‘I’m Busy’ Isn’t a Badge of Honour

It’s common within Australian business culture for people, when asked the question of ‘How are you going?’, to respond with something along the lines of, ‘I’m really busy’, or ‘flat out’.

This might be a reflexive response to avoid having to provide a more substantive answer, or it may be bluster to hide the fact they are anything but busy. Mostly, I think the response is given in the belief that “busy-ness” implies importance, worth and value. I think this is misguided.

When I hear somebody say they are busy, I tend to interpret it as:

  • I don’t know how to delegate, so I’m doing everything myself.
  • I’m disorganised and can’t structure my days.
  • I’ve failed to prioritise and eliminate extraneous activity.
  • I’ve actually got nothing to do, but I don’t want anybody to find out.

Being busy is not a badge of honour. It’s a cry for help. Either you’ve got too much going on, or not nearly enough. Either way, there’s going to be a lack of focus on the projects and activities that really matter, and deliver true value.

Customers don’t pay for busy-ness; they pay for value provided. A customer doesn’t care how much work went into something; they care if it solves their problem.

If you find yourself busy all the time, don’t accept it, and don’t feel good about it. Identify how to eliminate, automate or simplify the tasks that are eating away your days. Gain back some time that can be put to better use, such as long-term planning, blue-sky thinking, or relaxing by the pool.

People are not machines. Our lives should be balanced. Sacrificing some busy time for a chance to pursue enjoyment, self-development, or diversification is a trade worth making. If you’re not busy, these alternative activities will fill your time in productive ways and build knowledge and capability over time. If you’re too busy, rebalancing and jettisoning the things that don’t add value will help you to concentrate on the things that matter.

Spending Annual Leave Wisely

I’ve got some annual leave time from work coming up. I’m not going away on a holiday. It’s going to be time spent at home supporting the family.

Despite there being a lack of travel and adventure tied to this leave, I still need to make sure I construct a plan for the time. I don’t want to get to the end of it and be confronted with a return to work, only to realise I’ve wasted my leave not doing much besides noodling around on the computer for no meaningful outcome.

A recent post from David Sparks about Intentionality aligns well with this thinking. I also like his idea of using a birthday as a personal annual review day. That’s clever. With my birthday being smack-bang in the middle of the year, it also can work as a half-year review.

Roald Dahl’s Work Environment

Roald Dahl’s books brought me hours of enjoyment when I was a child. There was little that could top the excitement of reading one of his books that would, of course, be illustrated by Quentin Blake. He created a world into which I could immerse myself, no matter how fantastical the setting might be.

Now, via Jason Kottke, I’ve had an opportunity to see, in the video embedded below, the environment in which Dahl worked, and to him him speak of the mindset needed to create such amazing works of fiction.

There are concepts arising in this video that have started to again be considered relevant in today’s modern world as being helpful in improving productivity and performance.

Highlights from this short clip include:

  • The need to immerse himself, for around 4 to 5 hours per day, in the work, and be away from other things. This reflects perfectly the concept of ‘deep work’ as recently brought into public consciousness by Cal Newport. It takes time, focus and the avoidance of distraction to reach a zone of high productivity. This place is rare in the modern workplace. Making time for extended periods of focus can represent a huge competitive advantage over the competition.
  • The simplicity of the tools. No computers, typewriters, productivity methods. Just paper, pencil, a basic desk and a thermos of tea. The tools don’t make the work. They are, however, customised to his needs.
  • The necessity for play. Play is again considered relevant and useful in improving productivity and well-being. Dahl spends time with friends playing snooker on a regular — and scheduled — basis. I have no doubt it released stresses from his mind and left him fresh to focus on writing when it was time to do so.
  • The smoking. Okay, so that was an unknown negative at the time. We’re doing better on that count.

In Customer Service, Genuine Interactions Matter

Our family recently travelled to Bali for a holiday break. It was a week of relaxation at the tail end of a year that has been pretty crazy, and a 2019 that we expect will be even more hectic.

When you travel with kids, conversations can move in varied and interesting directions. Our 7-year old boy took a particular interest in the toilets that were installed throughout the hotel we were staying. The brand — TOTO — is one seen all over the world, but less so in Australia. He was enthralled by the features: from automatic flushing with infrared sensors, to in-built bidets. Even the design of the loos was novel to him. He was fascinated. Next he realised that TOTO had also been responsible for the all of the tapware as well. Incredible!

As a responsible Dad, I kept the toilet banter going, egging him on to explain to me further what he loved about them. I tried to add some interesting educational angles as well. I suggested that as a Japanese company, TOTO probably took great care in their manufacturing processes. I explained how Japan was the cradle of modern manufacturing methods, and how the Toyota Production System changed the world. I’m not sure he bought into my lesson on lean thinking, though. I will have to try again in the future.

Over the length of our stay, our conversations escalated to the point where I suggested we contact TOTO directly to let them know what great work they were doing with their toilet design. He took to that idea! So we did it. My son wrote an email to TOTO Customer Service, noting how impressed he was with their toilets, and expressing his desire to have them installed in our house as well.

I figured that would be the end of it. I didn’t expect to hear back, or if we did, I assumed it would be a boilerplate response. After a few days, we did in fact receive a reply, and it was a wonderful, personal email from TOTO’s Senior Manager of Customer Service. In the email, she expressed gratitude for my son’s kind words, and also offered to send him some tokens of appreciation if we could provide our mailing details.

We replied, and for fun, included a photo of David and I enjoying ourselves in Bali.

A few more conversational emails bounced back and forth between TOTO and ourselves, and they asked if we could send a photo of David with his items once they arrived.

Within the next few week, we received an express mailed package from TOTO in Atlanta, to us in Perth, Australia. Just this concept alone was enough to blow my son’s mind. As promised, we sent another photo back with David holding onto the gifts he had been sent, and this was acknowledged by TOTO with thanks.

I see two key lessons in all of this:

  1. Always embrace crazy conversations with your kids. They’re fun, and you never know where they might end up.
    Genuine customer service — not selling — is the key to building great brand equity. I might never buy a TOTO toilet. My son might never buy a TOTO toilet. But I think both of us will be TOTO brand ambassadors from this point forward. Not because we were sent some trinkets, but because we had a genuine human interaction. We connected with a person who was obviously engaged enough in their own job to engage positively with us. If that employee is happy, then the company must have something going for it, and that’s the kind of company I want to see succeed.
  2. From a business perspective, customer service shouldn’t be about hitting sales targets or avoiding bad press. It should be about working to have people care about your brand.

So thanks TOTO, for bringing fun and joy to me and my son’s lives, and for making sure this particular Bali holiday will have a very strange and unique anchor memory.

Personal Finance Should be Part of Core Education

I believe personal finance should be a core subject taught to our children at school. We should teach how to manage and budget money, the concepts of savings and compound interest, and the risks of credit and deferred payment. Finance and money management education should be threaded through each year of schooling. I think it would offer more practical value – and a better return on investment – than some of the traditional subjects taught.

An opinion piece in The Age by Liora Miller, “Is PayPass the enemy of the young?” reflects on some of the risks of tap and go payments, especially for young people.

Australian Tax Office research this year reveals that only one in five Australians still prefer using cash for purchases.

Last week I bought lunch from a sandwich shop. I paid with cash. The look of surprise on the server’s face was clear; to the point where we both made a joke about the rarity of somebody paying with ‘real money’ as opposed to PayPass tap and go. In Australia, tap and go is essentially the default.

Cash use in Australia has fallen by a third in a period of six years.

That’s about how long tap and go transactions have been available, and I would think the next third of cash usage will decline more rapidly than another six years.

When I use tap and go, I take the extra step of entering the transaction into YNAB on my phone. YNAB’s direct bank import features don’t work with Australian banks but I consider that a feature because entering each transaction keeps me connected to my money and my budget. I recognise, however, that I’m an outlier. Most people are not taking a similar extra step – it’s spend and forget.

A cashless society in the near future appears to be an inevitability. We need to focus on ensuring young people understand the implications of deferred payment.

This is the key point of the article, but unfortunately, Miller fails to suggest how this might happen. This brings us back to my initial premise: that we as a society need to get serious about financial literacy.

I am Treasurer and Director of Midlas, a not-for-profit organisation that offers financial counselling as one of its key community support services. The government provides funding support to enable Midlas to offer this service. Yet demand is outpacing supply, and this is a common refrain across all the providers of financial counselling.

As great as it is that government provides financial support to assist organisations such as Midlas help people in financial stress, the policy settings are wrong. Just like medicine, where spending on prevention is cheaper and more effective than spending on a cure, spending on financial education would be more effective and deliver greater good than spending on help after the damage is done. Avoiding financial stress would lessen the prevalence of issues that often stem from financial stress, such as illness and poor mental health, relationship damage, homelessness, and drug and alcohol abuse. Not only would this benefit the individual but it would help broader society who share the negative impact of these societal problems.

Through us, the government needs to get serious about teaching our kids about personal finance and money management. The growth of tap and go is a lead indicator of a problem that may come to bite us in years to come. We should act before personal indebtedness becomes a national plague.