WFH WTF: A Reality Check for Newbies

March 30, 2020

On Sunday, my son who provides specialized services to the US government and I were talking about WFH or work from home. WFH is now the principal way many people earn money. My son asked me, “When did you start working from home?” He should have remembered, since he was a much younger version of his present technology consulting self.

The year was 1991 (nearly three decades, 29 years to be exact and I am now 76), and I had just avoided corporate RIFFing after an investment bank purchased the firm at which I served as a reasonably high ranking officer. I pitched a multi year consulting deal with the new owners (money people), and I decided that commuting among my home in Kentucky, the Big Apple, and Plastic Fantastic (Silicon Valley) was not for me.

I figured I had a few years of guaranteed income so I would avoid running out an leasing an office. No one who hires me cares whether they ever see me. I do special work; I don’t go to meetings; I don’t hang out at the squash club or golf course; and I don’t want people around me every day. In Plastic Fantastic, I requested an inside office. The company moved the fax machine, photocopier, and supply cabinet to my outside office with lots of windows. I took the dark, stuffy, and inhospitable inside office. Perfect it was.

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The seven deadly sins of working from home: [1] Waiting for the phone to ring or email to arrive, [2] eating, [3] laziness, [4] anger, [5]  envy, [6] philandering online or IRL, [7] greed. For the modern world I would add social media, online diversions, and fiddling with gizmos.

Why is this important for the WFH crowd?

The Internet is stuffed with articles like these:

The WFH articles I scanned — reading them was alternately amusing and painful — shared a common thread. None of them told the truth about WFH.

My son suggested, “Why not write up what’s really needed to make WFH pay off?” Okay, Erik, here’s the scoop. (By the way, he has implemented most of these behaviors as his technology consulting business has surged and his entrepreneurial ventures flourished. That’s what’s called “living proof” or it used to be before Plastic Fantastic speech took over discourse.)

Discipline. Discipline. Then Discipline Again

The idea is that one has to establish goals, work routines, and priorities. The effort is entirely mental. For nearly 30 years, I follow a disciplined routine. I am at my desk (hidden in a dark, damp basement) working on tasks. Yep, seven days a week, 10 hours a day unless I am sick, on a much loathed business trip, or in a meeting somewhere, not in my home office). Sound like fun? For me, it is, and discipline is not something to talk about in marketing oriented click bait articles. Discipline is what one manifests.

Identify Projects One Wants to Do

I have l concluded that when a person says, “Have fun in your work” that the idea is for work to generate enjoyment, a thrill from solving a problem, satisfaction with doing one’s best. If a person does have a project, idle hands become the devil’s playthings. Old saw but true.

I did not wait for my phone to ring in 1991 and I don’t wait for email, text messages, or a Google Hangouts invite. One must be proactive; that is, understand that action creates opportunity. Why do projects that are impossible, boring, and dumb? This means that mental effort and creativity must be applied to projects. If an assignment arrives, shape that assignment to fit into your “project” concept. A project consists of tasks. Tasks consist of components. When I complete a component, one is making progress on a project, I want to do. If you want to make sales, define, complete, and share a project. My Google Trilogy (a series of monographs for a clueless and now failed publishing company) came about because I decided to identify the ranking factors Google used for its search algorithm. The publisher cut a deal, and I cranked out three monographs. One sold like hot cakes; the other two were okay in terms of money. A chance meeting with a person who billed himself/herself? a content management expert talked with me about the crappy search and retrieval system at a Federal government agency. I proposed a description of the strengths, weaknesses, and technical features of 14 enterprise grade search systems. Bingo. The three editions of Enterprise Search Report sprang forth and delivered pretty good money. The trick was that I wanted to reveal that Google surfed on CLEVER; enterprise search systems were mostly alike and shared a common thread; that is, none was particularly good at search or retrieval without generous spending to make the clunky software mostly work. The result was that I had tasks in mind, and I shaped work for money by having an interest. I loved going down to my basement. I still do, gentle reader.

Focus and Then Refocus

I work best with background sound which mutes dogs barking, doorbells, human chatter, and any other sounds which permeate a dwelling. For me, focus means keeping tasks in mind, breaking big jobs into smaller components, and completing each component in a methodical manner. People with ants in their pants cannot endure focus. Years ago an investment banker had the bright idea that my method of work could be converted into a business for him. He wanted to teach people how I do my tasks and components. One of his wizards flew into Louisville, delivered a check, and shadowed me for two days. Then he left. The investment banker called a couple of days later and said, “I will mail you the rest of your fee, but the project is off.” I asked, “Why?” The money guy said, “You don’t do anything? When you do something with your computers and software, you do it so quickly he couldn’t follow your actions. He told me that after a couple of hours, he had zero clue how you go from a problem to a solution.” I said, “I explained what I did when he asked.” The money guy said, “He had no idea what you were talking about and didn’t understand how you got from the problem to the solution.” The reason is that I focus; the observer did not know where to look, what to look for, or how to deconstruct what he saw. In short, focus makes “work” look as if there is no work. My work looks like I am do almost nothing.

Ignore Money

I spoke on Thursday (March 26, 2020) with the brother of a friend of mine. The individual lost his job and wanted some tips on working from home. Immediately the question came up, “How much do you charge?” I told him that clients have an amount they are willing to pay. The task (see above) is to get the prospect to tell you what their budget is. Then the next component of work is to craft a deal to get that money. I then pointed out that the more one chases money there are several high probability outcomes. These are:

  1. You will not get money. The quest for money turns off prospects. Focus on the task. (Remember that point, gentle reader?) The more one beats on money, the more likely the prospect’s retreat. Passion to do the task the prospect wants sells, not the craziness of wanting money.
  2. You will take a job which does not match what you want to do. The result is that you may not be paid or the client will tell people that your work sucks.
  3. You will spiral into despair. You have zero value. You have no evidence that you can do much of anything. Substance abuse, crime, and philandering can provide some distractions. (See the comments about discipline, gentle reader.)

Money arrives when you do something that another person values. Period.

Acquire Essential Tools

My work has been online since 1981. In 1991, I had two home computers. When one failed, I used the other computer. I had one phone line. That was it. I used a dial up modem in 1991 but switched to high speed ISDN when it became available. What did I not buy, rent, or purchase on my credit card? I like a paper calendar and use one today. I bought a monthly calendar every October. Works fine. I bought a fax machine and expensed it when I did a project for a law firm. I bought a decent chair after my back started to bother me. (My wife was happy to have her kitchen chair back where it belonged.) You get the idea. I did not do anything except projects, tasks, and components. I would write an article, ask to get a speaking slot and some money for expenses, and I would give a talk. Sometimes, not often, people in the audience would say, “We would like to talk to you. How do we contact you?” Bingo. A lead from a project. No direct mail, no ads (print or online when those became available), no fancy memberships. When the Courier Journal interviewed me in 1993 about working from home, the reporter said, “You operate as if you were in prison or a monastery.” That was a bright young lad. See the comments about discipline and focus.

These are the realities for working at home and achieving a payoff. Short cuts abound. I told my son on Sunday, you learned how to do these fundamentals without my having to spell them out.

Why is he successful? Maybe it was the example I set with discipline, identifying and doing projects of interest and value, focus, ignoring money and delivering value, and acquiring only the essential tools.

WFH will be difficult or impossible for individuals who do not to an appropriate degree manifest these core precepts. Armed with these mental frameworks, one can succeed wherever one chooses to work.

WFH is not magical. WFH does not involve kibitzing. WFH does not involve running around looking busy. WFH does not involve Facebooking. WFH is real work, and sadly most people are not particularly good at it. Most jobs are soul crushing. Anything but work seems to be the way most people earn a living.

WFH, yeah, WTF?

Stephen E Arnold, March 30, 2020

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