Ben Asks: Do you need to get debt free?

Money, it makes the world go round, but for the vast majority of us, we learn how to handle finances through trial and error—mistakes that can be super costly and affect our mental attitudes, relationships and future life plans.


By far the biggest change in my life has been my attitude towards money. I wasn’t given any real money advice by my parents. Neither was it on the curriculum in school or at university. Like most people, I had to figure it all out by myself. 

I distinctly remember the time it all went wrong. Aged 18, a friend in Canada and the words “just get a credit card, book the flights and pay it off later . . .”

I hadn’t been taught how to control my money, so I didn’t really stand a chance of becoming financially savvy when my parents, the banks, the car people, the house people etc. all wanted me to buy stuff now and pay for it all later. It was as standard and normal as an A4 piece of paper. 

The hardest realisation though, was the company I worked for, the people who paid me, dressed me and put food on the table each night actively, wanted me to have less, so that they could actually make more. 

When I realised that, I wanted, for want of a better expression, to stop the corporate bus and get off. In that singular moment, I knew the system was wrong. “Welcome to the real world, son” might be the reality, but that wasn’t a world I could live inside without some level of control, even if that is just something I’m telling myself.


What is the root cause of the problem?

Ask yourself the question – If you lost your job today, how many days can you live before you NEED money? 

Gobankingrates.com, a website dedicated to financial topics, estimated in 2019 around 69% of Americans had less than $1000 saved away in a bank account.

The BBC reported that in the UK, “A survey by the Money Advice Service has found that four in 10 adults…do not have £500 or more in savings. Another by ING bank suggests 28% of UK adults have nothing at all in the bank.”

And the Independent states that “More than quarter of UK households have no emergency savings…”

How did we end up in a situation where it’s common for all of us to live on the edge of financial disaster?

I have come to understand the game we are playing. It’s a game where we live in a world where everybody wants to make money. Simple, right? But this becomes quite tricky when we start to look at the companies and financial institutions closest to us. 

At work, unions have been demolished, equal pay is a touchy subject and satisfying the shareholder is now a priority subject for every CEO.

It is clear, the less we earn, the more we seem to borrow and the more the banks will make. Is this the darker side of capitalism?

The documentary ‘Saving Capitalism’ featuring Robert B. Reich, the former Secretary of Labor to then Clinton administration, paints a very vivid picture of the situation. “The simultaneous rise of both the working poor and non-working rich offers further evidence that earnings no longer correlate with effort.”

Robert B. Reich, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few

It is recommended from articles such as ‘marketwatch.com’ amongst others, that by the time you are 35, you should have twice your salary saved away. 35!? I ask: why the topic of personal finances was not firmly placed between Maths and PE on a Tuesday morning with Mrs Smith? 

As you can see, the harsh reality is that nobody is out there fighting for you to look after or  make more money – therefore you really have to do this stuff yourself.


When booking those flights to Canada, I didn’t realise then, how that one decision I was about to make, would be so disastrous for the next fifteen years of my life. 

Young and on reflection, not so clever, I got the credit card and had a wild time for two weeks; skiing, driving around in a Mk1 Golf convertible, playing board games and drinking a few too many lemonades.  

Upon my return, I was greeted by the mountain of debt I’d racked up… Of course I had neither the money, nor the discipline to pay the credit card off at once. I set it to pay off the minimum monthly balance, high on memories of my Great Canadian Adventure. The years passed by, loans and credit cards were a staple of my financial diet and the initial £1500 holiday cost closer to £2,900 once compound interest was taken into account.  It didn’t stop there. Over the years, thousands of pounds of hard-earned money, washing away in a blur of social situations, material possessions and long-forgotten drunken memories. It’s harder when there’s nothing to show for it all, eh?  

Fast forward ten years to Ben, aged 28 and I found myself sitting in a room with a group of people being trained to sail around the world. There was a girl around my age; cute, blonde, Norwegian, who looked at me in a way that buckled my knees forever. Another guy, also around my age, was as smart as they come with a niceness factor through the roof. At that time I could only afford to pay to sail halfway around the world. But  these two people, around the same age as me were doing the WHOLE thing. I thought if they are doing it all, why can’t I? 

I sat in the back of the class, I opened up my bank’s website and I applied for a £30,000 loan for the balance of the rest of the journey. Within an hour it was approved and within a day I had the funds sitting in my account. It was that easy. It was so easy in fact it was scary.

Returning to land a year later from the race, with around £30,000 loan, around £7000 in credit cards and £3000 loan from my parents. No job, no assets, no nothing. I knew it was time to make a change. A sickening feeling arose, I was now a slave to that debt. Shackles are something very few of us would choose to wear. Yet this is what we do mentally when we are indebted. We are shackled to the whims of an economy that is not designed to work in our favour. Freedom felt a long way off. 


The interesting thing about the people I met on the race was how savvy everyone seemed to be with money. They all ‘knew’ the money game and they all thought I was completely crazy in my approach to life on credit—I think ‘delinquent’ is the official phrase. Upon asking my close friends for advice to get out of this situation, one friend, Ryan, said he could help me. Looking back, he changed my life in a way bigger than I ever thought was possible,  recommending a book which altered my view on the financial world forever. 

The book was Dave Ramsey’s ‘Total Money Makeover’.

The book discusses a foolproof plan to become debt-free. You first save a small emergency fund, so that you can cut up all your credit cards and not worry about needing them. Then you pay off all your debts, excluding the mortgage. Boost your emergency fund to 3-6 months, then start to do things for the future. 

I was so passionate about doing this that I jumped in head first and dragged my wife along with me. I distinctly remember sitting in a hotel in Stavanger reading the page on cutting up credit cards and I went for it. I asked the receptionist to borrow a pair of scissors and cut up my credit cards there and then. It was terrifying and freeing all at the same time. Like jumping out of a plane, I didn’t really know where I was heading and how this was going to turn out, but I knew it was exciting! I carried one piece of credit card in my wallet until recently as a constant reminder of the days gone by. 

Becoming debt-free and being like the people on the boat was my whole focus in life. I wanted to be as carefree as they were. If they lost their jobs, it wasn’t stressful. Some of them were there just taking a year off anyway, just for fun. Most could live for months on the same lifestyle without needing to go to the banks for a loan. They were making money each day by just having money stashed away in various accounts, funds and portfolios. “What was this wizardry?” I thought.  

Well the truth is, it’s no more magic than driving a car, riding a bike or making a delicious chocolate cake. It’s just learning what to do and having the discipline to do it right.  

You set up a Plan, Do, Check, Action Process, as we talked about in a previous blog here. And you just get to work. 

It took me over three years to become debt-free and five years to be in the position that I’m in now. I have no debts apart from the mortgage, I have a 6 month emergency fund saved away and when I get my paycheck, 15% of it goes straight towards my retirement. If everything stayed the same, although I’m working to shorten the time of course…I should be a millionaire by the time I retire.

I’m not going to sit here and say it was, and is, easy though. You have to actively turn your back on a “normal” life and walk your own road. It takes months to pay off credit cards and years to pay off the cars. In all this time, you have to say “no” to anything fancy or fun. There are times when you stare at yourself in the mirror, wearing the same T-shirt you’ve owned for 8 years and think, what am I doing? I’m in the prime of my life, living on less money than when I was a student. ‘Buy now, pay later’ indeed.

You see all your mates, in fancy cars, having fun and going on holiday and you are sat, inside, watching the TV again. Of course, you wonder if they’ve been more money-savvy or if that enjoyment comes at a price they’ll pay later.

Debt repayment is  a long, hard, boring game and one in which you know will only take as long as the discipline you put in. One night out, means £50 less to pay off the car, which may push you into another month of debt-free mission living. There was a reason our grandparents called it ‘The never-never’. 

But it’s not forever. And it isn’t ALL doom-and-gloom. Funnily enough, this road looks more like the roads our grandparents would walk. Valuing shared neighbourly socials where everyone brings a bit, rather than flamboyant stag dos in random European cities. We’re all living well beyond our means, encouraged by colourful marketing campaigns. This new path shuns much of that stuff, seeing it for what it really is. 

Sometimes getting out of debt is a case of finding another tribe. One where symbols of status and wealth are not the priority. But just like the water principle, you have to input energy to dramatically change your ways. Then, after the transformation happens, you can walk a new path to a much better future than before.


To end, I want to leave you with a final thought, who is richer?

Person A and Person B earn the same money. Person A, has no savings, drives a Porsche on a loan, has a vacation home on a mortgage, dresses in designer clothes, eats out regularly and takes nice vacations all on credit cards. The disposable income after all the expenses and interest payments is around £30 each month.

Person B, saves £300 each month, drives a Volkswagen Golf, rents a vacation home for a week at a time, pays cash, dresses sensibly, eats out rarely but still takes nice vacations. All paid on cash not credit. The disposable income of this person is around £1000 each month. 

If both people lost their jobs, had their houses flooded, or had an accident in the family which needed large hospital bills. Who is the wealthier person and how much chaos would each person have in their lives if something went wrong?

You should never judge a book by its cover and no situation is more true than that with money. 

Ben Stalsberg


Find Dave Ramsey’s book here! https://www.daveramsey.com/store/product/the-total-money-makeover-book-by-dave-ramsey


https://www.statista.com/chart/20323/americans-lack-savings/

https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35801951#:~:text=It%20recommends%20keeping%20between%20one,%C2%A36%2C000%20and%20%C2%A39%2C000.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/uk-households-no-emergency-savings-pensions-insurance-policies-accounts-a8199201.html

https://www.marketwatch.com/story/yes-save-twice-your-salary-by-the-time-youre-35-and-7-other-things-you-should-do-2018-05-23


Copyright © 2020 – Ben Stalsberg – All Rights Reserved


Ben Asks: Is your life organised?

If life feels a bit too chaotic and it’s threatening to overwhelm you, perhaps the PDCA Cycle can help.


It’s so easy to look at our lives and think of something to improve. I looked at my muffin tops this morning and thought, “jeez, I need to sort that out”, because nobody is perfect.

The difficulty is transforming the thought into an action. We need to move the static thought, one trapped in our mind that serves no purpose than to keep us up at night, into a moving project. As we know from Newton’s first Law – ‘An object will remain at rest or in uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force’.

Engineers in a production plant must move these static thoughts into movable projects all the time. But even the pros find it hard every once in a while. This is why we invented techniques to make it easy for ourselves. 

Take the iterative system called ‘Plan, Do, Check, Action’, or the ‘PDCA cycle’ for short. All credits fall, once  again, to Toyota. 

The PDCA Cycle is a technique that anyone can use right away. Whether it’s looking at your daily routine, analyzing your bank finances or looking at your retirement plans with your partner. It’s a method that sets up structure around tasks that could cause chaos, or end up neglected if not properly maintained – both of which, waste energy.


PLAN

For most things we do in life, whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, we plan. To get to work, to wash your hair or to make a cup of tea. A plan is just a series of individual events laid out and linked together. 

Put the water in the kettle, turn the kettle on, get a cup, get a tea bag, get some milk. . . You get the jist right. 

Alex Honholt, a professional American climber, climbs “Free Solo”. This is a way of climbing without safety ropes. With climbing ‘free solo’, one false move, or one misjudged step and that is most likely the end. 

He climbed up an impressive rock face called El Capitan in Yosemite, USA, in 2017. Seen as a major feat of accomplishment in the adventure sports world and in the documentary that followed his progress, you could certainly see why.

The rock face is shear granite with sections that look simply impossible to hold onto. Yet this man climbed up without any ropes, thousands of feet in a matter of hours. 

To complete his mission he did not just start one day, climbing without a rope. First, he completed many ‘roped climbs’ to create the perfect plan to make the ascent successfully. He split the whole climb into smaller and smaller sections and constantly practiced each of these sections until they were perfect. On those climbs he would often fall, but with falling, he would learn how to not fall again. 

When he was confident his plan would work, then and only then, he removed the ropes and climbed successfully to the top.

Therefore to look at a plan for a major event in your life, all we need to do is think of a series of singular events, write them down and see how we can link them all together. Imagine your dream is to sail around the world one day, a very high level plan could be . . .

Create a budget to release £500 per month for savings, keep a job, work for ten years whilst saving £500 per month, at the end of year ten, buy a boat and sail around the world. 

A big major life-changing plan, but one which still comprises ‘simple’ singular events. 

DO

Doing is so hard, there is an entire section of the self-improvement book market dedicated to helping people to start ‘doing’. There’s Mel Robbins with her ‘5-Second Rule’ and ‘Think Less, Do More’ by Shaa Wasmund amongst some of the world’s best-sellers. 

We know from the ‘Water Principle’ that to move from one path to another, we need to input energy. Then we need to continue inputting energy until the change is complete.

As Newton said, an object will remain at rest or constant motion unless we apply an external force to it. Again, nothing will change, everything stays the same, unless we do something about it.

CHECK

Checking how your plan is actually performing is the most vital part in any Continuous Improvement Process. It starts the feedback loop, which is so often missing in our personal lives. Without feedback; without stopping and analysing what we are doing and seeing if this matches what we set out to do. We simply do not know if what we are executing is going the way we want it to, or not. 

Everywhere in business and engineering, there are checks. Financial results each quarter, sales targets each month or production targets  each week.  We are always checking on what is happening to provide information to those in control. 

This is no different to ‘You.com’, the business of your life. You are in control – regardless of how much chaos there is, you’re the CEO, the chief engineer, the fat cat, the top dog.. 

How is your budget this month? How is your resting heart rate tracking for your exercise routine? How much milk have you put in that cup of tea? 

ACTION

Once you have ‘checked’ on the situation you have, then you can act. Action can be in the form of  giving yourself a massive high five as you are on track and killing your targets. Otherwise, it can be simply carrying on working on the plan, or doing something to change it, some kind of course correction—just as you might behind the wheel of a car if you’re veering into another lane.

As life is so full of changes, your goals may adjust with the changes in your life. It’s your life, you can change the destination if you want to. Making a new plan, based on new information, is just as important as acting upon an existing one.

Maybe you had a vacation this week, had a few too many mojitos and you’re not really on plan anymore. OK, no problem, that’s why we take vacations. The action will be to either adjust your targets or to put some more effort in down the gym and have a week of cleansing eating to get back on track—perhaps you need to reassess how realistic your goals are. There’s nothing more demotivating than setting yourself superhuman objectives. You’re amazing, but you’re not superhuman. It’s important to recognise your limitations and expect realistic outcomes. Pushing yourself is different to overwhelming yourself; the former should bring about a feeling of excitement, the latter only brings stress. 

The important point is that you start to change your way of working from a random way, into a structured way. Plan, Do, Check and Action.


I lived in a life full of chaos. I had no idea what was happening with my money, my dreams, my goals, I was lost. At work though, I was the complete opposite. I planned and I executed; I checked and I acted. 

When I broke down (more on that here), I was forced to review my own life and to figure out the solutions, it was only natural to start planning. 

I knew it was the most efficient way to work. Therefore, I took a spreadsheet and created pages for everything. I made a finance page, a fitness page, one for my dreams and goals and one for my career. 

For each section I tried to get a clear overview of where I was. I inputted all my finances and set budgets for the future. I looked long and hard at where I was in ‘life’ and where I really wanted to go. 

I needed to get fit, so I asked ‘What is a measure of fitness?’ I decided resting heart rate suited me. But it could be different for you; your weight, your waistline measurement, how well you sleep. I set a target for where I wanted it to be.

Each morning I would wake up and check my resting heart rate. Each day I was ‘checking in’ on my plan.

My resting heart rate would go down with regular exercise, but if I trained too much, was too stressed at work, or was starting to get sick it would go up, well-recognised in sports science. My Check would find a problem and my Action was to rest until it returned to a stable level again. 

The spreadsheet I created, named ‘Plan of Attack’ is still something I use today. I open it almost every morning and check in on where I am and where I am going. I change bits, I modify goals, I make new plans and set new budgets. It’s an ever evolving document and with this, I created a life of structure. I increased my negentropy, by simply stopping, planning, doing, checking and acting on almost everything. 

Now for me, it doesn’t matter how chaotic life can get. I have all the fundamental things written down and planned on a sheet. I can manage in whatever the weather and in all storms that come to shore. It’s an anchor point to keep me focused.

And it’s efficient. It takes energy to set up the process, but once it’s running, it takes little adjustments here and there to keep everything on track. Like spinning the plates which could fall to the floor. By planning how to keep them all a float and learning from the mistakes, soon you become the master.


If you need to gain some control of your life, why not try being like the engineers in Toyota?

If your life is a production facility with hundreds of components and processes running around inside your head. Sitting down and planning them out on paper or a spreadsheet could have some wonderful effects. 

Take some control of your life. Plan, Do, Check, Action.
Don’t believe me, check out this speech by Matthew McConaughey and see how he continually checks on his life as a continual improvement process. The video starts at 11:25 for this, but the whole thing is worth a watch one day.


Ben Stalsberg


Try and start with a super easy project and practice the PDCA cycle. See if you find it easy or not.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDCA

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton%27s_laws_of_motion

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/expert-answers/heart-rate/


Copyright © 2020 – Ben Stalsberg – All Rights Reserved


Ben Asks: Why is it so difficult to change? Explaining the ‘Water Principle’.

You’re stuck in a rut, struggling to move forwards and you just don’t understand why? Well let me help you understand it better with a theory about water.


To make a change, we input energy to divert away from our current normal, to create a new normal. Some changes are immediate and significant, such as moving house — where we use a short sharp burst of intense energy for a sustainable period of time. 

Other changes though, are more incremental. You start with a project and you have a dedicated goal in mind, however that finish line may be way ahead in the future. It’s easy to start the change as the amount of energy required is lower than the level of excitement you may have. Gradually though, that constant continued effort over months and months without any perceivable results can end up being absolutely draining if not managed correctly. 

Most humans have experienced the vast valley of demotivation that so often comes with a long term project, and I’m sure we are all guilty of looking for the easy way out when faced with a dark and miserable climb. 

But with any long term project, the more you can ‘normalise’ the situation you are in, the more you can understand the ‘why’ and with this understanding comes a better chance of success.

Any seasoned marathon runner will tell you it’s going to hurt like hell at mile 18-20, therefore any beginner experiencing ‘the wall’ will understand it to be normal and it makes it easier for them to carry on.

Taking a more general goal of ‘Fitness’ – unless you’re shredding calories and limiting calorie intake unhealthily, you’ll not see the incremental changes that the increased exercise brings; until you try on an old pair of trousers that have been too snug for far too long.

In engineering, it’s quite common for inspiration to come from nature. Biomimicry is all around us —not least on our roads, where ‘Cat’s eyes’ reflect headlights to guide the route ahead. When we have problems in our lives, we can look to nature to provide a better understanding and this is why I want to talk about water. 


——

There is no easy way to explain this theory without a small section of dry science. So please hang in there and I’ll see you on the other side. 

——

Water, to change itself from a solid state, into a gaseous state, must first melt from ice into water and then evaporate from water into steam. 

You may remember from science class, we conduct an experiment where we take a lump of ice, heat in a pan with a bunsen burner, then measure the temperature over a given period of time. Typically that time limit is when the water is boiling like mad and the teacher gets a bit worried about over-eager kids wanting to stick their fingers in! 

The chart we drew up after the experiment would look something like this.

The temperature rises steadily, until the ice changes to water or the water changes to steam and in these transitions something strange happens.

During these transformation phases, the observed temperature on the chart shows only a flat, steady line. We can’t see that any change is happening from the outside. However, we know at an atomic level, energy is applied in the form of heat and the molecule’s natural vibration increases.

The inward heat energy is being converted into kinetic energy. 

And remember that the fundamental rule of science: energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change forms. 

The water molecules continue to vibrate until finally they have enough energy to break free from their bonds and end up in a new, more fluid condition. Then, and only then, the observed temperature will increase again.

The same occurs when cooling. When we cool steam, to water and finally to ice, the temperature will also flatline in the transition phases. This is due to the molecules receiving less heat energy and forming restrictive bonds again.  

These plateaus of change are proportional with time and energy. Therefore if change is a constant, to decrease the time, we need to add or remove more energy. 

OK we made it. . . good job.

Considering our life progression and everything in our lives – projects, relationships, health, fitness, confidence etc. water is a handy analogy. 

When we change, and we want to move paths, from our current normal to a new normal, we need to input energy.

When we are in that transitional phase, we need to keep inputting energy — even if we see no results — until finally our bonds are broken with our old path, and we can move onto the next one.  

The energy we are inputting is not being wasted. It is being used somewhere. If we are not seeing an obvious result on the outside, it is likely the energy is being used on the inside.

When we fail to maintain consistency in long-term changes, our energy towards our mission reduces. Just like water, then we can slip back along the plateau and form bonds again to lower elements—AKA our original bad habits.


When times have been tough in my life, the one constant that has kept me motivated is the belief that the more energy I put into the system, the better the result.

I stumbled onto the ‘water principle’ idea when talking with a friend who was struggling to find his feet with his business. 

It was clear he was demotivated and a bit down in the dumps. It was only natural to try and think of a way to help his situation. We all say to our friends, “don’t give up” in times like these. However, without some context behind it, I felt it was a bit of an empty statement. Just like telling your mate who has split up with their partner, “It’ll get better soon”, you know that’s not the full story.. It’s going to be hell for 90 days as they ride the emotional rollercoaster of missing messages, bittersweet memories, tunes and smells that spark sadness—all the fun that comes with heartbreak.

I had watched a YouTube video on professional CrossFit athletes and was fascinated with the coaches explanation of ‘plateaus’. He described it as swimming under ice. At some point you won’t be able to get up for air. The only way to break through the ice is with technique. He would coach his athletes to actively stop chasing big weights, or top scores on the board (a habit formed from childhood) and focus only on the way they were moving.


The parallels between my friend, the athletes and the way water reacts just seem to fit together quite nicely. 

I started to think about all the times that I had found it hard and no matter how much energy I was putting in, nothing seemed like it was moving forwards.

Projects at work, becoming debt free, moving to a foreign country. All these projects which took so much energy and were completely demotivating in the heat of the battle. They all started to move when I had freed myself from bad habits, poor discipline or finally just accepted the situation I was in. 

It was only when I had used energy to break free from the bonds from the past, that I was set free for the future. 

“Don’t give up” with more background no longer seems as empty. 

We all know the expression ‘no pain, no gain’. If the only ‘pain’ you’re experiencing is the discomfort of not being able to visibly see results, perhaps you need to ask yourself how much you want the change?


But be careful. As I will discuss next week, if you are going to use your precious energy on change, it should be completed as efficiently as possible. The Plan, Do, Check, Action, method, can help you laser focus that energy to great success.  

Ben Stalsberg


Try to think of a time where you were struggling to change. What can you learn from that?


Heating Curve for Water

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_of_energy


Copyright © 2020 – Ben Stalsberg – All Rights Reserved


Ben Explains: Root Cause Analysis

All too often we get distracted dealing with the symptoms of our issues, rather than the root causes. Today we’ll discuss Root Cause Analysis and learn how to channel precious energy and time into making more progress. More progress equals more productivity.


Engineering can be defined as ‘The action of artfully bringing something about’. 

Maybe you’ve read a couple of posts, sat down at the table and thought, ‘right, time to get this **** sorted’. Then stalled, just as I did. Trying to solve the problem of ‘life’ is like trying to eat an adult elephant with a baby spoon, it’s hard! (Not that I would ever condone eating an elephant, but you get the visual: Big Thing, Tiny Tool).

Over the years, engineers have developed a number of  tips, tricks and techniques to ‘standardise’ the way we work to ensure we are the most efficient in our jobs. It’s ‘evolution over revolution’ because if someone has already done the hard work, then why reinvent the wheel?

As engineering covers such a wide range of topics, even our own personal, chaotic, lives can benefit from these  methods. Last week I discussed how engineering is about solving problems, so here is a tool to help you firstly define the problem, then for you to go about artfully solving it.


So what is the root cause of the problem? (This is a phrase I constantly come back to, as it’s vitally important in engineering.) 

We are all capable of solving problems. In fact, there is no better person to solve your problems but you. It is you who understands your life better than anyone else ever could. As intelligent beings, we have the power of the internet to ‘search and solve’ even the most problematic of everyday scenarios. Or at least find a crevice in some far-flung corner of the internet, where one or two others are experiencing the same problem as we are—solidarity is a great first step. A little self-belief doesn’t hurt either.

However, all too often, we recognise there’s a problem, then we panic. Distressed at the difficulty in which we find ourselves, we fog our brains, failing to clearly define what we need to focus upon, failing to convince ourselves we can handle it. 

We would never go to the mechanics workshop and say “it’s broken” without giving some hint as to where it was broken first. The bill for the mechanic to find the fault, in the myriad of components on an automobile, if not completely obvious, would be astronomical.  Sometimes then, we need to sit down, look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, what exactly has gone wrong?  

I’m struggling with my money. OK, but what exactly are you struggling with? Are you being paid too little, do you run out of money before the next pay cheque? Are your bills greater than your income? 

My side hustle is struggling. OK, but what exactly is the problem? Are your products selling? Is your advertising working? What feedback are you getting from the customers?

My relationship is on the rocks. OK, have you sat down and talked about it? Have you been to see an expert? Do you need to get away, together, for a weekend?

We need to first find the ‘Root Cause’ of the problem, or the fundamental underlying issue, that sprouts all the chaos above ground before we can try and solve it. This is known in the trade as ‘Root Cause Analysis’ (RCA).


When engineers come across a machine that is broken, or one that is just not running quite right, they might ask ‘why’, and then ask ‘why’ four more times again. 

This is a technique in engineering, called the ‘5-Why’ method. Developed by Sakichi Toyoda with the Toyota Motor Corporation, it is a system that aids you to find that fundamental problem. 

————————————————————

There is a dent in the wall – why?

Because the door has been hitting it – why?

Because the stopper has come loose – why?

Because the stopper only has one screw in it – why?

Because the other has broken – why?

Because it was the wrong size screw. ROOT CAUSE

————————————————————-

To fix the problem of the dent in the wall, we need to find the right size screw to fix the stopper in the floor.

As you expand into environments with thousands of components, machines and processes, accurately finding and defining the ‘Root Cause’ of the problem is the key to success.

The better you can make your ‘problem definition’ the more clarity and focus you have to fix it.  

————————————————————–

I’m struggling with money – why?

Because the money runs out before the end of the month – why?

Because I’m spending more than I’m earning – why?

Because I don’t know how much I spend each month – why?

Because I don’t have a budget – why?

Because I never thought it was needed. ROOT CAUSE.

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When completing this exercise its vitally important to stay focussed on the problem at hand and not to deviate off onto problems in other areas. Take these two examples for instance.

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I’m always late for work – why?

I always hit rush hour traffic – why?

There is a junction where all the workers in the neighbourhood must pass and the queues are a nightmare! – why?

Because the road system is not good enough to cope with the traffic levels – why?

The designers of the roads didn’t know what they were doing?? 

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This is not finding the root cause of the problem. The process is an iterative cycle and as we know, anything that rotates tends to move things outwards, due to the centrifugal force. Therefore it is vitally important to keep the focus inwards, on factors you yourself can control. 

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I’m always late for work – why?

I always hit rush hour traffic – why?

Because I start work at 8 and therefore I leave at 7:30, just like everyone else – why?

Because that’s the routine I have had for many years – why?

Because in the past, setting off at 7:30 was fine, until they built that new factory last year, now the traffic has increased – why? (stay inward focussed here!)

Because when the situation changed, I didn’t continually analyse my day, and figure out a new, more efficient process. ROOT CAUSE.

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A word of caution though. If you complete the ‘5 whys’ correctly, it’s going to take you to some places that may really challenge you emotionally. This can be disruptive, but the reward is worth the work. Below are examples I recently completed for my normal day-to-day job situation. I could sit down and blame the company but the root cause of my problem lay directly at my feet. 

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I’m unhappy at work – why?

Because I don’t feel motivated to do it anymore- why?

Because I expect more from the company with regards to the effort I’m putting in – why?

Because they don’t pay the employees any bonuses for the additional hard work we complete, leaving us feeling like ‘why should we bother?’  – why?

Because they don’t see the value in treating employees fairly and we are the ones they should be encouraging to be more of a successful company – why?

Because they haven’t been trained on how to run a successful company? NOT A ROOT CAUSE for my problem. 

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As you can see this is not solving the problem of why I am unhappy at work. It’s just moaning about the situation and my focus has been cast external, not internal. The inward ‘5-why’ method for my job situation actually looks like this.

————————————————————–

I’m unhappy at work – why?

Because I don’t feel motivated to do it anymore- why?

Because I expect more from the company with regards to the effort I’m putting in – why?

Because my research on how the company runs, before I took the job wasn’t good enough – why?

Because I never thought I needed to check on a company, the vision and strategy, reward systems and ask current employees what they think – why?

Because I assumed it would all be OK as it has in the past. But my assumption led me to not checking all the relevant facts and information that was important to me first; and I only found out it was like this after I accepted the job.  ROOT CAUSE

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So now I have two options. I stick it out in the company and accept it for what it is. Or I search for a new job and in that process, I complete the proper research before accepting it. It was a tough lesson for me to learn, not least because it brought me face-to-face with my ego. Such reckoning can be really uncomfortable, and that’s ok. If you’re really struggling with a decision though, I want to encourage you to seek professional support. I assure you, there’s no shame in it. 

But what about the company, some might say? Well imagine in an ideal world, everyone completed really deep research on a company before they took the job. Soon, companies that treated employees poorly would be forced to change their ways as no one would work for them…..food for thought, no?!


Using the ‘5-why’ method is a powerful technique  in directing your vision towards the one thing that needs to be fixed, solved or improved.

It can be used for simple obstacles around the house, or for large challenges like your work, home life or financial situation. 

Sometimes they are quick to complete, sometimes they take days. But when you master the 5-Why method, the results can be extremely rewarding.

And don’t worry, I’ll give you tips on how to solve problems as you find them.  So enjoy! 

Ben Stalsberg


What would you define your major problems are and what do you think the root cause of them is? Why don’t you take some time out this weekend and try a couple of examples?


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_whys

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Root_cause_analysis

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centrifugal_force


Copyright © 2020 – Ben Stalsberg – All Rights Reserved


Ben Asks: Can You Engineer Your Life?

Is your life full of problems that need your constant attention? Are you struggling to be more efficient? Are you wanting to design a better life for yourself?


Engineering, in its very basic form, is the field of problem solving. LiveScience.com explains that “Engineering is the application of science and math to solve problems.“

Clients will approach an engineering company, explain the problem they have and the engineers will go about solving it.

A client says “We need to get cars from one side of the river to the other”, and the Engineer replies “Ok, do you want a bridge, a ferry or a tunnel?” Because, there is never just one solution.

When we start to think how to solve the problems of life and how to become more efficient in what we do, application of lessons and principles from Science and Engineering makes the process all the more interesting—at least it did for me! 

Ridley Scott’s 2015 masterpiece, The Martian, is one of my favourite films. In it botanist astronaut, Mark Whatney is left on Mars. In a situation that seemingly meant almost certain death for him,  ‘The Martian’ knows the importance of solving problems to succeed. 

You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

But where do you start? Well, you can engineer almost every part of your existence. You can cherry pick the parts that work for you in helping to alleviate stress and pressure. Eventually, with the work,you’ll find mental freedom from the problems you are struggling against.

It’s a simple process, though it doesn’t feel like that initially. It’s a process I’ve been through and I’m here to guide you. Let’s get started, shall we?


We can easily draw direct comparisons between a production plant and our lives. Hundreds of moving parts, all following their own processes to come together as one. To look at this massive environment and then try to organise it as a singular, streamlined entity, is almost impossible. There is simply too much stuff going on. 

Therefore, the engineers in the facility are mainly concerned with three focal areas: 

  1. Are the machines running?
  2. How are the machines running?
  3. How efficient is the process? 

Our bodies are our machines. This thing that just won’t stay in shape, it won’t let us sleep when we’re tired and no matter how hard we try, it won’t ever look younger without some help from external forces. Though our machine might still be running, it’s not especially efficient, if we’re rushing around at 100mph, with a mountain of emails, a jerk of a boss, and/or a toddler that will NOT shut up, no matter how much you might love them. 

Throughout your day, week, month and year, most of the time we are completing set processes on automatic pilot. 

But, how often have we sat down and looked at those little routines and asked are they doing me harm? Is this the most efficient way? How can I make them better? 

Drawing from my own life experiences and what I observe every day, we are conditioned by this super chaotic society and its ever-evolving values to run on full gas from the moment we wake up, to the moment we go to bed and in doing this, we are neither focused on maintaining the machine to its optimum level, or running our processes in the most efficient manner. 

Not convinced? Look at our workplaces; in a study completed by Kornferry.com, workplace stress has risen nearly 20% in the last three decades. With 76% of the people stating that the workplace stress had a negative effect on their personal relationships and 16% of people walking out of the company as the load was too high.

In an article on forbes.com, from 7500 people around 23% reported feeling burnt out “very often” at work or “always”. 

On top of that, there are plenty of studies suggesting we’re not getting enough shut-eye. Late-night Netflix binging and disruptive boozing are doing us no favours. The book ‘Why we Sleep’, by Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist, discusses the problems with sleep deprivation. Clinical studies of thousands of people offer surprising and quite frankly, terrifying results. He says how forcing ourselves awake with an alarm, alcohol and poor sleep hygiene is disruptive to our memory function, our mood stability and eating habits.

Actually, missing our precious pillow time is one of the leading causes of heart attacks, high blood pressure, strokes and depression. Yet, we all do it. We all give our bodies less sleep than it needs to function optimally, still expecting to be over-achievers.

We wouldn’t drive our cars in 1st gear on the red line everywhere and wonder why the engine packed in early. 

So if we wouldn’t treat the most trivial of domestic appliances this way, why are we so harsh on our own living, breathing machines every. single. day? Everything needs servicing, including ourselves. It took an airborne near-miss to make me realise this.


As the plane approached the runway during a snowstorm in the middle of a Norwegian winter, my heart rate was already in the triple figures. My hands were sweating, I tightened my seat belt and I looked out the window. 

This was my tenth flight in ten weeks and this period was knocking me for six. Along with trying to settle into a new country, learn a new language, work a full-time, stressful job and build a house, I was now trying to start a side hustle, to escape the woes of the corporate world. 

I’d visited a customer in the North of Norway and was now homeward bound. As we started to descend, the turbulence increased, and I could feel the anxiety rise. Normally, I’m quite a calm passenger. This was definitely not good. Already at the limit of my mental and physical capacity, I was horrified to see, as we came through the clouds, the runway–a good 50m away from where the plane was attempting to land. 

The engines boosted, the roar of the propellers shook the aircraft furiously and the passengers all gave each other nervous glances. 

The pilot banked hard and climbed high, and saved us all from the peril that could have been. He came back around and attempted to land again, making it down successfully this time. The engines were shut off and I exhaled for the first time in what seemed hours. Dazed, I collected my bag, disembarked and I drove home. I don’t even remember the journey, but within 30 seconds of entering the door, years of stress, despondency and depression came out in a flood of tears in front of my wife. I curled up on her lap and wept. Naturally, she asked me what was wrong.

There was no way to explain to her how I was feeling. 

From the outside I was just working away. I was busy for sure, but inside, I couldn’t tell her why I was so empty. I just kept working hoping it would pass. I wanted more and the only way to get there was to work more, regardless of how it was making me feel.

To try and accurately describe to her what I was going through, I found a piece of paper and just wrote down everything that was in my mind. I filled a whole A4 side, every line split into two and some things also written around the edges. It wasn’t good.

I was also sick, I wasn’t taking care of myself and I had been bouncing off the limiter, propped up on YouTube motivational videos for years; Be a Tiger, right?

I realised I had to change. I had to stop and figure this out as there was no point chasing success to live a better life, if in the end, my life would be shorter. 

Looking back now, that was a pivotal moment. I needed those tears to flow. I needed the frustration and disappointment and fear and anger to dissipate. I’ve since learned tears physically carry stress hormones in them, out of your body. As men, we are conditioned from a young age not to cry or show weakness, of which crying is apparently a sign. I call bullshit on that. 

We’re human before we are men and sometimes, we need to cry just as hard as anyone else. Sometimes when the chaos of life overwhelms us, we can see the machine is not functioning properly, but we have somehow normalised a bad machine process, we need a part to ping off before we acknowledge the issue, dissemble the machine and reassemble with new or repaired parts. Like an engineer, we need to review. We need to ask ourselves those key questions:

  1. Is the machine on? I hope so, but… 
  2. How well is the machine running? 

If you’ve found this blog post, your machine is definitely on, but you’ve already identified it’s not running well.

I started small. Firstly, I worked on my sleep. To make sure I was ready to sleep when I needed to, I started exercising again. Eating healthily wasn’t so hard, but I cut out things like alcohol and sugar, just initially. They contribute so much to mood swings, I figured if I was committed to engineering my life to be better, I need to be on a level. It wasn’t easy. I meditated, I did yoga, As a result,  I grew stronger, calmer, more focussed. I made better decisions. I was all around less fatigued and less stressed as a result of the changes in the way that I ran my “machine”. 

I then took a look at my processes. I got an excel sheet and asked, how can I be more efficient with the same hours in the day? I drew out my day plan and started moving bits around. I asked, what’s my biggest problem and what is the root cause? With this I was able to clearly see what was going wrong. 

And in the three years since then, I’ve not stopped, I still analyse and I still make changes. It’s an ever- evolving process just like in a manufacturing facility; a “Continuous Improvement Process”, an engineering method used all over the world.


A “Continuous Improvement Process” is just like a game of hitting the moles when they pop out the holes at the fairground. Note, the great thing about these ‘moles’: each time you hit them, they get smaller and return only with less strength. 

Just as it is impossible to hit every mole at the same time, it’s important to realize that you can’t tackle each of life’s problems with full force, all at the same time. That approach is unsustainable.


So where do you start? You need to take this big old thing called life and start breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Then you need to prioritise. Choose which mole to whack first.

Health is always the priority. Always. You can’t buy good health. 

If you believe you’re of sound mind and fitness, which area of your life are you going to engineer next?

Ben Stalsberg


https://www.livescience.com/47499-what-is-engineering.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2019/01/09/workplace-trend-stress-is-on-the-rise/

https://www.kornferry.com/insights/articles/workplace-stress-motivation

https://www.forbes.com/sites/bryanrobinson/2019/06/02/the-burnout-club-now-considered-a-disease-with-a-membership-price-you-dont-want-to-pay-for-success/#19f6b55a37ab


Copyright © 2020 – Ben Stalsberg – All Rights Reserved