Managing work during stressful times

working cat

For the last couple of months, work has been killer. My former boss moved onto a new position and took a long leave before the new boss arrived. During these transitional times, I not only inherited work from my old boss, but also continued with my primary responsibilities while on-boarding my new boss.

All of a sudden, more emails, deadlines, and meetings all started charging my way. People from all sides needed decisions / recommendations / input while I was still trying to figure out what was the issue at hand. Meanwhile, a large, hot spotlight was on my back as I had to continue running our group before my new boss was fully onboard.

My first reaction was to bang my head against the desk…repeatedly. After discovering that head-banging did not resolve any issues, I then proceeded to take deep breaths…until my desk neighbor thought I was becoming asthmatic. Finally, I took some more sensible steps to manage (and attempt to reduce) my stress.

  • Prioritize: I turned to my tried and true method for dealing with “ALOT of stuff.” I listed all of my work tasks and prioritized each item based on urgency and importance. What do I need to do NOW? What can I push back on? What can I delegate? What can I ignore? I think this is critical from transforming a large blob of work to manageable tasks. 
  • Focus: My inbox has been overflowing with emails. While sometimes I find it irresistible to check every single email that comes through, the key to getting things done is to focus on what you are doing. I started scheduling specific times to check email. I’d tell myself, “OK. You will work on this for 45 mins and check your email for 15 mins.”
  • Negotiate: I find many times what people request in emails can be very different than what they actually want. Investing in a 5 to 10 minute phone conversation to figure out what they really need can be such a time saver. A request can go from “I need every competitor product sales for the last 5 years” to “I just need these 3 product sales for the last 5 years”.
  • Decide: Indecision can generate more workload. A decision may be held up because more information, analysis, and stakeholder buy-in are needed. However, the longer a decision is stalled, the greater the ripple effect on other people’s work. When time runs out, the indecision manifests itself into a series of painful fire drills. Therefore, I find that action generally trumps inaction when running a business. Sound and efficient decision-making can save yourself and others a tremendous amount of work later on.
  • Step Out: Sometimes, you find out that the sky is falling and then more bad news follow, pushing you to the brink of a heart attack. When this happened to me recently, I shoved my computer away and went for a walk (without my phone). It turned out to be a great move. The walk allowed me to not only calm down but also helped me put the situation into perspective.
  • Celebrate small wins: I relish the feeling I get when crossing out an item on my to-do list. I can actually feel a small rock removed from my shoulders. Crossing out items also signifies that you’ve made progress. You set out to do something and you did it. I think it’s important to celebrate these small wins to encourage yourself to keep moving and progressing.
  • Stay Healthy: The automatic reaction to stress tends to be sleep less, consume more caffeine and carbs, and cut out exercise. However, I find myself utterly useless when I’m sleep, nutrition, and exercise-deprived. Forcing yourself to sleep, exercise, and eat vegetables are actually better for your productivity.

Completely cutting stress out of your life is near impossible. Instead, I think the key is how to manage stress and perhaps even turn it into a positive trigger.

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Personal Branding: In and Outside the Office

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Last Friday night, I somehow won best female costume at our company’s year end party. The theme was rock / pop stars, and I attempted to be Katy Perry with a blue wig and cupcake bikini top tight pink dress (a slightly more conservative approach that still mildly resembles my character’s wardrobe choice). My victory was solely due to the non-existent competition as only 30% of the total attendees made any attempt at wearing a costume.

While I accepting my prize and company-wide recognition, I had very mixed feelings as I stood on stage under the hot lights. I couldn’t help but think: While this is technically an outside the office party, how does this affect my personal brand inside the office?

As I twirled my fake, long, blue hair, I thought: Do people think I’m fun, or do people think a little trashy? As I adjusted my tight pink dress, I thought: Are people focused on my looks now, or do they still think I’m competent and (mildly) intelligent at work?

I contrast this recognition with that of another colleague of mine. She is the head of our company’s running club. Each week, she organizes fellow runners to a marathon training session. Prior to the race, she even ordered and distributed run packs which includes a running shirt, gel, and Cliff bars. On top of that, she finished her first marathon in incredible time!

Through the running club, she’s expanded her network and created wonderful PR for herself through running. Perhaps others attribute positive qualities to her professionally because of this extracurricular activity. I, at least, think of her as reliable (as she trains with club members weekly), goal-oriented (setting time objective for her race and achieving it), organized (creating and ordering the race packs), and team-oriented (as she manages the club).

Perhaps winning a costume contest as Katy Perry doesn’t quite create the same positive branding effect as leading a running club…

The lesson learned here is: be more selective and thoughtful about activities outside the office to excel at and attract attention for. Preferably, choose activities that highlight your strengths and build upon desirable professional qualities.

On the bright side, at least I didn’t wear this (well, at least the part below the neck)…

katy-perry-cupcake-bra

How to find and do work you love

What an inspiring TEDx Talk by Scott Dinsmore! It’s completely worth 18 mins of your time. 

1. Become an expert on yourself: Understand yourself. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, then you’re never going to find it.

2. Do the impossible and push your limits: People don’t do things because they tell themselves they can’t or other people tell them they can’t. Make incremental pushes to prove yourself and others wrong.

3. Surround yourself with inspiring people: “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” – Jim Rohn. Be with people that inspire possibilities.

Thanks to Everyday Power Blog for directing me to this.

The best time to look for a job…

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The best time to look for a job is when you’re not looking.

A head hunter recently gave me this piece of sage advice after I told her that I was happy in my current position. This statement really made me think. Looking for a job when you’re still happily employed means…

  • You’re not desperate. Since you’re not begging everyone and their mom to give you a job, your self-confidence is still in tact. I’m sure having a healthy self esteem helps your job search. Employers can smell the desperation. You’re also more desirable to recruiters when you have a job title and a business card.
  • You’re financially stable. Having a steady stream of income while job hunting helps in so many ways. You can afford to buy a nice suit. You can hold out longer in a salary negotiation for higher pay. Your landlord or family won’t be pressuring you to take whatever paying job that comes along.
  • You can set a high bar. Since you have time on your side, you can be selective in your options, waiting until an exciting opportunity comes along. You don’t have to settle for the first offer that comes along in fear of a prolonged gap on your resume. Especially if you’re happy at your current job, the new opportunity would have to really go above and beyond your current situation, where you already enjoy the work and where you’ve already built a network and track record.
  • You learn more about yourself. The aforementioned head hunter pitched me a job that made me realize how much I really like my own job. It also made me realize what areas I like about it and what areas I would like for it to improve.

When we’re in a job, we often get too comfortable until we’re not (because we’re bored, overworked, or unappreciated). And that’s when we start looking for the next gig…whether it’s because you’re desperate to leave, asked to leave, or already voluntarily (or involuntarily) unemployed. From this piece of advice, I think we need to keep our eyes open at all times for opportunities that may come within or outside your current organization.

So the next question is: how do you passively look for a job (either internal or external)? Unless you have Peter Thiel‘s track record and high profile, it’s unlikely that headhunters and others would be calling you every second for a new and exciting opportunity.

  • Learn more about what opportunities you would be interested in. As mentioned, the bar for the next big thing should be high, but also make sure you make the bar specific. For example, if you love everything about your job except for the availability of international opportunities, then make sure you look out for opportunities similar to your job with a global slant.
  • Keep your LinkedIn profile in tip top shape. This head hunter (and others) found me through LinkedIn. It’s important that you keep your information up-to-date. Also, putting a professional picture (that doesn’t make you look like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons) probably helps as well.
  • Stay connected to your network. Whether it’s your school’s alumni club or even ex-co-workers, catch up with them on a periodic basis. See what they are up to and maybe they’ve stumbled upon opportunities that may interest you.
  • Talk to your mentors, boss, and co-workers. If you do like your job, then chances are you like your organization. Why not casually talk to your co-workers to see what other job vacancies are around the organization? Also, if you know what you are looking for, then it could even be helpful to steer your boss / mentors by saying…”For my next position at XYZ company, I would love to get more exposure to [insert what you’re looking for]”.

Once you have opportunities lined up before you, the difficult part then is to decide if and when to switch. But I guess that’s a good problem to have…

3 conversations to re-energize yourself at work

motivated-to-work

I had been getting bogged down at work. It happens almost without you noticing. You attend one too many meetings (with questionable value add). You juggle more office politics than usual because someone’s ego issues (aka. insecurity). You have to work with negative people (with little rainy clouds over their heads). You spend hours on tedious work (also with some questionable value add and that could be outsourced to monkeys). It happens.

However, in the past 1-2 weeks, I engaged in 3 conversations that remarkably renewed my sense of purpose at work.

1. Talk to your customers

This could be the easiest way to lift you out of a work rut (unless you have really terrible customers or your organization provides a really terrible product or service). Since I work in agriculture, speaking to my customers (who are mostly smallholder farmers) reminds me how I am able to help them increase their incomes. With higher incomes, they are able to keep their children in school, provide them with more opportunities, and break the cycle of poverty.  For me, that is incredibly motivating.

For people without customer-facing jobs, this is particularly critical because it puts into context the purpose of your role which may not always be obvious. For example, if your job is packaging in supply chain, then visiting a customer’s warehouse makes you realize that good packaging could really make a difference as your company’s boxes would stand out next to those of competitors, or your products are easier to move because they have handles on the side, or different products are easily identifiable so the customer doesn’t pull the wrong box, etc.

For people with customer-facing roles, it’s meaningful to engage your customers on a more personal level. Shelf the normal business talk (e.g., sales next quarter) to truly listen and learn about the way they use your products / service and what they think about it. Negative feedback can also provide good motivation for you to do something about it.

2. Talk to people that want to work at your organization

Through alumni networks, LinkedIn or other references, I get pinged by people that are interested in working at my company. I find it refreshing to talk to them because it reminds me what it was like when I was in that position — how excited I was to get an interview, how eager I was to get an offer letter, how I visualized myself walking around the office. Most importantly, it reminds me why I wanted this job in the first place.

Therefore, go ahead and chat with those eager beavers that want your job! They can help you take a step back, realize what you take for granted, and re-inject a sense of purpose.

3. Talk to a stranger about your job

2 weeks ago, I attended a networking event, where people inevitably trade name cards and ask about what you do. At first, I felt like a broken tape recorder saying, “My name is…. and I work at ….. as a …….”. However, I ran into a few people that were somehow genuinely curious about my work. I started explaining in more detail about the purpose of my company and my job as well as industry trends. Before long, I was really getting into it. I almost felt bad for taking up so much air time.

Talking to a stranger about your job forces you to strip out the monotonous work involving pointless reports or pre-pre-pre-meetings and forces you to focus on the important parts of your work.

Next time, when you find yourself in a deep dark rut, where you’re about to stab yourself in the eye. Go out and talk to people. They will help you re-focus and strip out the noise. If you’re still grumpy after these conversations, then perhaps it’s time for a new job. As Mother Teresa astutely once said:

Work without love is slavery.

Powerful life lessons from the movie Gravity

SPOILER ALERT: If you have yet to see Gravityplease drop whatever you are doing and go watch it now. Otherwise, please feel free to proceed reading.

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Unexpectedly, this movie blew me away. I went in so skeptical as I couldn’t separate Sandra Bullock’s voice from something disastrously funny like the movie title: Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous. While the visual and 3D effects were arresting, my heart bleeds for this movie because of how it inspires and challenges me. Here, I would like to share with you the lessons I learned from Gravity applied to life and work.

1. Bad Things Happen: Bad things happen often and often for no reason. In the movie, the story is set into motion when a series of large debris hits Dr. Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) space shuttle and sends her tumbling through space. After this catastrophe, a series of unfortunate events continue to challenge our protagonist as she struggles to survive in the most inhospitable environment for humans.

Accept what you cannot control

While we’re not all astronauts spiraling through space, we’re all familiar with days or weeks or months when the little black rainy cloud keeps pouring on our heads. You get a bad performance review; the coffee machine breaks down; you get rejected from your dream grad school; you have to fire someone; the love of your life doesn’t love you. So much of this movie reminds me that we must recognize and accept that there are certain things we cannot control.

Put bad things in perspective

This movie also helps me put things in perspective. The next time I get a Monday morning deadline on a Friday evening, I should think: “Hey! At least, I am not tumbling uncontrollably into the deep dark space utterly alone. It could be worse…”

2. Mindset Shift is Powerful: My favorite scene was the pivot point, when Stone transforms from the victim to a fighter. One minute, she is in the darkest place in the movie where she has given up all hope and begins committing suicide. But she reaches deep within and garners the last bits of strength, giving her the motivation to survive and return to earth.

On the surface it seems that nothing changed. Stone is still Stone with the same body, environment, and equipment. However, everything had changed.

We’ve all been in situation when there’s nothing but you and despair. During the recent recession, many of my friends and colleagues were mercilessly laid off. While some were very depressed, others saw it as an opportunity to work on a start-up or travel the world.

I think this pivotal scene beautifully illustrates how we can pull ourselves out of dark situations with nothing but the power of our minds.

3. Rebuilding is painful: Whether it’s a death of a close one, career set back, or relationship break-up, rebuilding is hard. In the movie, we learn that prior to her space mission, Stone suffered the most painful experience a parent could have — the untimely death of her young daughter. Somehow, she never rebuilt her life on earth and spent years doing nothing but working and mourning. When she decided to fight for her survival in space, she had to go through hell and more to return to earth. (The fireball space shuttle seemed pretty hellish.)

Stone’s extremely challenging journey back reminds me that it’s so much easier to fall into a dark place than to climb out of it. It also reminds me how strong we are as humans. Someone once told me that his grandmother, who survived the holocaust, had lost her eye sight because she lived underground in complete darkness for 7+ years. Since I heard that story, I’ve wondered what her first experiences were like when she stepped outside: Did the sunlight hurt her eyes? Did the open air irritate her skin?

Setbacks are inevitable in life, so we just need to remind ourselves that we need to fight so much harder to come back up.

I hope this beautiful and powerful movie can remind you how to approach challenges in work and life as much as it has reminded me.

How to say “no” to work

cancel-my-meetings

All of sudden, you’re flooded with a zillion meeting requests, a gillion projects, and other random one-off requests. There’s only one of you, finite hours in a day, and personal  / familial demands to maintain — what do you do?

Recently, I’ve come to appreciate the value the “Decline” button and the word “No”. While rejecting others can be quite difficult to implement, it’s liberating afterwards. More importantly, it allows you to focus on your priorities. Here is how to say “no”:

1. Build a reputation for being hard working

Before you start rejecting others, you not only need to say “yes” but also make sure you produce outstanding work. Building political capital upfront is a critical precedent to drawing boundaries later on.

2. Consider and evaluate the request

Generally, when people reach out to you for work or to join a meeting, this is good news….because you are needed. If nobody wants to work with you, then you probably are in deeper troubles. When evaluating the request, consider the following:

  • How important is this request relative to the other work on your plate?
  • Is this work aligned with your performance and / or career objectives?
  • Does this work provide you with any strategic developmental opportunities? (e.g., work with a business unit you’re hoping to transfer to, or with a senior leader you’re hoping to network with)
  • What would be your role in the project?
  • How much time and resources would this request realistically take up?
  • What are the possible risks in this project? (e.g., the technology is relatively untested with our customers)
  • Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

3.  Ask Questions 

If you can’t answer all the questions above, then be sure to contact the requestor for more details. Of course, I may rephrase some of the questions (particularly around your career and developmental goals) depending on the audience. Sometimes, you may find that the requestor hasn’t thought through all the details thoroughly, so it helps to figure that out as well.

For example, I was recently asked to join a meeting about drafting legal terms and conditions. I approached the meeting requestor and asked: “What would be my role in the meeting? Would my contribution be critical?”. It turned out that the answer to both questions were “no”.

Therefore, often you don’t even need to say “no” directly because your questions would have allowed someone to conclude that perhaps it’s not critical for you to join a meeting or work on a particular project.

4. Provide a justified “no” 

If possible, say “no” in person or through the phone since email messages cannot convey tone, particularly if you’re responding to someone you don’t know well. Convey the following key messages:

  • Show appreciation for being considered in the first place
  • Say “No”: Phase it to be something like…”Unfortunately, I am unable to join this project for the time being.”
  • Provide key reasons (Remember to make this concise. Nobody likes to be rejected by a laundry list of items.)
  • Offer alternatives: “However, Johnny has managed similar projects in the past. I’ve also spoken with him, and he’s very interested in this project. You should reach out to him.”
  • Leave the door open for future possibilities

When you turn down a project, focus your communication on what would be most helpful for the project goals. That way, you are pulling out for the good of the project rather than rejecting the requestor as a person.