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Conquer creativity; seize your three golden hours

Budgeting time is a universally popular topic amongst management courses, linkedin articles, and blogs. Time is the universal resource people trade for fun, salary, and sleep. Companies routinely judge employees by the amount of time completed on the job. Man-hours are formally tracked for many companies, work-hours are often explicitly stated, and even informally we are aware of our colleagues who show up late or waste time in meetings. An entire article can be written about how time management is a key component in professional training courses ranging from the military to medical school. Everyone is looking for a way to hack out some additional time in their day.

But I suggest taking a closer look. There are two separate time management issues at hand. The first is the classic triage time management approach of treating work as having different levels of importance. A kid being rushed into the ER is more important than finishing a level on a video game. However, in my own journey to perfect time hacking has led me to a second realization. Certain work is best matched with certain time and understanding that will make you the most effective for yourself, your boss, and your loved ones.

As I was watching my daughter try to shove little triangles and circles into matching holes I realized one of my biggest problems is a misfit of tasks and time. I am less effective when trying to accomplish tasks without properly matching up the best time. Throughout the day my hours have different constraints, I have different emotions, and distractions that impact effectiveness. Intuitively this makes sense. Is 2am a bad time to host a meeting? My co-workers will be grumpy. Should you plan that meeting during the family dinner? The wife starring you down will be grumpy. Are you going to get your best work done at those times? Probably not. But these scenarios are easier to understand because we typically understand if we are inconveniencing others and it is not the best time for them. It is much more difficult to be introspective and discover at what time you will be the most effective.

Different time means different things

I group my time into 3 categories. Creative, routine, and rest. Each one has its own little attributes and quirks that best fit certain tasks.

Creative time, these golden hours, are the most limited and productive times of the day taking swaths of brain power and concentration. This is the good stuff that builds to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of mastery… and it is draining. Its enjoyable because when I’m there it is almost a trancelike state where I am only concerned about what I am doing in the moment. If everything goes correctly I will slowly shake out of my trance relaxed, tired, and with a sense of accomplishment. Alas there is always some micro disaster going on wanting to pull me out of this state. While there are some ways to eek out more of this time by eliminating distractions (hooray headphones) it is always limited. On a good day I can get about 3 golden hours and my average day will knock me down to about an hour.

Routine time can be seen as a very watered down golden hour. This is basically the 5-6 hours a day where I am participating in meetings, drafting reports, and actively listening to problems. It’s not the best work, it’s not the most creative, but it gets things past the finish line or primes a project to launching point. The conditions are not as sensitive and I do not need to worry too much about being distracted.

Resting time doesn’t mean my brain isn’t working. It can just be extremely passive. Mindless television, driving, listening to audiobooks, big meetings, time with family, childcare, naps and knocking off items on the to-do list are all things that help clear my mind. Often we are able to multitask doing these things. Think of all the people listening to audiobooks on their drive. They do not have to argue with the audiobook or be concerned about optimizing their travel time on the road, they can just enjoy. I use rest time as a method to triage other tasks that require more attention at some point in the future. Audiobooks get bookmarks so that I can go back and listen to the information using my routine or creative time. One of my favorite leaders once said that he always went for a run with a problem in his head. He believed that the oxygen deprivation helped him come to solutions for when he got back to his desk. Thats the perfect use of rest time and I highly recommend it.

Fitting the right peg in the hole

The impact comes from how you can manage these three time types to get the most out of your day. Matching up your current work priorities (classic triage) and how you work best is an extremely difficult personal problem requiring good self awareness. So while results may vary, here is how I look at it.

My most important time is now that creative time that comes either at the beginning of the day or right at the end. My daughter is safe at daycare, no emergencies, and no meetings demanding my immediate attention. It is the perfect time to do difficult problems, get some serious work done, and give myself time to sink into that trance. It is rare, elusive and about impossible to get back into that frame of reference after I get ejected from it.

Routine time is the default time used at work. Its inconvenient to stop or start tasks, but not completely detrimental. I can easily handle small emergencies or shift to tackle small roadblocks that have popped up for the team. Small tasks, hiccups, and work roadblocks that you can do without much thought or concern on autopilot can stay under routine work. The real value of checklists and processes are that they turn the unique into the mundane repeatable items you have done millions of times. When they become so ingrained that no new decision needs to be made it can be completed in your rest time.

Rest time makes up the remainder of the day. There is no need for ritual or preparation and it is best for small tasks that can be broken down. When people are ready to “veg” they are doing these things and are tasks that you can be running on autopilot. Reading light literature (blog posts), sorting emails, swiping left and right on mobile apps, paying pesky bills, doing chores, catching up on your favorite TV shows or with family and friends all fall into this category. If you are tired, unenthusiastic or in bad spirits these are the activities people default to. The most important thing to realize is thats ok. You can’t run full throttle all the time but it is good to place complete your simple tasks. By getting things done you can stay motivated without losing momentum or your mind.

Building a nest for those precious golden hours

DO NOT GIVE UP YOUR GOLDEN HOURS! Fight for them with every action of your day. It will give you that creativity, the work boost, and that sense of accomplishment that will carry over the rest of the day. Set up conditions so that your golden hours will be the best uninterrupted work it can be. Also don’t give it all just to your work. Spend some time working on some personal goals and investing in yourself.

I need some prep work to build my nest and get into the zone. I need to have some coffee, find a new area away from distractions, and just go into tunnel vision. My golden hours are so important that I use my routine/rest time to prep for them. I setup playlists, clean up the coffeemaker, and move things into position so I will not have to be interrupted. I schedule meetings and anticipate problems to make sure updates won’t occur during my golden hours. But that is just me. I know other people who need to have just come out of an exciting meeting or workout session to ride that post accomplishment bliss sitting in a rat’s nest of a workspace. Whatever works. The important part is that you are realizing which time space you are in and which work is accomplished best there.

If you want to identify your golden hours I suggest this:

  1. Describe what your golden hours look like? When do you get your most effective work done and what does the environment look like?
  2. For one week see if your hypothesis meets reality.
  3. For the next week, challenge yourself to add 15 more minutes of that effective work time and keep a quick log of what you get done.

I have found being able to tap into my golden hours has helped me achieve much more than I thought possible in a day. While most of our days aren’t optimal, we should seek to integrate time management to match our most important work to the most effective time slots. We should strive to learn when our golden hours are and how to build ourselves nests to capitalize on them to increase creativity. There is no time to waste to do great and interesting things.

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Five reasons Harvard Business School executive education beats out traditional IT certifications

Last September I did something I thought I would never do.

I applied to Harvard Business School.

I never really thought I would be attending. My grades/rankings through high school and college have always been good, just not Harvard good. Additionally, I never pursued the typical route of a Harvard student. I have read more binaries than cash-flow statements and choose discussions on botnet takedowns over hostile takeovers. So being accepted to Harvard Business School’s 6 month PLD program surprised me greatly. Having just completed the second module of Professional Leadership Development I can think of several reasons I am glad I chose this course over a typical IT certification.

1. I did not understand Business

I thought I understood. All my certifications and experiences had me rabidly supporting the notion that the business is king. However, this sentiment in certs and work were just small two sentence blips shoehorned into the much larger core security concepts. Overtime, I grew a bias that my supporting work was essential and everything else was trivial. You could always find someone to do marketing or sales, but IT professionals are enjoying a negative unemployment rate and are swiped up fast. I was much more likely to crack open a book on encryption instead of on business because of my mistaken belief that “business” was easy.

This shifted as I looked for ways to use my Post-9/11 GI Bill. Structured courses have always been a great way to prime the learning pump for topics I didn’t completely understand. As I looked across the diverse range of MBAs and EMBAs, I came across the Harvard Business School’s Professional Leadership Development program. It was a fantastic alternative to other Executive MBA programs for me.

With no understanding of finance, marketing, or accounting, the HBS online curriculum provided immediate immersion for me on day one. I was floored by the presentation and the complex concepts conveyed in a simple manner. The topics got much more difficult over time and I’m not proud of some of my scores, but I learned. I even started to enjoy it! Now a financial statement book is sitting on-top of my reading list.

More importantly, I have learned that businesses are fascinating in ways I had never considered. After staring at cash-flows or income statements for anomalies I started noticing little weird discrepancies popping out at me. The aha moment of seeing aggressive accounting is a very similar feeling to the joy I experience when I find a hidden instructions in malware.

2.    Real understanding of actual business problems

Harvard is famous for their Case Studies that are a fundamental part of the course. Before you arrive on campus for module 2, students read around 40 cases on various subjects. As the HBS website describes it

…the case method is a profound educational innovation that presents the greatest challenges confronting leading companies, nonprofits, and government organizations—complete with the constraints and incomplete information found in real business issues—and places the student in the role of the decision maker. There are no simple solutions…

Cases are tough and I found them extremely fun (in some sick twisted way). Personally, I covered each case three times. I read them the first time to understand the basic concepts, I discussed them the 2nd time with the live-in group, and then finally with a professor in the classroom with 80 of my colleagues each giving unique insights. Every time I learned something new and had a completely different perspective on the case.

The course throws you into the core of problems of businesses we know conversationally. Lots of us have heard of Enron’s downfall, devour Apple products, wear Lululemon, and some may have shopped at Cardullo’s. Each of these cases are relatable enough that you have probably discussed them with friends but the case studies take it to the next level. Each one puts you into the shoes of an executive at a critical decision point. I won’t call it LARPing for business nerds… but it totally is. The case studies we explored provided a different perspective of how an executive led a company to make an extremely pivotal decision. Understanding the issues, deciding how you would act, and seeing the direction the company took is excellent preparation for the next big decision you will make.

3.    You connect with a group not your own merits

A big reason I chose this course was the living group arrangement. Back at the Naval Academy we all lived in one building, Bancroft Hall, and these friendships continue to . HBS does something similar but instead of Bancroft we have Tata. Our groups might be a bit smaller (7-8 instead of 40) but I feel connected to them in a similar manner.

The diversity of these groups is amazing. In the program of 160 only 50 are American and that flowed down into our small groups. My group alone (the prolific 5C) represented Canada, Czech Republic, Kuwait, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States.

In two short weeks:

  • We studied and suffered an incredible packed curriculum for hours.
  • We argued over excessively over cases. Perhaps investing a little much in events that have long since passed.
  • We had our own inside jokes and terminology about chicken banks, “Lars”, plumbers, and other key players from cases.
  • Some of us were cold called (called without warning in class) with very tough questions
  • We even discussed the challenges of being a working parent

I believe The added stress in the environment pulled us together as we didn’t want to let each other down. Plus each of us had our own unique experiences and expertise to add to the group. I would have never understood important aspects of the cases if it weren’t for my fellow members and our short timeframes.

It was a fantastic experience and essential part of the program that is hard to replicate.

4.    Meeting the Former Secretary of the Navy

I never expected that I would be able to meet former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. But in-between classes I was asked to step out with other Navy veterans to speak with him. It was strange to sit across from a man who drastically shaped a majority of my Naval career. More impressively they even invited past Navy PLD Alumni to the small discussion.

The program didn’t have to go out of their way to coordinate this event. Nobody would have noticed if this didn’t occur. It is this unexpected perk and service from the HBS faculty that really drives home their commitment to their student’s current and future development.

5.    Anticipation for the future

The best part of the entire experience is that there is so much more to come. We are only half done. The next module has lots of work for us to accomplish including a personal case, an alumni case, individual development goals, and of course more case studies. I really miss the dedication of the people I was with these last two weeks and am looking forward to seeing them all again in just a few months.

I could not be more pleased with my decision to pursue my goals with Harvard Business School. Now I have a whole host of new tools to push my development in surprising new ways. With this new found experience I feel that I will be equipped with better skills than any IT certification could provide.

One parting word of advice…

Beware the chicken banks

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2016 Hacker Santa and the joy of sharing

Coming to the close of 2016 @InfoSystir was kind enough to set up #HackerSanta which provided an infosec goodie exchange.

My target was @J0hnnyXm4s a hacker who has done numerous infosec talks and helped discuss the risks of TSA keys. After some stalki… open source investigating, I determined that he was probably in the market for a new pelican case, enjoyed lockpicking, and would likely appreciate something repurposed.

Luckily I had a pelican case, some locks, and some things that needed to be repurposed. I chose two locks to secure the goods. This Masterlock is a favorite I have kept around to help humble lockpickers when it became “too easy.” A spare TSA 007 lock would serve as a tip of the hat to Johnny’s research. Everything was coming together nicely.

DomainTools promotional video repurposed

Back in February, DomainTools was kind enough to send me a promotional video in a unique package. The video started to play as soon as you opened the cover. While they have a great product (I encourage everyone to check them out,) I only needed to see it run so many times. So how does this work and what can I use it for?

At first look I could tell there was some type of switch to set it off, a small usb, the controls, and a hidden speaker. However, there was not much else to go on. Time to take it apart! 10 minutes of cutting through adhesive later it looked like this.

Pulling information off the board I was able to find a company selling similar products if I needed to use reference material. However, this was not needed since the USB provided a simple interface and not just for power. After plugging it into my computer I discovered the advertisement was a stored mp4. It was just a simple swap to put in my own mp4.

Fast forward to December, I felt providing a video to Johnny for getting through the locks would be great touch.

The Game is a foot!

All packaged together (including shameless self-promotion) it arrived a little after Christmas. Although I sweated over battery life fears, I was very pleased to see that not just Johnny but a whole host of @BurbsecEast attendees also had fun getting the locks open! Its great to see people come together to solve my silly gift.

Finally it is opened!

So besides from a long awaited Rick Roll you can see how I put it together. The switch is attached to the lid but the magnet is not strong enough to lift the whole screen. Everything sits on top of the foam which will allow Johnny to repurpose both the video player and the pelican case.

What’s the deal with the coin? Ask @Curious_Codes. I received it after completing one of their puzzles at Derbycon and wanted to share the joy I got from it.

I had lots of fun putting this all together. Thanks to @J0hnnyXm4s for providing great documentation of his process and sharing it on twitter. @DomainTools for the promotional hardware. @InfoSystir for setting HackerSanta up. @Curious_Codes for the puzzle within the my puzzle. My HackerSanta @Greenjam94 for the TV-B-Gone. I am excited about next year!