostered simpler operation using fewer components.

“But as we move to polyglot microservices that leverage existing cloud services and are much more elemental, we still see an increase in the number and types of things that impact applications. This in turn increases complexity on the operations of these applications.”

What’s the Diagnosis?

Morgenthal highlights a need for greater involvement of developers in the cycle, specifically, full stack engineers and site reliability engineers. “The factors and attributes associated with design of microservices further increases complexity due to the way data management changes and the nature of discrete transactions.”

Wanted: A New Approach for CTOs in Managing Microservices

The very thing that makes microservices a more practical application development practice – compartmentalization – leads to an incomplete management perspective. “There is now a more urgent need for end-to-end management – something that has never truly existed. We need to break down the silos between organizations and departments, and we need to move from reactive to proactive. This would be the nirvana of modern applications management,” says Morgenthal.

This puts the role of the CTO in a new, indispensable light, as someone who must take complete end-to-end ownership of an application’s life cycle, encourage communication, and understanding across all teams and timelines involved, and be capable of knowing the entire process.

Mike D. Kail of Cybric.io, himself a CTO, adds more. He states, “I believe that the role of the CTO is more relevant today than ever. As with Digital Transformation, every company is becoming a technology company. The modern-day CTO needs to have the technical chops to drive the overall product/platform vision internally and the soft skills and business acumen to drive outward facing initiatives as well as communicate effectively and clearly with the other C-suite peers.”

Overall, the challenge of establishing full end-to-end management of microservices resembles the typical left-brain/right-brain dynamic of a living corporate entity. The logical processes of developing and refining a highly versatile and compartmentalized application need to be balanced with a refined approach to human communication within IT-Ops, upwards to senior management, and outwards to those who will ultimately benefit from it. This requires a blend of political acumen and technological know-how, something that will make CTOs more visible and indispensable as the microservices trend continues to expand.

Arguments Against Time Management

Here are the most common objections to establishing a time management plan. See how many fit your mindset, or that of your colleagues.

This is an excerpt from my book, Cool Time: A Hands-On Guide for Managing Work and Balancing Time. If you want to learn more, please check out the Books page on this website.

Common Objections to Time Management

Nobody appreciates being told how to act. Books on time management often force people to adopt techniques that go against their natural preferences, such as using a certain type of agenda, or doing certain things at certain times, in short, taking some of the fun out of life. Such fears and objections are perfectly sound, since people are conservative by nature. Change generates fear of the unknown, a fear of failure or of being seen to fail. This fear goes back all the way to the early days of our evolutionary history. Like the rest of our metabolism, it cannot be changed so much as understood and properly channeled.

The purpose of Cool-Time is to help you take the principles and apply them to your environment, culture and preferences in the most comfortable and proactive way possible – the one with the greatest payoff.

Time Management Doesn’t Allow for Spontaneity

In fact, it’s perfect for spontaneity, since it allows for the existence of “free time.” By keeping the day in order and with a day plan in mind, spontaneous activities can occur without endangering or forgetting the other activities and priorities of the day. Being able to take some time for yourself is essential, but in the real world this can only truly work if the other tasks are understood, prioritized and accounted for.

The best way to be spontaneous in life is to plan to be spontaneous.

It’s Only Good for People in a Routine, and That’s Not Me

Everyone has a routine. Some routines are just more obvious than others. A person who does shift work, or someone who has a fixed list of tasks to accomplish day in and day out, has her routine clearly mapped out. However, we all have a routine by the very nature of the 24-hour clock and our circadian rhythms.

The first stage in effective time management is to step back, observe the constants and standards in your life, and then recognize the routine in which you operate. Then, like a fish suddenly discovering the water in which it lives, the patterns of your existence will emerge for you to manipulate and finesse. If you can’t identify any distinct routine happening daily, step back and observe your activities over a week or a month. Your routine will emerge, and will serve as the foundation for your time management plans.

It May Work for Others, But It Simply Won’t Work Here

Our environment is too different. Everyone says that. Everyone thinks their business has unique pressures and requirements that make any time management regimen unworkable. Whether you work in the public or private sector, or a not-for-profit; whether you are a student, a homemaker, between assignments, a manager or an up-and-coming professional, you are in the business of selling “you” to other people. Also, no matter what activity you are involved in, there is someone, somewhere who does it better, or did it better. There is always opportunity for improvement, advancement, and refinement. It’s up to you to identify how to make that happen.

I Have No Time to Put Together a Plan

Actually, you do have the time, it’s just been assigned to other tasks. Time is neither made nor found, simply rearranged, much like the Law of Conservation of Energy we learned in Physics 101.  Let’s put it this way. If you are a working parent, and your child’s school calls to say that she is sick and needs to see a doctor, there’s not much on this earth that would stop you from going to her side right away. Even if you’re not a parent, a sudden toothache or a broken finger is going to change your schedule for the day pretty quickly. Most of your colleagues will be accommodating, and the work will get done later. The point is, time can be found when it’s important enough. The benefits of Cool-Time are tangible. They translate into money, health, satisfaction, and control. Cool-Time is important enough to make the time.

I Work Better Under Pressure — I’m A Last-Minute Kind Of Person

Nobody really works better under pressure, since pressure immobilizes higher brain functions and replaces them with fight-or fight reflex. In short, pressure instills mental paralysis. What last-minute people do well is to compress their action and energy into a smaller block of time, not letting a project drag on, but keeping it on time.

When I Need To, I Just Work Harder – Hard Work Equals More Work

Hard work without planning is like chopping a tree with a dull axe. Huge amounts of energy go misspent, and sometimes it will not yield any product at all. You cannot make bread twice as fast by putting in twice as much yeast or by setting the oven twice as high.

I’m Already Organized, And I’m Doing Just Fine/I Have a System

I’ve used it for years. If you have a system and that system works for you and your colleagues in a satisfactory way, then that’s great! Congratulations! Still, there is always opportunity for improvement. Take a moment to observe your current work environment and note whether certain tasks or procedures could be tightened up to win you back some more time. To be able to embrace change, it is necessary to confront your objections. Note any feelings or resistance you may feel towards continuous improvement, and assess whether your arguments can be countered, or whether your current way of doing things is adequate.

Check out my book, Cool-Time. Information on ordering is available on the Books page.

Applying the Right Conditioning, Not On Your Hair, On Your Colleagues

2nd-Edition-Cover-Front

One of the best ways to become more productive is to proactively manage the expectations of others, rather than simply react to them the moment they appear. This sounds tricky at first glance, but it really comes down to conditioning.

Conditioning makes gains through positive reward.

Many types of creatures can be conditioned by way of a food reward, after they perform a desired action. That’s what the whole “Pavlov’s dog” thing was about. With our human colleagues the same approach can be applied, but instead of food, you can use another basic need, and that is comfort. Whether they are your co-workers, clients, colleagues or managers – they all crave the comfort of knowing their current need will be handled. When you address that craving, you deliver comfort to them.

But comfort can come in two forms: you can do what they ask, or you can manage their expectations. The first response conditions people to know they can always get what they want from you right away. For example, a colleague sends you a work-related email at 11:30 p.m. If you respond to it, you are conditioning the sender to always expect the same type of 24/7 service. That’s great for them, but not great for you.

The second – managing their expectations – gives them the comfort of knowing they have been heard and will be attended to, within a reasonable amount of time. This second choice, I believe, is much better.

To protect your valuable working time, and to use it correctly, we have to identify every opportunity to influence and soothe the wills and egos of those around us. Simply blocking off time or disappearing into an unused office to get work done, for example, runs the risk of causing the people around you great worry – not for your safety, necessarily, but for the satisfaction of their own needs. They will continue to try to find you.

If you don’t feel like performing this type of expectation-reward conditioning, remember that choosing not to condition is still conditioning. Whichever response you give to a request or interruption, it becomes the precedent for future expectations.

Let’s put it this way: a colleague comes to you with a task that he perceives as urgent. He wants you to do it. If there is no one else who can do this task but you, there are three possible answers:

  • I’ll do it now.
  • I’ll do it later.
  • I can’t do it now, but I can do it at 2:00. How’s 2:00 for you?

The first answer, “I’ll do it now,” informs the requester that you are willing to drop everything to accommodate the request. That’s not good. Once precedent has been set, the expectation is that you will do so again and again, and you will lose control of that relationship.

The second answer, “I’ll do it later,” is unacceptable to your colleague’s need for comfort. They demand satisfaction, and a vague answer isn’t enough. Any time we use avoidance without an acceptable alternative, the requester remains motivated to pursue a better answer.

The third answer presents a suitable alternative to “now.” In this case, 2:00 is sufficiently close as to soothe the requester’s need for satisfaction, without requiring that you drop everything immediately. Providing that you actually pay this confidence back by dealing with the request at 2:00, you will have conditioned your colleague to recognize that you are accessible, albeit, more on your own terms.

This is an excerpt from my book, Cool Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. If you would like a copy, hop on over to my Books page. If you would like a workshop at your location, or if you would like to attend a live webcast, check out the details at my company, Bristall.com. If you would like me to come and speak to your group, contact details are available on my Speaker page. If you would like to listen to my podcast, check it out here. Either way, you will win back time and money. It’s just practical common sense.

CoolTimeLife Podcast Episode 2 (Attention) Show Notes

Episode 2 (January 30, 2017): Paying attention to the concept of attention, specifically: understanding and capitalizing on your own attention span as well as that of other people; techniques for getting people’s full attention in emails and meetings; standing to attention: why standing and moving around is good for your health;  memory tricks: how to remember people’s names before your short attention span lets go of them.

To listen to the podcast, click here
To subscribe to the podcast series, click here

IF PEOPLE DO NOT SEEM TO BE PAYING ATTENTION TO YOU DURING A MEETING:

It might seem rude. But maybe they are…

  • Taking notes. Digital notes are much easier to tag and search for.
  • Fact-checking or retrieving useful info or documents to keep the meeting on track
  • Putting out an external fire via email or chat. It’s eiter this or skip the meeting
  • Doodling / playing Angry Birds. Most people need to move around. We’re not allowed to fidget, so often, doodling is the next best thing

If an organization is to stay “old-school” and require that everyone turn off their devices and face-forward, then this needs to be communicated as “meeting policy,” and not be merely expected or assumed. Employees today make their own assumptions.

On the flip side, if a company wants to play it cool by allowing people to bring and use whatever devices they desire into a meeting, a similar policy must be developed and broadcast, not only to ensure these technically-inclined people actually do agree to pay attention and to produce the required results by the end of the day, but also to inform those who may not share this technological enthusiasm, that bringing devices into a meeting is not rude anti-social behavior, but is in fact the new norm.

In both cases it is essential that people on both sides of the ideological fence are made aware of whatever rules the company decides upon. Rude behavior after all can best be defined by what it is not: it is behavior that does not align with social convention. But unless that convention is explicitly defined and universally recognized, there is nothing for people to refer to.

ALLOWING FACEBOOK/SOCIAL MEDIA IN THE WORKPLACE

The 8-hour day does not work. This is why we have the water cooler and the cigarette break or coffee shop run. The reality is, no-one can do 8 hours of work in 8 hours.

What is your attention span like? Mine is about 12 minutes before I need a Twitter break. People have a professional obligation to act responsibly, of course, and to return to their tasks after the break. The point is to allow people to work according to the way their mind and body work best.

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ATTENTION-GETTING EMAILS

  • Subject lines – summarize your entire message in 12 words or less
  • Include one message per email.
  • The first 1st paragraph should say all that needs to be said
  • Keep your email short enough so that the opening and close are visible on the same screen. This encourages people to read.
  • Use a P.S. (postscript) as a place to repeat your message or call to action. The human eye is attractoed to graphic elements like post scripts

Resources I mention in this segment are collaborative workspaces, which I hope will replace most email in future years. These include:

STANDING TO ATTENTION
Examples of standing desk furniture:

Storkstand – this is what a Storkstand looks like.

storkstand

Stirworks offers a full sizes standing desk.

stirworks

MEMORIZING NAMES AND FACTS
To remember people’s names, use the act of shaking hands as a cue to start up the silent technique of word association. Find something about the person – their hairstyle, clothing or resemblance to a celebrity or friend – and connect that phonetically or visually to their name/

So there you have it, our podcast on attention. I hope it caught yours. Let me know by leaving a message on our comments form at the bottom of the MY PODCAST page.

What does Time Management Have in Common with Football?

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontHumans are social creatures by nature, so we tend to invite and enjoy conversation, distraction, and mental stimulation: the joke-of-the-day-email from a friend, the water-cooler chat, social media. These things provide a few moments of leisure, but they do come with a price, for after they have passed, the work still remains to be done, and we are then forced to stay late, take work home, or make other sacrifices to catch up.

Most of us are trained in a skill and then join the workforce. We continue to learn though training and professional development courses, as well as practical experience, hopefully building a stable career and putting food on the table. However, another, more sinister type of learning also happens. While we integrate ourselves into the corporate culture of the company, we start to adopt the habits and norms of our peers, including many latent, long-established time inefficiencies are passed on through osmosis.

Consequently, it takes us by surprise when we learn for the first time that most people “work” for about one-third of the hours that they spend “at work,” meaning they actually will get only 3 hours of measurable work done in an eight- or nine-hour day.  Though this at first seems to be an affront to our ambitions, it doesn’t actually refer to a lack of dedication or drive. The average business day is littered with productivity roadblocks such as meetings, email, and drop-in visitors, conflicts and staff issues, technology problems and crises, all of which, though they may be considered as part of the work for which we are being paid, occur in irregular and unpredictable ways, breaking up the momentum of work and stretching tasks further and further along our calendar. The difference between how much we think we’ve done and how much work we have actually achieved is surprising.

But three hours? That’s a small fraction of a day to be counted as productive work in the purest sense of the word. It’s like taking a stopwatch to a football game. Over the course of a four-hour game, between the downs, the line changes and the time-outs, the ball is actually only in play for about twenty minutes – a very small segment of the game’s entire span.

During the course of a workday, these things happen:

  • 25 percent of people’s time is spent doing actual work;
  • 15 percent of the day is spent responding to email and voicemail;
  • 15 percent of the day is spent on the phone;
  • 20 percent of the day is spent in meetings and conversations;
  • 25 percent of the day is spent preparing for those meetings or dealing with the follow-up.

The fact that such a relatively small amount of the workday is spent doing actual planned work is often overlooked until the time comes that someone is called upon to make an estimate on the delivery date of a project. In an attempt to please a potential new client, it is easy for you or your boss or your sales rep to say, “We can have that to you by Thursday.” In fact, if you had nothing else to do, and could work on this client’s needs exclusively for eight uninterrupted hours a day, you probably could have it ready for Thursday. But that’s being way too optimistic, and that’s where the problems happen. We have to be realistic, and even a little bit pessimistic. We don’t know what other crises might happen between now and Thursday, but we can count on a few simple truths:

  • Things always take longer than you think, and a lot longer than you hope.
  • If someone asks you to do something and includes the word “just”, as in “can you just…” you’re already in trouble.
  • There will never be a perfect time to get it done.

Time management is a two-word term, and the second word is “management.” We need to exert proactivity and  influence over people and activities if any progress is to happen. The good news is, this is both possible and quite easy.

This is an excerpt from my book, Cool Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. If you would like a copy, hop on over to my Books page. If you would like me to come and speak to your group, contact details are available on my Speaker page. Either way, you will win back time and money. It’s just practical common sense.

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