Balancing Work and Life

Balancing work and home life is nothing new; we’ve had this challenge for a long time. But in recent months when so many companies are streamlining operations and asking their employees to do more with less, the challenge has gotten noticeably more difficult. I recently interviewed someone who had struggled with this in a mighty way; he’d worked more weekends than not during the past twelve months and had reached a point of burn out.

In addition to the direct work requirements of our jobs, there are also the quasi-work activities of blogging, attending user group meetings, learning new technologies, and volunteering in the community. All of these are good activities, but they take time. And that time has to come from some where.

Priorities

In Cheaper by the Dozen, Steve Martin’s character, Coach Tom Baker, faces this dilemma when his boss, Shake McGuire, demands more time from the Coach despite the pressures at home. Shake is surprised when Tom Baker resigns from his dream job. Tom Baker summarizes his rationale very succinctly. “If I screw up raising my kids. nothing I achieve will matter much.”

Priorities matter. Balancing work and home matters.

So how can we better balance our work life and home life? I suspect you already know the answer to that question. It’s the doing of the answer that’s difficult.

Tips For Balancing

  • Realize That You’ll Never Get Everything Done. I’m a doer. I like checking items off a to-do list. But I’ve learned that my to-do list will never reach zero. There will always be something else to do. I will not be able to finish everything before I go home for the day. Once I made peace with that, some of the self-imposed stress that accompanies open items and drives me stay late at work begins to melt away.
  • Place Your Family Events On The Calendar. I learned a long time ago that if an event is not on my calender, it will not happen. I’m too busy to remember everything that is important to me. So I put family events on my calendar. Boy Scout events? On the calendar. My daughter’s piano recital? On the calendar. You can mark them private if you wish, but staking the claim on the calendar will prevent others from scheduling meetings during important family events.
  • Learn To Say “No”. This is one of my biggest challenges. I want to help with each request that comes to me. And considered in isolation, it’s easy to think that it’ll only take a small amount of time. But all of those little items add up. Learning to say No at work, at home, and at volunteer events will help to add some much needed margin to your life.
  • Make Up Your Mind Ahead Of Time. As Socrates once said “the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Take the time to know what is important to you before you are put in a situation that challenges you. If I’m asked to attend a SQLSaturday when I have a family commitment, I won’t go. Family is important to me.
  • Time Box Your Activities. I can write a magazine article in four hours or it can take four days. It all depends on how much time I allow. Parkinson’s Law states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Perfectionists are really susceptible to Parkinson’s Law. Time boxing is the practice of allocating a set amount of time for an activity. When you reach the end of the time, you’re done. This prevents you from revising and revising again and wasting time with only marginal gains in the output (aka the Law of Diminishing Returns).

Beware Of Too Many Good Things.

The challenge in putting these ideas into practice is that most of the time, the things that we are doing are good things. Speaking at conferences, staying late to go the extra mile for a client, teaching a Sunday School Class, leading a Boy Scout troop, are all good things. And all have their place. But too many of them too often can lead to problems.

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The Importance Of Managing Expectations

Have you ever taken a sip of sweet tea only to discover that it was soda instead? Eeww! What an eye-opening experience!

Don’t misunderstand; I like soda. But when I’m expecting sweet tea, the normally pleasant taste of the carbonated beverage is face-wrenchingly awful.

Thus, the importance of expectations.

What To Expect?

When working with your clients, your boss, your spouse, your kids, and everyone else for that matter, it’s critically important to set expectations. Let them know what to expect. Let them know when to expect it. Let them know any caveats that may exist. It gives them a sense of comfort.

As with the beverage example, expectations are important; the same result can be interpreted as good or bad depending on expectations.

If you promise a client that you’ll provide a deliverable in ten business days and you deliver it in seven, they’re very happy. Conversely, if you promise to deliver in five and you don’t have it ready until the seventh day, they’re disappointed. In both cases they receive the deliverable in seven days, yet in one case you’re a hero and in the other case you’ve failed.

How Can You Manage Expectations?

Managing expectations is not difficult. In fact, it’s straightforward.

  • Under Promise. Don’t over commit yourself. Examine your workload, your capabilities, your own expectations, and then build in some margin.
  • Over Deliver. This go right along with Under Promise. Going the extra mile and exceeding expectations is a nice way to give them a sense of “wow”.
  • Communicate Clearly. It’s been said that there are four components to communication: the sender, the message, the medium, and the recipient. A breakdown and any of those can lead to a misunderstanding. Make sure that the message that you intend to deliver is the one that is received.
  • Communicate Frequently. Providing timely updates about the progress along the way is just as important as setting the initial expectations. Any delays, any changes to the initial expectations should be communicated early in the process.
  • Be Honest. As the old saying goes, honesty is the best policy. Best honest with others. If you are unsure of the outcome, tell them. It’s better that they know this up front.

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Opportunity Cost versus Real Cost

One of the hardest lessons to learn and put into practice as a self-employed consultant is that of Real Cost versus Opportunity Cost.

Let’s consider an example.

Real Cost

Real Cost is straightforward. If the water pipes in my house freeze and burst due to the cold weather, I can fix the leak myself or I can call a professional plumber. Those are my options. Sure, I could do without running water, but I’m fond of modern conveniences. So, let’s way I want to fix the leak.

Which is the better option – fixing the leak myself or hiring a professional? Assuming I have the know-how, fixing the leak myself sounds less expensive. In terms of Real Cost it is.

When I repair the bursted pipes myself, my only outlay is for the supplies required to stop the water from squirting out. I’ll need to run down to the hardware store to buy some replacement pipe and perhaps a couple of shiny new tools. That’s the extent of my Real Costs. Then I can roll up my sleeves and dive into the repairs.

If I call a plumber to come to my house and do the job for me, I don’t have to go to the hardware store. I don’t have to buy the materials myself. And I don’t have to find and fix the leak. But I do have to pay him to do these things for me. I have to pay for his time plus the materials he uses to remedy the problem.

So, calling a professional costs me time and materials whereas doing it myself costs only materials.

But that’s not really a complete picture. There’s an Opportunity Cost associated with the project.

Opportunity Cost

If I spend three hours repairing the ruptured pipes, that’s three hours that I’m not doing something else like working for my clients or spending time with my family. The things that I give up by not choosing them are the Opportunity Costs.

There are Opportunity Costs associated with every decision you make. Choosing one thing, by definition, will come at the expense of another.

In this case, the Opportunity Cost of fixing the burst pipes is the time I spend doing the work myself. A professional plumber can probably do the job in half that time. So from an economic perspective, I’m spending time doing something that I’m only marginally skilled at instead of focusing on areas where I’m more skilled. That’s underutilizing my effectiveness.

So in effect, I am paying for time and materials even when I do the job myself. I’m paying with my time rather than buying the plumber’s time. So the question becomes: how much is my time worth to me?

Unless the plumber charges twice my hourly rate or I don’t actually have the client work to do instead of fixing the broken pipes, it actually costs me less to pay someone else to do the job.

Applying The Calculation To Business

Real Costs versus Opportunity Costs apply to business as well. For example, should I outsource part of a project to another consultant?

Let’s say I’m a database consultant and I’m somewhat skilled in application development. I can do the application development work, but my area of expertise is in the database. Spending time developing the front end application is not a good use of my time. Someone else can do it better and faster than me. I should focus on the things that I do well.

The same goes for bookkeeping, web site development, and making reservations.

The concept also applies to managers and their team. If a manager does something that he could have delegated to a team member, it’s actually costing the organization. He could have delegated the task and had someone else do it, allowing him to focus on the things that only he can do.

There’s More To The Story

We must remember, however, that not all decisions are solely based on finances. Spending time with my family, working on the fence in the pasture, and volunteering as a Scout Leader all have Opportunity Costs associated with them. Despite being intangible, the results are well worth it. I’m not going to outsource some things.

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Book Review: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

“If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” Abraham Lincoln was reported to have said once when accused of playing both sides of an issue. It’s good to see a politician with a self deprecating since of humor.

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame and the writers of The Office have some hysterical views on corporate politics. They poke fun at the corporate incompetence and the silly politics to which many in the business world can relate.

Et tu, Brute?

Unfortunately there’s very little funny that’s to those who find themselves in a back-stabbing, alliance-building, sell-your-own-mother-if-it-wins-points-with-the-boss world of office politics.

As a consultant, I’ve worked with thousands of people at all levels of an organization and across most every industry. I’ve seen corporate politics in action. I’ve witnessed some of its brutality and the carnage it leaves in its wake. It’s painful to watch someone trample another as he protects his own little fiefdom.

Fortunately as an “outsider”, I’m seldom the target of such attacks. Nevertheless, I thought it would be good to do a bit of research into the topic. So, I turned to the grand daddy of all books on politics: Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Applying Princely Advice To Office Politics

Much like Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War, The Prince is considered by many to be a timeless classic that’s as applicable today in business as it was to governance in the period that it was originally written. When read with a discerning eye, it’s chock full of savvy advice for leaders.

For example, when you notice a subtle, slowly escalating issue, Machiavelli advocates confronting the issue sooner rather than later. There’s no sense in ignoring the issue and allowing it to gain momentum.

Therefore, the Romans, foreseeing troubles, dealt with them at once, and, even to avoid a war, would not let them come to a head…

Likewise, Machiavelli proposes that the wise Prince will seek counsel from those around him albeit under very restricted conditions.

The only way for a prince to guard himself from flattering adulation is to make it understood that he will not be offended if he is told the truth.

and,

…this is an axiom which never fails: that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice…

A warning against complacency is also made.

Princes who give more thought to luxury than to arms often lose their principality.  In fact, the quickest way to lose a principality is to neglect the art of war, and the best way of acquiring one is to be a master in this art.

Take Some Advice With A Grain Of Salt

Not all advice proffered by Machiavelli is beneficial in my opinion and it should be measured against your own moral compass.

At times, Machiavelli’s advice can be calculating and callous. He seems to be of the opinion that the ends justifies the means no matter the cost. For example, when assuming power over a principality,

Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

Additionally according to The Prince, we should not grow colleagues and direct reports.

From this a general rule is drawn which never or rarely fails: that he who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that predominancy has been brought about either by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.

In Summary

I’m glad to have read The Prince. It’s a classic in every sense of the word. I must say, though, that it’s not an easy read. The sentence structures used can be rather complex at times even though the tone is fairly conversational.

Even some 500 years after its writing, it has some good insights into politics. Just being aware of these issues is good, even if you choose not to follow them.

Getting Started With Consulting Webcast Recording Now Available

If you missed my PASS Professional Development Virtual Chapter Webcast “Getting Started With Consulting” last week, it’s now available online.

I haven’t watched it yet just in case Doc in Back to the Future, Part II was right.

I foresee two possibilities. One, coming face to face with herself 30 years older would put her into shock and she’d simply pass out. Or two, the encounter could create a time paradox, the results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space time continuum, and destroy the entire universe! Granted, that’s a worse case scenario. The destruction might in fact be very localized, limited to merely our own galaxy.

If you watch it, please let me know what you think; feel free to send me any questions or comments you may have.

Keeping Perspective: What Are You Building?

Think about your responsibilities at work for a minute. How many do you have? Can you even name them all?

As technical professionals, we have a myriad of responsibilities This is especially true in today’s economy when so many of us are being asked to do more with less. It’s easy to get caught up in our daily tasks and projects. We must improve the response time of a report and gently slap the hand of the guy who designed it so inefficiently. We must crank out more code to meet an arbitrary deadline promised by a salesman.

It’s easy to lose heart and to think of ourselves as just another cog in the underbelly of a faceless, heartless organization.

At least one-third of each business day is spent at work. For some if us, it’s much more than that. When we are discontented with our jobs, it affects the other areas of our lives. That’s why it’s important to keep a healthy perspective on life.

The Power of Perspective

I’m reminded of the story a man who was waking down the street in old England many years ago when he happened upon a construction site. As he approached, he saw a laborer. The man stopped and asked the laborer what he was doing. The laborer gave a sneering look and replied “I’m laying bricks. What does it look like I’m doing?” and continued about the business of laying bricks.

A few minutes later, the man came to another laborer who was wielding a trowel and slathering mortar onto a granite block. The man asked the second laborer what he was doing. “I’m raising this wall.” replied the laborer as he continued working.

Another few minutes passed and the man came to a third laborer with trowel in hand. The man asked the laborer the same question posed to the first two laborers “What are you doing?” The laborer looked at the man and replied “I’m building a magnificent and grand Cathedral where generations of believers will be able to come to worship God Almighty.”

That’s the difference perspective can make. All three laborers were doing the same thing from an outsiders vantage point, yet each viewed their activities differently.

What Are You Doing?

So, let me ask you: what are you are doing? Are you creating maintenance plans? Or are you ensuring the medical staff have the information they need to help treat patients effectively? Are you going through your daily check list on the servers? Or are you working on something much more important, much bigger than yourself?

How is your perspective?

Book Review: The Truth About Negotiations

How should you reply to the “What’s your rate?” question? Should you answer immediately? Or try to discover their expectations? When all it’s all said and done, should you just “split the difference?”

The answer to those questions and many similar ones are what Leigh Thompson, the author of The Truth About Negotiations, sets out to provide in this short, easy to read book.

In the introduction, Thompson states that she wants to do three things with the book. First, she strives to outline a game plan that will work in any negotiation. Whether your are negotiating a raise at work or attempting to overcome a difference with your neighbor, the basic premises of negotiations are the same.

Don’t underestimate how important opening offers are. Indeed negotiators’ first offers can generally predict the outcome of a negotiation….For these reasons your ideal offer should be close to the party’s barely-acceptable terms.

Second, she focuses on what she terms the “win-win goldmine”. It’s a simple concept that we’ve all known since kindergarten: it’s best when both parties walk away happy. Thompson provides techniques for asking questions that help you to get to the underlying interests of the other person so you can hopefully strike a deal you’ll both like.

Third she discusses how to handle less-than-ideal negotiation scenarios. Sometimes you must work with people you don’t trust, or who don’t trust you. That’s tough, but Thompson provides some key insight into ways to approach it.

While this isn’t a really deep dissertation on the subject, the 53 truths that Thompson shares provide a good overview to negotiations. I enjoyed reading the book and will hang on to it for future reference.

How To Become A Consultant

Ever thought about joining the ranks of IT Consultants?

On Thursday January 20th, 2011, I’m presenting a free PASS Professional Development Virtual Chapter webcast on how to get started in Information Technology consulting. If you have the expressed goal or the suppressed desire to become an independent consultant, this webcast is designed to help you create a clear transistion strategy from full-time employee to full-time IT consultant with a minimum of risk along the way.

During the webcast, I’ll discuss:

  • The many hats that a consultant must wear
  • Strategies for minimizing risk during your transition
  • Options for setting up your business
  • How to handle the “Give me an estimate” question
  • Low cost ways to promote your new business
  • Some best practices as you get started

Much of the information comes from my “The Rational Guide to IT Consulting” book published by Rational Press.

I hope you’ll join me for this event. For more information or to register, visit the PASS Virtual Chapter web site.

“Just Hit Somebody!” Developing A Bias Toward Action

“Come on, hit somebody!” That’s the sage advice I once received from my high school football coach. Later he elaborated to our entire group. I’m paraphrasing here:

If you don’t know who to block, that’s a mental mistake. You should know who to block. Period. But if you don’t know who you’re suppose to block, don’t just stand there; block somebody, hit anybody! Just standing there looking stupid is your second mistake. It’s better to make one mistake at full speed than making two mistakes by just standing there looking stupid.”

Line of Scrimmage

Inaction Is An Action

Much of the advice that I received from my football coaches doesn’t apply well to life off of the grid iron; it was far too sports-specific. However, that one piece of advice, “just hit somebody”, has stuck with me all these years.

Sometimes in business, in personal affairs, or even in spiritual matters, it’s far too easy to not make a decision. We tell ourselves that we need more information. Or perhaps we have enough information, but we need time to consider it all.

I certainly understand that. In fact, that’s my natural tendency. I’ve never taken a DISC assessment, but I probably have high values in the S and C dimensions which lean toward being cautious and deliberate.

But I’ve come to realize that often not making a decision is indeed making a conscious decision to do nothing. Continually asking for more information or trying to further analyze all the information that you already have leads to what’s known as Paralysis of Analysis. The opportunity is lost due to the time it took to reach a decision.

Sometimes it’s better to make a decision, any decision, and move forward.

Don’t Make Rash Decisions

To be clear, I’m not advocating that you should dispense with due diligence, that you should go around making a series of rash decisions. No, that’s short sighted and will lead to suboptimal results.

Each decision should be well researched and carefully analyzed. To a point. Then a decision should be drawn and action taken. Without action, there is no decision. You only have a wish. A decision requires an action.

Developing A Bias Toward Action

So how do we develop a bias toward action? It’s actually far easier than you may think. First you must recognize that no decision can be made with perfect knowledge beforehand. You simply will not be able to fully anticipate every aspect, every contingency, every possibility in a reasonable amount of time. It can’t be done. So there’s no point in allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Second, you must consider your options based on what you know now and determine the best approach. Notice that this does indeed require that you do your due diligence, that you analyze your situation and options, and that your draw a conclusion (decision) from those options.

And finally, you must consider the opportunity cost of inaction. Will the marginal benefit/cost of delaying action result in a substantial gain? Will gathering additional information produce a significantly better result? Or will it only delay the result? What are the consequences of inaction?

At that point, you have enough information to reach a decision. To act immediately, or to act by intentionally delaying a final decision while you do more research. If it’s the latter, set a timeline to collect the required information and repeat the process.

If all things are equal, consider just acting now.

As Winston Churchill once said “I never worry about action, but only inaction.”

The Lone Ranger And Data Integrity

Many IT Pros can relate to the the Lone Ranger. With the aid of but one trusty side kick, the Lone Ranger stands to protect the unsuspecting townsfolk from the wayward derelicts that plagued the American frontier. He also ate bacon three meals a day.

Like the Lone Ranger, IT Pros ride the fast-paced trail of the business environment, protecting key business systems from improper access and malcontent users. We’re often alone in our quest for data integrity, the lone voice standing out against complete and utter data anarchy. And we love bacon!

But I Neeeeeeeeeeeed It

Ok, I maybe overstating the issue slightly. Most users don’t awaken each morning with the hopes of bringing complete and utter data anarchy to our systems. They simply need something that’s beyond the current capability of the system. So they make do as best they can.

Secondary Systems

Some store data in Excel spreadsheets or Access databases (gasp!). Most of these secondary systems start off as a simple way to help one user track certain data. Over time, however, they can grow and spread like wet Gremlins. A second user discovers the existence of the neat new work-around. Then another, and another.

The next thing you know, the single-user, temporary, and unplanned work-around has become a team-level or department-level mission critical system. It’s frequently inaccessible to others who would benefit from the data, it’s difficult to back up, and it’s now yours to support.

All of this leads to disparate systems and silos of data. Maintenance becomes difficult; accurate reporting, impossible.

Getting Creative

Other users get creative with how they store data in the system. They find and exploit areas of the supported system to accomplish what they need to do. Sometimes they shove multiple pieces of data into one column; for example, they store two are three email addresses in the one allotted field. Or worse, they save two completely different types of data in one field; for instance storing a telephone number and an email address in the email address field.

Users can also repurpose an existing column for their own use under certain circumstances. They may put the customer’s email address in the P.O. Box field if they customer doesn’t have a P.O. Box.

Both techniques make producing reliable reports from the nearly impossible. Some of this can be controlled with data validation, but not perfectly. Users can still find ways around most protective measures.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

Why, oh why, do they do this to us? Don’t they realize that taking such liberties with data makes it impossible to have consistent and dependable information? Surely they’ve heard “Garbage In, Garbage Out” Oh, but they do it anyway.

But before we lash out and condemn them for making our lives miserable, we should first look in the mirror to see if any of the blame lies with us.

Have their requests for changes to the supported system continually fallen on deaf ears? Are their changes perpetually on priority level D? Have they asked for a newer version of the supported software, but been denied because we’re too busy to test and install it? Do we default to no rather than to yes?

It’s Not Us Against Them

Unfortunately in many organizations, the IT department has an almost antagonistic relationship with the departments and people they support. This is counterproductive, both to the organization and to our own goals. It makes life difficult for everyone.

So, don’t be the Lone Ranger. Reach out and work with users to support their goals. Strive to understand their needs and then look at the technology and processes that may help to fulfill those needs. You won’t be able to solve all of their problems, but building that relationship will help to solve some of your own problems.

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