Matthew 6:26-27 (NLT) asks “Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?”, and that question resonated with me today. Starting just after Christmas I have been working on some personal projects related to closing out 2013 and setting myself up for success in 2014. I’m sure many people are also doing similar things. The end of an old year, and the start of a new, is an excellent time to reevaluate what changes need to be made and which old habits should be finally abandoned.
Part of my process for managing these types of projects is to write them down. This being the 21st century I’ve started capturing notes and project reminders for myself in an online file and linking it to my desktop. Then whenever I start to worry about some little detail or other I open that file and capture a note to myself. It’s a great way of getting the thought out of my head and into a tangible format and it helps me not to worry over the detail any longer than I should. After all, if worrying about such things is not going to extend my life, then why worry about them at all?
Cutting grass is a weekend task for me. I am busy during the week so tackling the task at the weekend works well. However, now that I’m back in school, cutting grass now has to battle textbook reading and research for my precious weekend hours. A week ago I needed to concentrate on a particularly complicated paper so pushed the glass cutting task to Monday evening. Given that I live in Arizona, it was hot outside as I got started even as the sun went down.
Weekend grass cutting is a very different experience to Monday evening grass cutting, and I met more of my neighbors. I also met a young business representative, who was taking a very unusual approach to promoting his business opportunity. Wearing a polo shirt with the company’s logo (a well-known satellite provider) and carrying a clipboard with some company promotional information, he was simply walking through the neighborhood looking to talk with anyone that was out and about.
It was a different approach, and complemented nicely the junk mail that the company had been mailing for weeks. We talked briefly (after he walked past twice, and complemented my grass cutting efforts both times, I figured he was doing compliance for the Home Owner Association or something) and he made the comment that he hadn’t solicited me because he respected that I was busy. I thought that was cool; I have no interest in switching to satellite television (I don’t watch that much television to begin with) but if I had been considering it his approach would have engaged me to talk with him more. By not pushing his business he created an environment that encouraged questions about his business. Novel approach huh.
I admit it, I enjoy completing online surveys (yeah I’m probably a nerd or lonesome or something). It’s always fun seeing how different companies ask questions and seeing how many times my situation isn’t addressed in the potential answers section. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t engage with random surveys that appear in my inbox, but if the survey is related to a recent experience with a business and I feel that I have an opinion (either positive or negative) then I will usually complete the survey.
So what drove this blog post? I just completed a survey related to an engagement with a customer service representative from my credit card and one of the last survey questions caught my attention. It asked something along the lines of “Would you recommend [the company name] to your family and friends?”
Did you notice the huge miss in that question? Hint: Replace the word “Would” at the start of the sentence with either “Do” or “Did” and see what happens to the question. Now think about how I (and many other people before me) might have answered the original question; answers such as “maybe”, “definitely” etc. were the possible answer options.
Replace the word “Would” at the start of the sentence with either “Do” or “Did” and then think about the answer selection that I (and many other people before me) might have chosen in that instance. Notice the difference in the data that you are gathering – “would” yields data that tells you what might potentially happen sometime in the future (or not, as the case may be) whereas “Do” and “Did” yield data that tell you what is or has happened in the environment.
The point of the exercise: you might be asking questions and getting answers but is the data telling you want is actually happening in the environment? Try changing your questions and see how the data changes.
I was working on my Ultrabook™ on a recent Sunday morning while the local Fox affiliate ran a teen-orientated program on the TV in the background. A segment caught my attention so I paid a little more attention; it was a class on budgeting being taught to teens where each teen was to create a budget for their upcoming prom. By using a case study that had value to the teens, their understanding of the concepts of the class was more apparent. In the interviews at the end of the end of the segment the students indicated how they now understood the point of budgeting and having to spend sensibly in order to plan for the future.
The station then went to a commercial break and the first commercial was for a payday-type company advertising how easy it was for anyone to walk in the doors and request a cash loan. Maybe the positioning of the commercial was purely coincidental but its ability to undercut the positive message of the segment immediately preceding it was stark. A similar commercial has not played n any subsequent commercial break for the past hour, again purely coincidental I’m sure.
People track data so that they have usable information to review later to determine how well/successful/efficient/whatever their efforts have been. It doesn’t matter if you are tracking progress toward paying off a personal loan ahead of schedule or a multinational corporation tracking efforts toward meeting multi-year growth projections; tracked data is invaluable. If you start a project but don’t track related data then how do you know that you are on track to meet or exceed your goal? Data recorded on the back of an old envelope is better than nothing at all.
Great goal, no tracking
The spark for this blog post was an article related to how the US government had devised a goal of closing 40% of its data centers in an effort to consolidate and save taxpayer dollars (http://www.networkworld.com/news/2013/051413-us-agencies-cant-track-savings-269758.html). The goal was an admirable one but thus far the various agencies involved in the effort have been unable to determine the actual savings gained from their efforts this far. Which begs the question – if you can’t determine how you will measure something, how will you know that your efforts are achieving anything? A follow-on question might be: if you can’t measure it then is it even worth doing?
How did this happen?
So how does a situation like this arise in the first place? Individuals, charities, small businesses, multinational corporations etc. all utilize various methods to track data. Numerous methods exist to manage projects and track data. Universities offer degrees in this subject matter. And yet government agencies apparently see nothing wrong with embarking on a multiyear project suck as this without incorporating any data-tracking methodology in the process?
Maybe the first clue is contained within the titles of the offices and agencies interspersed throughout the article: Office of Management and Budget, U.S. Government Accountability Office, Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Data Center Consolidation Task Force, U.S. General Services Administration. The titles are clearly not reflective of the actual nature of the related entities.
Recently I decided to fire up the BBQ. I hadn’t done so in several months despite living in Arizona where one could (and should) BBQ every day of the year because the weather here is fabulous. After stopping at the store to purchase burgers, chicken breasts, BBQ sauce and various styles of buns I headed home, changed clothes, and headed outside to fire up the BBQ. It was then that I realized how rusty my skills had become when I had to read the tags on the various knows to determine which one was the igniter. I was surprised by how rusty my skills had become in the intervening months.
Use it or lose it
We are all familiar with the saying “use it or lose it” and my experience with the BBQ was a reinforcement of the truth behind the saying for sure. If you don’t use a skill for a period of time it will begin to dissipate, and eventually you will lose it completely. In some instances that may not be such a bad thing; I have forgotten any and all of the French words and phrases that I once had to memorize during my high school French languages classes and their loss has never bothered me. But other skills are far more valuable and their loss can be far more devastating. Skill loss is an insidious process because it happens slowly. Indeed, some skills can be lost over such a long period of time that the loss is completely unnoticeable until the erosion is irreparable.
One way to address skill loss is through a process of self evaluation, where you review yourself honestly and note where there are gaps in both your professional and personal lives. When you identify where a skill loss is occurring, or has occurred, you then need to make a decision as to whether you need to take any corrective action. Doing a formal self evaluation annually is always a good idea, but spontaneous self evaluations also have value. A self evaluation doesn’t have to be complex – my review of my BBQ skills took mere seconds – but can be a “stitch in time” that saves you a lot of future rework.
I am very much a left-brain person, for the most part. I prefer order and logic over ambiguity. I can handle aimless driving as long as there is a known end destination, and in most instances I can relax and chill out a little more once I have analyzed the situation in a spreadsheet or completed other tasks that held a personal priority. I rarely find myself in disagreement with Mr. Spock while watching a Star Trek episode or movie; their national dress leaves a lot to be desired but their views on the absolute purity of logical thought are spot-on. Right-brained creativity can be fun at times but in most instances emotions are mostly unnecessary and straight lines are preferred over curved ones. Case in point: my roommate just asked me if I were interested in “wandering out in search of some lunch” and my first reaction was to pepper him with questions regarding timeframes. I can’t help it, this is how I am – I’m actively writing a blog post so that activity has a higher personal priority to me than aimlessly searching for lunch in a city of restaurants.
Left-side brain thinking is a wonderful thing but sometimes the dearth of right-brained creativity in the equation causes an unbalance, and the logic becomes far too logical for its own god. At such times it manifests as an overwhelming feeling of having so much to do, each with its own personal priority rating, that it becomes practically impossible to determine where to start. That’s where Spiders comes into play…the computer card game, not the eight-legged critters. It’s a wonderful mix of right-brained creativity with simple but logical rules that dictate play. There is something about playing that simple game that helps my brain differentiate between all of the tasks and sort them in descending personal priority order. Maybe the cards in the game represent the tasks, and the process of moving the cards in logical order onscreen helps my brain perform the same task. Regardless of how it works a few games of Spiders does the trick every time to get my left brain realigned and back to its Vulcan roots.