Warren Buffett

I have been reading The Snowball about Warren Buffett the investor. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Snowball-Warren-Buffett-Business-Life/dp/0747596492/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1258270555&sr=8-1 The book is nearly a thousand pages long, and these are not small pages filled with large print! I'll allow myself to make a few observations even although I have not yet finished the book. The first thing that impresses about Buffett is just how single minded he is, just how hard he has worked. As the title alludes to, he works on the basis that compound interest means that a little money today, can become a lot of money in the future. However to make this work you need to make a lot of good decisions, and the more money you can add to the pot the greater the reward will be. It also becomes clear that although awkward and eccentric he is a fundamentally decent person, in fact he does not seem to be motivated by material wealth or particularly by status. He is motivated by being intellectually engaged and challenged, with the accumulation of capital simply a means of keeping score in some personal challenge. The second thing that comes across is that Buffett largely chose to live his life on the stage of professional work. That is what drove his vast fortune. And although clearly family were important to him, for much of his life he put career first and this had adverse effects that he came to regret greatly. Although I would like to be as successful at investing as Warren Buffett, I will never have access to the capital that he does. In order to make serious money investing, you need serious capital. But I am learning all the time, and the little snowball of my own stock of capital is growing steadily so I would hope to be able to make increasing returns on my capital over the years, though enough to retire on seems unlikely! And although I admire his single minded devotion to what he did, I am too much of a family person to ever want to make those sacrifices. At the end of the day it is for each of us to recognise where our priorities lie and try our best to reflect those in how we live our lives.

climbing mountains

Sometimes a job is like climbing mountains, you are never quite sure if you will reach the summit, or what you will find when you get there, but you just set off any try anyway.

With my new promotion, and new job, things are a bit like that. I have a rough idea what to do, who to ask, and how to go about things. But overall it all unfamiliar territory, so I am falling back on techniques that have worked well elsewhere, and I hope that they will work here.

But all in all, I am enjoying it, there is a real challenge about what I am doing, and how to do it. I just have to remind myself that when you are climbing new mountains you don't know what you will find and you have to rely on your wits.

The end of days

Friday was my last day in my old job, on Monday I start my new job, a promotion to a different part of the organisation.

It is so weird rushing to try and tidy up all the loose ends, write up handover notes, file everything useful electronically, get anything contentious agreed, get anything difficult done, let everyone know, say bye and thanks to everyone, and then it is done.

It was a rush right up to the end, I paid out over £6m on my last day, and writing handover notes till I was the last person in the office, and headed home at 6.

After being so much of my life, the page has been turned, and on Monday I have to start getting to know about something completely different, getting out to know a new bunch of of people, figuring out how to do a whole load of new things.

You should always quit when you are ahead, so I suppose I left at a good time, I was enjoying my work, I really liked the people, and found them great to work with. I suppose I was spinning my wheels a bit, I was wanting more to get my teeth into, not more work, but more challenge.

falling into place

After being focussed on getting a promotion, for what seems like forever, I have finally cracked it. I had an interview on Tuesday morning, before I went in I picked up a message on my Blackberry saying that I had been unsuccessful at interview for a post the previous week. This week's interview seemed to go okay, but there were vast areas where I did not have relevant experience, balanced with other areas where I was possibly overqualified or exceedingly impressive. Later that evening a message popped up on my Blackberry offering me the post.

So now I have moved from thinking long term strategic thoughts about my current post, to trying to figure out how to get it tidied up before I move on in a few weeks.

Similarly a lot of my emotional energy has been tied up in applying for posts, and moving over to not filling in endless application forms and heading along to regular interviews seems so odd all of a sudden.

This weekend I have been,
walking the dog - still waiting for my pedometer from Amazon, so the walking seems a bit pointless if I am not amassing some enormous stepcount

one afternoon tidying the garden - to the extent that the brown bin the council take away is full, and my compost bin is full

ordered the new Mac Box Set, with iLife 09, iWork 09 and Snow Leopard - I'll upgrade the whole housefull of computers at the same time so they are all on the same OS etc.

reading a Chris Hoy biography that I borrowed from a colleague/friend, so that I can give it back to him before I finish up.

starting to worry if I really have got the post, I don't suppose I will quite believe it until I sit down at my new desk.

morning out gathering brambles with the family, so that my wife can do a batch of bramble jam. I like to get at least one batch of bramble jam made each year.

So, I am waiting for my pedometer, snow leopard, new post, the council to empty my bins so I can fill them up again, ....

and I am happy, after an awful lot of hard work things are all falling into place.

gardens, red onions, job hunting and thinking of China

This weekend seems to have flown by, most pleasantly by and large.

Decent weather yesterday, a little warm for walking my dog, he was pecht getting back, I was too. Then worked on my garden in the afternoon, with number two daughter assisting.

Part of the joy of gardening is that it is all a bit of a playground. It really doesn't matter all that much what you do, it will all pretty much grow back anyway. So I just play about with what I think might be interesting or fun. In that spirit, I just gave number two daughter a quick tour of the garden, explaining what I thought needed done, and asked her to choose what to do. For some reason they always seem to want to trim the hedge, until they actually start wielding the shears and realise that it is hard work.

She concentrated on weeding out a little flower bed, and then transfered in a couple of box plants that I would like to shape into something geometric when they get big enough. I also got her to trim a box plant that I'm just trimming into a globe shape, it is surprisingly difficult trimming something to be round in three dimensions. I weeded the veg patch and lifted the red onions that I have been growing, they are now sitting in the cold frame to dry off. There is a certain quiet glory in harvested food. My damson tree, which clearly suffers vertigo as it is striving to avoid any great height, tying itself in bushy knots, has maybe a dozen gorgeous purple damsons growing. Not enough for jam, but good to see.

Otherwise, I've been playing around with a pedometer. There was a free pedometer in the house, so I gave that a go. And found out that :
I actually do more than 10,000 steps most days, without any particular effort.
I do less steps at the weekend, because I don't have to walk to catch public transport and everything in my house is closer to hand, obviously.
the most annoying thing about a cheap pedometer is when it resets itself, losing my awesome daily stepcount!!!

I've ordered one on Amazon, and once it arrives, I will try and develop some sort of exercise regime based on tracking my steps. Also ordered Cousin Basilio (book), which I seem to remember was good, and Coup de Torchon, the Bertrand Tavernier film, which I remember enjoying.

I'll try and build up a little stock of arty filmhouse type films that I remember being good. I've recently got State of Things (Wim Wenders) and the Saragossa Manuscript (Jan Potocki book, Wojciech Has film) and enjoyed watching them both.

I have been patiently adding the odd book or DVD onto my Amazon wishlist, but last time I looked half of them were unavailable, so clearly I need to go that extra step and actually buy some of these things, rather than leaving them skulking on my wishlist.

Otherwise, being playing about with Kuler, got a couple of awesome teeshirts from RedBubble. All is relatively quiet at work, so finding productive and sensible things to do with this largesse of time.

Autumn is here, keen to get out and get brambles, went out a few weeks ago and they were not yet ripe, but the back road where I usually do my brambling should be about ready now, so I'll need to get out.

Watched Benefits Busters, then chatted about it when getting my hair cut. All amazed at how much single mums can get in benefits and how well they seem to do without doing any work whatsoever. I suppose for society it makes more sense for a single mum with four children to bring her children up full time, rather than going out to earn the minimum wage. However being detached from the job market while the children grow up is not a great long term option. It is incredible just how unscientific getting jobs is. You can study all you like, getting a job still seems to be pot luck at the end of the day. In China the state decides what you are going to do before you even go to university, a system that does have something to recommend it!

There is a bit of a difference in how people think about work.

There is the view that work is basically unpleasant, and you only do it if you really have to, and get paid. And even then you are duty bound to do as little as you can possibly get away with. Doing more than that is breaking solidarity with other workers and is encouraging employers to take liberties, or raise the bar unacceptably on the level of effort they deem sufficient and appropriate.

Alternatively there is the view that work is part of who you are, how you define yourself and how the world sees you. Therefore you strive to work to the best of your abilities and take a pride in your work.

I was initially tempted to say that this was a class difference, but I don't think that it is so much to do with the person doing the work, as the type of work. A craftsman would always take a pride in his craft, someone bashing out widgets probably won't. I suppose that a lot of people have been stuck with a bad experience of work where there is no merit in working hard, where the culture is to do as little as possible. That attitude does not transfer well into more modern jobs where the worker is expected to constantly innovate and challenge themselves.

There is a third catagory beyond these two. It is not so much what you do, as what you say you do. If you can say with conviction that your job is critical to your employer, then if your job is unique, and it is vaguely plausible then people will probably believe you. So in differentiated, skills based roles, the ability to sell yourself arguably becomes more important than ability. This is because it is difficult to put any useful metric on a unique job. So the outward perception becomes reality. Part of this mentality is that every job is a stepping stone to another job.

For an employer the risk is that people move shamelessly into the third catagory.

Finally some more musings. China and India seem to be pursuing very different economic models. India is going for a service based economy, whereas China is going for a manufacturing based economy. On this basis, I suspect that India has made the better choice for the long term. Just a thought.

Lunch-time seminar update

Further to my earlier blog posting on this session for training staff on meeting skills,

you won't remember, so click on the link to find out what I'm talking about, it won't hurt, honest.

After a long delay, I finally managed to run this session.

The idea was actually the easiest part of the whole process, it took maybe an hour to work up, then I had to convince a colleague that it was a good idea to run, then it was cancelled, so I had to push for another date, then no one was signing up for it, so I had to advertise it again, then there were still too few people attending, so I had to wander round the office bullying people into attending.

But in the end, I did get half a dozen people to attend. We just handed out the name plates and agreed amongst ourselves who would be who, which worked pretty well as an ice breaker. People stuck with the agenda, and were starting to get engaged, when I introduced the whole Alien scenario. It worked exactly as anticipated, it was just so daft, and off the wall that everyone could contribute, and no one could take it too seriously. The discussion did start to wind up quite naturally after about 30/40 minutes, and I just moved into an informal washup. Everyone enjoyed the session and felt it was worthwhile, that they had contributed effectively and been well chaired. Our chair was a new member of staff, totally new to chairing meetings. I gave out a few silly alien themed gifts to everyone, and it was all done inside one hour. You can always tell after these things if they have worked, people talk excitedly and have smiles on their faces, on that metric it was a success. I also got a couple of emails later in they day from folk saying how much they had enjoyed it.

Take away lessons - it is virtually impossible to market the event, it relies on surprise, so as much as I promise people that it will be fun, they quite sensibly are difficult to convince. It might be appropriate to go via line managers, or have the event incorporated into a training series. One hour is plenty for the event, but give yourself ten/fifteen minutes for the washup, as much of the learning can be reinforced then. Simply praising the positive behaviour is worthwhile if you are dealing with people who are less confident in meetings.

Would I run it again ? - definitely, next series of events across our organisation I'll offer to run a couple more, though I might need to change the scenario just to keep people on their toes.

Final point - original insight/idea took an hour, making it happen probably took a day, all told. Creative ideas don't just happen because you have great ideas, they happen because you really work to make them happen.

How do you define what you are doing ?


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Kondratiev Waves and Joseph Schumpeter

I have been doing a little reading up on Kondratiev Waves and Joseph Schumpeter.

If you are willing to accept that our current economic situation is more akin to the 1929 Wall Street crash, than more recent booms and busts, or bulls and bears, then the theory of Kondratiev Waves, and the work of Joseph Schumpeter will be of interest.

Nikolai Kondratiev was that most thankless of creatures a Soviet Economist, in fact so thankless was his role that he was sentenced to the Russian Gulag and received the death penalty. He put forward a theory of Major Economic Cycles, in his book of the same name in 1925. It was the subsequent European economist Joseph Schumpeter, who proposed calling these cycles Kondratiev waves in his honour.

These are the familiar theoretical sine waves, smoothly going up and down, but over a period of fifty years, or more.

These are long terms trends, trends that are beyond the means of individuals, or individual businesses, or countries to counteract. So the 1929 Wall Street crash was an inevitability, better decisions might have smoothed off some rough edges but it was still an inevitability.

Using Kondratiev as a prism to consider the twentieth century, the economy rose steadily from the turn of the century, slowing from 1921 to 1929, before it tipped into full scale depression. The next cycle started around 1950, with the economy rising steadily until 1980, when it tipped into recession, this continued, until the recent banking failures led to our dip into depression.

In theory these cycles are not just economic, they also reflect what the economy was about,
the Industrial Revolution starting in 1771
the age of steam and railways starting in 1829
the age of steel, electricity, and heavy engineering starting in 1875
the age of oil , the automobile and mass production starting in 1908
the age of information and telecommunications, starting in the 1950's.

Kondratiev waves are not accepted economic theory, nor are they the only economic wave proposed, there are
Kitchin inventory 3-5 years
Juglar fixed investment 7-11 years
Kuznets 15-21 years
Bronson asset allocation 30 years

Also if you are familiar with the principles of waves, if waves operate to independent timings, they will amplify or cancel each other out. So if you were to propose that only a couple of theoretical waves operate, then their interaction could easily provide an interesting pattern over a longer time period. Like the perfect storm, peaks could coincide to create once in a lifetime events.

One of the conditions for a scientific theory is that it should have some predictive ability. On the one hand it is possible to fit evidence into Kondratiev waves, but on the other it is impossible to use the theory to predict when different stages will take place. The holy grail for investors is to be able to call the top of the market, or the bottom. Kondratiev does not let you do this. It is arguable that the predictions are banal, things will get better for a while, then they won't, then they will get worse.

The most obvious point in the whole cycle would appear to be the 1929 Wall Street Crash, 2008 Banking crisis moment, where slowing down, tilts into a undisputed nose dive. In the theory of Kondratiev this is the transition from the Autumn Recession, into the Winter depression. Or the top of the sine curve, and the downward slope.

I also like to test any theory with the intuitive, does it seem plausible that it might be true. Not exactly scientific, more common sense. I suppose I can see that economic cycles might exist, stages within the economic cycle will create their own environment, create their own perceptions of risk, on appropriate reward, on appropriate strategies. Our attention is swamped by recent events, more distant events are easily discounted. So we are easily persuaded by talk that there is no more economic boom and bust, or that house prices can only go up. Such views seem to be validated as people make money out of them.

It could be that rather than this rather too straightforward explanation, what is really at play is a variety of variables, which were we sufficiently wise we could isolate, understand and use to predict economic activity. However I do feel that human nature is at play in these things, rather than technical variables. We are talking about how confident people are, and how they behave, experience teaches us that human behaviour is more predictable than it is rational.

It may be that Kondratiev waves capture the underlying paradigms of the economic cycle. The economy is based on an expanding railway network until the cost of building railways exceeds any possible return on them. Old industries are driven out, new ones are driven up.

The economy is based on an expanding internet and knowledge economy until the cost of knowledge and the internet exceeds any possible return. Do we really need so many university graduates, so many social networking sites, so many server farms, so much wifi connectivity, so much always on, connectable, contactable, super loquacious, pundit driven, never stopping 24/7 information? Having we truly tested the knowledge is power paradigm to breaking point?



If there is a perfect economic theory out there, then whoever figures it out, certainly won't be publishing it in a peer reviewed journal. They will be keeping it to themself, while they make lots of money.

I'm not convinced that Kondratiev Waves actually have much predictive power, but on an intuitive level they do seem to encapsulate much of our recent capitalist history. As an investor, I should consider the theory, and its characterisation of our current economic stage as being the Winter of the economic cycle, a time of fear, panic, and despair. Falling inflation turning into outright deflation, and a lack of credit.

The theory predicts the best investments are gold, cash, and bonds after the credit crunch.

As an investor, the theory does raise the very real possibility that we are caught in a falling market, one that might continue to fall for the next decade. You will need to be incredibly smart to be able to make the sort of profits that even unsophisticated investors were recently making.

If you invest, because that is part of what you do, then you will probably continue to do so, and if you are lucky you will make modest returns. If you are a fairweather investor then the market is not for you, when Kondratiev says it is Winter, the market is a cold and merciless place for the unwitting investor to be.

Further reading
wikipedia on Kondratiev Waves
wikipedia on Joseph Schumpeter
the best charts I have come across

reality has once again reasserted itself

I have been relatively remiss with blogging recently.

After making vast in-roads into my plans to blitz the world of arts and ideas, with gazillions of pitches of every subject under the sun, things have rather slowed down to a more ponderous rate after the initial frenzy. That is not to say that there was anything wrong with my original thinking. However for the first couple of weeks, I was relatively quiet at work, had an extra day off each week, and was not doing much at the weekend. Accordingly it was relatively easy to find the time to do all this pitching and working up of creative ideas.

Reality has once again reasserted itself, in the various dimensions that it is prone to.

1 Work
2 Creativity
3 Blogging and web-siting

At work, things seem to have moved up to a rather hectic pace, so hectic that it all rather zen, just figure out what I need to do, then do it. Scant time to think, plan, wonder or worry. Hopefully things will slip down a notch or two, but things might conspire against this. I have taken on an entire other job, in addition to the admittedly light duties that I already had. I have been volunteered to do some work for senior management, which rather means that I have to do a good job of it, and I don't want to be making excuses about not getting stuff done. I don't mind, it is a chance to do some interesting stuff, and potentially get noticed. Though frankly I am a bit long in the tooth, for harbouring any great ambitions. Also I continue to come up with ideas to stretch myself, the idea that I pitched in a recent blog, for a staff seminar, will be taking place in April! and I have volunteered to take nightclasses in paralegal studies.

As ever, opportunity never comes in any planned manner, it just all arrives at once, when you are not expecting it. But with this sort of work, sometimes it it just the ability to seem calm and in control that counts, rather than actually doing anything terribly specific. I have been mindful of not working excessive hours, because at the moment I need to be productive, rather than just sitting there doing a lot. So the productive side of my brain gets burnt out after a while. Time to head home.

2 Creativity
as above, after an initial flurry, I have slowed down on the pitching like a maniac, and trying to drive up traffic to my website. Potentially you could easily spend over a day a week on those, and there just has not been the time lately. However I do think that the underlying principles of pitching broadly and keeping track of what happens are sound enough.

Of the initial pitches, the most productive to date seems to be the seminar idea, which has been accepted, and will be taking place. I do feel that my jokes are decent enough, but I've really not found an outlet that might take them yet. I might take a day off at the end of the week to catch up some of this creative stuff.

3 Blogging and web-siting
I suppose it would be easy enough to justify any amount of unproductive trawling around the web as being either research, or making comments in the hope of driving up traffic to your own website.

Accordingly the lack of huge amounts of time ambling the information superhighway probably won't set back civilisation unduly.

I have recognised that it is useful to have permanent links to my individual blogs, just in case I, or anyone else wants to put a link to them somewhere. I have accordingly been doing some of that boring behind the scenes stuff to set up permalinks on my blog. Nothing terribly noticeable, but useful to have.

I have also been a little remiss in blogging, but I do find it a useful way to straighten out my thoughts, and just keep in the habit of writing, so I'm doing a few blog entries this weekend, when there are bound to be other more productive things that I could be doing instead.

In conclusion, that is about that for the moment. I suppose getting somewhere is really about tempering what you want with what you are managing to do, and coming up with a decent compromise somewhere in between.

lunch-time seminar

A while back, I posted a blog entry about why work should be more fun, but did not actually say anything terribly useful about how to make work more fun. I have been doing a little work on an idea for a short lunchtime seminar/ workshop that lets staff practice the essential skills for meetings, in a light and entertaining way. If possible, I’ll try running it at my workplace, and see how it goes. Details below, you might need to customise to suit your workplace but the basic idea should work.


advert

this event will appeal to anyone who is not a Government Cabinet Minister, or who is fed up with just taking the minutes at meetings. Participants will take the part of a Cabinet Minister, for a mock Cabinet Meeting. The event is intended to be entertaining while offering practice in the interpersonal skills required to work effectively in meetings. New staff are particularly encouraged to attend. The event will take about two hours.

Set up

small number of participants - 6-8
arrive in room, and sit round the table, there is a name card at each seat, detailing which Minister is sitting there.
The facilitator introduces themself
people are to take the part of the Minister their name card indicates, including the First Minister who will chair the meeting
if the First Minister is really uncomfortable agree to change, but otherwise just proceed

explain that often what we do would be really fun if it were not for worrying about the consequences, this session aims to be fun, and the only consequences are that you might learn something.

facilitator flags up that it is important to recognise the difference between how meetings operate, and what they discuss

The facilitator outlines the principles for the day, which are on a flip chart
how meetings work best;
  • chatham house rules
  • people really listen
  • everyone gets a chance to speak
  • people get their points across clearly and succinctly
  • everyone feels comfortable (fun?)
  • ideas are drawn together effectively
  • clear actions are agreed
  • the meeting keeps to time

the participants are presented with an agenda (what), the agenda is long and dull,

the chair starts the agenda with welcome and introductions

after a short spell the facilitator interrupts, and explains that he is a government policy advisor and he has just heard an unconfirmed report from the manager at Edinburgh Castle that an alien spaceship has just landed there. Although unconfirmed, we believe the report to be true and the Cabinet has until the end of the meeting to decide the Scottish Government response, as it is believed that Scotland will be the focus of international media interest within the hour.

Allow the FM to continue to chair,

no additional facts are added, but if the conversation starts to flag, then the facilitator can introduce himself as a senior policy adviser with question prompts such as
  • what about the health implication
  • what about the constitutional implications
  • do we assume that they are friendly
  • etc

The facilitator closes the meeting fifteen minutes before the end of the session, and allows people to get out of character, by asking them how it all went, encouraging them to start thinking about the how, rather than the what

then refer participants back to the principles for good meetings outlined at the start, ask the group to reflect, both personally and as a group
  • what went well
  • what went badly
  • what to do differently next time
capture this on a flipchart, the principles of good meetings flipchart being on display at the time

feedback sheet handed out for completion before people leave
  • tick box - would I do this again
  • tick box - would I recommend it to someone else
  • will you personally do anything differently in future - actions?
  • any comments

thank people for attending, and close

if reconvened, then some members are dropped out and some new are added, this model of temporary membership is retained if the meetings continue as a series.

Update - this seminar has now run, and an update is provided here!

have more fun at work

Typical task management and prioritisation schemes would work very well if you were attempting to keep your computer RAM spinning over at maximum effectiveness. But when it comes to actually getting the best out of yourself they are sadly deficient.

Do you really want to run yourself like you would run a machine?
Would you want to work for a boss that thought that way?
Would you allocate tasks to a new member of staff like that?

Probably not.

That is not to say that task management is not susceptible to some sort of organisation, it is just that conventional schemes tend to neglect the fact that they are dealing with people.

You need to start from the point of view that you are dealing with a person, and that person just happens to be you.

So, first and foremost, you need to protect your prime asset which is your physical and mental health.
You need to ensure that
you eat properly,
you drink enough, not just tea and coffee,
you need to get regular exercise,
you need to get fresh air and see some real daylight, and trees and stuff, every single day,
you need to give yourself proper breaks,
you need to banter with the folk around you
you need to think that you are doing something meaningful,
you need to believe you are making a positive difference
you need to get regular check ups from your optician and dentist and go see the doctor when something is bothering you
you need to pay attention to little health niggles and do something about them

beyond that, it never does any harm keeping your hair cut, and your clothes neat and tidy.

Once you have the right attitude to your physical and mental health, you need to ensure that you respect your energy levels and sense of fun.

Basically if it is not fun, then something is going wrong. It might not be fun all the time, but if you are not having any fun, or it is not fun most of the time, then you really need to change something.

When you enjoy something you are more alert, you notice more, you think faster, and more creatively, you learn more easily. There is bound to be some structure, if you are getting paid by "the man", then he will expect you to jump through some hoops. However assuming you are an office drone with a certain degree of autonomy, you have no one to blame but yourself if you are not enjoying things at least a bit.

So,
1 work in short discrete chunks.
2 after each chunk give yourself a break, even if it is just browsing a magazine for a minute while you drink a cup of tea
give yourself a reward when you have been good
head home early if you don't feel great
3 mix up the different types of work you are doing, so if you have been reading for a while, maybe spend some time catching up on phone calls
4 split work into strands, and then concern yourself with making sure that each strand is at about where you want it to be
5 start the day with ten minutes prioritising out your time and tasks for the day,
I get bored with the same format of list, and change it around from time to time, I currently use the left side of the page for things that aren't likely to happen today, the right for things that are, that way, I cut the page in half and remove the previous day's half page, and avoid re- writing the longer term stuff, which only gets updated once a week or so
6 it always helps to have a couple of tasks lined up, so when you finish one, you know what to start next
7 you don't need to prioritise every task in the list, some will probably still be there tomorrow
8 it is handy to have some spare short tasks that can get done if you have five minutes to fill in
9 it is handy to have a stock of tasks to fill any other gaps that you might experience, for example reading or phone calls for gap time
10 don't go mad on using every spare minute
11 don't try to multi-task
12 try and keep every work strand moving along, even if it is just half a day per week, while you concentrate on other stuff.

Set an end time for tasks, especially ones where it does not matter too much how well they are done. I try and have all my emails dealt with by 10am, so they might just get a cursory response, but they really don't need much more. Tasks that need to be done well can be more flexibly resourced.

The most important thing is mental discipline. Your mind is a fantastic tool for imagining dismal scenarios. It is incredibly easy to imagine a myriad of depressing ways in which things might go wrong. However it serves little or no useful purpose.

Focus yourself on each individual process. Be brutal, once you have planned and prioritised, live absolutely in the present process and task. If you are reading, read to the best of your ability. Don't read, rather feebly while still half thinking about planning.

So, your ten minutes prioritising is when you jot down what you need to do. Then you totally stop worrying about it.

You may be responsible for something really significant. Plenty to worry about. Instead split it up into a series of individual processes. Each of these processes are things that you have done before,
you can read documents
you can plan how to achieve goals
you can seek support from colleagues
you can carry out actions

not only have you done each of these things before countless times, in fact you are really good at them. You know that you are good at them, everyone knows that you are good at them.

There may be some areas that you are not so strong on. However that is just something that you need to develop. That is not a problem either. You did not start off being so great at everything, you got great at things through trying and learning. So maybe you need to give yourself more time for something, or ask for more support.

The important thing is to recognise the processes that are likely to cause a problem. It might be that you don't have the skills required. It might be that you won't have enough time to do some of it.

This is where your creative problem solving side comes into play. Think creatively about how you might solve the problem, other resources you might bring into play. Don't let yourself get distracted with perfect world solutions. You have to do something, so just figure out a least bad option and go for that. If you are worried about it, make sure and flag to your boss that you are going for a least bad option early on. If he is that bothered he can supply you with a better option.

Don't give yourself grief that you do not need to.

So,

trust the process - if you have other people, or processes that contribute to your work, then let them do their job. Get some impression of how reliable they are by all means, do some light exploratory work on options if they don't deliver, but you don't need to do their job for them. What is worth doing is keeping a close eye on them, so that you know really early if they are going to fail to deliver.

decisions mean making choices - once you have prioritised for the day, don't mentally revisit the process all day. You have decided that there are three priorities. There is no magic trick that lets your boss know exactly how much work to give you each day. It is like Tetris, sometimes those little tiles just keep on arriving until it is game over. Use prioritisation to decide what order to do things in, if that means that something is not done, then that was what you decided. You have plenty of experience, you decided that was the least important thing. Live with it, don't stress over it.

making choices means saying no to options - learn to live with the fact that you are continuously saying no. Not read that magazine after a month, throw it out. Not made that phone call after a week, just score it out and forget about it.

grace under pressure - the real test of someone's mettle is how they respond under pressure. Anyone can be gracious when things are easy. If you can be gracious when you are under pressure, it is a good habit to get into. You are less stressed when you are smiling and positive. You solve problems better and other people respond to you better. Management will notice how you respond to pressure much more than they notice just how much work you are getting through.

learn to live with shoddy work - most work does not need to be done superbly well, free up time to focus on the priorities by getting through the chaff as quickly as you can. Better a reputation as someone that gets things done, than a reputation for someone who never puts an apostrophe wrong in an email.

The good staff are always busy. That is because the good staff can always think of useful and productive things to do, and people are keen to give them work because they know it will be done. However to get above good, you need to think about where your time is going, and accept that not everything needs to be done really well, and there are plenty of worthwhile things that you maybe just don't get round to doing.

View the task list as palette to choose from. You need not use every colour on the palette, you need not do every task on the list, but try to pick the best of stuff to put your energy into.

Finally - try try try to be true to your own values. This is difficult. Try not to work with people you do not respect, you run the risk of ending up like them. Try not to copy habits you dislike in others, you are worse than them if you know that it is wrong. Try to avoid work that diminishes you, your life is so short, why spend it on such things.

Life is about making decisions, sometimes the right answer is just to say no, this is not for me. Maybe you have just freed up some time for something really important that you just don't know about yet.


what is the point of blogging?

Well, what is the point of blogging? I've been writing these blog entries for quite a while now, erraticaly of late, admitedly.

I suppose, at its most basic, I like writing stuff down, I find it a useful way to order my thoughts. It also helps to lodge ideas in my head, so that I can come back to them later.

It is also useful to keep myself in the habit of writing, just putting one word after another, is something of an art. Like most art, the art is in making it look easy and effortless.

I've mentioned before, for blogs, I stick strictly to the rule that they are written at one sitting, and once checked, they are uploaded and are immune from subsequent revision.

Looking back, I have worried away at some topics. I don't feel that I have really arrived anywhere useful thinking about criminology, maybe it is a topic for exploration through some short science-fiction stories. Crime and punishment seem quite straightforward, with issues in black and white, and right and wrong, but once you start to delve it becomes clear that substantial castles are built on insubstantial sand. Crime is what we want it to be, as a society, punishment is there to make society feel good about itself, more than to make criminals feel bad about themselves, or fit for re-entry into society.

Similarly I have worried away at investing in shares. In parallel I have thought about decision making. There is a strong link between the two. In order to invest in shares you need to make all sorts of decisions, on a constant basis. You need to balance competing priorities. You need to re-prioritise sometimes, or even reappraise your underlying strategy as the market changes.

If you had perfect foresight, you would invest completely in the share that would offer the best rate of return. However you do not have perfect foresight, so you need to adopt strategies that balance risk and reward. It is like going to a horse race and betting on a wide variety of horses in the same race, in order to make a return. In order to really understand what you are doing, you need to step back, and look at your decisions not as single decisions, but as components within a strategy of decision making. You are constantly trying to find fault with your underlying theories and strategics.

To elaborate my strategies,
I have an underlying belief that across economic cycles money invested in shares will continue to offer a worthwhile return.
However the economic cycle follows a sine curve, so if you buy at the top of one wave, you will not make a real return again until the top of the next wave.
It is difficult to know where you are exactly, but it is possible to get a gut feeling. For example for many businesses it was clear that the rate of acceleration was slowing a year ago. There was a frenzy and over-extension of credit, that felt unsustainable even then. We are now past the peak, and descending down. It is likely to be years before we reach the next peak, the absolute trough could even be a couple of years away.
As a small investor, you need to reduce dealing costs to a bare minimum, through not paying much commission, and not selling often. As long as commission is low, it is okay to buy often, as it gives you the benefit of pound cost averaging.
The only time you actually make money is when you sell, similarly the only time you lose money is when you sell at a loss, or the share is wiped out.
As a small investor your other disadvantage is that it is difficult to get a sufficiently diverse portfolio. You should have six or more different shares, but it is only worthwhile selling a thousand plus pounds worth of shares. The maths is easy enough, unless you have thousands you cannot invest effectively. You are just playing at it, and are excessively exposed to risk.
I tackled this by aiming for a thousand pound target in chosen shares, starting with a few. Each month I invest a hundred pounds, and this goes to whatever is short of the thousand pound target and looks to be a sound bet at the time.
I very seldom need to chose new shares to invest in, about once a year at my current rate of investment. I therefore have time to think about shares that I am interested in.

In order to be interesting, the following are essential
the business needs to be basically well run - if I don't have confidence in the business, if I feel they are making mistakes, then I don't touch them.
the business needs to be one that has a long term future, that will respond well, and take advantage of the changes to the world economy that I foresee.
the business needs to be totally unlike anything else I already have.

I do not look at the financial details in any detail. If it is getting to the stage where the business has failed and is getting broken up, I'm not likely to come away with any money anyway, whatever the accounts said.
I don't pay much attention to short term predictions. I cannot trade at that level.
I don't worry much about the PE ratio, I reinvest dividends, so whether I get capital growth, or dividend return, makes no difference anyway.

I do keep an eye on the following
large rises and falls across the market - daily
value of shares - weekly
general media coverage - ongoing
specific coverage of that particular business - when other factors suggest that I ought to.

Because all shares in the portfolio are monitored each week, from the purchase of the first hundred, by the time I have a thousand pounds worth of shares, I have been looking at the share weekly for a good year. Within that phase of the economic cycle, I therefore have a good understanding of the degree of volatility and return that the share is offering.

To date my biggest success has been British Energy, I always felt that basically it was well run, it had too big a share of an energy market, which was short on supply, and long on demand. Takeovers were always a possibility, which makes me feel that there is a quick return option available. Also it was overly volatile, rising or falling with great vigour. Clearly the market was taking an excessively short term view, so there were always opportunities to pick up cheap shares.

My biggest loss, Bradford and Bingley. Fortunately my gut feeling was that the business had no long term future, and I sold half my flotation shares for a decent amount, particularly as they had cost me nothing initially. However as they fell, I bought more, and bought into the rights issue. They are currently wiped out, and although the government might offer some return, it is far from certain.

There are clearly lessons here, I should have trusted my instincts and sold the lot. I should have either stopped buying or sold out as they fell, to retrieve something. However in fairness, the truly dire state of affairs was never really public knowledge, and the bank would never have been technically insolvent anyway, it was a cash flow issue, not a fundamental balance sheet one. Also in truth, Bradford and Bingley were less aggressive than some of the banks that have now been bailed out by the government. They were small enough to get nationalised, but too big to be allowed to fail. Also logically, the buy to let market could be more resilient than the usual mortgage market, as people lose their houses, they still need somewhere to stay, so buy to let could benefit over the next few years, for those who got in early.

However they clearly failed the basic tests, they were badly run, they had no long term future. They should not have been in my portfolio at all.

For the future, basically, I have what I already have, I am content with my current shares. My most recent addition was a European investment trust, to add diversity, but the pound -euro exchange rate is nosediving, so any purchase of European shares would currently be very expensive.

It is clearer what I would not touch. I never liked the banks, largely on the basis that I did not understand how they made money. Additionally, any business that the government has a stake in, is bound to be unpredictable, and they do have a poor record of respecting shareholder's rights. Retail is uncertain, they are all suffering, but obviously some will survive.

I suppose big infrastructure type businesses, that are immune to the downturn, so energy, water, transport, telecoms, outsourcing, ports, things that have an innate value whatever happens, and that you cannot particularly defer spending on.

Ideally now is the time to invest broadly, a third of the shares could be wiped out, a third might do nothing much, a third could do very well. So the more broad the portfolio, and the sounder the underlying businesses the better your chances. But clearly it is not a nil risk option.

Investing in shares is an interesting mix of disciplines, you need to appraise qualitative and quantitative data, and make decisions based on both. My instinct is to rely on qualitative data more than most.

We are constantly faced with making decisions based on conflicting disciplines. For example, a lot of my initial blogging was about different prioritisation techniques, for example the Get Things Done methodology.

Over time, I have come to realise that I actually like to alter my approach slightly. Some of this is just down to boredom, but some of it is down to the changing external environment.

There is a world of difference between prioritising a variety of large tasks that often don't need to be done quickly, or small tasks that need done quickly, or a mixture of both.

Additionally there is also the situation where there are more tasks than time available, and the return on doing tasks can vary dramatically, so something that was important yesterday might be irrelevant today.

Factor in that you have different energy levels, and different opportunities at different times. This is not a single list of discrete items, but a nuanced proposed strategy to maximise benefit from a finite resource, namely your limited time and energy.

There are considerable similarities between how you might approach these two problems, getting a return on investments of money, and getting a return on investments of personal work time.

Part of the point is that there is no optimum solution, there are strategies that are more likely to succeed, but that is certainly no guarantee.

This blog has really not ended up where I expected it to, that is probably the point of blogging, you don't end up where you expect to. But you can have a rant along the way, and maybe even learn something about yourself, and how you think about things.



lessons from game design for making work more engaging

Just a thought, if you look at what makes a computer game interesting and engaging, then what does that tell you about
  • what kind of job you might enjoy most
  • how employers should design engaging jobs

So I asked my daughters about what made a good computer game
includes activity or activities that you enjoy
  • it changes or develops as you go on
  • includes an element of challenge, for example to beat others, or to beat your personal best
  • not too short
  • not too long
  • not too easy
  • not too difficult
  • should have a goal or point to it
  • includes an element of problem solving, but not too much
  • includes a competitive element
  • it is easy to actually understand what the aim of the game is
  • but the challenge lies in achieving that aim
  • like chess, takes a short time to learn, but a lifetime to master - has depth
  • provide new content that meets your curiosity and desire for novelty

Looking at these features, different people will have different preferences and these will inform that types of games that they like.
  • For example your tolerance of failure, do you see a setback as a challenge, or are you sufficiently demotivated to give up
  • For example, how patient are you
  • For example, what is your attitude to risk, in a games context you are balancing risk with reward, are you content with how these are balance

And so, you might have the patience for games that take a long time to complete, feeling that the rewards of new levels are compensation for the time you have invested. Alternatively you might prefer games like the Sims where you are nurturing and creating, where failure is less of an element of the gameplay. Your investment of time ends up bringing you additional responsibilities.

This is actually a pretty useful lense through which to look at different employees. Some people have very little desire for new challenges, as with Tetris, they have a straightforward task, which they find sufficiently engaging. Some people feel a need to compete, and value promotion beyond any of the other intrinsic qualities of the work, being willing to do pretty much anything if it advances them in their career ambitions. Some seek to build a role for themselves, achieving recognition and extra responsibilities.

Others seek a challenge, constantly seeking a task that is unfamiliar and difficult, not always expecting to succeed, but relishing the struggle.

The shortcoming of using this particular lense is that games are voluntary, whereas for most of us, jobs are compulsory. So although the model is pretty good on what motivates us, using it to consider what it is that demotivates us is a slightly different task.

I'll maybe have a think about why we give up on games in another posting, and consider what that tells us about what makes jobs unsatisfying.

miffed

I'm miffed I did not get that job I applied for, which in my gut tells me, that I do really want to move on to a piece of work that will really challenge and engage me. To be honest it is not the money, or the status, it is just that I want to work on something that stretches and engages me.

HOWEVER - not challenging in the frequently used sense,
"this is a challenging post, which requires a good sense of humour"

which is translated as, you will have to be able to laugh about how stupid you were to take on the job in the first place, and it certainly is challenging, in the same way that repeatedly hitting your head off a brick wall is challenging.

At the moment I just feel that I am caught up in the rather dull process of stuff, rather than having the responsibility to make anything happen.

I suppose that I am getting clearer on where I want to be, and it is not too difficult to figure out how to get there, it is just a case of pressing on.

do - learn - do better

As predicted a few blog entries ago, I did not get that post I applied for. Not much surprise, they were in a rush to fill it, so they would have phoned up and offered the post to their candidate within the day, so the fact that I had not got a call, pretty much confirmed that I had not got the post.

But I do feel ready to get my teeth into something more challenging than what I am doing now. It would be easy enough to get depressed by being knocked back, and give up trying, but ...

  • being good at interviews is different from being good at the job, I will be vastly better at the job than I am at interview
  • I can always get better at doing interviews
  • what ever I am not doing terribly well, I can address
  • you don't need to win every battle, the odd battle is fine

Maybe I just need to set myself a goal of getting a new post, tackle it like any other project. Part of the challenge is that as you move up the grades you move away from doing what you are told to do, more onto setting your own agenda and then trying to bring people along with you. I know that I would be good at something more challenging, but the problem around convincing someone else that I am the best person for their job.

Gone are the days when you sat back on your seniority and earnt a promotion through being around for long enough. Just my luck! Now that I have the seniority, they don't want it anymore!

Still, just pick myself up, dust myself down, and throw myself back into the fray, or
do - learn - do better