Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work (and What You Can Do About It)

It’s TED Thursday again! This week’s TED Talk is one of my favorites – it’s about how we all spend the majority of time at the office, but it’s paradoxically one of the least effective places to do your work in. In the office, we’re constantly bombarded with a flurry of emails, calls, meetings, and that one annoying colleague that seems to pop by your cubicle at the WORST times ever. Which leaves me wondering: how the hell does anyone get anything done in this place?

Jason Fried offers a couple of solutions: 1. No Talk Thursday, 2. Passive Communication & 3. Canceling Meetings. While I highly respect Jason and those are cool ideas to think about (I love his description of managers – that they were put on this earth to interrupt people), I think he needs to delve a little deeper and address the crux of the problem here: that we’re all in a system that encourages you not to do effective work in the office.

Damn Reports, Meetings and Managers – not (that) evil

Most people find it hard to do actual, tangible, meaningful work at the office because they’re tied up with a stupid report or a lame meeting. No, I don’t care what you say about reports and meetings – when was the last time your customers ever told you “Hey, good job on that meeting / TPS report you did!” Yet, we have to understand that it’s part of a system, and meetings and reports are actually surprisingly necessary especially if you work in a large corporation, like I do. As a company gets larger and larger, it needs to spend more and more resources on coordination, governance, pleasing shareholders, etc. Without meetings and reports, giants we’ve grown to love like Coca-Cola, Mircosoft, IBM and Proctor & Gamble wouldn’t exist. So yes, there is a reason to this necessary evil after all.

Another hard fact of working life in a large corporation: managers. It’s not that they WANT to interrupt you from doing meaningful work, it’s because they don’t have any other choice – it’s their job. Think about it: You and I get things done by setting aside half a day and focusing our energies on a particular project. We zoom in on a problem, define which areas need to be improved, craft some possible solutions, test them out, and put them into practice. Bam! Our customers’ lives are improved. Yet, for managers, they don’t have the time to go into all that detail. Their job is to manage a dozen or more of these projects – their job is to figure out what the hell is going on with them, then delegate tasks to people like you and I. THAT’S why they hold so many damn meetings and need us to submit so many reports. They practically spend all their time attending meetings and reading reports – because that’s how they get things done. They’re not evil (well, most of them anyway), they’re just doing their job.

So what the hell can we do to get stuff done around here?

We’re not going to be able to change those facts of corporate life. Managers, meetings and reports will always be there, whether we like them or not. If you can’t stand them, go become an artist. So I don’t think Jason Fried’s recommendation of canceling meetings really addresses the crux of the issue. Neither is designating half a day per week for total silence going to help out that much. Here’s my take on what you should do to get actual work done in the office (so much to say on all these tips, but I’ll talk more about them in subsequent posts!):

1. Do one thing, with no distractions. Literally close your email client, download everything so you can work offline, and go to somewhere private like a conference room to really work on something. This is an extension of No Talk Thursday, but I think we’ve gotta extend that to become a lifestyle. I try to do some sort of variation of this on a daily basis, from a couple of hours to almost the entire day.

2. Ruthlessly reject meetings you can’t add any value to. Here’s a good guideline: Every time you get invited for a meeting, ask yourself if you’ll be actively contributing to it (ie: speaking and giving your input throughout the meeting). If not, then you’re not needed there. Reject the invitation and read the minutes instead. Meetings have two purposes, and two purposes only: conflict, and coordination (I freakin HATE meetings that are called to inform everyone about stuff). And if you’re attending, you’d better damn well be actively contributing.

3. Don’t spend too much time on reports. Literally shave it to its bare minimum. You think anyone besides you is going to read anything more than 2 pages long? Your report is a necessary, but boring, fact of life. Do it if you have to, but don’t let it stop you from doing real, meaningful work.

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Act Now and Change It

So here’s the thing: I’ve been reading some literature on the psychology of influence and persuasion, and one of the things that particularly struck me was this:

A change in behavior leads to a change in attitude

Most of us think it works the other way round. Think about it. If we were normal, rational human beings, we’d wake up in the morning and say “okay I’m gonna quit smoking” or “I’m gonna go on a diet” or “I’m gonna start saving more”, and then we’d go ahead and do it. The thing is, how often does that work? Think about how many unhealthy, fat and broke people there are in this world who’ve ever tried saying those things to themselves, and then failed, even though they know that it’s good for them.

Now, it seems to make sense that by mentally changing our attitude, our minds would cause our bodies to act in the way that we want to act. Mind over matter and all that shizz. But it just doesn’t work that way. By the way, that’s also why campaigns that bombard people with information fail miserably most of the time. I was at a mall once and I happened to see these posters with pictures of decaying teeth and craploads of paragraphs urging you to go get your teeth checked out at the dentist. They were proclaiming that “40% of Singaporeans will suffer from <insert obscure medical term here>”…. yet was that going to scare me into making an appointment right there? Nah. More likely, I’d go “Hmm, that’s interesting..” and then forget about it.

I read about a study where two groups of participants were all asked to watch a bunch of Far Side cartoons. While watching the show, the first group was asked to hold a pencil between their teeth, but ensure that it did not touch their lips. The second group was asked to support the end of the pencil with their lips but not their teeth. Unknowingly, the first group had forced their lower part of their faces into a smile, while the second group had made themselves frown. Amazingly, those who forced themselves to smile felt happier, and found the show much funnier than those in the other group. The awesome thing was, the participants didn’t know they were smiling/frowning. Their bodies were just made to act in a certain way, which caused a fundamental change in their attitudes to the same situation. This wasn’t some scammy trick – the smiling participants were genuinely happier.

Behavior works, even if it’s forced. As long as you start doing something, no matter how small, the effect it has on your psyche is amazing. Which is why I like to blog about specific, actionable steps that you could literally do today if you wanted to. You could go to the bank and set up an automatic savings account today. You could log into your account and set up a monthly savings amount for that trip you wanted to take at the end of the year. Doing something, anything, in the right direction will start your mind whirring towards better financial habits. And once you start doing it consistently, say with the help of a system that doesn’t require any “willpower” on your part, then you’ll fundamentally change your attitude for the better.

Most personal finance articles you find in magazines and newspapers will bombard you with a thousand compound interest charts and tell you “oh hey, if you save like $500 each month you could totally be a millionaire by 65”, or “Guess what, if you cut down on drinking beers you could totally save an extra $200 per month”. Sure, that’s interesting but would you actually go out there and do it? More importantly, would you be able to stick with it? Much of what is written out there is pure informational fluff, with no sticking power whatsoever. They are written to appeal to the masses, not to specifically help you.

Do yourself a favor and take a baby step towards better financial habits today. It could be going to the bank and setting up an account with a better interest rate. Or transferring your excess cash to your guilt-free spending account. Or deciding how much you want to save and setting it up in your automatic savings account (Notice I didn’t stop at “decide how much you want to save” – the key is to do SOMETHING with it). On my part, I’ll keep blogging about how you can take further steps to improve your financial life. Pick a few, act on them, and before you know it, you’ll have a whole new attitude towards your own finances.

The Guilt-Free Spending Account

So far, I’ve blogged a couple of posts about saving, and how you can completely automate it. However, in a seemingly about-face in my philosophy of prudent saving, my previous post was about spending extravagantly on the things you love. My friend Paul told me that it might be a tad confusing for everyone, so I decided to take the opportunity to clear the air, and sneak in a little tip on how you can spend on what you love, yet not sacrifice your long run savings.

I used to joke that I should create a charity called the “Buy Lionel a Porsche Fund” and I’d pester people to donate to ‘a worthwhile cause’ (hey, it’s worthwhile to me). Even though it’s pretty unlikely you could get people to donate to your charity, there’s nothing to stop you from donating to it. Here’s the crux of it – when your money comes in every month, it should be divided into three parts:

1. Your long-run savings (which would also include funds for investment, or your downpayment on your house, etc)

2. All those mandatory expenses (your rent, your mortgage, utility bills, phone bills, insurance, etc) that are annoying, but necessary to ensure you’re not a hobo.

3. Your Guilt-Free Spending Fund, which you can use to spend on whatever the hell you want.

The reason why I could afford to drop a thousand dollars on a dance trip to Europe without a single shred of guilt was because I took care of parts 1 and 2 first. Here’s how to do it:

First, decide on how much you want to save (more on this later – because this involves planning for your investments and your retirement. But for now, just pick a reasonable arbitrary amount and stick with it.) Next, take stock of all your mandatory monthly expenses. If you’re a single young executive, this exercise shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes – just pull all your bills from last month and examine them for anything that’s recurring: your phone bill, insurance premiums, subscriptions, food, whatever. Most of them should be more or less the same amount every month. Then, add 15% to that for any unexpected expenses. (I call this my ‘Stupid Mistakes’ fund – more on this in another post)

Once your savings and expenses have been subtracted from your income, whatever’s left over automatically goes into your Guilt-Free Spending Fund. Now this is where you can draw your money from and spend the heck out of it on things that you love, whether it’s a trip to the Maldives, or watches, or shopping, or kinky sex toys (hey, whatever floats your boat). This is why I can afford to spend money on dance classes and not worry about retirement. Sure, maybe it’ll take you a couple of months to save up for that expensive trip, but once you’ve reached your target, you should have no qualms about spending it… because you’re worth it. (cue L’Oreal model flicking her hair and smiling)

Like my previous posts on saving, you can create a system to build your Guilt-Free Spending Fund, without ever having to worry about whether you’re spending too much or not. If you’ve followed the advice from my previous post, you probably have 2 accounts: a current (or checking) account that your salary gets deposited into, and a savings account. If your bank lets you partition your current account, then create a sub-account for this purpose. In Singapore, where I live, I don’t really know of any banks that let you do that, so I did the next best thing – I signed up for a POSB MySavings account. I chose this because POSB lets you transfer money to and from this account seamlessly and for free. Your interest rate in the MySavings account gets hit when you withdraw money from it, but since the money is not going to be there for very long (it’s meant to be spent, remember?), it’s not going to make much of a difference.

It then becomes very obvious when your accounts are segregated. Your current account is for paying off all your expenses, your savings account is for your long-term savings and investments, and your third account is for your guilt-free expenses.

You can then automate the building of your Guilt-Free Spending fund by setting up automatic transfers with your bank. Arrange for your bank to automatically transfer this amount into your third account on a monthly basis: Amount to transfer = your income – [(your expenses) x 1.15], where the extra 15% is for unexpected expenses. That’s it. You now have an account where you know you could spend the entire amount in it tomorrow, and you know you won’t starve or compromise on your future. It’s a liberating feeling.

I love this account. It’s the one account I actually love seeing a low bank balance on, because it shows that I’ve been living an awesome life by spending when I deserve it. Of course, if you’re saving up for a specific goal, say an expensive trip or Christmas gifts and parties, then you can’t blow the entire account tomorrow. But the same principle holds – that money is for you to spend, and it’s your reward for working hard and saving. Enjoy it.

Spend On What You Love

So I’ve been receiving a lot of feedback on my posts on saving, which is awesome because this shows that people are actually reading what I have to say. (When I started this blog, I had this fear that the only person who was going to read it was some drunk dude trying to google how to fry an egg)

However, I noticed a recurring theme in what many people told me – that reading about saving actually made them feel guilty about themselves. Now that is definitely not my aim in writing this blog. Most personal finance books will start off by trying to guilt-trip the hell out of you into spending less. “No, you shouldn’t be taking vacations.” “No, why spend money on beer when water’s so much healthier?”, “No, you should never eat out”. No, no, no, no, no. It’s a TERRIBLE way to live. Sure, you may save a few dollars here and there. But if you’re reading my blog to learn how you can save 10 cents by optimizing your bus/MRT route home, you’re in the wrong place. You’re better off going for a program like this:

(in case you didn’t get that – that was a joke. I freakin’ love Ramit’s stuff – he’s a big inspiration for what I blog about here)

I don’t want to make you feel guilty – that’s why I’m a huge advocate of automating your savings: Decide how much you want to save/invest per month, set up a system to automatically take that money where you can’t touch it, and you’re free to spend the rest. Guilt-free.

Ramit Sethi from Iwillteachyoutoberich.com (yeah I know, scammy name but he’s one of the few bloggers out there offering high quality, no-bullshit material) has this one piece of advice that I totally agree with: spend extravagantly on the things you love, as long as you cut costs mercilessly on the things you don’t. Being rich isn’t just about saving – Saving is just one side of the coin (pun totally intended). Being rich also means that if it matters to you, you should be able to enjoy the hell out of the things you love.

For example – I love dance. It’s fun, it makes me feel bad-ass (because I suck at being gangsta in real life), I get a good workout, and I get to meet some amazing people with crazyass talent. Each class sets me back about $15 – $20 bucks, and I have no qualms about dropping a couple of hundred dollars on classes. I take part in dance shows and spend like over a hundred dollars for a costume that I will probably never wear again. Last year, I spent nearly a thousand dollars (excluding plane ticket) on a trip to Germany for Urban Dance Camp – where I spent 4 glorious days learning from the best choreographers in the world: Kyle Hanagami, Philip Chbeeb, Jun Quemado, Lando Wilkins.. – literally legends I’d been following on YouTube all my life. Oh, and I had breakfast with Jun Quemado. How dope is that?

I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt spending on that because I love it. To me, it’s totally worth it. For you, maybe that thing that you absolutely love could be traveling, or food, or beer, or 19th-century Chinese coins. It doesn’t matter. The point is, you should have no hesitations on spending on the things you love. However, you should be mercilessly cutting your costs on the things that you don’t. For example, I don’t need a car – I’m perfectly fine traveling on the subway and unlike most people, I think a car’s role as a status symbol is stupid. Not having a car alone is enough to cover my dance expenses for years. Also, I don’t go shopping very often – I’m perfectly fine with like the 2 shirts I wear all the time (okay maybe that’s a little bit of an exaggeration – but just a little). I don’t see the need to eat at restaurants, so I have dinner at the staff canteen where I work – at  ridiculously cheap prices.

The point I’m trying to make is this – Life is awesome. First, automate your savings. Next, take 10 minutes to decide what really, truly makes life awesome for you. Then spend like crazy on it. Honestly, don’t bother  whether you paid a couple of dollars more than your friends when you’re splitting the bill. Spend consciously – think about the stuff in your life that DON’T love, but are needlessly spending extra money on. Then cut the excess crap from your life, and spend it all on the things that you DO love. Guilt-free.

How to Make Work-Life Balance Work

Today’s TED Thursday features an awesomely eloquent and honest talk by Nigel Marsh on work-life balance. Most of the self-help / motivational / bullshit literature on work-life balance give you useless platitudes: “Go to the gym in the morning! Skip lunch so you can meet friends for dinner! Wear jeans to work! (Seriously, wtf) Sleep with your boss!” These simply don’t work because they don’t attack the absolute core of the problem: that most people are “working long hours in jobs they hate, to buy things they don’t need, in order to impress people they don’t like.” Nigel lays out four things to think about when you’re trying to deal with this problem:

1. Acknowledge the reality of the situation: If your career choice is fundamentally incompatible with you having any sort of life outside of the office, then it’s time to rethink your priorities.

2. Governments and corporations are not going to solve this problem for you. You, and you alone, have to be responsible for setting and enforcing the boundaries between your work and the rest of your life.

3. Be careful of the timeframe by which you judge your work-life balance. Realistically, you’re not going to accomplish 10 things on your to-do list and end work at 5.30pm every single day. Occasionally, it’s fine to stay a little late, as long as you’re happy with your overall work-life balance as you look back over the past quarter or year.

4. Approach work-life balance in a balanced way. Don’t aim for major, radical changes that require a lot of effort. Instead, aim for small, incremental changes – you’ll be surprised at how transformative they are.

I remember that just a month ago, I was a soulless, lifeless, depressed, most stressed son-of-a-bitch in the office. (Yeah, the fact that it was Christmas season didn’t help either). I had way too much work on my plate, snapped at my colleagues, couldn’t focus on getting my s**t together, and hated my life. Sound familiar? Most websites offering you advice will never admit that they’ve had low points in their lives, but that’s cause they’re either 1) lying or 2) unemployed. Let’s be honest, you’re going to have some low moments, no matter how much you love your job.

When you’re in that state of mind, it’s important not to generalize that particular phase of your working life to your entire job. Do I actually hate my job? Nope. I definitely hated the feeling of being stuck in a rut, but I also knew that it wouldn’t be permanent.

How I dealt with it is a whole series of posts by itself, but in a nutshell:

1. I enforced boundaries. I told myself I would leave work at 6.30pm no matter how much crap I had left. It was pointless staying later than that anyway – I didn’t get much work done, and it sucks to be wolfing down McDonald’s at 10pm for dinner cause that’s the only thing that’s open. I also took a couple of days off to let some non-urgent problems miraculously solve by themselves. (Try it – it actually works).

2. I made a couple of small changes – enforcing the 90-minute sprint rule, picking just one important thing to accomplish that day, and realizing that my job wasn’t to impress anybody by accomplishing 10,000 things, my job is to pick the most important things and do them a helluva well.

That’s pretty much it. It’s amazing what a couple of days off and a re-evaluation can do for your soul, and your work. Give it a try.

Work Like a Sprinter

The Big Picture had a great post yesterday on how to increase productivity by working like a sprinter. Several studies show that people are way more effective when they work in short bursts of 90 mins and take short breaks in between, as compared to forcing themselves to do tasks for long hours at a stretch. I started trying this out when I read a similar blog post on Study Hacks, which cited a 1993 study that showed that elite violin players had the same pattern of practising: in the morning, in three increments of no more than 90 minutes each, with a break between each one. Similar patterns were found among the top performers in other professions: musicians, artists, athletes and chess players.

Most of us tend to romanticize, or at least look favorably on, the notion of the hard worker who dutifully plods through his assigned tasks through the day (and night). I’m all for hard work, but hard work without thinking is just plain dumb. Imagine this scenario: First thing in the morning, you power up your laptop and the RED SEA OF DEATH (a nickname I give to my emails because all unread mails are highlighted in red) washes over you, causing you to get stressed and hyperventilate. You try clearing them, but it’s like a frickin’ hydra – every time you answer one, four more come pouring in. Soon, it’s 10am, you’ve barely made a dent in your inbox and you need to get that other report out asap, so you start on that. You work through the rest of the day, intermittently checking your email to stem the Sea of Red (which now looks at large as Russia), yet your report is going frustratingly slow and the end is nowhere in sight. Sound familiar?

Just breathe. In for three seconds and out for six.

The key isn’t to play the game of futile catch-up, the key is to slow down before taking off like a rocket. Your mind can only stay focused on a task for a maximum of 90 mins before it starts to wander. As Schwartz (the author of the study) mentions: “Paradoxically, the most effective way to operate at work is like a sprinter, working with single-minded focus for periods of no longer than 90 minutes, and then taking a break. That way when you’re working, you’re really working, and when you’re recovering, you’re truly refueling the tank.”

I now work in stretches of 60 – 90 mins on one single task at a time. For example, I may answer emails for 60 mins, or work on that one important task I tell myself to accomplish for that day, broken up into 2 sets of 90-minute blocks. While I’m working, I don’t do anything else – I don’t stop to chat with colleagues, I close my email client so I don’t get distracted by incoming mail, and I don’t answer my office phone. (the only exception to this is calls to my cellphone – because they’re usually urgent. If it turns out not to be urgent, I tell the person to call me later or drop me an email) If my office is noisy, I retreat to a conference room. The key is to get in the zone when you’re working on something, and to not think about anything else except getting that particular task done. I set a timer for 90 mins because time usually flies when you’re entirely, completely focused on a task.

Then I take a break for 15 – 20 mins, away from my desk. I usually walk around or get a drink. Sometimes I might go annoy another colleague. Or check out my Twitter feed. Or if there’s a secluded spot available, I take a power nap. But I don’t think about work.

I’ve tried this for about two months now, and it really works. I think I’ve managed to complete literally twice the amount of work than I would usually have been able to. The breaks are key: they help you to recharge and refocus on what’s important, so that when the next 90-min sprint comes along, you’re able completely zero in on the task, taking over your other colleagues who’re just chugging along, wondering why they can’t seem to focus and what they’re gonna have for lunch. Admittedly, there have been some days when I’ve been so overwhelmed with work and pressure that I’ve skipped out on those crucial breaks. Paradoxically, for those days where I worked longer hours, I ended up accomplishing less.

Study Hacks sums up the issue pretty well: If you’re busy, you’re doing something wrong. Instead of spreading your work haphazardly throughout the day and feeling a constant strain of busyness and stress, concentrate your energy into focused periods of peak performance – and then take a break. You’ll feel more relaxed, less stressed, and end up accomplishing way more than you thought possible.

The Secret to Keeping Your Resolutions

Zen Habits has a great post today on creating a habit for fitness, but the advice can be applied to any resolution you’re making for the new year:

“But resolutions never last. As you might already know, I’m not a fan of resolutions. Instead of creating a list of resolutions this year, create a new habit. Habits last, and they lead to long-term fitness (and more). They require more patience, but they are worth the wait.”

How many of us spent last year, and the year before, and the year before that, crafting out resolutions that we never stuck to?

“I will have $XYZ amount of money in my bank account by the end of next year”

“I will lose 10kg this year”

“I will go to the gym 3 times a week”

“I will spend more time with my kids”

As the year passes, the demands of work take over our lives, we blow our money on an expensive gift we don’t need, overeat because of the stress, stop going to the gym, and  spend even less time with the kids.

Resolutions are great motivators in the short term, but they simply don’t stick because we’re not used to them. There was an example in the Zen Habits post about how you could go through an intense workout phase and get those washboard abs in 2 months. Then you’re likely to fall back into overeating and get an even bigger belly than before. 500 crunches a day is a painful, tedious activity that simply isn’t sustainable in the long run if you’re not used to it.

It’s obvious that we have to start forming habits rather than resolutions. Habits that don’t really focus on a goal per se, but on a process aimed at being so automatic that you simply do them without thinking. Like brushing your teeth or having coffee in the morning. Is your ultimate goal to get those washboard abs? A good habit would be to start with something small, by setting aside 10 mins, three times a week to do crunches. Once that small practice becomes a habit, you can start to increase the frequency. Does it matter that you don’t get those washboard abs by the end of 2012? Nope, but at least you’ve cultivated a process that’s helping you slowly but surely move towards that ultimate goal – giving you a huge lead over the millions of people who try to reach their goals too fast and end up failing.

Starting a habit isn’t easy though – just ask anyone who’s ever tried to diet. We’re all human, and overcoming that huge inertia within us takes a helluva willpower. I’m not a huge fan of willpower. In fact, I have terrible willpower. Put a beer in front of me and I will drink it, even if I’m trying to cut down. People are terrible when it comes to doing the right thing – our minds and our bodies play tricks on each other and tend to screw each other over. Which is why, in order to create a habit, you need to acknowledge that it’s impossible to overcome those urges by sheer willpower alone, and to use systems to facilitate your habit formation.  I personally use two types of systems:

1. Automatic systems

These are the best kinds of systems because they eliminate the need for you to use any sort of “willpower”. Essentially, you’re automating your habit and outsourcing it to someone else to do it for you. Want to cultivate the habit of saving? Using “willpower” to cut down on spending every month never works because if you have money sitting there, you’re going to find an excuse to spend it. Instead, set up automatic transfers to a separate bank account and voila! You’ve just instantly cultivated a habit of saving.

Other kinds of automatic systems include setting your computer to ban you from certain time-wasting sites during certain times of the day, or setting up automatic bill payment so you’ll never get hit with overdraft fees or hefty interest rates on your credit cards.

2. Accountability systems

These systems essentially hold you accountable for keeping your habits. You could use sites like Fitocracy or Mint.com to track your fitness and expenditure respectively, but you don’t always have to rely on computerized systems. Sometimes an old-fashioned checklist / journal helps as well. Want to start a habit of running at least once a week? Write down the date, time, and distance you ran after every session. Then at the end of the month, look back and see how well you’ve done. At the beginning of every month, decide how you’re going to reward yourself if you stuck to your habits, and then go celebrate and enjoy yourself if you actually do. You deserve it.

One more thing – don’t be too ambitious in trying to form too many habits at one go. It’s better to start by forming 1 habit a month, and by the end of the year you’ll have 12 habits – essentially a major personal overhaul. Good luck!