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March 2, 2014

31-3.2 A daily thrashing with the 500 word stick

sunrise-over-the-waterside.jpg

So, here's a question. Why am I putting myself through the horror of trying to write something substantive for this blog every single day in March?

Leaving aside the possibility of an unexplored masochistic streak, the fundamental reason is because I want to. I like blogging. I love it, in fact. It's been nearly 13 years since I discovered it as a medium and it shifted my world around completely. I'm a busy man, though, trapped between a hectic four-day-a-week consultancy career (long may that "hectic" last) and the demands of being 50% of the available parenting resource for a little girl who has hit the toddler years fast and hard, and is accelerating towards the terrible twos as quickly as she possibly can.

The 40s are a problem for modern couples:

The modern 40s are so busy it's hard to assess them. Researchers describe the new "rush hour of life," when career and child-rearing peaks collide.

Sell, Sell, Self

This blog has got pushed to the sidelines repeatedly since I became a free agent and a Dad, and the closest thing I have to a New Year resolution this year is to rectify that. There are prosaic, financial reasons behind that: my blog remains my showcase, the source of much of my work, and without it I'm essentially doing very little marketing right now (my workload is leaving little room for the round of coffees and lunches that make up my self-promotion). The busy period will end - and I need something there to keep me in people's minds.

However, it's also the place where I crystallise my ideas about the subjects I follow. Some of that "writing myself into existence" has transferred into my lecturing and training, where I've been forced into developing a new language around some of my areas of expertise just so I can communicate them effectively - and that's a subject I intent to return to this month - but my blog still remains the most compelling way of doing so. Why? Well, because I can expose my ideas to the criticism of my peers - and that's incredibly useful in making sure I'm talking something that approximates to sense.

Blogito Ergo Sum.

The Inspiration

Also, some people have been doing something similar, and that lodged the idea in my head. MG Siegler kicked off the year doing something like this. The Man Mayfield pushed me into subscribing to Dan Hon's current experiment in daily mailings (leading to his probable nervous breakdown given the volume he produces) has been a daily(ish) prod to my own conscience.

Besides, a couple of recent posts which have garnered good engagement (and I feel dirty using that word) have reminded me that it's the personal stuff that makes a blog fly. Be it photos from the US, or an insight into an advert I ended up appearing in, that kind of material makes a blog engaging and human in the way some links and commentary doesn't.

I seem to need to relearn - or, at least, reinforce in myself - these kinds of lessons every few years. That's no bad thing, because it also forces me to check and re-evaluate what I know in the light of changes that have happened over that period. After over a decade's blogging, it would be horribly easy to get into a rut - and I don't want to do that.

The Rebellion

Somehow, over the last six months, I've slipped into being predominantly a trainer. The majority (but not the entirety) of my work has been teaching other people stuff. That's great, as far as it goes. It pays well - very well, at times - and is something I seem to be good at. There's also a pretty evident gap in the market for someone with my particular skill set, which works well for me.

I don't want too walk too far down that path, though. I enjoy both the strategic consulting and the content creation aspects of my work, too, and I'm going to be putting some more effort into landing that kind of work in the coming months. In the meantime, though, it's important to do as well as teach. And this blog is the place where I can do whatever the hell I want - even a stupid writing project when I'm far too busy already.

This is the second in a series of one-a-day substantive posts I'm going to try to write through March.

November 28, 2013

Next steps, two years on

My Office

Why you shouldn't be a freelancer, you should be a company:

Remember, you're not a no-strings-attached temporary employee, you're an expert in your field whom clients come to because they want the best product possible and can trust to guide them in the best direction possible.

Two years ago today, a shocking meeting in a nasty little HR meeting room put me on the road to where I am today. It may be time for me to take the next step on that road.

September 22, 2013

A Sunday e-mail sabbatical

Cloudy Adur

There's something seductive about counter-intuitive solutions. The fact that they feel wrong makes you think that they're right...

I'm trying something counter-intuitive right now. I've been struggling with balancing productivity and family time since my wife went back to work at the beginning of the year and I committed to only working a four day week at the same time. There never seems to be enough time to get everything done that I need to get done. So far, I've been doing the intuitive thing - working more. I've slowly carved away hobbies and relaxation time to try and cram it all in. When Hazel goes down for her nap, I bolted to the computer to get some stuff done.

The last few days, I've gone the opposite direction. Family time is family time. I check my e-mails during my daddy day on Fridays, because that's working time for everyone else. Today? I have not opened my e-mail once. There are plenty of other non-e-mail ways of reaching me, if it's urgent. I'm just treating myself to a 24 hour break from the urgent ping of the in-box once a week, and see if that helps me focus better on my family time, and then on my working time tomorrow.

Today, I took Hazel to the play park, walked her while she slept, and played with her on the beach. It was awesome. It was worry-free.

Tomorrow, I work.

September 17, 2013

And...back

Bar at the IBIS OstbanhoffRight now, I'm in the foothills of the most scarily busy phase of my consulting life since a few weeks back at the beginning of the year. My diary is looking pretty solid, bar a few gaps for content/consulting work that's home office based until, well, probably December.  That's lovely for security of income and planning, but rather bad for my blog.

Right now, I'm in a brief lull between getting back from Berlin, doing a frantic day's desk work and admin, before I go into another two days of a big training project I'm co-delivering with Neil Perkin

The big lessons I learnt from the last busy period were:

  • Don't stop networking
  • Don't neglect your shop front

So, here I am, getting myself going on the blog again. And on point two... anyone fancy a coffee? 

September 2, 2013

Reboot completed

Sunrise on the quayIn the 20 months since I last took a holiday, I've started a freelance consultancy career, bought a house, had a beautiful baby girl, gone part-time to care for my daughter one working day per week, and become a pretend academic.

Y'know what? I decided I dererved a holiday. 

And so, having had plans for the work-related things I'd do when I was in France, I abandoned them all for having fun with my family. Blissful.

Now, I'm back at my desk, booting up for what looks like a frantic couple of months until early November. (Need someone with my skills from November onwards? Drop me a line...) iTunes is on, set to the 80s and cranked up loud, and I'm working again. Life is good.

But I really shouldn't leave it 20 months between holidays, should I?

July 18, 2013

The problem with self-employment

Garden Leaves against the summer sky I've just had my eyes opened by, of all things, The Onion:

While cracking open his second beer as he chatted with friends over a relaxed outdoor meal, Platt was reportedly seconds away from letting go and enjoying himself when he was suddenly crushed by the full weight of work emails that still needed to be dealt with, looming deadlines for projects that would take a great deal of time and energy to complete, an upcoming wedding he had yet to buy airfare for because of an unresolved issue with his Southwest Rapid Rewards account, and phone calls that needed to be returned.

That's me. That's been me for the last six months or so. Every spare moment has been work, home or baby care. Hobbies are all but non-existent, unless I find myself with unexpected spare time. Oh, I can't only blame self-employment - I can also have a good go at laying it at the feet of having a baby, and buying a new house. But still, that's me. My to-do list in Clear is hanging just up and to the right of the window I'm writing this post in - and it's a long list.

So, this lunchtime, I took a lovely walk into Shoreham, got a haircut (no selfie - I'm not a teenager) and some coffee, and enjoyed the summer for a bit.

Life's for living, and as much as I love my work - and I do - I need to keep reminding myself that there's more to it than that.

(Apologies to the person who tweeted that link last night - I opened it in my browser, but didn't get around to reading it until earlier and have now forgotten who you are…)

June 11, 2013

I am not a corporation

Advice for the self-employed:

You can define "success" without it being tied to quarterly shareholder reports or even income. It can be tied to the amount of days you can afford not to work. Or by how much you can donate to your favourite animal charity that rescues llamas. Or by how often you can work from the road.

I need to keep revisiting this. I slip back too easily into corporate thinking and that stops me enjoying my new life as much as I could. 

May 10, 2013

Design Your Day

Design Your Day eBookInterested in productivity, working better and making most efficient use of the digital age?

You might want to read this eBook.

Design Your Day is part of Nokia's Smarter everyday project, that talks very little about phones and quite a lot about how we could work better - and live better - in a connected, information flow age. I had some small hand in the early stage of the work through some consulting and writing work I did for Brilliant Noise at the tail end of last year and the beginning of this year. There's a much fuller explanation of what it's all about on the Brilliant Noise blog.

I'm proud of the contributions I made to this project, and throughly enjoyed working with the likes of Antony Mayfield, Lauren Pope and James Byford in the process.

But don't download it because of that. Download it because it's got some really intelligent ideas - backed by neuroscience - about how to work well; it's about working better, not harder, knowing our limits - and planning for them.  Designing your day, in fact. 

April 7, 2013

Taking some time to enjoy beach life

Beach LifeAfter saying that I'd be commiting some of my expanded free time to this blog, pretty much ever since I've been committing it to a more worthy cause: my wife and daughter. 

The last few months have been tough: very tough. If the lesson of 2012 was that buying a new house, having a baby and starting a consultancy career in the same year is a bit much, the lesson of early 2013 was that your daughter weaning, your wife going back to work, and the busiest period in your consultancy career to date do not make a good mix.

This morning, we spent an hour just lounging by the sea a few minutes' walk from our house, chatting and enjoying the sun, while Hazel explored the pebbles and other things that make up the beach. Simple bliss.

Makes it all seem worth it.

March 18, 2013

Google, killer of tools

Wallet Time

Kevin Anderson:

Google has had and then killed a number of extremely useful research tools for journalists, and Reader is just the latest. Search Timeline, which showed the frequency of a search term, was flawed but still extremely useful for research as a journalist. For journalists working with social media, the death of Realtime, Google's social media search, was a terrible loss. No other tool has come even close to the functionality that Realtime offered. Topsy comes the closest, but it still lacks the incredible features that Realtime offered. 

Kevin identifies the wider problem with how Google is evolving. The experimental, geeky, web-loving company many of us had a small crush on five years ago is, essentially, gone. Google is growing up and is leaving many of its early users behind. Google's product base is becoming relentlessly mainstream - if there's a potentially large audience for a product, then it's safe. Niche and minority interest tools? They're on the chopping block.

The days of us information specialists relying on free tools to get our work done are pretty much over, I think. As increasing numbers of free services are "acqui-hired" into closure, or just plain shut down by corporates with no vested interest in keeping them going -or in keeping their users happy - I'm more comfortable with using tools from specialist providers who allow me to be a customer, rather than a user. I'm a freelance consultant these days, and my little daughter's future relies on me doing good work, reliably. That means I need tools I can rely on - and I'm willing to pay for them.  My note-taking lives in Evernote - where I have a paid account. My files are in either Dropbox - paid account - or iCloud - again, a paid account. 

My rule of thumb: if there's any long-term use of a service that matters to me, I'd rather use a paid service from a specialist company.

So, I'm happy to use Google Drive for short term collaboration and sharing - but I'm not storing anything there in the long term. 

The free tool internet was fun while it lasted - but it's over.

February 18, 2013

Working alone, together

Brilliant Noise OfficeWriting is, essentially, a lonely business. It's just you, a keyboard and as much focus as you can bring to a task. I'm in the midst of a long piece of writing now, for a Brilliant Noise project. This is exactly the sort of work I could comfortably do from home, relaxing with my own coffee and my lovely view of the Adur. So, what brings me to Brighton on the days devoted to this project? Why am I sat in Brilliant Noise's offices, being anti-social with my headphones on?

There are three reasons:

Alone in company

Working on something alone doesn't necessarily mean being lonely. There is a certain comfort in being surrounded by friendly faces. It's the basic principle behind co-working spaces, and it holds for projects like this. I have the chance to interact with my editor on the project, and the co-founders overseeing the project, as well as the rest of the staff. I haven't over-used that today - I've had maybe 10 minutes of conversation along the way. But it's there, and it's useful human contact. 

Shifting my headspace

That human contact isn't with my wife and daughter. I love the pair of them very deeply indeed, and they're part of the reason I'm working like this. It's one way of bringing in enough cash alongside my wife's earnings to give them a good life, but also spend some decent time with them. I work a four day week, devoting Fridays to caring for my daughter. Believe me, I've never looked forward to the end of the week as much as I do now, knowing it's going to be all Daddy/daughter time. But to really focus on a writing project, I need to close all that down in my head, and get myself in a focused headspace. Here, I'm sat with my laptop on a big desk to myself, with virtually no distractions and my writing app in fullscreen mode. The physical movement down the coast and into an office, with the short train journey, signals to my brain that it's time to get into work mode. 

Working from home is great when I need to get a lot of disparate tasks done in a day. When I need to do longform writing, being away from the nagging feeling that I should do a load of washing is useful. 

Guilt and Inspiration

I'm an independent worker these days. I'm usually working on a day or project rate. Sitting amongst the people I'm working for is a great invcentive to deliver value-for-money to them. That's the guilt side. I can see the people who's money I'm taking. That's a more concrete transaction when they're sat in my eyeline. There's also the inspiration effect - they're a skilled, creative bunch, and the ideas bouncing around the office encourage me to up my game. I don't want to be the one whose work is a little below the others. Is there a little competitive spirit in there? Sure - but that's a good thing. 

(This is the second in a linked series of posts about how I work. The first was published last week - and there are more to come.)

February 11, 2013

Designing my days - taking charge of my work

Blogging from a train

I've been doing a lot of thinking and reading about productivity and working practices for a project I'm involved with. (It's a cool, interesting project. I'm looking forwards to sharing more with you about it in due course.) The one thing I've become horribly conscious of is the role sleep plays in our productivity cycles.

This morning, I feel good. I love my daughter dearly, but she's not what you'd call a sleeper, and she gave us a hard time this weekend. But last night, she slept for nine and a half hours solid. I'm sat on a train to London, having had over six hours unbroken sleep for the first time since I was in Paris in early December. I'm getting lots done - including this blog post - while watching the snow flurry outside the train. It sure beats the "try and claw some sleep back" feeling I often have. I acknowledge, though, that this morning is an exception. Until Hazel consistently goes through the night, I have to work within the confines of constant slight sleep deprivation. I can't just muddle through - I have to make hard decisions.

In fact, I'm having to upend my life. I've always been a night owl, doing my best work late at night. Every time I've tried to do tha recently, I've been too damn tired. On the other hand, mornings are little pods of productivity for me, especially if I need to get an extended piece of writing done. In my 40s, I'm finally being forced to study, analyse and optimise my working methods - because there's no way I'll keep this hugely enjoyable freelance consultancy career going unless I do.

And you know what? It may have started as a necessity, but this process has becone a pleasure. Making decisions about what tools I use when, how I spend my limited time to best effect, and creating a structure around my life is curiously liberating.

(To be continued)

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