So I’m just back from a glorious holiday up in Scotland with the boys. We piled onto the Caledonian Sleeper and spent sunny days on deserted beaches and up mountains, with blue skies and long lunches. It was glorious and for a few days, away from long days at a laptop, my spine straightened, I got some vitamin D and my brain got a bit of a rest.
And my word, things looked different when I got back. Clearer-headed and brighter, I saw immediately how to solve a code problem that had been baffling me for a few weeks. I saw what that tricky jacket design needed. I bashed out a UI refresh of Consonance — a few CSS changes which meant the difference between a slightly stodgy, busy interface and a calming, clean, uncluttered one. I bounced into client meetings full of renewed excitement about our projects.
It’s the classic thing about needing a break to rejuvenate the mind. So, just in time for your return from your summer holidays, here’s my hit-list of things to think about and do whilst you’ve got nice, fresh eyes.
1. Consider your goals
With your fresh-from-holiday brains, reflect on the bigger picture. The look of fascinated horror on the faces of the kids when they ask which year I was born in will only get worse as time goes by. It’s now acutely important to consider how many years I have left and what I want to do with them. Am I who I want to be? Do I like my job? Do I like the people I spend time with? What do I want to achieve before I die? Because if I don’t make sure I like the answers to these questions now, then I’m going to start running out of time. I’ll be dead by 2070, tops. Most likely I’ve got 35-ish years left. I’d better crack on.
2. Consider your job
When I was a buyer at B&Q I went to the doctor with the classic signs of stress. Shortness of breath, constant headaches, exhaustion. The GP didn’t prescribe me a magic pill. She said “Well, just get a different job.” At the time I was furious. Leaving that job was impossible — it was my dream job, everything I’d worked towards! Looking back, I agree entirely with her. The best solution to a problem is to solve the root cause. And it was an awful job, anyway, which I only realised once I’d resigned. You need a bit of space to see a bad job for what it is.
3. Assess your company’s goals
The same big questions can be asked of your business. It makes me roll my eyes when I see Twitter bios which say “all views are my own and not those of [my employer]”. Businesses are people. Of course your views are those of the place you work — and if they’re not, you’re in a job where you have to wear a mask all day and, mate, that’s tiring.
So ask yourself: are we happy producing the books that we do? In the way that we do? Are we happy with the sorts of authors we work with? Our customers? Do we wish things were easier? Faster? Or slower? There are no right answers: the main trick is to decide what “happiness” means to your company. Meeting budget? Being on time? Making other people — authors, customers — happy? Giving back to the community? Beating the competition? Being proud of your contribution to the sum total of human knowledge?
This sort of analysis can be hard to do from a middle-ranking position in the company. If you don’t like the answers, it’s difficult to bring about change. There are a couple of solutions to this. Learn how to influence the people you work with to move the company’s operations to match your desires, or find somewhere else to work. That may seem impossible — you’ve got your dream job, right? Please see point 2, above.
4. Assess your company’s workflow
With a bit of distance, coming back to a clearly dysfunctional workflow makes you even more impatient for change. If you can see that there’s redundancy, overlap, and a misalignment of responsibility, authority and capability, now’s the time to plan out how to change things.
We run a very productive one-day workflow workshop for our clients. In the morning we map out the existing processes of the company. We detail all the meetings, all the spreadsheets, all the places where the same data is maintained (or not), all the tasks that everyone does to get a book to market. By lunchtime, it’s immediately apparent where the overlaps and redundancies are. And so in the afternoons, full of optimism and thrills that we might actually be able to improve things, we map out how we want to work: who should do what, and when, and what the canonical source of data should be for each step of the process. Getting your workflow right is far more important than getting the right computer system. And you can fix it yourselves without expensive external consultants, for the price of a day away from the desk, some Post-Its and a marker pen.
5. Do long-form writing
Sometimes, when I’m working on Snowbooks things, I curse Consonance, because it only leaves the difficult work. I occasionally crave a quiet day doing mindless data entry — because writing and thinking is jolly hard. Use your holiday-fresh brain to do the difficult writing tasks that require the most clarity of thought. Prize entries, grant applications, strategic proposals, marketing plans, press releases, business plans — give me an 18-hour day writing code over these tasks, any day. I find writing excruciatingly difficult (quiet there, at the back), and I need a fresh brain to do it.
6. Learn to code
Because if you can’t resolve to learn how to use the tools of your trade when you’re refreshed and feeling rejuvenated, when is it ever going to happen? Seven years and counting, chaps. That’s when the kids who’ve learnt to code at school will start to graduate. So you’ll be coming to our next Try Programming for Publishers course, right?
Don’t waste the feeling of rejuvenation and freshness that the summer break provides on catching up with your emails. Make the next four months until the Christmas break count. Use them to make sure that, this time next year, things have improved. Because it’s urgent now: you’ve only got a few decades left.
Originally written for and published by The FutureBook, August 2015
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