Showing posts with label work. Show all posts
Showing posts with label work. Show all posts

Exclamation Points

Love 'em or hate 'em (hate 'em), exclamation points can be divisive little bastards.

And another one that I can't embed.

This makes me want to watch the entire Seinfeld catalogue. Again.

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Dorking Out to Checklists

A few weeks ago one of my colleagues mentioned 'The Checklist Manifesto ' by Atul Gawande. I've just gone from a very pared down life of travel to a complicated existence of living between two cities (Vancouver and San Francisco), trying to furnish an entire apartment and taking on a job that is both exciting and complex.

I've always liked making lists. There's something incredibly satisfying about writing out goals and then checking them off one by one. Gawande is a surgeon and one of the ways he manages the complexities of surgery is to create simple checklists that remind him of the simple and complex tasks he needs to perform.

Instead of being about micromanaging process, Gawande sees the checklist as a way to decentralize control. Checklists give people the tools they need to go out and do their jobs - it enables organizations to decentralize power and leaves people with the freedom to make progress doing good work.

Some of my bookmarks:
Checklists remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.  p. 36
You push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. p. 73
The real lesson is that under conditions of true complexity -- where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns -- efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either -- that is anarchy. Instead, they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation -- expectation to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals.  p. 79
Under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success. There must always be room for judgment, but judgment aided -- and even enhanced -- by procedure.  p.79

Image: A Checklist for Checklists by Atul Gawande. Download the PDF

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Hey you. Read our big news over at Contentini.

Photo by me.

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Hoi An - The Tailoring Capital of the World

We're currently in Hoi An, about mid-way down the coast of Vietnam. We've been in this country for a week and a half and it was not love at first sight. After the lovely trickle of life in Louang Prabang, Hanoi felt a bit like being dropped into a furious ant hill. People piled on top of one another, endless noise, crazy traffic, people pushing, shop keepers following us down the street trying to get us to buy any number of Hanoi t-shirts and fake war memorabilia. Also, I managed to have my wallet stolen less than 24 hours in.

It wasn't for us.

So we high tailed it out of town and spent a night on a junk ship on Halong Bay. The area was stunning and I really enjoyed the experience of sleeping on a ship, anchored out in the water, but the weather was cold and there were rats in the walls. Then we were back for one more night in Hanoi before catching the sleeper train south to Hoi An.

It's been unseasonably cold in Vietnam since we arrived, which has been okay because it makes it easier to focus on work rather than on going to the beach. Hanoi was only getting up to about 8 degrees during the day and Hoi An, a bit warmer, sits in the high teens (celcius). The heat isn't such a big deal, but it's also been cloudy and rainy, which makes for wet, muddy roads and the sensation of wanting to do little other than curl up under the blankets with a book and a cup of tea.

Hoi An is beautiful. It's an ancient town and at night, the old centre is lit up with hundreds of lanterns. I'll post pictures soon, but it is really very special. The town is split in the middle by a river and is located out on a kind of peninsula on the sea. It's a strange mixture of very old Vietnamese people who don't speak English and live a very quiet life working their fields or selling their crafts, and all the tourists who've come here to get clothing made on the cheap. Because that's really what Hoi An is known for: in this town of just over 100,000 people, there are over 600 tailor shops all vying business.

Pretty much all of the tailors work out of shops where they've got a range of samples on display. You can go in and buy something off the rack or ask them to adjust any garment for you - or you can go in with a sketch or some images and get them to make something from scratch. Prices vary from store to store and I'm told that the work quality isn't consistent between them, but you can generally get a basic custom dress for just over $10. There are also dozens of shoe shops and again, you can either buy off the shelves or get them to make you a pair of shoes.

On the 22nd of this month I'm being flown to California for a job interview with a hugely exciting company (hint: rhymes with schmasebook) and given that I've spent the last nine months living out of a suitcase, I'm a little lacking in appropriate outfits in the 'business casual' category. Since I can't possibly turn up in flip flops and a floor length hippie skirt, I'm planning to have something made here within the next few days, which is exciting because I don't think I've ever owned a custom made outfit before! I want something simple, comfortable, not too serious and with a bit of personality - something I can wear again.

Last spring at Target I saw a simple little dress by Massimo (pictured on the left, below) and one of the shops here has a similar pattern. Instead of the tank top though, I'm going to get them to add 3/4 length sleeves, with a slight poof at the shoulders (I seriously love a poof!).

Images from: Target, The Fashion Police, Sugarscape and Picassa.  Image of Hoi An by Viajar24h.

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Travel Plans Sometimes Change

For those of you who were worried about me after I posted that quote yesterday - don't be. I just thought it was beautiful but yes, a little intense.

Things here are good but a bit stressed. We are working on wrapping up about four projects and are just really looking forward to taking some time in December to relax. Having too much work is really a good thing for people in our situation (freelancers without a stable paycheck), but we're both feeling a little bit burned out. Also, we're half way through our last week in Tokyo and try as I might to stay calm, I always get a little tense as I begin to emotionally prepare to move on to a new apartment, a new city. We've gotten really comfortable here - we have our little corner store, our favorite local pub (Standing Bar Clover in Shinjuku - we love you!), our nightly ritual of ice cream - and as much as I love this vagabonding life style, you do give up that warm comfort of the familiar every time you move on. Occasionally it all feels very sweet and I begin to feel a little less like Kerouac in On the Road and a little more like the protagonist in Last Night in Montreal (a good book - go read it).

On Sunday we'll be taking the train south to Osaka and Kyoto where we'll intersperse working with taking in the stunning turning of the leaves and enough shrines to last a life time. I'm looking forward to it - but I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the things we're working to get done in the meantime.

In other news, today there was an escalation in the conflict between North and South Korea. North Korea bombed a small South Korean island and South Korea responded in kind. All is quiet at the moment but of course the international heavyweights (America, the UK and China) have all weighed in and it remains to be seen whether this is just a blip or something to be worried about. We are due to take the ferry to South Korea on December 10th where we were planning to stay, mostly in Seoul, until January 3rd. Now we're kind of second guessing ourselves and wondering if we shouldn't just spend the holidays somewhere cheap and cheerful like Laos. I'm going to sleep on it.

For those of you who are interested, we've been involved in a few interesting projects lately:

  • Last week the Groubal Customer Satisfaction Index website launched. It takes social media data from places like Facebook and Twitter and analyzes sentiment to determine how satisfied the customers of over 200 brands are. The data updates hourly. It's pretty cool. 
  • To complement the game, we also worked on a stock market like Facebook game that allows players to try to anticipate how companies will rank, earning or losing game currency depending on whether they make the right bets. 
  • Yesterday I published an article on Contentini called Micro Copy: Content Strategy and Writing the User Interface, which is getting quite a bit of web love. For the most part, I find the content strategy community really encouraging and connected. It feels like we're forging new territory and instead of fighting for a piece of a pie, we're working together to try and build the best knowledge base possible to do truly outstanding work. 
  • I try to update A Tramp Abroad once a week. My last three posts have gotten 18, 36 and 20 comments and it's great to be able to connect with such a great group of travelers over there. 
Good night Internet. 

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Still Enchanted, Still Busy

Although I doubt it's scientifically provable, I am almost completely certain that time moves faster in Tokyo than anywhere else in the world. I feel a bit like I'm in a time lapse video where time is flowing instead of ticking, shadows are swimming in and out and light moves a bit too quickly from day to night and then back to day again. It's a conundrum because it is one of the most magical cities in the world - I want to be here - but time slips away too quickly. I feel like a girl trying to catch water in my hands.

We've been busier than usual, partly due to a lovely visit from some UK family during the past few weeks. Dan's aunt, uncle and cousin swung by Tokyo following a short holiday in China. Though I haven't felt at all lonely during our travels, it was almost surprising how nice it felt to see familiar faces again. While they were here we pulled ourselves away from laptops and work a little more than usual and took in some great temples, smaller towns and Tokyo sites. Although I am definitely a city girl, it was so wonderful to get out into the country where the trees are all turning gold and red and just sit and take in the less hectic pace. Japan is such a contradiction. It's all bright lights, big city, overwhelming technology and modernity, but it's equally ancient, spiritual and traditional. I've seen a lot of Shinto and Buddhist shrines over the past few weeks and there will be much more of that when we eventually make our way to Kyoto.

In between being tourists, we've been working like crazy people. We've got a few big projects launching this week and we're in that frenzied, last minute stage of tying up loose ends and testing and then retesting again to try and avoid any bugs or glitches. I can say with complete honesty that, at the moment, we've got more demand for our services than we can possibly take on. I know that times are hard in a lot of industries but I suspect this might translate to some small gains for the freelancer - where companies are afraid to hire someone full time, which is a commitment, they are quite willing to fill their gaps with those of us looking to take on interesting, short term projects. Our plan is to take off most of December and focus a bit on some of our own ideas, which have take the back burner as we work on other things. It's a hard balance though, because we've also had some enquiries lately that are pretty amazing in scope and scale - some of these things would be pretty hard to pass up.

We'll be spending Christmas and New Years in Seoul. I'm excited about it, but it's kind of bittersweet. I do think I'll miss the turkey dinner and the quiet, insulated way the holidays usually feel. If anyone knows where to find a traditional Christmas dinner in Seoul, please speak up!

I think we'll try to have a quieter week this week. We've got a little grocery store across the lane from our flat and I've been cooking a bit in our tiny kitchen, which consists of one hot plate, one microwave, one frying pan, one pot, two bowls, two plates and some cutlery. The only thing I've missed a little it is having an oven, but even that is negligible. I can remember when I moved into my solo place in Cardiff and I felt the need to buy a ton of dishes and cooking things from Ikea. I was so used to having hand blenders and all kinds of pots and dishes that I thought I needed them. If and when we ever settle in somewhere again, I really think I'll feel quite differently about what I really do need. Although two burners would be nice, we've made due really well in our small Tokyo kitchen. I think the key is to clean as you go because there's no room for a mess and no extra dishes to allow for it.

And when we don't want to cook, we can pick up fresh sushi across the street for about £2. Not bad at all!


All photos by me. 

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Clearing Out the Clutter

I've been reading Leo Babauta's new e-book Focus. Leo is the person behind the wildly popular website The Power of Less, which is essentially about how to be more productive by doing fewer things and with a particular focus on disconnecting from technology-driven noise. Although I subscribe to his website, I've always been quite skeptical about his premise; I am someone who works and makes a living primarily in the online space. It might be fine to tell a bank manager to disconnect from technology every now and again, but how can I possibly do it when almost all of my networking and work-related activities occur online. As a small business owner, it is even more challenging to disconnect because the more I put in, the more I get back. And I want a lot back.

This all means that I spend an incredible amount of time online. Seriously, I can't even really bring myself tell you how much time because it's embarrasing. I'm talking double digits. And I am always multi-tasking. At any given time I am simultaneously checking two emails address, following about two hundred people via Tweetdeck, checking in with Facebook every 15 minutes, replying to threads and networking on LinkedIn, responding to requests through a network of travel bloggers I belong to, connecting with people on Digg, Friendfeed, following dozens of blogs and websites via my RSS feeder .... This goes on all day long and even though I enjoy a lot of it, it is exhausting. This is in addition to creating content for four plus websites and doing the occasional stint as a guest blogger, taking and editing photos for iStock, and then there's the consulting work. Contrary to how it sounds, I'm really not complaining (at least not much). This is the life I wanted and I love the incredible diversity of my job. I love that I get paid to do the things I want to do and that because of these long days I am able live a location independent lifestyle. Right now I am staying in a lovely apartment in the middle of Shinjuku in Tokyo. How cool is that?

Knowing all of this and feeling the way I do about my life and my career path, I wasn't expecting to find much of value in Focus. Last night after spending a huge chunk of my day flitting around online, I picked up my Kindle and started reading. While I read my mind wandered: had I responded to that email, did I remember to write that Alexa site review, had so-and-so responded to me on Twitter? I kept looking over at my lap top, nearly picking it up once about every two minutes but telling myself, "just get to the end of this first chapter, then you can check in..." And then I read this:
Here's a little excercise that might prove useful: as you read this chapter, how many times were you distracted or tempted to switch to another task? How many times did you think of something you wanted to do, or check your email or other favorite distractions? How many times did you want to switch, but resisted? ... In an ideal world, the answers to all those questions would be "zero" - you'd be able to read with no distractions, and completely focus on your task. Most of us, however, have distractions coming from all sides, and the answers to this little exercise will probably prove illuminating.
He was completely right. Here I was, disconnected from my media devices for all of 15 minutes and instead of focusing on the book in front of me, my brain wouldn't stop firing, wouldn't stop obsessing about checking in. It wasn't a choice; I wasn't feeling the need to check Twitter, Facebook and email out of some real business need. I wanted to check these things because I've actually become addicted to them and that's a bad thing.

A really good example of where I see this behavior in a damaging light is my absolute OCD-like relationship with my Google Reader. For those of you who don't use a feedreader, it's something that allows you to import feeds from websites. When a website you follow gets updated, it shows in your feedreader and you can read the new content right there - all your websites in one place. It's a useful tool that allows me to keep up with what's going on without having to actually visit a bunch of websites. But I've become nuts about the thing. It's grown from a few dozen sites to close to 500 and every time I see a little dark number indicating that someone has added new content, I feel like I *need* to read it immediately. Some mornings I'll sit down in front of my computer and say to myself, "Okay, you only get half an hour with the RSS," and I'll still be sifting through it hours later. In a way that I can't really account for, I feel a bit like I've failed if I've got too many unread items - and yet I keep adding sites to it so that it is virtually impossible to clear it all out. Sometimes I feel actual anxiety about this.

So yeah, something had to give. Just because my career relies on me engaging with social media and keeping on top of what's going on in the online space doesn't mean that it has to consume my life and give me nightmares. Sometimes I have anxiety dreams about Twitter - the kind I used to have when I was a waitress ... All of a suddent the restaurant was really busy and I had a hundred impatient angry patrons to serve, oh, and I was naked! But I'm not a waitress anymore and I work for myself and part of building a practice that I love and find fulfilling means learning how to balance all of these things in a way that doesn't make my heart beat wildly. And although I consider myself to be productive - I mean, some credit please, we've built a lucrative location independent business in about six months and that's no small thing - I could be so much more productive if I could only learn how to focus a bit more on the things that matter, learn how to filter out the noise and stop treating social media like its heroin.

To address some of these things, I'm going to go on an online consumption diet of sorts. I'm not going cold turkey because it's simply not realistic given my lifestyle and profession; plus I think social media is valuable and exciting and I want to remain a part of it. But here's what I am going to do/have already started doing to be less of a junky and regain some control over my time:

  • Unless we have a big launch or client need at play (this happens rarely) I am going to limit my email checking to twice a day: once when I begin my work in the morning and once in the evening. I have also already configured my email inbox to filter certain content related to a lot of the networking I do to folders so that I don't have to see it until I am ready to deal with it - once a day during that second email check in.
  • I have spent a few hours today de-cluttering my RSS reader. I've still got a lot more in there then I probably should, but I've elminated about 100 sites from my regular stream. It was strangely similar to what I've experienced when moving house - at the beginning you get rid of things you don't need with a great deal of hesitation because you imagine that you'll miss them. As the process wears on you are madly throwing things out. I've never missed anything I've gotten rid of during these kinds of cullings and I'm certain that I won't miss the sites I've removed. I've also sorted my remaining items into folders that allow me to better regiment how and when I'm allowed to look at certain content. Instead of sorting feeds by topic, they are now divided into folders called: daily, weekly, monthly, blue moon and networking-related. I will allow myself 45 minutes every day to check the daily folder, one hour once a week to check the weekly folder, one hour once a month to check the monthly folder, I will rarely check the blue moon feed but it mostly consists of sites I couldn't quite bear to part with yet (yes, I'm this crazy), and the networking feed are sites that I don't really enjoy reading but are important to keep up with for other professional reasons. I'll check these once every few weeks or so. So my new schedule will allow me to open my Google Reader for about 45 minutes once a day. That's it. When I'm not actively using my allocated time, the Google Reader will remain closed.
  • I'm going to be a little less regimented about Twitter and Facebook, because in some ways I feel like these channels are the way I connect with people in the day - in the same way that other people work in offices and get to occasionally look up from their work and chat to a colleague. I've started using this free bit of Mac software called Slife that tracks the programmes you use throughout the day and tells you how long you've spent on them. Because I use Tweetdeck for Twitter, this should give me a pretty good idea of much time I'm spending there. If it starts to look like too much, I'll come up with a plan B. Facebook isn't as easy to track because it just counts as Internet browsing, but I also don't feel like it eats up too much of my time and I don't feel the same kind of anxiety about it that I've felt about my RSS feed and other time suck activities.
  • In order to really focus when I'm writing, I've started using Ommwriter, another free bit of software for Mac. It's a very basic word processing program that fills your entire screen with just a writing background and your text. Because it covers the entire screen, there are less distractions and therefore (hopefully) I'll feel less inclined to jump inbetween programs and tasks as much as I have been. I've written this in Ommwriter and will just copy and paste it into Blogger once I'm done. So far, so good.
  • When Dan and I decided to take this journey, he bought me a Kindle so that I could surround myself with books but not have to deal with the weight of lugging them around. There's a really great tool that can be used in conjunction with my Kindle called Instapaper. I have a little button installed on my browser and when I run into a longer article that I really want to read but don't have the time or inclination to focus on, I can click on it and it gets stored away. Once a week or whenever I choose, I can visit the Instapaper site and download the articles I've saved in my queue and put them on my Kindle. Then when I actually have a block of time to read, I can lay back and focus on what I'm doing. 

Those are the biggest changes I can manage at the moment, but I'm hoping they will make a big difference in having me feel a little bit more in control of what I choose to consume and where I choose to invest my time. I want to feel connected but I want to feel like I control the impulse - not as though I'm driven by some addiction to constantly be checking in with things, most of which are probably not where my focus is best directed.

Although I'm not done reading it yet, I do recommend Leo Babauta's Focus if you're trying to gain a bit more control over the priorities in your life. So far it's not at an an airy-fairy bit of self-help but actually has some really practical suggestions for how to understand and shift negative behaviours. He also links to practical tools and programmes you can use to make all this a bit easier. It's available on his website here as a free PDF download or if you want the Premium version with a bunch of additional features you can purchase it here.

Photo by me. 

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The Linguistic Battleground is Alive and Well - My Post on the Guardian

Today the Guardian's Mind Your Language Blog published a piece I wrote called Canada - a linguistic battle ground between the US and Britain . People are passionate about language and politics as is evidenced by over 130 comments on the site. Most of them are quite interesting - people debating additional distinctions in language - some rightly correct a few errors I've made and some are a little bit mean and personal, but that's what you get with the web. As Dan says, "You should never read the comments." He should know as he caused the occasional shit storm when writing for O'Reilly.

I'm really happy to have been given the opportunity to contribute. Despite a few objections to my premise, with 60 shares, over 30 retweets and well over 100 comments, I would say it's been a success.

Image: Everybody Needs a Hero (isn't it lovely?!)

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I Wanna Speak Like Common People

As a language obsessive, one of the things that has dogged me since moving to the UK is the strange insistence so many people here have on using the word whilst instead of while and amongst instead of among (and a few others).

I've never adopted the habit and, in my professional life, often find myself correcting it out of our content. Over the last year or so that I've been in my job (I work in marketing), my insistence on using the common, modern while and among has slowly been eroded and quite recently, I'd all but given it up. Although my employer is quite agreeable and allows me to adopt the language style-guide I think is the most appropriate for the tone of our brand, I slowly allowed myself to become convinced that the difference was geographic and that as a Canadian, I just didn't relate to this particular turn of phrase.

Tonight, armed with a bit of time between episodes of The Wire, I decided to do a little research and I am renewed in my petition against the common use of these particular two terms.

According to Wikipedia, reputable language stylistas on both sides of the Atlantic have renounced the use of the word whilst, including the Times Online Style Guide and the Guardian Style Guide. "Notably, there are no style guides that explicitly recommend the usage of whilst over while in any circumstances whatsoever. The general consensus of English is that whilst is an unnecessary, archaic word whose primary usage is by Britons who prefer what they perceive as a more 'noble' word. Its etymology derives from the early English whiles and, simply put, while is the word that has replaced whilst in modern English, just as thee and thou were replaced by you." (source)

I've found similar results when trying to get to the bottom of the use of amongst over among.

So why are whilst and amongst so commonly used over here? I don't tend to spend time with pretentious people or royalty. I am most often editing things written by developers - that is, people who write code. Call them many things, but they are definitely not pretentious. If the origins of both words are similar to thee and thou, and the evolution of language has truly made them archaic, why are they still so prevalent, so ... common?

Although I am renewed in my effort to purge our official company language of these kinds of terms on the basis that I believe language is at its most effective and powerful when it is simple and accessible, I have to conclude that technically, whilst and amongst are not wrong or meant to be poncy (unless you are royalty) but likely just the result of habit.

Some sources I've looked at have suggested that the choice is completely aesthetic. Apart from writers and language whores, I doubt many people think about their choice long enough to really understand why they use one word over another. Besides, why would anyone intentionally choose to clothe their sentences in the linguistic equivalent of this:


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USA East Coast Trip Pictures

NYC - Street Art, originally uploaded by oladybug0.

I've posted most of the images from my east coast (Boston and NYC) work trip we took in mid-October on my Flickr.

You can see the entire set, including images from the lovely Harvard University, here.

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