Checking in

At the start of 2017, I followed my aunty’s advice on how to get stuff done – I wrote a ‘prioritisation plan’. As the nights begin to draw in and I start to wonder where the time has gone, now seems like as good a time as any to review how things are going.

I’m terrible at reflecting: by which I mean I’m very good at doing it – but usually, to my own detriment. I’ve a mental list of things for each and every day where I’d say I wasn’t up to scratch. I’ve always thought that a good thing – because I focus on turning those reflections into actions, lessons or things I’d do better next time. It’s a system that has served me – mostly – well.

Relfecting on concrete objectives and priorities, though, is something I’m far more used to at work than at home. Before this year, I’ve never had (see: made) the time to set out what I wanted to acheive from a year and then got on with doing it.

I’ve always known the destination I wanted but, as anyone who has ever gone on a car journey with me can attest, the exact details of getting there are significantly less well understood.

So, I have been thinking of my prioritisation plan as sort of like a ‘Google Maps’ for my life. And much like when I’m following instructions from Google Maps, my conclusion from reviewing my progress was a steely determination to get to the destination but perhaps a few wrong turns along the way.

I’ve had definite wins: starting to save for a house, reducing my slightly exuberant spending on coffee in Starbucks, saying no more to short term in favour of long term and finishing off my CIPR Diploma in Public Relations.

In other areas I’ve let the business of life lead me astray, but a review is a good time to get things back on track and with four months left of 2017 I’m pretty certain I’ll be able to look back on the year and mark it a success.

Photo by Sabri Tuzcu / Unsplash

And I think that’s the lesson in all of this really, and the reason I wanted to write this post. I get incredible satisfaction in my work life from hitting goals, delivering projects and crossing items off from my to-do list but I’d never thought about translating that to life life.

While I was at University, I set myself 3 goals every 90 days – but they were always focused on work and education, never on what I wanted for me.

But having prioritised my life, written down some specific goals – and prioritsed them – and then kept the sheet somewhere I saw them every day for 9 months I’ve not only managed to achieve what I wanted, but also get the satisfaction of knowing that I did.

I’d say that was a tick for the inferred opposite of ‘say no more to short term’.

If you want to try out prioritisation planning for yourself you can find the guide I used and a handy blog from Karen to tell you how to fill it out here.

2016 in books

For the first time ever, I achieved my Goodreads target for the year in 2016. It’s only the second year I have done the challenge, but nonetheless it’s an achievement and I want to celebrate.

I read 12 books. I am pretty certain in fact I read many more, but logging academic books might have made it seem I was showing off. I didn’t, but I now regret that decision. So I am showing off here instead. It was more like 24 books.

Here’s the 10 I think you should read too (and one I don’t think you should), and why.

Meanwhile, my book buying continues to outdo my book reading so even in spite of this miraculous achievement, I’m far from running out of material.

Cheer Up, Love: Adventures in Depression with the Crab of Hate – Susan Calman

One of the reviews on Goodreads says about this book what I wanted to say, but in better words.

They said: “Highly recommended for anyone who is coping with depression. Or anyone who is coping with someone who is coping with depression.”

The book offers an insight into what it’s like to live with anxiety and depression. It’s amusing, too, which helps.

The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson

A good read for little other reason than to remind yourself that you’re not actually a psychopath. The test itself is intriguing. The revelations of incaceration worrying, but more comforting as the book goes on. The book is an interesting, amusing root about in the mind of leaders. It left me wanting more, which is why Jon Ronson appears three more times in this list.

The Men Who Stare at Goats – Jon Ronson

Here he is again. A story of how a man once stared at a goat until it died. Interesting. Definitely interesting.

Bonkers: My Life in Laughs – Jennifer Saunders

Not the best autobiography I’d ever read, nor the worst. In the list because I’d read ‘Dear Fatty’ and thought I should complete the set.

Some interesting stories about ‘the early days’. Some amusing bits about life. But a second half much more enjoyable than the first.

Jennifer’s sitcom writing style shines through. So it’s the perfect read for when you’ve not got long. The chapters are as self contained, which makes for a nice rhythm if you’re doing something else too.

Them: Adventures with Extremists – Jon Ronson

An enjoyable book about the world of paranoid conspiracists. People who walk the world thinking there’s a plan to get them and that Jewish people are behind most of it. The book plays on my natural assumption that wherever there is conspiracy, there’s probably at least some fact. It asks the questions I’d have asked if I’d got the chance to, while nicely affirming my belief that no government is organised enough to actually try and control the world.

It was only spoiled by my sudden realisation half way through that I’d flown with a book about extremism in my hand luggage.

The PR Masterclass: How to Develop a Public Relations Strategy That Works!

An interesting read with some good ideas, written by someone with actual experience of doing them. It’s not ground breaking, but an audio book version should perhaps be supplied to anyone immediately following their asking “so, what do you do?” of someone working in PR.

The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It

I abandonded this, my only abandonment this year. To me it switched between being the other side of an interview from ‘Them’ (above) and an essay written by a school boy who’d overused the ‘theasuarus’ option in Microsoft Word.

I got the feeling that you’d enjoy the book if you were already minded to believe what it was saying.

Again, it’s best left to Goodreads reviewer Adam:

“To appreciate this book, you have to understand what Owen Jones means by “the establishment”. It turns out he means anyone who disagrees with his politics or has been instrumental in some way in frustrating the success of those politics over the past 30 years. The police, America, New Labour and virtually anyone with money are all included in this somewhat expansive definition.”

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Jon Ronson

A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping the world, thanks to the power individuals have developed with social media. Giving everyone a voice seems to have meant we’re all keen on finding other people’s faults, and getting offended on behalf of others. Tweet something, get on a plane and arrive to find your life has been destroyed.

The only part of the book that left something to be desired was the ‘what next’ section, which was scarce on the detail of anything that actually worked. Perhaps that, though, is because nothing really does.

As we’ve seen with Brexit, Trump and more the Internet never thinks anything’s over. The Remoaners continue to be fought as if they’ve not lost, Trump continues to point out that Clinton is terrible and everyone else who’s ever done anything wrong continues to be hounded by the Twitterati. Just look at Tony Blair.

The Internet wants the apology, but seems to have forgotten the next step is supposed to be forgiveness. The book is a nice reminder to watch your step.

How to Be a Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More and Love What You Do – Graham Allcott

I read this and instantly had the feeling that I might’ve written it myself in a past life, or before taking some kind of amnesia drug. I already do everything that it suggested – so I have taken pleasure, since I finished the book back in February, of considering myself a ‘productivity ninja’.

Read this book and do what it says if you want to be like me.

On the negative side, it could easily have been written as a 10 page article rather than a c.250 pager – but then, 10 pages a book deal is not.

Winners: And How They Succeed – Alistair Campbell

Too much sport, but some good basic ideas. Alistair’s grounding force of OST (Objective, Strategy, Tactic) and his lessons on how often people confuse them for one another is probably the most interesting thing I’ve learn this year.

I now find myself constantly sitting in briefings about projects bringing the conversation back to O, when it’s strayed onto T prematurely. It certainly gets results.

Peas & Queues: The Minefield of Modern Manners – Sandi Toksvig

An entertaining tour through the weirdness of life ettiquette. It’s so very British that no one really knows where the phrase ‘mind your Ps and Qs’ comes from. Or is it ‘Mind your peas and queues?’ No one knows that either.

Good tips on getting rid of unwanted guests (useful), and proof that I am in fact fine and completely rational to be insanely irritated when people cut their bread roll with a knife at dinner.

What we come to expect

I had a remarkable experience at Woking railway station the other day. It shouldn’t have been remarkable at all; it shouldn’t even be the topic of this probably-not-going-anywhere post to be honest, but we’re here now.

My train had arrived at the station early (I know, and that’s not the remarkable bit) and having mis-directed myself towards the exit by walking up some stairs and then immediately down some parallel ones, the automatic gates failed to let me through.

They do that at most stations, actually. Despite having a perfectly valid permit to travel and break my journey at about 50 stations, no one has in the past 60 or so years managed to programme the barriers to respond to my valid ticket appropriately.

But despite the botheration caused both by the mis-directing directional signage and the automatic gates that required manual intervention, I was not much perturbed.

I quite enjoy work days where I get to head out of the office (whether it’s at home or in London) and see some of the frontline teams at work and it was quite a nice day too.

When you work in a support function like ‘comms’ it can be far too easy to become disconnected with what the business you work in actually does, and seeing some of the business end of the frontline is not only a nice reminder but also a nice change.

So in theory, and in retrospect, the conditions for the joke the chap behind the window in the ticket office was about to make should’ve gone down well.

Because earlier in the week my train ticket wallet had broken. It was no longer very effective at holding my ticket and although I’d soldiered on for a few days I jumped at the chance to get a new one – given the empty ticket office, two windows open, that Woking had gifted me.

“That’ll be ten pounds please” the stony faced guy behind the ticket window said when I asked. My reply something along the lines of “seriously?”

He nodded. I walked off. He shouted me back and, in the process of finding himself hilarious, handed me a new wallet.

“It’s surprising how easy it was to believe you though,” my instant reaction to him. And a couple of days later, it still is.

I’ve been through about three of the wallets over the 11 months I’ve had my current season ticket. It’s with me everywhere and goes in and out of its wallet 6 times a day, so it’s not surprising that they don’t last all that long.

I’ve even had to have the ticket itself replaced 5 times. Four because the magnetic strip stopped operating the barriers and once because the thermal print couldn’t cope with its regular thumbing and the ticket had become illegible.

But with every replacement has come some kind of tut, some kind of resentment at what I’ve been asking for: a working, £5,000-a-year travel ticket.

I no longer expect to arrive on time more often than I don’t, I no longer expect to have a comfortable seat (or a seat at all) and I no longer expect much info when things do go up the spout.

I’ve accepted that South West Trains can steal 19hrs and 40 mins a week of my life from me should they wish without sometimes even saying anything about it.

So it wasn’t at all surprising to expect that I might be expected to pay £10 for a cheap ticket wallet last week at Woking.

Perhaps it does say something about my mood, perhaps I need to get a sense of humour (and I’ve no problem with the guy making a joke, to be clear). But perhaps it says something about what I’ve come to expect, through experience, from the trains?

Photo credit: Theen … via / CC BY-NC-SA

Content lessons from your primary school

For some reason I ended up browsing my primary school’s website the other day. I still can’t work out how I got there or what I wanted to achieve, but I came away with a lovely warm feeling of reassurance and I think there’s something we can all learn from it.

Primary school was awful, as I remember. I didn’t have many friends, and some of the ones I did weren’t really all that nice. But my Primary School itself was lovely, and I found myself drawn in by the site as if it were offering me a familiar pair of arms to cuddle.

I spent at least an hour browsing through pictures of events, looking closely at the rooms and trying to work out what had changed. Yes, the hall has new carpet on the stairs but no, the library shelves are still the ones which were installed when I was there.

Ignoring the 90s-style-web design through gritted teeth, though, the content itself and the way the school communicates online is pretty impressive.

I say that because having spent an hour or so browsing a site intended for people with a genuine interest in the content or needing to achieve something with no genuine interest or thing to achieve, I hadn’t been bored for a minute.

I’d browsed plenty of the pictures, yes, but I’d also found myself interested in the school’s healthy eating policy, it’s staff list (there’s no one I remember left) and reading about the last few big events they’d held in greater detail than I even know about some of the events I’ve attended recently.

The website had been talking to me, and it felt lovely.

All too often when putting together, or editing, the content for a website it’s easy to become too focused on keeping the information accurate, succinct and keeping internal stakeholders happy.

In working on a Children’s Services website built for parents recently I’ve had no end of conversations about whether the word is disabled or something else, whether it’s “maximise” or “make the best of” and the amount of time that’s gone into walking the delicate line between professional excellence and what is ultimately just good customer service has baffled me.

The quality of web content is as much about accuracy as it about how it makes the person reading the page feel but that’s difficult to remember. It’s not helped when the people with the knowledge are often not the ones producing the content and the people producing the content are trying to please a ‘client’ who isn’t one of the audience.

It’s very easy, because it’s the option of least resistance, to keep the people inside the organisation happy and not argue changes on behalf of the audience.

Becoming too tied up with objectives, getting the key messages in and keeping the influencers – the people who know the subject – happy it becomes easy to forget that the content has to make the audience feel a certain way, as well as keep them informed.

that it becomes easy to forget that the content that makes the audience feel best doesn’t really even have to say much.

Too tied up with the user journey and stakeholder engagement to remember that ultimately, the website is replacing a conversation with a person not a text book.

There’s something we can all learn from our primary school’s website. Go browse yours, and see what you might learn.

39 dwellings

Update at 4pm

Since I published this at 4am last night I’ve found out some new stuff. Firstly that the Telegraph also wrote about this picture , secondly that my guess that the flooding wasn’t actually quite reaching the part where development permission had been given might not be wrong and thirdly that my 4am brain remembered the stats wrong. Flood zone 1 has a 1 in 1000 chance of flooding rather than once every 1000 years. I’ve corrected the relevant bit below.

It’s hard to tell just how many tweets there have been about the flooded development site near Whalley in Ribble Valey just off the A59 but it’s fair to say it’s been a quite a few.

I’ve seen the picture pop up on an at least hourly basis over the last two days. I’d not have seen it as much had it not been Christmas, but it’s fair to say that the photo has been well and truly atomised. In fact, it’s been shared so well that despite a good hard look, I’ve not been able to find the person who originally posted it.

It’s a beautiful photo which is being taken as good, hard proof by many people who think we’re building on floodplains and bringing it all on ourselves. If I’d have seen the chance, I’d probably have taken the photo myself.

But just like anything else which seems to make a point but doesn’t quite provide enough detail, it’s been used for point scoring either against the local council – Ribble Valley District Council – for not doing its job properly and against developers for taking advantage of cheap land to screw over would-be property owners.

A59 Whalley Arches. I think this sums it up. Cheap floodplain land sold for development = massive problems #floods— Ed Matthews (@mr_ed_matthews) December 27, 2015

@Energydesk @GreenpeaceUK As long as there’s money to be made, they’ll be built. Tory govt doesn’t care about people – cares about money— Alan Smith (@flanderosa) December 26, 2015

The tweets above sum up the general theme of what is being said. The photograph of the land, flooded and displaying proudly the permission it has for 39 homes to be built, is said to be a floodplain sold cheap.

One is left to assume, as one often is with these things, how such a thing might happen and so, obviously, rather than accept the facts as they weren’t being presented I wanted to know more.

In particular, I wanted to know more about its permission for 39 dwellings and just as I expected, the facts weren’t really all that hard to find.

To spoil the surprise: yes, someone did point out that the land had flooded before. To build the suspense back up again: it wasn’t anyone paid to point it out.

I do not live in the area nor have I ever even visited, so it’s probably worth saying that I’m working on the basis of evidence I can find on the internet, and the assumption that there’s not much land in Whalley near the A59 which has permission for 39 dwellings.

In fact, on the basis that there’s just one which matches the description, I think I’ve nailed it. The information below is just based on what I think I’ve found out. If you know better, let me know and I’ll be happy to correct it.

What I found out

  • The permission to build 39 dwellings is made up of three separate applications (and subsequent permissions). The first is for 12 new houses, the second for 10 (removing one of the previous 12), and the final for 18 further houses. Links to all three are below.
  • The Environment Agency were consulted as part of the planning process even where (it appears) that they were not required to be. In the second planning application, the Environment Agency explicitly say that the land is in Flood Zone 1 and does not require their input.
  • The land does indeed fall in flood zone 1 (which is where most land is, the lowest risk) but it is adjacent to flood zone 2 (with zone 3 being land at the highest risk of flooding). The A59 itself falls into the zone 2 area, as you’ll see from the map below and which seems to show the land that’s flooded in the picture as part of zone 2.
  • In the first planning application, the Environment Agency did ask the council to impose conditions on how groundwater was dealt with but this seems focused on ensuring the development doesn’t mean other land floods. The drainage system proposed for the site is changed as a result (and this is reflected in the second and third applications) in line with the conditions.
So, just to speculate a little…

Despite the irony of speculating when writing something which tries to put facts behind speculation, I’m going to make some ‘leaps’ here based on what I found.

I think it’s important to work out whether this photograph is a tragic example of bad luck or is, indeed, cheap floodplain land sold cheap for development.

Since the planning application isn’t from a big developer, the claim of developers looking to profit from building on cheap floodplains doesn’t seem to stack up much to me. If the current owners (and the people who got the permission, one assumes) are developers then why would the land be up for sale?

Equally, that the sign advertising the site which kicked all of this off is still there (suggesting it’s still up for grabs – although I’ve not checked) 8 months later it doesn’t seem like developing the land is that attractive.

Added to the fact that the RightMove ad implies that Bloor Homes has already had first refusal and it really is starting to seem like no-one is too keen to actually build on it.

So, cheap land perhaps – but only because no one seems to want to build on it, but flood plain? Well, according to the experts: nope. In fact, the land that has the planning permission isn’t even the bit that’s wet – it’s next to it.

It’s just a pretty picture illustrating a point many people believe. already. Just another reminder of the power of social media and its ability to reinforce the things you already thought.

Where I found my info