Six Fruitful Weeks

Where to begin?

Over the third week in March, I traveled to the Crescent City for the 2019 New Orleans Bourbon Festival. Had a great time — stayed with Tony at the Harrah’s N.O. hotel/casino then welcomed the opportunity to meet with a dozen friends from as far away as California and Manitoba. A wonderful time, with wonderful people, and wonderful brown spirits, and wonderful culinary delights.

But here’s the thing: In an attempt to be clever, I opted to save a few hundred bucks by flying out of Chicago O’Hare instead of Grand Rapids. So to maximize my time working, I figured I’d take the Amtrak from Grand Rapids to downtown Chicago, then the L straight into O’Hare. In theory, it was a plan of unparalleled brilliance, foiled only by the fact that the train engineer suffered a heart attack, prompting a three-hour pause in St. Joseph, Michigan, and a sad Jason rebooking his flights to (a) arrive later than planned, and (b) to cost more than just flying outta G.R.

On the way back, given that I had plenty of time both on the train and at the (lovely) Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago Union Station, I waxed internally philosophic about the Big Meaning of Life questions.

Some conclusions:

  • I’d rather experience now than plan to experience later.
  • Bootstrapping big things isn’t a wise idea. To paraphrase my late, beloved grandfather: Anything worth doing is worth appropriately resourcing before you start. Seat-of-your-pants business development is a recipe for mediocrity.
  • My arch-nemesis, the Jonah Complex, thrives in those little minutes when it’s easier to surrender to acedia than to hone one’s game. Yet — just as with training a cat to avoid the near occasion of sin — it’s better to create an environment where the defaults are configured to channel good behaviors rather than indulging in self-flagellation at the point of failure.

In light of those reflections, I’ve spent a large amount of the month of April taking new stock of my portfolio of assets and liabilities — financial, emotional, experiential — with an eye toward (as they say) defecating or abdicating from the throne.

So here’s what’s happened this month:

  • I’ve paid off my car, heavily invested in my business enterprises and wiped away all my credit-card debt. (In fact, I’m writing this post from the Starbucks on Alpine Ave., while said car undergoes a much-needed interior and exterior detailing.)
  • I booked a week-long vacation to Italy for late summer. Never been to Europe, and don’t want to wait until I’m 70 to go. Itinerary includes Rome (my home-base hotel is a stone’s throw from the Vatican), Naples, Assisi and Capri. May take a brief side trip to either Florence or Venice, if time permits. Been doing some Duolinguo lessons to prepare.
  • I wrapped up my notes and paperwork for a paid speaking gig I’m doing in June in D.C.
  • I started flying lessons, out of West Michgian Regional in Holland. Went on my first flight last week and have two more flights scheduled this week, plus I attended a “how to pass your checkride” seminar with an FAA examiner. Cool stuff. On track to earn my private pilot license by the end of the summer, and I’m grateful to the support from my friends Patrick and Jason (both pilots) for their encouragement and advice. I’ve got a great, engaged instructor, which really makes a difference.
  • I replaced the BCD (the air vest) for my scuba gear and registered for enough specialty courses this summer to potentially earn Master Diver certification by the end of the season. I’m already booked for Feburary 2020 to visit Bonaire, a little Dutch island off the coast of Venezuela, for a dive trip with two diving friends.
  • I fleshed out and resourced Lakeshore Literary Logistics, a company that compliments Caffeinated Press. L3’s purpose is book-and-lit-journal distribution, not publishing. Although I still am active with Caffeinated Press, I’ve gotten almost completely out of editorial project management and am instead focused on L3 and distribution planning. On the CafPress front, John is focusing on the lit journal and Brittany is now handling editorial project management in addition to her work as CFO.
  • I’ve developed one of the books I’m working on, From Pencil to Print: Practical Advice for Emerging Authors, to roughly 50 percent complete. The manuscript presently stands at about 65,000 words, and I’ve already enlisted the support of one of my interns as well as a few writing colleagues to examine sample chapters. I might even have a guest author for a special-topics chapter lined up. A complete first draft will likely be ready to go by the end of the summer. Still haven’t decided whether I want to shop a proposal or self-publish, but I have time to figure it out.
  • The other book I’m developing, Introduction to Health Data Analytics, is now fully fleshed and I’ve got a kitchen cabinet of healthcare industry colleagues on board to review sample chapters. I’m expecting to be first-draft ready sometime over the upcoming winter.
  • My work with Gillikin & Associates is going well, albeit quietly. I’ve got a part-time client in New York that’s prompting me to be a bit less aggressive with marketing right now. I recently joined the Grand Rapids Chamber, the Small Business Association of Michigan and the Economic Club of Grand Rapids. Look forward to lots of professional networking over the next few months.
  • Although my travel schedule is fillling — right now, I’m booked for Chicago, Washington DC, Dallas, Las Vegas (twice), Rome, Phoenix and Louisville — I’m slotting in time this spring to do a kayak trip and, I think, an overnight backpacking loop.
  • A confluence of events conspires to draw me back into more regular church attendance. Part of it relates to just shifting priorities, and part of it relates to a dive into the minutiae of the Extraordinary Form (for both the Mass and the Divine Office) that migrated from curiosity to intrigue.
  • The podcast is going well. Vice Lounge released a 4-inch-by-six-inch flyer with basic strategy guides on one side and tasting trees on the other. A nice touch for long-time friends of the show.

So, yeah. I’ve been busy. And although I did pull a back muscle a few weeks ago that laid me up for a while, all is well. The feline overlords are content, and no immediate crises seem to be brewing.

It feels like things are coming together nicely, and that 2019 will be the year that several of my bucket-list items cross off the list.

From Inbox Zero to Inbox Infinity? Or, Why I Learned to Stop Stressing About My Unread Message Count

The last three days have been focused, to remarkable degree, on communicating. Mostly catch-up stuff. Monday and Tuesday were spent, 10 hours each day, just responding to accumulated messages. Whilst munching dinner yesterday, I came across an interesting article in The Atlantic by Taylor Lorenz titled “Don’t Reply to Your Emails: The Case for Inbox Infinity” that triggered some introspection about all of this effort.
Lorenz’s argument, in essence, is that one ought not waste the time trying to keep abreast on communication because it’s a never-ending fight that offers relatively little return on investment. In fact, responsiveness invites additional unnecessary correspondence that adds to the load, in a never-ending spiral of slavery to inboxes and social dashboards. The more responsive you are, the more people send to you, thus the more you have to deal with. Thus, choosing to not read and respond to messages is a healthy life choice and a savvy business strategy: Embrace Inbox Infinity.
I get it. But the Midwestern Nice guy in me thinks that a one-sided screw-you policy borders on the sociopathic.
So I crunched some numbers:

  • On any given day, I receive anywhere from 300 to 500 emails. Of those, about one-third are personalized-yet-unsolicited messages that don’t get caught by spam filters, one-third are notifications of some sort that I inspect and then (usually) delete, and one-third incur some sort of response — a reply, a forward, a follow-up task. So I must engage in some way with anywhere between 100 and 150 emails daily. And that’s across four actively trafficked email accounts and an additional five lightly trafficked ones. I’ve occasionally kept an Inbox Zero-like state for a week or two. Consistently, I need to spend 90 minutes per day in Outlook to make that happen, and just for email.
  • On average, I receive roughly 100 social notifications each day, across Facebook (personal), Facebook Messenger, six Facebook Pages I administer, two Facebook Groups I administer, eight Twitter accounts I singly or jointly own, my personal LinkedIn account, two LinkedIn company accounts I administer, my Instagram account, two Instagram company accounts, and one mostly dormant Tumblr account.
  • I receive between zero and 50 text messages per day.
  • For Caffeinated Press, Write616, and Vice Lounge Online, we’ve deployed a ticketing system, so those websites incur additional messages (between zero and a dozen, each day) that almost always require non-trivial follow-up. Some of the CafPress tickets are editorial queries, which on average take 15 minutes each to resolve for the easy ones and 30 minutes for the hard ones. In addition, both CafPress and Write616 provide community forums that include segments with more-or-less active communication. For the CafPress forums alone, over 2018, I lodged more than 300 new messages. And probably 12 of the last 20 hours I’ve spent cleaning up comms has occurred in the CafPress ticketing system, where I’ve personally touched or closed roughly 120 tickets over the last three solar cycles.
  • For Caffeinated Press, Write616 and Gillikin & Associates, all of which use the Zoho One platform, we use Zoho Projects, and most project-related correspondence happens in the context of per-project forums or discussion threads.
  • Some of the editorial consulting work I do relies on a private Slack channel — not high traffic, though, which is good.
  • Telephony? I can be reached (“reached,” he jokes) over 10 different possible phone numbers associated with three physical telephones and five voicemail boxes.

In other words, I get a ton of correspondence stretching over nine email accounts, five social platforms, five voicemail boxes, three ticketing systems, three project-management platforms, two community forums, a slack channel and iMessages. And a partridge in a pear tree.
I understand that I’m an unusual use case. I lead two small businesses, run a freelance editorial gig off the side of my desk, co-host a long-running podcast with a vibrant listener base, volunteer on a non-profit working board and have my own hobbies and personal writing endeavors. And believe me, I’m not complaining. I’ve made my choices and even though I’m scheduled (really) from 7a to 11:30p Sunday through Saturday, I’m doing what I want to do, and I own the trade-offs I’ve incurred to split my time in so many diverse ways. “Living your best life,” or whatever the kids these days hashtag.
So, even though I’m inundated with communication, it’s not like I’m a victim of it. Yet to keep abreast of everything and to be highly responsive in the short term, across all communications channels, I’d have to dedicate 2.5 to 3.5 hours, 7 days a week, to do nothing but communicate. Not to work. Just to communicate. Assuming that the prompt engagment wouldn’t generate additional engagement that opens that window even wider.
So in most cases, I elect to not spend that much time managing communications, and instead pursue work that can lead to better financial outcomes for me and for the initiatives I support. There’s always a balance, of course, and I don’t always get that balance perfect, but if given the chance to do something of value, or to talk about doing something of value, I’ll prefer the former to the latter.
And that’s the rub.
I think people who have invested their time differently — e.g., folks who work one day job and reserve evenings and weekends for friends, family and a hobby or two — mosey up to the communications table with a very different set of expectations. When they send emails, they expect responses within a day or two. When they leave a voicemail, they expect a call back. When they reach out on social media, they expect acknowledgement. For them, timely reciprocal engagement is a default framework for viewing interpersonal communications.
Which, you know, ain’t exactly unreasonable.
Yet it’s not terribly unusual for me to incur read-and-respond lags of 90 days or more. Some of my pending tickets are nine months old. None of this delay is a function of me hating the sender or deciding that my needs are more important or not caring a whit about others’ good-faith reach-outs. It’s a function of being swamped. Having decided that 2.5 to 3.5 hours every day managing inboxes and dashboards isn’t in the cards, then every day I fail to keep up accumulates a debt that swells and swells and swells, interest compounding relentlessly until eventually — and I do this two or three times per year — I take a day or two off, decamp to coffee shops, and do nothing but play communication catch-up, triaging what I can, deleting what I can’t, and moving forward as best as I can.
So what’s the solution? How does one bridge the gap deep cultural gap between timely reciprocal engagement and inbox infinity?
Some attentive blog readers may have picked up, over the last year or so, on this theme of me writing about the tyranny of the inbox. I went astray, I think, in originally trying to be omnicompetent. So I set expectations that, as they slipped, didn’t help. I recognize that others have legitimate needs to which I should respond, so I’ve been working hard over the last year to erect a bridge that crosses that gap while minimizing (never, alas, eliminating) the attendant friction for both sides. In some ways, it’s like learning a different language or navigating a foreign culture.
I think — I hope! — I’m making some progress, though:

  1. I’m focusing more and more on getting people out of my email inbox. The use of ticketing systems and project-management tools means that others can swoop in as needed. (I’m still working on getting the “others” to actually swoop in, which is a conversation for a different day.) It’s easier for me to schedule time to view a project’s notification history or a ticket queue than to pick apart disparate emails amidst a sea of email noise and then magically plot the projects in my head.
  2. I’ve been much more aggressive lately in telling new-to-me people that (a) I don’t do status reports, and (b) expect long delays in routine correspondence. Most people understand and offer the attendant grace. A few people don’t seem to believe me when I tell them as much, so I’m continuing to refine the message so that expectations are set up-front.
  3. I’m going to start being more aggressive in redirecting communication to the right channel. For example, I cannot conduct business conversations on my personal social-media channels. Not because I’m trying to be a dick about it, but because Facebook and Twitter aren’t part of a task-based, discoverable workflow.
  4. I’m committing in 2019 to hold more frequent and available open office hours. If something is so important that it requires immediate attention, the door is open to an in-person conversation. If it’s not important enough for a direct chat, then the priority clarifies itself.
  5. I’ll continue to ignore the bullies who hector, cajole, demean and dismiss in their escalating attempts to get attention. This phenomenon happens more often than it ought with authors, who (despite early level-setting) nevertheless have persuaded themselves that I’m at their beck-and-call then become angry when their beck isn’t called. I will never justify myself or give in to digital bullies. Ever.
  6. I accept that some things that might warrant a response, in the abstract, don’t rise to a return-on-investment level in the real world. Therefore, I won’t beat myself up if I can’t attend to everything.

I used to get stressed about falling behind on communications. (I don’t talk about my mental health on my blog, but if people understood what havoc Caffeinated Press hath wrought, emotionally —.) I don’t stress anymore. I suppose I’ve embraced the Serenity Prayer. Part of the “doing many things” lifestyle is that I accept that not everything that should be done, can be done. At least, not by one person. And scaling back — to only do those things where you can guarantee you can get 100 percent done on a highly predictable schedule — presents its own set of risks, mostly financial; the more tongs you pull out of the fire, the more dependent you are on just a few investments, and if any of those dwindling investments dry up, the result is catastrophic.
I’ll admit, though. For a while, I really did toy with saying, “Damn the torpedoes! Full Inbox Infinity ahead!” But I just couldn’t. I might not be perfect, but I do try to not be an asshole.
Yet as I continue to stumble on, doing the best I can, I’ll at least take some solace in not feeling as bad about myself as I used to.

A Master Class in Horrible Customer Service from @OfficeDepot [UPDATED]

UPDATE: Progress! See the bottom of the article for details.

I was well and truly excited to move into the new Caffeinated Press office on Saturday. I’ve got a five-day weekend coming up and a metric ton of work to accomplish related to the next volume of the anthology, so on Friday afternoon, I went to Office Depot’s website and ordered a U-shaped desk, a matching hutch and an office chair. Then I requested in-store pickup and was guaranteed next-day availability at one of the local retail locations.

On Saturday morning, I went to the store and picked everything up. Got to the office, unloaded everything, and started work with setup — except, after I tore down the first box, I realized that the desk ships in two boxes. Irritated, I drove back to the store and waited 15 minutes while the clerk searched in vain for the second box. So he took my information — this was around noon — and promised a call back within four hours.

No such luck. On Sunday afternoon, I called the store and spoke with the manager, Fernando, who told me that there was nothing he could do except pass me off to Office Depot’s toll-free number. So I called that number and spoke to someone in, I believe, India, who was quick to “sincerely apologize” but told me the only thing she could do was issue a refund credit on the order so I could re-place it online. They have “no way” to ship me the missing second box, which was all I ever wanted for them to do.

So I reluctantly agree to engage in the song-and-dance about the return and reorder. Except the phone lady neglected to tell me she was issuing a credit-card refund that would take five to seven business days to credit. Apparently, I’m supposed to pay twice for a product the company didn’t deliver and hope that eventually they reimburse me? Track record isn’t so good. And when I can have my card immediately debited to pay, why the bloody hell does it take a full week to reverse a charge? That’s ridiculous.

I used the online chat tool and dealt with two different agents. Both “sincerely apologized” and basically refused to do anything else. One agent offered to escalate the matter with someone at corporate and he guaranteed me a call back in “no more than four hours.”

You can guess where this is going: No one ever called.

On Monday morning, I emailed with my concerns and within a few hours got a reply; the replying agent clearly had no clue what my problem was — it didn’t appear she even read the substance of my note — but she assured me that my credit would be applied “within three to five days.” Dissatisfied, I called the toll-free number again and got yet another agent who told me that the manufacturer of the desk doesn’t allow them to ship partial shipments (newsflash: I didn’t order a partial shipment; I ordered a whole shipment, which Office Depot failed to deliver on). But she assured me that she would escalate the matter about my credit and after offering a “sincere apology” she promised … wait for it … that I’d get a call back within four hours with an update.

(Need I even tell you that the call never came, the credit isn’t processed, I’m still without my desk and I’m staring down a ton of work with no where to work from?)

Here’s what I don’t get:

  • How could a store agent responsible for accepting a product shipment fail to notice that half the shipment didn’t arrive? And then have that store agent give a customer an incomplete shipment without saying anything?
  • Why can’t a national retail giant just ship a part that didn’t make its way where it belonged?
  • What kind of horrible customer service training drills people into saying “sincerely apologize” and “four hours” when it’s obvious that neither statement is true?
  • Why can I be debited immediately for a sale but have to wait a week for a credit? And for that matter, why can’t a credit be applied immediately to my online account with the company instead of pushing back to my card?

My long, sad ordeal is still underway. I’m angry at Office Depot for caring so little about customers and for fundamentally screwing up a long-planned work session. But you, dear reader, can rest assured: Never again will I buy anything from this incompetent horde of disinterested hacks.

UPDATE:

A resolutions person from Office Depot’s corporate office read this post and contacted me directly by email. Sent me a replacement desk at $0 (both parts). The delivery driver arrived around 6 p.m. on Thursday and was promptly irritated that he only needed to give me the second box, because he had to give me the box, label the delivery as “refused,” then return the first box back to the warehouse. His irritation wasn’t with me, it was with Corporate; the delivery person was quite helpful.

Anyway, this saga is concluded. I have been made whole. The challenge, I think, isn’t so much Office Depot, per se, but rather the problem of multi-part shipments from warehouses. A friend remarked that he has much the same problem with Amazon — if an order is only partially filled, Amazon is (apparently) at a loss to make up the difference.

Rejoice! I’ve Created the Ultimate Daily Tracking System with @MSOneNote

For many long, bitter years I’ve lamented the utter lack of harmony among my various personal-organizational systems. I’ve tried paper. I’ve tried smartphones. I’ve tried an Outlook-only solution. I even tried to put everything into a giant Access database with a Web front-end, only to be stymied by a back-end discontinuity. Never could get any solution to work, though — the stuff I wanted to record, in the way I wanted to record it, in all the different form factors I might want to access it, never seemed to align in satisfactory manner.

Until now, that is.log2

The solution I’ve developed squares the circle that connects data tracking, idea-gathering and journaling into a single front-end solution that synchronizes natively across three screens. I use Microsoft OneNote (although presumably Evernote would work too) with a separate notebook called “Chron” containing a tab called “Daily.” I’ve saved the template shown to the left as the default template for this tab, and my Windows Phone 8 links to the template page (I’ve pinned it, so I can open it up to today’s notes with just a single tap.)

The section contains the things I care about recording, but with only as much detail as I’m interested in gathering. The form includes a “focus” bar, which is simply a phrase or sentence that summarizes something I need to keep top-of-mind; it might be task-oriented or it might just be a song quote to provide inspiration.

The “Today’s Deliverables” list marks all the deadlines I have to get done — I refresh it every morning by scanning my task list in Outlook and picking the that that I need to keep in front of my face.  By design, this list doesn’t sync directly to Outlook; I sometimes include quick tasks or short-term lists here that really don’t warrant the time/effort of adding it to Outlook. I also sometimes schedule myself to do things before their Outlook due date if I know I have the flex to get it done.

The “Schedule” list provides a skeleton of my appointments — both on-calendar and in-the-moment — and beneath each item I can then add my meeting notes and (as needed) create Outlook tasks for anything I need to do as a result of that meeting.

If I did something special worth preserving, it’s listed as a “Significant Accomplishment” — helpful if I wanted to look back over the last few months to see progress on life goals. Many days, this line will be blank, just to preserve its value of highlighting the things that matter.

Then I record data about myself — how many calories I’ve consumed, how much exercising I’ve done and how much money I’ve transacted. Weekly, I record “body metrics,” including regular weigh-ins and blood pressure checks with an “other” category for other health milestones worth documenting. Like my sketchy Vitamin D levels. At the bottom of the list, a section for “Ideas/Reflections” permits free-form recording of ideas or longer journal entries. Consider it a form of diary integration.

One of my biggest peeves with existing third-party life-organization tools is that (a) data often aren’t portable, and (b) you’re at the mercy of the vendor. With my solution, I own my data and don’t need to give private information to a company that may or may not be in operation six months from now.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed a “tag” line beneath several of the sections. This little sentence identifies a specific data-recording paradigm. Under “Calorie Counts,” for example, I’ve reminded myself to record today’s date, the meal — breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack — and the meal’s net calories. If I need to add a comment, I can do so. Each piece of information is comma-separated. Then, I can highlight the row of data and use one of OneNote’s tags (I have CTRL+4 hot-keyed as a “calorie count” tag). For example: “1/1/13,breakfast,120,Greek yogurt and coffee with creamer.” Quick and easy to type — something I could do on my phone at the Starbucks counter, even. If it’s easy to record, it’s more likely that it’ll be recorded. Notes are optional. If you’re in line at Panera, how hard is it to tap your log button on the phone and type “1/1/13,lunch,350,Panera” if you’re enjoying a 350-calorie meal? If you can’t log something that succinct ….

But why do it this way, instead of using a third-party service or a spreadsheet or something? Because a uniform method of recording, coupled with OneNote’s heavily customizable internal tags, lets me do a tag search and dump all instances of a specific tab to a summary page. The upshot is that I can just copy/paste the “calorie count” data and dump it into Excel if I want to track/trend/graph my data over time; the uniform mechanism of tracking individual records, separated by commas, permits painless sorting into columns. For example, if I wanted to measure my average daily gross calorie count for all of January, and subtract from it my gross calorie burn from exercise, to arrive at net calories by day, I can just search for the “calorie count” and “exercise record” tags, do a quick copy/paste into Excel, and arrive at the results in less than a minute. No need to try fiddling with MyFitnessPal or Livescape, or a separate mobile version of a spreadsheet; the data’s your own and you can manipulate it how you wish.

So. I now have an electronic solution that allows for daily metrics tracking in one tool, synced over three screens, with a data-collection and tagging infrastructure to permit fairly simple longitudinal analysis of performance. Not bad, eh?

Rejoice! I've Created the Ultimate Daily Tracking System with @MSOneNote

For many long, bitter years I’ve lamented the utter lack of harmony among my various personal-organizational systems. I’ve tried paper. I’ve tried smartphones. I’ve tried an Outlook-only solution. I even tried to put everything into a giant Access database with a Web front-end, only to be stymied by a back-end discontinuity. Never could get any solution to work, though — the stuff I wanted to record, in the way I wanted to record it, in all the different form factors I might want to access it, never seemed to align in satisfactory manner.
Until now, that is.log2

The solution I’ve developed squares the circle that connects data tracking, idea-gathering and journaling into a single front-end solution that synchronizes natively across three screens. I use Microsoft OneNote (although presumably Evernote would work too) with a separate notebook called “Chron” containing a tab called “Daily.” I’ve saved the template shown to the left as the default template for this tab, and my Windows Phone 8 links to the template page (I’ve pinned it, so I can open it up to today’s notes with just a single tap.)

The section contains the things I care about recording, but with only as much detail as I’m interested in gathering. The form includes a “focus” bar, which is simply a phrase or sentence that summarizes something I need to keep top-of-mind; it might be task-oriented or it might just be a song quote to provide inspiration.

The “Today’s Deliverables” list marks all the deadlines I have to get done — I refresh it every morning by scanning my task list in Outlook and picking the that that I need to keep in front of my face.  By design, this list doesn’t sync directly to Outlook; I sometimes include quick tasks or short-term lists here that really don’t warrant the time/effort of adding it to Outlook. I also sometimes schedule myself to do things before their Outlook due date if I know I have the flex to get it done.

The “Schedule” list provides a skeleton of my appointments — both on-calendar and in-the-moment — and beneath each item I can then add my meeting notes and (as needed) create Outlook tasks for anything I need to do as a result of that meeting.

If I did something special worth preserving, it’s listed as a “Significant Accomplishment” — helpful if I wanted to look back over the last few months to see progress on life goals. Many days, this line will be blank, just to preserve its value of highlighting the things that matter.

Then I record data about myself — how many calories I’ve consumed, how much exercising I’ve done and how much money I’ve transacted. Weekly, I record “body metrics,” including regular weigh-ins and blood pressure checks with an “other” category for other health milestones worth documenting. Like my sketchy Vitamin D levels. At the bottom of the list, a section for “Ideas/Reflections” permits free-form recording of ideas or longer journal entries. Consider it a form of diary integration.

One of my biggest peeves with existing third-party life-organization tools is that (a) data often aren’t portable, and (b) you’re at the mercy of the vendor. With my solution, I own my data and don’t need to give private information to a company that may or may not be in operation six months from now.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed a “tag” line beneath several of the sections. This little sentence identifies a specific data-recording paradigm. Under “Calorie Counts,” for example, I’ve reminded myself to record today’s date, the meal — breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack — and the meal’s net calories. If I need to add a comment, I can do so. Each piece of information is comma-separated. Then, I can highlight the row of data and use one of OneNote’s tags (I have CTRL+4 hot-keyed as a “calorie count” tag). For example: “1/1/13,breakfast,120,Greek yogurt and coffee with creamer.” Quick and easy to type — something I could do on my phone at the Starbucks counter, even. If it’s easy to record, it’s more likely that it’ll be recorded. Notes are optional. If you’re in line at Panera, how hard is it to tap your log button on the phone and type “1/1/13,lunch,350,Panera” if you’re enjoying a 350-calorie meal? If you can’t log something that succinct ….

But why do it this way, instead of using a third-party service or a spreadsheet or something? Because a uniform method of recording, coupled with OneNote’s heavily customizable internal tags, lets me do a tag search and dump all instances of a specific tab to a summary page. The upshot is that I can just copy/paste the “calorie count” data and dump it into Excel if I want to track/trend/graph my data over time; the uniform mechanism of tracking individual records, separated by commas, permits painless sorting into columns. For example, if I wanted to measure my average daily gross calorie count for all of January, and subtract from it my gross calorie burn from exercise, to arrive at net calories by day, I can just search for the “calorie count” and “exercise record” tags, do a quick copy/paste into Excel, and arrive at the results in less than a minute. No need to try fiddling with MyFitnessPal or Livescape, or a separate mobile version of a spreadsheet; the data’s your own and you can manipulate it how you wish.

So. I now have an electronic solution that allows for daily metrics tracking in one tool, synced over three screens, with a data-collection and tagging infrastructure to permit fairly simple longitudinal analysis of performance. Not bad, eh?

Meaningful Health Reform: Emphasize Cost Reductions First!

Recent debate about the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — better known as Obamacare — spins along an interesting but ultimately incoherent central axis: Namely, that access to insurance marks the most significant problem requiring federal intervention within the health care sector.

You hear the lament from President Obama himself. In comments delivered last week in the Rose Garden, he said: “People’s lives are affected by the lack of availability of health care, the unaffordability of health care, or their inability to get health care because of pre-existing conditions.”

Read that again. Now pay attention to several rhetorical sleights-of-hand that too often pass unremarked:

  • “…the lack of availability of health care…” — except, what Obama really means is the lack of affordability of health insurance.  Health care is generally plentiful; in fact, access to it through emergency rooms is enshrined under EMTALA, and communities across the country sponsor government- or church-run free or low-cost clinics. The only places with a lack of specific services result from local problems — e.g., communities with runaway tort awards that makes malpractice insurance for specialties like OB/GYN cost prohibitive for practitioners.
  • “…their inability to get health care because of pre-existing conditions.” Well, no. Again, it’s insurance and not access that’s really under discussion. In any case, people forget that insurance is a financial hedge against a potential future problem. When that problem materializes, ongoing insurance no longer makes sense, as the risk you’re insuring against isn’t theoretical any more. (Hint: That’s why some insurance companies didn’t “insure” against pre-existing conditions, which is much like trying to buy collision insurance the day after you wreck your car.)

In fact, the major problem with the whole debate is the focus on insurance coverage instead of cost reduction. It’s not entirely clear why employer-provided health insurance should be the primary mechanism by which individual citizens gain entry into the high-cost health services market. Nor is it clear why it’s constitutional for the government to require insurance companies to engage in specific behaviors that creates a regulatory regime that later justifies massive market intervention. Justice Kennedy had it right when he asked whether it makes any sense to create commerce just to regulate it. Treating “health reform” as simply expanding the insurance pool fundamentally misunderstands the real problem with health care costs today.

Which is this: As a distressingly large number of patients remain almost entirely disconnected from the actual costs of the services they consume and because they services are covered by third-party payers, the tendency is for prices to increase well above the rate of inflation. This trend makes a degree of sense; if you are sick and directly pay for little or nothing for the care you receive, then of course you want every test, every procedure, every intervention. And why not? Not your dime, after all. Rhetorical emanations from the Progressive Left elevate medical care to the level of a civil right that shouldn’t require anyone to pay out-of-pocket for anything. In a climate where the average person pays little and some activists demand that they pay nothing, it’s not a surprise that most people don’t put a lot of thought into the real cost of the services they consume. And as any marketer will tell you, people want more when they’re not thinking about price — which is basically the same economic model as the iTunes app store and Redbox kiosks.

Funny thing about health care. Contra Obama, you don’t need insurance to access health services. You can pay out of pocket. Doctors and hospitals don’t require insurance before delivering care — you can simply write a check, swipe a credit card or even negotiate a payment plan. Indeed, routine care isn’t really that expensive. An annual physical for someone in good health may cost less than $250 with labs in many markets. And before the wage-and-price controls of World War II, employer-provided health insurance was unheard of. We survived before benefits packages; we can survive when those packages are de-emphasized.

To really get health spending under control, we need to get consumers actively engaged in what health services they receive. The first step involves tort reform — physicians need to be free to recommend the various tests and procedures that are medically indicated without worrying about the lawsuits that lead to expensive “defensive medicine.” A regime that pre-screens medical malpractice claims against a board of physician advisers may well cut off the spigot of dollars flowing from the largess of a medically unskilled jury.

The second step requires patients to have financial skin in the game. Instead of taking refuge in free-lunch insurance programs, health insurance should more accurately reflect the original concept of risk mitigation that undergirds insurance programs as a whole. The best solution — and one that seems to work in hospitals across the country — lets consumers elect high-deductible plans that cover catastrophic illnesses but require patients to front the money for most low-dollar costs up to a specific threshold. These plans generally cost less and make patients think twice about demanding unnecessary care when the funds come directly from their own pockets.

Put differently: If get a nasty head cold, do you tough it out or do you make a trip to the doctor and demand antibiotics (even though antibiotics don’t work on viruses)? With free-lunch insurance, you’ll visit the doctor, get your scrip, maybe offer a token amount as a co-pay, and move on. If you knew you had to pay for the office visit and the drugs, would you bother? Probably not. You would only seek medical services when you believed you really needed them. The Washington Post recently addressed the trend of higher-deductible plans. Although the story may be faulted for assuming that it’s an outrage that people should actually pay for what they use, otherwise the account presents a fairly well-balanced summary of the trend away from gold-plated coverage and more toward consumer-driven health care.

The researchers at RAND Corporation’s health unit have complied extensive and diverse statistics about the long-term trends in health services; the publication is well worth perusing. The reasons for today’s exploding cost model are many, but some of the major contributors include:

  • Increased regulatory burden by governments that drives up costs by as much as 25 percent of the entire sector
  • Increased cost of ancillary services unrelated to the provision of care (e.g., marketing departments, education teams, etc.) — a 2003 New England Journal of Medicine study suggested that administration alone costs more than $700 for every inpatient visit
  • Increased utilization of expensive services like MRIs that may not be clinically warranted but protect the ordering physician from malpractice claims if the patient isn’t happy with his treatment, may raise costs by 5 to 9 percent
  • Cost-shifting from protected patients to non-protected patients — case in point: because Medicare or Medicaid reimburse at less than actual costs, the “gap” is made up in higher prices for everyone else, to the tune of more than $6 billion per year
  • Fixed infrastructure costs — primarily IT — drive up institutional expenses, which are then passed along to patients
  • HMOs and other insurers negotiate separate contracts with providers, and if one insurer gets a sweeter deal patients covered by a different provider may make up for it with higher prices

Health reimbursement theorists look at medical care as a three-legged stool of costs, quality and access. There’s a relationship among these variables: As costs increase, access declines. As quality increases, costs increase. Radically increasing access will make costs skyrocket.

That’s the fundamental problem with Obamacare — it emphasizes increasing access to free- or low-cost medical care, but as costs increase, there’s no obvious payer. Hence the “individual mandate.” If everyone pays into the system, then free-lunch coverage for everyone becomes a more viable option. Without a mandate, there just isn’t enough money to fund all the services that will be demanded at free-lunch prices by the U.S. population. And a single-payer solution won’t fix the problem. The dollars have to come from somewhere, and if individual consumers of health services have zero personal incentive to responsibly align their utilization against their genuine medical need, the system as a whole will suffer from significant and costly inefficiencies that make the entire infrastructure unworkable in the long run.

To really fix the problems with today’s health care market, we should focus on cost reduction. If costs go down, premiums will go down and access will naturally increase. And while we’re at it, we should scrap the antiquated WWII-era model of financing health services through “insurance” and instead open the market to actual costs borne by actual people.

Disclaimer: The writer is an experienced revenue-cycle analyst for a large Midwestern health system. The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the writer’s opinions and do not speak for, imply or endorse any position on behalf of the health system.

How to Succeed in Business Without Selling What’s Left of Your Soul

Graduation season is upon us once again, and as myriad starry-eyed new grads eagerly leap into the bog that is today’s job market, this tired old man shall shower upon them a few choice words of advice on achieving lasting workplace success.

I assume, of course, that as you enter the workforce, you took sufficient advantage of your years of schooling to obtain a certain depth and breadth of experience in a number of economic pursuits that are a wee bit more substantial than “burger flipper,” right?  You did internships, you volunteered (yes, you can include that on a resume!), you worked jobs that provided experience in your industry while demonstrating that you are capable of discharging responsibilities effectively.  Right?  Please tell me you aren’t going to an interview for a $50,000-per-year job with “cashier” or “short-order cook” or “A&F model” as your main selling point.

And in terms of job search:  Do you have a well-done resume, prepared by someone who understands how to sell you to a prospective employer?  Do you have customized cover letters?  A suit for interviewing, and a stylist to cut off those dreads and pull out all those facial piercings?  Have you sat down with someone in your chosen industry to think through your answers to common interviewing questions?

Anyway, enough of the prep.  Here are some tips for surviving in the workplace after you complete your first day of orientation.

  1. Never miss a deadline. Ever.  Even if you have to stay in the office until 11 p.m.  If you commit to delivering something, then deliver it when you say you will. On those occasions when an external factor affects your ability to achieve a deadline (e.g., a re-prioritization of tasks from your supervisor), make sure that you quickly communicate the delay, with reasons, to your affected customers, with a revised due date; don’t make them track you down after the fact.  Missed deadlines — especially when there’s no good reason for it — erode credibility more quickly than any other workplace bad behavior.
  2. Be self-sufficient. The only person responsible for your success is you, so don’t harass the departmental secretary with mundane tasks or seek validation from a superior at every turn.  Take ownership of your contribution to the company, and carry your own weight on projects and in group efforts.
  3. Don’t make excuses.  Failures are always your fault, even when they aren’t. If you messed up, admit it quickly and apologize. Don’t struggle to find reasons why the failure wasn’t really your fault.  Even if you could fairly parcel chunks of responsibility to others, don’t.  You will get more respect in the long run if you take your lumps and move on with your head held high, than if you scurry about like the last rat off the sinking ship.
  4. Avoid office gossip and keep confidences. Gossip is the lubrication that keeps the social wheel turning. You can’t avoid it — but try not to get caught up in it. Walking the high road, keeping confidences and squelching rumors goes a long way to improving a person’s social standing in the office.
  5. Learn how to confront others in a respectful way. Cubicle neighbor plays his music too loud? Have a team member who consistently fails to perform?  Take the time to learn how to have serious conversations with others that touch on tough subjects. Many people don’t like conflict, but avoidance is not a success strategy. There are several different approaches to having a “crucial conversation” with someone — time invested in learning this skill will pay handsome dividends.
  6. Be humble.  No one likes a know-it-all. Even if you know the right answer to a problem, you will do better to engage and persuade than in laying out your own solution.  People like to feel consulted with, so swallow your pride and structure a conversation so that your ideas feel like everyone’s ideas. And when it comes time for credit — take your fair share of the blame, but don’t hog more than your fair share of the credit.  Recognize those who contributed to your success.
  7. Don’t commit to what you can’t deliver.  It’s tempting to promise the world on the basis of a dream, but people-pleasers end up pleasing no one.  Be honest about what you can and cannot do, and if you can’t do something, volunteer to help find a solution by another means.
  8. Exceed expectations. Always go one step farther than someone expects. For example, if you own the schedule for a conference room and someone asks if it’s free, instead of saying, “No, it’s booked,” take the time to research an alternative and then say, “I’m sorry, the room is booked, but I took the liberty of reserving this other room for you instead — is that OK?”  Delighting your customers by demonstrating superior service is always a career-enhancing strategy.
  9. Keep your work and home lives separate.  Don’t argue with your significant other on the phone all day. Don’t bring confidential documents home. Avoid littering your work space with large amounts of personal memorabilia. It’s best to keep a wall of separation between office and living room.
  10. Watch your Web browsing.  Office computers are great — but use them only for the office.  More and more companies are monitoring everything that employees do on company hardware, so it makes sense to completely avoid using company resources for personal or non-work activities. Want to read news sites during lunch?  Great — bring your own laptop.
  11. Dress the part.  Each industry and office setting has its own unique culture, but in general, dress a half-step more formally than your peer group.  In a general office setting, this might mean wearing ties when everyone else is “business casual.”  In an art studio, it means making sure your jeans aren’t ripped and stained like everyone else’s. Better to be at the upper end of proper than the lower end.
  12. Follow policies and procedures.  Even when others cut corners, always follow a documented process flow. If something goes wrong, your adherence to policy will be a saving grace. A policy doesn’t exist to irritate you, it exists to fill a need — if a policy seems problematic, then seek changes to it.  Don’t merely ignore it.
  13. Ask questions properly. When in doubt, ask.  Seek assistance.  If something doesn’t make sense, obtain clarification.  That said, avoid using questions as a way of being Mr. Smartypants.  Don’t pass judgments when asking questions.
  14. Be entrepreneurial.  Look for ways to improve processes. Pitch new project ideas. Pursue professional certifications in your off hours.   This sends the message that you care enough about your job to do more than just react to incoming work requests.
  15. Stay organized. If you master nothing else, learn how to maintain an effective filing system and a seamless task-management environment. Your files should be clearly labeled and comprehensible. You should be able to convert notes and assignments into a workflow that reduces the odds you will forget something important.  If your boss wants to know what you are doing, you should be able to turn around a complete inventory of assignments within three minutes. Don’t be that guy who agrees to do something in a meeting, writes it on the top of the agenda, puts the agenda on a stack, and never looks at it again.
  16. Don’t be the Lone Ranger.  Even if you work independently, consistently obtain the advice of people affected by your work product. Don’t give naysayers a reason to torpedo a major project simply because you failed to communicate with them. Involve as many stakeholders as is needed in your work so that (as much as is practicable) you are known for delivering consensus-driven work product, and not “mad genius” work product that people resent because they had no hand in shaping its development. Many a brilliant project was shelved because some of the affected customers felt like they weren’t engaged in the planning process.
  17. Be accessible — within reason.  During working hours, people should be able to reach you. Return email and voice mail promptly, and avoid the temptation to wander to strange places to work “in peace.”  People will notice your absence, and generally not in a good way.  However, think carefully about just how accessible you are during non-work hours. 24×7 availability can set you apart, but it can also create unrealistic expectations and lead to early burn-out.
  18. Keep a tidy desk.  Silly?  Maybe.  But how many CEOs have cluttered desks, compared to the mailroom clerks?  A clean desk is a public statement that you are on top of things and well prepared.  Perhaps this is more illusion than truth, but in the end, people can only interpret what they can see.
  19. Generate polished work product.  Fact: People are more likely to believe the printed word than the spoken word, and people are more likely to trust a document that is aesthetically pleasing compared to one that isn’t. Always take the time to make sure your work product is visually pleasing with solid content.
  20. Don’t game the system. If the office has flexibility about when you come and go, don’t abuse it by consistently coming in significantly later than everyone else, or leaving earlier. Match the standard set by the most-respected member of the department. And you really don’t want to be the person who ruins a good thing for everyone else by taking it to its absurd conclusion.

There.  Twenty solid tips.  Enjoy!

How to Succeed in Business Without Selling What's Left of Your Soul

Graduation season is upon us once again, and as myriad starry-eyed new grads eagerly leap into the bog that is today’s job market, this tired old man shall shower upon them a few choice words of advice on achieving lasting workplace success.
I assume, of course, that as you enter the workforce, you took sufficient advantage of your years of schooling to obtain a certain depth and breadth of experience in a number of economic pursuits that are a wee bit more substantial than “burger flipper,” right?  You did internships, you volunteered (yes, you can include that on a resume!), you worked jobs that provided experience in your industry while demonstrating that you are capable of discharging responsibilities effectively.  Right?  Please tell me you aren’t going to an interview for a $50,000-per-year job with “cashier” or “short-order cook” or “A&F model” as your main selling point.
And in terms of job search:  Do you have a well-done resume, prepared by someone who understands how to sell you to a prospective employer?  Do you have customized cover letters?  A suit for interviewing, and a stylist to cut off those dreads and pull out all those facial piercings?  Have you sat down with someone in your chosen industry to think through your answers to common interviewing questions?
Anyway, enough of the prep.  Here are some tips for surviving in the workplace after you complete your first day of orientation.

  1. Never miss a deadline. Ever.  Even if you have to stay in the office until 11 p.m.  If you commit to delivering something, then deliver it when you say you will. On those occasions when an external factor affects your ability to achieve a deadline (e.g., a re-prioritization of tasks from your supervisor), make sure that you quickly communicate the delay, with reasons, to your affected customers, with a revised due date; don’t make them track you down after the fact.  Missed deadlines — especially when there’s no good reason for it — erode credibility more quickly than any other workplace bad behavior.
  2. Be self-sufficient. The only person responsible for your success is you, so don’t harass the departmental secretary with mundane tasks or seek validation from a superior at every turn.  Take ownership of your contribution to the company, and carry your own weight on projects and in group efforts.
  3. Don’t make excuses.  Failures are always your fault, even when they aren’t. If you messed up, admit it quickly and apologize. Don’t struggle to find reasons why the failure wasn’t really your fault.  Even if you could fairly parcel chunks of responsibility to others, don’t.  You will get more respect in the long run if you take your lumps and move on with your head held high, than if you scurry about like the last rat off the sinking ship.
  4. Avoid office gossip and keep confidences. Gossip is the lubrication that keeps the social wheel turning. You can’t avoid it — but try not to get caught up in it. Walking the high road, keeping confidences and squelching rumors goes a long way to improving a person’s social standing in the office.
  5. Learn how to confront others in a respectful way. Cubicle neighbor plays his music too loud? Have a team member who consistently fails to perform?  Take the time to learn how to have serious conversations with others that touch on tough subjects. Many people don’t like conflict, but avoidance is not a success strategy. There are several different approaches to having a “crucial conversation” with someone — time invested in learning this skill will pay handsome dividends.
  6. Be humble.  No one likes a know-it-all. Even if you know the right answer to a problem, you will do better to engage and persuade than in laying out your own solution.  People like to feel consulted with, so swallow your pride and structure a conversation so that your ideas feel like everyone’s ideas. And when it comes time for credit — take your fair share of the blame, but don’t hog more than your fair share of the credit.  Recognize those who contributed to your success.
  7. Don’t commit to what you can’t deliver.  It’s tempting to promise the world on the basis of a dream, but people-pleasers end up pleasing no one.  Be honest about what you can and cannot do, and if you can’t do something, volunteer to help find a solution by another means.
  8. Exceed expectations. Always go one step farther than someone expects. For example, if you own the schedule for a conference room and someone asks if it’s free, instead of saying, “No, it’s booked,” take the time to research an alternative and then say, “I’m sorry, the room is booked, but I took the liberty of reserving this other room for you instead — is that OK?”  Delighting your customers by demonstrating superior service is always a career-enhancing strategy.
  9. Keep your work and home lives separate.  Don’t argue with your significant other on the phone all day. Don’t bring confidential documents home. Avoid littering your work space with large amounts of personal memorabilia. It’s best to keep a wall of separation between office and living room.
  10. Watch your Web browsing.  Office computers are great — but use them only for the office.  More and more companies are monitoring everything that employees do on company hardware, so it makes sense to completely avoid using company resources for personal or non-work activities. Want to read news sites during lunch?  Great — bring your own laptop.
  11. Dress the part.  Each industry and office setting has its own unique culture, but in general, dress a half-step more formally than your peer group.  In a general office setting, this might mean wearing ties when everyone else is “business casual.”  In an art studio, it means making sure your jeans aren’t ripped and stained like everyone else’s. Better to be at the upper end of proper than the lower end.
  12. Follow policies and procedures.  Even when others cut corners, always follow a documented process flow. If something goes wrong, your adherence to policy will be a saving grace. A policy doesn’t exist to irritate you, it exists to fill a need — if a policy seems problematic, then seek changes to it.  Don’t merely ignore it.
  13. Ask questions properly. When in doubt, ask.  Seek assistance.  If something doesn’t make sense, obtain clarification.  That said, avoid using questions as a way of being Mr. Smartypants.  Don’t pass judgments when asking questions.
  14. Be entrepreneurial.  Look for ways to improve processes. Pitch new project ideas. Pursue professional certifications in your off hours.   This sends the message that you care enough about your job to do more than just react to incoming work requests.
  15. Stay organized. If you master nothing else, learn how to maintain an effective filing system and a seamless task-management environment. Your files should be clearly labeled and comprehensible. You should be able to convert notes and assignments into a workflow that reduces the odds you will forget something important.  If your boss wants to know what you are doing, you should be able to turn around a complete inventory of assignments within three minutes. Don’t be that guy who agrees to do something in a meeting, writes it on the top of the agenda, puts the agenda on a stack, and never looks at it again.
  16. Don’t be the Lone Ranger.  Even if you work independently, consistently obtain the advice of people affected by your work product. Don’t give naysayers a reason to torpedo a major project simply because you failed to communicate with them. Involve as many stakeholders as is needed in your work so that (as much as is practicable) you are known for delivering consensus-driven work product, and not “mad genius” work product that people resent because they had no hand in shaping its development. Many a brilliant project was shelved because some of the affected customers felt like they weren’t engaged in the planning process.
  17. Be accessible — within reason.  During working hours, people should be able to reach you. Return email and voice mail promptly, and avoid the temptation to wander to strange places to work “in peace.”  People will notice your absence, and generally not in a good way.  However, think carefully about just how accessible you are during non-work hours. 24×7 availability can set you apart, but it can also create unrealistic expectations and lead to early burn-out.
  18. Keep a tidy desk.  Silly?  Maybe.  But how many CEOs have cluttered desks, compared to the mailroom clerks?  A clean desk is a public statement that you are on top of things and well prepared.  Perhaps this is more illusion than truth, but in the end, people can only interpret what they can see.
  19. Generate polished work product.  Fact: People are more likely to believe the printed word than the spoken word, and people are more likely to trust a document that is aesthetically pleasing compared to one that isn’t. Always take the time to make sure your work product is visually pleasing with solid content.
  20. Don’t game the system. If the office has flexibility about when you come and go, don’t abuse it by consistently coming in significantly later than everyone else, or leaving earlier. Match the standard set by the most-respected member of the department. And you really don’t want to be the person who ruins a good thing for everyone else by taking it to its absurd conclusion.

There.  Twenty solid tips.  Enjoy!