Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fool Me Twice

Fool me once, shame on you -- fool me twice, shame on me.

Several years ago, I got caught. I received an email warning of a dire threat to my bank account. The message looked legitimate, down to appropriate logos and language. All I had to do was click on a link, which I did. Bad move -- I had been fooled once.

Baiting the Hook

Email scams rely on fear and greed. They suggest something to good to be true or too horrible to contemplate. Well crafted scams stop just short of this. They want to offer something good enough that it might be possible or just dangerous enough to raise concern without raising panic.

The one I fell for was nearly perfect. Happily , the villain did a better job on the bait than the trap. He got my email address but none of the other information he was after because his trap fell apart spectacularly. The email I got the next day apologizing for the problem was neither well done nor convincing.

An Ounce of Prevention

I had been fooled because the message came to my email address and appeared to come from my bank. Scam artists can easily make a counterfeit email look real. There's nothing to be done about that, but I realized that I have control over my email address.

I created a custom email address for each bank or business I deal with and gave that email to the other party and nobody else. I did this with Yahoo's Address Guard service, but any email address  used for only one purpose will do. Because the address is rarely used,  the chance of it being on a scam list is remote. The bank has only that email address, so an email which appears to come from them to my public email is an obvious fraud.

This plan is not foolproof. It is still possible that a scam email gets sent to your hidden email account, so you still need to be cautious. Create a distinct account for each bank, for PayPal, EBay, and any other vendor you do business with. If you have any clue that the address has been compromised, change it at once. If a problem looks real, find a way to reach the other party without using the email.

The Bottom Line

A public email address is no place to do private business. If you create custom email addresses and guard them the way you do credit cards, the few scams that reach you will be easier to spot and deal with. Don't be fooled even once if you can avoid it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Myth of Multitasking

I recently attended a workshop on stress where a participant asked if he was better off focusing his attention on one thing or working on several to reduce his risk. His concern was that if he focused on one item that didn't pan out the result could be catastrophic. The other possibility is to have several projects fail for lack of time and resources.

At some level, having multiple projects is unavoidable. We all have multiple balls in the air at once and need to juggle them somehow. Three broad strategies for dong this are diversification, multitasking and task switching. Before I attempt to answer the question, let's take a look at each.


Although the term did not come up in the workshop, diversification is a well understood and appropriate strategy for reducing risk. When your Aunt Louise tells you not to put all your eggs in one basket, she is recommending diversification. If you are diversifying to reduce risk, there are two points you should consider.
First, sometimes people believe they are diversifying when they are not. If you buy three different mutual funds tied to the same index, you've built a modest shelter against something going wrong internally at one of the funds. If the index itself takes a hit, all three funds will suffer at the same time. Diversification can be  vulnerable to a common underlying strategy or a catastrophic single point of failure.
Second,  successful diversification is a form of insurance. That means it comes with a price. In this case, the price is reduced returns. A diversified investment will pay out less than the best choice among its various pieces would.


By definition, multitasking is doing more than one thing at a time. Some people make great claims for multitasking -- I am not one of them. I limit my attempt at multitasking to listening to audio tapes while walking for exercise or driving. Anything that calls for real attention will suffer from even an attempt to multitask. If you can multitask on things you do regularly, perhaps there's something more useful, more valuable or more important that you should do instead.

Task Switching

Unless your computer has multiple processors and a corresponding operating system,  what it does is task switching, not multitasking. Task switching allows one task to complete before focus is switched to another. Tasks for projects take turns. Focus on one item at a time. This is the way jugglers really work and it is your best bet for dealing with multiple demands.

World Class Examples

When Bill Gates and Warren Buffet were asked for the secret to their success, both answered "focus." Your success depends on your ability to focus deeply and switch focus as needed. This is why I think lists of physical actions as recommended by David Allen are so useful. You also get chances to look at the bigger picture, which addresses the one real danger of focus.

The Boiling Frog

You know this story. The key here is to keep an eye on your goal while you keep focus on your tasks. One way to deal with this is to set criteria in advance so you know when to let go. It can be a delicate balance. Many goals fail just short of completion, but goals and payoffs need to make sense. Building a bridge can be great, but building a bridge to nowhere is pointless.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Science of Unshopping

Apart from impulse shopping, we all plan what we buy. If a product comes with a return policy or a warranty, you may want to plan for contingencies. Companies expect returns to be rare, even when you aren't happy. Some common sense and a little preparation will make life much easier if you decide to be the exception.

A friend of mine buys things with the expectation that many will be returned. This allows her to check products at home to see id they fit her vision. Once she has decided, she spends an evening of unshopping to return things. This seems excessive to me, but returns are much easier if you do a little planning.

Start by filing all the paperwork -- warranty, refund policy, instructions and especially the receipt. I create a separate folder for each item to keep warranty and instructions. I keep a separate folder for each store where I purchase things to hold receipts. If a product comes with a 30 day return policy, I leave a note about it on my calendar for a week before the return privilege expires. Any phone numbers, addresses, email addresses or other information I need stays with the receipt.

Another case where you may want to track dates is scheduled maintenance. Cars are the most obvious but not the only place where this applies. A calendar or tickler file will help you meet your end of a support agreement so you can make sure the manufacturer does too.

If the product fails, you can go to the product information folder to examine your warranty options. This information is kept by product because it isn't time sensitive. When the product fails, it has either outlived its warranty or it hasn't.

Finally, should you buy an extended warranty or not? An extended warranty is essentially a form of insurance, and it is offered because the offerer expects to profit by it. My rule is simple. Accept and negotiate for any warranty that is free. Don't buy an extended warranty if you can afford to replace or be without the product. If you want to see the effect, create a savings account where you pay yourself the warranty price and withdraw from it to replace failed products.

Many products come with return policies and warranties. With a little tracking and preparation, you can be in a much better position when shopping becomes unshopping or a warranty needs to be honored.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Planning for a Lifetime

If you are planning for a year, sow rice; planning for a decade, plant trees; planning for a lifetime, educate people. Chinese Proverb

In recent years, I've developed the habit of asking if proverbs like this are completely accurate. Even though I can see the point being made, sometimes a deeper truth is hidden. This proverb is a good example. It suggests how to plan for various time scales, but I'd make one tiny change. I'd start the proverb with "when" instead of "if".

I believe in long range planning. The farther ahead you look, the better your results will be. I also believe in planning for other spans of time. An educated man will have no wood unless someone has planned for a decade. He will have no rice unless someone has planned for a year.

I look at environmental issues and conservation as part of a long term plan. If I can reduce electricity usage or save water, I save cash now and make resources last longer. At that level, being green is easy. But Thomas Friedman (Hot, Flat and Crowded was right to say when it comes to conservation it is more important to change our leaders than our light bulbs. We plant rice with light bulbs. Our leaders should be planting the trees.

For longer time spans, we need to educate ourselves. Right now, our leaders are pumping money into the economy, and one place they are doing it is energy improvement projects. A few years ago, the case for solar energy collection needed a lot of money up front and took a long time to break even. Today, technology has shortened the break even time and government incentives may reduce the up front costs. There aren't many ideas better than going green uwing someone else's money to create jobs for others. Do you plan for a year, a decade, and a lifetime? Isn't it time you should?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Moment of Decision

One moment, your path is uncertain, the next you are on it. In the interim, you have crossed a moment of decision. Decisions define the course of our lives. They are that simple, that important, and that complicated. There can be a long delay between ttrhe moment of decision and the outcome that results. How do we tell when we are on that path? How do we know when a decision has really been made?

Look at a simple decision you have made many times. For example, what restaurant will you go to this time? The decision can be the result of many factors, including negotiation. If you look back, you'll see there was always a moment when one choice was taken and all others were excluded. Decisions with bigger consequences have similar moments.

One habit I have that I hope you adopt is capturing in writing anything that comes into your head. I always have something nearby to capture stray thoughts -- paper, voice recorder, cell phone, anything that works. I started this as a result of David Allen's Getting Things Done, a practice which lets me recognize moments of decision.

After you have collected your ideas, GTD asks you to process them by identifying intended results(outcomes) and next physical action.For our purposes, there are three possible results. Let's take a quick look at each.

First, your thought may have no outcome, no action, and nothing that needs saved. It's junk which can be tossed as soon as you know it for what it is. You are pruning the decision tree, making a decision against action. Everything else is still under consideration.

The vast majority of what's left goes onto a list of someday maybe items. Someday you may want to read a specific book. Maybe you'll go see that movie some day. The purpose of the list is to keep options open without making a commitment. For anything on this list, you haven't made a decision.

At some moment, I decide to commit to an action and the decision is made. The item is removed from the someday list and included as a project (outcome) on another list. More planning and organization can follow.

A decision requires a commitment and a commitment is shown by an action. Anthony Robbins has a rule to never leave the scene of a decision without taking some action to implement it. I agree, but with that action done what's the one after it? That action goes on another list. With that done, the decision has been made and the project is underway.

Decisions are so important that we need to recognize when they take place, make them often and make them as good as we can. The someday list lets you keep an idea around so you can focus on one thing at a time.