Thursday, October 29, 2009

Top 10 approaches to enjoy work

Time to read this post: 6 minutes

It's time to take a position. Why do some people consistently love their work? After multiple degrees, hundreds of academic books & articles, years of interviewing people in their work, I want to summarize what actually works. For people who love their work, what is it that they do? What are their tricks? Their secrets? This may eventually turn something more than a blog posting. For now I want to share the ten most effective approaches that I have learned on my journey thus far.

Three is the magic number. Most self-help books will tell you that there are three rules, three secrets, three pathways to happiness. A holy trinity. Three is a good number because most of us can't remember more than that. I can't recall the names of the seven dwarfs let alone the fifty ways to leave your lover. But what bothered me was that each each academic or book that I read cited a different three. One has Pleasure, Engagement & Meaning. The next has Strengths, Flow and Mindfulness. Or Achievement, Savoring and Love.

What seems to be the problem? Imagine a company that is losing money. Before we can assess what to do, we need to understand the firm's current situation. What is its competitive position? How much money does it have in the bank? What do its customers think of the products they sell? Do employees enjoy working there? Only then can we offer an initial opinion. And yet with people, authors and academics ignore all of that and tell us there are only three things to consider. I'm sorry, but life's more complicated than that.

I have tried to synthesize every major theory about what influences how we enjoy our work. It draws from behavioral economics and Greek philosophy to top athletic coaching and Positive Psychology. It's not a comprehensive list but it's my best starter. I have boiled it down to the ten most important approaches. And I bet that three of them are highly relevant to you. But it probably won't overlap with the three on my list. Over the coming weeks I will explore each of these in turn.

Top 10 approaches to enjoying work (as of October 2010)

1. REFRAME: One way to enjoy work more is to reframe your challenges and time in a more positive light. You might ask yourself each morning "What's going to be good about work today" or start a meeting with "What's going well on our project?". You do acknowledge where you are behind, or what's going wrong but your positive perspectives notably outweigh the negative.

2. STRUGGLE: work needs to be tough enough. We need challenge and without it we get bored. It is about having goals that your really have to stretch for; about pushing yourself, about time flying by as you are absorbed in your work. People who excel here have mastered how to set goals well, who jump into projects that both scare and energize them, who let themselves get lost in the moment.

3. STRENGTHS: focus on using your strengths each day not just shoring up your weaknesses. People who excel here understand what energizes them and reframe their daily work to use their strengths in new ways. These people know the cards that life has dealt them and they lead with their strong suits. They do know their weaknesses but don't obsess over them. For example if they are highly creative but in a non-creative role they still invent excuses to brainstorm and to let their imaginations run wild each day.

4. SIMPLIFY: declutter both physically & mentally. Life is awash with choices and it's easy to drown. People who excel here don't try and do everything perfectly. They compare the prices of three products not three hundred. They delegate less important decisions to other people. They outsource repetitive tasks to personal assistants. They keep one master 'to do' list so they don't have to remember everything going on. They are happy with 'good enough', it frees up time to do other activities they really enjoy.

5. QUIET PLEASE: dampen the constant chatter that runs through your head. We are so used to the running commentary in our brain that we tend not to notice it. People who excel here might practice meditation or they might do active exercise. They are quick to notice if they are ruminating and they know how to stop. If a colleague calls them incompetent they don't take the bait. They can let it wash over them. They have a sense of calmness and serentity about them.

6. CONNECT: make sure you have colleagues who you trust. Actively develop friendships at work. Other people matter to our happiness much more than we realise. People who excel here have colleagues who they can go to for great advice. They have friends who will look out for them and who have their backs. They share the values of their co-workers. They genuinely care about the well-being of those around them. They allow their true selves to shine through and not feel like they are suppressing their true identity

7. GIVE: help other people. This is about making other people successful and happy - both co-workers and customers. People who reframe their work as bringing value to the lives of individuals (colleagues and clients) find they have more meaning in their working lives. They find excuses to do favors for others. They are aware of what they are uniquely good at and use that as a way to offer assistance. Although this is rewarding in itself, these people then find the reciprocity of others overwhelming. They find this approach offers both personal success and happiness

8. REHEARSE: practice all important conversations, presentations and interactions you have. Rehearsing can be boring and so we decide to wing it instead - it'll be alright on the night. People who excel at this approach tend to be obsessive in their preparation for important events. They role-play sales pitches with their colleages who play devil's advocate. They video themselves delivering a keynote speech on their Flip camera and watch it. They brainstorm all the things that could go wrong and plan their response. They walk into the room well-prepared. They find this approach leads to both success and enjoyment.

9. SMELL: appreciate the here and now. Day after day of back-to-back meetings, monotonous commutes, growing to-do lists, it is challenging to remember to enjoy the journey. People who excel at this have mastered the art of being fully present in the moment. When you meet with them, you have their rapt attention. Their lives are busy but they make time to enjoy the small stuff. To make time to enjoy lunch. To switch up their route to work. To stand in the sun in the carpark taking in the view and inhaling deeply. To retain their sense of wonder and fascination with the beauty of the world

10. IMAGINE: have a compelling vision of the future that you are drawn towards. Many of us are stuck in the past, haunted by our past failings, ruled by our fear of failure. People who excel at this approach are not stuck in the past but pulled forward by the future. They are climbing a ladder but know that it's leaning against the right wall. Their vision gets them energized through the tough times. They understand how the current chapter of their life fits into the overall story. They respond to question about "what do you do?" with tales of where they are heading.

Each of these approaches can sound trite. They get boiled down to meaningless catchphrases. I plan to explore each of these approaches over the coming weeks. I will share the theory, the challenges, the tricks & techniques that work for people that I've interviewed.

Tough questions
i) Which of these approaches do you already follow successfully?
ii) Which would most benefit you in your work?
iii) What is the smallest thing that you can do that would make the biggest difference?

© The Tough Guide 2009

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Before you quit your job

Time to read this post: five minutes

About once a month, I get an email from someone at my company who is confused. They want to change career. They want to get a new job. Sometimes they are just done with work. Almost always they have decided they want their life to be different. But they don't know where to begin. So we get a coffee. We talk about how they feel, what they want, what their plan is. I thought that I would share the two big questions that they tend to grapple with. There are some useful resources and approaches out there and people seem to like them.

Question one: What do I really want to do?
Most of us only have a vague sense of what kind of work would bring us a combination of pleasure, challenge and a sense of meaning. When I ask people over coffee what do they think they want to do they tend to give vague answers. "I'd like to work in finance". "I'd like to get a job in retail". The problem with trying to define yourself by industry is that there is huge variation in job type within a sector. The day-to-day interactions with colleagues, the length of commute, your boss's sense of humour will have much more impact on your levels of enjoyment than the abstract industry it may be part of.

Po Bronson in his book argues that working out what you want to do is actually the wrong question. Instead you need to ask yourself "Who do I want to be?"; "What do I stand for?"; "What values do I want to embody?" Then from that place of being you can then think about doing.

A wise colleague of mine says that when he works with CEOs he gets them to take out a blank sheet of paper. On the left hand side he gets them to write down what they love doing. On the right hand side they write down what they hate doing. He has tried doing this with "what I am good at" on the left and "what I am bad at" on the right - but he says that simply doesn't work. It has to be what you love and hate. For me the things I love would include things like "Being the center of attention when telling a joke; running in forests; working fast to hit a deadline; analyzing data in excel; applying lessons from one academic discipline to another..." These are things that really energize me. So the first step I recommend is to get a clear understanding of what gives you energy and what drains you. This is closely connected to playing to your strengths, understanding what motivates you, what your preferences are.

Practical tools:
1. VIA strengths assessment: go to, login then take the VIA strengths questionnaire
2. buy Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath. It will give you a code to do their online test (not as long as VIA)
3. Reflect on your Myers-Briggs type or DISC assessment
4. Write your 'What gives me / drains me of energy' list
5. Ask colleagues & friends how you occur to them. When do they see your eyes light up?
6. Re-read those business school applications
7. Write 100 words about your top 3 life experiences, then the bottom 3. Reflect on what it was about you and situation that made them so exhilarating / poor.

Blah blah blah. Undoubtedly all good stuff. But unfortunately these all rely on uncovering a deep truth about what you value most. But often you don't know what you don't know. How can I tell if I should resign and set up a non-profit when I have never done anything like it. Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling Upon Happiness points out that most off us are terrible at predicting what will make us happy. Hermina Ibarra in Working Identity argues that the classic model of i) think hard about what it is you want to do ii) go and do that is not borne out by people who have successfully changed careers. In fact quite the opposite. Most people who redefined their work and careers began experimenting on the side. "Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of being than to think their way into a new way of acting."

This is about starting side projects. When I was doing my MBA I got very interested in Organizational Behavior and Executive Coaching. I decided to become a life coach. I trained with the Coaches Training Institute (picture a twenty six year old British guy and 24 middle-aged women from Iowa sitting in a hotel room in Washington DC for five long weekends). I tried giving coaching to practice clients. It was fine but I found it lonely and missed my teammates and colleagues. Thank goodness I had not yet resigned from my steady job as a strategy consultant.

Now I recommend people "try on a new hat" when they go out. The next time you are at a dinner party and someone utters those dreaded four words ['what do you do?'], don't mumble an apologetic reply about your current boring job. Instead explain your vision for the future. "I'm thinking about starting my own dance studio" or "I plan to be working in digital marketing by the end of the year". The other person will invariably ask you all about these exciting plans and you get the chance to see what it feels like to be a budding entrepreneur. They will ask you questions or offer opinions that will make you consider your plans from a fresh perspective. You will walk away with new questions, new plans and a better sense of where you should be heading.

Question two: How do I find a new job?

OK, you know what energizes you but you don't know where to find the job that fits the bill. Classic job search approaches include: writing your bio/CV/resume, cover letter, interviewing skills, networking, references and the like. Again, this is all good stuff but I have a couple of different views.

If your new job does exist somewhere, it is probably more than one handshake away. As we know, networking is not about who you know but who knows you. I look at my hundreds of LinkedIn connections. About 80% of the list are a variety of former-strategy consultants and friends from my MBA. Now if I do NOT want to end up in the strategy department of a large corporate I need to start thinking about my networks very differently. In fact the impressive networking list may not be much good at all. If I ultimately want to be running an NGO in Africa then I need to start running in very different circles. Which circles do you want to be networking in? What would you need to get involved with? Who should you be getting a coffee with?

Here's some worse news: you're close-to-ideal job probably does not exist. Instead you are going to have to create it. Of all the best parts of my current job, I was not asked to do any of them. Zero. Instead I just started side-projects. As long as I was doing my main job well then nobody seemed to question how I used my spare time. A couple of year’s ago I wrote some training in my spare time on the seven things consultants don’t know about enjoying life. I presented it to a group of five secretaries over pizza one day. I even paid for the pizza. It wasn’t very good to tell the truth. But I kept tweaking it and making it a little better. And word spread. I got asked to present it to larger groups. Now two years later I am now invited to give the presentation all over the world. I love doing it. And now I’m paid to do it. It all starts with experiments on the side. Of course, initially this means more work for you. And that's a barrier for most people. That said it has been one of the most consistent strategies that I have seen other people use to create a role that they love. Normally it takes about six months to see if your side-experiment gets traction. It might be something that your current job morphs into. Or it gives you confidence to break out on your own or with friends.

Let me know if you want to grab a coffee.

PS Many of my ideas are inspired by two books:
A: Working Identity by Hermina Ibarra
Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career

B: What shall I do with my life? - Po Bronson
What Should I Do with My Life?: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question

There are also classic books out there like "What color is your parachute?" which is perfectly fine, it's just really long / thorough and I can never get past chapter three.
What Color Is Your Parachute? 2010: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers

Sunday, October 11, 2009

How to change a habit: the pedometer experiment

Time to read: 3 minutes

Over the years, I have been to more than my fair share of corporate training courses. In general they are mildly interesting with one of two nuggets of information. The real problem is this: despite my best intentions, I rarely do anything differently when I get back to work. I want to. I plan to. But if I’m honest with myself, I always slip back into the old routine. That’s why I’m really interested when something comes along and actually changes my behavior.

I had read that walking 10,000 steps a day was very beneficial to health. Some longitudinal study or other of Harvard Alumni. There’s even a pretty chart about it on the Harvard Health Website showing an asymptotic curve. Walk more, die less. Fair enough.

However there are lots of things that would make me healthier. No beer, no hamburgers, no bacon, no cheese, no fries. I agree with the science. I respect the health columnists who prescribe it. I would like to have more moderation in my life. But I still order a cheeseburger and lager whenever I am in bar. Which is too often.

And then six weeks ago I bought a pedometer and it all changed. It was $25 and had lots of stars and good reviews on Amazon. I popped it in my pocket on Monday morning and set off to work. I live in New York and it’s quite an active lifestyle: you walk to the subway, you walk to grab lunch, you walk home. Sometime I get a cab but normally I’m pounding the street. So at the end of the day I got it out of my pocket and prepared myself to be congratulated. 1,850 steps. Not 8,000 or 5,000, but my entire day was just 1,850 steps. I’ll be honest, it was exceptionally disappointing. This small electronic device was starring at me telling me that I’d failed.

Since that day in September I have changed my daily routine. I now frequent a sandwich shop about ten minutes walk away. Often I walk right down Broadway before jumping on the subway home at Union Square. My wife has one too. We check in during the day to see how we’re doing. It’s ridiculous really.

And I pop it all into a spreadsheet every Sunday night. I’ve average 8,750 a day since September 20th – that was 375,000 steps ago.

So a hundred-fold cheaper and three days shorter than a corporate training seminar. Not bad.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How to save time - Online countdown

Time to read this post: 1 minute
When I use the internet to do some quick research I frequently lose an hour. I start wanting to check a name or date on wikipedia and before I know it I am watching videos on hulu or reading the BBC entertainment news about day time TV shows I have previously not heard of. All this changed about a month ago when I starting using an online countdown.
The idea is simple. Before I embark on a task, I set the countdown for the amount of time I would like the task to take. Or for when I would like the alarm to ring. Want to check out the football scores? OK I set it for 3 minutes. Look up flight times to London? 5 minutes. Status updates on Facebook? 10 minutes. You get the idea. I have found the tool simple and it frequently stops me from getting ridiculously distracted. Sometimes I will deliberately only give myself a couple of minutes for a ten minute task and then race to see if I can get it done.
One of my friends came back to me saying it was one of the simplest, most game-changing techniques that has improved his effectiveness at work. Apparently it is "completely huge".
Now I've taken in a step further and this is what really made the difference for me. I now have the online countdown as my default homepage. It's the first page I see when I open Internet Exporer or Google Chrome. I can't get around it. Before I embark on a mindless journey down interweb rabbit warrens, I pre-agree with myself that it will only last for a few minutes at most.
What you need to do in Internet Explorer (time to action: 30 seconds)
1. Open internet explorer
3. Go to tools, Internet options then click Use Current
As Stephen Colbert would say, "you're welcome".