Operating Rules Vol.1

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I’ve found myself recently repeating a few different rules to in my head as reminders on ways I should be operating, whether it’s in day-to-day behaviors, in occasional decision-making, or interactions with others. Sometimes, when I’m distracted, emotionally incensed, or completely in mindless mode, I’ll forget these rules and behave in regretful ways. But one thing I’ve noticed is that as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to embrace the upside to slowing down and considering these rules and therefore have minimized situations where I’ve completely abandoned them.

I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to write some of these rules down and then revisit later to see what’s been added, revised, and culled.

Get the unpleasant thing out of the way sooner than later

Whether it’s washing the dishes or having a tough conversation with an employee at work, I’m of the mind that it’s best to get the unpleasant thing addressed as quickly as possible. There’s a tax to pay when you have unpleasant things lingering on your mind. It causes distraction and stress, which can have downstream impact on the your wellbeing. I try to remind myself whenever something comes up–for example, a disgruntled client who’s expressed concerns; an employee who’s had trouble following through on assignments; an insurance issue that needs to be taken care of–that it’s in my best interest to take them head on as soon as possible, endure the momentary discomfort, and move on.

Very few things are worth getting worked up over

This is a tough one to follow at times because it’s so easy to blow things out of proportion and become a drama lover. But I do think age and experience has mellowed me out a bit. There are rarely any issues at work that really come as absolute surprises anymore. Most are variations on miscommunication and mismanaged expectations. And I’ve seen enough of these situations to know that things will either take care of themselves or blow over. With that in mind, there’s absolutely little reason to get a hot head. One mechanism that I could probably do without: I sometimes engage in a playful, pretend state of being worked up that usually ends in a wink-wink and a laugh with those involved, but to those on the outside, it might be indistinguishable and therefore, not a good look.

At home, getting worked up about something is usually a function of how tired and irritable I am, so I try to keep this in mind whenever I find myself extra sensitive to something my wife says or if I find myself veering toward negative thoughts. The best antidote for this is to get some sleep.

There’s no need to have the last word

In any argument or heated debate, I’ve seldom felt satisfaction or optimism even after I’ve emphatically made my point and had the last word. I think the outcome to strive towards is one where everyone involved has had the opportunity to make their point while feeling like perhaps there’s some validity or value to the other points. So much of this is captured in the way people feel after an intense interaction. As someone who grew up loving the feeling of “winning” and “domination”, I need to continually remind myself that the true win is one in which I’ve helped to facilitate a productive conversation where all sides involved come away with a positive outlook on next steps. Hard to do, but a valuable approach to keep in mind.

There’s no rush, stick to a pace that works for me

Part of owning an independent small business is that it’s easier for me and my partners to dictate the pace of our company’s growth. There was a time when the breathtaking pace of growth for peer agencies and even those in the adjacent tech and startup worlds used to make me stress about the need to keep up. After experiencing many years of ups and downs and surviving through it all, I’ve learned that it’s a lot more calming and less distracting to ignore the measures of others and to focus solely on our own progress. Our only benchmark is what we’ve done in the past and what we hope to do in the future. We try to set realistic, reasonable goals so that we can actually hit them and celebrate, giving us a sense of momentum.

The same has applied to my personal pursuits in various activities. When it came to running, I focused solely on gradually improving my own times and paid no attention to the times of friends or others in my age group. As long as I could show incremental progress, that was good enough for me. Same with lifting weights or increasing flexibility–I only care about where I am today and what I can do to make myself a little bit better tomorrow.

I hope that in parenting, I can continue to observe this rule and find a happy pace that works for our son as he grows and develops.

Just listen, no need to provide advice

This is a relationship rule staple, but it’s applicable in so many situations. As someone who loves to solve problems, it’s hard not to dispense advice to “help” the other person with their issue. However, in most instances, the helpful thing is to listen, ask good questions, and acknowledge the issues/challenges the other person is experiencing. I catch myself going into advice-giver mode too often, so this is a rule that I try to keep as top of mind as possible whenever I go into a conversation where I know someone will want to share something in-depth.

Play offense, not defense

As clichéd as this rule may sound, it’s something that comes up again and again on a regular basis. A big part of it is recognizing the patterns of behavior that result in us being in a defensive position. A common example for me at work is when a client continually bombards us with questions and demands, forcing us to scramble in order to keep up. Playing offense in this situation would be something like clearly setting expectations upfront, aligning with the client on proper protocol and cadence for communication, and being proactive about updating the client on the progress of outstanding items before the client even has the urge to check in.

I always think about football when this rule comes up. Offense requires more scripting and coordination when it comes to execution since every player has to know exactly where he’s going. Defense, on the other hand, can only try its best to anticipate what’s coming and leverage schemes that disrupt the flow of the offense or minimize the gains the offense can make (contain). The offense has the advantage of dictating the terms and pace of the engagement provided they can execute well. When it comes to interactions with people, I think playing offense, while requiring more upfront work, provides greater sense of control and predictability.

Things I will never regret: time spent writing, time spent with family and friends, time spent on exercise, and time spent on sleep

Time, as we know, is our most valuable resource. And yet, it’s something that I find myself spilling like a rice bag with a gaping hole. Most of the spillage comes in the form of mindless activities like checking email, watching dumb videos, reading pointless and forgettable articles, and exchanging silly texts with friends. However, I’ve found it useful to remind myself to continue spending time on the handful of things that really matter and orienting my schedule to maximize for these activities:

  • Writing: when I take the time to think, construct sentences, and edit, I am helping myself to formulate ideas and to retain knowledge. I have never felt like time spent on writing was ever wasteful, even if it’s a draft blog post nobody will ever see or in my journal notebook. However, writing is not the easiest activity and it’s often hard to sit down even for 15 minutes after a long day of work to gather my thoughts and find the words.
  • Family & friends: the importance of making plans and putting in the effort to spend time with loved ones cannot be overstated. When looking back on my life, the time I spent with family and friends will most likely be the thing I cherish the most. With that in mind, it’s imperative to be mindful and present when I’m with others and to proactive create new memories with them.
  • Exercise: after committing to a 5-times-a-week routine, it’s really hard to imagine a life with much less exercise. Even if it’s a 15-20 minute burst of jump rope or running, I think the ability to stress the body, generate sweat, and get different parts moving has such profound effects on overall health. I hope to continue to invest more into making exercise a big part of my daily life.
  • Sleep: nothing regenerates the body like sleep, and so it’s important for me to remember that staying up late is rarely worth it. I also remind myself that being primed for good sleep is important, so any eating and drinking needs to be done well in advance of sleep along with minimal caffeine intake after a certain time.

Fight hard to keep my calendar as open as possible

I was struck by a clip on YouTube in which Bill Gates mentions what he learned from Warren Buffett about his schedule. Gates talked about how his calendar was usually booked solid every hour of the day whereas Buffett carried around a calendar planner that, for the most part, looked fairly blank and empty. Buffett prioritized having time to read and think, and in having a calendar that was fairly open (by saying “no” to so many things), he was able to give himself plenty of time to do so.  This also reminded me of a line attributed to management guru Peter Drucker that I came across in the book Stealing Fire: “Tell me what you value and I might believe you, but show me your calendar and your bank statement, and I’ll show you what you really value.”

I’ve told myself that my time at work would be best spent if I could focus on the design of the business (i.e. processes and systems) and the coaching of key team members who can help us scale various departments and activities. This will only ring true if I can say “no” to meetings that don’t really need me and to continue delegating tasks that can be done just as effectively by someone else.

Outside of work, I like the idea of making plans with family and friends but also being careful about not overcommitting to social occasions that I don’t absolutely want to be at and to keep a good number of weekends wide open and flexible to allow for relaxation, reading, and time with Mel and Grant.

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