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The only sure-fire investment

The only sure-fire investment

There’s only one investment that’s absolutely guaranteed to give you a great payback, regardless of the state of the economy and the uncertainties of this fragile world. I’m talking about the investment you make in yourself.

Think of yourself as a business

Imagine you’re Jane Doe, Inc. Whether you’re self-employed or work for a giant corporation—or even if you’re not in employment at present—this business is your basis for financial survival. If Jane Doe. Inc. is a sound business—meaning it offers real value to its customers (your employer, your boss and your colleagues)—it will prosper and provide you with a lifetime’s return. And that’s the case whether your “business” is selling your time and effort in a physical sense, your expertise, your creativity, or your willingness to do what the company asks of you. Whatever it is you do in return for payment is your “product.” Your “business” sells that “product” for wages, salary, commission or tips.

The world is extremely competitive. There are thousands, millions of people offering “products” that compete directly with yours. They could be John Doe, Inc., based in the next door house to yours. Or Jacques Doe, S.A. in Paris; Jonathan Doe, PLC in London; Helga van Doe, Gmbh. in Dusseldorf; or Do Lin Ji in Beijing. Everyone is part of a global market. For your “business” to prosper, you have to offer some kind of value that gives you an edge. If you don’t, you’ll be treated as a commodity.

Commodity businesses are tough

A commodity is something like coffee, or wheat, or hours of low-level work. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. If a company wants hours of time manning a help desk, it wants to pay as little as possible for those hours. And if that means it employs people in India rather than Indiana, who cares? The “commodity” is the same. We generally believe coffee from Colombia is superior to coffee from, say, Nigeria; but, believe me, if some huge corporation just wants to put hot, brown liquid in a trillion cups at the greatest profit to them, they’ll buy whatever’s cheapest.

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“Commodity” people are also seen as interchangeable. They’re hired as “hands:” just a living machine to do a particular job that real machines can’t do yet. No one cares very much about commodity people. If one of them doesn’t perform well, or has too much time off, or annoys the boss, they get fired. There are plenty more. In a day or so, no one will notice the difference. If the corporation needs to make some quick saving to boost quarterly profits, lay off as many of the commodity people as possible. After all, you don’t need to worry about losing valuable expertise. When the profits scare is over, you just hire some more. One is as good as another.

You don’t want your “business” product (you and the work that you do) to be seen as a commodity. If that happens, you’re at the bottom of the pile. Expendable. Replaceable at a moment’s notice. To be bought for the lowest possible price.

How do you escape the commodity trap?

  • By doing what any successful business does: creating some uniqueness in your product that marks it out and gives it added value. That means making significant investments in your personal “business”. Not once, but again and again, so you maintain your advantage. Because many of those competing businesses are investing as well.

    How would you feel if someone asked you to put your money into a scheme they weren’t investing in themselves? Would they have any credibility? Imagine being the Loan Officer of a bank. Someone comes to you with an idea for a business and wants you to invest the bank’s money in their future. It all looks fine until you casually enquire what the amount of their personal investment will be.

    “Oh, nothing,” you’re told. “I plan to use your money and keep my own.”

    Impressed? I think not.

  • Always invest in yourself first. Thousands of people every day expect their employers to invest time and cash in them (training, bonuses, good salaries, promotions, new equipment), yet they don’t invest a penny or an hour in themselves.

    Is it any wonder that their employers aren’t too keen to lay out more money? Or that they try to protect their investment by setting conditions or requiring people to pay the money back if they leave? Is it surprising most will only invest where it suits the company directly? Or that they’re unwilling to fund programs that they think might make it easier for people to get jobs elsewhere?

  • Whose “business” is it anyway? Yours, right? So you ought to have more interest in it than anyone else. And if you want your “business” to prosper, you need to get it the investment it needs, whether that means taking every opportunity your employer offers, going back to school, reading the latest books on your job you can find, or simply hunkering down and learning everything you can on a daily basis as you do what you’re paid for.
  • Every increase in the worth of your personal “business” (your experience, your knowledge, your skills, your motivation and capability) takes you further towards marking yourself out from everyone else. When times get tough, who will a business fire first? The “commodity” people: easy come, easy go. The people who aren’t seen as anything special: lots of those around when time gets better and we recruit again. The ones who can be replaced by machines.

    But companies aren’t keen to let their best people go. They’re tough to replace. They may join a competitor. The company needs them.

    And if things get really bad and almost everyone has to go, who’ll find it easiest to find new work, or start their own small business? Not the thousands of “commodity” people. There are so many of them that they swamp the few jobs available. And what can they offer to start their own business? Even gardeners and pet-sitters face competition from others who add just that extra spark of value.

Make that investment now!

As technology continues its march and it becomes easier and easier to locate jobs anywhere in the world, you need to stay a step ahead. There are fewer and fewer jobs for poorly-skilled people. The few that exist are badly-paid and chronically insecure. Of course, new jobs are also being created all the time, but they’re different jobs: more highly skilled, more technological, more professional.

If you want your personal “business” to prosper in years to come, you need to be able to take these new jobs, not cling to the shrinking number of old ones. You need to have that spark of extra value to stand out from the crowd. That takes investment of time, money and effort.

Just as banks are eager to invest in good businesses that they believe will prosper and bring them good returns, so employers are still keen to invest in staff who show they have what it takes to provide a big payback. But don’t expect anyone to invest in someone who hasn’t invested in themselves first. Even charities look for people to help themselves as well as seek help from others. Today’s employers are certainly not charities!

Will you sit around and hope someone will invest in you? Or go out and invest whatever you can—and as much as you can—first and then use that to convince others to invest still more?

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Invest all you can in yourself. Keep on doing it. You’ll never make a sounder and more certain investment in your life. And you’ll never reap a bigger reward.

Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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