Lessons from working at home

Geoffrey James put together a good list of 10 lessons learned from his 10 years of working from home. I’ve worked at home (and in my kayak, as shown above) since 1999 so I thought I’d chime in on the topics in his list.

1) Solitude: Solitude can be addicting, but like all good things, you can’t let it become a required condition for work (See #3). Pros perform well regardless of crowd noise.

2) Cut your hours: “you’ll be able to get twice as much done in half the time” – This can be true, but never assume it will happen simply because you’re working at home. Other interruptions that only happen at home can fill the gap left by interruptions you’d only encounter at the office. You have to manage your work environment and interruptions in both places.

3) Avoid Starbucks: Working at a neighborhood coffee shop has positives and negatives. If you’re likely to run into a bunch of people you know, go to a different shop. I used to do this a couple times a week simply to get out of the house back when I wasn’t traveling much. In a small town, it’s very likely that you’ll run into someone you know and that can easily consume an hour of time intended for real work, so don’t set yourself up for that. Going to a shop where you won’t likely run into friends / clients / etc will eliminate the interruptions. Some people filter the white noise of a coffee shop better than others, so use headphones if necessary. Avoid coffee shops that don’t use the sound-proofing systems for their 110 decibel smoothie machines / blenders. Learn to work productively in these environments because you will inevitably find yourself needing focus time in an airport or out of town.

4) Stay out of the kitchen: The draw of the fridge is a big one because it’s so convenient.

5) Limit gaming time: I’m not a gamer, but if you are, manage it as well as you do trips to the fridge or you’ll find yourself out of work and/or out of clients.

6) Don’t setup shop in the bedroom: James is right on point on here. Anywhere but the bedroom, for so many reasons.

7) Limit phone time: This depends on the work you do, of course. I strenuously avoid taking calls without an appointment – particularly conference calls. If you can’t do this, “train” co-workers (or clients) when to call you (if you can) or try to schedule planned calls immediately before or after another disruption to focus time (such as another meeting). Even if you can’t get anyone else to change their behavior, it’s on you and no one else if you pick up the phone during focus time. You’ll likely have to remind clients that you don’t allow interruptions from other clients when working on their stuff, and that this rule works for everyone equally. If you need to be available in an emergency, give people a way to let you know they need you ASAP. Text messaging works well, but only for people you aren’t regularly texting with.

8) De-clutter: This is a battle for me. The Fujitsu ScanSnap 1500 helps immensely but you have to stay on top of it.

9) Be comfortable: Absolutely. Comfort, proper posture and ergonomics are critical whether you’re at the office or at home.

10) Don’t assume telecommuting gig will last forever: I’m a bit contrary to Geoffrey on this one. I don’t care what Marissa demands of Yahoo employees. Each of them had to decide to accept the changes she demanded or find another job. Make your choice and make the best of it, or deal with the lack of choice until you can make life and/or career changes that allow you to resume working from home. If telecommuting is what you need or want, then you must use the ability to telecommute as a filter for clients and employers. I understand that some work must be done on premises. For the work that doesn’t, the best people for a project or a job don’t always live where the company is. Businesses who don’t recognize this sharply limit the talent they can leverage.

Working from home is a great thing most of the time. Preparation of your telecommuting environment and management or yourself & others are critical to doing it well.

The most expensive, most stressful thing on your desk

Nothing destroys a work day like distractions.

Ever realize that it’s “suddenly” dinner time and all you remember doing since lunch is reading Facebook?

That’ll show up nicely on a deposit slip. Hello, stress.

Distractions are a product of your work environment, your work habits and how those two things are communicated to others.

Your work environment

What you surround yourself with is critical to your work. Clutter doesn’t help – and I mean clutter of all kinds – physical as well as electronic.

These things are waiting to distract you, so you have to eliminate them from your work environment. Eliminate doesn’t necessarily mean trash.

Electronic clutter is particularly distracting to me, so I’ve surrounded myself with systems that “protect” me from it. Instapaper helps me get rid of open browser tabs that I was saving to read. Things, a GTD-oriented system, helps me store ideas and to-do items on notes, in my head, in emails, etc.

Because I know they’re not “lost”, they don’t clutter up my browser, mind, desk or subconscious. Don’t take the last one lightly. Worrying about forgetting something is very distracting.

Random phone calls are also a form of clutter, so I only take calls by appointment (with very few exceptions). I know – you think you can’t do this without losing sales. I thought the same thing.

My tools may not fit you. Use what fits. Discard what doesn’t.

Your work habits

Last night at a local restaurant, I spoke with one of my Scouts who’s home from college for the summer. He’s in amazing physical condition and has been for years, despite being a skinny little guy years ago. He says people often say they want to “look like him”, but they don’t want to do the work he did to get that way.

He tells them it’s as easy as working out every day, which may be hard to do until it becomes a piece of your life you aren’t willing to give up for anyone – even your immediate family. That hour a day that no one (or nothing) can take from you for any reason isn’t neglect. It’s building a better you so you can be better for them.

Habits are just as critical at work.

One of my mentors would growl “Just do more of what matters. Make more time by doing less of what doesn’t.” While he’s right and yes, it’s common sense, most people need help doing it.

Consider the three most important tasks you need to finish next week. Do you have to think about it to remember them? That’s not good.

I use my calendar and Things to tell me those three tasks. Neither tool forgets. I review Things every weekend and schedule work tasks on my calendar as if they were meetings, speaking gigs or other commitments.

In an age where you can watch TV on your phone and people can contact you almost anywhere, you have to take managing yourself seriously. Scheduling things (even blog writing) in my calendar is how I make sure that the important things get done – including family stuff and paying bills.

A full calendar makes it easy to say no to less important things you don’t have time for. If the important things like work and family are booked first, stuff that doesn’t matter enough has no place to go.

How those two are communicated to others

People appreciate when you don’t immediately answer your phone, but always return their call.

People appreciate when you don’t immediately reply to an email, but always reply.

People appreciate it when you don’t miss a ball game, a play, a concert or a night out, even if you have to work afterward.

When people see you glance at and then ignore a vibrating phone while in a meeting with them, they’ll ask about it the first time. When you tell them that you aren’t answering because you booked this time solely to give them 100% of your attention, your previously “unreasonable” call policy suddenly becomes reasonable.

If you work (or play) with focused attention, people will notice and appreciate it.

You mentioned stress. What about that?

How much stress would you have if you didn’t forget important things and routinely completed them?

 

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Disclosure: I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. Visit http://facebook.com/visasmallbiz to take a look at the reinvented Facebook Page: Well Sourced by Visa Business. The Page serves as a space where small business owners can access educational resources, read success stories from other business owners, engage with peers, and find tips to help businesses run more efficiently. Every month, the Page will introduce a new theme that will focus on a topic important to a small business owner’s success. For additional tips and advice, and information about Visa’s small business solutions, follow @VisaSmallBiz and visit http://visa.com/business.

The most expensive minute of your life

Starting over in business
Sometimes you just have to know when it’s time to move on.

To that end, a quote from James Altucher:

My first business I sold for $15 million. We built websites for entertainment companies. Bad Boy Records, Miramax, Time Warner, HBO, Sony, Disney, Loud Records, Interscope, on and on. Oh, and Con Edison. Mobb Deep would hang out in my office. Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails would stop by. RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan would want to play chess.

Then I saw that kids in junior high school were learning HTML. So I sold the business.

Are you ready (much less willing) to get out of the game you’re in?

More importantly, are you ready to start over?

Starting over is hard. It tends to take longer than you expect. It will probably cost more than you expect. But…if you see the handwriting on the wall, every minute you wait is even more expensive and painful than the last.

What makes an entrepreneur tick?

Lots of nuggets here for small business owners in this panel video from Stanford Business.

There isn’t much need to watch this, but certainly worth a listen for you as well as perhaps family members, managers and yes, even your line employees.

I like the diversity of the panel, from a guy who quit high school and sold his business for $40MM before he was 18, to an engineer, to a woman twice denied partnership.

Not a nerd? Not a problem.


Creative Commons License photo credit: f_mafra

If you’ve been reading what’s going on in the economy, it seems like a fair percentage of the new jobs that are still out there are going to technical people.

Even today in Silicon Valley, the number of applicants in the job pool for a specific skill are roughly equal to the number of open jobs in that niche.

Meanwhile, local employers here in Montana are telling me they get 100-300 resumes/applications for every open job they post – which isn’t too many right now.

Every day, more and more jobs involve technical knowledge. Even tattoos are technical these days, as evidenced by the ink on this girl’s neck.

It’s html, the language used to create web pages.

Technical people

When I say “technical people”, I mean programmers, engineers and similar folks.

While some of the work these folks do can be outsourced, the work that isn’t tends to require local cultural context that isn’t often available to the technical person in another country.

Cultural context means a knowledge of the culture of the target market for the product you’re designing. Some products require it, some do not.

For example, an electrical engineer in almost any country or region of the world can design a cell phone component because “everyone” knows what a cell phone is and how it’s used.

The same isn’t always true when the design target is something in the cultural context of a particular area.

If you are in the U.S. or Canada, would you know the important aspects of designing a motorized trike designed for the streets of Delhi or Shanghai? Probably not, unless you have traveled extensively and spent time in those places.

That doesn’t mean you can’t learn those critical design points or someone from that region can’t learn those specific to work in the U.S. and Canada, but there is a learning curve.

Not all jobs require that context. Quite often, when you look at the jobs that have been outsourced, you’ll find that those jobs were lost because those jobs *can* be outsourced.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t technical. It simply means that they are technical but anyone with the skills can perform them – no matter what culture they grew up in.

Lots of people get really angry about that, just like they got angry at steam engines, the cotton gin and other advances that changed how our economy works. Meanwhile, that outsourced job went to some guy in somewhere who’s trying to feed his kids like everyone else. He might be making $1.10 a day doing that work, but it could be twice his previous pay.

Regardless of what the pay is, that’s a job that COULD be outsourced. Technical or not, it’s too general.

I received this (redacted) email from a friend today who has forgotten more enterprise network stuff than I’ll ever know.

So now I have another big contract.

These guys build big infrastructure for municipalities and large facilities. Perfect shovel ready stuff for millions of dollars and several years putting America back to work.

My job …. getting a working solution that allows them to move the technical work to a big city outside the US. Seems those folk need the work a LOT more than their counterparts who happen to be in, of all places, a city here in the US).

This is not the first time I have had a project where the purpose was to move American jobs overseas but it sucks more and more each time.

Add the that the fact that the Sr. Management team for this company is amazingly draconian with amazing bad morale and it proves that some people truly have just about sold out to the highest bidder.

The technical work being outsourced here is highly technical, but it is also generalized. It has no local context that matters, has nothing substantial to differentiate it, nothing to keep the work from being done elsewhere, whether elsewhere is Kansas or Kazakhstan.

Not a nerd

What if you aren’t “technical” in the context I’ve described here? Let’s say you’re a cabinet maker (which to me seems very technical).

Have you made the effort to determine what needs these specialized businesses have? Their success and their specialized needs might fuel yours.

Just an example, but worth some thought and perhaps, some effort.

Not being outsourced is as much your responsibility as anyone’s. Make the effort.

Uncertainty and Starships

Today’s uncertainty has a tendency to freeze people’s behavior.

It makes us forget, even momentarily, that doing nothing or continuing to do the same old thing may be more risky than doing that next big thing on their strategic plan.

That doesn’t mean you have to take giant expensive steps like people did in 1999-2000 or in 2005-2006 when almost anyone could act big and get away with it.

When everyone else is hunkering down, even more opportunity is left available to the observant and aggressive – even if they are careful.

Are you looking at mergers, acquisitions, strategic partnerships, cross-marketing, new markets, derivatives of your existing products and services? Are you looking harder than ever for those things that can bridge you into your next big thing?

Those are all worthwhile things to consider, but have you considered your customers’ situation? What has today’s economy done for their needs? What’s the uncertainty done to them and their customers?

Have you visited your customers lately, even if you have to do so by phone, Skype or Facetime? What’s on their minds? What’s their biggest concern that didn’t exist a year (or 3) ago? How can you help?

Sometimes a quiet moment of thought yields ideas that your noisy day, week, month wouldn’t let through any other time.

Likewise, a quiet conversation with your smartest customer.

  • What can you show up with that would provoke an Aha! moment?
  • What can you do to tighten your relationship with your customers?
  • What would seal your reputation in their minds as as business that is all about making sure they are doing well?

People start businesses for a lot of reasons. They aren’t necessarily doing so for the comfort of a job but often for something else. Perhaps for the same reasons man will someday step onto the deck of a starship… because risk is our business.

Ever have trouble breathing?

Ever have trouble breathing?

Maybe you got hit hard and had the breath knocked out of you or maybe you choked on a McNugget. Doesn’t matter because while you were choking, you only wanted one thing: to breathe. Everyone knows that desire, which sets the stage for this video.

In the video above showing Giavanni Ruffin’s workout, you should know that he doesn’t play football at Miami or Nebraska or LSU or Southern Cal. He goes to East Carolina. Not exactly a name you see in the national championship. Yet that doesn’t seem to alter his work effort. He clearly has bigger aspirations.

Once you’ve seen the video above, you may want to hear the remaining 10 minutes of this Eric Thomas’ talk. Below, you can see the original two-segment piece recorded as he spoke to a class at Michigan State University.

Want more? Here, Eric channels Jim Rohn (“the 5 people closest to you…”).

Think back to the story about the athlete who wants to be rich and whose head is being held underwater. Think about how hard he fought to get back above the water and breathe. Think about how bad you JUST WANTED TO BREATHE the last time you were choking.

Now focus that level of desire on your business.

Ask yourself the question Eric asks….How bad do you want it?

Do you see the future or the fingerprints?

While watching this, some will complain about the system running Windows, while others will wonder aloud why anyone would want to use it, grumble about specific features, or wring their hands over privacy implications much less the cost.

Some might even focus on the hassle of removing fingerprints from the advanced technology’s surfaces.

What do you focus on…the future or the fingerprints?

The Seeds of Legendary

Pete Townshend - THE WHO
Creative Commons License photo credit: flipkeat

I was reading AJ Leon’s blog this morning and thought that sipping a cuppa joe in Shakespeare’s hometown while gnawing on a “legendary brownie” sounds pretty good.

The term legendary struck me, as AJ probably meant it to. I don’t stumble across things of that quality every day, but I guess that’s the nature of legendary, isn’t it?

It got me to thinking about the products and services that I encounter and which among them are legendary.

Sometimes legendary just sits on the shelf and stares back at you – expecting you to recognize its stature without being told.

The Best Product Wins?

Some businesses act as if they were trained by this unseen, all-knowing old school mentor who believes that the best product wins.

This means that marketing, PR and any effort to become an authority in their market are things that only mediocre products require. The best should sell itself simply because it’s the best.

For that reason, the greatest product or service in the world may serve out its life in anonymous mediocrity.

Think about the businesses you visit regularly. Do any of them do something in a legendary manner? If so and they don’t make a fuss about it, maybe you should mention their amazingness to them and ask “Why the big secret?”

I’d Drive Across Town For…

Which products/services are without peer? Which of them would you drive across town for? Which of them do you seek out or at least think about every time you’re in that part of town, the state or the country? Which product, service or business would you go out of your way to enjoy sharing with a friend?

A few that come to mind:

These things aren’t legendary because what they create is untouchable. Some are quite common, yet they deliver a step (or three) above anyone around them. Some are legendary because their creators form a great memory in the process of delivering them. Some are just incredibly consistent at touching all the bases and doing so in a manner that’s just right. Some are just great.

Being Legendary

Do you see any common behaviors or characteristics of those offering this level of quality? Success leaves clues.

To me, the folks that deliver legendary service offer consistency, little surprises, thoughtful, caring service. Not just nice, but more than you expect. Above and beyond.

More than that, they set expectations by sharing with you that you’re about to experience the extraordinary – and then they deliver that and more. Talk isn’t enough. Delivery is critical.

Muhammad Ali told you in advance, followed up in the ring, and as he stood over you….told you again while canaries circled your groggy head.

While you don’t have to deliver your message like Ali, you also shouldn’t miss the opportunity to better people’s lives in some way by helping them to see that that you have something amazing to offer.

It’s worth the effort, even for a legendary brownie.

Corvettes Everywhere

Ever notice that when you decide to buy a new Corvette (or a F-150, for that matter), you start to see your chosen new vehicle everywhere you go?

For me, the last month has been like that.

No matter where I turn, in person or on the Net, I’ve found myself running into people during or just after they experienced an event that brushed away all the distractions that clouded their minds.

We’re talking about life or life’s work changing moments of clarity.

If you were reading a few weeks back (if not, welcome!), I discussed the arrival of some clarity (in my work) that came to me while I was caring for Dad.

I think that’s natural and we probably all go through it when we experience a change in our lives that’s as impactful as that.

Clarity has become the Corvette that’s everywhere.

The Big Game

The challenge of the “Taking Care” post requires bringing your “A game”. Often.

But do you bring it all the time?

It’s tough because it’s pretty easy to fall off the “A game” wagon if you aren’t focused on it. You get swamped or you let yourself take a job or a client that really doesn’t fit you well and you can easily find yourself doing something you aren’t passionate about.

When that happens, maybe the second string does the work. For you, the second string may not be that bad. It might even be better than anyone else’s first string.

But it isn’t your first string.

Just like those Corvettes that seem to be everywhere, so are folks realizing that their game isn’t what it could be – even if their game is better than most.

Close Enough

Last weekend, I learned that an acquaintance in Colorado had one of those moments of clarity – a big one. It came in the aftermath of a near-death experience. Given that it was Rick, it doesn’t surprise me that he was awake for it.

Rick had this to say about his moment of clarity:

On reflection I wondered why I was so apathetic about the outcome (of the life saving health care he was receiving) and now I believe I know why. I have simply not been doing the kind of work I was capable of…

That doesn’t mean he’d been doing poor work. He doesn’t. But he knew he had more in him and that “close enough” wasn’t.

Humbled

Someone recently mentioned that they appreciated that I blog so regularly. Since I don’t feel it’s “regularly” I didn’t say anything since I blogged daily for years. The current pace – driven by time and passion rather than schedule – seems a tad lazy to me.

To them, it seemed amazing to write as much as I do now.

A friend of mine has taken a photo every single day since (at least January 1st, 2010). When your game is at that level and you’re using it to energize your creative side, you can’t, you won’t…let yourself skip a day because your “A” game is at a different level than most others.

Not long ago, the Flathead Beacon won a pile of awards, including best weekly newspaper in the state – garnering a comment from one judge that the Beacon is the best “regardless of category”. Realizing that a bunch of talented, award winning professional journalists have to deal with my freelance column next to their work every week makes you realize you need to raise your game yet again.

Motivating The King?

I didn’t follow the NBA Finals too closely this year. I heard there were some great games. Let’s just say I was distracted.

Sometime between games 4 and 6, I read a quote from LeBron saying that he had to get himself up for game five (and then game six) because he didn’t bring it in game four – that’s the game where the flu-weakened guy named Dirk owned it.

If the NBA Finals don’t motivate you, what could? Call me confused.

Play like it’s The Finals. That’s how a courageous King earns the right to roar.