Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.


Conquering Burnout, and Achieving a Healthy Work-Life Balance

Do you have to drag your body out of bed on weekday mornings? Does the idea of spending another day at the office fill you with dread? Are you finding it harder and harder to get excited about your job and the work that you do?

If so, chances are good that you are suffering from job burnout. This has been a big topic at tech conferences in the past year (I'm in the tech industry) but I think it applies far beyond tech.

According to the Mayo Clinic, work-related burnout is a form of stress that can cause us to feel mentally, emotionally or physically tired. It can give us unusual doubts about our abilities to perform as well as we usually do. Job burnout can also lead to unpleasant symptoms like headaches, a change in appetite, and poor sleep.

Why Do We Get Burned Out?

Although the reasons we feel burned out at work vary from person to person and job to job, some common culprits include feeling out of control at work. For example, having little or no say over your schedule or assignments, or having a micromanager as a boss can be triggers. When you're spending so much of your day at work, that it feels like there's never enough time or energy to be with your family and friends doing activities that you enjoy, that's when burnout sets in.

Fortunately, these negative and unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms do not have to last forever. There are steps that you can take to reduce job burnout.

Identify What is Causing the Stress

One of the best ways to reduce job burnout is to have an honest conversation with yourself about what is causing you to feel so miserable in the first place. If you feel you spend too many hours in the office, consider approaching your supervisor about the possibility of telecommuting. Or, ask if you can have more of a say in the projects or assignments you're part of in the future.

Take Responsibility For Your Own Well-Being

This is a saying I use a lot, and it relates to the previous point.  When they feel stuck, sometimes people need to be reminded that they can take action to shape their lives - maybe that's you, sometimes.  

For example, take the initiative to share your goals and aspirations with your boss; that can help them see you in a different light and reduce the risk that you'll be "type cast" in a specific, confining role.  Or, you may have skills and talents that they don't know about, so you can make them aware the things you're good at doing.  Or, perhaps a particular aspect of the job is energizing to you and you can ask them to let you do more of that type of work.

Realize That Your Job is Not Set in Stone

As the Huffington Post notes, if your best efforts to change the negative work environment do not pay off, you might want to consider changing your job. Sometimes giving yourself permission to start looking for a new career can be incredibly freeing. Take some time to research different jobs that might appeal to you, and if you can, talk to folks who are already working in those fields. For example, if you have always dreamed about owning your own restaurant, maybe you could speak with some local café owners to get an idea of how much work might be involved. Or, if you have always wanted to work with children, you might consider volunteering at a school to see if being around kids is truly for you. There are websites and services can also help you determine which new career path might be best, and they can even offer educational opportunities to turn your dreams into reality. For instance, if a career in the pharmaceutical field sounds appealing, organizations like the Penn Foster school offer convenient online education opportunities, including a pharmacy technician career diploma.

Nurture Your Non-Work Interests

As Lisa Gerry's article in Forbes explains, it is important to have interests and hobbies that have absolutely nothing to do with work. For example, consider volunteering your time with a local charity. You can involves with a pet rescue group, sign up for a fun fitness class at the gym, or pick up that old box of stamps you collected as a kid and see if you can renew your love of all things philatelic. When you are passionate about something other than work, it can help to keep your life in a better balance.

This can also be a good reminder to create better boundaries between work and home or hobbies.  If you check email all the time when you aren't at work, your whole life can feel like work.  Try to consciously "switch" from work to home when you leave, to give yourself that physical and psychological break that you need to recharge.

Make Sure You are Getting Enough Z’s

Speaking of recharging, if you are routinely burning the midnight oil, do what you can to get more rest. Being sleep deprived can not only impact your mood and job performance, but it can also make you less motivated, making it more difficult to focus and get work done in a timely manner. Getting more sleep will probably help you get your work done sooner, which will allow you to spend less time in the office and more time doing things you enjoy.

Take Care Of Your Physical Health

A lot of what I've presented here is psychological, but don't overlook the value of your physical health.  As I mentioned recently, I've been focusing more of my attention on diet and exercise, and it has helped me a lot - not just from a 'vital signs' perspective, but by increasing my energy level, improving my sleep, and helping me feel better about what I'm doing both at work and away from the job.

The bottom line? If you are feeling burned out, don't just settle for a life of drudgery.  There is plenty you can do to improve things.

Take better notes: Top tips for students and professionals

If you're like me, you spend a lot of time in meetings, and you can't remember everything that happens.  That means you take a lot of notes, right?  Unfortunately, many of us have had to learn how to take notes via "trial by fire" exercises - in other words, you just have to figure it out on your own.

Note Taking 101: Have a system in mind

I recently discovered a great resource with information about taking notes:  an article from on "Note Taking 101" which does a great job of covering the basics of good note taking, focusing on tools and systems you can use to take better notes.  This is in the "student resources" category of their site, but I think their tips will help whether you are a student or working out in the business world.

One of the techniques they outline, "the Cornell Method," is similar to one I was taught about 10 years ago.  This system involves breaking your page up into "zones" (as shown in the illustration, which I have borrowed from their article).  Essentially, you create a systematic way of capturing different elements of a talk or meeting in each zone which makes it easier to reference an process the information after-the-fact.

I noticed that Moleskine has recently begun offering "Moleskine Folio Notebooks" that have similar organizational blocks pre-printed on the page (see right, and click for a larger view.   The Moleskine structure is a bit different, in that the summaries are at the top of the page, but I think it can be used in a similar way.  I also like that the "Cue Column" is always on the edge of the page.

I like this model, and augment it with my own shorthand, like noting things I learn about clients and people with whom I'm trying to build relationships. For example, prefixing something as "BG: " means it is a business goal of theirs, "PG: " precedes a personal goal, etc.  In the "Cue Column" I use little boxes to denote action items, "RD" for things I want to Research & Develop; F/U for things requiring Follow-Up, etc.  You can, of course, evolve your own nomenclature for this to suit your needs.

Electronic Notes

With the advent of tools like Evernote and OneNote (both of which are mentioned in the "Note Taking 101" article) I have taken more notes electronically over the past several years.  Using an iPad Keyboard has helped a lot - both in terms of accuracy, as well as share-ability (I can immediately email my notes to other attendees via Evernote, or even share an electronic notebook for team collaboration).

The elements of note taking are similar to those outlined in the article, but the structure is different because of the nature of the online "page" structure.  This is another area where coming up with consistent  nomenclature is a key factor in making the notes usable over the long haul.  

Note: I've been experimenting with adding hashtags to my notes for better search ability,  such as "#BG:" for business goals, and "#PG:" for personal goals.  I like that approach and will likely switch to that standard in my handwritten notes, just to make the habit more consistent.

A Hybrid Approach

Of course, I switch back & forth between paper and electronic notes, for various reasons.  Evernote has been making it easier for the last year or two, but joining forces with Moleskine to create Evernote versions of the Moleskine notebooks.  These have special stickers and special colors on the Moleskine pages so that your notes and drawings can be process and indexed more easily by Evernote (which can decipher most handwriting and make it searchable, by the way).

These notebooks are nice, since you can write in them with any old pen and convert them to digital by taking a picture of them with the Evernote app on your smartphone.

Much More in the Article

I've focused on some of the tips in the article that are more relevant to me, but there is a lot more there, including:

  • 12 Tips for standardizing your notes
  • How to use Mind Mapping to take better notes (I'm a big fan of mind maps, since I'm a visual learner)
  • Audio notes
  • Outlines as a note taking tool

Note Taking 101 is a great resource - go check it out, and let me know how it goes.

Have you checked out the "Toolbox for Success: What You Need To Know To Succeed As A Professional" yet?  In this Kindle-only book, you’ll find a collection of lessons learned, resources, and stories that I offer to help you on your journey to greater success. 

Great Ways to Use Downtime for Improving Memory


Remember what life was like before you had kids? Maybe it's a little fuzzy, but before the sleep-deprived juggling act that is parenting, you probably didn't forget things like where you parked your car, who that person was that you just ran into at the store, or that you also know her sister.  The good news is you can boost your memory by working out your brain in your down time.

Get Enough Sleep

Before you freak out at the impossibility of this suggestion, remember how important sleep can be. Harvard Medical School reports that "consolidated sleep throughout a whole night is optimal for learning and memory." Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep, but you'll know if you are sleep deprived. If you are, start making an effort to carve out more time to sleep through the night.

I use a fitness tracking wristband that also tracks sleep to keep tabs on how long I've slept and how well.  My kids are older now, but I still have the challenges of jet lag to deal with and sleep tracking can help me make sure I don't go too far with burning the candle at both ends.

Play Games

Simple games are a great way to exercise your memory skills. Try a hidden object game, like this free jewel quest game. You'll have some fun and you don't have to feel guilty about it! If you're away from your computer, smartphone or tablet, substitute a book of crossword puzzles or sudoko to fill the time and exercise your synapses.  I know a lot of people who swear by these puzzles as a way to keep their mind and memories sharp.

Stay Healthy

A sedentary lifestyle is bad news in many ways. By increasing physical activity and reducing time spent sitting you can improve your brain function. In his book "Saving Your Brain," Dr. Jeff Victoroff tells readers to do everything they can to improve (or maintain) blood flow to the brain. That includes the physical exertion needed to stay in good shape as well as keeping your arteries open by watching your cholesterol, blood pressure and more. For you, that might mean walking, rather than sitting, during a soccer practice or even parking farther away when you go shopping.

This is an area that bit me during the last year or so.  I didn't pay enough attention to my physical health and ended up with not-so-favorable results at my last physical exam.  I got a strict set of mandates from my doctor, have been following his advice for the last 6 months, and am in much better shape now - and feeling much better.  Don't overlook the value of exercise, even if it is just a walk around your neighborhood every day.

Practice Remembering Things

Memory isn't a magical function that either happens or doesn't happen. The simplest (but often the most difficult) way to remember something is to really focus on it. By removing distractions like your iPhone, and the television in the background, you'll significantly increase the probability that you'll transfer it from short term memory to long term memory and therefore remember it.

Beyond simply focusing on something you want to remember, there are lots of methods that can help you remember a wide variety of information. Mental mapping, the peg system and memorization are all tried and true methods. You can't necessarily learn a system in your spare time, but if you choose one and begin using it, you can practice it in your spare time. Lifehacker has a great explanation of three popular techniques here.

Whatever you choose, stick with it! Eventually you'll know the teacher's name without peeking at your smartphone during your next parent-teacher conference. Who knows, you might even become a World Memory Champion (yes, there is such a thing). Good luck and remember to practice!

How can you hire people you'll never have to fire?

Over 8 years ago, I wrote about how to look at "things you'd hire on" vs. "things you'd fire on" and I still love that as a way to think about the things you'll look for when hiring people to join your team.  In my "day job" of cybersecurity, this is a frequent topic of discussion (in fact, I'll be on a panel at the RSA security trade show in a couple of months talking about Closing the Cybersecurity Skills Gap).

Today, I want to share some perspectives from Girish Mathrubootham.  Girish is the Founder and CEO of Freshdesk, which is a leading SaaS-based customer support software that seeks to help businesses promise, deliver and wow their customers. Girish has over 15 years of experience in building enterprise products and is on a mission to make the world a happier place for customers everywhere.

Girish has been talking a lot about how to hire long term employees that you will never have to fire, and focuses a lot on non-technical attributes (i.e. "not hard skills") when he hires.  It seems to work for him, so I recently did a "5 Questions" interview with him on this subject.

1. Girish, how do you recruit and interview for “passion?”  What are your biggest red flags when you evaluate a candidate?

Girish Mathrubootham CEO & Founder, Freshdesk

Girish Mathrubootham
CEO & Founder, Freshdesk

"One of my favorite questions is to ask people to tell me things that they have done and are really proud of, starting from the time they went to school. This gives me an opportunity to identify if they have been passionate about anything at all. If you are passionate about something, with the proper push, you can be made passionate about work too.

"I often come across people who don't have anything significant to share but assure me that given an opportunity, they will perform. If someone hasn't done anything worth sharing their entire life, how can they expect me to believe that claim?"

2. You say you can teach skills, and you don’t use them as primary selection criteria;  how do you quickly get people up to speed on the skills they need to be successful?

"Let me explain the difference between talent and skill. The ability to draw well and having a great sense of colour coordination is talent; knowing how to use Photoshop is a skill. Writing good code is talent, knowing Java or Ruby on Rails is a skill. We hire for talent and allow people to pick up skills on the job.

"For example, our core development platform is Ruby on Rails, but until we hit 69 employees, we did not have a single engineer who knew Ruby on Rails when they joined us. We just focused on hiring good programmers and they learned Ruby on Rails in a few weeks.

"Of course, there is some short term loss of time in getting people up to speed. But our talent pool expands like crazy and we end up hiring some awesome people."  

3. What are the limits of this approach?  In other words, is this approach limited to specific types of industries or specific types of positions?

"You cannot always follow this approach blindly. There are several roles where specific knowledge is crucial. And hiring people who are experts in their trade is great for your company. So we are open to hiring these people as well. But it's not always that simple. Maintaining a high quality team when experts are hard to find, or expensive, is very tricky. So complement your team with talented people who can learn on the job. 

"Let's say I need someone to ensure that our Production apps are running at peak performance. My pick would be someone who has the right skills and experience in handling scale and who can tune our MySQL databases. I will hire someone with the right skill rather than someone who can learn these things over 6-8 months." 

4. When did you begin using this approach, and how has it benefited Freshdesk?

"We have been doing this right from the beginning. We hired someone who used to handle retail operations (and hated the job) as our marketing content writer. Our Product manager today was earlier with a telecom company, managing their 3G network infrastructure deployment. One of the engineers working on our Search, used to build firmware for Audi cars. We would have missed a lot of such awesome people if we had focused on skill-based hiring. "

5. What advice would you give to employers and rewriters who are considering adopting this approach?

"If you find awesome people with the right skills and talent, then hire them by all means. When good talent is hard to come by (which is usually the case) try relaxing the skills part a bit to see if smart people with the right talent can learn on the job. I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised."

I tend to agree with Girish's outlook on this topic, and have often said I try to hire people who have the ability to tackle problems they've never seen before, apply focused effort and learn what they need to know along the way.  Of course, I also look for people who can communicate well around complex topics, work well with others, and can aggressively pursue a goal without panicking.

What about you?  Have you learned any good techniques to find strong team members that you'd like to share?  I'd love to hear from you.

Humor at Work: What works best and when

Employee laughing.jpg

They say laughter cures all. They also say laughter is truly the best medicine -- and that can be true at work, as well as at home.

Laughter on a regular basis improves blood pressure, stimulates the organs and can reduce pain, according to studies. So if it helps promote all those things, why don't we have more humor in the workplace? A daily dose of fun - humorous quotes, timely (and appropriate) jokes, fun events, and other forms of humor at work can help relax employees, increase morale, and energize the social aspects of the workplace. Workplaces that see humor as a tool often find themselves with happier and more productive employees. This in turn can create a better business, one that sees regular increases in profits and results.

But in today's workplaces, the stresses often outweigh the lighter moments. Sure, companies say they have a happy, positive culture, but are they faking the culture? There are telltale signs that a company's culture is lacking in the workplace. Lack of care about any type of 'mission' statement; Senior managers don't walk the walk with employees; online reviews don't reflect the everyday realty and more.

What can company owners and employees do to make a more vibrant, fun-seeking company culture? For starters, a company's owner or top leader can make the initial charge to try to have more fun. But it takes honesty and some guts to share that. But employees may respond well to that.

Timing and Context

With all good humor, timing and context are important. Even if you are a funny person, cracking a joke about Obamacare during a serious office meeting about company health insurance costs may not be the right setting. Or suggesting that you use a company photo of everyone throwing money in the air, on  Minted photo holiday cards that you send to customers might not fly. In other words, keep in mind that not everyone has the same sense of humor.

Finding the right balance of timing, context, the moods of your co-workers and managers is all important for humor to flourish in the workplace. Take into consideration, too, that fellow employees are often more comfortable bantering with colleagues than with management. There's an uncertainty that reduces the idea to get funny around bosses. Employees aren't sure how humor will be taken or perceived over time.

If you make it a habit, it can help.  For example, my company's headquarters location has a monthly "recess" in which we all gather together in the kitchen for a party for about an hour.  Each month, a different department hosts it, selects the theme, provides the refreshments (including some adult beverages, and decorates the place.  It has become a very popular event that people look forward to and it's a good place for some socializing with people you don't see much during the normal business day.  

Culture Drives Humor

In many ways, the culture makes the humor in a workplace. If your work culture is stiff and formal, weak attempts at humor and levity will fall flat. In a culture that's looser and full of guffaws on a more regular basis, you can really see some humorous efforts rise. That's according to Michael Kerr, who runs the business consultancy Humor at Work and is author of "The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing all the Way to the Bank" (Dec. 2013). Workplaces that are more creative and innately innovative tend to have more humor within. It's all about feeling relaxed in an environment. With more relaxation and chances to bend the rules, a work culture can open itself up to more humor from its employees.

By removing emotional anxiety in the workplace with a more light-hearted tone, employees will get a strong sense of empowerment to create projects and programs. And these initiatives could help with team building, recruiting, office communications, morale and overall productivity in the workplace.