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Awesome Evernote

2013-10-09 09.10.53I’m exposed to a lot of start-ups, flooded with VC money and trying to make their mark on the world, or get bought.  Evernote rises above them all, it’s been the foundation of my personal knowledge management system for many years, but more than that it’s been an inspiration to watch as a company.  From the beginning Evernote seemed different, it was so centred around my long term needs, not some social networking addiction, but a deep investment in making me more productive in the long term.  It’s saved me dozens of times when we’ve lost an important document, bill or receipt and a scan of it has just been a few clicks away, it’s kept me organised, it’s kept my life simpler and easier.

This post isn’t really about Evernote the product though, it’s about Evernote the company.  Lead by a leader who’s deeply committed to the Evernote mission, a CEO who appears to be there for life.  A management team prepared to create a podcast that let me listen from the side lines as the team described both product and company and who shared their excitement about both. It’s a team that from the outside seem to have executed their strategy flawlessly:

  1. Create a geeky service and give it away for free
  2. Embrace the cloud, long before it had that name
  3. Engage with their power users, to create a deep bond of trust, essential for a product that’s meant to store your life, your memories.
  4. Find a few features that these power users will pay for, but won’t cripple the product for everyone else
  5. Create a community around the product, leverage passionate users as ambassadors for the product and give them a platform to share that passion.
  6. Develop best in class mobile apps better than anyone else, make sure those apps really exploit each mobile platform’s strengths
  7. Once the geeks have helped you refine the service, grow like crazy
  8. Make Evernote a platform and integrate with IFTTT and Zapier
  9. Buy and develop apps that plug into that platform and encourage developers to do the same
  10. Create a business version of the same product, an easy sell because so many of your users are already using it at work anyway
  11. Extend the eco system to co-designed and co-branded best in class physical goods that Evernote users will love and can buy with confidence
  12. Don’t focus on the competition, focus on the needs of your users
  13. …..

I’m so excited to see what they do next as they try to move from personal knowledge management into knowledge creation!

As a place to work Evernote seems to be as innovative, well thought through, and flexible as it’s products.  Great offices, great benefits, retained start-up culture. 

There are lot’s of great companies out there, Google, Apple, Microsoft, but in my view Evernote leads the pack, it’s truly been a joy to watch the strategy unfold.

I wrote this post in Caffe Nero where I’m spending a few hours before work.  My Mum is joining me soon.  When I’m 71, like her, I’m hoping that Evernote will still be with me, along with all my tweets, blog posts, everything I’ve read, every document I’ve scanned, photo I’ve saved.  The photo that illustrates this post celebrates ‘memories’ and this is one that I treasure, watching a seal pup scamper across Filey beach for the safety of the sea as I walked past.

Exploring The Evolution Of Christianity

Steve’s _IMG_8107As an atheist Christian books are not often on my reading list, in fact I’ve probably not read more than a handful of religious books in my life.  This month though I’ve been tempted into reading one, A New Kind of Christian which was recommended by Debbie’s pastor as one of the top ten books that changed his life.  It’s not great literature, but that’s not it’s purpose, it’s designed to challenge much of the baggage that’s grown up around the teachings of Jesus in the last 2000 years and get back to his core message.  It recognises the bible as a book of it’s time, that needs to be interpreted for the modern world, but also read through the filter of Jesus’s teachings. 

As soon as you accept these things many of my concerns about Christianity fall away:

  1. Christianity’s inability to accept and embrace what we learn about the world if it’s inconsistent with the bible (evolution, age of the planet etc)
  2. The Christian concept of heaven and hell as distinct future destinations, rather than ways of living today.  Living according to Jesus’s moral code is ‘heaven’ the further we depart from that code the closer our lives approach ‘hell’.  To my mind the core of what Jesus teaches is about how we live now, how we act, not so much about what myths we believe. 
  3. The idea that everyone in the world who’s unfortunate enough not to discover Christianity is damned, an idea that is so far removed from Jesus’s teachings as to be abhorrent to me
  4. The inability to see some of the parables and other sections of the bible for the powerful moral stories that they are, rather than as factual accounts.  Once stripped of the supernatural I think they are more inspiring not less
  5. Cultural baggage can be disentangled from the moral code, for example attitude towards women, gays, other religions, non-believers
  6. The fatalism “it’s Gods will” that Christianity encourages, rather than promoting self responsibility to fix our own problems, deal with our own challenges

The book doesn’t prescribe a new Christianity, it sketches out a new kind of Christian and points such a Christian in a direction that will result in a new kind of Christianity that’s more fluid in how it evolves over time, but also grounded on a smaller consistent core philosophy.  It presents a vision for Christianity that would be much easier to live with than a version that somehow has to reconcile all of the contradictions that exist within the bible as a whole.

There’s another side to the book though that’s just as interesting.  It provides a glimpse into the life of a pastor trying to reconcile the need to drive change with the need to keep his congregation on side.  Many people who have the ‘religious gene’ get deeply attached to their beliefs to the point where they become inseparable from their sense of self.  Challenges to these beliefs must shake such people to their foundation.  These deeply held beliefs must be a great comfort to people at times, but their need to defend them against pervasive and mounting evidence that contradicts them must make them tremble inside.  It’s no wonder that this internal turmoil spills over into negative behaviours and worse (love thy neighbour quickly being forgotten). 

I’ve considerable experience of driving change at work so I know how hard it is, even when challenging weakly held beliefs. In fact just moving people outside their comfort zone is hard work. So I have renewed respect for religious leaders who have the strength to make much needed change.

As an atheist I found the book mostly satisfying.  It de-emphasised religiousism, challenges myths, promoted rational Christian philosophy, encouraged respect and the search for common ground between faiths.  It placed more emphasis on right action on this life, rather than focussing on life after death.  It also made me realise though just how wonderful being an atheist is:

  1. I’m able to live a life guided by the best thinkers in the world rather than being constrained to a single source of truth
  2. I don’t have to deal with all of the inconsistencies presented in the bible, I’m able shape my own consistent code for living and adapt it to circumstances
  3. I’m able to embrace the wonders of the universe without fear that those wonders might conflict with some ancient belief
  4. I’m able to change or refine what I believe as new information presents itself.  It’s exciting to always be learning, rather than for key beliefs to be locked in the past
  5. I’ve no fear of going to hell, I never worry about God striking me down
  6. I never get disappointed when God doesn’t answer my prayers, I have to take personal responsibility for sorting out my own problems, I know where I stand

I’m a little sad though that the wonderful community that common religious beliefs promote isn’t available to me without me being forced into living a life of hypocrisy.

My spiritual life comes from appreciating the awe inspiring wonders of our universe, being in nature, surrounded by my family and friends, helping others.  When I walk along the beach I often close my eyes and listen to the surf as I walk, the feeling of being one with the world is all the ‘worship’ I need.  The picture I picked to illustrate today’s post is a great example of what I see when I open my eyes.

Meditation (experiences, progress, promise and books)

2013-05-31 10.17.46I’ve been meditating in one form or another for 40 years, I first discovered it as a kid through yoga and I didn’t think of it as meditation then, just conscious breathing.  Fifteen years ago this occasional anonymous practice became more systematic and got a name, Vipassana Meditation, now a few years on I prefer to just call it meditation.  I don’t want my meditation practice to have any hint of religious affiliation. Even though I think religions have much to teach us as codes for living, they have even more to avoid (religious people by contrast are generally great).

For me Meditation is both easy to describe (focus on the breath, watch thoughts arise and return to the breath) and practice (sit still and breathe), but fiendishly difficult to sustain.  Sitting for 30 minutes a day seems hard to justify at first, there seems to be little progress, what progress there is appears to be invisible and all those bubbling thoughts that keep drawing my attention away from the breath are frustrating!  Fast forward a decade and I now see significant progress though, my autistic brain is more empathic, I find it much easier to calmly see situations from other people’s perspective, I can relax myself with a breath or two. 

Most important of all though meditation has allowed me to separate ‘me’ from my physical pain, to experience the pain but not react to it, to be an impartial observer.  This separation allows me to do physical activities that hurt a lot, to the point at which natural endorphins (pain killers) kick in and give me temporary peace.  These natural endorphins are important because I can only do this separation ‘trick’ when I’m single tasking,  I’m not yet able to separate myself when I’m trying to read, watch TV, focus on work, or sleep, so I need chemical help.

In the last ten years science has embraced the study of meditation and studies abound with evidence of benefits:

Meditation improves immune function, lowers blood pressure, and cortisol levels; it reduces anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and emotional reactivity. It also leads to greater behavioural regulation and has shown promise in the treatment of addiction and eating disorders. Unsurprisingly, the practice is associated with increased subjective well-being. Training in compassion meditation increases empathy, as measured by the ability to accurately judge the emotions of others, as well as positive affect in the presence of suffering.

Pretty impressive.  Gradually as I’ve practiced meditation I’ve become more interested in understanding my mind and the minds of others, in finding a kind of secular spirituality.  I’ve been reading more books on religion and trying to understand the religious perspective which for decades has mystified me.  I’ve been following the work of Sam Harris (brave guy) the author and campaigner who’s challenging the worst of religion and digging deep into the secular nature of humanity, to find the best of ourselves.

I’ve been progressing from one session of meditation a day to two sessions, one 20 minute session of Yoga Nidra focussed on relaxation and the mind/body connection and 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation focussed on compassion and understanding the nature of self.  I’ve been loving it and seeing progress (the great motivator) I’m planning some DIY meditation retreats next year.

I’m now at the point where I can unreservedly recommend meditation, but I’ve struggled to find a book to recommend.  Most of the books are written from the perspective of a master meditator, providing vague advice to a struggling pupil.  Last week though I discovered a book that really captured my reality of meditation, the ups and downs, the promise and the challenge.  It’s written with a mix of humour and respect (and a little swearing).  I chose to listen to the audiobook, read by the author, it was fantastic.  I highly recommend 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.

Here’s a video by Dan Harris summarising the experiences he delves into deeply in his book, which is worth a watch, even if you’re not interested in reading the book or even meditating.

If you want more intellectual rigour and don’t mind religious ideas being challenged then Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris is also excellent.

I wrote this post sitting in Caffe Nero, I’m mid flare at the moment suffering from pain, fatigue and fever but I dragged myself out of bed and to my favourite writing spot for ice cold coke and a slice of chocolate.  I’m looking forward to meditating when I get home and ‘bathing’ in the pain.  I chose a picture of the path to Watch Wood in Lytham, one of my favourite local walking routes.

Reinventing The Modern Workplace

20130403_064408000_iOSI’ve been passionate about workplace design for over 20 years, in fact I think my interest started way back when I redesigned my bedroom in preparation for my GCSEs.  My Dad had bought me a large office desk that was surplus to requirements and it transformed my home working environment.  It was my treasured companion for 10 years as I moved all over the country, this desk saw me through, my a-levels, degree and masters programme.  It finally went to a good home when we needed the room it occupied for my new born second daughter.

I’ve been reading about and experimenting with designing offices ever since.  I did my first full design to improve a portakabin that I shared with 6 other people, then I designed a whole building floor for 200 top engineers, and a large temporary building for 50 people engaged in an intensive 6 month training course.  When I finally got a building floor of my own, my team and I designed a ground breaking space that allowed me to prove many of my ideas, which I later transplanted into a traditional office.  My friend Graham Chastney who shared in these last two workplace adventures has been writing a series of great articles on workplace design and I’d wondered whether there was more to say.  I’ve been mulling it over and I’ve decided there is.

I’ve been pondering writing a series of books when I have time.  For now I’ve decided to start sketching out my ideas for these books through a series of web articles.  One of the books I want to write is about workplace design.  This post serves as an introduction to this series of articles.  It will provide a rough outline of the content that I’m hoping to cover.  I’m going to go beyond the physical workplace in these articles, considering people, culture, technology, environment, change and much more.

I will be revisiting this post regularly as I update my ideas and to add links to additional articles and refine my ideas, so expect this list of topics to change significantly:

  1. The history of workplace design. Before I get stuck into the future of the workplace it’s worth considering the past and the lessons we can learn from it.  In fact many of the ideas we think we’ve invented, for example, working in coffee shops has a long history
  2. Why people come to work. Unfortunately a lot of workplace design today seems to be more about the ego of the architects than it does about the needs of the people who work there, this article explores the reasons people come to an office to work an important issue now that there are alternatives
  3. The ROI for good workplace design, workplace design needs an ROI, what are the costs and the potential benefits.  is the future of the workplace more expensive or less?
  4. People centric workplace design. The workplace should serve the people who work there, not the convenience of the facilities managers, the health and safety bureaucracy, the blinkered accountants or the ego of the CEO
  5. The basics workplace design. The basics of modern workplace design have been well documented for 20 years, but largely ignored.  Some companies think they have just discovered them which is unfortunate because the state of the art goes well beyond the basics now
  6. The role of the home office in the modern workplace.  More and more people are working from home, does that mean the modern workplace is no longer needed?
  7. The role of the coffee shop in the modern workplace. Many home workers are deserting the spare bedroom for the coffee shop, can we replace the expense of the office building with a Caffe Nero gift card?
  8. The role of co-working spaces as an inspiration for the modern workplace. When people outgrow coffee shops they are being tempted into dedicated co-working spaces, can we outsource the workplace, or learn from them?
  9. Do people need physical workplaces when they have virtual workspaces. We often here people say my laptop is my workplace, I can work anywhere.  Virtual workspaces are important but they are only part of the story.  Good workplace design considers mobile workers, home workers, visitors and office workers as part of an integrated whole.
  10. Isn’t the future of work mobile? Why all this talk about workplaces, isn’t the future of work mobile?
  11. Not all workplaces can be like the Googleplex. The tech billionaires have funded dramatic, bold experiments in workplace design.  There’s something the other 99% of the world can learn from them, but should they try to copy them?
  12. The trend to co-locate, recently there has been a trend to return to co-location, as the optimal workplace model, after a decade of encouraging home working, this is often linked to new management practices like agile. 
  13. Architects and internal designers.  All too often architects start with the fabric of a building, trying to make a bold statement that appeals to the CEO, the people who work there have to fit into the architects concept.  Good workplace design starts with the people and makes the fabric serve them.
  14. The effect of workplace design on culture.  It’s worth considering the culture you want to develop before you design the type of workplace that will enhance it.
  15. Designing for the future of work, the way we work is changing, with less hierarchy, virtual teams, small agile teams. How does this new way of working affect the design of the workplace?
  16. Principles of modern workplace design. Let’s get stuck into thinking through the principles of the modern workplace, now we have all the essential background.  A workplace is not the same as a work space, people have different work styles, peoples needs for s workplace change over the short, medium and long term, virtual workplaces have a role too
  17. A suggested workplace strategy. A workplace strategy needs to be more like designing a city, than designing a building.  This post tries to tease out a suggested strategy, much like a city master plan.
  18. Details matter in modern workplace design. Workplace design needs to work at the macro level, but it’s the details that really matter, how do we get those details right?
  19. The future of the workplace. Workplace design will continue to evolve, what’s on the horizon that might effect our decisions today.

The photo above is of Cleveleys beach with the mountains of the Lake District in the background.  This is the view from one of my favourite summer work spots,  The lovely Cafe Cove and Rossall Beach where I like to work from my car.

Windows 10 Score Card

imageBack in April I wrote a blog post outlining what I was hoping for in Windows 9, well Microsoft have started to reveal the feature set of ‘Windows 10’ skipping 9 in the hope that they will convince people that they are really making a huge leap forward from Windows 8.  So far I’m not convinced, Windows 10 seems like a solid improvement over Windows 8.1, but I’ve not seen anything revolutionary yet, except maybe the simplification of information rights management, finally bringing it into the mainstream.  To be honest though Microsoft don’t really need a revolutionary product, they need a solid upgrade from Windows 7 for enterprises, and they need an appealing platform for consumers who are still on the fence and not wholly committed to Android or Apple already.

I’m on holiday this week, with little/no internet access to I’ve not got any hands on experience of Windows 10 yet but I have enough information after a morning’s reading to update my April post to see how much of my wish list has been delivered in this very early build:

So there are a few areas that Microsoft seem to be addressing:

  1. I want to be able to send my apps, desktop, audio and video to other PCs and set top boxes quickly and simply, in the same way that I can with my iPad using Airplay.  << Miracast, already in Windows 8.1 provides some of this capability (remote screen display) but it’s not as reliable and capable as Airplay.  Microsoft have their own reference device for this now as well so there’s hope that lots of displays will soon support it.
  2. I want updated app experiences for music, video, image and video editing that work well for desktop users as well as touch users << very likely
  3. I want a seamless transition between desktop experiences and touch.  What I mean is that if I’m using Microsoft Office on my laptop and I unplug the keyboard and transition to tablet mode I want to use the touch optimised version of Office open with the same document at the same place, same for browsers  << Windows 10 now manages these transitions well, so I’m hoping that applications can hook into the same transition detection events and also handle the change
  4. I want desktop management APIs built into Windows 9 natively, so that BYO devices can be just enrolled for management in the same way that Windows RT devices can  << Yes!

Unfortunately there’s a lot still on my wish list that there’s no sign of yet and I’m not hopeful:

  1. I want traditional Windows applications in the Windows Store.  Microsoft can deliver that by building App-V into Windows 9 and allowing App-V sequenced apps into the store.  << no sign yet, still possible
  2. For these traditional Windows Store apps I want their user state preserved in OneDrive, in the same way that WinRT apps do.  Microsoft can do that by mandating that in addition to App-V apps define their roaming settings using UE-V. << no sign yet, unlikely
  3. I want to be able to connect into my home network using Direct Access, just by having a single PC running Windows 9 on my home network. << no sign yet, unlikely
  4. I’d like to see a backup to and restore from Onedrive option, now that cloud storage is so cheap and bandwidth so plentiful << no sign yet, but it’s interesting that OneDrive now supports very large files, so it’s technically possible
  5. I’d like to see remote desktop everywhere, so I can RDP into my phone, my Tablet.  RDP easily and securely into my home network.  I want this for apps and desktops. << no sign yet, it seems to me that Microsoft really don’t understand the power of RDP for consumers
  6. I want an advanced search interface, exposing some of the power that’s currently hidden away in statements like “name=windows, type=pptx” << no sign yet, unlikely
  7. I want the transparent tiles effect that’s in Windows Phone 8.1 << no sign yet, I don’t really care that much

I’m going to be interested to keep track of progress over the next few months, currently 4/11 is a good start.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, in Hull, I’m on holiday in Filey, but a lot is happening so I’m spending the morning catching up.  I prefer to work for a few hours every day of the year, rather than for large blocks of time 5 days a week.  The picture illustrating todays post is of @thedoc located next to the old dry doc, opposite The Deep. It’s meant to be the anchor development that stimulates the Fruit Market area to become “the digital, cultural and creative centre of Hull”. It’s in a fantastic location with water on three sides providing great views of the Humber.

Are We Wrecking Our Working Lives

2013-05-17 07.11.34We tend to think everything’s improving all the time, and that only grumpy old folks (like me) think things were better in the past. But with problems like information overload, the decline in conversation, obsession with smartphones and lots of other disruptive change it might be worthwhile to look back in time every now and then, to see just how much improvement there really has been. I’m not reporting on any kind of rigorous study in this post, I’m just using my own experience and I’m being intentionally provocative by being a little selective, but here goes, 10 years ago:

  1. I was using a small light weight Windows tablet, that allowed me to change batteries without hibernating it, had a great desktop docking station, a 4:3 format and a Wacom digitizer.  It was attached to a big second screen on my desk, but in my bag everywhere I travelled, of course it had mobile internet.
  2. I was using a fantastic Blackberry that was perfect for ploughing through the emails. With it’s excellent clicky keyboard, large outdoor visible screen, and superb thumb wheel for scrolling and selecting I was never more productive while mobile.
  3. I had an mp3 player for podcasts to keep me entertained
  4. I had a Nokia 6310i mobile phone which still works fine, it lasted for days on a single charge, still gets a better signal than my iPhone today and had an excellent car kit (I still use this phone while travelling so I can make extended free calls to my wife and kids)
  5. My laptop was fast and had an excellent 1400×1050 display that’s better than the laptop I use now.  It ran Windows 2003 which was rock solid and allowed me to run a couple of virtual machines with no problems
  6. I didn’t worry too much about laptop battery life because every desk, meeting room and easy chair had a charging cable built in.  It even let me swap the DVD drive for a second battery.
  7. I didn’t get too much email, because most of my work was done by a focussed collocated team who all new each other and saw each other every day
  8. Everyone in the team could easily share files with each other
  9. Conference calls were something that happened at most once a day and were only for the type of meetings that required discussion and debate with the extended team
  10. We had plenty of meeting rooms and breakout areas so most of the time no one was disturbed by other peoples phone calls
  11. Meetings had associated meeting minutes and action lists, so if you missed a meeting it was easy to catch up
  12. Everyone (including the leaders) in the team wrote a weekly highlight report, so everyone new what everyone else was doing, who was struggling and needed help and our health metrics helped us look after everyone
  13. Our team had members from every disciple working together without any political stove pipes
  14. Our main source of information came in the post in the form of carefully curated magazines, so information overload was much less of a problem
  15. People answered the phone and we actually enjoyed talking to people that way
  16. You could always reach team members by phone, because everyone had a mobile and people weren’t on conference calls all day
  17. Everyone in the team had a laptop, even the admin support staff so we had a fully flexible office
  18. We didn’t need instant messaging most of the time because we could easily glance across the room to see if people were busy and if not pop over for a chat
  19. We still had instant messaging though for keeping in touch with virtual team members and other contacts and in some ways it was better than we have now
  20. All of our meeting rooms had projectors installed and most of the whiteboards supported eBeams which allowed to record the meetings and also allowed virtual participants to see us drawing on them in real time
  21. We could share our screens with other team members with a few clicks using NetMeeting, but not outside the company
  22. Of course we had Wi-Fi thorough the office

We got a lot done, but unfortunately our bags were HEAVIER!

Note: some of the above recollections were drawn from a period 10-12 years ago, but I’ve pooled them all at 10 years just for dramatic affect.

I was mulling over this post while on my evening walk last night, it’s worth noting that 12 years ago I would probably have still been in the office.  I wrote this post in Caffe Nero in an easy chair and it’s also worth noting that we had lots of easy chairs and even a library in the office so that people could chill out throughout the day and we had a great coffee machine. I chose a photo from an evening walk a few months ago.

Practical Daily Simplicity

3d-optical-illusion-sand-art-jamie-harkins-1Even though I only do traditional ‘work’ for 4 hours a day my life is still packed full of activity, often too much activity!  Over the years I’ve gradually created a coping strategy based on simplifying my life and in particular simplifying all the little things in life, with the aim of reducing the number of decisions I have to make.  The more trivial decisions I eliminate, the more willpower I have left over for making sure I do all the little things that improve my health.  It’s important to remember that the big things in life are often built from these small decisions.  Here are a few examples:

  1. I don’t buy ‘things’ except consumables and experiences, I already have everything that I need and so I’m freed of wondering whether I should buy gadget X, Y and Z
  2. I follow the same basic routine most work days, wake, meditate, walk/cycle, write blog post, read my Instapaper queue in a cafe, walk/cycle, lunch, work, dinner, family time/swim, TV (scan RSS feeds) and supper, read fiction in the bath, sleep
  3. I don’t keep a traditional to do list, so I’m not burdened by all the stuff I never get around to doing, but I do keep a list of objectives and jobs that need doing around the house.  Each night I write down 3-4 things I want to achieve tomorrow
  4. I wear the same clothes every day, or rather I have an office outfit and a home outfit.  I make minor changes depending on the weather, but pretty much I wear the same stuff. 
  5. I get my clothes ready and pack my daily bag last thing at night before I go to bed, and I write my plan for tomorrow so I have no decisions to make when I wake up.  Sometimes a flare forces me to change plans, but on bad days everything changes anyway.
  6. I eat the same thing every day, with minor changes depending on activity level.  Two green smoothies, a large berry salad and a cooked meal with meat and lots of veg, a mini dark chocolate bar, dried pear crisps.  If I’m doing a lot of activity I might add a bowl of oats and nuts, if I’m going out for the day I often pop into a cafe for bacon and eggs
  7. I go on holiday to the same place (Filey) every month, so I don’t spend time trying to decide where to go.  When I go away on a think week I always go to my favourite Premier Inns which I book only when the cheap room offers are on.
  8. I find things that I like and I buy in bulk, for example I like polyester and cotton extremely cheap Puma T shirts (cost £2-3) and I have about 15 (10 in use and 5 spares).  I like Karimor light weight walking shoes and I have 1 pair in the car, one on my feet and 3 in my store room.
  9. I have pre-packed bags for most purposes, for example I go on at least 12, 5 day breaks a year and I keep a bag packed and almost ready to go, I just need to add shorts or hiking trousers and a fleece depending on the weather.  The bags have all the clothes, toiletries, medications, chargers etc that I need.  I have another bag packed ready for swimming and another ready for hiking.  When I return from any of these trips the first thing I do is repack.  One of the reasons for this is to remember all the little things I need to reduce the risks due to the variability of my health, all the emergency gear, the emergency meds etc.
  10. Since I often have to stay a night or two at hospital with zero notice I have an emergency bag packed and ready in the car.  It’s proved very useful on many other occasions and it stops my Brompton from bouncing around the boot.

So on work days everything is very rigid, but it’s also very easy for me to adapt and embrace change.  On non work days, nothing much is planned in advance, but I do pick from about 20 favourite activities. 

It’s also worth noting that I do keep refining my ‘planned’ life, adding a few new favourite activities and places each year and refining my working day plan depending on my health, the season and the demands of my job.

This post was inspired by The 7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero while suffering from a flare that came on suddenly last night, it’s dull outside but not raining yet so I will soon be up and about and enjoying the beach.  I didn’t take todays photo, but it is of our beach and people having fun so it cheered me up no end.

Scrap The Marketing Department And Employ Visible Experts

2013-01-12 16.31.57I’ve never been particularly impressed by the marketing that most companies do in the area that I work.  It’s generally marketing the obvious, or desperately trying to find an interesting case study that we can polish up.  Personally I’d rather dispense with the traditional marketing budget and let our expertise market us by association.  We would do this by employing true experts and by letting those experts demonstrate their expertise to the world through blogs, white papers, reference architectures, podcasts, social networking and events.  Of course that would mean those experts would be less available for project work, but through their networking with the community they would enhance their expertise.  Visible experts would not only contribute to the global community, but they would lead our internal community of budding experts too, providing coaching and inspiration.

Once visible enough they could also provide a gateway to introduce new experts to the community, to create a pipeline to enhanced visibility in new areas, in the way Brian Madden did for his brother, Jack.  Visible experts are a powerful tool for branding, because they are not only more visible than marketing they are useful and authentic.  There are only a few dozen visible experts in the end-user space so it’s possible with determination to really make a dent and the impact on our company could be profound.

I’ve always been amazed at the impact that Brian Madden has managed to achieve in the desktop field by self promotion, dedication to telling it how it is, always being on the side of the community and being useful and entertaining.  He provides an excellent model for other experts seeking visibility.

Having poked around on the web for evidence supporting this idea I was pleased to come across a bit of data to back up my anti-marketing bias:

In the study, we found that 66% of all Visible Experts exert a major positive influence on their firms in terms of business development and growth. When we dug into this category, we found that Visible Experts bolstered firms’ businesses across a number of areas, with the biggest increases occurring in firm growth, lead generation, and audience reach.

These are just the sort of impacts that a marketing department would ‘kill for’ and there’s more:

The research showed that 62% of Visible Experts greatly contribute to building their firms’ brands. Visible Experts help their firms establish trust and market leadership, expand their reputations, and increase overall brand recognition

Very encouraging, but there are some cautions that come to mind from what I’ve observed:

  1. The experts need to be working on the side of the community they are trying to reach, they are not there to promote their employer.  Their employer gets these benefits merely by being associated with the expert
  2. The experts need to be real people who know from doing, not just product managers or product marketing managers, not corporate blogs or twitter feeds
  3. The experts will need time to develop their standing in the community, perhaps averaging 25% of their week, but remember this time will greatly enhance their expertise through community learning
  4. The experts need to be authentic, not just mouth pieces for the company, but being proud of their company is ok.  Some guidelines on where to draw the line here would be useful, because in my personal experience it’s possible to get into trouble by being critical of partners, even when they deserve it!  Experts DO need the freedom to be critical!

It’s also worth noting that the company needs to be prepared to pay it’s experts a lot more based on their success, and this should motivate a lot of experts to come forward from the darkness of the corporate cave:

The research revealed that buyers want Visible Experts, and they are willing to pay more to work with them—a lot more. In fact, buyers will pay 200% over baseline to hire Visible Experts at the lowest level of visibility, and 13X over baseline to work with Visible Experts at the highest level of visibility, as demonstrated in the chart below.

As I mentioned above being a visible expert’s not always plain sailing, one of the posts that I did that caused me some minor trouble at work unpicked Citrix marketing a few years ago, looking back I think I added quite a bit of expert value to their marketing!  I’m reminded of the value that Paul Thurrott adds to Microsoft by cleaning up and explaining their marketing as an outside expert, but also the value that Scott Hanselman provides to Microsoft through his association, even if he’s often authentically critical of them.

The inspiration for this post was a proposal that I made at a corporate innovation event a few years ago, of course it went nowhere, but now It’s on my blog, preserved forever.

Anyone wanting to take this further might be interested in this book that provides a step by step guide to success, by the author of the post I quoted from above.

I wrote this post snuggled up in Caffe Nero on a chilly September morning not far from the beach where I took the photo that decorates this post.  I’m not an expert anymore, although I enjoy dabbling, I’m more focussed now on enjoying the sunsets.

Making My Health My First Job

2014-09-20 18.16.49Most people only have one job, it’s at the centre of their lives, it’s the way they make their living and often the main thing that defines their purpose in life.  My job used to be that for me, I spent 50+ hours at work and mostly loved every minute of it, I had a great team and we made a difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and had fun doing it.  Lot’s of things needed to be sacrificed in the service of my job.  After all I only had so much time and willpower and most of that was used up at the end of the working day.  My life was centred on work.  If I had a second ‘job’ it would have been my family, my wife and four kids took up the rest of my time, it was often wonderful but it wasn’t all perfect family time.  There was a lot of shopping, visits to doctors, being a taxi service, cleaning, washing, homework, fixing stuff.  In the end there wasn’t much time for me.

When I became ill a lot of things changed, I was working from home with a lot of time on my hands.  But I didn’t really understand how to spend that time and so fairly quickly as my health improved a bit work started to dominate my life again. The improvement in my health stalled and remained pretty poor for about 6 years, I felt that I was coping but only with the support of more and more drugs.  I’m not sure exactly what the turning point was but eventually a life propped up with drugs becomes unsustainable, maybe it was when I started to worry about my quality of life in retirement.

I realised that my priorities were all wrong.  I realised that my first job was to be healthy.  I needed a pretty broad definition of health of course, because with three chronic illnesses it’s never going to be perfect, but it could be much better than it was.

Making health my first job was a breakthrough change, it wasn’t as simple as it sounds at first though, here are some of the changes I decided to make:

  1. If health was to be my first JOB, I decided that I had to really WORK at improving my health
  2. I reduced my working hours to the point where I had the time, energy and willpower to look after my health as best I could.  My second job still presented conflicts and challenges, but I spent a lot of time making sure I got the mix right
  3. I directed all of my strategic planning skills at my health challenges, I kept the data, did the analysis, made the plans, defined the objectives.  I identified the areas where I could make most impact, I exploited my strengths, worked on my weaknesses, nurtured my opportunities and mitigated my threats
  4. I made my health my explicit top priority objective in the performance management system that my employer uses.  During my appraisal each year the first thing my boss assesses is how well I’ve managed my health
  5. I wrote a report detailing my strategy for improving my health and had it reviewed by my GP to make sure it was professional, realistic and sensible
  6. I defined about 20 activities that I felt captured my definition of ‘living well’ and tracked them each day, so I had to confront the hard data about how I was living.  When I’m feeling like crap it’s easy to be lazy, get into a rut or develop bad habits, data makes that more difficult to hide.  I also tracked my bad habits. 
  7. Lot’s of these 20 activities involve family and friends too, my definition of health is definitely not just physical.  My personal health comes first though, I can’t be a good husband, Dad, friend or member of the community if I’m lying on the sofa feeling sorry for myself and watching TV all day.
  8. Since I don’t know how bad I’m going to be tomorrow, every morning when I wake up I plan out how to live the best day I can. How I’m going to invest my time, energy and willpower to improve my mental and physical health
  9. When work conflicts with health, most times I choose health.  I’m not striving for perfection though, I’m striving for the right balance
  10. I’m kind to myself, sometimes life isn’t that kind, so someone has to be. Being kind means accepting that I can’t be perfect, that driving myself too hard to be healthy is as bad as driving myself too hard at work.  Being kind also means realising that sometimes I need to be “cruel to be kind” too

Overarching all of these changes though is the rule I live by “everything in moderation, including moderation”, sometimes I will dive headlong into a critical activity at work, accepting that my health might suffer.  A few weeks ago I walked a marathon and paid the price, but I’m still glowing from the achievement.  Every so often I will eat a whole chocolate orange, while watching TV for hours and love every minute of it.  80% of the time though I’m diligently working hard on my health and it’s working.

I wrote this post in Caffe Nero Manchester, Debbie and I are here with two of the kids for the weekend.  It’s noisy, crowded, dirty, vibrant, bold and glamorous, it makes a nice change from sleepy St Annes!  The picture is of a particularly nice building I walked past early on Sunday morning when it was just me and the street cleaners, I helped them out a bit (one of the habits I track is “being of service to others”)

Tracking My Health Data

Steve’s _IMG_2907I’ve been tracking my health data for many years now, using  combination of blood tests every month, tracking in a variety of IOS apps and using a fitbit and Moves apps to track my activity.  It’s trivial in terms of time, taking maybe a few minutes each day, but it’s gradually identifying patterns and trend that are proving very useful.  My long term goal is to increase the level of ‘mastery’ I have over my mind and body, but long before mastery comes understanding and I’m approaching that point now in some areas.  Last week I started writing up my yearly health report which I use to prepare for my 15 minute appointment with my specialist at the hospital and to demonstrate to my employer that I’m meeting my top objective to ‘manage my health effectively’.  As part of that review I used the Chronic Pain Tracker apps to generate a comparison report between the last 12 months and the previous 12 months and the last 6 months and the previous 4 years.  I also generated a number of graphs that plotted the relative mix of good, moderate and bad pain days over the last few years.

This post explores what I’ve learned from this analysis and the tools I used to do it.  Using Chronic Pain Tracker on the iPad it’s possible to compare last years pain distribution to this year’s.  The graph below shows (weakly) that the very worst days have gone, but also the number of good days has reduced significantly.  This is actually a pretty good deal.  Very bad days are something I’d prefer to never have to experience.  Very good days are euphoric, but they also show me what I’m missing, so in a way not experiencing them makes it easier to bear the normal pain days.

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If I take a look at the trend data that’s pretty interesting too.  After a long period of improvement due mainly to changes in work and lifestyle tt shows a significant increase in average pain levels starting a few months after I reduced my Methotrexate dose.  Methotrexate is a slow acting drug so this lag affect makes sense and the worsening is only gradual and in the scheme of things, not all that significant.  Of course averages lie, so I needed to big into the data in a bit more detail.

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For that I looked at the distribution of low pain days, medium pain days and high pain days for each month of the last year.

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This graph is much more interesting because it clearly shows that the average pain trend is actually made up of two trends that are shown weakly in the first comparison graph.  A significant reduction in high pain days and a significant reduction in low pain days.  Result a significant increase in medium pain days.

The ultimate result for me is that I feel like I’m coping better.  I’m not knocked for six by really bad days and I’m not depressed by having a few no pain days that are cruelly taken away every few months.  There is an uptick in low pain days (green line) caused by a few weeks on steroids, but if I average out those days the green line clearly trends down.

This post was inspired by a tweet from Vince who recommended this excellent TEDTalk

I wrote this post in Caffe Nero Manchester, Debbie, Anna, Thom and I are staying here for a night because the kids are going to a concert, we are going to a movie.  The picture is of the Manchester canal that we walked along at a similar time last year.  I’m not up to such a long walk today as I’m still recovering from quite a bad flare triggered ironically by the yearly flu jab.