What are you grateful for?

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On one of the forums in caloriecount (about.com site), there was a wonderful thread on what are you grateful for in your life. I am quite inspired by it. Here is a quick rundown of what I am thankful for in my life (not in any special order).

  1. My family, who are the reason for me getting up every day with joy and happiness
  2. Our health
  3. Our home
  4. Wonderful food
  5. Working in a wonderful place with wonderful people

There are many more (too many to count, in fact), but just that that I am simply alive, healthy and have something to look forward to every day is enough to make me feel so thankful.

Take some time to retrospect and count your blessings. Let us know in the comments.

Breaking out of my comfort zone

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We have all heard of the cliche, but seldom do we take any action on it. I recently worked up my courage and did a couple of things, which I usually try and avoid.
1. Bought a pair of slip-on style shoes: I have always bought those with laces, as I believed they were the only allowed one for formal/office wear. However, I found that it was getting difficult for me to drive for long with these shoes or sneakers. Someone suggested driving bare feet – loved it. But I got tired slipping on shoes every time I got out of the car.

Giant flywheel

Solution: Slip-ons. Nice, black leather ones from a reputed brand. I look smart and trendy :)

2. Eating at a Chinese Restaurant: I somehow had no appetite for Chinese food [there is nothing wrong with it].

I simply did not like the taste, so I avoided going there. A week ago, we went to a Chinese restaurant for a group lunch. As everyone favored going there, I decided not to play spoilsport and went along. Surprisingly, I liked the meal enough to take a few nibbles. Granted, the food had been changed enough to suit local tastes, but that is consistent with most restaurants around here.

So what did you do to break away from your comfort zone? (I’ll support the cliche to let it remain one.)

Busy vs. Productive

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Shamelle has written a great post on distinguishing between “being productive” and “being busy” all the time.

This is a coincidence,  since I was reading Seth Godin’s book (featuring his blog posts) and one thing jumped at me: “Give me nine-to-five executives who can create remarkable things and I will change the world”.

Put these two thoughts together and you will come to the conclusion that you can get a lot of things done without slogging for 15 hours a day. Honestly, I believe a strict nine-to-five job is generally not possible, especially as you move up the ladder.

Teams spread across different time zones, systems that function 24×7 and the sheer volume of decisions that need to be taken, makes it almost impossible not to have a Blackberry. Which, essentially, means, I disagree with Seth (on the nine-to-five part ;) )

Back to the real question, how can you be productive and not just busy? To add to Shamelle’s advise, I have a couple of things you can do.

1. Deliverable-based Structure (as opposed to WBS)

Most of us, including myself, think of work in terms of activities and not as deliverables.  For example, if I have to send out a report, my task is named as Create Report with sub tasks as organize a meeting, talk to systems group and get information etc. You can see the output of each activity is not clearly identified, with the result that the meeting happens, but there is no concrete outcome.

Instead, reword your tasks as units whose progress is measurable. In our trivial example, the sub-tasks could be Meeting minutes with commitment from the teams, raw data report from the systems group, analysis document prepared from the data etc.

2.  Schedule tasks as much as possible on your calendar

This allows you to focus on things you need to get done by meeting with yourself. By allotting time to your tasks, you make sure you have made some progress on all your tasks, rather than look only at the urgent tasks.

An empty calendar can also get you pulled into meetings that don’t have much value :) .

Bonus tip: Use a Task Manager (not the Windows Task Manager). Check out my post on using TaskCoach.

4 neat things to do when you feel unproductive

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Have you had a day at work when you have felt/done more than one out of the following?

Image courtesy HikingArtist

  • Did not look at your to-do list
  • Postponed tasks without reason
  • Spent an unusual time at the water cooler
  • Asking strange/weird/odd questions on the internet or surfed endlessly

Then, you are bored, officially. Yes, we have all had those days when work seems uninteresting, but you cannot take a day off. What do you then? You can try one of 3 things

1. Buckle up and try to turn around an unproductive day into a productive one

2. Get back your lost focus

3. You can do these 3 things (I love lists!)

  1. Reconnect
  2. Recreate
  3. Rest
  4. Review

Reconnect
There are those “long lost” friends or close relatives you were intending to call this week to see how they are doing. Call them now. You can also take this time to network on a personal level and send out a “hi, how are you doing?” email.

Recreate
Download and play an enjoyable computer game [a flash game perhaps, so that you don't have to install it].  Don’t get carried away, though :)

If computer games are not your cup of tea, you could read an e-book or go to the office library, if you have one. Choose something that is light and fun, otherwise, you will start hating that too.

Rest
Take a nap, if you have a nap room (as they do in some companies, especially Japan). Or simply close your eyes for a few minutes. Taking a mental break and slowly counting to thousand might also help.

Review
This may be a good time to think about the big picture – your family, your goals in life, direction in which your life is going, satisfaction etc. Don’t combine this with point 3 though – your nap may turn into a deep sleep.

For the folks doing GTD or its variants, this may also be a good time to look at that “someday” list.

The idea is not always to “motivate” yourself to work harder – sometimes it is better to acknowledge that there will be days when you are not simply upto it.

What do you on such rainy days at office? Let us know in the comments.

Managing my Tasks

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I received an email today (surprise!) from a blog reader on an aspect I have never written about – managing my tasks. The question was (snipped for clarity),

“Hi

I need some software/tool to manage my tasks. I am not yet ready for frameworks like GTD, but need something that can help me in my daily work.”

I thought the best way to respond to him was to show him how I managed my tasks myself. Out of my response grew this post.

Over the past few years, I have tried many ways of keeping tracks of tasks. The ol’ paper, spreadsheets and even MS Project (that was truly overkill). Within these mediums, I invented new ways of managing my work. It didn’t work. And one day, it happened. I read the book Getting Things Done. I was excited, because the book showed me exactly what I was doing wrong.

My mistake was a common one – I was not capturing all inputs and transferring into a written form (I don’t mean “written” literally, of course). I dutifully downloaded some GTD software, bought a moleskin and sat back for a smooth ride. Oops.

A couple of months later, I realized I was doing worse than before. Now, I left the mechanics of GTD and delved deeper into the principles and philosophy. What did I find? I had trusted my capture system, but was not really capturing all of them, I couldn’t do contexts right and more importantly for me, I was not breaking up composite tasks.

In my frustration, I threw out everything and started with paper and pen. One thing I learned is that it doesn’t scale up well. After asking around in forums and speaking to a lot of people, I decided to simplify and create my own version of GTD. A bit of planning and introspection told me that there are a few important things to keep in mind

Image courtesy Klaxon

  • Break out composite tasks (or what GTD calls Projects) in as much detail as possible with separate end dates for each of the sub-tasks
  • Self-appointments don’t always work, as I work with large teams and there are a lot of on-the-fly interactions (I wouldn’t take the more negative word “interruptions”)
  • Use your smartphone for the really, really important tasks and personal tasks
  • Use Weekly reviews consistently (Read this article from StepCase Lifehack on how to do them well)
  • If you can’t note down some idea or task immediately, record it in your phone and then transcribe it. Schedule it on your phone as well with a reminder.

My biggest problem, thankfully, was finding a simple software that could handle my projects and tasks effectively. After a lot of installations and un-installations, I found TaskCoach, developed by Frank Niessink and Jerome Laheurte. It is a wonderful piece of software that, unlike many other task managers, can handle composite tasks very well [It is also free and comes with a GNU license].

TaskCoach can track effort through its built-in clock, has pop-up reminders, color coding based on completion dates, filters and other great features. You can add attachments and notes to your tasks and the most helpful point for me – I can drag Outlook items to create new tasks quickly with the email as an attachment

With this software, I have not missed any dates, although I still have to improve in the “ubiquitous capture” aspect. After the stabilization period (I have set 6 months and in month 4 now), I am planning to move on to the next level of GTD.

Resources:

  • If you want to know more about GTD, get the book here or the audio series here
  • If you are more of a visual person or need an image to get the big picture, here is a good one
  • A simplified version of GTD that has become very popular is Zen-To-Done (ZTD) by Leo Babauta

How do you manage your work, with all the complexities of modern life? Do you use an electronic system or paper or a hybrid? Let us know in the comments.

Manage those Irregular bills – how I do it

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Irregular Payments. I use this term for those bills that don’t occur with any definite period OR happen once in a year. Think Car insurance (and house taxes, annual maintenance etc). you get the idea.

Our initial family budgets used to have expense items for the month and we did those at the start of the month. We got wiser and then started having a standard set of items and approximate amounts for each month. We could then compare every month how we were doing against the “standard.” After a few iterations, we realized that our balances did not match what we spent (against the budget!).

The culprits were these irregular payments. What was causing even more pain was that to pay for each of these special items, we were scrambling at the last minute to make the payment (which was usually large). A few brainstorming sessions later, we came upon a few tricks to avoid such situations.

1. Create a timeline

We made a list of all the possible payments for the year. These included

  • Insurance payments
  • House and maintenance taxes
  • Car insurance
  • Term fees at school for the kids

Then we put up the dates on which these payments were due. We observed that, by pure luck, there were not more than one payment on any month.


Image by Chris Campbell

2. Reschedule Payments

If, by any chance, more than 2 such payments fall in the same month, you might want to consider moving them to another month. This may not always be possible, but there may be some payments which can be moved. For example, you can switch your annual premiums to a monthly schedule for a couple of months and then switch back to an annual schedule.

The key is to schedule them such that those months don’t bunch up together. There will be a bit of inconvenience when you set this up, but it may be good in the long run.

3. Schedule micro-payments

Once you have the calendar schedule of payments ready, you can move on to the really important step. Schedule micro-payments every month for such irregular payments. Some banks in the US, such as ING Direct, allow you to create sub-accounts within your main account. If, like me, you live in a country where these are not available yet, you can put these micro-payments in a single account and track them in a simple Excel spreadsheet. It is important (and obvious) that this “special” account must be different from the account that you normally use.

These micro-payments go into your budget like any other item, so that you don’t end up messing up your budget in those months. This is especially true for those people who don’t have a set income every month (like businessmen, independent consultants etc).

Bonus tip: Start these micro-payments in such a way that you have a sizeable amount for each payment. Also, for one or two payments, this may not be possible in the first year, but for the subsequent years.

Share your tricks and tips for managing home budgets in the comments.

3 Less-known attributes of truly Successful people

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There is a billion dollar industry of books, seminars and workshops on making people become more successful. There are also hugely successful people in our own spheres of life, people whom we meet regularly – senior members of large/great organizations, self-made enterprenuers and so on.

What are the things that distinguish successful people from the run-of-the-mill folks like me? This was what got me interested, when I found people in senior leadership roles, but had not yet crossed 40. Of course, education, luck and the simple aspect of being the one available may have taken them there, but without “stuff”, you cannot stay there for long.

I started observing such people and so far, I have found 3 attributes – passion, genuine interest in people and the ability to understand subtle communications. You will notice hard work is not in here – surprisingly, not all of them work 16 hour days!

Passion

This is a no-brainer, but many people unconsciously set limits on their passion for work, either by limits on time or simply by the distance they are willing to go to get things done. Passion is ownership, passion is about finding ways to get things done, even if it means not going by the book sometimes (I am not referring to the non-negotiable rules like ethics, just the systems that organizations or societies setup). Passion is standing up and being counted when things are in a crisis. Passion means going beyond your defined role and responsibilities and ensuring that the overall team goals are achieved.

To have real passion, you have accept that sometimes, other things in life have to play a secondary role to your work life [This means you never talk about work-life balance - even if you go home on time usually]

Genuine interest in people

Passion can only take you so far. If you don’t have or develop a genuine interest in people and how you can harness their immense potential, you cannot become a successful person. Great relationships means word-of-mouth praise, which I find is the most effective way of marketing yourself. A word of caution: Do not try to manipulate people – you may be unpleasantly surprised about how many people can easily read this. Understand genuine concerns, show empathy and try to truly help people.

A successful track record is of no use if people under you refuse to give their best, due to some unconscious anger at you. You will have uncooperative people, who will balk at every work that you assign, delay their tasks and as a result, you end up doing all their work.

One other benefit of being able to interact with people well is that you become naturally good at networking. You will not need to fake things when asking for help – on the other hand, people will feel it an honor to work with you.

Ability to understand subtlety

You can call it reading between the lines or know the flow or oh whatever, but I have found this to be one of the most underrated secrets of successful people. This could be a situation or a person talking to them or a set of numbers being thrown at them. They can analyze what the situation is and come up with an answer that is simply awesome.

I really can’t explain this, but I am sure you can connect with the idea.

The obvious question at this stage is, can we develop these attributes? I haven’t found my answers completely. Have you? Let us know in the comments. If you have noticed other things which you feel are common among successful people, those are also welcome in the comments.

The 3 Pillars of Financial Planning

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In these days of financial troubles everywhere, I am thinking a lot on improving my financial situation and hence you may see most of the posts are on personal finance

“Insure your Child’s Education AND SAVE TAX”

“An insurance Plan for your golden years”.

These are the headlines screaming from Billboards on the way to work. I can’t help, but cringe when I think that I have fallen for these ads earlier in my career. One day, it struck me that there are 3 components to managing your money in the short and long term. I call these the “Pillars of personal financial management.”

Wealth Creation

By Wealth Creation, I mean creation of a corpus for all your major needs in life This includes planning for an Emergency Fund, Children’s education, lifestyle improvement (home/vacation), retirement etc.

Insurance

Insurance is a de-risking strategy that allows your dependents to maintain the same lifestyle if, God forbid, something happens to you. When I say insurance, I am talking of pure risk cover with no (or very less) money-back policies.

Tax Planning

Planning for saving tax simply frees up more money for you to spend – either on yourself, for wealth creation or for insurance.

How they are related

Tax savings can lead to wealth creation or insurance. Wealth creation, such as investing in PF or mutual funds and Investing in insurance can provide tax savings.

Experts advise to keep these three separate, but as I said, most financial products try to combine these options.  By itself, that is not bad, but these products are linked to the market, which means you are putting your money at risk! If you retire and there is a recession like the one we are in now, all your savings are lost unless you have chosen the most conservative option. If, like me and most others, you have not actively managed your risk option inside these products, you are liable for a shock.

Only a good financial planner will help you assess your financial state, expectations and create a comprehensive plan that will maximize your wealth, while saving you taxes and de-risking you through appropriate insurance.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on finance – information and tips here are for sharing my experience and your understanding only. Please consult a qualified financial planner for any financial decisions.

Related Posts:

3 steps to avoid “Money Leaks”

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Sometimes, it is necessary to step back and revisit the focus areas – be it in life or in a blog. This blog is dedicated to helping people better their quality of life by making small improvements in their lives. Work, finance, self-development are usually what I write upon. The timing of these usually tends to parallel the area where I am working on, so that it is also a chronicle of my efforts in becoming a better person today.

Do you have a situation where you are left wondering where you spent that Rs. 5000 ($100) and finally put it under the GOK heading? Then this post is for you.

GOK=God only knows

In many countries around the world, cash is still king. I am not talking about Business Strategy, but at a more personal level. While plastic has become the de-facto method of transacting, cash is still important, especially for purchases and deposits below a certain amount.

In India, for example, you cannot use a card for payment, except for fuel purchases, unless the bill comes to INR 300 ($6). Therefore, when making multiple small purchases like a can of coke or stationery, you have to use cash, typically drawn out from an ATM. This can lead to “money leaks” – a state where you cannot account for money when you are looking at your monthly statement.

In 5 easy steps to find out where your money is going, we looked at going through your bank and credit statements and then setting up categories for your spending. This is possible only when you know what you spent the money for! If you have a series of cash withdrawals, without any corresponding attribute/bill, you cannot effectively track your money. Meaning, you cannot budget effectively.

Here are some tips to help you prevent such money leaks:

1. Add a “payment method” column

Add a column to your budget tracker named “payment method.” As the name suggests, you can put in how you are going to pay this item – through card, cheque, bank transfer or cash.

2. Consolidate Cash items

Withdraw enough cash to cover all the total cash items and divide them using the Envelope Accounting method. This will prevent you making ad-hoc withdrawals from Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) during the month. Once you pay the bill, mark it in your budget-tracking system.

3. Track your micro-purchases

This is possibly the most difficult part – tracking your small purchases  – the coffee with a friend, the quick pizza while waiting for a train types. Don’t sweat the small stuff, though, unless you are penny pinching!

In your mobile or in a pocketbook, jot down the expense under broad categories for the expense, such as food/fuel/book/transport etc. Transfer this to the budget as soon as you get your computer.

Remember to plug this information back into your analysis of spending, to get an idea of such expenses.

6 quick tips to keep your career on track

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The recession is taking a heavy toll on us, with massive job cuts and reduced pay being reported across the world. Everyone still holding a job is feeling tense – who knows when the axe will fall on them!

It is better not to give into negative thinking, but plan and prepare for such an eventuality. Here are some quick tips to help you. These are not new, but they are exactly what I did to find a different role in my organization.

1. Network like crazy

Network with all your contacts in your entire career. Yes, your entire career.

Dig out those old emails and make a list of people with whom you have more than a passing acquaintance. Send them a “hi, how are you doing?” email. No pitching for any jobs at this point. With those who respond, have a more detailed conversation and renew old ties. Please remember, there has to be a genuine connection, otherwise you risk being labelled as a person who remembers them only in times of distress.

2. Face time with people who matter

“Out of sight is out of mind” is probably a cliche, but true nevertheless. Know who the movers and shakers in your department are and initiate closer interaction with them. Go out for lunch with them or at least the coffee machine. It is easier to recommend someone whom you see every day than someone who may be more talented, but is not seen!

3. Establish your expertise

Nothing establishes your reputation like published papers. Write a few whitepapers and send them for external publication in conferences and workshops. Become a panel discussion member or a speaker at such conferences. They can add a lot to your credentials (and your credibility in the eyes of your cutomers!)

4. Keep looking for jobs

A job in hand is better than two in the bush – to paraphrase the old saying. Don’t let this stop you from constantly looking out for another one. It may be an internal role or outside the company, but never assume your job is permanent.

5. Work like crazy

Although there is no guarantee that workalohics will not be laid off, it may make a difference when you are competing against others for jobs. A workalohic will appear passionate about giving his all to the company when it is in a tough situation. This is also the moment to forget about Work-Life Balance. Indeed, in my blog series on Work-Life Balance, I had referred to situations where you may have peak and down periods of effort. This is one of those times!

6.  Reduce your Cost to Company

If you are considered costlier to the company vis a vis the benefit the company gets from you, you are in danger. This is all the more true if you are a senior person in the company. Get a feel (or an actual quote from your manager, if you can!) on what is the cost/benefit ratio for you in the company. Take steps if possible to minimize that. For example, you can reduce telephone, fuel, electricity and other “perk” costs. Proactively forego raises or the company car till the company is back to normal.

Do you have any such tips that you have used? Share it with us in the comments.

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