It's the picture of Italian ice-cream in a sho...

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Delays on the autobahn. Missed appointments. A jumble of commitments. Wash unhung.

It’s been a week of flurried activity that, despite my very best intentions, has been a little off. Blame it on the sweltering heat. Call it Mercury sliding into retrograde. Name it what you will. I’ve been late, truant and mismanaged since Monday.

Yesterday I was held up by a traffic accident that happened right before I arrived on the scene. Had I left in my normal early way, I may have been involved. I thanked the traffic gods and explained to the film director’s assistant as best I could when I finally arrived on set. Late is late and a frown ensues. Better that than flipped upside down on the A9.

Then today, my twelve-year-old daughter sunk into the floor with embarrassment as I bumbled about the orthodontist’s office. I had noted down the wrong time on my calendar, but the receptionist smiled and said, “We have an opening at 4 p.m.”

What’s a chronically late mother and her mortified daughter to do but…go shopping!?

So we flounced out the door for ninety minutes of spending. It ended up being the most perfect moment of slow I’d had with my kid all week.

There was no cell phone reception inside the department store (air-conditioned!) so I giggled with my daughter as she tried on various outfits. I even bought a few items myself. Then we treated ourselves to Italian ice cream.

“I forgive you,” my daughter whispered as she licked her ice cream.

“Excuse me?” I stopped in mid-bite.

“Being late has its advantages!” she grinned. And she was right.

We strap our mobile calendars to our palms and think the world will end if things go differently than planned. But sometimes it ends up being the best thing. Like not landing in a forty-car pile up and knowing that everything happens for a reason. Or that Italian ice cream and a bonding moment with your kid can happen when you take things a little easier every now and then. It is a moment such as the one we had today that I am reminded how the power of slow was born in an ice cream parlour. How à propos!

What’s been your favorite power of slow moment this summer?

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Seth Godin makes a great point (when does he not?) when he draws a distinction between long and hard work.

Long work contains the number of hours one puts in at the office, such as the lawyer that bills a fourteen-hour day. Hard work is the effort put forth by the lawyer who synthesizes four disparate ideas to come up with a closing argument that wins the case — in less than five minutes.

If taken further, this idea reveals that effectivity has nothing to do with the amount of time one puts in, but rather with the ingenuity one has when spending the time one has.

That is not to say that hard work is not the direct beneficiary of long work. We all know we have to have moments of toil to get places. After all, I wouldn’t be working in German television if I couldn’t speak German. It took more than a Berlitz class to perfect my language prowess. Neither does one become President overnight or, in most cases, a star (although some network programming would have us believe that is true, too).

What does it take, then, to catapult oneself onto the hard work stage?

You may be tired of hearing me say it, but with Memorial Day in the near past already, the official summer season has begun. In full power of slow style, I tell you ingenuity can only live if you do, too.

In a word: vacation. Time off. Siesta, baby! A holiday for a week or two can work wonders, moving your mind from the long of it to the hard of it. You can, indeed, rejuvenate and then create when you’ve had a bit of a respite.

Benjamin Lichtenwalner’s blog reveals how little time off Americans have. According to his sources, only 57% of Americans use their allotted annual vacation time, while one out of four US workers does not have paid vacation at all. In fact, there is no US regulation mandating paid vacation, something Take Your Time Back is combatting vigilantly.

So live a little. No, live a lot. And in that life you can work, play and breathe. The best minds are those that are rested, clear and focused. Without vacation, you can have none of it. Passion alone cannot feed your fire. A little vacances can go a long way so that your long work is less and your hard work pays off.

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Many thanks to @SuzanneHenry for pointing to these trends, such as de-teching and outsourcing self-control (remember my time suck Quickrr post?), to help keep us interacting with each other in the now.

Nigel Marsh, author of Fat, Forty and Fired and Overworked and Underlaid says it all in this TED Talk about how work-life balance truly works.

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A percent sign.
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“I sing to the six percent,” Roseanne Cash told me in an interview this past summer. That is to say she sings to the poets, to the creators who get it.

Whenever I’m off kilter (which, at this time of year, seems to be a lot!), I look at which percentage of myself is being spoken to or ignored. If I were to divide myself into two parts, I would say I’m 80% feminine energy and 20% masculine. In business I tug at every decimal of those 20%; but at times my 80% wants to play, too; she gets in the way when I have to be decisive. She wants to make it alright for everyone and would rather not say ‘no’.

“You don’t ever say ‘no’,” my colleague advised. “You simply tell them what it’s going to cost them. Having clients is like parenting. There are consequences to every decision.”

Wow. I would have toppled from my chair if it didn’t have armrests.

A pretty neat concept. He listened patiently to my 80/20 percent evaluation and then gave me a way to say ‘no’ with kindness.

Aren’t I supposed to be telling him how to do that, according to Chapter Four in The Power of Slow?

When your two halves are out of synch, ask yourself which half is speaking? Then acknowledge its need. Sometimes soothing that part of ourselves that is out of alignment can be just the trick to getting back on the path to slow…and wellness!

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Managing family and work life offers up its own set of challenges as you split your attention, and sometimes your personality, to meet the needs of everyone else. Living in Germany while working virtually in others brings that level of schizophrenia to new heights.

Family life in Germany is great, if you want a particular kind of family life. Anyone who has ever had children in the German school system will tell you it takes some getting used to. From grades one through three your child comes home as early as 11:30 in the morning. Vacations are set every six weeks for one or two weeks off; and up until recently, they had what is fondly known as ‘hitzefrei’ or spur of the moment school closings as of 11:15 am when it’s too hot outside. (They just cancelled that policy this year). Needless to say, quality and quantity time with your children are distinctly possible here.

For a home-based freelancer like myself, I have designed a work life that fits around the children’s malleable schedules. It works well, in part, because the kids finally understand what ‘Mommy’s on the phone’ means. In years past they would holler at the top of their lungs, even if it meant my words, and theirs, would be recorded and heard by radio listeners worldwide. Once they got clear that interrupting me to ask if they can watch TV means the difference between our affording that vacation to Italy or not, they got mum quick. Nonetheless, interruption is a part of working from home and the home office juggle has a certain flavor not found in an office building setting.

Take garden tools. If I am chatting away with a London-based client outside, where the mobile phone reception is best, the neighbor inevitably decides to power up his leafblower. The juggle begins when said neighbor is relentless in his yard grooming, mastering the art of noise for everyone, including London, to hear.

Long before I understood what it meant to work from home, I glamorized the notion of bunny-slippering it to my desk in a java-induced morning shuffle. Not so. The age of video conferencing eradicates all kinds of personal appearance slip-ups. You brush your hair or die. Don’t be fooled. Those pixels that lend a slightly dreamy imagery on the other end don’t hide bed head. Nothing but a good brush out does.

The greatest challenge to juggling work and family life has to be the odd hours that I keep. Juggling clients from California to Sweden, I could literally work 24/7 if I wanted. The trouble is mental burn-out is inevitable if you make yourself available at any hour. So conference calls happen until a reasonable hour; emails don’t get answered after dinner; and I place a great deal of importance on mealtime with the kids. Growing up in a household that ate together only on special occasions, I emphasize dinner talk as the relaxing part of the day for connection and parental correction.

So much of our lives is placed in a bed of urgency. Our globalized world demands so much more of our attention than the olden unplugged days of 9-to-5. Having the juggle without the struggle means inserting slow moments of delight, rumination and frolic into our day.  In my case that typically means a soccer match with my son or a board game with my daughter ~and that mid-week. Life is full of trade-offs. I’ve reached the conclusion that juggling is a life skill we all would do well to master. It’s the struggle part that we can choose to embrace or leave behind.

In which ways can you reduce your workload to feel more joy in your juggle?

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Managing the Older Worker

September 14, 2010

In the last century we’ve increased our longevity by thirty years. In 1900 folks lived an average of 47 years; by the year 2000 that number had jumped to 78. Although I am far from retirement age, I follow the conversation of the changing retirement laws in Germany because it fascinates me that people are forced to stop working when they hit that ‘magic number’. While they want to raise it from 65 to age 67, there have been protests in France because they just jacked retirement up to age 60.

Imagine the thought! Why, as the population ages and fewer people are born to replace them, are people being coerced to leave the workplace?

That’s where Peter Cappelli and Bill Novelli, co-authors of the newly released book, Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order, come in. They make a strong case for retaining talent and conducting smart knowledge management. After all, older folks are living longer, have more experience and, according to the authors, are motivated by different interests than their eager, younger colleagues. Dangling a promotion in front of their noses isn’t nearly as effective as giving them an interesting assignment that keeps them as a team player.

While I was slightly disappointed that the book didn’t delve into how younger managers can actually go about managing older workers, they did make a strong case for why older workers are so valuable. In a nutshell, they are:

  • more knowledgeable (no mystery there);
  • more flexible (most of them have their child-rearing days behind them; however flexibility for elder care remains an issue as their own parents’ failing health impacts their ability to maintain a regular schedule);
  • more loyal and conscientious;
  • just as costly (or not, depending on how the company views overall employee benefits).

In other words, older workers’ value in terms of knowledge and willingness to learn new things (thereby debunking the myth that people over forty somehow can’t or won’t ‘get with the program’) far outweighs any insurance cost, etc. Also notable is the fact that older workers are much less likeyl to have costly dependents so while their insurance premiums may be slightly higher, they are actually less costly in the overall scheme of things.

I thought of this today as I stood in line, waiting with one hundred other warm bodies, to buy my daughter’s last-minute school supplies. In high school, they like to tell the kids what they will need for class on the first day of school, leaving no time to prepare over a series of weeks. That means good ole Mom gets to push her way through the crowds for those ‘extra’ items she couldn’t foresee.

But back to my point: there were two lines. One had an elderly gentleman and a middle-aged woman working the cash register. The other had a younger team. One called out the price; the other typed it into the register. I couldn’t help but notice my line with the older team wasn’t moving as fast. Despite my ownership of the power of slow principles, I felt myself getting hot under the collar (literally ~all those people in such a small space!). When it was finally my turn, the woman advised me that I was buying the wrong pens. She kindly went back into the throng to get the right ones for me. She may have been slower, but imagine the amount of time she actually saved me in getting me the right pens the first time! That’s the very conscientiousness and customer care Cappelli and Novelli praised in the older worker. Amazing!

I smiled as the power of slow found its way back into my heart…and the right school supplies into my bag. Thanks to Managing the Older Worker, I will continue to view more experienced employees as the harbingers of slow because, as we all know by now, it’s faster anyway!

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The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu
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“China?” My friend’s face dropped a notch. His company was sending him on a six-month stint to the coldest part of China starting September. He knew his career depended on it. His wife seemed philosophical.

“I’ve always wanted to visit The Great Wall,” she smiled.

And so he went with a tear in his eye while he left his wife and kids to fend for themselves.

Project work can be stressful. If you work for a project-oriented organization as my friend does, work-life balance is an Ivory Tower term. It sounds great, but doesn’t exist. While I advocate words such as ‘alignment’ and ‘life’s purpose’, we all know what is meant by the work-life analogy. Work is a part of life. It’s not everything.

Rodney Turner, Martina Huemann and Anne Keegan reported on the challenges of work-life balance for project-based organizations in the International Journal of Project Management 26 (2008) 577-585. They concluded that project managers are self-selecting (meaning they really do like the diversity project-based work brings and therefore choose their projects as they wish). The greatest challenge is with shorter term projects, such as the one my friend had to lead. Budgets are made well in advance so you risk not having the resources to carry out your job. You also have a high level of intensity the entire time due to tight timelines. Larger projects are more foreseeable. You can pace yourself better and spend time with family in between.

“The ideal project-oriented organization,” the authors claim, “has a specific management culture expressed in the empowerment of employees, process-orientation and team work, continuous and discontinuous organizational change, customer-orientation and networking with clients and suppliers.”

In other words, they have more time to be human.

Interviewing over 50 managers in 15 organizations throughout Europe and the US, the authors inquired as to the ethical treatment of the employees. Many of the employees opted to work 60 to 70 hours per week simply because they enjoyed the work. As any consultant will tell you, we enjoy the feast before the famine. And contractors are under pressure to bid the lowest while still building in a profit margin to get the work done under budget.

“For companies undertaking large proejcts, the work environment is less dynamic, less frenetic and so tehre is greater cope for balancing the work load.”

If you find yourself in a hectic work environment, ask yourself if it’s really worth it. In the case of my friend, he had no choice if he wanted to remain employed. And the kicker? He wants to go back to China every now and then to check in with his former team. Somehow, despite all the hardship he learned a lot and realized his potential in ways he never imagined.

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sleep

The top ten reasons why working on the weekends is a bad idea are:

  1.  That Friday buzzy head feeling doesn’t go away.
  2. You lack weekend fun and a change of scene, making Jill duller than the knives in my kitchen.
  3. Monday feels like Friday times two.
  4. You get impatient with people who actually work on week days only. “Whaddya mean you haven’t finished the report?” you shout at your colleague who came in at 7:45 am on Monday morning to get a fresh start to the week.
  5. You resent said colleague and detect a slight BBQ odor on his jacket. Was he having fun while you were, well, not?
  6. You forget which day it is.
  7. The Sunday funnies go unread.
  8. Your laundry pile grows, as does the mold on your shower curtain.
  9. Your mental attitude suffers.
  10. Your productivity level sinks, as does your morale.
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