The importance of habits

First I must apologize for the long absence of this blog. Facts are, I just lost my groove. So I reflected of the events in order to draw a lesson that I could share with everyone. During my analysis, I realize the importance of the habit. Sure, nearly every self-improvement book theses days peaches the importance of the habit, but it only when you have experienced it yourself that you truly understand the effects of habits have on your productivity.

When I started my blog some of my friends that already warned me about starting strong and quickly running out of steam. “The first three are easy, maintaining the pace is the real challenge”. But I was not to be fazed; I have discovered a good rhythm and created a habit. By the time November came around I have consistently delivered and I was proud of myself. The only problem now was that my environment surrounding my habits had changed. You see I have discovered that my most productive time is early in the morning; and we are fortunate to have a wonderful terrace where I like to sit and, depending on the time of year, watch the sunrise. These moments, alone and surrounded by nature, are truly priceless to me and where I am in my most productive state.  The only problem now was the temperature. When the snow came, even my jacket could not save me, it just made no sense to be sitting outside any more. Then of course came Christmas and everything that comes with it, many distractions and activities, but I still managed to get one article out. However by the time January rolled around I had completely lost my groove. Not only was it to cold now, and the snow firmly controlled the terrace, I had started a new project which required me to drive long distances every week and there just did not remain enough time for the blog.

This just happened to be the time, when I found out about podcasts. One but one particular podcast, “accidental creative” by Todd Henry, gave me some great insights about building habits and how to integrate my new work life with my creative side and my ability to deliver, quality material on a regular basis.  In fact I was so impressed by his podcast that I bought his book “the accidental creative”.  The insight that Todd shared in his book is that often people under pressure, who generally can’t find enough hours in the day, need to perhaps add something to their routine rather than cut back on their activities. That something is a  “point of reflection”. By stepping back and going through your plan of activities of the day you can correct your focus and increase the amount of time you are most effective, by rationalizing the urge to stray from the task at hand. This simple exercise will allow you to challenge your behavior and maintain a much higher level of focus. By increasing your awareness of distractions, over time it even allows you to alter your behavior and sustainably increase your productivity.  Make a plan of your activities everyday and take a few minutes each hour to review your plan. Make corrections as you see fit to maximize your outputs. You will also need to create the right environment as to minimize distractions. For example: I write on a piece of paper as not to be distracted by the lure of email; man’s instinct is to respond to the stimulation of that familiar email “ping”, as you sit there wondering who sent me an email. No having a computer in front of me completely eliminates the temptation.

Fortunately for me the sun and warm weather are back and the terrace season is opened.

Zabok, HR – 28th April 2013

What time is it? 3.0 (Man and the Universe)

During the holidays, I had the opportunity to see a really interesting documentary on the story of the earth. Not only did it put things into perspective, it fits rather nicely with some other articles I have written on time. The documentary covered the beginnings of the universe (14billion years) and earth 4-5 billion years ago, all the way to the industrial revolutions (200 years ago).  Ok I know you may not understand how you can come up with such a number. You may even question whether it is possible to know exactly how old the Universe really is? But for the lack of a better number or theory I’m willing to go along with the accepted methods from the scientific community. So without getting into the details of the documentary, here is the interesting part. When we talk about billions of years, it is difficult for us to imagine what that looks like. The scale is so large that, without a reference point, we can really make sense of the number. So instead of talking about 14 billion years they converted the scale to a more relevant 14 years, (the average life time of a dog). When we present the information in this way we can now understand the timeframe and relate to it. So if the universe was born 14 years ago then:

–       The earth was created 5 years ago; this means that 2/3 of time, as we know it occurred before the earth even existed.

–       Complex organisms came into being 7 months ago – (4.17%)

–       Dinosaurs were extinguished 3 weeks ago

–       The first humans came to be 6 mins ago (0.000 0815%)

–       The industrial revolution occurred 3 secs ago. (0.000 000 68% that’s right six zero behind the decimal point)

So as you can see, we humans have existed but a mere 6 mins in a 14-year time frame, and we only can into existence after 99.9999185% of known time has already elapsed. So I guess it’s fair to say we are at the mere beginning of our existence and we should be careful we don’t screw up the world for future generations. We are the only species to have wandered and settled everywhere on earth. But what is most interesting is that each innovation in our evolution has allowed the next step in our evolution.

For example it is estimated that we started to walk on two legs about 6 million years ago. This came about because of a change in the earth’s climate. At the time we lived in forests but climate change forced us to leave the forest for the plains of grass.  Since you would be in an advantage if you wandered the plains of grass and could see ahead, we started standing and then walking on two legs and cashed in our advantage over our four legged cousins. So what? you may say! It is exactly this kind of change that enabled us to evolve into what we are today because by walking on our hind legs we freed up our hands.  and with our hands we learned how to make things.  I would also venture to guess that it is this kind of creative activities, making things, which also spurred the development of our modern brains and also distinguishes us from animals. However at this time in evolution things still move relatively slowly, it still took another 4 million years for us two evolve to Stone Age people. That may seem like a long time but as we have seen it is all relative.

Now that man has learned how to fashion tools, we are different from other mammals, we are using our brains to use create things from our environment that give us an advantage. We make things like clothes to protect us from the cold, fashion weapons out of stones, containers to carry water etc.  Our ancestors are hunters and gatherers, with the men hunting in small groups and the women taking care of the dwelling, most probably a cave, and picking fruits in the forest. Then one day someone hits two rocks together and creates a spark. Having seen first hand what lightning does to a tree, he gets this brilliant idea and quickly finds some dry leaves and kindle, and he starts striking the two stones and suddenly smokes starts to rise. From that moment on, roughly 800 thousand years ago, we mastered fire.

Fire is awesome! It keeps our ancestors warm and allows them to take in more energy by consuming cooked foods. Before we could only make things out of wood or stone, with fire we start to use clay to make all kind of things. Fire also opens the way for making use of metals, and latter on oil.  Fire also brings us closer as people and about 200 thousand years ago our ancestors emerge as modern man. Living in what is considered to be the first societies.  They have mastered speech and language, and can now transfer and share knowledge.

Without fire I would not be here today writing this story, as man we not have survived the ice age in the same way. Because it is estimated that about 100 thousand years ago we started wandering the earth as species and the last great ice age came 65 thousand years ago. And although it is believed that is was the ice age (and therefore the sinking sea levels that exposed the bearing straight land bridge) that allowed people to cross from Asia into North America, how could they have survived without fire?   The ice age, interestingly enough, also contributes to creating the conditions for our world today. It does so by leaving behind a system of rivers, the Yangtze, the Yellow river, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Tigris etc. where people would settle and the population would later dramatically increase.

12 thousand years ago people make the next big step in our evolution; the start of humans mastering crops. Where as until now our forefathers were counting on hunting to feed themselves, they now learn to domesticate animals and start planting crops. This opens the door for a population explosion. You see a hunter needs roughly 15 square kilometers to sustainably feed his family, as a farmer he only needs 1.5square kilometers, or 10 times less. This big gain in productivity was not immediately translated in a population explosion is just made it possible. Another ingredient was necessary, trade. With the domestication of animals, man now had found a new means of transportation, donkeys, horses and camels. These animals enabled the first long distance freight transportation; and as people settled along the navigable rivers left behind by the ice age, goods could now be moved without too much human effort. Farmers, now capable of producing more food than they could consume, could sell their extra production in exchange for other types of foods or goods. Then people in the settlements along the rivers became the first merchants and wholesalers.

But farming, even with the help of animals to pull the plough, is hard physical work. So necessity, being the mother of invention, spurred man to discover the wheel about 6 thousand years ago. I don’t think I need to explain what kind of and impact the wheel had on our evolution.  I think it is fair to say that the wheel is what enabled all machines and itself was a revolution in energy use. With the wheel started his journey to liberate himself of manual effort.  This is also the time when the first civilizations start to emerge, the Sumerians, Egyptians and Chinese.

About 1500 years ago we enter the Iron Age. We now master the art of metallurgy and although we could make all kinds of things out of metal, we concentrate on weapons. This is also the era when the world’s religions and Emporiums are born. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all rooted here. They would emerge individually as religions latter, Christianity 300 A.D., Islam 600 A.D. With the invention of gun powder, 800 A.D. in china, came the next step in our evolution. By mixing different elements we created an unnatural substance with tremendous energy potential; chemistry was born. And although we used this new technology primarily to kill one another, it would later serve as the basis for modern medicine and pharmaceutical products.

500 years ago Christopher Columbus reunited the human species. By discovering America, he reunited our lost cousins that had wandered over the bearing straight during the ice age after 15 thousand years. Unfortunately for them Columbus also brought with him countless diseases that the natives had never been exposed too and together with the bullets of the conquistadors nearly wiped them out! Nevertheless the planet is now one. We have by now mastered the seas and with reached every corners of the earth. There are now an estimated 400 million people on earth, and in just 300 more years we will have more than doubled that number and reach a population of over 900 million people. Just when we start to stretch the productivity gains afforded by the farming revolution, the steam engine is invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen. Ironically the engine was developed to help pump water from underground coalmines. I guess Newcomen did not think at the time that his invention would be just the kind of thing that would drive up demand for the very same product he was trying to extract. The steam engine opened the way for the next big step in our evolution. Up until now the energy needed to survive consisted of 70% human muscle effort and 30% animal (not to talk about before the domestication of animals when it was 100% human muscle effort). With the steam engine we got a huge boast in productivity. By getting machines to do our work we freed up time for other things, just like when we freed up our hands 6 million years ago, this is another similar event. With more time on our hands we can think up new machines and make things faster and cheaper, the creativity of man is suddenly released. It now takes only less than 200 years the see the next big step in evolution, the “Otto” motor, the telegraph, electricity and ultimately the telephone. We are now in 1900 and roughly 1.6 billion people roam the earth.

I guess there is no real need to get into the last century, as you are probably well aware it’s development. So to conclude I have put together this little table to shows you the time between the milestones in our evolution.

Walking

 6,000,000

Fire

 800,000

Language

 200,000

Farming

 12,000

Wheel

 6,000

Iron Age

 3,500

Gun Powder

 1,200

Steam Engine

 300

Otto Motor

 140

Electricity

 100

Computers

 60

Internet

 20

It is quite plain to see that the rate of evolution has exponentially increased over time. Many predict the coming of a synchronicity event in the near future that will again create a huge boast in productivity. When machine outsmart people and robotics open up new possibilities. Who knows what the future hold, one thing is for sure, we are living in the most exciting time in our history. The evolutionary steps that before took millions or thousands of years now only take decades. Change is truly all-round us these days, there is no sense in resisting, let’s just go along with the flow and embrace it when it comes our way.

Written by Francis Lambert, Zabok January 5th 2012

The duality of individuality

Is the glass half full or half empty?

The answer to that question is limited only by our imagination, and each one of us will have a different way of answering it. Some of us will respond instinctively, others will analyse the glass, trying try to calculate where the 50% mark lies, so that they can give an accurate answer. There will be others who will try to figure out why you are asking that question in the first place, in order to come up with the answer they think you want to hear.

Each one of us will process the question in a different way. This happens because the sum of our life experiences is what drives the response process. We all have different frames of reference. That, amongst other things, is what makes us individuals. Although we all share similar emotions, such as motherly love, anger, rejection, success, pride, etc., the environment, timing and context in which we experience these emotions is different for all of us. This makes the mental imprint we have of that experience unique. It is precisely these experiences that we then use as filters to process situations and information during our lifetimes. A child has a relatively clean mental slate, and it is easy to understand the weight and importance that these mental imprints can have on a child’s future.  When and how this happens early in life makes a huge difference to a child’s potential. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the story of Lewis Terman and his still-running longitudinal study called the Genetic Studies of Genius (known today as Terman Study of the Gifted). Terman was convinced that geniuses (people with an IQ higher than 140) would achieve great things in their lifetimes. As it turned out, all he was able to prove was that, when it comes to their achievements in life, geniuses are also normally distributed. However, when the data is segmented in a different way, it shows a clear correlation between social class and academic performance. This is related to upbringing and the tendency for well-to-do families to encourage and support academic education, whilst the socially disadvantaged parents generally have little time to encourage and support their child through education, and in some cases may even be ashamed that they themselves do not have an academic ability.  We all see the world through different eyes, and no two eyes are the same. When we answer the question about the glass of liquid filled to 50% capacity, not only is the process of answering different for each individual but also it all happens in the blink of an eye.

So what gives us the ability to do that? Well, it’s our brain, of course, but more interesting it’s the duality of our brain. On the left side of this organ there is the rational part that thinks through problems and structures thoughts – this part will filter the challenge itself, in terms of physical and factual data. On the right side is the emotional part that filters a different type of data: body language, context, company, etc. Each part plays its role in transforming this data into information on which we make a choice of responses. Whilst we have the ability to think rationally, we are driven by emotions. This is why in the US supermarkets when you get your receipt you see in big letters how much you’ve saved, while the total of what you’ve spent is in normal text – they want to make you feel good about how much money you have saved at their store, never mind that you’ve maxed out on your credit card!

Modern psychology has made a lot of progress trying to understand how the two sides of the brain function and complement one another. There have been many analogies used to describe the tension between the two halves, but perhaps the most vivid is the one used by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt (Professor at New York University Stern School of Business) in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt sees our emotional side as an elephant and our rational side as its rider. Sitting on top of the elephant holding the reins, the rider may give the appearance that he is in charge, but, in fact, if the elephant were to see a mouse or be in any other way scared, it is quite clear that the rider would not be able to hold the elephant back, no matter how hard he pulled on the reins. It is precisely this tension between the rational and emotional sides of our brains that makes it so difficult for us to change. The elephant side is instinctive, and always on the look out for instant gratification. The weakness of the elephant is the rider’s strength: the ability to plan long term – the knowledge that calories saved today will enable me to lose weight. Put another way, everyone knows that smoking is bad for you (rider), but getting the elephant to stop procrastinating and coming up with excuses is difficult indeed. The challenge is for our riders to keep the elephant on the path long enough so that we can reach our destination. To achieve this the rider needs to resort to tricks, such as avoiding people who smoke when you are trying to stop smoking, or strategically placing a device that makes pig noises every time you open the refrigerator door.

There is no strict recipe for this: everyone is wired differently, every situation will require different measures and certain things will work for some people but not for others. It is important to recognize that the rider needs to and can manage the elephant – even if this occasionally requires putting a blindfold on the elephant’s head. Learning to manage our elephant is not that difficult: the rider needs to observe how the elephant behaves, orchestrate life with fewer temptations and reward the elephant for every step it takes in the right direction. After all, gratification is what it is craving!

Francis Lambert – Zabok, 17 December 2012 (originally written 29/05/12)

Gun Society

I couldn’t help but shed a tear this morning as I watch Obama address the nation; I too am a father and the thought of losing my kids in such a way just overwhelms you with emotions. What a horrible thing to happen. Even though these kinds of events have picked up in frequency over the years, the fact that these kids were first graders, so innocent, is what makes the crime so heinous. My thoughts go out to those families that have lost their angels.

Unfortunately it takes events, such has this to stir up the Gun debate in the US. But quite frankly, with over 300 million guns already in circulation in the US, dare I say that the Genie is already out of the bottle!

Interestingly enough another headline caught my eye this morning “ Man Stabs 22 Children in China” (AP). As it turns out half a world away another deranged person decided to take his frustration out on innocent school children, only difference is: he did not have 2 pistols and a semi automatic assault rifle, he had a knife. Conclusion 9 people were injured but no one died in China. No doubt he would have caused similar damage as in Connecticut had he been armed in the same way. And this is the point, with so many arms at large; the problem is now beyond proliferation. Other than having arm guards everywhere or requiring everyone to carry a gun (I guess one can make the argument that if those teacher had been armed they might had stop the killer before he killed all 18 of those kids), it is hard to imagine how else you can protect yourselves and your loved ones.
Access to guns is the key factor is these cases and the logic used by other Western countries that restrict gun ownership like Canada, UK and other European countries. I also own a gun, as a Canadian I grew up in an environment where hunting is a popular hobby. However my gun is a hunting rifle and I can’t imagine why one would want to buy a semi-automatic assault weapon, for something other than killing people, or I guess the famous quote “ Self defense”! Well I don’t know much about guns but if some one is robbing my house late at night I’m sure I can also stop them with my pump action 12 Gauge. I would also think that a pistol or a revolver would be more appropriate in the close quarters of a house anyway. So why sell assault weapons? The argument is the same: since they are already out there, then I have the right to be equally arm to defend myself. The only question is where does this stop? Rocket launchers?
The Connecticut killer must have acted out of jealousy, for he killed his mother and her entire class of students. But the most twisted part is that apparently used his mother’s guns to do his deeds. His mother was a teacher at the school, that is an elementary school remember. You have to ask yourself why would an elementary school teacher possess a semi automatic assault weapon and several handguns?

It’s not easy to stop gun violence in a gun society!

Zabok, HR – 15th December 2012

How much baggage do you carry around?

As I continue to think through the time question I have realized that there just is so much to cover. So the upcoming posts will be related to optimizing and helping you make the most of the time you have.  The beauty of this is that you decide how you use the tools and what you do with your time. Whichever way you decide, the whole point is to make you aware. If you followed the last post and did the exercises you will now be more aware of how you spend your time. And like every thing in life, some things are relatively easy to fix others require fundamental change. Today’s segment is of the fundamental type, as I believe that building on a solid foundation, ultimately provides longevity and sustainability.

Rule number 1 – the more stuff you have the less free you are. Every material thing, not only takes up storage capacity and effort (cleaning moving around etc.),  it takes up brain capacity and processing power as well. Think about it for just about every thing you posses have it’s own story: where it came from gift bought when where with whom etc. So all that stuff in the attic, although out of sight is not out of mind. It weighs on you without you realizing it. Sometimes letting go of stuff can be emotionally wrenching, I know, I still got stuff from the seventies and I’m a pack rat by nature. Nevertheless sorting through your stuff it’s easy to keep the emotional stuff and get rid of the other stuff. To do the sorting, I have developed the 4 G approach: Good to keep, Give to someone else, Garage sale, Garbage. You should run through the cycle at least once per year and your “Good to keep” pile should not be getting bigger (and unless your income is expanding at the same rate, chances are you are over-consuming). I have shrunk my to good to keep stuff to a large oversea trunk. When I pass away I know that my kids will have a laugh at all this junk that has sentimental value to me and no one else. But one trunk over almost fifty years that’s not bad, I guess?

Let me tell you the story of a client I had and for the sake of anonymity we will call him Fred. He was an engineer in his fifties and having being part of the original new hires during the construction of the site he was now the operations manager in a chemical plant. The man was brilliant and he had a fantastic memory, we could be talking about a subject and he would say A yes, I attended a conference 4 years ago, hold on a minute I’ll be right back. He would then stand up and leave the meeting we were having, only to return 3-7 minutes later (his office was down the hall). Upon his return he would show you the documentation from the conference and get completely off topic. As you reeled him back and got back on the subject, something else would pop up and he would be off again! This guy was a walking encyclopedia but you could not get him to focus on anything. Although he was a hard worker, came in at 6:00 and was usually the last to leave after 20:00. His spent the entire day on the shop floor, something rare for someone in his position. As our project evolved we quickly realized that something was wrong with Fred. His un-ability to concentrate was affecting his work performance, besides something else was weird about Fred. No one had ever been into his office. None of my colleagues, or even clients we asked, could ever remember having been in his office. Ok I know what you are thinking, what about his boss, the plant manager. Well that’s another story, his had an alcohol problem and was fired 2 weeks after we started our project. Anyway I doubt whether he had been in Fred’s office either!  I made it my mission to discover the mystery that was his office. Since he loved to recount memories and look up stuff, I engaged him in this way and slowly broke down his barriers through my curiosity and interest. One night, in early December as we were working late, I noticed the light on in his office and I decided to pay him a visit. As I knocked on his door I heard the shuffling of papers and his voice telling me to wait a minute. He opened the door slowly to see who it was and seemed surprised to see me. I told him I had seen the light in his office and wanted to stop by to show him the new management report I had been working on. With nowhere to go he quickly open the door and closed it quickly behind him before leading me to the conference room down the hall. However he quickly realized by the look in my eyes that I had seen enough off his office to give him away. Even though he pretended to not to notice, I could see I had unsettled him. As we went through the report, he suddenly burst into tears, and when I say burst I mean literally did burst with tears sprinkling all over my report.  I stood up and walk out to go to the washroom for some tissues. When I came back with toilet paper he was gone. That was the last time we saw Fred. He did not come back to work and ended up in a mental hospital. Later we learned that he had suffered from, amongst other things, what was referred to as information overload.  I spend a good deal of time on the Internet looking for a picture that would represent his office.  The one I found does not really do it justice, his office looked worst simply because his office was bigger and the path through the piles of documents was longer and interspersed with the odd plant.

Courtesy of http://www.rentittoday.com/rental-blog/5204/inception-technologies-document-scanner-rentals-us-canada .Electronic document solutions so your office doesn’t look like this!

Most people’s office does not have the chance of getting like Fred’s. His was a particular situation, and living alone he must have subconsciously known this was not normal hence his reluctance to let anyone in his office. In any case, it was a hard lesson on me as I was the one who delivered the wake up call.

Zabok, HR – 5th September 2012

What time is it ? 2.0

As we have discussed, time is valuable. It’s up to us to make the best use of it. We decide what we do with our time. Now this sounds good on paper and most of you will agree that this statement is true, but why is it so hard then, to put this into practice? If you can remember in one of my earlier post the “duality of individuality” I discussed how our brains functions with a constant struggle between the rider, as the rational side, and the elephant, as the emotional counterpart. You see, when you are faced with a choice, each side will see different benefits and reasons why their arguments are better. This is because the elephant and the rider often have divergent objectives. The elephant is looking for things that feel good; the rider is trying to reach an objective. Each side has different ways to achieve their goal. The emotional side controls the hormones that control our bodies. Just think about all the marital affaires that go on every day, although there may be a thousand reasons and every case will be different in it’s own way, one thing though that they do have in common, they are all driven by their hormones. The rider on the other hand has the ability to plan and think ahead, giving this side the ability to weigh short term pleasure against long term pain; marital affair vs. divorce and lost of family. As this internal struggle goes on, we continue to be bombarded by information from the outside.  Social pressure, religious norms, work pressures, family needs, neighbors, etc.  It’s a tough world! I don’t think there has ever been an era in the history of man when we have been confronted with so much choice and possibilities. Don’t get me wrong I think it’s a good thing; in the end is this not what evolution is all about? As you know, with evolution also comes extinction, we just have to make sure we don’t fall in the latter category. The problem is that with all this choice and opportunities it’s easy to get distracted. It’s a bit like politics and communication today. It doesn’t matter if what you are saying is wrong or a lie, what is important is to brainwash the voter’s into thinking what you want them to think. Sadly that is the reality we live in today, Americans don’t have an obesity problem because they choose to be fat, they have a problem because they are not able to resist the constant appeal of  “getting your money’s worth or a great deal” and the fact that now a days there are not so many alternatives anyway. Everyone knows that eating fast food every day will make you fat. Within the context of the constant internal struggle, the rider loses out to the elephant on nutrition or perhaps the rider is trying to concentrate it’s forces to win the war against the elephant and is willing to lose the nutrition battle, staying focused on the bigger objective. The fact that Americans have gained weight over the last 50 years, evolutionary scale, is what is troubling and give me grounds for concern about becoming extinct in the long term. Could we, as a species, eat ourselves to death?

Ok, I know what you are thinking, this is all nice and good but what can I do about this? This is where we tie this back to time. Eckhardt Tolle talks about time in a different matter. He gives us a different perspective on time, by saying that the only real time is now, the moment. You see most of us will live our lives on auto pilot, what I mean by this is we get caught up in the daily routine and miss don’t live each moment as if it were it’s last. One of his techniques is to observe yourself from a distance. In other word, it would be as if you could detach yourself and observe yourself from a few feet away. This may seem strange but it is like in the movies when you die and the camera rises from your body and you have the impression you are watching yourself, except that in the movies you are usually dying and in our case your rider is arguing with the elephant. This type of visualization exercises are also used in sports, where you can concentrate and run through a perfect jump, run or shot before taking it. What this does is make you aware of what the situation really is; and very often you quickly realize it is stupid to be arguing about such an insignificant thing. When you are aware you are living the moment and that is when you are truly living.  Some people need to sky dive, bungee jump to get their adrenaline kick, others prefer fast driving, whatever your preference the adrenaline kick is just a consequence of your body being aware, it gets released after you have assess danger. Now I’ll grant you that in comparison to sky diving you won’t get much of an adrenaline kick from tee up on the 9th hole on Saturday morning, nevertheless you cannot play golf without being aware of what you are doing and are able to concentrate.  We often find ourselves however just kind of mechanically going through choirs, thinking or wishing we were somewhere else, or reflecting on the past and all the things we could have done differently. During these moments we are not 100% aware of what is happening. These are the moments where, depending on your job or what you are doing, bad thing can happen; like losing a finger on the saw bench or metal press, or simply missing the exit on the highway. A lot of progress has been made in industry to increase safety at the workplace, but nothing can replace awareness and concentration on the task at hand.  The interesting point here is that: when, you are aware and concentrated you are living the moment as Eckhardt Tolle proposes. Awareness is the state in which both the rider and the elephant (to continue on the theme from previous posts) not arguing but are focused on the situation.  It is a kind of inner peace that can also be achieved through mediation and prayers.

So in keeping with our theme of finding out what time it is in your life here is the next level of diagnostics you can perform. In the “What time is it?”  (27/08/2012) there is an exercise at the end called a DILO.  If have taken the time to do it you will know how you spend your day, and will be more aware of your personal efficiency and effectiveness.  The next level of analysis involves assessing how much time in your day are you truly “aware” and concentrated, how much time is spent living the moment. So take your DILO notes and mark each activity with a “0” when you are aware and a “-“ when you are not.  Then you tally up the score. Here are some examples to help you score:

A)   during the meeting this morning, where you aware, concentrated on the conversation, or thinking about your wife’s birthday and the present you haven’t yet bought.

B)   While you made breakfast this morning, were you thinking about your day or were you concentrated on making this the best breakfast you have ever made

Increasing awareness in people generates results. People who have been halfheartedly working along realize that they are not happy and find different work where they enjoy being aware, making them better employees or workers. This is essentially what is at the core or “Kaizen” and operational excellence programs that can release tremendous benefits for all involved.  By discussing and sharing with their co-worker, employees increase their awareness and through their engagement (living the moment) they develop a bigger stake in their work.  How can it be that a machine that run 24 hours a day, on 3 shifts, runs at different performance? The most frequent cause is different machine settings   set by different shift operators, whom each thinks, he has the best way to run the machine. It’s a classic!

So if you are interested go ahead and do the DILO exercise, you may find it?s later than you think.

Zabok,HR – 27th August 2012

What time is it?

I’m sure you heard this question before, and if you happened to know the time you shared this information willingly. Time is time. Unless you are trying to hide something or get an upper hand on an adversary you really have no reason not to willingly share this information. The clock ticks the same for everyone; time is just another dimension in our lives. Sure we could argue whether you have a preset amount of time until the alarm goes off and you wake up dead in heaven or hell, but even that would be a waste of time.  However long or short our lives are the only time that really counts is the time we have.  Time management is a regular topic in Leadership programs and, when well implemented, can release an incredible amount of energy and value for organizations. If you can get your organization to produce more with less and feel better doing it than you can imagine the kind of “incredible” that I’m talking about.  The idea is simple; you need to align your organization to the same time, reset the clocks in all the departments. The implementation is the hard part. I know, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years.  The point is that time is what guides the world, just as our ancestors awaited the right “time” to plant their crops, the ceo’s today wait for the right “time” to release their earnings. Timing is everything!  It’s interesting how we experience time differently as we live our lives , always relative to the amount of time we have already had. As a child, time goes slow, we can’t wait to blow one more candle on the birthday cake, as teenager you already are so distracted that the only thing that seems far away is your driver’s license.  As a parent you watch you children grow, their first word, their first step, first day in school and the next thing you know they are driving your car!  As my grand father used to say “when I was young the weeks used to go by really quickly now it’s the seasons!”

It is then normal that we learn to value time, as we get older. However we don’t all use our time in the same way. My mom read me the fable from Lafontaine, one of which was “La cigale et la fourmi” where the cigale spends the whole summer having fun while the fourmi (ant) spends it’s summer preparing to survive winter. When fall comes the cigale looks for help but the the fourmi tells him : You sang all summer long, now you should dance”. Unknowingly at the time, that was my first lesson in time management.  Time has value, and it is ultimately our decision what we do with it. You can spend your time studying, learning & growing or you can spend it playing & socializing. There are obviously millions of different combinations and socializing should not be seen as wasting your time.   It all depends on your own wiring. There is one thing we have in common, As man has evolved, we have more and more time on our hands. Cave people didn’t have more time as keeping the fire going through the winter months, alone was a full time job your life depended on. For millennia most people worked 6 days a week, from dawn to dusk, as stated in the bible. It’s not that they had more time; they had exactly the same amount as we do. Everything just took longer and tasks we now take for granted consumed hours out of our daily lives. Can you imagine doing your wash down by the river with a washboard and a bar of soap?  That and thousands of other things have made life easier. Although not always so effective many things are more efficient today, giving us more choice about what to do with our time. A choice our parents and grand parents did not have.

If your are interested in finding out what time it is in your life than you might like the following exercise. The first step is to get conscious about how you spending your time.  One of our favorite tool in management consulting is the DILO (a Day In the Life Of). Basically it is a log of the events that happen during a normal day. It is useful because it is an impartial record of a normal day, all you are doing is recording the events. This record of event almost always provides a different perspective for the employee. Think of it like a video recording of your golf or tennis swing, with the right coach you can analyze and optimize your moves. The dilo does the same just in a different context. So we recommend that you take a piece of paper, fold it to a size that will fit in your pocket and register all your activities during the course of the day.  For the more sophisticated ones, most mobile phones have a voice recorder, which also provide an excellent way to log your day. Whichever way you decide on you will also need to think about the analysis part, the paper version already provides the overview.   Now for the analysis bit, an easy way to look at how you can categorize your time is to split it into a 4 box matrix where you weigh your activities according to two criteria, for example: Urgency vs Importance.

Less important More important
More Urgent
Less Urgent

Of course you can pick whatever category you want to analyze for example a teenager may want to weigh physical vs mental activity or type of activity: active- passive vs like dislike. Whatever your case it will provide you with a fresh perspective from where you will be able to start answering what time it is in your life.

OK! Now that you have that in your hands, are you happy with the way it looks? Does it need a bit of tweaking or a complete overhaul?  That will depends on your situation and your ambitions. However your situation is, just remember it can better from here, because at least now you are aware and can do something to improve it.

Where do I stop and where do we start?

The other evening, I walked into the living room to find my wife and two sons sitting together watching television.  Given that at this stage in life they don’t share many common interests, this was a bit of a surprise. I decided to join them and quickly realized that the show was about dysfunctional families; my surprise just shifted up another gear. The show is called “Die strengsten Eltern der Welt”-the strictest parents in the world. The show is about rebellious, “problematic” children who get sent to all corners of the world and live out family life with their host parents for two weeks. The host families range from the tribes people of the amazon to sheepherders in Macedonia. You can imagine that life with the host family is very different then back home in Germany. In this particular episode, the kids were tough; it took them three days before they ate anything and communicated normally, two more days to understand that you have to work and earn your food just like everyone else in the family. In fact, it was only when they were presented with no other alternatives that they begin to see reason and started communicating normally; which led to a normal relationship with the host parents. The lesson being that in the mountains of Macedonia, only as a family can you survive. Everyone has a job and must do their share. Shared is also the food, sorrows and moments of joy. That is the basis of the family unit and where we basically learn to answer the original question.

It is rare that you fine a human being that wants to live in isolation; why do you think they punish prisoners with solitary confinement.

As society evolves as we move up “Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs” it has become easier for kids to rebel and even parents to replace a partner, hence the rising number of divorces. Just think about it, one hundred years ago the majority of the population lived in rural areas. People literally did not have the means to travel. Few in your village would have had the reason, let alone opportunity, to visit the nearest town.  Fewer still would have made it any further. Although the automobile had been invented, it remained just that, an invention and not a common good. If you had to go somewhere, it would be by train or by horse (and just 30 years before that people did not have the train option). You were effectively stuck. Your choice of partner was restricted to what was available locally and just like the sheepherders in Macedonia today, you had to work together as a team to survive.  When the kids on the show made the same conclusion, and accepted their situation they started to see thing with different eyes.  Here is how it went.

On the third day the kids broke down and renounced their hunger strike. So after a good breakfast the hos father thinks they may be ready for some work, like the rest of the family, everyone has a task. Well you can imagine what happens next. The kids refuse to do the work, they tell their host father off and walk away to go sit on a nearby hill. After letting them simmer for the rest of the morning the host father again approaches them again. He tells them that they can’t keep running away from their problems all their lives. He asks them to come back with him and help him with the work.  Again the kids refuse, but this time they are caught off guard by the host father’s calm, and in the end reasonable request. As they reflect on his words and what he is asking of them, reason begins to sink in and their resistance to the whole experience starts to melt away. What is interesting is that once they begin to embrace their situation they also begin to enjoy the different experiences. Well maybe the morning wash in the cold mountain stream was not as pleasant as a hot shower at home, but all of a sudden it becomes fun because it is different and unique. When faced with the experience of slaughtering a sheep, both kids were, again, pushed over the edge of the comfort zone. Yes, they both ate meat but it’s one thing to pick up a package of sausages of the shelf at the supermarket and it’s something else to stick the knife in the animal, cut it’s artery and let it bleed to death. Here again once they identified with their host family the perception changed. This was a normal act in the mountains of Macedonia; you don’t have a grocery store down the street so if you want to eat meat then you have to butcher it yourself. When you identify with someone, you start to see things from their perspective and you then begin to understand that their point of view is not, in most cases, so unreasonable.  As you understand more and more about the under person and their situation you naturally start to see possibilities of contributing of your own knowledge and experience to the situation. In our example the both kids were reluctant to kill the animal, but the boy was willing to part take in the killing and helped hold down the animal while the host father did his deed. You could see by the excitement in his eyes as he was swept away by the experience. Although there are many other facets to identity, which we will not get into at this point, it is a key factor to change. Just as the boy was having difficulties at home with his parents and education, he was identifying himself with the wrong crowd, where petty crime is, somehow, a way to prove you belong to the group. It is sometimes hard as an adult to resist the ongoing bombardments of messages and information we receive from modern media and society (A large proportion of those messages aim to create a appealing identity. In extreme cases some kids have been killed over a pair of Nike basketball shoes), can you imagine what it’s like for a teenager? It easy to fall in with the wrong crowd; I always tell my kids that in a peer group situation, the one who is courageous is the one who can say no, the real “chicken” is the one that gives in.

So as we have seen identification with the other person is the first step to accepting that there is a “we” and that “I” does not necessarily have to stop because the real acid test for a team is when the sum of the “whole” is greater than the sum of the parts. In other words a team can produce more than the sum of what the team members could produce individually.  Once this sinks in, and you belong to a real team (not just a group of individuals), you will have created a strong identity that will be appealing and change will become easier.

How do you know when your time has come…?

Chances are, if you are asking the question yourself this question, your time has already come; it’s just waiting for you to make your move. So why don’t you?

Well as we have learnt in my last blog (The individuality of duality), it is most likely that your elephant is holding you back. If you remember the elephant is in charge of “now” and unfortunately “now” is when action happens. Your rational side, the rider can come up with the best ideas and make great plans, it’s all in vain if you can’t get our elephant to take action and stay focused on the task at hand. Perhaps the best way of illustrating this is to tell you about my current internal debate. My rider has planned that I sit here now and write (because it’s early in he morning, I feel at my best, it’s quiet and I’m comfortable).  My elephant is restless and is constantly bombarding me with ideas of other activities that need doing and would be a lot more gratifying write now. So how do I manage this debate? I breakdown my plan into small steps and reward my elephant with gratifying moments every time I accomplish a step; in my case completing this page or paragraph before making another cup of coffee.

I need to stress that there is not one recipe for this. Each rider needs to learn what works best with his elephant and every situation will demand different steps and rewards. However if you understand the dynamics of rider and elephant, you will quickly see patterns of this dynamic in your own behavior. Opportunities will emerge that you can use to tame your elephant and set you back on your path.

Ok, so what if you haven’t asked yourself the question: How do I know my time has come? Well maybe you are on the right path already and are a master elephant rider. However if you are like most people, you are trapped in a somewhat comfortable and unfulfilling life path.  You may be asking yourself the question all the time but don’t know where to start and what to do.  Fortunately there is hope.   Now that we have learnt that for change to succeed you have to control your elephant and what better way to do so than with emotions. In their book “Success Built to Last” Jerry Porras, Stewart Emery and Mark Thompson make a case that successful people all share one thing in common, they are passionate about what they do.  Here is a quote:

“It’s dangerous not to do what you love. The harsh truth is that if you don’t love what you’re doing, you’ll lose to someone who does! For every person who is half-hearted about their work or relationship, there is someone else who loves what they’re half-hearted about. This person will work harder and longer. They will outrun you. Although it might feel safer to hang onto and old role, you’ll find your energy is depleted and, miraculously, you’ll be the first in line for he layoffs when they come.”

It makes total sense, if we stick to our example, it could not be easier for the rider.  The path he wants to follow is a breadcrumb trail for the elephant. Because passion means emotional engagement, what for someone is work is for someone else fun. Following the path naturally satisfies the elephant’s hunger for gratification, thereby minimizing the efforts of the rider.

You may say that this is great advice for kids entering high school, but not practical for 50 year olds’ who are approaching the sunset of their careers. Of course you are right, however I believe that it’s never too late to change, by the time you are fifty, you should be well aware of what you like and what gives you pleasure. If you are not doing this for a living than it may be too late to change careers, but it’s probably not too late to reorient yourself in a position where you can make use of your work experience to date and do something else that will bring you closer to your passion. And don’t feel bad because the 15 year olds’ may still have a lot of time ahead of them but it is rare that the already know what the are passionate about.

Here again I would like to make a reference to Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman and their book “first Break all the rules”[1] . They make a reference to  a model that constitutes employee satisfaction:

Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s book “first Break all the rules”

Basically for employees to be satisfied they need to understand how their role or position is linked to the organisation’s vision and mission. They need to constantly be reminded of the importance of their work as to stimulate their sense of pride. The opportunity to contribute is obvious, who wants to work in a place and be considered a robot. You may have heard some of these classic statements: “ just do what you are told” or  “you’re not paid to think, you’re paid to produce”.  Although this one seems obvious, you would be amazed how many times, in my 20+ years as consultant, employees complain that the issues we identified through our observations and analysis have been known for years but no one does anything about them. Finally, feedback for good work, again this may seem obvious but a lot of companies have not even defined what good work is, so it’s difficult to measure against it. As for feedback, let’s not talk about your direct boss that you probably see every day, what about your boss’s bosses?   Can you remember last time you saw them, let alone received feedback from them?

Whatever you are doing in your career at the moment you can use the model above to test how satisfied you are with your job, it may help you answer the  original question

However, before you can answer: How do I know my time has come?  You will first have to fill in the blank  “my time has come … (to what?) : look for another job? Ask my girlfriend to marry me? Start exercising? Have another beer or position myself in front of my boss? Start a change program in my company? Start my own business and follow my passion. However you phrase it, your answer will ultimately lead to change.

 

Zabok, HR 31st May 2012


[1] They have also developed a very simple but effective employee questionnaire that can be used in association with organizational maturity model.

Your time has come

The company had been experiencing difficulties. After years of changes in it’s sales engine it was not getting traction in the market and as a result was not growing. Well there were some good explanations: the 2008 Financial Crisis, the Euro debt crisis, industry cycles etc. However things started to go astray long before that. People familiar with the company will tell you the company reached its peak shortly following the management buy out.   Which of course one could say was good for the management behind the buy out and potentially bad for the banks and investors, at the time.  Of course that is easy to say now, with hindsight we know there were changes in leadership and management. We also know we lost talent along the way and all too often theses talented people in turn set up their own competitive business or strengthen the racks of the competitors.

What is interesting is the dynamics of the decline. A classic tale of austerity!   As the company fails to meet expectations year after year, the investors get more and more worried so they get more and more involved, over time filling key positions with trusted people, who don’t necessarily have experience in the business.  These people then take decisions without the full understanding of what makes the company successful. So we start with the classic track: Expenses need to be reduced.

As the one big-ticket item, management first delays the annual regional meeting and celebration (European Company Meeting). The event is a celebration for all the hard work and success stories we individually, or at least as project team, experience on projects. It is also often the only opportunity many people will have to meet there colleagues from other offices and build their networks. Above all it is an opportunity to share and bond together, thereby releasing and incredible amount of energy that always lasts until the early hours of the morning. At first it is just a 6 months delay, then slowly but surely it becomes an, “every two year event” and finally becoming and exception. Unfortunately it is people that make up the assets of the company and thinning out the so-called “ECM” may seem like a wise thing to do, unfortunately it undermines the very fabric of the company.

Of course the annual party is not the only expense that is cut back. Since operations make up 90% (or at least it should) of the workforce it was decided that “Non billable expenses” are to be eliminated in operations. The logic being that operations people work on projects where clients pay the operational expenses. This policy was effective in two ways: it reduced expenses and thwarted all other operational activities that one couldn’t morally expense their clients.   Training some became the next victim of eliminating non-billable expenses. During it’s peak the company invested a lot in training, in fact I was personally involved in upgrading our training initiative, taking the ownership for the “Operational Fundamentals” course in 2005 and delivering the course 9 times to roughly 200 new starters until 2009, when training was sacrificed altogether.

But in the end these cuts are not enough, now the company has started cutting personnel.  The company is downsizing and to be sure it has the biggest impact on its payroll, it is the people with the highest salaries who are targeted first, never mind that they have the most experience and knowledge.  That’s how I got my notice the other day, yep after years of dedication I had finally become a number on a piece of paper, someone who was perceived as “non value add”.  At first I was shocked, but then, thinking all this through, I realized that my time had come.

If the management did not see the need to keep me around then why would I want to stick around? It is kind of paradoxical that the company that preached “linking the top floor with the shop floor” has itself become so disconnected.  Quite frankly I’m happy I got laid off, because it’s no fun to work where you don’t feel appreciated.   So “adios” old job! And hello new opportunities!

To stay true to my motto of  “ helping people”, I have decided to share my experiences, ways and methods, to look at, and deal with change, both personally and organizationally.  You see I have learned that change does not have to be painful and it does not have to be hard. After all, the essence of our being, the cells that make up our bodies, are constantly changing. And just as a year is made up of changing seasons, our lifetimes on earth are made up of different chapters.  Evolution is change!  Yes learning something new does require more mental effort, but it can also be rewarding so whenever you are faced with a life changing event don’t be afraid. Just because it “looks like” you have been dealt a lousy hand, does not mean you are out of the game. Who knows if “what looks like a lousy hand” turns out to be the best hand at the table?  You have to make the best out of what you have, and as Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman have wonderfully captured in their book “first Break all the rules”, stop focusing on trying to repair yourself and start focusing on what you are good at (what you enjoy doing) because that is what you will excel at.  Getting laid off is kind of like coming to a “ T ” intersection in life. You can turn right or left, you just can’t go straight! It provides an opportunity to truly assess ones life and take a different turn. Many people are not given that opportunity and continue doing a less than satisfying job until the day they retire. Why? Because they themselves are afraid of changing, they are reasonably comfortable with what they have.

So just like Greece, the company is stuck in a negative dynamic current, brought on by austerity. The mismanagement of the past has to be paid by the citizens / employees of today. Unfortunately focusing on reducing expenses and costs does not help generate more revenue. The glass is always half full or half empty depending, which way you look at it.  Picking your way to look at it will decide, like the intersection in the road, where you end up.

Zabok, HR – 28th May 2012