When No One is Looking

This is embarrassing, but here it goes. I have a massive man crush on Mat Fraser.

It started when I watched Fittest on Earth 2015. Mat placed second and stood out as an incredible athlete. He made a few mistakes and wasn’t quite the all rounder Ben Smith was.

Recently I watched Fittest on Earth: A Decade of Fitness (Crossfit Games 2016). Mat blew through the competition (including Ben Smith) to finish first. It was awesome to see Mat dominate the competition, including beating last years winner. But, I figured, sometimes it happens like that. You see the same thing with football teams. No matter the odds, sometimes you get an upset. Maybe he should have won in 2015? Or maybe 2016 was a fluke?

Today I stumbled on the ‘Mat Fraser – Making a Champion’ documentary series. And it all made sense. Mat is an absolute machine and he has the most amazing attitude and work ethic.

Placing second in 2015 was obviously painful for him. In his own words:

I look at my medal from 2015. I hate that fucking medal. Because I didn’t do it right, you know? That’s like second place. I got second place in 2015. I should be proud of that result. I was the second fittest man in the world. But I just look at that and I’m like…. I fucking hate that year, because I’m not proud of the effort I put in. I’m not proud of the corners I cut.

He went about 2016 completely different. He looked at everything he was weak at and did whatever it took to get better. This is a great example:

Alright, I suck at rowing. So I got a rower. And I rowed between 4K and 5K a day for a whole year.

Every day, he just put the work in. He kept stacking the days, with the faith it would make him stronger for next year’s competition. It’s pure discipline. Another good quote from Mat that sums up his attitude:

I’m gonna do today what other people aren’t willing to. So I can do tomorrow, what other people can’t.

This one really resonated with me. It can be hard to stay motivated to consistently take small, uncomfortable steps. Particularly when many of those steps don’t give you immediate results based feedback. But as Mat says, the consistent daily efforts = long term success. It’s the moments when no one is looking that count.

I’m going to put that last quote at the top of my planning documents to remind myself of this. And when I get an urge to procrastinate or cut a corner, I am going to remember Mat and his 2016.

I actually did this today. I had planned to go on a long bike ride. A few hours before I was due to set off, I started trying to persuade myself it would be ok to skip it. I’d done enough this week already, it was a bit too hot etc.  I put the talk to one side and went out on the bike. And when I hit some steep hills, I had some shitty self talk about taking a rest and walking for a bit. I pushed through it and did the whole trip non stop – something I had never done before. And I felt great afterwards!

I encourage everyone to watch these three short videos. It doesn’t matter whether you are into fitness or not. Mat’s mindset is super impressive and inspiring.


A System for Being Productive and Happy

As you get older, you settle on things that work for you. I feel like this at the moment about goal setting and planning.

It’s been a long, and sometimes frustrating journey and I’ve tried many different things.

I spent most of my twenties using Tony Robbin’s RPM system. It’s a very rigid goal setting and planning framework. It helped me stay focused and I got results, but it didn’t make me happy. I found myself frequently re-writing goals as my priorities changed. I also felt overwhelmed most of the time.

I also tried having no goals. Leo Babauta’s Achieving Without Goals was a big influence on my thinking. It felt OK for a while and I was definitely more present, and a bit happier. But, I couldn’t shake the anxiety of feeling directionless and unproductive. The best way to describe how I felt, was ‘flat’.

Over the last year or so, I’ve settled on something in the middle. It’s really working for me. I’m happier, more focused and getting more done than I ever have. For the first time in my life, I have a good balance.

I don’t have specific goals. But, I do have a process for defining where I want to put my focus and energy. Importantly, it’s flexible so it can cope when my priorities or values change.

This influences my weekly and daily planning – in fact, it underpins it. Which surprise, surprise, I have a process I follow which is proving very effective. This planning is critical to taking control of my weeks and days.

Maybe I had to try the two extremes to end up here. I definitely had a big shift in values a few years ago and this drove me to experiment with no goals. My learnings from having no goals, helped form my thinking today.

Why am I saying all this?

I’ve been thinking about pulling it together into something other people can use. A long form article, or even a course. It’s still a raw idea at the moment, so I don’t know where I will take it.

But, what I do know, is things are great at the moment. I’m focused and super productive. I’m rarely overwhelmed. And I’m more present and happy than I’ve ever been. So, I can’t help but think people will get a lot of value by seeing how it all fits together.

Something to think about. Watch this space.


Being good with money

The topic of personal finance has been on my mind for the last few days.

I’ve been reflecting on how I invest. It hasn’t changed since I wrote Investing, Simply, one year ago. That’s a good thing, because I’ve settled on something that works, and is right for me.

I’ve also spent the last six months getting back to some basic principles for managing money. Eighteen months before that, I was self funding an app and doing a bit of consulting. I was spending more than I was earning, so I wasn’t practicing most of these principles. This changed six months ago, when I joined DIGIT and relocated to Dublin.

I figured it’s a good time to bring together my views on personal finance.

My relationship with money has changed in the last few years. I used to care mostly about being rich. My goals were to have a house worth ‘X’, own fast cars, ‘X’ money in the bank and ‘X’ net worth. Whatever it took.

I was making progress towards my financial goals, but it wasn’t making me happy. I was often stressed and frustrated. I was sacrificing my health and relationships. I panicked and realised I might reach my financial goals, but not make the most out of life.

That said, I still think money is important because it provides freedom. It’s not always obvious, until you need to use it. Some examples include.

  • Weathering economic downturns (property or industry crashes, interest rate changes etc.)
  • Deciding to take some time out to see the world
  • Starting your own business (often requires some type of self funding)
  • Unexpectedly losing your job
  • Taking an extended period of time away from work (for whatever reason you like)
  • Changing career (often requires investment into education and less income in the short-term)
  • Being able to help people
  • Falling ill and needing to take unpaid leave from work

The above are all situations we might find ourselves in – some of them our decisions, others forced upon us. Being financially secure gives you flexibility to handle them, without worrying about money.

I can deal with all the above. I might get some anxiety about moving backwards, but it won’t break me. That’s a great feeling and it’s available to anyone if you stick to some basic principles for managing money.

Below are the principles I stick to. They work for me, so maybe they can work for you:

Save by Direct Debit

Everyone knows they should do this, but most don’t. Set up a separate bank account for saving. Then, set up a direct debit from your main account into the savings account each month – preferably just after you get paid. It’s amazing how quickly you adjust to live without it.

It doesn’t matter how small it is, do whatever you can afford. What’s important is to build the habit of saving. Because it’s automated, there is no action needed from you each month. It just happens.

It’s motivating to see a cash pot grow. You’ll find it won’t take long before you’re thinking about ways to save more and grow the pot even bigger.

Since getting back to working again, we’re saving 17% of our income. Not quite the 50% I was saving when I was single and living at home rent-free. But, now I have a family, we’re on one income and the cost of living in Dublin is high. So, 17% feels a decent number for now.

Clear Debt

A no brainer. A life without debt feels great. If you have debt, make clearing it your top priority. Put every spare bit of cash you have into reducing it.

Even though it’s technically a debt, the only exception for me, would be a mortgage. This is because you’re building equity in a property, which over the long-term appreciates.

I would also suggest saving a small amount by direct debit, even if you have debt. You sacrifice some interest on the debt you choose not to pay off, but you start to build the habit of saving early. It’s well worth the tradeoff.

Know your in’s and out’s

’Run your personal finances like a business’ is a bit of a cheesy saying, but it’s true. You should know your monthly income and expenses down to the penny.

For most people, income is the easy bit, because it’s fairly predictable. Where things tend to get out of control is with outgoings.

I have mine in a spreadsheet. It starts with income, which for me is predictable because I’m on a salary. Next comes rent and utilities (gas, water, tv, broadband etc.) Then, other expenses such as groceries, dog food, petrol etc. Then comes personal spending budgets. What’s left after all that, is saved.

This means I’m rarely surprised. Everything is predictable and I’m able to save a consistent amount each month.

Set a weekly spending budget. Take it out in cash at the beginning of the week

It’s simple, and it works brilliantly. I wrote about it here – Overspending is bad and how to stop it.

Have a cash reserve

After clearing debt, I think building a cash reserve should be the highest priority – 3 months (net) salary, but preferably 6 months. This gives you peace of mind and allows you to deal with any surprises. It also gives you freedom to treat yourself from time to time. All without worrying about where the money is going to come from.

Invest

If you have no debt and a cash reserve, you need to start making your money work for you. Most people underestimate the power of compound interest. Play with this compound interest calculator to see what I mean.

As I said at the start, Investing, Simply still reflects my views on investing. I ended up selling the Woodford funds. I now have everything in low fee indexes (half in S&P 500 and half in FTSE all-share) and I max out my ISA allowance. I have a long-term view (10+ years) and plan to keep adding to them as often as I can.

Be Frugal

I’m convinced being frugal in your 20’s and 30’s is one of the most important factors to getting into a solid position before you are 40. A frugal attitude = a high savings rate = more savings = more to invest = more wealth. You’d be surprised what you can achieve over a period of 10-15 years. Don’t believe me? See 1500days.com or thinksaveretire.com or mrmoneymustache.com or millennial-revolution.com.

Self-Insure

I hate most types of insurance. Premiums keep increasing and insurance companies make it expensive and hard to claim. Feels like a racket to me.

I prefer to self-insure. Instead of having insurance policies, I just draw from a cash reserve when I need to pay for something. Obviously this doesn’t include insurance you have a legal obligation to have (car). Also, if you have a mortgage, I think life insurance for that amount is a smart move.

By the way, I have no idea if this is the best financial approach. I just have this gut feeling that I will be better off dealing with things when they come up. I also hate the process of signing up, renewing and finding competitive quotes etc.

Avoid fast cars

I hate giving this advice, because I love cars. But, I’ve owned a few fast cars and they are a drain. Oddly, I don’t regret them (other than the BMW I bought with a personal loan when I was 20!).

For the last ten years, each car I owned, I have bought outright. I also knew what I was getting into when I bought the fast ones (maintenance and depreciation). They were fun, but they burned a big hole in my pocket.

For the last few years, I’ve got more sensible. I own an 2010 Audi A3 TDI S Line. Looks nice and is super economical. Much smarter.

Some further reading

I’ve read some great books on personal finance in the last few years. Much of it has shaped my current views. Here are some of the main ones:

As I warned at the start of this post, the above is simply what is working for me. They fit with my lifestyle, attitude to life and how I think about risk. I tend to be fairly risk adverse, so the above views tend to fit with that.

If you have any questions or different ways of doing things, I would love to hear them.


My Reading in 2016 (and five recommendations)

I’ve read some great books this year – 33 in total.

The full list is below, but here are my top five (in no particular order):

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Andre’s story is fascinating. His determination to be a winner at all costs is impressive. Even though he hated tennis and faced many setbacks, he had the most remarkable career. It was also interesting to hear about his personal struggles in the background. We assume champions have their shit together, but Andre was a mess behind the scenes.


The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick M. Lencioni

People kept recommending this book to me, but for some reason it took me awhile to get round to reading it. I’m glad I did, because it’s awesome. Easy to read and packed with gems. If you run a management team, or are part of one, it’s a must read. It’ll change how you think about teams.


Deep Work by Cal Newport

This was so good, I called it early as my favourite book of the year. When is the last time you worked on something without distraction, and got lost in it for at least an hour? I suspect, it’s hard to remember. This book reminds us what it takes to be focused and productive. Also check out Nate Green’s How to write a million words – on a slacker’s schedule to see deep work in action – it’s brilliant.


On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

This quote from the book sums it up for me – ‘A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard’.

This book changed how I think about writing, and I hope made me a better writer. I summed up my learnings here – 8 Things I Learned From a Writing Legend.


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This book was so good, I read it in a day. Be warned, it’s a gut wrenching story. A delve into mortality and what it means to live a good life. I wrote a review here.


I hope 2017 is just as good as 2016 for reading. I already have a bunch of great ones lined up!

Here is my full list for 2016:

Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss

How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

How to Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

Do Fly: Find your way. Make a living. Be your best self by Gavin Strange

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss.

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Extreme Prey by John Sandford

Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco (got about 50% of the way through. Great ideas, but too repetitive. Could easily have been a blog post)

Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday (got about 20% of the way through – too waffley)

Gathering Prey by John Sandford

Field of Prey by John Sandford

Silken Prey by John Sandford

Stolen Prey by John Sandford

The Simple Path to Wealth by J L Collins

Winning by Jack Welch (re-read)

Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business by Matt Blumberg

Around the World in Fifteen Friends by Tynan

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Enhanced Edition: A Leadership Fable by Patrick M. Lencioni

Buried Prey by John Sandford

Storm Prey by John Sandford

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Wicked Prey by John Sandford

On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

Born For This: How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do by Chris Guillebeau

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport

Win YOUR Day by Jonathon Knepper & Rochelle Hudson

The War or Art by Steven Pressfield

Phantom Prey by John Sandford

Invisible Prey by John Sandford

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller

Level Up Your Life by Steve Kamb

Letters of Notes by Shaun Usher

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert (got about 50% through —found it long-winded and hard to read).


Resources are real people

I found myself embarrassed and ashamed recently.

We’ve been having some problems with a project for the last few weeks. We outsourced the work and expected it to take four weeks to finish. We set aside some of our time to help support the outsourcer.

A couple of weeks in, we started to have problems. Our team was spending most of their time supporting the outsourcer. The outsourced project was behind and we were also falling behind on our own work. Not good.

A few of us got closer to the problems in the third week and made some changes we hoped would help. But, by the end of the third week, we were still having some of the same problems.

I decided to get closer to things in the fourth week. The project was at risk and almost definitely going to be late. I’d had lots of conversations about the project to date, but hadn’t got close myself.

We set up a meeting. Our team, a few senior people from our side and the outsourced team. It wasn’t a meeting to complain about the outsourced team. We wanted to talk things through, try and figure out exactly where we were at. Define some next steps.

We had a quick discussion before we dialled the outsourced company. I hadn’t spoken with our developers much, so it was nice to ask some questions and get some facts first hand. I started to better understand the problems and pain they were going through. It struck me that hearing about problems in a few conversations with senior people is all well and good. But, these guys are trying very hard to do a good job and having a tough time with it.

We fired up the video call and the three outsourced developers popped up on the screen. They waved and said hi. There were a few hi’s, how are you doing – that type of thing. I was instantly hit with the reality that these were REAL people.

Real people, probably with families. People with their own internal struggles. People choosing to work hard and late on this project, probably at the expense of their health and relationships. People just as frustrated with the problems we were having with the project.

I appreciate that sounds absurd – of course they are real people. But, up until this point, these three people were one word to me – the outsourced company name. I went from one company name with some bad connotations, to three people saying a friendly hi to me.

I felt embarrassed and ashamed actually. For a few weeks I hadn’t thought beyond the company name and worrying about the set backs. They were resources to me. It reminded me, we are working with real people who are no different to any of us.

My job is quite high level. Most of my conversations are about what groups of people are going to get done, over a period of a few months. What should the priorities be? Who is going to do what? What could go wrong? How might we mitigate that? What’s going wrong now? How can we fix it? When you live at that level, it’s easy to lose sight of actual people. You tend to live in project plans, only seeing numbers of people and time to do things.

One of my biggest strengths is being able to detach myself emotionally from a situation. It means I can look at the facts and make decisions quickly – despite them sometimes being tough.

But, that has it’s drawbacks. It becomes easy to hide behind plans and senior meetings. All I want is facts from senior people, so we can make a decision. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, but it’s easy to slip into doing that all the time.

I need to take time to speak to people more. Like, really speak to them. Get first hand information and properly get to the bottom of things. Put myself in other people’s shoes. I’m not talking about micro-managing, but getting a different perspective. It will lead to having a better understanding of situations and better decisions. I’ll also see opportunities to help people.

P.S I’m banning myself from using the word resources!