Life / Can Do

Helpful tips to living a better life

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Perfect is the Enemy of The Good

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We all want to achieve great things. This passion for excellence is what drives us forward but this same passion, when taken to extremes, can also hold us back. In attempting to achieve perfection, we risk never getting started.

To do great work, we must first do work that is just plain good. To do good work, we must first do work that is just plain bad – and lots of it. Even if 90% of what you do is mediocre, more often than not, you will be judged on that 10% that is excellent. While others are singing our praises about the excellence we’ve achieved, we need to accept it and not let our average be how we measure ourselves.

Consider the great inventors of the past. The Wright Brother’s first flight at Kitty Hawk was an amazing achievement but, by today’s standard of flight, the Wright Glider doesn’t even compare. They knew that to achieve the goal of powered flight as a means of transportation, they would first need to accept good enough as a first step.

First Flight

Then consider great Thomas Edison who gave us the light bulb. That was arguably his greatest invention but it is also a product with a 100% failure rate – all light bulbs blow out eventually. Now we find that we are replacing the wonderful light bulb with a more efficient alternative. If Edison had waited for perfection, someone else would have come along and invented it and we would be praising their ingenuity.

The world does not want to wait for you to perfect what you have to offer. We want the best you have to offer right now. You can continue refining it but let us see what you have now. Finish that novel, display your art, perform that speech – whatever it is that you are afraid to complete or even start, put it out there.

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Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

February 10, 2012 at 7:18 am

Posted in Business, Life, Thoughts

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Communication Skills Wins Over Intelligence

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We often mistakenly assume that others are smarter, more talented or more skilled than we are. This is especially the case when others are more vocal and firm about their opinions and ideas. They sound so sure of themselves while you still question what you think.

What I’ve found is that a person’s ability to communicate their opinion is not an accurate indication of whether they are right or not. Some people can be excellent communicators but yet have a below average intelligence. Quite often, people of low intelligence can get far in life on charisma alone. We often judge people as smart just because they sound smart.

The real winners are those excellent communication skills and high intelligence. These are the people we want to follow immediately and still continue to follow as they prove their worth by the decisions and actions they take. People like that are an extremely rare. It is highly unlikely someone with that combination would not succeed in whatever they do.

Some of the most intelligent people I know sound like idiots in everyday conversation. They have focused all their time and energy on building their intelligence and have not developed their social skills. They don’t get subtle jokes and they don’t know how to engage their listeners. It’s a shame and a loss to the world.

Business would do well to hire good communicator over the more talented. Talent is cheap and easily found, but charisma is a rare commodity.

With good communication skills you can be the enabler of people smarter than you. In truth, communication skills is just another form of intelligence. I’d be remiss not to mention the study of Emotional Intelligence, but we’ll cover than in more detail in future articles.

If you have the opportunity to work in a sales position I highly recommended it as a powerful career starter. In your current position take the opportunity to host meetings and give presentations as often as you can. It will cut into your other work but in the long run that will be skill that moves you forward in your career.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

February 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Business, Life, People, Thoughts

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Speak Up! Or Be Ignored

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There is so much advice out their preaching the value of listening. We also hear it is best to let the other person do all the talking. Well that may be fine advice for some situations but from what I’ve seen in meetings at the workplace is that most people tend to remain silent. When the host of the meeting asks for feedback there are usually only a few  people who speak up and it’s always the same people.

Employees will grumble about how they are not appreciated or the opinion doesn’t matter but when given the opportunity to speak, they don’t take advantage of it.

I was at a meeting the other day where several project teams were asked for updates on their projects. I talked about how my work was going and asked a few relevant questions. Other team leaders gave very terse answers when pressed but would not contribute any input to the group. I was a little surprised that with the amount of work that was being done that they chose not to share a little more.

After the meeting, I learned that the program manager was upset about the lack of feedback from the other teams.

I’m not entirely comfortable talking in front of large groups of people, but it is part of the job. If you can’t communicate effectively, you have no business managing a team of employees.

If you are not going to voice your opinions, you have no right complaining when others go in  direction you don’t agree with.

Also, when you do get the courage to speak, raise your voice. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a meeting where I can’t hear a word they are saying. I know the old trick about how you should speak softly so others will pay attention, but if you can’t be heard at all, you give the impression of meekness. The only people who can get away with speaking softly for effect are those who normally speak clearly. If you are quiet as a mouse, people will think you are a mouse.

It’s kind of ironic that I’m giving this advice. Throughout most of my life, I’ve been a bit of a low talker and that was when I dared speak at all. Now I will adjust my volume as needed to meet the needs of the situation. If I didn’t want to be heard, I wouldn’t speak at all.

I think part of the problem is that most people still have the worker mindset where they must wait for direction from their leaders. The leaders, on the other hand, are being taught to encourage collaboration and increase employee engagement. When employees don’t speak up it gives the impression that they don’t care. If you don’t care, quit and stop wasting the time and resources of the company you are working for.

Even if you don’t feel confident, speak up anyway if you have something to say. When you are nervous, you may stammer and stumble on your words the first 2 to 100 times, but if you do it enough that nervousness will eventually get under control. It won’t go away completely, but you will be able to deal with it.

Life is so much better when you are an active participant.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

February 3, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Posted in Business, Life, People, Thoughts

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Multitasking is a Myth

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It is impossible for the brain to focus on one thing at a time. When we claim to “multitask” what we are really doing is constantly shifting focus from one topic to another. Information about each task is usually stored in short term memory and is soon forgotten. This may be fine for watching TV while chatting on the phone, but tasks such as studying require a person’s full attention.

Even when we aren’t trying to multitask the brain may be thinking about stressful events while trying to do something else. If someone is talking to you but your brain is somewhere else it can be difficult to follow the topic of conversation. This is why we are often told to “Live in the moment”. If we are thinking about the past or worrying about a future event our focus is compromised and this can cause stress.

To prevent the mind from wandering try to limit the number of active projects you have going. Focus on getting each done one at a time. It is helpful to schedule reminders for yourself so that you are free to let something go until you are ready to work on it with your complete attention.

We’ve all had the feeling after a day at work where we felt that we didn’t get anything accomplished. We may have moved forward on a number of things but there are still as many thing left undone as there were at the start of the day. Before you leave for work each day come up with one thing you want to accomplish that day. Focus on getting that one thing done before moving to the next big thing.  By getting at least one thing accomplished, you can forget about it and free up your mind for other tasks.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 28, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Business, Life, People, Thoughts

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You Can Do Anything … Or Can You?

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The other day my wife and I watched an episode of Saturday Night Live which had a skit that was a hilarious take on a topic that had been on my mind lately – unrealistic self expectations. See the skit at: You Can Do Anything

This current generation was raised in a culture that promoted that idea that a person could be or do anything they wanted to be as long as they believed in themselves. We’ve all been told to do what we love. Whether you like philosophy, basket weaving or Victorian glove making then you should have a career that lets you do that. There’s a problem with that line of advice and college graduates soon find themselves with no marketable skills.

In the computer programming field I’ve worked with people who had once aspired to be something else. Below is a short list of broken dreams I’ve heard:

musician, elementary school teacher, physicist, librarian, guidance counselor, music therapist, poet, park ranger, video game designer, artist

Now these are all viable careers to some extent but each of them required a level of sacrifice that the dreamers were not willing to make. At some point the need to earn a living overrides the be-anything-you-want-to-be attitude. If they really and truly wanted to have these jobs, they wouldn’t be working 9 to 5 in a corporate office.

I’ve wanted to be a computer programmer since high school so I lucked out. I am doing what I love and getting paid well for it. There were times when I considered alternate paths. For a few years I wanted to be martial arts instructor and later a fiction writer. Fortunately, I had something practical to fall back on as I soon learned the odds of making a good living from those careers were slim to none.

When my nephew was first contemplating what major to take in college this is the advice I gave him- “You can be anything you want to be … once you are able to support yourself and pay for your dream job.” He majored in business, graduated and is now doing very well for himself. He is still young and now he has the financial stability to consider other careers if he decides to do so. As it stands now, he is very happy doing what he does.

Rather than “Doing What you Love”, we should strive to love what we do. My wife has a job where she has to do deal with finances for a medium sized company. I guess she’s like an accountant or something, I don’t get it. I remember when she chose to switch jobs to do this. There was no financial incentive for her to do so as her previous job paid well and had potential for even greater opportunities. But she saw an opportunity to do something that she enjoyed while still contributing to the household.

I guess my wife and I were too poor when we entered the business world to afford to “do what we love”. We had to settle for doing whatever put food on the table and kept the lights on. Now years later, with the financial stability we’ve work hard for, we are very happy and fulfilled doing what we do.

Any career can be rewarding if you put your heart and soul into it.

As a disclaimer I will admit that I am only talking from my experience and observations. I accept that I could be wrong and would be open to hearing opinions to the contrary. As I’ve said in the beginning this is a topic I’ve only started to contemplate. I had yet to find any worthwhile references that would support my observations.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 26, 2012 at 9:07 pm

Responsibility

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The group I work with had a bad quarter financially and it was my fault. We had lost an important client and failed to bring in enough new business to cover that loss. I am not a director or a manager and it is not in my job description to make the decisions that would directly affect the bottom line, but I still accept a share of the responsibility for the loss. It would be easy to believe that the results were out of my control or to blame it on the current economic conditions. I could even argue that my projects were extremely successful and the work that I did reduced costs while increasing business value. However, the truth is that I am part of a team and when that team does not do well, I do not do well.

As individuals, we have to own our part in the success or failure of the teams we work with. I am proud that the work I did may have helped mitigate the negative numbers but I regret that I could not have done more to help others achieve the results we needed.

I asked my manager about what we did or did not do to cause us to lose that client. He didn’t know. How could he not know? How could something that was so significant not be communicated clearly and to everyone?

So I am taking responsibility for something executives at the company did not care to share with me. There was no lack of communication when we were all told that bonuses and raises were going to be reduced due to this unknown failing of ours.

I will not accept this lack of communication. I will not grumble, complain and blame the higher-ups for the lack of fairness. I will keep asking until I get an answer. When I do get that answer, I will ask another question: “What could I have done differently that would have helped prevent the loss of the client?”.

I believe we were not told because the executives believed it was their own fault and not that of the employees. I believe it is shame and not malice that makes them reluctant to share the information. They have a responsibility to make the right decisions but they should not take all the blame any more than they should take all the credit for the results we produce.

I decide how much I will contribute to the success of the business. I decide if I’m going to do just what is assigned to me and I decide if I’m going to go beyond what is expected. If I am treated unfairly and my pay does not reflect my contribution, it is my decision to accept it or to look elsewhere for work. The only thing my employer really has control over is whether or not to keep me on the payroll during a layoff. I do whatever I can to make keeping me on the right choice.

I blame not just myself but everyone in my group. I blame those who do only what they are told and don’t ask questions. I blame the employee who follows a process just because it has always been done that way. I blame the project manager who is only concerned with meeting his project’s deadlines. I blame the person who leaves early because their work is done while their peers are overwhelmed with work. I also forgive them because I have done the same in the past.

There is no doubt in my mind that we will come back from this setback. It isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last. A successful business is not one set of quarterly results or the loss of one client. A successful business is the cumulative success of the individuals working in it.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 25, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Dealing With Pressure : A Real Life Case Study

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pressure

Currently I’m under a lot of pressure to complete a project by a certain date. I have 2 weeks to do about 4 weeks of computer programming. How I got into this situation is another story but for now we’ll focus on techniques I’m using to handle it.

Stop taking on new work

The first step I took was to communicate to the rest of the team that I needed to focus all my attention on the current project. I made it clear that I would be unavailable to take on any new tasks until it is complete. That alone decreased my potential workload by about 30%. I let everyone know when I expected to be done and available.

Breakdown the work into manageable tasks

I then did an analysis of the work that needed to be done and broke it down into manageable tasks. This is something I would do under normal circumstances but it would be especially important when time is limited. I then estimated how long it would take to do each task in hours to get an idea of how many hours I would actually need. I compared that with how many hours I could reasonably work in the remaining days to see if it was even feasible.

Prioritize the tasks and determine the exit criteria

With the list of tasks in hand I then assigned a priority to each. I used a 1 to 4 prioritization but A,B,C,D could work just as well. In addition I labelled those tasks that absolutely must be done as “Exit Criteria”. Anything that was not labelled as an exit criteria would be done only if time allowed. You’d be surprised at how much work we take on that doesn’t really need to get done so determining the exit criteria is a way to separate the “must have”s from the “nice to have”s.

Trim as needed

Trimming work is an important part of any project. I looked at what needed to get done and looked for ways to reduce the amount of work needed to complete each task. I’d look at a task and try to see if there were a quicker way to accomplish what was needed than what I have originally intended. Often, I would find a task that needed 8 hours could be reduced to 2 or less by taking a different approach. I may even find ways to use work that I had done before rather than starting from scratch.

Delegate everything you can

There were a number of analysis tasks that I would have normally have taken on myself but with the time crunch I just let someone else on the team handle it. This may involve given another employee a chance to take on more responsibility than usual, which is a great way to contribute to their growth. I had a business analyst do tasks such as tracking down some crucial details that I needed for the project, meeting with users, updating documentation, hosting technical meetings. That was stretching his abilities a bit but he’s handling it better than I had hoped.

The business analyst said something I found quite wise and amusing related to working with people from another group.  He said, “Tim, let me talk to them. They should be more willing to help me because they will know I am in over my head.” Here a case where someone used their own limitations to our team’s advantage. It really is an awesome feeling when you work with good people.

Know your limitations

You would think being in a time crunch would mean working non-stop until the project got done. Actually it doesn’t work that way. There have been studies that has shown team that work excessive amounts of overtime take longer than teams that work a reasonable amount of hours. This may not apply to tedious, mindless work but it does for anything that requires focus, creativity and intelligence. When time is limited it is important to be focused when working.

Yesterday I had planned on putting in a long day, but after working for 9 hours I could tell my productivity was starting to slip so I stopped. It takes a lot of energy to think so once you start to get tired even relatively simple tasks can take much longer to do.

Even during those 9 hours I had to take little breaks. I would stop every hour to stretch, breathe and clear my head. At lunch time, I ran on my treadmill for 30 minutes before having a light lunch (big lunches are productivity killers).

Focus on one thing at a time

With all I have to do, it is tempting to try to do multiple things at once. I resist that temptation because, it is next to impossible to multitask. The brain is just not built that way. When people talk about the ability to multitask what they are really talking about it the ability to switch between tasks quickly, otherwise known as context switching. While building this skill is important it is important to recognize that context switching comes with a cost.

Try reading a newspaper article and when you get to the middle stop and switch to another article. When you get to the middle of the second article switch back to reading the first. You will notice that you need some time before you get your bearings on the first article, you may even have to re-read a sentence or two before you can continue. The time spent doing that is one cost of context switching but it is only one cost. As you continue reading the first article, you may notice your mind thinking about the content of the second. Lost focus is the other cost.

It is important to focus on one task as long as you can or until you finish that task. That is also why it is important to break work down into manageable tasks that can be completed in one sitting or less. You leave a task half done and it may stick in your mind until you get a chance to get back to it.

Keep your head clear

If you have anything on you mind, unrelated to the task, that is bugging you, you should schedule a time to address that issue later. If you start thinking about a birthday party that you need to plan, while working on an urgent task, stop for a moment and jot down an entry in the scheduler of your choice to work on that later. Once scheduled you know longer have to worry about forgetting it. It may not be completely off your mind but it won’t be as intrusive.

I have a few unrelated tasks that I need to work on later. They are important to me so I picked a day and time on my calendar and scheduled a meeting with someone else who is involved. Now I can put it out of my mind and just focus on what I need to get done for the urgent project. Even as I write this I had to think back to what it actually was because it is no longer something I’m worried about. I know I have a time set with a reminder that will let know when I have to focus on it. It is so far out of my mind I honestly don’t remember what date I picked. I just know it is going to be handled in the future.

Assess your progress

This morning when I got back to work I took a few minutes to assess the work I had completed the night before. I was pleasantly surprised to find I had done the same amount of work in one day that it would have usually taken me three days to complete, maybe more. With at least a 3 to 1 ratio I am confident I will complete the project on time.

If I was so productive, why not work that way all the time. I wish it were that easy. The problem with maintaining that level of productivity is that it isn’t sustainable, at least not by me and not at this point in my life. I had to block out my schedule and reduce time spent on other commitments. Life has a bit of flexibility when dealing with extreme situations but if you don’t let it bounce back, stuff can start to break.

Remember what’s important

If you work with good people and have a supportive family they will understand that when you need to commit to something for a period of time. However, if you do that too often or for too long you risk damage to relationships. Coworkers will start to resent your lack of teamwork and family will feel neglected.

The goal should be to complete the urgent project as soon as you can so that you can get back to meeting all your commitments. Even when working on the urgent project you still need to find some time for family and friends.

Today my daughter stopped me in the kitchen and wanted to sing a song that she learned at daycare. I had been going to my computer to finish something, but instead, I pushed that aside and put all my focus on hearing my little girl sing. The song was simply all the months in the year done to a tune ending in a few lines of verse. I was delighted that she could now recite all the months. It the grand scheme of things, I’ll remember Emma singing this song much longer than the project I’m working on. It is just more important to me than one work project out of the hundreds I’ll probably do in my career.

If I hadn’t taken the time with my daughter I would have had a nagging feeling in my heart when I got back to work. That feeling would have weighed me down and hurt my focus. Even if I were to still finish the project on time, how good would I feel knowing what it cost me. I’m not saying that I am always there for my family – I still need to make a living – but I will be there if they need me.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 21, 2012 at 9:31 am