3 Lessons From A Pair of Leaky Goggles

So last week, I decided to go swimming after like a 5-year hiatus. Yeah, I blame my ever-increasing waistline.

I’m the kind of guy who needs to wear goggles – I don’t get how people can open their eyes underwater and not get blinded by all the crap that’s in there. Anyways, I couldn’t find my old pair of goggles, so I decided to pick up a pair from this ratty little store (which was inexplicably blasting Flo-Rida songs at 10 in the morning) before driving to the pool.

The goggles were cheap, somewhere to the tune of 2 bucks. I drove away from the store feeling like I got a helluva bargain.

The first thing I noticed was that the straps were ridiculously hard to adjust. Describing them as “tight” was an understatement – it would’ve taken a brain surgeon with tweezers and a microscope to undo them. Also, they were really low-quality. I would have been able to make a better goggle strap with a pair of rubber bands.

I decided to just screw it and force them onto my head, making my skull feel like it was slowly being crushed by a boa constrictor. Also, the goggles were leakier than the Titanic. By the time I’d done half a lap, there was a complete ecosystem of coral life in front of my eyes. On the bright side, I was learning how to open my eyes in water.

After about 2 laps of swimming with a constricted head and water-filled eyes, I felt dizzy so I stopped and pulled the goggles off. And then one side of the goggles just COMPLETELY FELL OFF. I couldn’t believe it – my goggles were disintegrating before my very eyes.

I had enough. I got out of the pool, threw my goggles in the bin, and went home in disgust. I’d done a grand total of 2 laps.

Three lessons I’ve learnt from this episode:

  1. Never trust any store that plays Flo-Rida songs at 10 in the morning.
  2. Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean good. Always do your research before you buy, and opt for long-lasting and high-quality even if it costs a little more. (However, some people may misread this and automatically assume that “expensive = good”. This isn’t necessarily true either especially when it comes to unit trusts, mutual funds, financial advisers and ETFs).

But really, the most important lesson would be:

3. Always strive for high-quality.

It’s often tempting for me to rush through a to-do list by doing the bare minimum for each task. But I’ve always found that it’s usually a bad idea – the work gets compromised, my boss tells me to do it again, and it becomes the equivalent of a pair of crappy rubber-band-boa-constrictor-leaky goggles.

Instead, I’ve come to approach work in a totally different manner these days by just focusing on just three important tasks a day: two tasks in the morning, a slot to answer emails after lunch, and then one last task till the end of the day.

That really helps me to zero in my focus on what’s truly important, allowing me to really kick ass to produce the highest quality work I can offer. I do this even if it takes a little longer to accomplish ’em. The downside is that I don’t get to complete a lot of my other, less important, tasks, but I’ve found that they usually take care of themselves after awhile 😉

It doesn’t just apply to work – I’m trying to approach the blog and the book in the same way too. That’s why I take a whole week to write a blog post. That’s why I’m spending hours and hours researching on nuances just to write one paragraph in the book. That’s why I have hour-long conversations with friends to test ideas out. My goal is to make it so absolutely freakin’ awesome that it would easily trump the pants off any other personal finance book out there.

So I encourage you to do the same. If you’re going to do something – a report for your boss, a product for your customers, or a gift for a friend, make it high-quality. Don’t worry if it takes a little longer – that extra hour you take to craft it will be totally worth it. Start forming the habit to NEVER settle for mediocrity.

As Faith Jegede proclaims in this awesome TED talk, “The pursuit of normality is the ultimate sacrifice of potential. The chance for greatness, for progress, and for change, dies the moment we try to be like someone else.”

Never settle for “normal”. Get out there, and create something amazing.

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Wake Up in the Morning Feelin’ Like P Diddy

Okay, you’re not the only one who has no freakin idea what those lyrics are supposed to mean (This intellectual forum discussion doesn’t really give me any clue). Oh Ke$ha, you have such impenetrable philosophies.

Of course, not many of us get up on a mattress made of cash and surrounded by hot chicks, so I guess it must be really hard to relate. Instead, the alarm clock jolts us out of an uneasy sleep on a Monday morning, we stumble out of bed, hit the shower, and commute to work surrounded by other sleepy, smelly people who are just as depressed as we are.

There’s a better way to live our mornings. Ever had those couple of things you always wanted to do but never had the time? I’m not talking about the billion things in your work to-do list; I’m talking about things that are actually awesome: Reading that book you always wanted to, exercising, watching that TED talk, spending more time with the kids, or if you’re nerdy like me: researching your investments and optimizing your credit cards.

Laura Vanderkam recently wrote an article on what the most successful people do before breakfast. It turns out that mornings are the perfect time for you to get things done – you’re more rested, more alert, have more willpower, and are less likely to be interrupted. She talks through 5 steps to getting the most out of your mornings: 1. Track your time, 2. Picture the perfect morning, 3. Think through the logistics, 4. Build the habit, 5. Tune up as necessary. Essentially, it’s pretty similar to what I’ve blogged about building up effective habits – start tiny, and then tune upwards as you get more successful.

I decided to try it out. My office is literally located in one of the most remote, desolate, and depressing parts of Singapore. Yes, it’s true. Don’t ask me why. However, one of the advantages of working at the end of the world is that I have an 1 to 1.5 hour-long commute every morning. While most people see it as a pain in the ass, I’m using it as a perfect opportunity to read, pray, meditate, or work on other projects. (Here’s a little secret – I’m currently using my mornings to work on a special project on the side, which you’ll hear about in the coming months!) I don’t try to accomplish too much – usually a couple of pages of reading, or baby steps in my special project, or one TED talk. But do them every weekday, and they start to add up. And I get to the office refreshed, inspired, and cheerful that I’m doing something meaningful in my life other than working for the man.

The number one reason why I’m able to accomplish my morning ritual: SLEEP. I try to get at least 7 hours of sleep every day so I don’t end up feeling exhausted during my commute.  (Okay, admittedly, I fail at getting my requite hours of sleep 2 days out of 5, but it’s all good as long as I fix it the following night)

So – try it out. See if it works. You never know – your morning ritual could let you wake up feeling like P Diddy after all 🙂

Build Your Skills, Not Your Resume

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ndeliciousbass/4477273516/in/photostream/

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook (insert snide comment about IPO here), shares some good career advice in her address to this year’s graduating class of HBS.

What I liked:

Build your skills, not your resume. Evaluate what you can do, not the title they’re going to give you. Do real work. Take a sales quota, a line role, an ops job, don’t plan too much, and don’t expect a direct climb.”

And further on:

“You’ll have to rely on what you know. Your strength will not come from your place on some org chart, your strength will come from building trust and earning respect.”

Everyone in Singapore is obsessed with titles. We assume that we all fit into these little boxes of a doctor/engineer/banker/lawyer/executive with a fancy title that come with our jobs. We assume that if we stick to the job and it checks all the boxes, we’d be happy and content, chugging along on our pleasant, 2-dimensional lives with a defined role and a jobscope. So if you’re an accountant, you’re supposed to be meticulous, quiet, unassuming, and emotionless. And if you’re in advertising, you’re supposed to be free-spirited, creative, and… lowly-paid.

But Sheryl’s speech reminded me that a career gives you a lot more than what the world stereotypes it to be.

My previous job posting was in operations – when I received my posting letter, I was like “WTF?! This has NOTHING to do with my degree!” (which was in Finance and Economics) And so I got annoyed. But 2 years into an ops job taught me how to negotiate with everyone from the airport authorities to a baggage handling agent, it taught me how to sweat the small stuff while keeping the big picture in sight, it taught me how to simultaneously juggle 4 ongoing projects, it taught me how to deal with 100 emails a day clamoring for my attention, it taught me how to set up systems that would run themselves, and it taught me how things really work. I don’t think I could have picked any of that up if I’d gone into my “preferred” department.

So hell yeah. I’m glad I did it. It gave me skills in areas that I sucked at, and gave me new business perspectives – real ones, not the theoretical, clinical, abstract ones behind a computer screen or an annual report. 3 weeks ago, I got moved to a new department in the same company, with a focus on a completely different skill set, one that was closer to what I studied, but not really. We’ll see where that takes me! 🙂

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.

To-Do or Not To-Do

So I’m a huge fan of productivity hacks – partly because I work in a Large Faceless Corporation and am subject to the usual administrative nightmares that face employees of Large Faceless Corporations (in case any of my colleagues are reading this, I actually like my job. Seriously, I do. But more on that later). But yes – productivity hacks – I’ve found a few that have actually made a real difference in getting more stuff done, with less stress, and time to catch a movie after I knock off. I expect to be blogging more about them in due course, but today I’ll start with one of my favorites: the old-fashioned To-Do list.

Now I can hear all of you groaning at my complete lack of creativity (I mean, seriously, I call my To-Do list a “To-Do” list.. I don’t have any bright ideas when it comes to names). But hear me out. I’ve seen enough colleagues (and bosses) go through each day, using their friggin inbox as a to-do list. They check their emails (or blackberries) 10 times an hour, thinking that every email that pops up requires their immediate attention. And every task that is emailed to them is treated with equal priority, on a first-come-first-served basis. It doesn’t matter if the email is an instruction to finish a Really Important Report that could earn their company millions if actioned on immediately, or a reminder to send out the invitations for the upcoming Christmas party. It pops into their inbox, they spend two hours crafting that perfect Christmas invitation and send it out, only to find that they don’t have enough time to do that Really Important Report and they stay back till 10pm to do it, wondering why the hell they never have enough time to do anything.

Screw all that. I recommend doing up a To-Do list, listing just ONE major thing that you have to do tomorrow, and probably 5-6 minor things that need your attention, but really aren’t that urgent/important. The major task at the top of your To-Do list should be that one thing that actually matters, that adds directly to your core functions and values, that will impress your bosses and get you promoted if you do it well, that when completed will solve 80% of your worries. It may change from day-to-day, but for any particular day you should only have one of those items to tackle. If you have more than one, decide which is the more urgent one and tackle that one first. The other 5-6 items are for things that you owe other people but nobody would die if you didn’t give it to them immediately, or just those annoying little things that you need to get out of the way but don’t really help anybody except to cover someone else’s administrative ass.

That one major item on my To-Do list gets the priority of my attention, and that’s the one I start off with first the following day, probably spending up to 40% or 50% of my day on. You may have different working habits, but I’m the most efficient and clear-minded in the morning, buzzing with caffeine, so that’s how I treat that item most effectively. Once that’s out of the way, or at least partially done and can wait till the next day, I don’t have to worry about it anymore and can focus on working my way through all the small annoying tasks. I usually save that for after lunch, when I’m sleepy as hell and couldn’t care less about sending one-line emails to get annoying colleagues off my back.

And here’s the catch – you’ve got to do your To-Do at the end of the day, right before you leave the office. Leave about 15 mins at the end of the day to consolidate your thoughts, and come up with your To-Do list, no matter how much you just wanna slam your laptop shut and get the f*** out of there. It usually only takes me 5 mins or less, with the remaining 10 mins strategizing on which tasks I should tackle first. If you’re writing 20 items in there, you’re being too ambitious. Most people write their To-Do lists at the beginning of the day, but I’ve found that writing your To-Do list at the end of the day ensures that the day’s events are fresh in your mind, so you don’t have to spend time recalling them the next day, or worse, miss them out altogether. There’s also something very Zen about writing all those tasks out on paper, and psychologically leaving them there till the next day, so you’re not burdened with trying to remember them outside of the office.

And when you come back to the office the next day, it becomes a tactical matter of actually working your way through that list, rather than a matter of strategizing which ones you should pay attention to first, which can be pretty damn demoralizing the first thing in the morning. So you hit the ground running, doing actual work and getting stuff done, while secretly laughing at your colleagues who spend 40% of their day running around like headless chickens, wondering how the heck they’re gonna clear their bursting inboxes.

If you’ve tried this out, let me know how it works out for you 🙂