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The Joy Of Anti-fragility

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My family and I suffer from several health conditions, which means that I have to live with a lot of unpredictability in my personal life, so wherever I have control I strive for predictability, or anti-fragility.  I like to sail through life without a care in the world and I’m prepared to invest and to constrain myself to achieve it.

I’ve been consciously reducing the fragility in my life for at least a decade, chipping away at all those little worries and annoyances, balancing investing to reduce my fragility today with saving to reduce it tomorrow.  It’s a strategy that’s worked out very well so far, here’s a short introduction to a few of the steps I’ve taken:

  1. For many years I’ve minimised my spend on insurance policies, often not taking them out at all or taking out moderate cost policies rather than gold plated ones.  I’ve consistently put all the savings I’ve made into an ‘insurance account’ that’s now well stocked!  Whenever something goes wrong that money can fix I don’t think twice about solving it from those savings, which I don’t consider using for any other purpose.
  2. In conflict to the strategy above though I do have home emergency cover because I like the assurance that I can ring a single number and the insurance company will find and marshal all the trades necessary to resolve the emergency.  In an emergency the last thing I want is more responsibility on my shoulders.
  3. I have two laptops that are essentially identical, they have the same applications and data, the same hard disk etc.  If one fails I can pick up the other, or swap the hard drive over and be up and running again.  Each acts as a backup to the other, one I carry with me, the other drives the big media-centre screen on my desk.  One runs Windows 10, the other Windows 8 (just in case Windows 10 breaks).  Of course all the devices in the house are backed up to the ‘house server’ and the cloud and the house server also has an off-site backup.
  4. I have an iPhone and an iPad mini and an emergency phone.  The emergency phone is a Nokia 6310i with ‘all week’ battery life that I take on holiday, bike rides and hikes.  The iPhone and iPad have mostly the same apps and act as backups to each other.  I have an upstairs and a downstairs Kindle!
  5. I have a large garage that’s split into two, the front is a store room and it’s well stocked with all the consumables that we buy in bulk, can’t buy locally, or that we use daily/weekly.  I don’t like to run out of things, nor do I like to shop. 
  6. The back garage is a workshop, full of three generations of tools and LOTS of bits and pieces, accumulated from a lifetime of disassembled furniture and other recycled household ‘rubbish’.  When things break or problems can be resolved by ‘making’ then I almost always have the combination of wood, brackets, screws, bolts, fasteners, wires, junction boxes, glue, sealant … that’s needed.  I love the feeling of confidence in my ability to fix and the glow that comes from recycling.
  7. Everyone in the family has iPhones and we have older spare iPhones, if they break we just fall back to older versions until we get them fixed using the insurance fund, most of us also have ThinkPad Laptops which are also easy to swap and fix.  For swapping iPhones about we also depend heavily on the fact that we all use GiffGaff which provides a fantastic online experience for ordering new SIMs in any size and activating them on our many accounts, automatically and instantly moving phone numbers without losing credit.
  8. Debbie and I have a nice balance of safety-net final-salary pension schemes that kick in at 60 and 65 and money purchase pension schemes that provide near infinite flexibility from 55.
  9. We have an emergency fund and a slush fund, which allows us to take advantage of bargains, or buy in bulk etc.  This saves money when used with restraint, I almost never buy anything that I know for sure I won’t consume within a few months.
  10. I carry my Brompton and my emergency bag (food, clothes, toilet paper, first aid kit, plastic bags …) in the boot of the car.  I’ve used both many times in the last year,  the emergency bag is particularly useful for unplanned trips to the hospital that turn into over-night stays and for unplanned ‘events’ on holiday or day hikes.  Knowing that the bag and bike are in the boot I just relax and sink that bit more into the seat as I drive. 
  11. In my daily use rucksack I carry two small see-though plastic pencil cases, one with a full range of medications (various pain killers, steroids, anti-spasm meds … and spare reading glasses) the other with all those ‘useful things’ (cables, pens, blister plasters, sun screen, chargers ..).  I’m becoming forgetful so the spare glasses get used way too often.  I have a holiday rucksack and a bum bag that are equally stocked, so whichever bag I grab I’m ‘safe’.
  12. When I find something that I really like and use heavily I will often setup a recurring search for it on eBay or Amazon and then buy when on sale.  For example last winter I bought 3 pairs of my favourite summer walking shoes and 4 pairs of summer hiking trousers, both for 1/3 of their normal price and I bought a 12 pack of my aftershave cream at 1/2 price, 4 packs of razor blades at 1/3 price and two boxes of protein bars for 1/2 price.  I spend less than 5 minutes a day shopping, but I make it count.
  13. Finally I have a redundancy of interests to suit my varying health.  I love to exercise outdoors, but when I can’t I have my stationary bike at home.  I love to read, but when I can’t concentrate I have a huge collection of audio books.  I like to create stuff, but when I can’t I can curl up on the sofa and immerse myself in some of the superb long running TV shows.  I like to achieve something each day at work but when I can’t I clean house or tidy the garden.

This is just a small fraction of the redundancies that I’ve built into my life.  As a lover of simplicity though every redundancy has to earn it’s place.  I’m not a hoarder, everything has a purpose, a place to be stored, is used regularly or can be kept without spoiling.  I don’t want redundancies to become a burden, when they are designed to provide ease:

  1. For example keeping two laptops is essentially effortless now because each has a separate purpose and synchronising data is so seamless and installing and updating apps mostly automated, if it ever became a chore I wouldn’t do it. 
  2. I keep a holiday rucksack pre-packed with everything I need for a 4 day break.  On the last day of the break I wash all my clothes and restock it with consumables, so that it’s ready for the next break, effortless!

I like living this way, sailing through life, ready for the unexpected wave or gust of wind, wearing a life jacket just in case, but enjoying the wind in my face and the freedom.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, it’s a miserable rainy morning but it’s going to brighten up later.  By the time I get home after a decent walk my conservatory office will have warmed up nicely from the sun (but I have an electric radiator just n case).  The photo today is of the ‘shell’ on Cleveleys beach which unfortunately wasn’t quite ‘anti-fragile’ enough for the heavy pounding of the winter waves, it’s gradually breaking up, but it’s lovely while it lasts!

Shifting From Intellectual Back To Experiential Life

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The first 40 years of my life were experiential, dominated by doing, innovating, building and learning on the job; but when I became ill, the focus shifted to an intellectual life, one dominated by reading, strategizing, planning, coaching, reviewing.  It’s not as much fun!

The challenge is that at work an experiential life comes with some baggage, the competition for ideas, the organisational politics and the general pressure to deliver short term progress is completely inconsistent with the constraints that I’ve ‘chosen’ to live within.  This means that I need to adjust my life outside of work, and fortunately I have plenty of time to do it, but for some reason I’ve not done a very good job of it so far.

An experiential life requires more effort, it’s harder than the passive intellectual life that it’s been all too easy for me to default to living.  It’s easy to ‘passively’ read from the the internet’s fire hose each day, to watch the endless seasons of TV shows, to idly walk the same coastal paths while listening to the same podcasts.  At the same time my art kit gathers dust, the books that will challenge me outside my comfort zone sit on the shelves, 99% of the UK’s coastline remains a mystery to me as do most of the Lake Districts fells and lakes.

The shift I’m looking for isn’t from habit to novelty though, I’m not suddenly embarking on a quest to travel the world; what I’m looking for is to spend more time actively experiencing the world around me, not just in a mindful way either, in an active way that requires me to engage in creative activities, in building and improving things.  I need to move sufficiently outside my comfort zone that I’m open to more options in life, not so habit bound.

Here are a few examples of changes that I’m making:

  1. At the beginning of the year I planned out my non-fiction reading list and filled it with a wide range of books that I wouldn’t normally read, books designed to expand my horizons, to introduce me to whole genres so far unexplored
  2. I’ve committed to growing a lot more of my own food, which means learning much more about intensive gardening and the joys of tending it daily
  3. I’m still spending 6 weeks on holiday in Filey, but I’ve reserved many weeks for opportunistic day trips and overnight breaks in B&B’s to new places.  For some of these trips I’m going to leave my car behind
  4. I’m learning to travel light, in stark contrast to my tendency to travel with everything but the kitchen sink.  I’ve already done two trial runs with just a small rucksack (albeit with a car)
  5. Even though I love the two hours I spend in St Annes Caffe Nero most mornings, I’m mixing it up a bit by spending time at any of the many other ‘morning cafes’.  More variety makes me appreciate what I have on the doorstep even more, but it also breaks a solid habit, making me think more consciously about my plan for the day
  6. I’m changing my diet for the better, introducing ‘super-foods’ (veg, nuts, seeds, organ meats) that I’ve disliked for 50 years and gradually adjusting to them, maybe even enjoying some of them! 
  7. I’m spending more time outdoors, more time moving, more quality time with people
  8. When I do watch TV we are doing it more as a family, making it into an event.  When I watch on my own I’m also riding my exercise bike, so at least I’m moving

I’ve got a lot more ideas to pursue, but I need to be careful with my reserves of energy and willpower, my health challenges consume most of what’s available,  I have a very limited supply available for other changes.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero Lytham,  I walked for an hour to get here this morning on a glorious sunny spring day.  I could have stayed in bed for an extra hour and gone to the local in St Annes, but in the spirit of this post I decided to opt for variety and the wonderful experience of a crisp spring Sunday morning walk.  I really wanted to go hiking in the Lakes, but I’m just recovering from a 6 week flare and need to balance my enthusiasm against the risk of triggering a relapse.   Today’s photo was taken in Scarborough last year, I will be back there in a few weeks, enjoying the perfect bays and the traditional seaside vibe.

Temptation Bundling

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I listen to a lot of podcasts, they provide a great combination of education, entertainment and company when I’m out walking or cycling alone (I reserve listening to audio books for holidays).  Yesterday I listened to a particularly interesting podcast that described the concept of Temptation Bundling:

the idea of tying together two activities — one you should do but may avoid; and one you love to do but isn’t necessarily productive. Or, as Milkman describes it in a research paper (co-authored with Julia Minson and Kevin Volpp), “a method for simultaneously tackling two types of self-control problems by harnessing consumption complementarities

The idea is simple, link two activities together; in the research study that inspired the podcast they linked listening to an audio book to working out at the gym.  In my case as I walked through a Still’s disease flare yesterday, I was combining a difficult, painful, therapeutic activity – walking – with something I loved – podcasts.

In fact I only listen to podcasts when I’m moving, and since moving is critical to my health, I want to do more of it, and I have a long backlog of podcasts to listen to so I’m constantly reminded throughout the day as a new podcast notification pops up on my phone, keep moving Steve!

As I listened I realised that I use this technique constantly:

  1. I reserve watching movies for when I need to do the ironing
  2. I have a folder on my Media Centre called ‘Steve’s TV’ with all my favourite shows, I only allow myself to watch them while riding my exercise bike (unless I’m really poorly, in which case I’m lying on the sofa and I give myself a break)
  3. Every morning I sit in Caffe Nero enjoying the music, vibe and an ice cold coke while working through my daily computing chores and working through my Instapaper reading queue, activities that I somehow never get around to doing if I stay at home
  4. I don’t eat meat – which I love — unless it’s combined with something I don’t like, but’s good for me — vegetables, egg yolks, salmon

Seems to me like this is the most powerful habit forming trick that’s out there, follow the links above if you want to learn more.

It’s a lovely sunny day today, I’ve a long list of podcasts to listen to and I’m still in plenty of pain (mostly in my arms and ankles) so I need to get in a long walk.  I will be heading south along the beach towards Lytham, the picture is from yesterday’s similar walk, from the half way point just before I arrived at Fairhaven Lake.

Spontaneous Tears

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I’ve been in a severe flare for the last 37 days, a traumatic experience that’s required quite a lot of resilience to get through.  Every day I’ve had to fight with myself to overcome my natural tendency to curl up in a ball and instead force myself to keep moving, reading, stretching, cleaning house and generally stay in good spirits.  But I’ve still been gradually worn down, the willpower reserve has been sorely depleted and I’ve become ever weaker and fatigued. 

Whenever I have pain burning throughout my body I try to remind myself that pain is just a signal, that’s in my control to interpret, similar pain might just be the result of a crazily over-enthusiastic workout at the gym for example, a positive event.  Although pain is the headline symptom, taken on it’s own it’s easy to cope with, but combined with fever, fatigue and brain fog it’s altogether different, there’s no faculty available to me to fight back with.  I can’t distract myself with work (brain fog), combat the pain with endorphin inducing exercise (fatigue), kick back and relax (shooting spasms) or even get comfortable (fever, shivers).  Add in the unpredictability of not knowing whether I will be able to walk or use my arms from one hour to the next and making plans becomes impossible (or risky).  The only option is to live hour by hour opportunistically doing what I can to make the best of a bad job.

Today though, although I’m still sore and achy, while walking along the southern dunes it gradually dawned on me that the most crippling of my symptoms had gone, the brain fog had lifted, I could think!  I spontaneously burst into tears, a mix of joy at getting my brain back and suppressed anger, frustration and fear at having been deprived of a fully functioning one for so long. 

One of the particularly bitter sweet characteristics of my condition is that I’m blessed with roughly 25% of my time symptom free, which is also a curse, because most months I get a short reminder of what live is meant to be like and just as I’m adjusting to normal life it’s cruelly taken away again.

Of all of the challenges I live with brain fog is the worst and almost completely ignored by the doctors that support me and the researchers who support them.

Ironically this lifting brain fog happened on one of the rare days that St Anne’s experiences mist, it had mostly burned away when I took today’s picture from the top of one of the dunes and looking down on Fairhaven Lake, it felt just like my own brain fog had been burnt away by the sunshine.

Living Well Through A Flare

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On this blog I’m always going on about living the best day I can, every day, not living like every day is my last – which seems to extreme – but consciously planning to live well; to avoid going through life on autopilot; to avoid accepting a gradual decline in my health; to feel grateful and to make a difference.

Flare’s present a particular challenge, when it’s too painful to move, my brain’s too fogged to read, my finger tips hurt to much to type and my throats so sore it makes eating a chore; what’s left to make up a day that I can look back on as a ‘day well lived’?  Over the years I’ve struggled with this, sometimes declining into depression, sometimes anger, all too often feeling sorry for myself.  For several years now and over a dozen flares, I think I have a pattern that works pretty well.

I keep to my morning routine, spending a few hours at Caffe Nero, I can’t read much but I can still process my emails, browse for books, scan my news feeds for things to read later and be around the regular customers that I know well.  It might require hobbling there on crutches or begging a lift from Debbie or Jennie, but I almost always make it.  Being in town means I get to shop each morning, I can’t say that I only shop for the very healthiest foods, but I try to strike a good balance between excellent nutrition and comfort.

When I get home I’m generally exhausted, and good for nothing, but this is where TV comes in.  I love to watch a single long running TV series during a flare, over the years these essential companions have been 24, Battlestar Galactica, Prison Break and so many others.  During this flare my treasured companion has been House of Cards and I’ve watched the first two series, over a period of 5 days, and it’s been a rollercoaster ride.

A compelling TV series, great food, a loving family and 3 cats makes a pretty good day out of a dismal one; but it’s not quite enough.  In between each episode I try and do something constructive, I will stretch, try and climb the stairs, wash the clothes, feed the cats, wash the pots, strip the beds; anything that gets me out of the chair, forces me to move and leaves me at the end of the day with a sense of accomplishment.

Of course that’s not the only component in managing a flare, the Prednisolone, the Diazepam, the Co-codamol and the Pregabalin play their part too, but they don’t keep me positive, they don’t keep me moving, they don’t make me feel loved and they don’t give me a sense of achievement; all things that I think speed my recovery just as much.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, it’s a lovely sunny day and my flares is definitely on the wane, my throats much improved and apart from a few joints and some residual aches I’m feeling pretty good.  My brain fog has mostly cleared and I’m feeling positive.  Unfortunately yesterday I wasn’t well enough to enjoy the sunset with Debbie, part of our valentines day plans, so I’ve decorated this post with one instead.

More On Time Distortion

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Further to my post earlier in the week,  I’ve been reducing my Pregabalin dose gradually over the last few days.  I’m much sharper in the mornings and the evenings now.  I’ve been going through my normal Caffe Nero ‘work’ routine and I can’t believe how much time I have.  Only a few days ago I was struggling to get everything done in three hours and couldn’t believe how fast time was flowing; now I’m finished in less than two hours and trying to find things to do to fill the time I have.  Today I was amazed when I looked at my laptop clock and saw that it was 8:30am when I expected it to be closer to 10am. 

Unfortunately as expected whilst I get some time back, the quality of that time has changed,  I’m not as relaxed and my pain levels are gradually increasing.  I expected the pain to come back quicker than it has, but there’s no question that it’s returning.  I am being very careful to keep my stress levels low and my mobility high to minimise it’s return, but after weeks of being pain free, the constant pain in my arms and shoulders is quite upsetting. The sleep disruption caused by withdrawal is also making things harder, lack of sleep really does sap the joy from life, but there’s always a cost to making progress.

As usual, for this week, I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, in Nottingham.  This is my last day here, it’s been long enough, perhaps too long away from my family and my small town life.  The buzz of the city is nice for a while, but I’m missing the wide open spaces, the views, the sunsets and soon the wonderful sunrises.  Today’s photo celebrates those sunrises, not long now!

My Personal Work Style

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Companies like mine would like to think that there are only a handful of work styles that they need to support and that they can easily categorise the way people work.  Normally this is achieved using a classification that is focused on the type of work that a person does, for example: process, task, knowledge, management etc.  While I think this is better than nothing, I don’t think the type of work defines a persons work style, it just describes the work type.  A persons work style depends on more more factors being considered, as a minimum the mobility type and the work type.  Take for example a project manager who sits at a desk all day and one who is constantly mobile, their work styles would be very different, even though their work type would be the same.

Re-thinking work styles is a rich and rewarding area requiring a lot more discussion, it’s too much to cover in this post.  I’ve decided instead to try and deconstruct my personal work style, to try and figure out the key factors that influence me and their implications.  The type of work that I do would fall squarely into the category of ‘knowledge worker’ although in some classification schemes I would have some characteristics of an ‘innovator’.  So taking an industry generic definition of knowledge worker we find this:

A knowledge worker is anyone who works for a living at the tasks of developing or using knowledge. For example, a knowledge worker might be someone who works at any of the tasks of planning, acquiring, searching, analyzing, organizing, storing, programming, distributing, marketing, or otherwise contributing to the transformation and commerce of information and those (often the same people) who work at using the knowledge so produced. A term first used by Peter Drucker in his 1959 book, Landmarks of Tomorrow, the knowledge worker includes those in the information technology fields, such as programmers, systems analysts, technical writers, academic professionals, researchers, and so forth. The term is also frequently used to include people outside of information technology, such as lawyers, teachers, scientists of all kinds, and also students of all kinds

Useful though this description is it doesn’t really say much about such a persons real needs in terms of IT services.  If I take a look at what I do, it matches fairly well with the above description, but it’s a little more specific, I:

  1. Spend a lot of time scanning and filtering data sources for information
  2. Read, listen to and watch a subset of this information and try to make sense of and share what I find
  3. Curate the information into various types of knowledge base
  4. Develop new ideas and positions and test them through discussion and debate
  5. Create new knowledge, based to a large part on what I learn from the above
  6. Review new knowledge created by others
  7. Convince and cajole others into adopting my ideas
  8. Coach others to help them refine their ideas

As I look at this list though it still provides a very poor definition of what I actually do, especially in terms of the IT services that I need to help me do it.  For example it doesn’t say anything about what the sources of data are, how I share information, curate and store it; it doesn’t say whether the data sources are company systems, or external sources; whether I share information with my peers, with management, or with partners; what form the new knowledge that I create takes, is it video, audio, office documents, or verbal discussion; whether I do all this with a co-located team, via virtual meetings or using asynchronous collaboration tools; it doesn’t provide any sense of how my time is distributed across these activities. 

In fact it doesn’t reveal any of the factors that really drive my work style, which are:

  1. I only work an average of 8 hours a week
  2. I need to keep my body moving throughout the day
  3. I can’t reliably predict when I will be available to work
  4. I am only in the office for an average of 4 days a month
  5. Most of my information sources are external to the company

How is my work style driven by these factors:

I only work an average of 8 hours a week

  1. It’s rare for me to be able to attend scheduled events like conference calls, web conferences or in person meetings, so I depend on recordings of these sessions, transcripts, meeting minutes and in person ‘catch-ups’ for my information
  2. I need tools that are optimised for scanning huge volumes of information and extracting the nuggets rapidly, so I scan a carefully created stream of RSS feeds, listen to podcasts, follow a few people on twitter and have face to face meetings whenever possible
  3. I share information with others automatically using twitter and IFTTT
  4. I write my review comments rather than attend slow and ineffective review meetings
  5. I prefer to write blog posts (rather than emails) and record presentations as videos (rather than deliver them face to face) so that I don’t have to repeat myself
  6. I need to blend my work and personal life intimately, one task list, one calendar, one email account for both, because I context switch between the two so many times during a typical day

I need to keep my body moving throughout the day

  1. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks wile walking and cycling
  2. I download company briefings as MP3s and listen to them as podcasts
  3. I watch content and attend virtual meetings while on my stationary bike
  4. I carry my laptop on my back or my iPad mini in my bum bag where-ever I go
  5. I need 3G/4G connectivity because WIFI is not always available

I can’t reliably predict when I will be available to work

  1. I prefer status reports, rather than status meetings
  2. I depend on asynchronous collaboration tools
  3. I like to be able to record presentations in advance
  4. I need to be able to sketch and annotate on documents, to improve the richness and efficiency of capturing ideas or reviewing the ideas of others

I am only in the office for 4 days a month

  1. I highly value this limited face to face time
  2. I can only work with a small number of people
  3. When I’m in the office all I do is meet people

Most of my information sources are external to the company

  1. Most of what I do, I am able to do in public
  2. Most of my working practices are optimised around public information sources, exposed via RSS, so I want company information to also be exposed that way too
  3. Toggling between information outside and within the firewall reduces my productivity considerably, I want that to be more seamless
  4. Toggling between public data and data that needs to be secured is difficult to manage, I want company data to be seamlessly protected, using for example IRM

Here are some practical examples of how my work style affects the IT services, these are the kind of things that I need:

  1. a phone with more storage than the company provides, for all of those podcasts, audio books and videos
  2. more 3G/4G data than the company provides and I need tethering for my notebook and tablet
  3. a laptop with excellent battery life or a second battery, and it needs to be light enough to carry everywhere
  4. a way to protect company data and applications living on a personal laptop, because connectivity isn’t reliable enough for remote desktops (I know this because I use remote desktops every day for specific purposes and it’s painful)
  5. company information sources to be easily accessible via RSS feeds
  6. company recorded events to be easily accessible via podcast feeds
  7. people to take meeting minutes
  8. people to include attachments in emails, so that those of us who work offline can easily access them
  9. systems that support offline use, offline authoring, replication and caching of information
  10. redundancy in my devices and the ability to support them myself because accessing field services is so difficult and devices break

I’ve written this post in Caffe Nero, Nottingham, using my Thinkpad x230 laptop which I’ve upgraded to 8GB of memory so I can run virtual machines and a 512GB SSD so that I can carry everything I need with me offline, it’s small and light.  I’m using my personal Three data contract on my iPad for connectivity because the WIFI is down.  For the photo that illustrates this post I’ve chosen Cleveleys beach, one of my favourite remote working locations, I sit in the car with my laptop and the view!

Lessons Learned From Trying Windows Phone

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I spent an interesting few days trialling Windows Phone recently, I chose the the highly recommended Lumia 930 hardware to give it the very best chance to wow me into keeping it.  It didn’t stick, in fact while there were a few design features I liked and the hardware was vastly more powerful than my ageing iPhone 4S, I decided pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me.  Deep down I realised that my smartphone is a tool, I’m not seeking a gadget fix, something to occupy me for day while I tinker around with it, tuning it to my life.  I just want the apps that I’ve woven into my life and be done with it.  Windows Phone failed to deliver those apps, so it failed to weave its way into my life, it felt like an annoyance, a glossy, heavy, gadget that rubbed me up the wrong way.

Here’s what I liked about Windows Phone: I loved the deep linking into apps, the ability to put the current book I’m reading right there on my home screen, or my shopping list in Evernote front and centre; and the hardware camera button … but I’m afraid that’s all I really liked.  Here’s what I didn’t like:

  1. The distracting, flickering tiles that tried to grab my attention all the time.  I want peace and calm in my life, I don’t want my phone to remind me of a fun-fair
  2. The lack of an easy way to find apps, Windows 8 lets has simple type down searching (press the Windows key and type), the iPhone has it too, I use it many times a day to get the specific app I need from hundreds
  3. The terrible reliability of the apps that I did find, especially those that needed to sync a lot of data in the background, which invariably didn’t arrive or too ages to sync new data
  4. The poor functionality of the apps that I managed to find. Apps that I love on iOS that really share only the same name, having just a small subset of the functionality (often provided by a wrapped HTML 5 web app).  Many of the apps that I found were clearly abandoned, with no updates for many months, apps that had stopped working, or stopped syncing and not been fixed.
  5. All too often the apps stored data on the phone, not in a cross platform cloud service.  I will rarely use an app now that’s not cross platform and complemented by a cloud service
  6. Apps that exist on Windows Phone but don’t have a companion apps that’s also compelling on WinRT, ie on a Windows tablet.
  7. The horrible shortage of apps, too many of my favourites missing, with no alternatives at all

Here are a sample of the important app gaps for me:

  1. Moves, which automatically tracks where I go throughout the day and then syncs seamlessly into …
  2. Memento, which merges data from Moves, Twitter and Instagram into a surprisingly rich diary with superb searching
  3. MyFitnessPal, which I use to track what I eat.  There is a Windows Phone version of the app, but it’s so slowwww
  4. Tweet Library, which keeps a local searchable archive of all of my Twitter accounts, tweets, favorites, and retweets so that you I find important tweets later. It adds collections and includes custom filters to automatically group or hide tweets – it provides the best interface to my @steveisreading and @steveiswriting accounts and my @steverichards diary account
  5. Overcast, which is my podcast client of choice now.  I did buy and try to use the ‘best’ most highly recommended podcast app on Windows Phone, but it’s just not the same and I listen to a lot of podcasts
  6. GB and Parks, Outdoors app which provides me with a full off-line version of the ordnance survey maps, with excellent GPS support
  7. Instapaper, that I use for all of my reading.  There is a third party app, but it’s very dated
  8. Evernote, which is an extension of my brain, everything that might be important to me goes in there.  There is a Windows Phone version of the app, but really, there’s no comparison
  9. Coach.me that I use for habit tracking, it’s got years of trend data in it that I value a lot

Then of course there are the hundreds of other apps that I use only when I need them, the app to submit my gas and electricity readings, to check the sunrise time, to find out when the next high tide is, to track my walks and cycle rides, to access my bank, to check the train times, to manage my blog, to track my pain levels, and on and on and on, death by a thousand cuts.

The vibrancy of the Apple eco-system is just not present, the buzz and excitement that developers have when they can reach hundreds of millions of potential customers.  I’m hoping that Microsoft has a plan, that they are working hard in the background on developer tools and platform changes that will allow them to fully embrace Android apps on Windows 10, all form-factors, within a year.  As Apple found to it’s cost many years ago, people go where the apps are, developers go where the apps are selling.

I wrote this post sitting in my favourite Caffe Nero in Nottingham,  it opens at 7am and has two excellent clusters of window seats, I got the best one, and watched the city come to life as I typed.  For the picture I chose the beautiful Haweswater, in the eastern lake district, I never consider going hiking without my maps and that means without my iPhone and iPad. 

Time Distortion

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Over the last month I’ve doubled my dose of Pregabalin, one of the medications that I use.  Within a few days I noticed a significant improvement in pain (the desired result) but a strange side effect, the time taken to achieve any cognitively demanding task significantly increased, by at least a third. I wasn’t immediately conscious of this increase, in fact I just felt a little less stressed, but as the days ‘ticked by’ it because pretty clear, I was slowing down. 

Almost every morning I go through a series of research, reading and writing tasks that reliably take me 2 hours, from 7:30 to 9:30, leaving me 30 minutes to check my email, scan twitter and generally wind down before I go walking at 10am.  This has been a regular routine for many years.  After a couple of days on this higher dose I noticed that this routine was now filling a full 3 hours, nothing else had changed, I didn’t think any more work was getting done.  I keep a record (automatically) of how much I read each day, so I checked back through my logs and my reading throughput was constant, it was just taking much longer.

Similarly every night I read for 30 minutes or so in the bath, I take the Pregabalin shortly before I start reading.  The Kindle provides an estimate of how long it predicts I will take to read a chapter based on historical average reading speed and my speed in a specific book (some books are more difficult to read than others).  This prediction is uncannily accurate and I’ve grown to depend on it.  At any point in time I’m reading any one of three books depending on my mood and without fail in every book the predicted time to complete the chapter was much too short.

I wasn’t able to check the quality of my work, but I suspect that this was also worse; the best test I have of this was how many mistakes I was making during typing which subjectively went up.

I’ve no other objective measures of cognitive performance, but based on these two, time seems to have sped up for me.  I feel like I’m working just as hard as before, but I can’t fit as much into my days.  This would have me binning the tablets in short order if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve also been close to pain free for three weeks, the longest and best stretch of feeling ‘normal’ for several years.  In a working life dominated by reading, research and writing though if means 2 hours a day are suddenly missing in action.

No one seems to know how Pregabalin works, but it seems to ‘slow down the brain’, reduce the rate at which new neurons are created and slow down learning.  It also works as a sedative (it helps me sleep) and, in higher does than I take, it acts as an anti-depressant.  All of which seem to suggest that cognitive decline might be an expected symptom. 

The bottom line for me is that as a way to get a few weeks relief from the daily grind of pain, to remind me what I’m working to achieve, or to break a cycle of decline this high dose might be worthwhile; as a long term treatment, that I can sustain while working, it has to be avoided.  I’m definitely not looking forward to reducing my dose though, consciously and voluntarily returning to a world of pain is quite a scary prospect.

Despite my initial excitement I guess there’s no such thing as a miracle cure! 

Update: I’ve reduced my dose and I’m getting my time back, but also my pain

I’m away from work this week, taking what I think of as a Think Week, a time for relaxation and movement with a little research thrown in.  I’m sitting in one of the many Caffe Nero’s in Nottingham, taking a break from walking the wonderful canal system.  The picture today is of my Brompton taken from my last visit here a few months ago. I’m hoping to get a little cycling in while I’m here, the hotel I’m staying in is right next door to the canal, thus avoiding a dicey cycle ride through the busy city centre!

Influence Without Authority

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It’s appraisal time at work right now and it’s our custom to seek 360 degree feedback, which is starting to stream in.  One recurring theme over the years has been that some of my work is too conceptual or theoretical and this makes it hard to directly implement.  I’ve thought long and hard about how to act on this feedback, it’s not easy.  Strategy requires that I work on the big picture, not get bogged down in all of the implementation issues; to challenge and inspire people of the need to change, not to give them specific instructions; to unleash the creativity of others, rather than always relying on my own.  This blog post seeks to confront the hard realities of working on strategy at my level and with my constraints and to explore the approaches that I’ve adopted over the years to address them.

Before I get started though it’s helpful to understand something about my job, which is defined by the fact that I have lots of influence, but no authority.  It’s also important to know that on average I work about 8 hours a week, although I actually do two 16 hour weeks, followed by two weeks off.  My job title is Strategy Advisor and I advise a billion dollar end-user computing services business unit in a much larger company.

Not having ‘authority’ might seem like a major impediment for a strategist, that is until I look at the success rate of those who do have authority in my industry.  All around me I see an endless stream of pronouncements that never get executed on, projects that go no where, initiatives that ‘wither on the vine’, massive investments in tools and technologies that are often not fully implemented before someone decides to replace them with something ‘better’.  In that context authority to execute on ideas doesn’t seem so attractive.

Admittedly at times when I had the authority to execute on my ideas, I did succeed in bringing a lot of them to life, but looking back that life was often short lived.  When I moved on to a new role, or the organisation changed, they rarely survived intact. Even when they did ‘survive’ the reality of poorly disciplined execution often meant that there was a significant drift away from my original concept over time. 

Looking outside my industry at companies which seem to execute flawlessly on their strategy you find a very different reality below the shiny surface.  Take a look at the story of how Apple developed and evolved the iPhone and you see a lot of chaos, desperation, many failed ideas, lots of luck and fortuitous timing.  As the iPhone evolved the strategy swapped and changed many times, the company was riddled with politics and infighting, but huge profits helped to cover these up and in the end they muddled through, learning as they went.  Even now they aren’t perfect but billions of dollars of profit a year helps cover over the cracks nicely.

So what to do? lots of people ask me this question and my general response is “be patient” but actually I have quite a few strategies, the most important of these is to apply my thinking at multiple levels:

  1. As a strategic, I work on the big picture, to inspire, to provide frameworks to guide the way that we think, to bring structure to chaos, to provide direction and give people hope
  2. As a an architect, I try to make sure we think holistically during projects and service execution, to make sure that we are considering the interplay between process, organisation, location, data, application and technology; to recognise that we are dealing with real people with strengths and weaknesses. I spend a lot of time reviewing in this capacity
  3. As a manager, I work on improving the way that the business actually works, clarifying accountabilities, shaping processes, keeping projects focused on the business needs, helping people understand their jobs and the challenges they face
  4. As a technologist, I read about, explore and use a lot of technology so even though my focus is strategy I spend a lot of time positioning and reviewing technology, identifying and solving technical issues, coming up with new product ideas or new ways to use technologies.  I also spend a lot of time reviewing in this capacity
  5. As a coach, I’ve picked a small number of people who I believe in and who want to be coached in some capacity, that coaching involves a mix of inspiration, support, guidance and challenge.  It’s also a great way to introduce some of my own ideas or to nudge them along
  6. As a maverick, I have a lot of exposure to ‘external’ ideas, I’m not part of the ‘group think’ that exists within the company, I’m also not ambitious or afraid of upsetting people or challenging established ideas, poor quality execution, or scratching below the surface of the myriad of problems that I see every year to reveal the underlying issues

What this means in practice is that there’s rarely a direct causal connection between strategic ideas that I have, and promote, and the execution of those ideas often years later.  The reality is that those ideas spread like tendrils throughout the company, some wither and die, lost forever, but many live on.  I nudge them along when I get the opportunity, I’m happy for others to present them as their own.  Sometimes they take years to really take root.  I have to be patient, humble and creative.  Regardless of the success of my strategy though I apply that strategic thinking and context in the five other roles and that’s just as useful.

Looking quickly at how I nudge strategic ideas into life: 

  1. I start by evangelising them passionately, which launches them with some chance of success
  2. I write about them in blog posts, which makes them re-discoverable. Even if every blog post is read by only 20 people, over time that adds up to thousands of little chances to influence
  3. I nudge them along during the dozens of reviews that I do
  4. I champion them during the 50+ coaching sessions I do each year
  5. I use them as a deep repository of knowledge to challenge other ideas that I disagree with
  6. I use them as examples when people need inspiration or guidance to do something similar of their own which happens most weeks

This all works out quite well, I like to think that I see the influence of my ideas in most directions that I look at work.  There’s rarely a causal link, some of what I see might not actually be inspired by me, but I like to think that enough of it is, to give purpose to all the effort.  Working an average of 8 hours a week is a challenge, subtract all the administration, company briefings, social chit chat and other distractions and I’m lucky to get 4 hours a week of quality time to create and influence, that’s 1 hour a day! it’s a good job that I have plenty of time to think while I’m walking along the beach, the cliffs or the hills.

As usual I’m writing this blog post in Caffe Nero thanks to an early start.  I’m heading to Cleveleys later with my second eldest daughter for brunch and a movie.  Cleveleys is one of my favourite spots for doing an hour of relaxed research followed by a long walk. Today’s pic shows the beach in all of it’s glory, ‘decorated’ by an unusual sculpture that’s less than a year old but already looks like it’s been there for thousands of years.