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Brexit and the UK Talent Shortage

Originally published in Governance and Compliance magazine, www.govcompmag.com

The UK has a skills gap. Maybe you’ve read about it, or maybe you’ve experienced it yourself. In the past year, a majority of organizations report having difficulties finding the right candidate.

Perhaps you’re in the fortunate position of being a well-qualified, capable and rounded individual and you’ve got recruiters calling weekly to try to convince you to jump ship. As a hiring manager, however, chances are you’ve got an empty position that you just can’t seem to fill and every candidate you interview either doesn’t seem quite the right fit or seems be missing some critical life skills.

The gap varies depending on location and sector, but the data are pretty clear. Research shows that the skills gap in the UK has widened over the past ten years.

A recent report from Barclays Lifeskills, based on a survey of 10,000 people, 500 educators and 600 organisations, showed over half of employment aged individuals in the UK “failing to demonstrate all the employability skills needed to succeed in the future workplace.” The survey focused on seven skills better suited to humans than to robots or AI – things like critical reasoning, problem solving or communicating via audio. As these skills are difficult to automate or hand off entirely to machines, they are likely to become more crucial to the economic success of the country in the coming decades.  

This talent shortage is more than simply a boon to qualified candidates or a pebble in the hiring manager’s shoe. Last year in their Business Barometer report, The Open University published that in 2018 alone this gap cost businesses a whopping £6.3 billion. The bulk of this additional cost comes from recruiting- either through longer recruitment processes (£1.23B) or higher salaries (£2.16B) paid to qualified candidates. The remainder is split between additional training of new, unqualified employees (£1.45B) and temporary staffing (£1.49B).

The spending on temp services absolutely fills a need – businesses have services or labor which needs to be performed in order to keep operating and generating revenue. But the downside to this significant spending can be heavy.

When David Willett, Corporate Director at The Open University writes: “buying skills and not building them is a short-term approach, which ultimately won’t pay dividends,” he highlights the fact that this method does nothing to improve the skills gap. Organizations pursuing this approach neglect to develop their own talent.

Uncertainty surrounding an impending chaotic Brexit makes the matter worse. Future visa arrangements as well as the ‘rights to remain’ for EU citizens already living in the UK are still under discussion at the time of this writing. Managers worry about their future ability to draw from the international talent pool to try to compensate for the gaps in the home labor market. With the unclear situation looming over candidates and employers alike, it is expected this skills shortage will only worsen in the coming months and years.

According to a report by the Adecco Group a global staffing firm: “… 71% of UK managers think that Brexit will make skills harder to acquire for organisations operating in Britain.”

Why does this matter?

Besides the obvious additional cost to businesses and the risk of the UK falling behind on the ultra-competitive global playing field, why is this important?

The lack of suitable talent and capable managers with basic life skills will drive a need for more robust health and safety regulations.

Health and safety is not just the responsibility of the business owner, or the HSE (Health, Safety & Environment) Coordinator (assuming the company is large enough to have such a position). Health and safety is everyone’s responsibility and everyone in the organization is dependent upon each other to follow the rules in order to maintain a safe and secure working environment. One weak link, one person under pressure – or perceiving themselves to be under pressure – to skirt the rules can cause irreversible damage to a business’ reputation, customers, other employees, or the environment.

As an example, in 2016 the largest fine (£5M) issued through an HSE prosecution case went to Alton Towers operator Merlin Attractions. Arinite.co.uk reports that the accident in which two teenagers each lost a leg: “was the result of an engineer who said they “felt pressure” to get the Smiler back into service after it developed a fault shortly before the crash.”

Perhaps he wasn’t trained properly, or perhaps there were other factors in play. In either case, this was a clear situation where an employee or the employee’s managers either didn’t understand or didn’t take seriously the rules and procedures in place to meet HSE regulations.

How are regulations changing?

Since 2017 when the three year initiative “Helping Great Britain Work Well” began, the focus of HSE regulation has started to shift towards HSE being everyone’s responsibility rather than the responsibility falling entirely on one “HSE coordinator” within a business. PHSBeSafe.co writes about the initiative:

“It also places a focus on prevention rather than cure by helping organisations to understand the importance of sensible and proportionate risk management. The aim is to reduce costs and lower sickness absences.”

Other changes in 2018 included:

  • Updating the Ionising Radiation regulations
  • Implementation of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) regulations

Additionally, some of the topics that HSE regulations will focus on in 2019 include:

  • Reduction of Occupational Lung Disease, Musculoskeletal Disorders and work related stress
  • Managing exit from EU to ensure stability and certainty for employers and employees
  • “Prepare any necessary changes to the chemicals regime”
  • “Deliver a programme of targeted interventions concentrating on controlling high-consequence risks from legionella, fairgrounds and major construction projects”

Cost of Compliance

For many organizations, complying with HSE regulations is not cheap. According to Arinite, a professional Health and Safety consultancy in the UK:

“medium to large size companies can expect to pay between £5-£20k per year for health and safety and for small companies it is often less.”

The costs of staying compliant and maintaining a safe working environment begin with performing a risk assessment. Based on the level of assessed risk, the company determines the best method to stay compliant.

In a low risk field, beyond fire extinguishers it may suffice to simply implement rules and procedures. Annual costs could come from requiring a certain number of employees first aid certified or implementing a basic health and safety at work training.

In a more risky environment – such as mining or construction – the costs of compliance are likely to be higher and more industry specific. In addition to basic first aid, employees may need certain protective equipment or specialized training to deal with hazardous chemicals or dangerous situations.

As the regulations change in response to a less qualified public, the effort required to stay up to date on current regulations will also increase. Smaller companies without dedicated HR functions will find it exceedingly difficult to keep tabs on who needs which trainings and at which intervals. They may determine it better to outsource not only the training itself to a company like Findcourses.co.uk, but also the function of managing the details of keeping up with a changing regulatory environment.

Cost of Non-compliance

As costly and complicated as compliance can seem, especially in challenging times, non-compliance can be far more expensive. In a report by Pro-Sapien (an EHS software supplier) the average fine for a convicted violation is nearly £150k per instance. Of course, this figure is only the fine and doesn’t consider costs for production downtimes, missed work or payouts for injuries or loss of life (which are often not insured).

Additionally, on top of these monetary costs for violations and accidents – the resulting damage to a company’s reputation can be devastating. Ignoring the rules and regulations can endanger health and livelihood of employees and customers as well as risking great harm to the environment.

Conclusion

While Health and Safety compliance is a complex and sometimes costly topic – it’s simply too risky for a company to be ignorant of changing laws and regulations. The stakes are too high. Businesses will need to be proactive and adaptive to keep up with the changes in order to remain compliant.

Yes, Your Small Business Needs a BI Solution

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” said Peter Drucker, one of the most influential management thinkers of the 20th century. And he’s absolutely correct: you don’t know what you don’t know. I might even take that statement one step further. Without a fast, flexible system to handle your data, you can’t measure or manage efficiently enough to bring your business to the next level – even if your business is small, maybe even especially if your business is small.

Of course, you already have your accounting and your payroll tools. Once you reach a certain amount of annual revenue, or when you hire your first employee, those become necessities.

In the past, larger companies would often have (and some still do) whole departments of financial analysts dedicated to data gathering, number crunching and analysis. These associates might spend their days creating vast spreadsheets and turning those figures into basic visuals, i.e. a bar graph comparing Q2 vs. Q1 vs. Previous Year. They may have even made a forecast based on some simple assumptions or even an extrapolation.

But, according to Stefan Spieler at Camelot Management Consultants the role of finance and controlling is changing through digitalization:

“Creating value from data, that is, having the ability to extract data relevant to the controlling process in real-time and to make the right data available/transparent to the right people, and to quickly analyze it will become a decisive competitive edge”

Stefan Spieler at Camelot Management Consultants

So what is Business Intelligence, or BI? According to Tom Drake at Business.com: BI is

“In essence, BI is about information analysis. It can be used to look at any aspect of your business. It can be used to see how well your sales efforts are going. It can be used to assess the efficiency of your manufacturing processes. It can be used to measure staff performance.

Tom Drake at Business.com

Why do you need BI?

Your Own Personal Finance Team
A good Business Intelligence system is a bit like having a team of financial analysts working just for you.

This team, however doesn’t take lunch breaks or vacation.

To be clear, BI requires some (sometimes significant) up-front investment, not only for the software itself but also to ensure that your data is clean and well structured. After this setup phase, you reap the benefits of faster, more automated reporting available at your fingertips.

For example, let’s say you like to track average value per visit on a daily basis to make sure you’re moving business in the right direction.

With a BI solution you can set this metric up in your dashboard and have it updated constantly – no need to run the numbers and update your spreadsheet manually in order to see how the month is progressing.

Make Better Decisions, Faster
To dovetail with the previous point – BI allows you to make better informed, data-driven decisions faster by allowing you to both have standard “dashboard” views AND to quickly perform ad-hoc analyses.

To keep with the first example, let’s go deeper on your daily value per visit metric. Imagine everyone on your email list receiving one of four different versions of an email campaign.

With BI you could easily compare value per visit from each version of the email to see which are converting best, and drill down to see how your advertising works on different demographics.

Improve Profitability
Profitability is possibly the most fundamental aspect of making sure your business continues to flourish.

A BI solution can help you improve that bottom line by helping you make better decisions through better modelling and forecasting. When considering multiple possible investments, scenario analysis can be crucial to ensuring the best option.

Perhaps you’ve already decided on an investment and want to see how different pricing, costing, or advertising scenarios could play out. By tweaking and adjusting each different variable, you can determine which is the best next move.

Improved Transparency
A Business Intelligence solution can make your life easier by aiding with early recognition of warning signs and creating greater transparency of root causes and value drivers.

You know which products bring which people to your website. You also know who buys what and which add-on products bring you the best margin.

This knowledge keeps you and your customers happy. A BI toolkit can drive clarity about what those complementary products are that are really bolstering your bottom line.

A good tool can also help you recognize small problems early – before they become catastrophes, helping you to stay nimble and secure your livelihood.

Action Instead of Analysis
Spend time developing and implement actions instead of putting together analyses.

Imagine talking to one of your industry peers one evening at a local meet-up who works in a similar niche. She grimaces recounting an incident last month involving a recent struggle her team is having due to a new competitor with similar offerings.

You smile knowingly, but with relief. Your early warning system helped you see the issue and your BI system helped you quickly find the root cause which allowed you to take quick action and right the ship.

Within a day of the competitor coming on the scene you noticed a dip in conversions and developed an action plan to drive more traffic back to your site and away from this new competitor.

Conclusion

Business Intelligence might seem like a tool specifically intended for big corporations with massive IT budgets. While some of the options out there aren’t cheap to implement, the value added through increased speed and transparency can be immense and more than offset the investment. A good BI solution can help you focus on the right things to take your business to the next level.

The Wonder Years in Munich – February 8, 2019

I don’t get to a lot of concerts anymore, and living in Germany means a lot of my favorite bands don’t get out this way very often. So seeing The Wonder Years in Munich was a real treat.

The Wonder Years (from Pennsylvania, USA) has probably been my favorite band since I got into them in 2015. Something about their music and lyrics just speaks to me. But unfortunately, I never got a chance to see them live back in the states.

Since they were coming so close I decided to make the effort, although I suppose close is a bit relative. Some might posit that the two plus (actually four, thanks Flixbus) hour trek to Munich, overnight stay, and three hour trip back the next morning is way too much effort for a concert.

I disagree.

Punk shows are one of the few remaining outlets available to rock out, unwind and unleash some raw emotion. I also don’t often meet others who have similar taste in music – but at a concert it’s the main criteria. Where else can you sing along at the top of your lungs, to music that makes you feel something – while smashing around in the pit? Where else can you connect with some brits who were following the band around Europe and had tickets to three more shows?

Due to the aforementioned issues related to the bus and friday evening traffic, I arrived late and mostly missed the two opening bands: Free Throw and The Winter Passing. I caught the last two or three songs from Free Throw, but they didn’t really resonate with me. They seemed to be talented and played pretty tightly – I just couldn’t get into it.

Sidenote-> Strom, in Munich is a very cool venue – the perfect place for a club show. For starters, it’s right next to the underground so extremely accessible, and it’s small. Unfortunately I couldn’t find specifics but capacity can’t be much more than 200 people. Maybe the bands would appreciate a bigger crowd, especially so far from home. But for a fan like myself that amount of people is really a sweet spot. Oh yeah, they also had cold beer and great sound – clear but thick and powerful.

Before playing a few tracks from their older albums Suburbia… and The Greatest Generation, The Wonder Years kicked the evening off hard with the title track from their latest album Sister Cities (released April 6, 2018). It rocked. The band was tight and Dan Campbell (the singer) sounded almost as good live as on the record.

Throughout the hour-plus set (setlist below), the band took us on a sonic time travel adventure through their discography, playing snippets from every major record. I was thrilled to hear some of the older songs, and especially stoked that those older jams happened some of my favorites. I wasn’t expecting “Don’t let me cave in” from Suburbia… and “Cardinals” from No Closer to Heaven.

The only really unfamiliar song was “Washington Square Park” off of The Upsides. I never really got into that album, but the rest of the crowd seemed to appreciate it, and it is a great track to jump around to.

The final delight of the evening was them kicking off the two song encore with “Devil in My Bloodstream” – backed up by the female singer from The Winter Passing. She fit well, contrasting Campbell. I’m not sure if anyone else caught the irony, but they called it a night by playing “Came out Swinging”.

Overall it was a wonderful show at a great venue. The band played really well – always staying on beat and together but never letting the intensity fall. I have to mention again that Dan Campbell is a phenomenal singer. I’ve seen enough bands live (especially really famous ones) where the live singing is so terrible it makes the music almost unbearable. But not so with The Wonder Years. The backup vocals were spot on and Dan hits all the right notes (even the high ones!) and gets help from the crowd which makes for a fun night.

It was definitely worth the journey to Munich.

Dear 2019, please be a one-upper

Did you ever have that one friend, or maybe he was more of an acquaintance or just somebody in your circle who always had to tell his better story? 
“Oh, you scored a goal at soccer last night? Well last week I scored ten AND went home with the other goalie’s girl”
“You just got into the band The Wonder Years? Man I’ve been listening to them since before their first full-length.”

Well I’m hoping 2019 is a little bit like that, but in more of a sincere and genuine way. 2018 was good, but I think 2019 could be fantastic, or at least an inflection point year.

Last year was full of adventure. What kind of cool shit did I get into? Here are some of the major highlights:
set some serious goals
– got to know my brand new daughter, and watched her grow and develop
– started writing
– reignited a passion for music by recording and releasing an EP 
– sold one rental property and bought two others 
– visited my 97 year old grandfather in Arizona
– changed jobs
– got stiffed on my first paid writing gig (thanks Jason!) 
– completed my longest bike ride ever

It was a pretty good year. As usual it had some highlights and lowlights. Some of the sleep issues and hopelessness I recall from the year before faded and things really started looking up. Also, I did a better job of “doing hard things” (which was my overall motto) than I ever have in the past. I’m not yet an expert on it, and I’ve plateaued in the last few months, but I’m pushing a little bit each day. It’s time to really hit the gas again.

Despite all the cool things I’ve done and all that I accomplished, when I look back at 2018 to compare it with my vision, I kind of missed the mark. As I’m learning now, sitting down to define some targets for this year, I made some critical errors. For one, I had way too many goals: 9! plus 8 guiding principles! WTF was I thinking?? It’s a rookie mistake I guess. It’s the first year I wrote down my goals and newbie-ism combined with parental leave in December 2017 led me to believe I would have more free time at my disposal — wrong.

Once January hit, and I went back to work — BAM! Almost zero time left. No more staying up until midnight putting the final polish on an article or doing one more take on a track.

That lack of time coupled with too many targets caused a significant lack of focus.

I have a feeling so 2019 will be a little different.

So here they are, my new goals for 2019:

  1. Publish 100 times this year.
    This could be on Medium, a song on soundcloud, a video(!?), or a paid piece
  2. Start building an email list and sign up my first subscribers. 
    This requires finding a topic or group of topics and consistently publishing in said genre.
  3. Pick one main project per quarter and focus on it for three solid months. At the end, reevaluate whether to continue or to pursue something else on the list. 
    For the first quarter, I’ve chosen freelance B2B content writing with emphasis on financial tools for controllers.
  4. Take action and make the first move: with the wife, with the neighbors, with the in-laws, with strangers, with colleagues and with the kids.

Voilà! I’ve cut the number of goals in half compared to next year, and I think they’re a little meatier.

How to actually use podcasts (and other media) to fuel your dreams

If starting a side hustle and becoming an entrepreneur — or I guess now that I’m a father, a dadpreneur — were baseball, I would be at spring training. But not quite to the good part where you can catch some good action in the sunshine states. No, I’m more at the very beginning of my rookie season, like when pitchers and catchers start to report, before you can even call it real practice. I’ve been doing my workouts, studying the lineups, reading up on strategy, fantasizing about how the season could go — maybe we could have a shot at the pennant?

But to be honest, at this point I’m not even sure I like pro ball.

For now, I’m merely an aspirer. An aspiring dadpreneur. A wannabe businessman. At any given time of the day, I’ve got thirty-seven different ideas twirling around in my head. They taunt and beg me constantly to be pursued — to be executed.

But for the moment, it’s all just theory.

To continue with my baseball metaphor, a lot of this theory reminds me of the famous “just keep your eye on the ball” that I heard so often in little league. “Well sure coach, when you say it like that, coach, it sounds so simple,” I recall thinking to myself.

Then the ball comes in at a gazillion miles an hour and I’m too slow to even swing.

At this point, I’ve just about gotten my fill of theory. Over the past year and a half, I’ve done everything I can to passively absorb knowledge about entrepreneurship and business.

When I lived alone, before I had a wife or children, there was always music on in the background. It accompanied my commute, and my trips to see the girlfriend. I paused only to watch TV or talk on the telephone.

But last year it struck me that listening to the same songs over and over for the hundred and fifty-third time maybe wasn’t propelling me towards success. And the more I considered my current trajectory, the more it dawned on me that something had to change.

So I stopped. Cold Turkey. And I made the jump to podcasts and self-help books.

Since then, Tim Ferriss; Chase, Corbett & Stephanie @ The Fizzle Show; Pat Flynn; and the guys at Tropical MBA have become the soundtrack to my life. They’ve accompanied me on bike rides, kept me awake during road trips, and helped me wash the dishes and take out the trash. In the past year and a half, I must have consumed more than 500 hours of content.

But lately I’ve been starting to doubt this choice.

Are they really helping? Am I living a better life and moving in the right direction?

Or is listening to podcasts simply another distraction on my journey towards entrepreneurship?

I don’t know. I like to think so, but it’s hard to say for sure. As of yet, no one has said, “Oh my, how you’ve changed in the past year!” But that doesn’t have to mean anything. People don’t normally tell you if you’re different, that you’ve changed. And most people (myself included), are too self absorbed to notice any difference.

There’s no harm in the podcasts, to be fair. But they haven’t led to any massive action on my part. I think I was expecting a magic bullet. Maybe in the long run, they will have provided the push I needed to finally get my own things started, and to finally take action.

But as of yet, there has been no Aha! moment where I thought, “OK, there it was. Now I can get this all started and finally live my dreams of becoming a dadpreneur.” Although to be fair, I just want to be an entrepreneur — the dad part isn’t really a choice anymore.

Admittedly, I tend to use podcasts (and other media like Quora and Medium) as an excuse for not writing or working on my side hustle, in part because I’m terrified of starting this journey and failing. I’m absolutely frightened of starting a side gig and having it fizzle out, or discovering that I don’t actually like it. Maybe then I will feel even more stuck. And if that’s the case I will no longer be able to say “oh, well this corporate gig is OK but just temporary. Wait ’til my business takes off! Then I’ll have time for my kids, and my projects, and my life.”

That’s the wrong way to do it.

The real value in podcasts, or quora, or medium is found when you are able to distill the content into a few key action items, which you reflect on and implement in your own life. Take that freshly distilled knowledge and other people’s experience and use it like high octane fuel for your own machine.

Test the hypothesis that you developed on the drive home.

Launch your website.

Make some mistakes.

But take action. Get wet, get dirty, get hurt.

I hear often and see it from all angles, but I’ll repeat it. The only way to achieve your dreams is to take action. Use whatever you need as an inspiration, but take action.

Accept Mortality, Take Action

“Well, just start,” I tell myself for the ten thousandth time this year. Fruitless. My attempts to climb this great mountain of starting something on the side falter again. My ambition collapses again as I sit in my basement, alone, mindlessly thumbing through irrelevant answers on Quora.

The past half a year has been laden with obstacles, the world constantly tempting me to stay the same while some voice in my brain whispers: “no, staying the same is worse than death.”

Two and a half months after forking over the cash for a “change your life” course that looked interesting, I finally make a few minutes to open it up and watch the introductory videos. Alone in my house (wifey at work, child #1 at daycare & #2 out for a walk with Opa), I sprint upstairs to grab some headphones. God forbid someone catches me watching those lessons in a well-meaning attempt to better myself.

Keenly aware of my embarrassment, I plug the earbuds in and watch the three introductory videos where the course guides discuss their personal triumphs and tragedies. My wife won’t be home for more than two hours. Opa doesn’t speak any english and would be none the wiser, should he somehow come home and interrupt my mental masturbation session.

It wasn’t the first course that I bought. It also wasn’t the first course that I didn’t finish. Sometimes that’s what those courses feel like : mental masturbation, exercises in futility, a feel-good measure designed to permit me a rush of endorphins as I whip out my credit card and click “buy”.

That’s probably why most people buy them. I’m always convinced that this time it’s serious. This time I’m really going to take those first steps.

Therein lies one of my greatest challenges. I am embarrassed that I’m not content. I blush at the mention of my aims to start something outside of corporate life. The morbid thought of someone discovering my desire for something wilder turns my hands to ice and makes my mind race with fear.

For a long time, I was more afraid of my wife finding out than I am of our life’s current course.

The more I write, the more it sounds like a serious secret: “I’ve got a porn habit, a drug addiction, and oh by the way, I killed a baby seal last week.”

I could have blamed her for my stagnation. Her criticism of my dreams, her pessimism when it comes to entrepreneurship. Her belief that corporate life is a better life. However, providing evidence to the contrary is my responsibility, and here I have failed by never starting. With nothing to show for my year of dreaming, why reason would she have to be supportive? Those dreams are simply dreams.

Again, it’s time to turn off the TV, it’s time to stop merely listening to podcasts, stop simply reading. It’s time to do something more than just dreaming. It’s time to take action.

But I’m still here in my basement, waiting it out. Someday, I say. Someday I’ll find time, or the right idea.

Maybe that will work out, but maybe not. At some point my life will end, and I will cease to be. My juvenile mind refuses to accept this. Grasping my own mortality is a task for which I am not quite ready.

Someday, I will be gone and my future will cease.

For now, I am sure that I have time. With advances in modern medicine I could have as much as 70 years left (I’m currently 33). Forty to fifty is much more likely, but who knows. It’s also possible that I have less than ten. I have friends whose fathers died in their early forties. My grandfather is still alive. Either way, if it’s ten or if it’s seventy, at some point I will die. At that point, all the things yet undone will forever remain undone.

And I struggle to accept these facts is real. This nonacceptance leaves me paralyzed. Without a strong “why” to drive me I will remain here stagnating. Wishing for things that will never come true, dreaming of a life lived differently.

All of the books and the articles that I’ve read, every hour of podcasts is worthless if it doesn’t translate into action.

Find your why, pick a target, take a step. I’m still working on mine.

Defending time

It’s been nearly two months since I last wrote something (on Medium or anywhere really). I just checked, and April 15th was the last time I wrote a story, and towards the end of April was the last time I left a comment.

My fault, my bad.

I let life get in my way and writing tends to slip down the list of things to do. Putting the pen to paper, or fingers to the keyboard is a critical tool in my quest to achieve some form of clarity. On top of that, writing in and of itself can be a very enjoyable process.

Fortunately, I haven’t just been sitting around. Over the past two months I’ve sold one and purchased two investment properties. (Not an easy task when living abroad — the mountain of paperwork I’ve created and translation services I’ve engaged over the past month is mindblowing.) Now that this process is nearly complete and I can hand the rest off to my property manager I should have a little bit more time to devote to writing.

Additionally, in accordance with the “one thing” principle, any extra creative energy has been poured into this song that has been swimming in my head for the past six months. People aren’t lying when they say a creative piece is never finished. I think I’ve finally found a point where I’m satisfied enough to stop fiddling with the recording. Let’s see if I can get the embedded player to show correctly. If not, here’s the link:

Unfortunately, there has also been a fair bit of sitting around while letting Facebook and Quora rot my brain from the inside out. Quora is at least informative (as well as entertaining), but Facebook is just mindless scrolling through posts from people that I barely know. What a waste. On top of that, I have had the pleasure of introducing my German wife to Arrested Development. She loves it. The episodes are so short, but it’s easy to let one episode turn into two or three and we’ve eventually burned a full hour and we’re heading to bed later than targeted.

That last bit is what I need to work on again. There was a time earlier this year where I made sure to work on something creative for at least half an hour before sitting down to watch TV, before spending twenty minutes scrolling through FB, before reading everything in my TWO Quora Digests (English & German).

It’s such a shame watching all those good habits go down the drain.

I’m not sure when I let that slip, or that the “how?” matters. I think it was my annual trip home to the US. Those travels always start with such big ambitions. Optimistically packing: a parenting book, Kindle (also loaded with books), laptop (for writing), journals (one for daily entries and one for ideas). Besides reading about 50 pages in the parenting book and one short journal entry, I spent exactly zero minutes doing anything productive. Oh, I suppose the laptop and journals add a little bit of extra weight for me to carry around whilst meandering through the airport. I get caught up spending time with my parents and friends, reading newspapers, generally slacking. Maybe next time I can manage to do something productive during a trip home.

I sometimes consider deleting FB, but I like to look at the “memories”. I treasure some of the good moments we captured, and enjoy trying to decipher some cryptic message I wrote in 2009. But such an exercise is little more than a waste of time.

In July I will start a new job, and through clever use of parental leave was able to arrange about five weeks of pause in between. So I am now trying my hardest to not squander this little window of free time. I stand in wait, weapons ready, to defend as many free seconds that I can. Everyone seems wants a crack at them.

Well, by everyone I mostly mean the Mrs. And in her defense, she doesn’t have any idea that it’s important to me to write regularly, or to brainstorm about what I could possibly do to start my side hustle. She doesn’t know that I’m working on working towards something fulfilling outside of our 9-to-5. She sees me having free time and all of our unfinished projects around the house and concludes that this time would be perfect for checking a few boxes off the list.

So I do two things:
1. Agree, but on my terms. I will not waste a free hour in the morning doing menial labor. Painting the bathroom can be done with a beer after dinner and after the kids go to bed. 
or
2. Disagree, and argue how much her ask sounds like something we don’t need.

Statistically speaking, number 1 gets much more use. Most of the time, the things on our list need to be completed at some point, so ignoring them isn’t an option — and I can’t make a good argument for putting everything off on her.

Doing physical, boring tasks after dinner is usually the best option anyway. I can get some physical activity in after dinner, instead of just sitting on the couch watching TV. And, my mind is much more fresh during those mid-morning hours. I don’t recall anymore where I read it, but someone said that for many people, the time around three to four hours after waking up are when many people are at their sharpest mentally.

Now that I’ve made good strides with that, I have to re-learn how to defend my free time from myself. More on that next time, because I have things to do and it’s a very difficult topic.

The Quest for Time: six ways we improved our household efficiency

There’s never any extra time. As parents of young children, it seems like we’re always on a quest for more time. We’re booked full from 6:00 AM when the kids wake up until 7:45 PM when they’re finally in bed and asleep. Thus, I have approximately 10.25 hours to sleep, get ready for bed, and complete my daily household servitude. Of course not in that order.

My wife runs on the same schedule, although due to a great arrangement with her employer, in the afternoon she works from home. She has an advantage over me there — and feels slightly less guilty than I do about collapsing on the couch after sneaking away from our sleeping daughter.

Occasionally I win an extra hour or two, which I normally attempt to fill with something useful or fulfilling: recording a new song, administrative work for our rentals, writing on medium, etc. Sometimes these ambitions don’t come to fruition and the gravitational pull of the couch is just too strong.

Since shortly after the arrival of our first child, it’s often overwhelming keeping up on the chores required to keep our house in order AND trying to find a morsel of time to invest into projects that excite me.

Like many fathers (and mothers), I still have this innate drive to build and create something beyond the spreadsheets that fill my workdays. That thirst didn’t vanish with the arrival of the children, and this creation can’t happen if all of our free time gets tied up in low-value activities. In the spirit of continuous improvement, we have found benefit in attempting to run our house like we would run a business.

Cut out all activity that doesn’t add value. Outsource where possible.

If you enjoy grocery shopping and vacuuming – that’s fine. In the right quantity, I find them both to be pleasurable. Although they certainly aren’t at the top of my list.

Here’s a few strategies that my family uses in order to minimize non-value-add activities and improve our household efficiency in our non-stop quest for time. Some of these tips do fall into multiple categories, I’ve arbitrarily placed them. Apply these tips to anything and everything you can to free up valuable time for doing things that interest you.

1. Automate and subscribe. Anything that we can set and forget, is set and forgotten. When my son started eating semi-solids, we started with a babyfood subscription through Amazon Pantry. You could expand it to all kinds of household items: diapers or soap or cleaning supplies. There are other useful subscription services out there as well.
Most of our regular bills are also paid through automatic withdrawals each month, so we don’t have to worry about scheduling payments.

2. Outsource housework. We have a Roomba. And a Braava. (Both from iRobot). Our Roomba is more schedulable than the Braava, but I consider both of them a type of outsourcing in that we’ve purchased a machine to perform work that we would otherwise need to perform manually. I’d also hire a cleaning lady if there was a reputable service around here (or I was comfortable having a stranger in the house when I’m not there).
The Roomba is set to run on our main floor three mornings per week and we use it upstairs on the weekend. This might also be a possibility with more expensive versions of the Braava (a mopping robot), but our unit needs to be turned on manually.

3. Outsource meals. We’ve also outsourced most of our meal planning. Six months ago, we started ordering our meals from HelloFresh. It’s not entirely hands-off, but they have great menus and it saves mom and dad a ton of time on meal planning and shopping. We’ve also hacked it a bit so that it’s not much more expensive than our once-a-week trip to the market, and if you factor in the time saved on meal planning and physically going to the store we come out on top. Every Saturday morning a box full of goodness shows up in our carport. Easy.

4. O.H.I.O. (only handle it once). An insurance company I worked at long before I became a father had an O.H.I.O. sign up in it’s claims department. For some reason it stuck with me after all these years. It’s not an epic hack and I wouldn’t measure the time saved in hours per week. But the savings is also not zero.
We try to reduce the amount of times we touch things: dirty dishes go directly in the dishwasher (do not stop on the counter or the sink); sort the laundry upstairs right away we get undressed; recycle the junk mail as soon as it comes out of the mailbox. As a bonus, I don’t get any grief for leaving dirty dishes laying around in the sink.

5. Showers not baths. At the beginning, babies normally don’t seem to get too dirty. But, after our children started eating baby mush, daily cleaning became necessary. However, instead of a daily bath we added a shower to the evening routine. Once a week the kids still get a bath because they enjoy it. But we save a lot of time (and a lot of water) by simply hosing them down, lathering them up, and rinsing off in the shower.

6. Combine and integrate. This was more of a tip for commuting parents, and somewhat outside of the household. But when trying to optimize, it’s important to look at the whole picture. During the dry seasons, I try to bike to work two or three times per week. When I was taking public transportation the difference between biking and riding was negligible. Although riding takes longer, now that I’ve got a car, it allows me to get my sport in for the day. As father to two young children, with a wife who also works full-time, that’s something I otherwise would never find time for. At my former employer we had a group of seven or eight people who regularly used our lunch breaks to go running. Again, something I would otherwise never be able to make the time for.

7. Use the right tools. This tip could also be considered slightly tangential, but I think about all the time I’ve wasted by not having the correct tool for the job. My time is valuable, so enjoying our projects is important. That means that whenever we prepare to start work on something new, we make sure that we have the right tools.
Quality is also important. A weak cordless drill, with a battery that doesn’t hold a charge is just a hassle.
Some examples:
– Redoing the tile in my in-laws’ entryway: time for a tile saw.
– Building an outdoor kitchen for our grill: get a second cordless drill to avoid constantly switching bits.
– Spring cleaning the windows — get a Kaercher window cleaner.
The time and effort saved make the tools a worthy investment, even for they only get used once or twice a year. And these days, decent power tools are relatively affordable. I’ve kicked myself so many times for trying to “make do” in order to save a few dollars (or euros). The one downside is that the tools can take up a lot of space, and sometimes I feel like the in-laws take advantage of my arsenal. But I’ve never regretted having the right tools for a job.

 

In conclusion
As busy, ambitious parents, time is too precious to waste on routine activities. Figure out where you’re spending a lot of time on “chores” and put these strategies to work for you and increase your household efficiency and win back a little bit of your life.

Leave a comment and let me know where you’ve made progress in your quest for time.

We won’t always have this time together

The mrs. has to remind me sometimes, and she does. When she sees me getting frustrated, when I start to complain about our lack of time. She knows that I’ve forgotten again.

But she’s nice about it usually, doesn’t list my flaws or things I should do differently. She doesn’t preach that if I drank less maybe I could use my time more wisely. This part, I already know.

Lost in my hunger for advancement, I crave accomplishment. Lately it feels like I’m always stuck. By always I mean more like the last few weeks, which have been incredibly full largely due to my own engagements. But stuck seems to feel like forever, like it’s always been and always will be.

But I get frustrated at my lack of time and I love to blame the children.

Life has changed, even in comparison to when we had just one child. What was two and a half hours each evening and up to an hour in the mornings has suddenly shrunk to an hour in the evening, for everything necessary.

My ambitious goals for the year suffer under the weight of this time squeeze.

Although as I said, I suppose I could try to be more efficient, but that would bring the focus back to me and make this my issue.

Wifey reminds me on occasion that:

1. We asked for this, we chose to have children. This was our decision, so make the most of it.

2. This phase will be brief, although it may seem to last forever right now. Someday we will miss this.

Because I do such a good job at forgetting those things.

I silently plead for this trial to be over, to have a little more time for myself. I yearn to finish those recordings, to write new songs. My fingers ache to fly over the keys as I type out another post. My mind explodes with ideas for businesses we could start, websites we could build, and creative ventures to explore.
And that’s where it all stays, locked away in my mind.

This selfish part of me wants that free time back in order to work on those creative outlets, in part because of the thought that maybe one of those things could explode and change the course of our lives. Maybe one of those fantasy projects could shift all of my hopes and dreams into the spotlight from their current position relegated to the wings of our existence: “when I get the time.”

As she says again that this will be over before I know it, a familiar wave of guilt washes over me and I choke up a little bit. My eyes become a bit wetter than usual. Deep down I know she’s right.

Sam won’t always want to sleep in our bed, to cuddle with us through the night. He won’t need us to bring him to bed. And in ten years, he definitely won’t wake up when I do and follow me to the bathroom in the mornings to get ready for work, or when I have to pee in the middle of the night. Someday soon he won’t escape out the front door to look for me, because in my rush to leave I forgot to say goodbye.

We won’t always have this time together, and I know this.

So I asked her to remind me again, and again, and again. Every so often it’s something that I need to hear. Because every so often, it’s something I forget.

We won’t always have this time together.