An embarrassing incident I was hanging out at the Marlboro South Pond Regatta, a whimsical affair where local sailors of all stripes and abilities casually “race” around a few buoys in the lake, sometimes stopping to chat mid-race with each other or watch our beautiful loons. (They carry their babies on their backs — see photo!)
A man passed, and our eyes met for a moment. “Have I met him before?” I thought. “He looks very familiar.” But I couldn’t make the connection, and said nothing.
A few minutes later, my wife, who was talking to a woman I didn’t recognize, turned to me and said, “You remember Lisa don’t you?” Memory flooded back, and I realized that I’d met Lisa on Anguilla 18 months ago when she and the familiar man, whose name I now remembered as Willy, had visited the island.
I felt a little embarrassed.
This happens all the time As a facilitator of conferences and meetings, I meet and talk with hundreds of people every year. I used to be pretty good at recognizing people I’d previously met, and was invariably able to remember their name, the circumstances, and what we talked about.
These days, my memory for these things…well, it sucks.
While I’m with people, I remember them well and can be with them effectively, using the information they’ve shared to explore new areas and deepen the relationship.
But within a few days, my recollection starts to blur. Circumstances, names, and details of our conversations disappear from short-term memory, and if I later see someone again I often can’t put them in context. A reminder brings my memory back, but needing one can be embarrassing. I don’t want to forget the people I meet — but my aging brain is less cooperative.
What to do? I don’t want to fake remembering someone when I can’t initially place them. Having an aide with flawless recall at my side wherever I go, ready to whisper “that’s Merrigan Pertussis; you met her at the 2012 Nutrition for Athletes; in September you water-skied with her younger brother Placido in Ibiza” would be nice, but, unfortunately, is not an option for me or, I suspect, most people.
So here are three ways to minimize embarrassment when meeting people whom you might have met before.
I’ve replaced my treadmill desk with the next generation: a simpler, cheaper, and better alternative!
Five years ago I shared my initial and follow-up experiences with a treadmill desk. Since then I’ve walked over 1,600 miles while working, and have seen a clear correlation between my general level of wellbeing and regular use of my walking desk for (typically) a couple of hours a day.
Last week, however, I noticed that my upper arms were aching after using my desk. After a few days experimenting, I realized that the height of the commercial plastic shelf I’ve been using since 2012 was causing my shoulders and upper arms to tense up while typing, leading to the achiness. Though this hadn’t happened before, I’m getting older and creakier and I needed to do something if I was going to continue to reap the benefits of my walking-while-working routine.
Simple, because I could quickly build a better shelf myself.
Cheaper, because I used materials already in my possession. (But even if you bought everything, it should cost you less than $20.)
Better, because the new shelf:
rests on the arms of my treadmill at a perfect height for me to type with my forearms level, avoiding the scrunched up shoulders my old desk required, and;
is twice as wide as the old one, giving me a place to rest reference materials right next to my keyboard while writing.
Materials: a piece of plywood, two brackets, four screws, two hooks, one bungee cord.
Tools: saw, tape, pencil, screwdriver.
Time: about an hour.
Here’s the side view of my finished shelf. The brackets were only needed because my treadmill’s arms have a gentle slope. Some treadmills have horizontal arms, making construction even easier.
Construction is so simple that these pictures and the referenced articles should contain all the information you need. Though I don’t regret purchasing my (now discontinued) commercial shelf in 2012, this homemade version is a great improvement. If you have a home or office treadmill and want to work while walking, this is the way to go!
“What are the basic skills required to be a good programmer?”
When this question came up on Quora.com, lots of good and useful answers were given, but they all seemed to be external answers. For me, with more than 60 years of programming experience, the one thing that made me a better programmer than most was my ability and willingness to examine myself critically and do something about my shortcomings. And, after 60 years, I’m still doing that.” —Jerry Weinberg, What are the basic skills required to be a good programmer?
Being continually willing and able to notice our shortcomings and concentrate on working on them may be the most effective strategy we can use to get better at anything we do.
Image by Jonathunder (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve lost count of the number of To Do list managers I’ve tried over the years—there have been so many. Most recently, Omnifocus and Wunderlist were my repositories, but I eventually grew frustrated enough to dump them; nothing I’ve used has eliminated the time-honored alternative of writing notes on scraps of paper that get scattered around my desk.
I have been using Trello for the last six months, and I’m very happy with it. Here’s what I like about this nifty piece of software.
It runs on my desktops and mobile devices, syncing seamlessly between platforms. I can update my To Do lists anywhere. (Trello runs on Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, iOS 7+, Android 4+, and, should the spirit move you, your Kindle Fire HD – 2nd Gen.)
It works flawlessly. (Wunderlist, I’m looking at you—I shouldn’t need to frantically email tech support when all my lists vanish; yes, you did restore them for me which is very nice for a free service but…)
Trello can handle much more than To Do lists. I keep all my To Do’s on one Trello “board”, but you can easily create additional boards for projects that have more than a few associated tasks if that works better for you. (Or you could color code a project’s items so they stand out on your main To Do board. Or you could tag them. Or…)
It’s very flexible without being over-complex (Omnifocus, I’m talking about you.) I use a combination of Getting Things Done and Kanban methodologies, and Trello makes it a snap to extend the core Kanban model (To Do, Doing, Done) in any way you like. Each Trello board can have any number of Lists, and each list can hold any number of Cards, which are your basic individual action items. For an example look at my To Do board above, which includes a set of three priority To Do lists (cool, warm hot), a Brattleboro list (for things to do when I go into town), a Waiting list (off screen) for things I’m waiting for someone else to get back to me on, as well as Doing and Done lists.
Moving stuff about is a dream. On a desktop device, drag a card with your mouse to where you want it. No delay, just drag it to a new list and it pops into place. On a touch-screen, use your finger to drag; it works the same way. Wunderlist sometimes had annoying lags (“did I move it or not?”) while Trello just works—Steve Jobs would be proud.
More features are available when you need them, but they don’t get in the way. See this intro Trello board that lists some of the things you can do that maybe I’ll want to do some day.
Trello is free for the functionality I need. If you start using it inside an organization, you can purchase Trello Business Class, which costs $5 per user per month or $45 per user per year and adds administrative controls and security (plus export in CSV format; see below). That’s how they make money. At the time of writing, Trello has ~5 million users.
Any quibbles? Of course—nothing’s perfect! (But Trello comes close.) The main thing that’s a little disturbing is that all your data is stored by Trello and if the company’s massive server cloud was vaporized you’d lose all your lovely To Dos. The free version of Trello only allows export to JSON, which cannot be opened by Excel, and you’d need to use a JSON->CSV converter to get your To Dos in a form that us mere mortals can view and manipulate. The only other thing I find a little clumsy is the procedure to add or change a due date for a card, though writing this article led me to discover a world of Trello shortcuts which simplify such operations. (Yup, more evidence that the best way to learn about anything is to try and explain it.)
Conclusion Sign up today! It doesn’t cost anything, and no salesperson will call. If you’d like to patiently explain to me why the To Do list manager you use is way better than this, then type away in the comments.
You’re probably a consultant—even if you think you aren’t. So, what’s the best way to spend your consulting time? Let’s explore the choice of how many people to work with.
You could work with one other person, maximizing your influence and effectiveness for that one person. In one-to-one work you can adjust the amount of detail and depth, level of sophistication, optimum environment, and speed at which you interact to create the best possible circumstances for appropriate learning and problem solving.
Or you could work with several people simultaneously. A small group can be a marvelous place for people to learn, with your contribution immediately available to all and easy access to clarification and further learning through feedback, questions, and sparked conversations. Perhaps your words of wisdom are more relevant to some in the group than others, but what you say is reaching a wider audience.
How about teaching a class? Now your expertise reaches tens or hundreds of people, though it’s harder to know whether what happens is hitting the spot with your students. Even using frequent feedback and small group work doesn’t give you the same guiding information you could get from a small group, and your class could be largely irrelevant to some without you ever knowing it.
What about writing a book? I spent four years part time writing Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love. Thousands have purchased the book, many more people than I’m ever going to reach at a single event. That’s an impressive spread of influence. And yet, although I’ve spoken with many purchasers over the last three years since it was published, they are a minority. For most buyers, I don’t know whether they’ve devoured it from cover to cover or if the book sits, unread, on a pile or a shelf.
The smaller the number of people we work with, the more likely we are to influence effectively. The more people we work with, the wider our influence spreads but the weaker it gets.
One interesting observation about influence is how our society values spread over depth. In general, people who successfully spread thin but wide are compensated—with money and fame—better than those who successfully go for depth.
Or, as Jerry puts it:
Influence or affluence; take your choice.
(I wonder about the rightness of this. Most of the important learning in my life, and I suspect in most people’s, has sprung from powerful personal interactions, not thinly spread broadcast content. Well, so be it.)
So what should we do? As usual, it depends. Let’s assume you have needed expertise or something important to share. If you want fame and fortune more than anything else, then get cracking on that blockbuster book, big movie role, etc. If you want the opportunity to make a big difference with a few people, then concentrate on being a great consultant to your clients.
I love working with individuals and small groups, so I spend much of my time concentrating on depth over breadth. But it’s also important to me to get my ideas out into the world, even though I don’t enjoy the process as much, so I blog, write books, give presentations, and facilitate conferences. Spreading my influence thinly in these ways creates openings for the personal connections and work that are my preferred passions.
This way of looking at how many people you work with can be applied to your use of social media too. Celebrities broadcast to their followers but usually don’t interact with them much. I prefer to use social media for conversations, but I also send out links to my blog posts. We get to choose.
Making a choice Getting the balance right between depth and breadth is a personal choice—there is no one right answer. The first step is to notice the balance you use and determine if it’s working for you. If not, consider adjusting your work mix so it better reflects your needs and wants.
Don’t stop there. I worked with clients almost exclusively for many years before discovering that there were things I wanted to share en masse. Your optimum balance between depth and breadth may change over time. So evaluate it regularly as part of your regular work life review.
That way you’ll be spreading your time jam just the way you like it. Yum!
But first a confession… An important part of the Getting Things Done methodology, of which I’m a devotee, is a weekly review. For years I’ve struggled to consistently implement the GTD weekly review, but I’ve never been able to completely integrate it into my professional life. Creating a regular review habit isn’t easy for me, and, I suspect, for many—and that’s why my success with a work life review could be valuable for you.
An accidental discovery I fell into doing a work life review by chance. When I was an information technology consultant I billed my clients at the end of each month. As I added up the billable hours I found myself thinking about the work I had just completed for them: the effort it took and the aspects I did or didn’t enjoy.
As the months went by, based on what I was noticing, I slowly started to make changes in:
How I was doing my work.
The kinds of work I promoted to potential clients.
The clients I chose to work for.
For example, I realized that working with clients who paid well but wanted me to be at their beck and call, or who treated me disrespectfully was not worth the stress and occasional unpleasantness I experienced. Over time I dropped these clients and became better at choosing work situations that were a better fit for me.
My monthly work life review became an essential part of my professional routine during the 23 years I was an IT consultant. Twelve times a year, with the results of the past month’s work spread before me, I gave myself the opportunity to reflect on what had happened and what I might like to change. This practice made me a better consultant—and a happier one!
But I’m not a consultant! Even if you’re not a consultant or self-employed, invariably there will be aspects of your work that you can make choices about, and a regular work life review will still be useful. Implementing a work life review is important because, in the constant rush to keep your business healthy and responsive or to keep up with the demands of your job, it’s easy to neglect to review the direction of and satisfaction with the work you perform. When you don’t take the time to do a regular work life review, your relationship with your work is likely to get stuck in a rut.
For example, during a review perhaps you’ll notice there are certain work tasks you like better than others. At some point you may be able to alter your job duties so they’re more aligned with what you’ve discovered you prefer. Or you may be given an opportunity to delegate activities that don’t fit with your abilities or interests. Being aware of what you want for your work environment makes you ready to act on openings that could appear at any time.
Even if your manager or boss directs every minute of your workday, a work life review can still be a useful exercise if you’re considering changing your job.
Getting in the habit If you’re convinced that a work life review would be useful for you, it’s helpful to tie it to a regular and appropriate work activity, because it’s hard to make time for, and easy to put off such optional activities. My end of the month billing was ideal, since it required me to review all the work I’d done over the previous four weeks. Look for similar kinds of reviews you already perform as part of your work, and see if you can incorporate a work life review at the same times.
It’s important to schedule a regular review. Once a month worked well for me.
Review tasks Here are questions to ask yourself during each work life review.
What activities am I spending time on?
How much do I enjoy working on each activity?
How stressful has my professional life been since the last review? How is that related to the amount and type of work I’ve done?
Could I change my work emphasis to make my professional life more enjoyable/lucrative by:
Concentrating more of a particular subset of clients, or by giving up a client?
Focusing on the kinds of work I enjoy/find more lucrative?
Turning down work offers that my reviews have indicated are not a good fit for me?
I didn’t find it necessary to include the development of action outcomes at the end of every review. Rather, I began to notice patterns over several months and these helped me make changes, both small and large, to my consulting practice when the right opportunities presented themselves. You may prefer, however, to include a brief evaluation at the end of each review, perhaps in writing, so that you can discover recurring themes from one review to the next.
I encourage you to develop your own design for your review. You may decide, like me, on an informal, intuitive review, or a more formal process with fixed questions, written responses, an evaluation, and action steps. Ultimately, creating a review that works for you and is easy to implement regularly is what’s most important.
Perhaps you already use a work life review? What do you do, and how has it affected your work life? Share your process and discoveries here. And if you are inspired to start a work life review, I’d love to hear how it works out!
Take it easy! Before I started using my treadmill desk my main scheduled exercise was walking outside (on varied, hilly terrain) for forty minutes or so three times a week. After starting, I set the treadmill and timer for four daily 20-minute sessions at 1.7 mph and a 4% incline. I felt great after the sessions and not especially tired. But after a couple of weeks I began to get achy joints. Not only my knees but also my shoulders and neck. I had been overdoing it.
As a result I reduced my walking speed to 1.2 – 1.3 mph, increased the session time to 25-30 minutes, and eliminated the incline. I now average 3-4 sessions a day and the aches have disappeared. According to the Sole F80, my daily workout consumes around 200-270 calories, down somewhat from the 300 calories I initially was burning. On average, there are one to two days each week when I don’t have time to go on the treadmill (nearly always when I’m away from home and walking while working or shopping around town).
Ramping up over time In my first post, I speculated that I might ramp up the number, length, or difficulty of sessions over time. What I’ve found so far is that I feel well exercised and reluctant to walk more after 90-120 minutes of treadmill per day. While I’m sure that I could stay on the treadmill longer I am satisfied with the time I spend on the machine and don’t currently plan to do more.
Sleeping better I’ve noticed that I sleep better on the days I exercise. This is a major plus!
Weight loss After having more or less the same weight for the last year, I’ve lost six pounds over the last three months. I seem to be keeping the weight off. Losing a couple of pounds a month is approximately what you’d expect from the amount of additional exercise I’m now doing. I can stand to lose some more weight—long may this continue!
Increased creativity Finally, I continue to find working while walking a significant stimulus to my creativity. For a long time I’ve been writing about one blog post a week. Recently, I have been averaging nearly two a week. I am also working on finishing my next book, and have found it much easier to get those 600+ words a day written while walking.
Conclusions? Better sleep, healthy weight loss, increased creativity? What’s not to like? As long as I don’t overdo it, using a treadmill desk works for me. Recommended!
“People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.”—Simon Sinek
In his popular TED Talk, Start With Why, Simon Sinek explains why he believes that knowing why you do what you do is a fundamentally more important question to be able to answer than how you do it or what you do. He says that great leaders are successful because they are able to infuse their organizations with the why of their existence. Consequently, Simon argues that you need to figure out why your company or organization exists and why that should be meaningful to your customers.
I completely agree with Simon that Why do you do what you do? is the fundamental question. Another word for this is mission, and once you or your organization has one it guides everything you do.
(My mission, by the way, is: I love to facilitate connections between people.)
So why then, when I start a Conferences That Work event with The Three Questions, is the first question participants answer: “How did I get here?” not “Why am I here?” Why not get down to the nitty gritty Why? instead of spending time on the less important How?
My answer? Because “Why?” is one of the hardest questions to answer. It took me around 55 years to arrive at my current mission statement (yes, it could still change). Expecting people who have just arrived at a conference to come up in a few minutes with the why? that drives everything they do, including attending the event, is unrealistic and unfair.
Asking about how participants got here allows answers from the mundane (“I flew here from Chicago”) through the informative (“I first came in 2005 because Joe told me I had to come; he was right; I met so many wonderful people and learn so much every year I haven’t missed one since”) to answers that are, in fact, about mission (“I saw the program and couldn’t think of a better way to meet people who share my passion about creating tech startups that don’t crash and burn.”)
In other words, how? is a question that allows participants to safely share about themselves, revealing something about their past that brought them to the event. And, crucially, answering how? does not preclude the possibility of answering why?
Your big picture how? includes motivation, and ultimately mission. Sometimes, you get to your why? via your how? That’s why, sometimes, how? is better than why?
Feel free to share your mission, or your personal journey towards one, in the comments below!
I’m always on the lookout for new ways to improve my productivity. My latest discovery, which is really working for me, is a treadmill desk (shown above). Here’s why.
I’ve noticed that as I get older, regular exercise is becoming an increasingly important necessity for me to stay sharp and focused. (Here’s a New York Times article on the positive benefits of exercise on the functioning of the brain.) Walking along some of the 60 miles of dirt road in my Vermont town is my preferred exercise activity (as well as stacking wood in the spring) but bad weather can make this onerous, so five years ago I purchased a Sole F80 treadmill and used it when I couldn’t stand the thought of going outside. I didn’t use it much—about 150 miles per year.
Over the last few years I’ve seen a growing number of articles about standing and treadmill desks. Standing desks do not appeal to me; if I’m thinking on my feet I like to be moving (I often pace around the room while on a phone call). But the concept of exercising while working intrigued me. I’m writing my next book, which involves cranking out 600+ words a day until it’s done and I’d been having trouble staying focused on my writing while meeting my daily word count target. I didn’t want to exercise all day, but I thought even an hour walking while writing daily wouldn’t hurt.
Quite simply, this has been one of the best productivity investments I’ve ever made.
Writing while walking has turned out to be a fantastic way for me to maintain focus & creativity. I’m still using the 20+5 work sprint method that works so well for me, but the time on the treadmill flashes by and I’m eager to get back on the treadmill to write more. I have the Sole set at 1.7 miles/hour and an incline of 4%, creating a 2/3-mile walk and 100 calorie burn every twenty minutes according to the who-knows-how-accurate Sole readouts.
Walking to work
Currently, I use the treadmill for 3+ 20-minute sessions a day, equivalent to walking a couple of miles and burning 300 calories each day. Over a week, if I don’t eat more, that translates to a weight loss of about a pound, though that’s not my main objective. It will be interesting to see if I increase the number of sessions over time; I suspect I will.
The SurfShelf fits just about every treadmill, stationary exercise bike, elliptical trainers, and stair masters out there. I didn’t have much problem installing it on my Sole, though I hung it lower than recommended so my keyboard wouldn’t be too high and added a second horizontal strap from an old messenger bag around the vertical straps to cinch it in tight to the F80 faceplate.
Calling the SurfShelf a “desk” could be a little hyperbole as my 17″ laptop completely covers its work surface, leaving no room for anything else. That works for me, since I just want to write. But my large laptop does fit, and is held securely in place by a single Velcro strap that can be installed and removed in seconds. As you can see from the photo, on the Sole I’ve set the keyboard sloping forward; not ideal for typing all day, but perfectly comfortable for a few twenty minute periods with breaks.
Conclusions? As the Gizmodo SurfShelf review and the Amazon reviews indicate, I am not alone admiring this inexpensive gadget. If you have an underutilized treadmill—or can buy an inexpensive used unit—this could be a great way to increase your work productivity through increased focus and exercise. Who knows—maybe you’ll even lose a few pounds too?
I’ve worked out of my home office for the last thirty years, and have learned a few things about working productively. During that time I:
Consulted on information technology for hundreds of companies.
Wrote and maintained almost a million lines of code.
Ran a couple of small non-profits (still do) and served on my local United Way Board.
Wrote Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, and am now hard at work on my second book.
Along the way I spent a fair amount of time experimenting with different environments and work processes, always with the goal of improving my productivity. As you might expect of a proponent of the philosophy of risky learning, some things worked and some didn’t. I’ll reserve the things that didn’t for another post.
You may not have as much control over your work environment and process as I do. Nevertheless, perhaps you will find helpful some of what follows.
Work environment: Office furniture, ergonomics, and beauty
Twenty-five years ago I purchased two astronomically expensive high-quality office chairs. Until then I had sat on a sagging ancient chair rather like the one pictured. Hours spent in this chair had taken its toll. A kneeling chair replacement, while an improvement, was not comfortable for long periods. The marvelously adjustable Steelcases that made me gulp when I signed the check paid for themselves many times in adjustability, comfort, and eliminated physical therapy appointments.
A few years ago I replaced both chairs, and this time I was happy to sign the check. In the same spirit, I learned the importance of correct ergonomics for computer keyboards and mice (later, touchpads). Long hours toiling over these machines translate to pain and discomfort if keyboard heights aren’t right and you don’t position pointing devices correctly. Don’t skimp on firm work-surfaces, keyboard drawers, and touch devices that are easy to use; you’re body will be the victim if you do.
Finally, when I had the opportunity and funds to add a custom home office onto my home I spent serious time and money creating a space that I would find beautiful. Built at the northwest corner of my home, the office receives natural light from two sides and looks out onto a flourishing garden and beautiful Vermont stone walls and woods.
Knowing my appetite for workspace, I also took the opportunity to build about three times more beautiful custom desktop space than I thought I’d ever need. (A good thing I did—these days it’s pretty full most of the time.) Having a beautiful space for my work feeds my energy and spirit and helps me get through those times when I’m feeling creatively blocked and work isn’t going so well.
Getting Things Done
No question—until the day I die I’m going to have tasks on my to-do list. Being at peace with this reality in the here and now is hard. I am perpetually interested in exploring more than I can practically accomplish. As I age, my ability to keep track of and continually re-prioritize what’s important lessens. Embracing Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done has been a lifesaver. I may always be trying to bite off more than I can chew, but GTD allows me to avoid being overwhelmed by the consequences of my curiosity. What many don’t understand about GTD, and what makes it so powerful, is that it doesn’t impose a specific implementation on you; it’s a framework that helps you build process customized for your needs. Here’s more information on why and how GTD works.
Highly flexible, continuously-on backup of digital stuff
I have one word for those of you young enough to miss the decades when personal computers were expensive, hard to use, and frequently broke. Lucky! I’ve spent too much time configuring and running expensive and all-too-fallible equipment designed to back up valuable digital data. Today, there’s no excuse for losing any of the ever-increasing quantities of information we entrust to our electronic gizmos. My four computers continually back up to each other (local back ups—great for fast restoration of a lost file or two) and to the internet cloud (remote back ups—where I’d go if a catastrophe took out all my computers).
You can easily back up to other computers or hard drives in the same location or across the internet (perhaps your friend’s business across town) or to hosted servers sitting elsewhere on the internet. The name of this magic is CrashPlan. (No, I do not get a penny for recommending their service.) If you’re not using a service like this with every computer you own these days you’re nuts.
Work in sprints, not marathons
It took me years to learn that working at a problem or task for hours on end without a break is not an optimum way to work. Please don’t make this mistake (no matter how young you are). Currently I decide on the task I want to work on, set a timer for twenty minutes, and work uninterruptedly until the timer sounds. Then I’ll take a break for five minutes and repeat two or three more times before taking a longer break. I came up with this approach myself; an almost identical version is called Pomodoro. The frequent breaks give my brain relaxed downtime to mull over a problem and, often, propose creative solutions. And I find it easier to ignore the lure of the modern environment of constant email and internet distractions by telling myself I’ll just work for twenty minutes first.
That’s my summary of what I’ve learned about working productively. Do you have lessons to add?