Jan 102013
 

I hate distractions while I am at work – especially those which come by mail. For some reasons I get over hundred mails a day – notifications, internal and external mailing lists, group mailings, gigantic discussions via mail threads and important mails directed to me or my team.

As I work in a cross function for the engineering team and have to respond to developer issues in an appropriate time I keep a close eye on my inbox. Concepts like checking mails only to specified times or not at all during the day don’t apply to my work flows, filtering mails into various sub folders makes them forgotten or unseen as I actually want to read all the mail – just not all the time. 

These days my mailbox contains these folders:

  • Inbox: I usually try to keep the total number of mails in there below 100, only mails I have to follow up on or that are related to future events or where I am waiting for response in a mail thread are in there. I have notifications for my inbox active as I want to be notified if there is an important mail. Up until this Monday I got all the clutter of updates, mailing lists etc. in there too which was pretty distracting. 
  • Now what I have setup now is a new secondary inbox and a filter that filters all those mails I don’t need to pay attention in-time. The filters are defined conservatively to ensure that I won’t miss an important mail. The immediate effect is that I got less than 20 new mails in my Inbox over night, 40 more I found in the secondary inbox.
  • {Notifications}: There are a few tools and platforms I receive notification mails from I can’t configure so all status updates about everything is fine go directly in there – I couldn’t care less about. I only worry about something went wrong which stays in my inbox.
  • {Projects} + subfolder: contain mails related to certain projects and initiatives I am working on.  
  • {tech mailing list}: all mails to an internal mailing list – a very valuable source of information which I regularly use to look for answers as I usually remember having seen a related question before, but I never seem to remember the answer.
  • Unsorted: all other mail that is either unrelevant, resolved or any other information. I used to have a much finer granulation, but at the end I don’t really care about threads that are out of date and hence I don’t need to make the effort to sort them.  

This might be common sense, but years of creating massive filters, creating no filters, having smart mailboxes, reading about suggested workflows I never found a solution tailored to my needs. Now it’s simple: I check the inbox as soon as I got the notification of a new mail, I check the secondary inbox 2-3 times a day.

Btw, while writing this I noticed that Gmail actually tries to do something similar with the Priority Inbox which seems to be the reverse approach of the above. 

For my private mails I took a different approach a while ago. For private mails I use Gmail which comes with a different set of features than the chosen mail server of my company. In the past I had a lot of subfolders, rules and configurations which ended up in a massive inbox with over 10.000 unread mails, tons of unread mail in other folders and I never really noticed if I had new mails or not and where they ended up. So one day I archived all mail and marked it as read disregarding if there was something I wanted to follow up or not and started with a clean Inbox – 0 mails. I removed all filters: all mail to my private mailbox gets delivered to my inbox, I delete it, read it and/or either archive it straight away, answer it or leave it for follow up. Goal here is to have less than 20 mails in the inbox and to have a clear overview of whom I owe an answer.

So long story short: Simplicity rules, automated filters and folders suck.

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Mar 222012
 

I just found out how to do youtube on a PS3. Just simply go to internet search and search for youtube.com/xl. This opens youtube in a specific, maximized view which is perfect for display and navigation on PS3. Sweet. I guess husband and I will watch W. W. Young’s silent movie Alice in Wonderland from 1915 later on the big screen :)

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Feb 272012
 

Husband and I recently went house hunting, after 2 months of search we found the perfect house and are now in the stage between sale is agreed and the house is ours. The post will talk about how to buy as a first-time-buyer, if you are looking for an investment property you might it less helpful. For husband and me is to find something that will be our home for the next 20 years.

Before you start looking for a place make sure that you know what you want, what your budget is and what you don’t want. Jim and I were looking initially at an area we both didn’t know. Later it turned out it was one of the more dodgy areas where we wouldn’t want to live at all. However, it helped us to get started and do all the necessary steps such as mortgage pre-approval, finding a solicitor etc.

Also, as we were looking for our future home, we weren’t willing to take any compromise. If the house it is too small, it’s too small, it won’t grow over time. If the backyard is overseen, it won’t change. If there is a busy road, it won’t go away. If you don’t like it don’t go for the house. If you step into a house and you instantly like it, consider it to be the one. But be careful, nice decoration and a freshly upgraded house might blind you regarding what you want and need. All houses we liked we saw 3 or 4 times at different times during the day.

There were a couple of useful web pages that I used for hunting:

  • myhome.ie is the property website with the most for sale properties. Pretty good search and subscription facilities.
  • daft.ie is the most famous site for rentals, but also good for sales searches. It’s a pity that the API is not available for private users otherwise searching and filtering would have been much easier to me.
  • adverts.ie I subscribed the RSS feeds. Search options aren’t as good, agents usually don’t answer.
  • property.ie Seems to be a clone of daft.ie, I have never seen any house that was only advertised there. 
  • Also, it makes sense to work directly with property agents. Just check any of the house search engines for agents that come up frequently in the search results and contact them directly. Not all houses are put into the portals.

To verify location and maybe gather initial information about the house I had a look at

  • irishpropertywatch.ie gives a good indication how long the house is on the market and what history it had. If you see a house that is available for half a year already and went through 3 price drops you will be in a different position when negotiating than you were if the house is fresh on the market.
  • As I didn’t grow up in Dublin, I didn’t know all the stereotypes for Dublin areas, what good and what bad areas are. I find it very helpful to just walk around during the day, evening and weekend through the desired area. If you like what you see, go for it. If you doubt the social status of the people around, or if you get another bad impression, don’t go for it. If you do your hunt like me – most of the time remotely, then go for thepropertyin.ie, there you’ll find comments on most of the houses and areas. Of course – at the end it doesn’t matter as much, each area has good and bad spots, good and bad people, and the most important people – the direct neighbors – are never reviewed. So be careful not to be too shallow. Husband and I usually had a mutual understand of like/don’t like as soon as we were in a particular area.

Budget for house purchase

  • Know your limits. Don’t go over them. Never. We happened to be in 2 bidding wars where we dropped out once we reached our budget, it wasn’t easy but sensible to do. At the end we got one of the houses anyway because the other bidder pulled back. 
  • If you consider a mortgage, go to your bank and ask what the maximum amount is that you would get. Smile gently, then divide this number by 2 and take this as absolute maximum. Our bank would give us based on our current salaries maximum term mortgage maxing out our incomes as payback. That doesn’t make sense, it’s not realistic. Go for half of it, at most. You don’t want to pay off your mortgage only – all your life.
  • Be aware that the house price isn’t all you are going to pay, you will pay stamp duty (2%), solicitor fees (ca. 0.6%), valuation and survey (ca 500 Euro), modernization cost, maybe extensions and furniture/interior. If you are not sure what to expect, consult an architect/builder/forum/furniture shops/friend who recently upgraded his house. This will give you a feeling for the numbers to think of.
  • We set our total budget based on max house price + max upgrade price. That means at the end we bid on 3 houses in different states, one that had no modernization required, our bid was higher than for the other ones that required lots of work. Furniture is a separate budget.
  • Don’t believe any property agent. Their task is to sell. Don’t let them push you to commitments you are not willing to take. Be honest and accept when your and the owner’s expectations are different. If the agent lied, he’ll be back.

Budget for monthly expenses.

  • List 1: Current expenses: How much can you afford to spend in addition (mortgage payback) and to save?
  • List 2: Overlapping expenses: Our house will require 2-4 months of upgrade work, during that time we will pay rent, mortgage and need to save up for builders. Be aware that your mortgage comes with additional requirements such as
    home insurance and life insurance to cover your mortgage. Plan this into
    your budgets too.
  • List 3: Once our rent contract stopped we won’t have double expenses anymore, also builders won’t be required to be paid off. However, we need to save some money for house maintenance, some for postponed upgrades and some to do lump sum payments against the mortgage.

Costs of a mortgage:

  • Use a mortgage calculator to compare options. I found a helpful one on Google spreadsheet templates. I find it’s better to play with than digging through 15 print outs of the bank that are solely designed for the purpose to confuse you.
  • We decided finally what kind of interest rate we wanted to go for, how much of the mortgage we wanted to finance and what term we’d use. We decided to go for maximum term to give us flexibility and reduce the amount of monthly payment. This will in the first place cause a higher interest; however, we plan on paying in lump sums to reduce the mortgage and the paid interest significantly within the first 5 years. And if anything bad happens… we will still be able to pay off the rates.
  • If you need to do modernization/upgrade work on your house: Compare. Ask multiple architects, builders, solicitors, surveyors etc for fees. Go for the good ones, but check their rates.

Insurances

  • I am very pragmatic when it comes to insurances. I don’t like them, I think insurance sales persons are send from hell to threaten and scare people with risks that are rather unlikely. I got ask to get an insurance for payment protection and income protection to ensure that even if we are sick or without income that we can afford the mortgage. That sounds great in the first place, however, it will add up to additional 100 Euro or more per month that are paid for – at the end – most likely nothing.
  • I think careful budgeting and a reasonable monthly rate is far more recommendable than going for additional insurances. Setting a low mortgage rate to pay back over a long term is more sensible. To reduce it, pay lump sums whenever you can afford it.
  • Don’t compare price only. If you get a home insurance make sure it
    covers the entire property back to front, and not only the house itself.
    You don’t want to find yourself in the situation that your shed and
    garage got broken in and your insurance doesn’t cover for them.
  • Invest separately into other necessary precaution for yourself. Think about pension and how future you would like to spend the rest of your life.

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Feb 212012
 

I flew in to Florence, Italy a few days ago. Coming from Dublin I needed to change planes in Frankfurt airport. I had 2 really nice and talkative seat neighbors. The lady who accompanied me from Dublin to Frankfurt was on her way to Beijing, the young man sitting next to me in the plane from Frankfurt to Florence just came from Beijing. This was certainly an unusual coincidence.

Both weren’t used to long haul flights and did some mistakes, such as planning on taking sleeping pills and not resetting the body clock appropriately. I have done a couple of long distance flights during the past 3 years – for work and private purposes. I usually aim for getting jetlagged on the plane, to be able to enjoy my holiday or do my work without being horribly tired.

What I do in general

  • if I have to interchange, I make sure that consider the flight times and the landing time at my destination time zone. E.g. if I land in the morning, my second flight should provide me a full night worth of sleep. When I go to Asia, I usually fly via Frankfurt, the next 9-10 hours flight allows me to sleep and adjust to time. I generally aim for having one long flight. In Europe go for Frankfurt, Heathrow, or if I have to Amsterdam they usually fly to any destination. I avoid CDG as I heard only bad things about it. 
  • As soon as I enter the plane I set my watch and perception to target timezone of my next destination. This reduces confusion at airport and also allows body clock and to adjust. 
  • I ignore day/night mode in the airplane. I stuck to my target timezone, adjust meals accordingly, sleep accordingly. I don’t do dinner just because the airline scheduled one after take off. If it is 3PM at my destination, I have a coffee, that’s it.
  • I make sure I have enough (healthy) snacks with me to do my meals yourself. Bananas, nuts and bread are usually good. Most plane food isn’t very healthy nor tasty anyway. I always take lots of water with me. Most airport have drinking fountains, I usually refill my bottle there.
  • I make sure that I have enough time for interchanges, less than 1h means
    usually stress, due to delays, long distances between gates, security
    controls etc and other passengers time might be significantly
    reduced.I usually feel comfortable if I have about 90 minutes time between landing and departure.
  • I don’t look for price only. I look for convenience of the trip, too: I avoid
    long overlays, also I do as little flight segments as possible. Every interchange
    will add ca 2h to the schedule, it will increase the risk of missing a flight and – depending on visa requirements – it might add additional hassle.
  • If I arrive in the morning, I go to my hotel, check in, have a strict 20 minutes power nap, setup a wake up call and alarms, have a shower
    and than I am all day on the road. I only do simple tasks such as working around, eat according to the new time zone, look at random spots, shops, parks – basically
    strolling around. I usually aim to be back later than 7pm. Also, always, I take lots of water with me.

Don’t's

  • Never ever think of ‘at home it would be now 3AM’. Where ever you are that’s the ‘correct’ time. Behave accordingly.
  • Don’t get drunk on planes, it makes you sleepy. But being hangover and jetlagged doesn’t really work once you crossed your 30th birthday.
  • Don’t take sleeping pills or other anti-jetlag packs. It’s most likely scam. It doesn’t help your body clock at all.
  • Don’t plan on interchanging in US. Immigration departments can be lots of hassle, you need to collect your luggage, go through customs and security before you can go to your onwards flight. It cost times and if you are ‘lucky’ you might meet second immigration officers or spend some additional time at customs. US airlines are usually overbooked, if you are delayed you might not be able to get on your flight or on the next one. Being 2 days delayed when you want to get home or need to go to a meeting don’t suit anybody.

If you are flying economy class:

  • If you plan on sleeping book window seats. You don’t want to get bothered by somebody kicking you or asking you to move. If you need to be awake, go for an aisle seat.
  • Exercise and walk around. Stretch. Nothing is worse than arriving at destination with pain caused by not moving at all.
  • If you fly as couple go for a row and book aisle and window seat, if it is off season the plane is most likely not full, and middle seats are the least desired ones. If somebody sits there he’ll be happy to change to either windows or aisle. 

The only jetlags I seem to get are those when I get back home, because then I am usually treated by husband, have less duties and can sleep for days.

Urban myths

  • jetlags are urban myths. Call it however you want, if you don’t sleep according to your body clock and requirements, you feel broke for a while. The younger and the more disciplined you are the easier it is.
  • the direction influences the intensity of the jetlag. Having worked 8h ahead and behind GMT did not make a difference to me. Also, coming back wasn’t easier or harder depending on the flight time.
  • the longer the distance the harder the jetlag. I feel it far more difficult to adjust 2h to east (2h earlier) than going 5 or more hours ahead.

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Feb 062012
 
  1. Prime directive: Make Mr Tang happy.
  2. Get a house and build a home for The Tangs. We actually started it. Today we lost our favorite house in a bidding war. That quite hurts, especially as I had the extensions and garden architecture scoped out in my mind already. We are bidding now on another house and I guess Jim doesn’t like it as much anymore because I considered the hillside yard to be an interesting location to build a bunker.
  3. Answer private mails. I skipped all the online social network broadcasting and replaced them with real people contacts, however I still suck at answering mails from people that matter.
  4. Live healthy. Less restaurant food during work trips, less pub o’clock till Ian o’clock and beyond on Fridays, less red meat, more naturally riped fruits and vegetables and lots of fibers. Also, I need to get rid of my recently discovered liking for Butler’s chocolate. Do more exercises, at least 30 min walk a day.
  5. Spend less, save more. Do something to cover my pension. Husband’s b-day words are unforgotten: “16 more years and you’ll be 50.” When did I age that much… I felt I was 20-something. Now I need to take care of future me to save her from the streets, evil offspring and public social care for elderly people. 
  6. Throw *the* 60th and 70th birthday party for my parents :)
  7. Re-factor my blog. It’s a mess, I admit. Also, write more articles. I guess, with the next weeks in lovely suburbian Bristol, beautiful Birmingham and some random London suburb I will have lots of time for it.

I guess (1) is the most difficult, (2) is commit goal for The Tangs, (3) takes most time, (4) has it’s 20th anniversary on this list, (5) continues from the past 2 years, (6) is already in progress, (7) will most likely be actually done by end of this year.

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