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Communication, Management

Why Your Team Needs a Win Outlet

January 7, 2016

Remember Whack A Mole? That carnival game where, depending on the amusement park, the prize ranged from a keychain to a stuffed elephant the size of a small child? And when you won that big stuffed elephant, what did you do? You instinctively, with the bat still in your grip, looked to your left at the best friend/crush/stranger there next to you, to say: “Look! I won!!”

We all need that win outlet.

We may not be bopping little plastic woodland creatures on the head anymore, but we’re still regularly “winning” at challenges throughout our days. If we don’t have an immediate outlet to share those moments, it’s a huge opportunity loss for building relationships and knowledge sharing.

As humans, we thrive on those words of congratulations and recognition, especially if we’re shy introverts who don’t regularly ask for it.

This is why it’s so important to have a platform for sharing these wins within any organization.

How to create a win outlet

What you need is a reliable communication platform where anyone can easily send a brief message to the entire company with zero barriers. The zero barrier part is important:

  • No approval queue needed, the person should feel encouraged to share without checking whether it’s okay first.
  • Goes to everyone. The feeling of having an entire organization hear you is very powerful, and increases the number of people who will be able to cheer in response.
  • Supports, and encourages, brief 1-2 sentence messages. Win announcements should not take the form of An Important Memo. Consider a 140-character Twitter message — people’s expectations are very different from an email, which most people still expect to have a greeting and signature. Less newsletter, more Facebook status.
  • Enduring. Not everyone will see it at the same time; choose a platform where latecomers can still send their congratulatory messages, and the sender can receive them throughout the day — keep those highs going.
  • Stability. Pick a stable platform so that technical difficulties don’t knock the wind out of your sails.
Why low-barrier? Why to everyone?

When a win happens, the broadcast to everyone should be instantaneous, when the person is still feeling their high of achievement. Don’t let that go stale. It’s all too easy to tell ourselves after that initial rush of excitement, that “it’s not that big of a deal,” or “others don’t care.” “This is just my job.” When we don’t fall into that trap, and do tell others, we can exponentially magnify that rush and keep it going — every time someone responds with a “hell yeah!” we keep the rush going. Like drugs — we’ll still come down from our high, but it will have been sustained enough that a little bit of it lingers. Just enough to make us crave it again, which means we continue to do better.

Sustained wins

It’s important to keep wins coming at a sustainable rate. By celebrating wins, we give them the acknowledgement needed to count them as wins and to give us that fix. This is a habit we don’t want to kick. By regularly feeding that endorphin rush, we’ll be positively rewarded to keep making them.

So which ones to celebrate?

All of them. Landing a big client – that’s a no-brainer. But don’t forget to celebrate the little wins like clearing out your inbox. Anything that you’ve felt some amount of struggle with, it’s worth mentioning. You’ll see that others can relate, and you might even motivate someone else to cross that same item off their list.

Tips & How-to

Group chat platforms are great for this — Hipchat, Slack, Campfire, even IRC. Create a room for general company chatter (we called it “Watercooler” at a previous company), where anyone can participate by reading and posting. It’s low-pressure – messages can be as simple as “Hey everyone, how’s it going?”. Encourage a culture where this isn’t seen as a “waste of time.” It takes 2 seconds to send that message, and approximately 4 minutes at most to play out that conversation should someone respond. There should be inherent trust that people who are heads down or feeling particularly prone to distraction don’t have that room open when they need to concentrate.

In the absence of these chat tools, you can even use email for your win outlet – just make sure there’s a dedicated thread whose purpose is for sending quick low-barrier messages. Set the precedent that no salutation or signature are required, and that brief messages are not frowned upon.

All done? Congratulations! You just improved your company culture.

Communication, Live / Work

How To Say You’re Busy, Part 2

October 1, 2015

This is the second post in a two-part series titled “How to say you’re busy.” Missed Part 1? Check out the “Different Types of Busy” here!

The biggest mistake that everyone makes is not saying it at all. There’s a couple goblins going on here:

  • Fearing repercussions (like getting fired, which is unlikely)
  • Pride (I got this! I can do it!)
  • Naivete (I got this! I can do it!)

Keeping mum about how overloaded you are is the biggest barrier you can put up to successfully surviving this shitstorm. But how you say it is important too – you don’t want to just blurt it out.

So the first step is to know how you’re feeling about the busy. You probably felt overwhelmed and anxious when you first realized how busy you are. Then maybe anger, either at yourself or at whoever loaded up that list of yours. Where you want to arrive at is something like defeat, but without all the crummy loser baggage that goes along with that word. I like to call it: catharsis. This is where you accept your situation, realize that blaming anyone is not going to solve the problem, and you’re ready to hunker down and tackle the work. This is when you ask for help.

Asking for help isn’t the same as delegating tasks. It’s as simple as saying: “Miss Boss-lady/Dear Spouse/Kids/Co-workers: I’m really busy.”

You went through those steps of catharsis, right? That means that this did not come out stressed, or angry. It should come out like an observation, like how “It’s raining outside” might sound. It’s a little bit of a bummer, but you’re sharing useful information that should be pretty relevant to the person listening.

So what kind of help can you ask for? Help can be as simple as understanding — asking for your partner to not get mad at you for being absent over the next several days, and to respect your need to get things done by staying out of your way.

Help might come in the form of lending you a hand in non-related parts of your life. Got a huge work deadline? That doesn’t magically make the dirty dishes at home go away. But asking for help can.

Help could be a second brain coming up with creative solutions to either lessen your to-do list, or to work smarter and more efficiently. Decide whether you will likely benefit from this type of brainstorming, and cut it off quickly but graciously if you’re sure that the busy is already as un-busy as it can be.

Finally, share your plan. You have one, right? Even if that plan is just to not sleep and work all week, share it so others can adjust around you and come up with their own ways to mindfully support you. And then work. Work your butt off. So you can get back to un-busy again.

Communication, Live / Work

How To Say You’re Busy, Part 1

September 17, 2015

I follow a blogger, pretty well known, who writes life productivity stuff. For weeks he had promised a Big Article. On this week, he still hadn’t written it. He wrote a different article instead but clearly felt bad about not writing the one he had promised. But instead of apologizing, he complained. He complained about how hard writing Big Articles was, how much Life gets in the way, and that it may or may not be coming who knows ahhh I pretty much give up why try.

Now I’m a big fan of this writer. But really?

“Busy” is universal. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel busy. Often it just means there’s a thing we really don’t want to do, so we fill up our time with everything but that activity. Those times I can’t help you with. But the real Busy is about acknowledging your limits, apologizing to anyone you’re about to break a promise to, and asking for help.

But first, the three different states of “busy”:

“Delusional Busy”

(i.e. procrastinating) This happens so often that it deserves to be included here. It’s seriously 80% of “I’m so busy” syndrome. You feel busy because you’re filling up your time with a lot of activity, but are each of those activities necessary? Do they contribute directly to the most important goal in your life at the moment (e.g. lose weight, more time with the family, change jobs)? I guarantee you that twenty minutes on Facebook, does not.

“Unpredictable Busy”

(Uncertain territory, didn’t have the tools/knowledge to properly predict upcoming obstacles) Unpredictable busy happens frequently when you’re embarking on something new. Based on the little information you have, you (formally or informally) create a plan. Then when you go and carry out that plan, so much new information comes at you that you can’t adjust your plan quickly enough. Hence the all-too-familiar feelings of being overwhelmed and underwater.

The best thing you can do under this type of “busy” is to remain calm as you can, and set your own expectations that you will be overwhelmed. Remember that everyone goes through this at the beginning.

“Actual Busy”

(Too much needs to get done in not enough time, and it’s all important) Actual Busy is the toughest, because you can’t reason it away. Sometimes, you’re truly no-working-around-it busy. This is the pull all-nighters, forget to eat, miss birthday parties, haven’t talked to anyone in days kind of busy. This shouldn’t happen more than, say, a few times a year (for your own healthy and sanity, but also for the quality of your work), but it does happen and that’s normal too.

Before you follow the next steps, point a critical eye towards your busy task list, and question whether every item belongs there. What if it’s pushed out just one week? Is there technically someone else who can do it, even if they can’t do it as well or as fast?

Ready to let it out? Click here to read Part 2 of “How to say you’re busy”!

Communication, Live / Work

How I Use 750 Words to Write Daily-ish

March 3, 2015

If you’re trying to start a writing habit, you have to try It’s a site that gives you a blank canvas to write in, tracking which days you wrote. The implicit goal is to reach 750 words every day, but it also gives you points just for writing. A running tab shows your record for the month: bright green x’s for 750 days, half an “x” for less than 750, and sad empty boxes for days you didn’t write at all.

Seeing those empty boxes sucks. The achiever in me wants to check all the boxes.

750 Words is free to try out, then asks you to become a paying member after 31 days. When my one month anniversary arrived, I didn’t hesitate at all to enter my PayPal creds, whisking $5 a month to Buster and Kelliane who run the site.

I really like 750 Words.

How To Use 750 Words

Prior to 750 Words, I was a fairly longtime patron of Ommwriter, a fantastic desktop app for distraction-free writing. The one-time fee for each major upgrade bought me a gorgeous lush backdrop in which to write. Ommwriter doesn’t have any tracking or motivation features, which is why I was tempted to give 750 Words a try.

Full Screen Mode

The feature I missed most from Ommwriter was the full-screen obliteration of all distractions. 750 Words has a “Full screen writing” option but all it does is hide the top site header. What I really needed to escape from was the clock ticking at the top of my desktop. To get away for reals, I use the full screen mode of my browser (Apple-Shift-F for the Chrome users), gloriously transporting me to a blank field of snow once again.

Writing Music

The other feature I missed from Ommwriter was beautiful soothing writing music, which I had never listened to before while writing. This music is a cross between electronic downtempo, ambient, and spa music – the kind you’re played whilst getting a massage. It gives me the comfort of noise without stealing me from my thoughts. Ommwriter comes with seven built-in soundtracks, all surprisingly well chosen. To mimic this, I found this wonderfully curated “Writing Music” playlist which I listen to on shuffle in a separate tab. The tracks never get tiresome thanks to the “Radio” feature available on most music streaming sites, and I get the added benefit of broadening my music horizons.

You Win! Good Job!

750 Words congratulates me when I hit my 750 word mark, popping up in the top right corner of my screen. There’s exclamation points! This little green notification is enough to keep me writing, especially when I start flagging around 525 words.

When I’m able to push past my blockage, I almost always well surpass 750 words, logging around 1,000-1,500 words by the time I sit back. 750 is enough to get me on a roll, forcing me to dig deep-ish on my topic and therefore tap into a meaning that’s worth excavating. Once I find that second wind, the words fly by.

There’s no grammar nazi or lit police judging your 750 words; the point is just to put words – any words – down onto the canvas. Inevitably with enough repetition, those words begin to better and better resemble the shape you want them to be.

Metadata and Quantified Self Redux

As if the perfect writing environment and auto-save weren’t enough, 750 Words appeals to the geek in me. By entering all-cap labels followed by a colon, I can track various metrics around my writing health. My writing is really a representation of how well my noggin’s functioning, so I like to pay attention to how much I’m sleeping and my own perceived quality of the writing I’m doing (i.e. is it blogworthy). To this end, 750 Words provides a lightweight hack for measuring any metric I want, as long as I can come up with a pithy tag for it. The values are then plotted on a time-based bar graph in my “Metadata” section. Here’s an example of the custom metrics I track:

NAP: 0
SLEEP: 7.5 hours

My writing canvas is one of the few repositories I visit consistently every day, so it’s the most fitting place for me to enter metrics about myself. It’s worked so well that I’ve begun to use it for tracking non-writing related stats like job satisfaction.

I’m certain that if 750 Words wasn’t such a joy to use, my writing goal would have suffered quite a bit. Combined with my offline hack to make writing (and getting up early) as enjoyable as possible, I’ve habitually written enough now to believe that this just might stick.

I discovered thanks to this thoughtful Medium post on starting a daily writing habit by OneMonth’s Mattan Griffel. Thanks, Mattan!


Me Talk With Food

February 26, 2015

It astounds me that we have so many ways to communicate. Words, written and spoken. Body language. Art – theatre, dance, the visual dialogue of paint strokes and color. Whether we’re sharing an intimate one-on-one conversation or declaring a statement to the masses, we are graced with innumerable ways to do so.

My favorite way to communicate is with food. I like making food more than oil paintings or drawings because there’s a greater opportunity to inhabit the same plane as the receiver. They interact back.

I don’t want to be in a restaurant, hidden away in the kitchen. I want to be at the table, where you are.

Through my food, I communicate my life. How I grew up, where I grew up. Who my parents and grandparents are. I communicate where I’ve been – the South, where I fell in love with barbecue and frito pie, and to Barcelona where I learned what fried food should be. Hanoi, where vietnamese ladies cook the most flavorful pork sausages on the side of the road using a cinder block. I crib from the dozens of izakayas and sushi joints I’ve been to, but also the Olive Gardens and Panda Express of my awkward teenage years. I secretly love spam.

Having just been inspired by a fantastic restaurant meal, I riff on a particularly memorable sauce basing an entire menu off muhammara. My version: arbol, walnuts, beet, olive oil. No one else had heard of muhammara either, and I bring it to them just like it had been brought to me. I see muhammara everywhere now.

When I’m lazy and domestic, I roast chicken to slice into chicken noodle soup with cut lasagna noodles. I ladle the soup into bowls for the one or two friends I invite over, preferring to catch up over the ease of a couch rather than the bustling din of the bar.

I communicate how I’m feeling at the moment. When my relationship with my parents had become strained, I cooked the comfort food of my childhood. I spooned this rice congee and tea eggs and pork belly to those who gathered at my table.

When I’m feeling romantic and appreciative, I make the melty half-beef-half-pork burger from our first date spot, carefully slicing russet potato into cold peanut oil before gently heating it up into perfect french fries with truffle salt.

I feed people as a way of talking to them. It saddens me to think there are so many who don’t know this language, eating food every day but not hearing it murmur or shout. Heating ramen in a bowl for their child and not knowing how to transform it into food that says “I love you.”

I hold even more awe for the farmers and foragers who bring us these raw ingredients, the culinary equivalents of pastel and charcoal. They speak, too. They’re saying “Look at this, I climbed a slippery rock to bring you this. This is how much I like you.” And when we cook with these beautiful things, these found and cultivated objects, we are saying “Thank you for bringing me this, I will respect it and transform it and re-share in my own little way.”

When I am on the receiving end of all this sharing and re-sharing, I want to hear every story behind the food – behind the person feeding me. Food also gives us, after that first joyous bite, the invitation to ask.


Email Mirroring: to Emoticon or Not To Emoticon?

January 11, 2015

Lean in. Lower voice. Get louder. Cross your legs. Over the course of a conversation, we mirror the other person’s behavior without even thinking about it. These cues signal that we’re on the same page, that we’re communing. It helps us bond, kind of like a contagious yawn.

But how does one commune in this way when most of our work conversations happen over email and chat? Especially when working remotely with colleagues, we need to develop a new layer of communication signals to replace our usual arm crossing and emphatic nodding.

We already do this. You have an email “voice,” and so does everybody else. You notice it especially when someone’s email is abrupt, or extra effusive.

What you’re saying and how you’re saying it

We infuse “body language” into our emails in three ways: format, length, and tone. Do you always include a greeting and sign-off? Do you use whole sentences, or phrases? Are your emails short, or verbose? Do you say “thanks,” or “thanks!”?

We unwittingly tack on extra meaning when we read emails. Think back to the last time you received a one-liner. Unless it was either “You rock!” or okaying sandwiches for lunch, it sounded rude to you, right? No hello?! No “thanks”? What else do you “hear” when you read emails from your colleagues, your boss, your clients? Is there a “please” in there? Is it condescending, frustrated, or polite? (Hint: it’s rarely just polite!) Can you count the number of exclamation points and smiley faces?

Look, we’re bonding!

Now that you’re aware of how you’re coming across in emails, you can wield that into better communication with your colleagues and clients. Let’s start simple: don’t overdo it on the exclamation points if your newest client only gives you terse all-business replies. But oh wait, was that a smiley face in your favorite customer’s response? Lob one back. Maybe even a wink that says “you know how it is!” if you’re feeling cheeky.

You can mirror your recipient by keeping your emails short and to the point if they always seem to be in a rush. If the emails you receive are warm and familiar, feel free to loosen the formality of your language.

Here’s a scale:

  • Frigid: “No. Will email.”
  • Formal: “”Dear Sir, Please find attached the document you requested.”
  • Respectfully human: “Here’s the document, as promised. Let us know if you have any questions.”
  • Warmer human: “Here’s the document, as promised. Let us know if you have any questions!”
  • Familiar human: “Here’s the document I mentioned. Hope you had a great time in the Bahamas!”
  • Too familiar: “Here’s that document, talk soon!!!! xo” (don’t do this)

Adjusting the tone, length, and structure of your emails is just one way to mirror colleagues when most of our conversation is funneled through a computer screen. And just like in the physical world, you’ll naturally find that you speak one way to one person and another to the next.

This post was originally written in 2014 and published in January 2015. Here’s why!

Communication, Management

Why The Future of Work is for Everyone

January 2, 2015

You don’t find much fully distributed working in the wild yet. Maybe in small pockets of startups, and some consultancies. But in 2014 “remote” still meets with mostly head-scratching. And no, large corporations with satellite offices don’t count. I’m talking work-in-pj’s-if-I-want-anytime-I-want distributed working.

What if every employer, large and small, worked this way?

Imagine the largest company you know – maybe the one where your great aunt Susie’s daughter’s cousin works at. Or maybe it’s you that works there. Imagine if you stopped going to that office tomorrow. You choose your favorite things from your desk (camera lens mug, and framed picture of Fluffy), and leave behind the awkward rolling chair and cheap coffee. And so does everyone else. When new members join the team, they ask you what your home office is like. You train the webcam on your mug and Fluffy says hello from your lap.

Now imagine that it’s you running that company. It’s a scary thought, not having all your employees in one place. A little like sending your kids off to college. What will they do there? Will it even vaguely resemble work?

What’s in it for bosses

There’s the obvious reasons for going remote. If you give people choice and freedom, they are happier individuals. Happy employees are productive employees. Agreed? Agreed. But how is remote distributed teams going to directly impact the “bottom line?”

Not limiting yourself to geography suddenly opens you up to a myriad of talent that previously didn’t consider you because you were not ideally located for them. If we think everyone who has skill and ingenuity wants to live in New York, San Francisco, or London…. well, we’d be wrong. There’s many other perks of setting up distributed, but we’ll stick to exploring this one for now.

Are Consultants Out of a Job?!

If companies were able to hire anyone from anywhere for exact fit, does this mean vendors become obsolete? As managers, we always want to grow our teams but it often becomes overhead in the greater desire to experiment and innovate and throw ideas against the wall. If we need to produce two additional long-term salaries in order to give new product line Z a try, we may not be so bold to take that risk. There will always be room for the fast-moving supplemental team who can insert themselves quickly, get shit done, and leave the company a better place.

On the frontline, there will always be developers and designers who thrive on solving wildly different problems from month to month. On the other side of the fence are folks who prefer to dig deep and grow with one problem, seeing it through its entire evolution.

Why I’m For It

If everyone — and I mean, not just the people in your own company, but everyone — worked the same way, imagine how much we could accomplish by simply skipping over the mundane task of “getting set up.” Part of the reason why programming frameworks like Rails was so successful is because it was “opinionated.” Wanted to add an image? You knew exactly where to put your file, because the framework told you where to put it. And guess what? Every developer picking up your project knew exactly where to find it.

Imagine a world where no one had to ask:

  • “How much vacation time do I have left?” (you take what you need)
  • “Can I work from home?” (yes, you can work wherever you want)
  • “How do we communicate our status to each other?” (daily standups)
  • “Do we influence what gets done around here?” (plannings and office hours)
  • “Is it okay if I try this?” (yes)

There’s any number of aspects of “work” that could be shared in this way, from vacation norms to communication styles to utility of physical spaces. And if everyone embodies at least the intention of those norms, we could all show up to work on the same page, with the same expectations and comforts, enabled to hit the ground running.

This post was originally written in 2014 and published in January 2015. Here’s why!