Year-end review: lessons learned in 2015

For the first time in my life, I’m going to publish something very personal, with the intent of sharing my thoughts and lessons learned in this year.

Relationships

The most important event this year has been proposing to my girlfriend. It’s an important step in every man’s life, but I’m not living this as a stress factor. I see marriage as a natural outcome of a love relationship and an important and exciting piece in the puzzle of building a new family.

One thing I’m really happy for is that we are managing our money together and really well: we are debt free and we’re saving reasonable money each month, without any severe restriction.

On a wholly different plan, I re-discovered Facebook as a mean to be connected to my real friends and family. I used to avoid FB because many of my so-called “friends” were very often just “friends of friends” or people that I chatted with only once but had nothing in common with me.

So I took a bold decision and just cut off these people from my account. Since then, everything is ok and FB is working fine for me because I feel a stronger connection with my FB friends.

I also started a Twitter account. I use Twitter in a radically different way than FB: not to interact with old-time friends and family, but to connect with people who share my passions, inspiring people.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t listen to anyone but yourself when dealing with love related decisions
  • Unclutter your Facebook account

Personal projects

After closing Upgrade Your Life – my first experiment in blogging about self-development related topics – I started this blog. Because I was serious about this new project, I replaced my previous free hosting service with a paid one. I think this had a positive impact on my commitment level: I’m putting a lot more effort in writing quality content and promoting my blogging activity.

I’m also very active on developing a side-project to help me raise my income: I’m going to test a new business idea in January, but it’s still top-secret at moment!

Lessons learned:

  • Paid hosting is a must, if you want to be serious with blogging. No more crappy bandwidth nor invasive banners, at a minimum price
  • Know what people like/need and act consequently
  • The first step is the hardest one

Work

I’ve never worked so much as this year. Basically the key problem has always been time management, which pushed me to develop a simple yet effective routine. I don’t fill calendars anymore, I use to-do lists instead. Read this about how my Wallpaper-Task-List method works.

The WTL method is the only reason why I’ve been able to accomplish personal projects and to dedicate enough quality time to the people I love.

Project management experience taught me some important lessons, too (see above).

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t use calendars to manage your time, use to-do lists
  • Being too focused on the “here and now” limits your ability to foresee possible risks and acting in a preventive mode: get a perspective
  • Pay attention to details, because some of them – if not taken care of – are time bombs ready to explode
  • Don’t let your job hijack your dreams and relationships

Place

Relocating to Rome was a great change, the better part of it being the weather and the people. We’ve been able to play casual basketball until December! The other side of the coin, though, is an increased amount of commuting time.

This is a problem I need to assess in 2011. Negotiating with my company a formal remote work agreement, reducing the number of days I need to be at the office, should do the trick.

Lesson learned: when choosing where to relocate, take time into consideration

Experiences

After many years of not traveling – mainly because of money constraints when I was a student – last summer I had the chance of visiting France’s Côte d’Azure for a week (Niece, Marseille, Cannes, Saint-tropez…). Since then, I’m thinking about starting an online business, moved by the desire of being location independent.

Lesson learned: travel, because it opens your mind

Health

This is the worst part of my 2010: I went from 191 (i’m 6’3” tall) to 220 pounds, due to eating out of control.

I’ve already started a low-carb diet, and results – although slowly – start to show up.

Lesson learned: getting fat is easy, getting slim is hard – think about it before bingeing

That’s all, I hope you can use some of my lessons learned to improve your life in 2016. Care to share your thoughts?

6 Tips How to search for an apartment rental in smarter way

Do you want to relocate to another town because of job transfer and you are wondering how you will search a new apartment rental? Or do you want to move to another neighborhood and you are searching for a rental apartment? If yes then you probably how tiresome the process is. Getting a new apartment that suits your lifestyle is not easy as many people think. A recent study that was conducted by an independent real estate institution found out that more than 50% of people don’t get to enjoy living in an apartment rental that they really wanted simply because they don’t know how to search for them. Most people usually settle for second best because they usually give up on the middle of the road. Although searching for a new apartment can be a lengthy process, it is possible to find your dream apartment rental without so much hustle. In this article, we are going to give you tips on how to search for an apartment rental in smarter way.

  1. Come up with a budget.

The first very important step in finding an apartment rental in any city is by coming up with a realistic budget. It does not make sense to search for an apartment rental that you cannot afford to pay. You first need to come up with a budget of how much money you are willing to spend then search for an apartment rental according to your budget. People who always have a budget usually find an apartment faster than those who don’t have.

  1. Search

You can only get an apartment if you make an effort of searching for them. Thanks to advance in technology, it is now easy to search for an apartment just at the comfort of your own house. Many property owners usually advertise their apartments online so as to reach out to many people. Take your time and search online to know apartments that are available within your locality. If you want to find good apartments rental within your locality, you need to narrow your scope. Visit all property sites and see what they have to offer then shortlist apartments that you like. You can also search offline using word of mouth and reading local dailies and magazines.

  1. Consider the neighborhood

Before renting an apartment, it is very important to first checkout the neighborhood to see if it really fits your lifestyle. You must also consider things like safety and security. When looking for an apartment to rent, it is very important to come up with a list of neighborhoods that you would like to stay. That way, you will narrow your search meaning that you will be able to locate an apartment faster. Therefore, before you go to search for an apartment, make sure that you have a list of neighborhoods to choose from.

Untitled-Infographic-6[1]

  1. Consider commute time.

One major factor that many people often overlook when searching for a new apartment is commute time. Commute time is actually the time taken when traveling from your apartment to your place of work or study. If you really value your time then you should not ignore this factor. If you decide to search for an apartment online, only shortlist property sites that have included commuter time in the listing. This way, you can be able to make an informed decision as to whether to rent the apartment or not. Expert recommend that you should only choose an apartment that has commuter time that you are comfortable with.

  1. Use a repeatable real estate agent.

If you have a very busy work schedule and you don’t have time to search for an apartment, you can hire the services of a real estate agent to work for you. Real estate agents are professionals and they can help you locate an ideal apartment. This is because they have been in this industry for long and they know the city more that you do. They can also give you advice to help make an informed decision.

  1. Have your documents ready.

It is very important to always have your documents ready when searching for apartment rentals. This way, you will lower the likelihood of somebody else renting the apartment before you. For instance, when you go to visit a place that you really like and you will most like choose, make sure that you carry your checkbook so that you can pay deposit.

 

How to live happy without a calendar

The most widespread time management technique (at least in the corporate world) is using calendars and filling every possible slot with tasks.

I’ve been victim of this approach until some months ago, when I realized that trying to fill every minute of my calendar wasn’t making me more productive. On the other hand, this habit was increasing my stress level because – more often than not – tasks required more time to be completed. In the meantime, I was losing control over projects, wasting time on unsignificant tasks.

So, I tried something simpler. And it worked.

I’m going to explain my system later in this post. For now I’d like to point out the main reasons why a calendar is the wrong tool, when it comes to effective time management:

fill-calendar

  1. Empty slots in calendars have a short life, because of people’s natural inclination to filling empty spaces
  2. People tend to underestimate task-completion time (planning fallacy, a kind of cognitive bias): combined with number 1, this means that the average task will end later than planned
  3. Because people plan too many tasks and underestimate their completion time, they need to re-arrange their calendar very often, wasting even more time
  4. Given that each calendar day is filled to its maximum capacity, and that people usually adopt a weekly display mode – because otherwise it’s impossible to understand what to do – there is no perspective on what’s going to happen in the next two or three weeks

I’ve read about and tested many time management systems, but they seem more focused on discussing philosofic concepts than being actually useful, resulting too often complicated to learn or maintenance heavy.

So, I developed my personal method to manage tasks.

I was looking for a system

  • not based on filling time slots
  • with a daily tasks limit
  • easy to maintain
  • with some perspective
  • always accessible

My Wallpaper-Task-List (WTL) meets all of these requirements.

It’s a classic wallpaper with some text boxes added (made with Power Point as a mono-slide presentation and saved as PNG), which I set up as my desktop wallpaper.

This is how my destkop looks like:

Wallpaper to-do list

When building the WTL, the only mandatory boxes are the big one and the small one on the upper right.

  • The big box covers the current week. The limit is: no more than 3 big tasks (or 2 big tasks and 2 small tasks) each day.
  • The small box covers the following two weeks and later.

How does it work?

  • Each monday, I edit the last version of the previous week’s wallpaper.
    If a task still needs to be completed, I move it into the big box (this week). Then, “next week” (last week’s next week is current week!) items are moved into the big box, while “following week” becomes next week.
  • Then, I set it as my destkop wallpaper and start working.
  • Usually, I edit the list just twice a day: each morning and each afternoon (at around 3 pm when I read again my inbox), to check off the completed tasks and – if needed – to react to new requests.

The main benefits of this system are:

  • the “3 big tasks a day” rule forces you to focus on what’s really important
  • the small box gives you an idea of what’s going to happen in the next weeks
  • being your desktop wallpaper, the WTL is always under your eyes and this makes it a great reminder/motivator
  • it works even when you’re offline
  • checking tasks off the list is fun as hell, but this is common to every task list based system

The ultimate distraction: RockMelt

RockMelt is one of those applications that pose serious threats to personal productivity, at the same time being too cool not to be given a try (at least!).

The definition of RockMelt is social web browser: a browser that incorporates several social-networking and sharing tools. It’s developed by Tim Howes and Eric Vishria, with the involvement of Netscape founder Marc Andreessen.

I’ve been using Google Chrome since 1+ year now, appreciating in particular its minimalist interface (i.e. the search bar integrated into the navigation bar) and quickness.

Yesterday, curious after reading about the release of this new Chromium-based browser, I requested an invitation for downloading RockMelt and this morning I installed it.

Consider this a mini-review after an entire day of playing with it. In my opinion, these are the most notable features:

  • The search bar and the navigation bar are separated (as in Firefox and Internet Explorer), but the first one can be used, as in Chrome, in double mode. Using the dedicated search bar, though, lets you navigate through search results in a pop-up box, without even leaving the page you are on.
    My opinion: very convenient.
  • Between the navigation and the search bars, there is a share button, which enables you to share the page you’re currently on via Twitter or Facebook.
    My opinion: no need to copy-paste URLs anymore? Great.
  • On the lateral sides of the browser, we find two very slim columns: friend edge and application edge.
    The first one hosts your favorite friends on Facebook, letting you interact with them (sending messages and writing on their wall) directly from the browser, while from the second one you can access Twitter and Facebook updates and RSS feeds.
    My opinion: along with the share button, this is what makes RockMelt different from any other browser, and unique.
  • On the upper-left of the screen there’s a small icon with the user’s profile pic (you). From there you can quickly tweet, set your Facebook status or chat on Facebook.
    My opinion: this is not different from what some extensions do for Chrome. They complete the social-networking package.
  • When visiting a website that’s got an RSS feed, the feed is automatically detected and you can subscribe just by hitting the RSS Feed button on the right column (“application edge”).
    My opinion: useful and coherent with the philosophy of RockMelt, even though some may prefer to use a web-aggregator like Google Reader.
  • For better site navigation, the two side columns (Friend edge and application edge) can be easily hidden through the shortcut CTRL+SHIFT+Space.
    My opinion: this is obviously going to be mastered by those who don’t want to look like they are wasting time on Facebook.
  • There is an incognito navigation feature, which lets you open a new window where the pages viewed won’t appear in the browser history or search history, and won’t leave any cookies.

This is a screen capture of RockMelt taken from the software house’s quick guide, take a look:

WIOk0pp[1]

My first impression was very positive: RockMelt developers made an extraordinary job of mixing the basic browsing and searching capabilities with a perfect set of tools for sharing content and connecting with people…

…then I started to think about what impact would something like this have on productivity.

In my opinion, RockMelt is the ultimate distraction. The main issue comes from having the entire social-networking universe just 1 click away: the temptation of reading the latest tweets from your contact or commenting the latest updates of your friends is bigger than ever, because these options are always on top.

RockMelt is sooo dangerous!

Plan a perfect holiday

Including the words “plan” and “holiday” in the same sentence may sound strange even to the most passionate get-things-done maniac: there is something in our brain that instinctively tells us that planning and holiday don’t go along very well.

Nonetheless, this post is about planning your Christmas & New Year holiday. Why?

Because the feeling of accomplishing nothing during holidays is very common and unpleasant. People are usually disappointed with the way they manage their holiday time, and this doesn’t help with post-holiday stress.

Planning – minimal planning (no GANTTs involved!) – is an unconventional holiday strategy that pays. There is this myth that planning will ruin your holiday. This is a case of wrong conventional belief. Planning is not a vacation killer in itself: if you wish, you could in fact very well plan to rest the entire time! Planning is just a tool, we decide targets and actions.

But what does it take to get the max from your holiday?

Be with your family and rediscover tradition

Christmas is the ideal moment of the year to spend some quality time with your family, especially when you live far from your relatives (as in my case). Each country has its own traditions, when it comes to staying together: what’s yours? Here in Italy we use to play traditional card games and board games (like “Tombola”).

Strenghten your social relationships

Visiting friends and being present at – or hosting – social events are great ways to get updated about everyone’s current activity and projects and to meet new people. You all know how connecting with people can be beneficial, sometimes leading to life changing opportunities. Social networking via Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin is important, but meeting people in person takes relationships to another level and dealing with it is part of our social skills baggage.

Take some steps towards your personal goals

When was the last time you had so much free time to take care of your personal projects?
Wether it is boosting your blogging, starting a book or building a prototype of that product concept you’ve been talking about for months, this is the right time to do it.

Do something for your career

Update your CV with your latest successes, which is one of those things that always come handy. Doing some light job research and sending out some CVs is another idea, if you are looking for a better position.
Just remember that getting a new job won’t make you free.

Get inspired

Add variety to your holiday. Exposition to unusual situations, new places and objects interactions can lead you to different point of views and stimulate creativity. If your creative engine is dead, mix things a little bit: insanity is doing the same things over and over, expecting different results.
Even shopping has some potential of sparking a new idea: it lets you take a look at what people throws money at.

Relax

Allocate enough time to relax: a walk in the park, reading a good book, sipping a cup of tea… What’s more important, don’t let your daily work interfere with these moments. You don’t need to check your work inbox while on holiday, unless increasing your anxiety level is your goal. If something is really important (I mean “an asteroid falling on your company’s headquarters” important) they’ll call you.

I must confess: I’m a fan of lists as much as I hate complicated planning methods and tools.

So, my suggestions are:

  • write down a holiday to-do list, with a daily maximum of 1 to 3 activities
  • commit yourself to planning at least one activity of each  kind (family, social networking, personal goals, career, inspiration and relax)
  • include a holiday budget, to overcome the fear of over-spending and the associated anxiety

I’m sure that by doing these simple little things you’ll end up with a Christmas holiday you won’t regret.

Success, failure, doing stuff and black swans

Chris Garrett’s Fast Forward Your Progress post on Escape Velocity gave me the input to write about the correlation between success, failure, doing stuff and the black swan theory by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Black swans are high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events.

Wide-scale success is in my opinion the consequence of multiple conditions that lead to commercial and/or social success, whose combined probability is so low and that are so hard to predict, that they fall into the definition of black swan.

It’s important to note that the notion of good or bad associated with any event is entirely subjective. Easy example: the commercial success of an enterpreneur is good for himself but at the same time bad for his competitors.

So I consider extreme success or failure the consequence of black swans.

On a side note, I think that we tend to overstimate our predictive ability, when dealing with black swans: find me somebody who predicted from the start the success of Google or Facebook.

What does this have to do with doing stuff?

Well, to quote Chris Garrett’s post:

Success comes from doing stuff.

Note I did not say that successful people do everything perfectly, or even particularly well. Heck, every person I admire has done a lot of stupid things and made a lot of mistakes.

They are not always particularly efficient, smart, wise, or terribly good-looking if we are honest.

What they do, and what I encourage you to do, is they make progress.

Action is the only option for those willing to become “victim” of a positive black swan. This is why I agree with Chris about the importance of doing stuff.

But I feel the need to complete that sentence in bold about doing stuff. The right approach IMHO is: act a lot, but always test your ideas before investing everything into them, because you can’t tell if the black swan is going to hit you in a positive or negative way.

This is why I included small-scale testing in my 6 steps method to evaluate business ideas.

The cost of commuting and remote work arrangement ideas

Commuting is regular travel between one’s place of residence and place of work or full time study. [Wikipedia]

 

In other words, a regular waste of time.

I spent every 8 hours worked I waste 2 hours commuting. In a year (52 weeks), this means an astonishing total of 520 hours (65 work days). If I only have this tool where you can search condos by commute time when I have arrived in Singapore, my life would be a lot easier.

The same applies to thousands of white collars every day here in Rome (the largest and most populated city in Italy).

Now, my company is smart enough not to be too strict about office presence, so – when I really can’t afford to lose time – I choose to work from home.

In fact, all I need to do my job is a PC, an Internet connection and a telephone.

But I cannot help but repeating how dumb is this obsession with reaching the office daily.

Commuting is bad because:

  • it stresses people, thus affecting health and personal relationships
  • it makes companies look stupid, because they could easily boost productivity simply allowing employees to work from home
  • it has a negative impact on the environment

A research by the Cranfield School of Management in the United Kingdom shows that remote workers are more productive, less stressed and more loyal to their company:

Employees with flexible hours, especially those working remotely, not only reported working more intensely but also claim higher job satisfaction, lower stress levels and greater company loyalty.

In other words, working remotely appears to be connected with working harder and being happy with your job.

Anderson and Kelliher suggest that this phenomenon is based on an employee’s willingness to maintain equilibrium between that worker and his or her employer. Since the employer has added a new dimension that benefits the employee — in this case, the freedom of a flexible schedule — the worker is interested in keeping an equal balance and adjusts the scales by working harder in return.

[Discovery News]

The easier way to promote home working, in my opinion, is encouraging people to accept a pay-cut to work from home. It’s a win-win situation: the empoyee gains free time, the employer reduces its workforce cost.

On the other hand, if you don’t feel comfortable with the idea of accepting a salary-cut, things get harder. In the absence of direct tangible benefits for the business, your employer will be less willing to give you the freedom to work from home.

In this situation, a test is what you need: ask your boss for a reasonably long test (it should cover a wide range of different situations, so I suggest at least one month).

Here you’ll find the 5 most significant benefits of remote work arrangements to employers, they could help you with your proposal.

Learn to say “no” as a real professional

As we grow up, we are told a simple message: success is a consequence of following the rules.

This happens both at home (“don’t do that, do this instead and you will get that new toy”) and at school (“if you learn the lesson, you’ll get a good mark”), the places we attend the most. University is not different.

Those who have problems with authority usually never get good marks.

As a consequence, companies (who usually prefer academically successful people) are full of people who are very good at following the rules.

I have to admit that I am one of those: a quiet child (“the good one”, opposed to my brother), successful at school and then at the university.

If you are similar to me, you probably never say “no” to your boss/customers.

I payed my fair share of weekend/holyday work too, as a consequence of this behaviour, before learning to say no to impossible requests.

The most important thing to remember – and to communicate – is that you are not refusing to do something because you’re lazy.

The reason why you can’t just quit your current tasks and starting something else, is because you are a professional and you care about what you are  working on (exactly to meet your boss or your customers’ expectations!).

 

The three ways of doing business online

We live in a world where, thanks to the Internet, doing business globally requires little investment.

But a lesson that many learned at their expense is that the market laws still apply, even on the Internet: the model of catching eyeballs without knowing what to do next (usually the idea is selling advertising space or going public) is not working anymore.

There are basically three ways of doing e-business:

  1. E-lancing: selling your professional skills through the Internet. There are some platforms you can use that make it easier (i.e. Upwork). Because of the very nature of professional services, this kind of business is not scalable (you sell work hours, and time is not unlimited!).
  2. Selling a product: building (or buying) something and selling it. For product I mean everything from an e-book, to software to hard products. eBay is the obvious choice for e-commerce, but there are alternatives, country or market specific, which vary depending on your specific needs.
    When I need to sell or buy musical instruments here in Italy, Mercatino Musicale is my primary choice.
  3. Selling a platform: setting up a “virtual place” where individuals “go” to connect with other people. While selling your services or products is more intuitive (you make profit selling at a higher price than your total cost), in this case things are not so clear. This is the reason why you need a simple business plan where you assess some key points: what is the problem (market), are there any alternatives (competitors), what’s the solution (how the platform works), how do you promote it, is the business profitable (projections), how do you plan to execute (team, timeline)? You don’t need (nobody really needs them) a thick ultra-detailed document. All you should know is exactly how to get your money out of people’s pockets (to use an expression by Guy Kawasaki).

The concept of selling a platform is attractive because it indulges the real nature of the Internet: connecting people.

connecting-people

 

While selling products or services works if buying through the Internet is more convenient, cost effective or the only way to buy a certain service/product, making money through a platform is tricky, though.

It is based on creating value connecting a lot of people on a constant basis, and charging for the service.

People are eager to sell on eBay because for a little percentage of the value sold they can market to the whole world. People buy on eBay because they always need something different and because e-shopping is entertaining in itself. There is a reason for both to return to eBay.

The number of users is equally important, given that for a platform to be useful it has to connect the highest possible number of people.

If a platform starts getting attention by Internet users, it will drive competitors into the market. And there are lots of brilliant developers out there who can code at light speed…

So, you either need some unique features which are very difficult to replicate, or you need to be really fast in building a large user base and acquiring standard status (then competition will usually give up).