Why Corporate America Sucks, pt. 2: Hurry Up and Wait

hurry up and wait

Constantly shifting priorities can make an employee frustrated and confused

At the beginning of the fiscal year, I sat down with my manager to go over my objectives for the year. The previous year, I had taken on a lot more product responsibility while other teammates were busy with project work. I got no credit for doing so, but I felt I had to. So when it came time for this year’s objectives, I made it a point to say I wanted to work on a project that interests me. My manager agreed, so we divided up my time into the required buckets, and I felt I had a good grasp on how the year would go.

Before the first quarter was over, a huge project came down the pipeline that sidetracked everything, and I was ordered to stop what I was doing and focus on it. As this was a high profile project with lots of senior management visibility, I was excited. We redid my objectives, shuffling some other things around based on these new priorities. This project started consuming a lot of time, and I questioned whether 30% of my time was an accurate assessment.

Queue to a few weeks ago, when that project was shelved suddenly. I was left with little to do, and not much of any substance. All of a sudden, a completely different project fell into my lap. And once again, my objectives had to be completely changed.

This constant hurry up and wait can get old very fast. I went from a slow and steady approach to my work, to speeding up quickly on one project, to suddenly powering down and stopping in my tracks, to again ramping up on a completely different project and moving full steam ahead. It’s a lot to deal with, and you have to be able to pivot quickly.

Why it sucks…
It sucks because it can be hard to focus. When you never know if your “super important project” will end up lasting more than a month or so, it’s hard to find the motivation to really get after it. It sucks because constant starting and stopping can be bad for your mental health. Much like a cars engine, stop-and-go can wear down parts quickly. It’s the same at work. Your mind can get numbed to the effect after a short while, and you’ll find it difficult to fully commit your energies to that project.

It also sucks because, at the end of the day, what do you have to show for it? I did great work on that first sudden project. But does it ultimately matter because the project was shelved? Who knows. At most, it’ll just be 10% of my total objectives. That won’t exactly move the needle come annual review time. If this project also gets cancelled, I’ll have two quarters worth of work that went nowhere. Is that my fault? Not really. But it affects my review nonetheless.

How to handle it
The best way to handle it is to take it one day at a time, try to keep the big picture in mind and celebrate any accomplishments you can. Use your downtime to focus on as much other work as you can, so the next hurry-up period can be totally devoted to that project. I used a great deal of my downtime to finish up some reporting and collateral tasks that would have taken up too much time had I had another project to work on. You can also use the wait time to catch your breath, reset your bearings and think about other things. Use some of it for career development tasks, something we could all stand to do.

The point is, you’ll find yourself ramping up and slowing down often in any complex organization. Even fast food workers. Starting at 11:30AM, McDonalds is slammed and workers are moving furiously to take orders and get food out. By 2PM, things have slowed to a crawl. If you take a late lunch, you’ll see workers cleaning up after the lunchtime rush and getting ready for the dinner rush. It’s the same in any business, so use your time wisely and try to keep your wits about you.

Making Impossible Goals Less Impossible

The other day, I was going through my normal routine of websites. Via lifehacker I came across this article about impossible goals and how you shouldn’t do them. The five goals are:

1. I have to make everyone happy
2. I have to be perfect and never make a mistake
3. I have to never fail
4. I have to sell 100% of my prospects
5. I have to reach all of my goals by the time I’m [insert age here]

To me, these are not “impossible” goals. These aren’t even goals, really. Rather, they are guiding principles for life. A goal should be measurable and actionable. Go here to learn about SMART goals. Of the five goals the author brings up, only two (#4 and #5) are measurable in any realistic sense. You can’t prove #1; are you going to survey every single person that you have ever tangentially associated with to verify that you made them happy? You can only measure #3 after you are dead. Guiding principles are things we should always be going after, using them to dictate how we act in life. We should never give up on them. As far as the two measurable goals, I don’t have a problem with them. I personally have used #5 to set some deadlines to spur myself into action. Without that deadline, I wouldn’t have signed up for a race. This only works for some goals; don’t set an age deadline on something like marriage or you’re likely to make a bad decision to accomplish it.

That gets to my second criticism. The author, Noah St. John, says that you should stop going after those goals immediately. Why? Shouldn’t these be exactly the sort of goals that we go after in our lives? Shouldn’t we want to make people happy? To try and not make mistakes? To not fail? To me, these are EXACTLY the types of goals that can lead to a successful life.

If I could change something about the article, it would be to eliminate the absolutes. Change “have” to “strive” and drop the “never.” Go through the list again with that simple replacement:

1. I strive to make everyone happy
2. I strive to be perfect and not make a mistake
3. I strive to not fail
4. I strive to sell 100% of my prospects
5. I strive to reach X goal by the time I’m [insert age here]

Looks much better, doesn’t it? Striving to make people happy is a great principle to follow in life. Striving not to fail seems like such a no brainer; who sets out to fail? You will fail in life, for sure…that’s unavoidable. But you can seek to limit your failures by planning ahead and making smart decisions. Again, seems like a good way to live a life to me. If you’re in sales, shouldn’t you strive to close every sale that comes up? If I had a sales staff, I certainly would want them to do that. A job interview is selling yourself to the hiring manager. Shouldn’t you strive to always successfully sell yourself in that instance? I’ve never gone on a job interview where I didn’t!

Always be aware of absolutes like the first version of these goals. In fact, always be weary when someone tells you not to have a certain goal. It’s dangerous, pessimistic and limits character growth. The “goals” in the article are not even goals, but guiding principles in life that are actually a GOOD thing to push for.

The Six Month Entrepreneurship Experiment – July Recap

Oof. Let’s just say that I’m glad I gave myself six months for this challenge. To recap the challenge, read this post. So here’s what I did in July.

Find A Topic
Obviously, if you’re going to create a blog for revenue, you want to figure out what you’ll be writing about. How? The first step is to research some keywords. Head on over to Google Adwords and create an account if you need to. Once you’re all set up, go ahead and click Tools at the top, and select Keyword Planner.

keywords1

Next select the first option: Search for new keyword and ad ideas

keyword2

There are two parts to the next screen. First, you want to enter in your keyword ideas. For this example, I put in sprint triathlon. Also, be sure to click on Customize you search. I put in 1,000 into the average monthly search box. You do this because you want to see adwords that have a decent number of searches.

keyword3

Once you click submit, you’ll see a listing of search words, grouped by ad words. These are some general ideas, but now what you really want.

keyword4

No, we need to drill down deeper. See that Keyword Idea tab? Click that. There’s what you really want! In my case, Sprint Triathlon had 8,100 local searches per month. Not a huge total, but a decent amount. To try out my ideas, I decided to go with it. It helps to also search Google for your keyword, to see what comes up on the first page. In my case, it was mostly individual sprint triathlon races. Decent, and something I could take over and end up on page one.

Advice: Search until you find something you can be confident in keeping up with. If you aren’t interested in a subject, you’ll find yourself struggling to write consistently about the topic. Don’t just search for something with a great deal of monthly searches, but also think about the topic itself.

Once I had keyword I wanted, I headed over to my domain registration website to search for a domain name. This is a key point: you want to get a domain that has your keyword in it. Hyphens and plurals are ok, but make sure your keyword is available at a top-level domain (i.e. .com, .net or .org). Avoid a low-level domain as they aren’t ranked as highly in Google. I was able to find my keyword and register it for a very low price: I spent $10.87 on www.sprint-triathlon.com. Once I had my site registered, I also needed hosting so I can store my pages and photos and such.

After a bit of Googling, I found a host for a very low price: $1.50 a month for Lithium Hosting. I signed up, pointed my domain to their servers, and I was good to go. The next step was to set up WordPress. Luckily for me, my host had a plug-in that would automatically set it up for me. It took about five minutes to have it installed. I selected a theme and customized my layout a bit, and my website was officially launched.

The most important aspect is content, and here’s where I struggled. I wrote up a few posts, but it really needs more. If you aren’t passionate about your subject, this is where you’ll get into trouble. My triathlon season was over pretty quick this year, so I’ve had a hard time getting motivated to write posts. And if you don’t write up a good deal of content, Google Adsense will NOT approve you; I found this out the hard way.

All in all, I’ve spent less than $15, so I have $85 remaining. I will spend the rest of this on the remaining five months of hosting, a logo and a premium WordPress theme. I need to separate my site from others and give it unique content, or else no one will care. I’m hoping that in a month I’ll have enough posts that I can finally get approved for Google Adsense and make some money. My site generates very little traffic (this blog gets WAY more), so it’ll be a long haul. But again, I’ve got five more months!

On Dealing With Professional Disappointment

If you’ve been alive for more than a few years, you’ve likely dealt with disappointment. Losing a game, not getting a job, getting rejected from the girl you finally had the courage to ask out. You feel like you’ve been punched in the stomach and cannot image ever wanting something more, or ever having something so good. Life is full of disappointments, they are unavoidable. What truly matters is the way you handle them.

I have been working towards a promotion at work for many months. I had crossed off all the checkboxes required of the new title, and had indeed been performing that function for almost a year. My performance was solid, I had taken on new tasks and worked hard day in and day out. My manager said repeatedly I had done everything I needed to do, that it was just a matter of time. Imagine my surprise when I hear that a coworker on another team is getting promoted before me. I was angry, frustrated, and I wanted to quit right then and there. Screw the job if they couldn’t recognize that I was ready for a promotion!

I could have marched right into my manager’s office and told him how I felt, and where he could stick his promises and assurances to me. None of that mattered anymore, I hadn’t gotten what I wanted. But would that have helped anything? Or would it have hurt my professional reputation? Luckily I walked outside, took a few deep breathes and called home to get some perspective. Just relax, my mom said, and don’t do anything stupid or rash. Take your time, and gather your thoughts and feelings before doing something you may regret later. I went back inside and searched for professional disappointment and what to do when you are passed over for a promotion. Another article I found was this one. I followed what I read pretty closely.

First, I allowed myself a moment or two to feel my emotions. I was angry, upset, frustrated and sad. I would jump around between emotions frequently that day, and just when I thought I could think with a clear head, another emotion would come back. You have to let these emotions out. Don’t bottle them up, but don’t let them control you either. If you feel angry, be angry…just don’t start yelling at anyone or throwing a vocal pity party for yourself.

Next, I sought some perspective on what happened. I met with my manager at the end of the day, and he knew exactly why I wanted to speak with him. I had used the day to gather my thoughts and form some questions; I’m usually not good with conflict or difficult conversations, so it helps me to prepare. I asked what more I needed to do, why I wasn’t moving forward, questions that related to me, not the person who got what I wanted. Comparing yourself to someone else in this situation, or demeaning their accomplishments, only ends up hurting you. Focus on what YOU need to do to get what you want. No one takes a promotion from you, so don’t blame them. He gave a little bit of insight into the situation, which in this case didn’t really help me. The reason I hadn’t gotten promoted had more to do with my manager not fighting for it, rather than anything I hadn’t done.

After gaining some perspective, I decided to take stock of where I am professionally, and how best to move forward. I set up meetings with my director, my vice president, and another director who works closely with my organization. The feedback ranged from difficult (lack of a personal network at work) to helpful (use your introversion to your advantage) to a bit of psychological boosting (I’m doing excellent, it was just a matter of timing). I realized that I could either wallow in my disappointment, or move forward from it. Working with those people, I came up with a plan of attack to continue pushing forward, while also setting up for new opportunities within the company. After the meetings, I had a renewed sense of purpose and motivation.

While my particular situation was about a professional disappointment, it works just as well in other cases too. Didn’t get the girl? Take some time to be sad about it, but then ask people you trust for some honest feedback, and build a plan to address any shortcomings. And don’t discount timing or luck; they are certainly important factors that are completely out of your control. And if you can’t control something, it’s not worth getting upset over.

The Case for Working From Home

Man working from home

While I was out sick with my wisdom teeth surgery, I discovered that I really, really enjoy working from home. Sure, I’ve done it before when I know we’re going to have a half day, if the weather is bad, or if I’m someplace else and can’t make it to the office. But this was my first, and to date only, experience with working from home for an extended period of time. What I found was I was more efficient and productive, less stressed and generally a happier employee. I saved money by not driving my car (gas, maintenance, insurance costs) and wasn’t harming the environment. When I went back to the office this past Monday, it really hit me just how poor of a working environment most office buildings can be. Artificial light, poor air quality, stress from driving in traffic, etc. So why don’t more companies allow their employees to work remotely?

The Desire Is Strong
After looking at some statistics, it’s easy to say “duh. Of course people want to work from home!” According to this study from Global Workplace Analytics, two-thirds of people would like to work from home, with just over a third willing to take less money to do so. This desire is particularly acute with Gen Y, or Millenial, workers (such as myself); by 2020, this group will make up the majority of the workforce. And what perk do they greatly desire? The ability to work from home.

It’s not too difficult to figure out why these numbers exist. Working from home allows flexibility in a work schedule. Want to start your day early in the morning in order to go to an appointment later? Sure. Need to wait for a repair guy? Done. Want to go to your kid’s soccer game? Sure, just finish your work later. It allows for a better, more personal work environment. Gone are the dirty, dusty desks and chairs and poor air quality. Forbes notes that a less stressful environment was noted by 38% of survey respondents as a key benefit of working from home. In fact, just read that list to see why people want to work remotely.

The Benefits For The Employer
Lest you think that the benefits are all on the side of the worker, there are tangible benefits for the company as well. They have happier, less-stressed employees who are more productive. It lessens the risk of an employee leaving, especially to a firm that does not allow telecommuting. This leads to lower hiring and training costs, which can be up to five times the salary of the employee. The company saves cost by potentially downsizing facilities, using less energy and resources. It can even increase collaboration by encouraging the use of communication tools (instant messaging, Skype, etc.). The bottom line is, the company certainly benefits when their employees work from home. There’s a reason why major companies, such as Aetna, American Express and Apple, offer it as a benefit: it attracts top talent (not limited to their geographical footprint) and keeps them there. Check out this list to see other companies that offer it as a benefit. Cross-reference that list with their list of top companies to work for. There’s a reason there is a great deal of overlap.

So Why Don’t More Companies Allow It?
It’s important to note that there are some drawbacks to working from home. First, you lose out on face time, which in some companies can be critical to getting things done and advancing one’s career. Second, there can be a sense of loneliness among the employees without the daily interactions in the office. Additionally, the “out of sight, out of mind” mentally could lead to an employee basically being forgotten. I’m not thinking on the level of Milton from Office Space, but still.

milton-office-space

Finally, many companies are very traditional and set in their ways. They believe that if an employee is not in the office, where they can be seen and their work monitored, they must not be working. This mistrust of employees is a very large factor, a remnant of the days where the manager was the overseer of everything. It’s all bunk, of course. Many studies have shown that working from home leads to more productive employees, not less productive. Yet it is hard to break the old guard’s feeling that working from home means slacking off.

I believe that in the very near future, the rise of telecommuting will only increase. Millenials are asking for it more and more, and the list of companies offering it is growing every year. I know I want to have a conversation with my manager about it. It makes sense for both parties, it helps the environment, it saves money. What’s not to like?