Day One of Building My Own Website

After much deliberation, I have decided to build my own website, alfredlua.com.

This blog has been running on WordPress.org for the last three years, and managing it has been easy. The free WordPress theme made the blog look great without much work from me. Publishing an article or adding a new page is as simple as clicking a button. I could focus on just writing my articles. (Awesome work, Automattic!)

But as I want to learn designing and coding, I have decided to build my website from scratch. I’m sure it will be challenging but I don’t want it to stress me out. This will be a side project that I’ll work on whenever I feel like it. No deadlines. No “I’ll spend an hour a day on this project”.

Today, I bought Sketch and tried to design my website’s home page. I wanted to play around with the design before diving into the code. Here are a few observations from creating my first design:

  • Designing is hard. Even though I had a rough design in mind, my first design looks way uglier than I expected. Haha. (See the image below.)
  • It’s easy to keep wanting to spend more time improving a design but actually not doing much. Maybe a break will be helpful.
  • It’s helpful to watch someone else design. I picked up several tips from this video (e.g. creating a Styles artboard, using rulers and layout, naming and grouping layers, etc.)
  • Creating something (even though it might be ugly) is fun and satisfying.

First design for my website

I might play around with the design a little more before writing the code as I’m not too satisfied with this design. Do you have any suggestions or advice?

I’ll be sharing my progress here until I build a basic blog for the website. I’ll be tweeting about my progress, too. Till next time!

Third Year of Setting Annual, Personal Goals

Third Year of Setting Annual, Personal Goals

I have been setting annual, personal goals since three years ago for each of the following years. While I didn’t achieve all my goals for any of the years, working towards the goals have had many great impacts on my life.

In 2015, one of my personal goals was to apply for a job at Buffer. That goal eventually led me to my current job as a content crafter at Buffer.

In 2016, I aimed to read for an hour per day or at least 10 books for the year. I read 11 books and listened to three audiobooks. That’s the most I have ever read in a year, and I learned a lot from the books.

Why I Set Personal Goals?

Research has found that setting goals increases one’s motivation and performance. But the reason I set personal goals is less scientific. It came from Alice in Wonderland.

In the book, Alice met the Cheshire Cat and asked it which way she should go. When the Cheshire Cat replied that it depends on where she wants to go, Alice said that it doesn’t matter as long as she gets somewhere. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cheshire Cat, adding that if Alice walked long enough, she will get somewhere.

There are many interpretations of this conversation. My interpretation is this: If I don’t know where I want to go, I’ll eventually reach somewhere as long as I go in a direction. But I don’t want to end up just anywhere. That somewhere might not be where I’d love to be. For instance, I might have a job that I dislike.

Setting personal goals keeps me mindful of what I want to achieve and how I spend my time. I think it’s unproductive to live day-to-day without having an idea (albeit a rough one) of what I want to achieve. Having an end in mind allows me to work towards it instead of living each day aimlessly.

That said, I find it hard to know exactly what I want to achieve many years from now. I have an abstract idea of my long-term dreams but right now, I find planning for a one-year timeframe much more manageable. Maybe when I get better at thinking and planning further into the future, I’d set three, five, or ten-year goals.

Three Years of Iterations

I have refined my goal-setting process slightly each year but it has been mostly the same. There are three things that I’ve been doing consistently:

1. Reflect on the past year
My goal-setting process starts with a reflection on the past year where I’d write down all the important events in the year. I’d push myself to list out as many things as possible so that I’d remember the little yet important things. For the last two years (2015 and 2016), the list had 35 and 33 things respectively.

I’d start by writing down whatever that comes to mind, then think about specific areas of my life such as love, family, friends, growth, career, and financial, and finally I’d refer to the previous year’s list to help spark any memories.

2. Plan holistically
My annual plan considers all the important areas of my life for that year. The set of areas varies a little each year but it usually includes relationships, career, health, and leisure. Since it is a plan for my life, I think it makes sense to plan for every important area than just one or two.

3. Share the plan
Once I’ve set my goals, I’d share the plan with my girlfriend (now fiancé) and a close friend to get their feedback and to keep myself accountable. As I talk to them about my life and personal goals the most, they have the context to understand my goals, know how I think, and would often ask me about my progress towards my goals.

What has changed is that I try to be more specific with my personal goals. Three years ago, my belief was that annual goals should be high-level since the timeframe is long. In my 2015 plan, I had goals like “balance work and family”. It was hard to act on such goals as they were vague. This year, I made my goals more specific by having sub-goals, such as “have at least one dinner with my family per week” and “go for a family trip” under my goal of “always make time for my family”.

How Do You Plan Your Life?

Planning my goals annually keeps me mindful of how I want to live my life each year. I’ll keep up with this practice for many more years, and I want to improve my goal setting and planning process, too. One of the things I’d love to do is to plan longer term.

How do you plan your life or year? Do you have any advice for me?

Thanks!

How to Work (Questions, Not Answers)

One of the favorite things I’m learning at work is how to work. This might sound a little silly but I feel it’s quite important so let me explain. When I think of “how to work”, there are several things that come to mind.

(Sorry in advance that I’d leave you with more questions than helpful information!)

First, how to be effective. I have always thought about being efficient (ie. doing things fast and right) but I learned that being effective (ie. doing the right things) should come first. There have been times when I spent hours on a task that isn’t the most important thing I could have been doing. I found categorizing tasks into “Important and urgent”, “Important but not urgent”, “Urgent but not important”, and “Not important and not urgent” a helpful first step. But how to allocate time among them feels like an art, and I don’t think I’ve mastered it yet. On a higher-level, how do I decide what new projects to take on? There are so many exciting ideas to work on but not all will be worth exploring.

Second, how to make full use of my one-on-ones with my team lead. I’m grateful to have a weekly one-on-one with my team lead. I’m not sure how many of my peers have one-on-ones in their companies. Sometimes, I have so much to discuss with my team lead that an hour is not enough. Sometimes, I don’t have a lot in my mind to talk about but I also don’t want to talk just to fill up the hour. How can I make better use of the full hour?

Third, how to plan my day. With teammates across 12 time zones, I feel lucky that I don’t have to stick to a fixed 9-5. On some days, I start at 7 am and stop work by 4 pm. On other days, I start at 7 am, take a long break in the afternoon, and end my day at 9 pm. How do I do enough work, spend enough time knowing my teammates, and also have time for myself and my loved ones? I prefer sticking to a routine but my schedule has been changing every once in a while. I’m still figuring out what’s a good routine to have but perhaps it is meant to change constantly.

Fourth, how much work is enough. Work never ends. There are always more things to do or new things to try — and that’s exciting! Many of us love our job so much that we like to keep working. But that is probably not sustainable. How do I decide what’s enough for the day or the week?

Fifth, how to balance work and team bonding activities. Being a fully-distributed team means we don’t see one another along the hallways, chat in the pantry, or go out for lunch together. (Some of us do meet up once in a while.) So team bonding activities are important. Our People team (ie. Human Resource team) plans activities for us to get together, know one another better, and have fun together. There are many opportunities to bond as a team, too: celebrations for promotions and new roles, showing appreciation and gratitude for each other, sharing personal news or funny stories, and more. These are important but they aren’t work. I think finding a good balance is key to being a happy, productive worker.

Sixth, how to balance work and learning. We are always encouraged to take the time to learn new things and improve ourselves, even during working hours. I’m so glad that “Have a focus on self-improvement” is one of our values. Getting the right work done usually produces immediate results. The effects of improving myself are more long term. How do I balance both immediate and longer-term needs? How do I allocate my time?

Seventh, when to take a break. We have a minimum vacation practice (which is awesome) as we feel that taking the time to recharge ourselves is important. How often should I take a break? How long should the break be? I imagine the answers to these questions differ for everyone. Sometimes, we work harder and longer hours for special events such as a campaign or a launch. But after those events, should I work less than an average day? What’s a good balance?

I have some thoughts on these questions but not the answers yet. I don’t imagine that there are black and white answers, too. They are probably different in different circumstances and for different people. What works best for me now might not work in the future, too. I see this as a continuous learning journey instead of a destination to reach, and I’m excited!

How I’m Learning to Become a Better Content Marketer

how-im-learning-to-become-a-better-content-marketer

I recently became a content writer at Buffer. Buffer is a tech startup relatively well-known for content marketing, among many other things.

(Disclaimer: We gained that reputation before I became a content writer.)

I used to focus on community building. Recently, I had the opportunity to venture into the world of content marketing. A big part of content marketing is writing, and I don’t consider myself a great writer.

So I’m thankful for the opportunity, especially being able to learn from and work alongside some of the best content marketers in the industry.

At the same time, I also know there’s a lot of work ahead of me.

What I Have Been Doing

For the last three weeks, I have been working much harder to improve my writing.

I wrote at least 750 words a day.

I worked on the basics of writing such as spelling, grammar, and sentence structure.

I took notes in my Evernote whenever I learned something new.

But I know that if I want to become a better content marketer faster, I need to do more.

Figuring Out A Plan

When I was thinking of what I could do, I thought of my university days.

My grades were pretty good but it wasn’t because I’m smart (I don’t think I’m smart). It was because there was a great system for learning. And I like to think I’m rather diligent in following the system.

Because I trusted the system, I did everything the system had planned for me. I attended (almost) every lecture. I did (almost) every tutorial before the seminar classes. That served me well.

When I stepped into the “real” world, I realized things are different. No more syllabus, no more lectures, no more homework. I became a little lost.

I thought about it, and I think I might have found an explanation.

Back in university, instead of having to figure out how to learn, I was focusing on learning. With the system, I knew exactly what to do to become better.

Now, without a system for learning, I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I have been learning in a disorganized manner.

My gut feeling was that having a system would be beneficial to me if I want to learn faster.

info-vs-knowledge

(Graphic by Hugh MacLeod)

Defining What I Need to Do

Before I dive right into creating a system, I thought it’d be great to define what I need to do.

To become a better content marketer and writer, I know I need to do more than writing regularly.

My hunch is I have to go through the full process of creating a content. Many times. While I have been writing daily, I haven’t been publishing my writing. I haven’t been editing and refining my writing, too.

I’m sure I’m missing out valuable lessons there.

Having considered that, there are two major things I need to:

  • Publish more online
  • Learn more about content marketing

Creating A System for Myself

After I’ve defined what I need to do, I could start creating a system to speed up my learning.

Like the system in my university, I want to have a system which gives me a clear idea of what I need to do to become better.

Thankfully, Kevan Lee, a great content marketer (and my team lead), generously shared how he got into content marketing. I decided to follow his approach.

Here’s the system I’ve come up with:

  1. Publish twice a week: This can be on the Buffer Social blog, our Medium publication, here, or other blogs as guest posts. By publishing articles, I’ll go through the full process of content creation — from ideation to research to writing to editing to promotion.
  2. Create a playground: This blog will be my playground. Apart from publishing articles, I can experiment with new things. I thought of experimenting with email newsletters, re-publishing onto Medium, and more. Also, since few people know about this blog, it takes some pressure off me.
  3. Read more articles and books: One thing I noticed is I can’t tell what a quality article is and what makes it great. I believe reading more will help me improve my judgment. More specifically, I want to read two articles a day and finish one book every two weeks.

my-content-marketing-learning-system

Bonus: To add structure to my learning process, I’m taking HubSpot’s content marketing course as well. It includes about four hours of videos and an exam at the end.

While passing the exam doesn’t necessarily make me a great content marketer, knowing that there’s an exam usually has a psychological effect on my mind to work (even) harder.

I believe this system should adapt as I progress further so I expect it to change in the future.

Keeping to the system

A challenge for this would be to stick to the system.

It’s much easier to say that I want to do all that than actually doing them.

So I thought of a few ways to help me:

  • Writing this post and publishing it is in itself a way. I hope by doing so, I’d feel more accountable to keep with the system.
  • At work, I found that when I tracked the progress of a project, the project would tend to be at the top of my mind. So, I created a spreadsheet to track my progress. (It’s public if you want to check it out!) I kept it simple as I want it to be easy to update.
  • For the last three weeks, I have been tweeting about my daily writing streak. Receiving encouragements from others has motivated me to continue. So, I’m going to tweet about my progress for this too. Perhaps wanting to be able to share my progress with this system could keep me going too.

Over to you

Do you use a system to speed up your learning? How do you keep yourself accountable?

I’d love to hear and learn from you!

2 Opportunities For Learning After Graduating

graduation

I remember when I was back in university, the head lecturer of a business module told us the main objective of his classes is to learn how to learn. At that time, I thought most business classes were quite fluffy. So after hearing this, I wasn’t sure if the lecturer was being serious.

Throughout my education, I learnt many things but I never thought about the process of learning. I didn’t have to since most things were structured very nicely for students. I’d attend the classes, do the homework, and study for the exams. That’s how I learnt.

When I started work, I realised things are very different. If I don’t actively seek things to learn, there’s a chance I might not learn new things at all.

Importance of learning (fast)

I graduated with an accounting and finance degree and my first (and current) job is on marketing and community. Most, or maybe even all, of the things I learnt in the university are not quite directly applicable to my job. So I knew I have to pick up the relevant skills as I go along. I have to learn of my own accord.

I think it’s not only about learning, but also the speed of learning. Being able to learn fast is advantageous. The faster I’m able to learn something, the faster I’ll become good at it and the faster I can produce results. This is something I’m still working on.

Take my triathlon hobby as an (anti) example. I’m taking probably too long to learn how to prevent an injury. Over the last few years, I suffered from multiple injuries that have hindered my training progress and made me miss several races. Smarter athletes are quick to learn from their injuries and become good at recognising early symptoms and avoiding injuries. Staying injury-free allows them to keep up with their training and race better. Being able to learn fast helps them race fast.

Learning on the job

After graduating, I see two main opportunities for learning. The first is learning on the job.

As a junior, most of the things I’m working on are very new to me. Whenever I’m given a new assignment, I’m usually not very certain what to do immediately. That is actually very exciting because it means there’s a great potential to learn new things. I’d read up on the relevant topics, think of how I’d approach the project, execute my plans, ask for feedback and iterate. I like to think it is through working on such not-too-familiar projects that I’d learn the most and become better.

Having a mentor at work can be very beneficial for speeding up the learning process (and I’m grateful to have one). While it’s great to try things out myself, see how things turn out, and learn through the process, it might not be the most efficient way of learning. For example, I’m trying to improve my writing and my team lead has written countless blog posts before. It has been helpful to get his advice on my drafts and learn how to improve them.

Most of us will spend a huge percentage of our lives working. I believe it is where we’d learn most of the things we’d eventually know if we actively seek to learn on the job.

Learning outside work

The second opportunity is learning outside work — making the effort to learn during my free time.

I found that it’s best when I learn things that compliment what I do in my role. When the skill is required regularly in my role, I’m able to practice it frequently. It feels effective as I get to practice the skill while getting my work done. Furthermore, when I get better at the skill, I become better at my job. At the moment, I’m focusing on learning to write better but there are many other skills that are complimentary to my role as a marketer such as data analysis, user psychology and more.

I can also see the benefits of picking up a skill, which isn’t as required in my role right now but might be useful in the future. However, it might harder to find opportunities to practise on a regular basis. Without regular practice, I find it more challenging to master a skill quickly and I’d likely lose it over time.

Overall, I would lean towards learning and practising skills I can immediately apply in my role than those I might use in the future.

Lifelong learning

“If a man empties his purse into his head no one can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” —Benjamin Franklin

While writing this post, I started to wonder about how I have been learning since I graduated from university. My hunch is that I have been trying to wing it and it is probably not great. I’m keen to explore more on that since there are many years of learning ahead!

What are your thoughts about learning? When and how do you usually learn? I’d love to hear from you.

Being A Junior

first-bufferoo-meetup

About 3 months ago, I joined the Marketing team at Buffer. I started working on more (traditional) marketing projects — traditional as the lines between Community and Marketing are quite blurry at Buffer. I have been managing our Medium publication, experimenting with a guest posting strategy and helping out with content distribution.

Despite being at Buffer for slightly more than a year, I recognise I’m very junior in this new role! In fact, I’m simply very junior! This is my first job out of university and my first proper job in my life.

Beginner’s mind

Being a junior can be quite advantageous. It helps me look at things with a beginner’s mind — because I am a beginner!

As I’m not very knowledgeable about marketing, almost everything that I come across in my work is new to me. Each time, I’m presented with a great learning opportunity. Having a desire to learn new things and understand them better, I have been asking quite a bit of questions regularly. (I’m so thankful that the team is so helpful!)

Asking good questions to the right people helps me learn faster. However, as helpful as my teammates are, their time is valuable and limited. So I tend to ask my best friend, Google, first, if possible. Thanks to the great internet and amazing people, there are many helpful resources and articles online. When I still don’t understand the topic after reading up on it, I’ll ask for help.

Apart from asking questions, it’s also important to store and act on the new knowledge. I know I’m quite forgetful so I usually write notes in my Evernote. I have a notebook called “Marketing” for marketing related notes and another called “Development” for more general knowledge such as feedback from my team lead and good phrases to use when communicating. Also, I found that if I could act on the new knowledge as soon as possible, I tend remember it better.

Looking through the beginner’s lens keeps me in the learning state. It is a way of thinking, which I feel shouldn’t change even when I become more experienced.

Asking for advice

Apart from asking questions, I often reach out to more experienced teammates for their advice on the things I’m working on. For example, when I first started working with our guest bloggers, I wasn’t sure what to look out for and I wasn’t confident about my judgements. So whenever I receive an outline or draft, I’d ask Kevan or Ash for their advice and thoughts.

Things become much easier with their help. However, it’s almost like they did the work (and thinking) for me. I don’t think I’d learn as much as if I attempted to assess the outline or draft myself first. When I reached out to them, I made it a practice to say something along the lines of “Here are my thoughts on this: … I’d love to hear what you think about this too!”. I don’t get it right all the time and neither am I a pro yet. But through the practices, I gained a better idea of the things to look out for and I feel (slightly) more confident about my judgements now.

In my recent 1-on-1, Kevan shared a 30-90 principle with me — asking for advice when the work is 30% done and again at 90%. At the 30% checkpoint, I should have done my research and written down my rough thoughts or plans. The check-in is for making sure I’m heading towards the right direction. If all feels good, I’ll continue working on it with the advice given. The second check-in is for refining the details and bringing it from 90% to 100%. That’s the ideal situation and there could be more check-ins in between. We have taken this approach with things such as my blog posts and my Quarter 4 Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).

Bringing a different perspective

As a junior, it is easier to think that my opinions or suggestions are not that valuable. I think that might not be a great mentality to have. I like to think that every team member brings a different perspective to things since we all have rather different background and experiences from one another — a great benefit of diversity! So I might think of something others have not.

There might also be a chance that I have come across something the rest of the team has not — though, the reverse might be more likely. I recently started a practice to help me build up a handy repository of ideas and examples. I have been storing good articles, marketing examples and inspirations in an Evernote notebook called “Marketing Inspirations” and giving them an appropriate tag so I can easily find them in the future. The idea is that whenever we are discussing new projects, I’d be able to pull out a few relevant ideas or examples to share.

Having said that, I think it’s important to recognise that I do not have as much experience and context as them. They might have tried some things before and found that those didn’t quite work for us. A practice we have at Buffer is to be suggestive rather than instructive, which I found is a great way to share my thoughts. So I tend to say things like “I wonder if (suggestion) might work” or “Perhaps we could try (suggestion)?”. Sometimes, I’d add “You might have thoughts of this already!”.

Keep practising my craft

This probably doesn’t apply to juniors only but I think it is especially important for juniors. Practising is a great — or maybe only — way to improve our skills.

The frequency and consistency are crucial. I have been learning to code since about 4 years ago. I would usually code for only a few weeks, lose the habit and forget quite a lot of things by the time I want to code again. That’s why after 4 years, my coding knowledge is still rather basic. I wasn’t coding often or long enough.

On the other hand, my sister has been practicing her craft very regularly over the last 6 years. When she started, she was baking simple cupcakes. Now… well, I’ll let photos do the talking:

winifred-kriste-cake

(The flowers on the cakes are all edible!)

Right now, writing feels like the best way to improve my marketing skills. I’m not very confident about my writing but I know writing more is the only way to get better and writing frequently will help me improve faster. (Fun fact: My team lead, Kevan Lee, used to write 2000 words minimum every day! I think few would dispute he is a great writer and marketer.)

Being a junior is a very rewarding experience and I’d love to hear your experiences as a junior! If you are a senior in your company/team, do you have any advice for me?

Photo credit: Jip van Kujik

I Write to Remember

Write to remember

Earlier this year, I set myself a goal to write weekly. Embarrassingly, after 38 weeks, I have written 7 posts.

When I was writing this post, I read some of my previous posts. It was a nice walk down memory lane. I was reminded of my 30-in30 day writing challenge, my first week in London for my internship with Kayako and the internship itself. I wrote about my experiences and the lessons I’ve learnt. I could feel I’ve grown quite a bit since then. Reading all those posts made me wish I had written more since then. But, any reasons I come up with about why I didn’t would likely be an excuse so I’ll skip that. For now, I’m just excited to write again.

I want to write to become better at writing and expressing myself, to document what I have learnt and to share the lessons with others. I want to write because the act of writing makes me sit down and think, because it helps me reflect and think better and because it helps me grow. I want to write so I can look back next time and see how much I’ve grown. Above all, I want to write so I can remember how I was thinking about things at various points in my life and career. I want to write so I won’t forget.

(And I wrote this to remind myself why I want to pick up writing again.)

Taking a break and catching up with friends

This weekend, some of my close friends came over to my place for a Chinese New Year gathering. Apart from the dinner on Friday night, they had also planned a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday. Being quite a workaholic, I told them that I had to catch up with my studies and work so I wouldn’t join them.

Thankfully, I eventually decided to join them and had an amazing time exploring Shakespeare’s birth town with them.

I was reminded of a post by Jason Zimdars of Basecamp and especially this sentence:

You won’t remember working a little later or catching up on Saturday because the people you love interrupted you but you’re certain to remember those little interactions.

I didn’t manage to catch up on the things I planned and I’ll have to work harder some other time to do so. However, I did catch up with friends whom I have known for 11 years (I’m only 23!) but not met for a while because we are all busy with our own lives.

As the quote suggests, I won’t remember having to work a little more because my friends “interrupted” me, but I’ll certainly remember this weekend I spent with them – talking till 5 in the morning, sleeping for a few hours and heading out for a day trip.

Thanks, guys!

My 7 brothers and I

Good Side To Things

my desk

Last Wednesday, I was working at my desk by the window when a group of teenage boys walked by and saw me by the window.

“Do you know how to fix the iPhone?”, one shouted at me.

Hearing that remark, I assumed that he was taunting me for being an Asian. (I might be wrong!) While I was a little annoyed, I decided to pretend that I couldn’t hear him through my headphones and continued working on my laptop.

Then, they became rowdier – knocking on my window, shouting at me and banging on my door. I continued to ignore them despite them being right in front of me. Eventually, they gave up, toppled my wheelie bin and walked away.

Was I irritated? You bet! Was it all that bad? Not quite!

Coincidentally, I had an assignment for one of my modules – Strategic Games due the following day and I turned this incident into the content of the essay!

I had to write about an interactive situation in the media or my everyday life which resembles a strategic game. I was struggling to think of one until this incident and it felt like a great example of brinksmanship!

I think I have to thank the boys now! 😉

Everything happens for a reason

I wanted to write this post because I feel that when something seemingly bad happens, it is seldom as bad as it seems and if we look hard enough, there’s likely a good side to it. Everything happens for a reason.

Also, I wanted to share that it doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of discrimination. I don’t fault the boys entirely because I believe I’m not perfect in this way generally too.

While I do not intentionally discriminate others, I believe I make unintentional (and possibly not so nice) associations of people due to my unconscious bias (Thanks, Natalie and Courtney, for the unconscious bias training!). And this incident and reflection are a great reminder for myself to tackle my unconscious bias. Again, another good outcome 😊

Good side to things

Personal Growth

I have been thinking about personal growth recently and I came to a conclusion that personal growth is about being able to make bigger decisions better. Bigger in the sense that these decisions have greater consequences or will affect more people.

For example, one of such decisions I have made is going to the UK to study. (“going” as I’m in Hawaii now ;)) It was a decision which had greater consequences for my life than, I believe, all the decisions I’ve made before. Furthermore, the decision wasn’t only about me, but also my family and my girlfriend.

Making that decision, experiencing the outcomes and learning from it helped me grow. I feel that if I were to make similar decisions now, I’ll be better at analysing the situation and deciding what to do than before.

So I believe that making bigger decisions and learning from them is a great way to grow as an individual.

personal growth