Adventures at 5 am: An Exercise/Writing Routine

I dubbed my previous attempt at focusing on reading, writing, and exercise as the “me hour.”  I woke at 6 am–an hour before anyone else in the house–in order to give myself uninterrupted reading, writing, and exercise time. And after some fits and starts, I can say that I have honored that hour almost every weekday this year.

But it’s turned out a little differently than I imagined. Because of our family’s commitment to get at least 10,000 steps a day, I’ve found I use the me hour exclusively for exercise. With a desk job, I won’t get anywhere near 10,000 steps unless I make a concerted effort to exercise.  Certainly not a bad thing (I’m averaging over 11,000 steps), but its not giving me the writing and thinking time that I’d like to devote to this blog and other projects.

So, what did I do? Expand the me hour to 2 hours starting at 5 am. I exercise from 5-6 am and then think/write from 6-7 am.

With a few drawbacks, I’m finding this new schedule helpful to start out my day on the right foot. First, the benefits:

  • It gets me out of bed. I tried to write prior to exercising, but I found that it was too easy for me to reach for the snooze button. Because I’ve already trained myself to get up and exercise, doing that first ensures I get out of bed.

  • I get writing ideas. As I start my exercise, my mind starts to unravel from the sleepiness. Ideas start swirling around in my head. If I focus on a problem, I’ve now convinced myself that I’ll figure out an answer–though not necessarily the best one–for it by the time I finish my walk.

  • It forces me to prioritize better. Getting up at 5 am forces me to be in bed by 10 pm at the latest. That means I don’t allow myself to be distracted (too much) by late-night, low-value internet wanderings.

  • I see unexpected things. This week, I saw some large white rodent of some sort scurry across the outside steps as I was tying my shoes. Yesterday, I saw a raccoon dart up a tree and ran into a friend that I don’t make nearly enough time for.  Beyond the unexpected, the quietness of that time a day is priceless.

  • I don’t feel rushed. With only one hour, I often found myself rushing back to start the day. Now, with two hours, I can exercise and still have time to do some push ups or a 7-minute workout.   And since I hate taking a shower while I’m still sweating from a run, this schedule allows me to cool down and shower before the kids wake up and things get hectic.

There are some drawbacks though:

  • Impact on others. My wife does not like the 5 am alarm. I often wake up before the alarm but not always. And in the rare case one of the kids needs something that early, I’m not available to help.

  • Meeting my energy needs. I haven’t yet figured out the right balance of food, water, and coffee during this two hour stretch to maximize my productivity and comfort.

  • The pull to stay up late. Whether its a work project or some must-see sports event on TV, having the discipline to be in bed by 10 is challenging.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Paul Dryden for inspiring me to take some of the same discipline I’ve honed for exercise and apply it to thinking and writing. Both Paul and I are constantly on the lookout for how productive creative people learn and practice their craft. What do you do?

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How Will You Measure Your Life?

Articles about finding purpose in your life are a dime a dozen.  And most of them are too disjointed from reality to be valuable.“How Will You Measure Your Life?” is different (registration required).

The Harvard Business Review published Clayton Christensen’s adaptation of a speech that he gave to the Harvard Business School MBA Class of 2010.  The class asked Christensen to give them advice on applying Christensen’s research and insight not to their business careers, but instead to their personal lives.As a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen has long been recognized as one of the foremost thinkers in disruptive innovation.  But his essay, the 2010 McKinsey Award winner for best Harvard Business Reviewarticle, displayed a thoughtful and honest analysis of a less academic topic.

Three areas in particular resonated with me.

Life’s Purpose
While a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Christensen spent an hour each night pondering what his life’s purpose should be.  Never having been to Oxford, I can only imagine Christensen in a dim room, lit by a single lamp, huddled over his books and notebooks spread before him on the desk. The result of this investment was clear to Christensen:

It’s the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned. I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they don’t figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces.

In the same way that a business can’t be successful without a strategy, neither can a person without a purpose.  And without a strategy or a purpose, it’s too easy to make decisions that aren’t consistent with your long-term goals.

Marginal cost of bad decisions
The challenge is that these long-term goals are always under attack by short-term decisions.  Christensen relates that thinking only of the marginal cost of a particular bad decision, which is admittedly low, ignores the long-term effects of multiple bad decisions.  Jeffrey Skilling, Christensen’s classmate at HBS, likely didn’t set out to defraud Enron employees and shareholders of billions of dollars.  But he ended up there by making many small decisions that conflicted with his moral code or purpose.  In fact, once that line is crossed, it’s hard to stop.  There will always be extenuating circumstances.

Incentives
When you lack a clear purpose, incentives can also impact you negatively. Christensen warns that high achievers will always choose their career when they want to achieve something unless they have a clear strategy for choosing something else. The reason is simple: you get immediate feedback.  Christensen relates his experience as a parent where it took decades to see how well he parented his children.  As a parent myself, I am faced with this challenge daily. If I refuse to read Knuffle Bunny Too for the 37th straight evening and instead opt to answer a work email, will it impact my daughter down the road?  To some degree, undoubtedly.  And not for the positive.

Christensen’s essay forces the reader to think about important topics that, for many of us, get thought about much too infrequently.  Check it out and let me know what you think.

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Why MBAs Suck at Networking

MBA students and alumni may have the most to gain from networking, but most of them suck at it. Why? My own business school and professional experience has shown me four reasons MBAs suck at networking.

They don’t do it: Many MBAs don’t think they need to network because they are going to a top business school and have access to on-campus recruiting.

Admittedly, it’s hard to find the incentive to network when all the top firms come to campus to wine and dine you. But that means it’s all the more important to do it. After all, how will you distinguish yourself from all the other top candidates in your program? At some point, the differences between grades and GMATs will only take you so far.

For MBAs who aren’t interested in on-campus recruiting, networking isn’t an option; it’s the only way to get a job. On-campus recruiting looks like an all-you-can-eat buffet compared to the scrounging that is off-campus recruiting.

Action item: Just do it. Any networking is better than no networking. Pick someone you want to (re)connect with and contact them (via phone, if you’re feeling bold). Pick someone else the next week.

They network with the wrong people: When MBAs network, they tend to network with only those they think can help them. It’s only natural. You want to work in a particular industry so you network with people who are already in that industry. Even if you don’t actively seek out those in the same industry, you’ll be drawn to those who think like you and have similar interests.

But as Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap explain in a December 2005 Harvard Business Review article, the more diverse a network is, the more valuable it is:

Highly diverse network ties, therefore, can help you develop more complete, creative, and unbiased views of issues. And when you trade information or skills with people whose experiences differ from your own, you provide one another with unique, exceptionally valuable resources.

So, while spending three hours talking with your local barista at Starbucks may not be the best use of time, investing a little time each day building a relationship with him so he knows your name and what you do is not a bad idea. You never know when his uncle’s successful company may be hiring.

Action item: Keep an open mind when it comes to networking. You never know when or how an opportunity will present itself.

They’re not approachable: MBAs don’t smile enough. My theory is some of them think they are too good to do it or that it makes them too vulnerable.

I go the other way. Smiling can break the ice in almost any situation. Even if I’m feeling nervous, just forcing myself to smile is enough to relax me. And it’s hard to be in a sour mood if you have a smile on your face.

That’s part of Scott Ginsberg’s strategy. He’s worn a nametag for 4,026 days and counting. His theory: it makes him more approachable. He’s turned this approachability into a brand and a business.

All else being equal, I want to spend time with someone who is positive, not negative. I’m not alone. Recent research shows that optimists have an easier time landing a job.

Action item: Open yourself up to others. Start by just smiling at those you pass at the grocery store or on the street and it’ll be easier to do it in a professional environment.

They lack a system: While MBAs usually are great at putting structure around problems to help solve them, many do a poor job creating structure around their networking.

Your network is an asset. Just like any other asset, it has to be managed. You have to evaluate it, adjust it, maintain it, and, if necessary, purge it on a regular basis.

There is no right system, but you should have a good way of organizing the people in your network, a plan for how often to contact them, and how you can help them. I use a combination of Excel worksheets, contact databases, Google Calendar, and Google Alerts to manage my network.

Action item: Test out a couple different ways to keep yourself organized. One easy way to start is by creating a list of people that you want to regularly stay in contact with and keeping track of the last time you interacted with them. Set a goal for how often you should stay in touch and see if you can achieve that.

If you have an MBA, hire MBAs, or, heck, even network with MBAs, let me know what you think.

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The Me Hour

I remember meeting someone a couple years ago who had a great tradition with his wife. They got up early every morning, made a pot of coffee, and sat together watching the sunrise.  I don’t know what they discussed, if anything, but that investment in yourself or your relationship can’t be a bad thing.

The switch back to standard time is a good time to start a new tradition: the me hour.  Get up on weekdays at 6 am and do something that is healthy: workout, write, think, or meditate.

I’ve always enjoyed the mornings, before anyone else is awake.  I find the world peaceful at this time of day and enjoy watching the day come alive, with the sun rising and the birds beginning to sing.

With work and household obligations keeping me up late and the same obligations often getting me up early, investing the needed time in myself gets more and more difficult with every passing day.  And the only way to ensure that I actually get it done is to get up earlier than everyone else.

A few ground rules ensure that I’m spending time on my priorities and not other people’s priorities for me::

  • No email
  • No Internet
  • No Twitter
  • No work

How do you ensure you get your me time?

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How to bomb an interview before you’ve started

I’ve been working with several Master of Management Studies students from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business to help them prepare for the job search process.  Most of the students in this one-year program have recently graduated from college and have little to no work experience.

Thus, these students have little experience interviewing for jobs.  That’s where alumni like me come in.  I conduct informational and mock interviews to help students prep for the job search process.

I’ve noticed one area where all these students fall short: they don’t spend enough time strategizing their responses to common questions.  I recommend that they determine the main questions that may be asked and map out the answers–on paper–ahead of time.

This strategy will:

  • give you confidence, because you’ve seen the question before.  It’s not necessary that you give the same answers word for word during your interview, but this preparation will guarantee that you have a thoughtful answer.
  • ensure your answers include tried-and-true STAR stories.  STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) stories give your answer structure and show the impact that you had.  These stories also provide much-needed color to the interview, helping an interviewer remember you.
  • allow you to start the interview with a strong answer to“Walk me through your resume.”  A good response to this type of question will weave a coherent story from where you’ve been to where you are to where you want to go.  Details are less important than how you are able to connect those elements together into a coherent and believable structure.

While this preparation won’t help you catch verbal tics and weak phrases like “I think,” it will make your interview answers much stronger.  What do you think?

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Recent post featured in UNC Health Care’s Well magazine

UNC Health Care asked to use my recent post about our family’s experience with excellent customer service at N.C. Children’s Hospital in their quarterly magazine Well.  You can see the Spring 2011 issue with the post–and a charming picture of my three-year-old–here.

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Excellent customer service at a hospital? Yes.

Recently, my wife and I spent six nights in the hospital with our newborn son who was admitted for a respiratory infection.  Thankfully, we brought him home, healthy, a few days ago.  We also brought home an overwhelmingly positive view of our experiences with all of those we encountered at the NC Children’s Hospital, part of the UNC Health Care System.

Specifically, we appreciated the excellent customer service.  A focus on customer service?  At a hospital?  We were surprised too.

You would think a hospital wouldn’t need to have good customer service.  After all, most hospitals don’t face significant competition for some of their specialized services.  And the very nature of a hospital means that there are many stressful, rushed situations that are not conducive to the finer points of customer service.

But that’s exactly what we got.  It was as simple as this: every single person that entered our room on the 6th floor of the NC Children’s Hospital, from our nurses to the doctors to the housekeeping staff, was courteous, friendly, and asked us, “Is there anything else I can get for you?”

As a businessperson, I am fascinated by how such a simple question could be so ingrained by all the people at the hospital–especially from those with such disparate roles–so that it was asked without fail every time someone left our room.  If it hadn’t been so genuine, it would have been spooky. Even the day after we got home, a nurse followed up with us to see how our son was doing.

It’s clear to me that the people at UNC Health Care System have internalized their mission of Leading. Teaching. Caring. With another world-class hospital 10 miles down the road at Duke University, perhaps UNC thinks they need to compete on this customer service angle.  There’s probably not that much difference in the facilities that are available at UNC and Duke.  And, as this article from the magazine Healthcare Executive mentions, it’s easy to provide the high-tech items that patients and families desire. It’s harder to provide the high-touch items.

Regardless, it’s clear that UNC’s strategy is working because my wife and I chose UNC for our son’s care precisely because of the positive experiences we had there during the births of our two children.

So what can be learned from this experience?

1) If you’re going to have a mission, you have to commit the resources to back it up. Most of the time, missions are created and quickly forgotten.  But when you can show consistency between your mission and your action, you provide value to your customers.

2)  Even if the UNC Health Care System wasn’t in a competitive environment with Duke University Health System, the way UNC treats its customers is the right thing to do.  It makes families who are already tense and scared feel welcomed and cared for.

3)  The UNC Health Care System is well-run, whether that is due to good management of employees or good selection of employees that fit with their mission.  I’m guessing it’s a little of both.

Has a good customer service experience surprised you before where you’ve least expected it?

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Why I’m an optimist

I’m happy to see this recent research in the MIT Sloan Management Review that confirms one of my long-held beliefs about the power of optimism, especially in the job search.  Interestingly, I took part in this research when I was at Fuqua from 2005-2007.

This research complements a recent blog post by Anthony Tjan in the Harvard Business Review that gives some good tips on how to make luck work in your favor.

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