Reboot

Drop everything for a moment… then pick up what’s really valuable!

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Audio

Around this time of year – in fact, many times in the year – there’s a little mental exercise I like to do, which I call “reboot”. Basically, I take everything in my life – committments, obligations, goals, attachments – and try to momentarily drop them all, in my mind. It’s kind of like rebooting a computer. I try to switch everything off and imagine that I was starting all over again, from scratch.

What I find useful about this exercise is, by letting everything go, I can start again from scratch and think about where I’d like to be, which commitments I’d like to have, which goals I’d like to pursue and which are achievable. This helps to set me up better for the next period of time, whether that’s the next year or the next few moments.

I’ve found this useful on both a macro and a micro level.

On a micro level, I might find that I’m working on task A, and this leads to a smaller sub-task B, which leads to a smaller sub-task C and so on, so that I get bogged down in a very deep level of complexity. When this happens, I try to notice it happening, stop for a bit and think again about what I’m trying to achieve, and whether all of those details are really necessary. By doing this, I might be able to see where I could cut out some unnecessary detail or subtly switch focus to a more essential sub-task.

On a macro level, I might be thinking about the next year. What are my plans, work goals, commitments I’ve made and obligations or attachments I have to things, people, places, etc. But suppose I was starting again from scratch. Imagine I had just arrived on this planet! What would I want to do? Some things would stay in the list, even after the reboot. If I dropped everything, I would still want to do those things. So I can re-affirm my commitment to them. Other things might be not so essential. I went down a path of pursuing them, but that path kind of wore itself out. So I decide I no longer need to continue down that path, and I can think about dropping those things.

As you can see rebooting can be a useful exercise both in a short-term context (working on a piece of code or design, planning some detail of your life, purchasing decisions, etc) and a long-term context (planning your year, thinking about career, relationships, etc).

Have a happy new year everyone. Enjoy!

Review

Want to receive a good review from a client or employer – one that wins you the right kind of work? Well, write your own!

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Have you ever read a positive review left by a client or employer about someone who provided a service, on their online profile or homepage? The review looked really good. It perhaps went like:

“I hired X several months ago to work on a project and was very happy with their output. Their communication skills were on-par. They got on well with the team.”

Have you ever read one of those positive reviews and thought, “goodness, I’d like to have one of those!”. You wouldn’t mind having a review like that on your profile. I had this thought go through my mind more than a few times!

Then I had this idea: what if I ask my next client for a review, but instead of asking for them to write it, I write the review for them? I could give it to them and say:

“Look, you don’t have to give me this favourable review if you don’t want to, but if you do, here’s a template. You can make any changes you want to make, or just write it yourself. But if you’d like to just go with the ideas I’ve got, then go for it!”

Happily this experiement of mine actually succeeded, and I ended up with a great review, that I could put to my profile.

I thought this was beneficial for two main reasons.

Firstly, it saved the client time and effort. Clients, like anyone, are busy people and have a lot to do, and they might not have the time or energy to write a positive review about someone. And they can’t necessarily remember much about what you were good at. They know you were good, but it takes a fair amount of effort to really specify in what ways you were good and then put that into writing. So it’s much easier for them to just use your writing, maybe tweak it a bit, and send it off. So it’s less effort for the client.

But secondly, and perhaps this was a bigger benefit, when you write your own review, you get to think about what you are good at and what you want to be good at, and what you want your brand and reputation to be.

This might take some thought. You might think about it over a weekend, or stretch it out over time, as with decisions, or just spend an hour or two in a room with a piece of paper. However you do it, if you think about what sort of review you want to have of your work, what you’d like others to say about your work and perhaps about you, that can be a really good exercise in itself. It can help you to figure out what you’re currently good at, and what you’d like to be good at in the future, and perhaps what work you’d like to be doing day-to-day.

So if you think ahead-of-time about and picture in your head what you’d like to be good at, say, 3 months’ time or 6 months’ time or a year’s time, then if you write a review of yourself as if you’re already good at that thing, then that gives you something to aim and strive for. It gives you more direction.

Once you’ve developed this review, you could even show it to the client and tell them something along the lines of:

“This is what I want to be good at, this is what I’m aiming for. I’ve like to get this review from you at some point in the future. So, let’s work together over the next 6 months and see if I can’t knock that out of the park!”

If your review aligns with the client’s goals, all the better, because they’ll also be happy and motivated to have you succeed at getting better.

And over time, as you get these good reviews, the reviews will help you to get into the kinds of roles you want and utilise the kinds of skills you want to utilise. For example, if you have a review that says that you have good communication skills and work will with people from diverse backgrounds, you’re more likely, in future, to get offers for roles that require people with those skills and abilities, and are tailored for those kinds of people.

So, over time, you can use carefully worded reviews to position yourself where you’d like to be in the job market. You can move into a space in your career that you enjoy and that uses your best capabilities and that pushes you in the direction you want to go.

Decision

Tough decisions to make? Try stretching out the decision-making process over a long period of time, giving yourself chance to view it from multiple angles and in the light of various aspects of your life.

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Let’s face it – decisions can be difficult. They can feel stressful, all-or-nothing, black-or-white, either-or. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to have more time to make a decision, and to feel confident about it, without all the stress and second-guessing?

If you’re in a situation of having to make a decision in a very short time-frame, a situation that is essentially going to go one way or another by a certain date, regardless of what you do, then there’s probably a limit to what you can do.

Recently I’ve been thinking a bit differently about decisions and working at changing my behaviour so that I don’t face these situations quite so often.

When I look back over my history of decisions, a strategy I’ve found helpful is to identify and anticipate decisions that I might have to make at some point in the future, and then begin the process of thinking about those decisions in the present. Thus, the length of time between thinking and acting is stretched out over a much longer period than it would have otherwise been.

To take a decision apart, take it to pieces, and think about each of those pieces over a longer period of time. Instead of waiting until January, two years from now, I start to think about that decision right now.

This results in a slower, more reflective pace of thinking. With more time, I can think about the decision from more angles, perspectives, vantage-points. I can take my present, or even past, self and project that self into hypothetical scenarios that would occur if I decided either one way or another.

Thus, the decision-making process come to reflect and integrate a multitude of factors over a longer stretch of time, rather than being limited to the small number of more immediate factors.

Given enough time, perhaps a matter of months or even years, I can eventually get to a point where I know enough about the decision that it no longer becomes a decision. The alternatives are eliminated and the one correct path reveals itself. At that point, the decision is no longer a decision and I can just act.

One example of this is the decision of whether to take steps down a new career path. Perhaps involving study, research, etc. Is this an area I’m interested in? Is it a career path I would do well in? Now I could postpone doing anything until I had reached the point where I had to make a quick snap decision about whether or not to take the plunge into a new field. Say, when my current career-path turned into a dead-end.

But instead, at some regular interval (perhaps every weekend or so, or every now and then whilst walking to work), in a relaxed, non-urgent, non-directed manner, I can think about what it would be like if I went down that new career path. I can imagine what it would be like if I was going to do this new job today, and guage my motivation and energy I’d bring to it. I can absorb material about the career path (e.g. listen to a podcast or read an article about it) and project myself into the scenarios raised in that material. In a way, it’s like rehearsing for a performance – imagining the audience is there and the pressure is on, prior to actually having an audience.

Other factors to consider might include how that career transition would affect my self-image, how it would affect others’ perceptions, how sustainable it would be, how I would deal with temporary turbulence it might create.

In summary, the next time you face a decision, major or minor, why not put yourself into a time machine, travel back to the present moment, and start to slowly and gradually work through the decision in your mind. Stretch it out, give it time, and see if you can enjoy the process!

Source

Learning something new? Start by going to the source. Learn the fundamentals there, then use third-party sources as needed.

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I’d like to share with you a tip that I’ve found useful, whenever I’m trying to learn about or understand something new:

Go to the source!

For example, when trying to learn about a new software framework, which I was recently, rather than Googling and opening up third-party websites (e.g. people blogging about the framework, Twitter posts about it, etc), I found it much more useful to go directly to the official website of that framework.

I think this could useful for many things apart from software, of course.

For example, if I were trying to emigrate to a particular country, and wanted to know about the requirements and procedures, I would probably be better off starting with the official immigration website of the government of that country. Sure, online forums, blogs, chatrooms, etc. could supplement my knowledge. But the most important, reliable, factual and up-to-date information would be that given by the source – in the case, the government itself.

Going to the primary source is a really good first step to take in learning about anything new, because it gives you a solid, usually internally-consistent, grounding in that thing. (This can be useful strategically, in determining whether the thing in question even matters or applies to you.) Once your mind has that solid grounding, it’s easier to then know where to shop around, and what parts to shop for, when you start to supplement your knowledge with third-party materials (e.g. your blogs, forums, etc).

One of the problems I’ve encountered with relying too much on third-party sources is that you can get caught up in their agendas. That is, the solutions, frameworks, etc. that they propose may be geared toward some product or service that they’re trying to sell, or a view that they’re interested in pushing. These aren’t necessarily opposed to your interests, but they’re not necessarily where you want to start, when trying to fundamentally understand the thing in question, and decide what relationship you want to have with it.

For example, someone who’s blogging about BitCoin might have their own take on it, which is aligned with what they’re trying to sell or do, for example, a payments service. Their take on the world isn’t necessarily not good for you, but you might want to start out by going to a more primary source of information about BitCoin, such as the official BitCoin website, to understand how BitCoin actually works. Then your judgement is less likely to be clouded by what a particular payments provider wants you to think. Once you have this foundation of knowledge on BitCoin, you’re in a better position to choose a payments provider (if you even need one). You’re in a better position to know how to judge a provider, how to differentiate between competing providers, what metrics to use in doing so, etc.

BitCoin is just an example. I’m sure you can think of something else you’re trying to learn. If it’s a person, perhaps a historical figure, why not go straight to the writings of that person and/or of people who were in close contact with them or knew them well? Once you have that grounding, then you can start to work your way outward to third-party sources on that figure. If it’s a language, find someone who speaks the language natively, or even move to a country where that language is predominantly spoken.

In summary: if you want to learn something, get as close as possible, as early as possible, to that thing itself!

And with that, happy 2018, folks! 🎇

Career

Thinking of your career creatively (as a journey or as a canvas) can give you insights and motivation.

Chances are you won’t have the same kind of job that your parents had. Nor the same career path. The nature of jobs and work have changed. In particular, jobs today are shorter-term, and one’s career path is open and likely to change over your lifetime. You will likely find yourself performing different kinds of activities and utilising different skill-sets and different points in your life.

This can present challenges and difficulties, but it also present opportunities. You now have the opportunity to “design your career”. What does this mean?

Well, you can take a look at the jobs you’ve done and the companies you’ve worked at, non-commercial activity you’ve been involved with (such as non-profit work, hobbies, etc), your education, and other factors, and see them as a kind of “portfolio”.

You can start to envisage your career-to-date in various creative ways. You could look at it as a journey, with each different job or project as a step in that journey, which in turn, opens the door to future steps. Or you could look at it as a canvas, where, rather than being sequentially ordered in time, it’s more like a spacious “surface”, in which the jobs or projects are like brush strokes, which each contribute to form an overall picture.

What’s the point of all this “creative thinking”? Well, when you look at the journey or colours of your career, you can get ideas of where to go next.

One principle I have brough to bear here is balance. That is, when I’ve developed my career all the way in one particular direction (let’s just call it “north”), then I try to think of ways to develop it in a different direction (let’s say “south-east”). In my personal case, I had a long history in software development in the private sector. I decided to apply some balance to my profile by seeking more work in government and by studying Interaction Design.

You can find balance in other ways. Perhaps all your work thusfar was in one particular city. You could try to work in a different city for a change. Or perhaps your work was usually long-term, multi-year projects. You could balance it out by doing a few shorter stints.

There’s no right or wrong way here, and you probably want to be selective about where you apply balance.

But by being strategic about your choices of where, how and what work you do, within the constraints of what you have control over (e.g. your employability), you can create a stronger overall portfolio and shape your career to more closely fit your real interests, passions and abilities.

For example, if you’re a film producer with 6 years of experience, you might be appealing to companies who are looking to produce promotional videos. But what if you were a film producer who had also done some work in real estate and taken a short course in marketing? Then you might be extermely appealing to a real estate company who are looking to produce videos to market their properties.

As an alternative to balance, you can also look at complementarity. Different industries can complement eachother (e.g. fashion and design) and different locations can complement eachother (e.g. Australia and China, both being in the Asia-Pacific region).

So go grab a time-machine or a paintbrush, and get designery with your career! Your work history belongs to you. It’s your property in a way. See if you can find ways to craft it to your liking.

Slow

Slowing down can actually help you speed up! How? By enabling you to focus and unlocking the foundations of your knowledge domain.

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In today’s world, there seems to be much usage of words like “rapid”, “change”, “quick”, “speed”, “fast”, “instant”, “agile”, “responsive”, etc.

I have noticed that, when the meanings of these words get mixed in with emotions and thought process of work, they can lead to a feeling of being hurried or harried, of rushing, of deadlines, of insufficient time. The word “deadline” itself seems kind of scary, carrying the connotation of “dead”!

Because we feel that there isn’t enough time, often quite rightly, we are forced to go fast and rush. That in turn can lead to a feeling of pressure. That we’re trying to work quickly, but there isn’t enough time, so we are stretched or pressured.

However, I have found that when I am actually going fast – delivering lots of work rapidly and on-time, I don’t feel hurried or harried at all. In fact, I feel quite calm, relaxed and that there’s time, and I don’t feel too pressured or stretched.

So what does it really mean to be rapid, agile, responsive, fast?

Firstly, I have found that when you put pressure on yourself, you arc up, your body becomes stiff, your breathing becomes shallower. It becomes more difficult to focus, and you start to have your focus split or fragmented between a lot of different things. This loss of focus, in turn, leads to a loss of productivity and a loss of sustainable productive energy. So, while I can pump out work in a panic for a short period of time, over a longer period, it becomes unsustainable.

Secondly, I have found that the fragmentation of focus can lead to a dismantling of the ability to properly understand a problem and a problem-space. That is, because insufficient time has been spent on discovering and then solidly grasping of the foundations of a structure of knowledge, your ability to work at the higher levels of that structure becomes slow, repetitive, inefficient and tedious. You have to repetitively go through multiple iterations of the same problem before identifying the root of it, when you could have discovered the root right from the start, if you thoroughly understood the foundations of what you’re working with.

My solutions?

Firstly, rather than taking on that hurred, pressured mind-set and body language, I have found it generally better, at almost any cost, to relax and take on a cooler disposition and demeanor.

Secondly, I try to reduce the number of elements that I focus on at any one time. For example, instead of trying to deliver an entire three page report all at once, I focus on just writing one really good paragraph. Or, instead of trying to deliver multiple screens of an application, I just focus on one screen, or on one link between two screens. Or, instead of trying to deliver an entire module of code, I just focus on one or two individual functions.

Or, instead of trying to speed-read an entire chapter of a book, I spend a long time reading the first couple of pages, so that I get a very firm grasp of the foundation that the chapter rests on. In this last case, I have found that reading a book this way often leads to mentally “unlocking” the conceptual framework of the book, such that I then understand the contents so well that speed-reading actually works!

When you deliver that small amount of work, you may get a small dopamine kick. You feel a sense of achievement. You might even reward yourself with a treat! (Say, a tasty snack, or drink, or a short break.)

Because you’re reducing your focus to one element at a time, you’re able to deliver more rapidly and responsively. You can deliver a small part rapidly, then another one.

I believe this is the real spirit of many of the ideas of “agile”, “iteration”, etc. It’s not a spirit of pressure, rushing, panic, etc., but rather, of slowing down, identifying one or two things that you can break off and focus on. Those things being small enough that you can deliver them, learn from them, and then decide on your next step as appropriate.

Forces

Combining multiple small forces, all pushing you in a similar direction, you can move closer to your goals with less effort.

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Imagine a big, long-term goal you might have. Perhaps it’s to lose weight. Perhaps it’s to save up enough money to retire, or at least, to live more comfortably.

It’s the kind of goal that won’t happen overnight, and won’t happen without significant effort and perspiration (and perhaps risk).

You may find it very difficult to see that goal through to the end. There may be multiple factors over time that make it difficult. There are things that make it constantly difficult to achieve your goal.

For example, you’re trying to eat less in order to lose weight, but, almost constantly, occasions or situations seem to arise that make that goal difficult. For example, it’s late at night, you find yourself starving, and you find it hard to resist going to the freezer and reaching for the frozen pizza.

Or you’re trying to save money, but situations seem to keep arising that cause you to have to spend money.

A strategy I’ve found helpful is to try to position myself so that I have multiple forces pushing me toward my goal, rather than pulling me away from it.

Imagine a beach-ball on the pavement, which you’re trying to move without directly pushing it. You try blowing at it. But it’s a windy day and your breath is no competition for the winds blowing in multiple directions, perhaps even in your direction.

But now imagine if you and 3 friends stood in front of the ball, all of you holding leaf blowers. Each of you standing at a slightly different angle, but all aiming the ball in a generally common direction. That ball would be much more likely to go where you want it to!

And it can be the same with long-term goals and forces that push you one way or another in life.

Going back to the example of losing weight, if you rely only on your will power and, say, a diet plan, you may be on course for a while, but then veer off, due to other complex forces getting in the way.

But you could combine your will power and diet with multiple other forces. For example:

  • You could move house to a place that’s very close to a gym. Now that the gym in a few minutes’ walk away, rather than a 30 minute commute, it’s more likely that you’ll go there regularly.
  • You could make less food available to you at any given time. You even buy a smaller fridge, which can fit less food in it, so that instead of a few footsteps away, the food is a walk-to-the-shops away. Or you might put your food on a high shelf. Or try to spend less time at home, so that you’re not tempted.
  • You could get into a habit of preparing/cooking low-calorie, highly filling foods. This might mean learning cooking methods that are simple and fast. That way, you’re more motivated to, say, quick-steam some broccoli, rather than put a pizza in the microwave oven. (At least one person I know has gotten rid of their microwave altogether!)
  • You could attend some kind of support group or meetup of dieters, where you motivate eachother and give eachother tips. So the influence of that group pushes you in the direction of weight-loss.

Or take money as another example:

  • You could move to an area where rents are cheaper, so you’re paying less for housing.
  • You could also choose, among the cheaper places to live, an area that’s farther away from expensive shops, e.g. clothing stores or tech stores, so that there’s less temptation to spend money on these kinds of items.
  • You could let your friends know about your goals, and have them encourage and support those goals, perhaps even hold you to account for them!
  • You could visualise your goal – perhaps make a drawing about it and put that on your wall so you see it regularly, or set your morning “wake-up” alarm to some piece of audio that reminds you of your goal, say, a song or an excerpt from a speech.

If you have your life set up so that there are many forces pushing you where you want to go, then it’s more likely that you’ll get there by sheer inertia, even while your will-power and resolve goes through ups and downs.

These techniques can also be applied within the workforce, whether you’re a business owner, manager, employee, consultant, etc. For example, if you want to develop a new skill or competency, you could might try:

  • Regularly listening to a podcast that’s oriented around that skill
  • Volunteering to teach someone the basics of that skill for free (trying to teach someone else a subject can be an excellent way to test and strengthen your grasp on it)
  • Finding authoritative sources on the subject and absorbing their influences (e.g. books or articles they write, talks they give, etc)
  • Applying aspects of that skill to your current work (techniques such as “job crafting”) can be useful here

By combining lots of small forces together, which all point in a certain direction, you are much more likely to have yourself “carried along” in that direction, while hopefully avoiding excessive effort or pressure.

Credits

Similar ideas can be found in the Job Crafting movement, The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman and How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams.