Differences in Work Breaks

A number of people around me work in the medical field. They are doctors, nurses, psychologists, therapists and more, trying to make people (feel) better. As such, it’s never been a secret to me that generally, people in medicine work hard. They make long hours, and often have barely enough time to sit down and have lunch.

Although I knew this before, it struck me again in a conversation with a good doctor friend (or ‘good friend doctor’?). He indicated that during the shifts at his hospital, he never had the time to sit down to have lunch with his colleagues. Rather, he would simply find five minutes to quickly consume the sandwiches he made that morning — and be as efficient about it as possible.

This got me thinking. Apparently, there are a number of professions where work breaks are not normal. Like doctors who work in a hospital. Or even waiters working in a restaurant. In such professions, taking half an hour to sit down with your colleagues, eat your lunch, and talk about football or the weather is a no-go. But isn’t there a law that prevents this? And why do these differences in work breaks exist at all?


The Legal Basis for (Mandatory) Work Breaks

In most countries, labor laws dictate a minimal amount of breaks. That is, if a work shift goes over a fixed amount of hours. In the UK for instance, these rules apply:

  • Workers have the right to one uninterrupted 20 minute rest break during their working day, if they work more than 6 hours a day.
  • Workers have the right to 11 hours rest between working days, and
  • Workers have the right to either an uninterrupted 24 hours without any work each week or an uninterrupted 48 hours without any work each two weeks

In the USA, federal law (i.e. law that applies to all states), doesn’t give workers specific rights to meal or rest breaks. Some states have implemented such laws (e.g. allowing workers at least 30 minutes to eat if they work more than 5 or 6 hours), but many have not.

In contrast, Dutch law looks more like UK law; In the Netherlands, workers who work more than 5.5 hours should get a minimum of 30 minutes break. When working more than 10 hours, you have the right to a break of 45 minutes. However, these rules may differ in collective agreements that are set for specific professions. For many professions though, the collective agreements do not fundamentally differ from the law on this issue. For instance, for general practitioners and doctors training to be specialists (or those that are not), there are no additional regulations in the collective agreement regarding work breaks (for more specifics, see this document). And even in the hospitality business, in the Netherlands workers have the same rights as prescribed by law.

Considering this legal basis, why then do people in these professions still lack work breaks? After all, if it’s described by law, so shouldn’t it also be actively applied?


It’s a Cultural Issue

Obviously, the law isn’t always strictly applied in reality. As such, the absence of work breaks in different professions is often a cultural issue. Interestingly, this culture can form on different levels. Going back to the medical example, I’m willing to bet that on a national level, the amount of breaks for an aspiring medical specialist (in other words, nearly none) look pretty much the same. Perhaps internationally there are some differences, but if you’re a doctor training to be a specialist working for hospital A or hospital B, chances are that your amount of work breaks do not fundamentally differ.

This is pretty similar if you work in the hospitality industry. If you work as a waiter, you know you can’t expect a break if it’s very busy at the bar or restaurant you work at. But in other professions, the issue of not having work breaks can stem from a very local culture. For instance, when I worked as a civil servant, some departments (mine included) would go down to the cafetaria for lunch every day. In contrast, direct colleagues at other departments would simply eat lunch at their desk.


Implementing Work and Lunch Breaks

Luckily, because it is a cultural issue and not a legal one, it may be easier to create change. Obviously, this is easier when the ‘no-break-culture’ is very local. It’s not so difficult to tell your boss: “Let’s have a proper lunch break, just like our colleagues at other departments do”.

In contrast, if this culture is present on a sector-wide level, it is much more difficult to bring about change. That means you’re going against a pre-existing norm, and it would be difficult to suddenly start implementing proper lunch breaks.

But aside from how difficult it is to make this change, we should also consider how important this change could be. In industries like hospitality, it is relatively less important to provide people with lunch breaks. Certainly, I do think everyone is entitled to work breaks, and we/they should campaign to get them.

But in the case of medical professionals, the argument is clearer. The risks that come with making mistakes (for instance, when you’re tired) are much more important. So important in fact, that it is odd that this cultural issue is so pervasive. And in that sense, perhaps breaks should even be enforced.

Why Don’t People Meditate More?

In the Western world, meditation seems to be on the rise. We hear more and more about people around us practicing meditation. An aunt who gives mindfulness training, or a friend who regularly goes on a silent retreat. But we don’t just see this increase in our personal lives. We also see it in popular culture, in our work (e.g. mindfulness exercises), and in (personal development) books, where meditation is becoming more popular.

In the case of personal development, such books may discuss different ways to become happier. Aside from focusing on strengths and happiness (as articulated in an earlier article), books like Solve for Happy or Authentic Happiness often discuss how living in the present can make you happier. And one of the ways to live in the present is through (mindfulness) meditation*.

But though meditation becomes more common, we don’t meditate as much as we would expect on the basis of these books, apps and cultural influence. In fact, on this basis, you would expect meditation to be much more common than it is today. And that the majority of our friends and family members would practice it daily. But why don’t they? Why don’t people meditate more?

*Note that I use ‘meditation’ here as a catch-all definition. There are many different types of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation, movement meditation, loving-kindness meditation, yoga meditation, and many more.


Why We Should Meditate

Before trying to answer this question, it is important to set the stage. Some will surely think: “What’s the problem? I don’t meditate, but who cares? Sitting in silence is not a particularly attractive way to enjoy myself.”

But the problem becomes clear if you look at why we should meditate. And the answer to this question is simple. Practicing meditation daily may result in a range of scientifically proven benefits. From reducing feelings of stress or anxiety to improving sleep quality and (as said before) level of happiness, the advantages of meditation are many*.

I won’t get into this much further, but if there is one thing you take away from this paragraph, it is that meditation can have real tangible effects on our lives and well-being. And this transforms meditation from something religious or esoteric, to something more tangible, having real benefits on the lives of people like you and me.

* In a future article, I would like to list these benefits and see which ones are more scientifically ‘backed’ than others. This is because not all studies on meditation are as scientifically sound as others. For now, I’d like to point you to these two resources which offer an overview of studies on meditation and its potential benefits; The Wikipedia page on Research on Meditation, and this in-depth article from the US Department of Health.


How Many People Meditate?

With these benefits in mind, meditation should be a no-brainer. And indeed, looking at the big picture we see that the absolute amount of people who meditate is significant: apparently, it’s ‘between 200 and 500 million people‘. While this statistic says little (considering also it’s rather imprecise), we can say that in relative terms, around 5% of people on earth meditate daily.

Surprisingly, in Western countries, the percentage of meditators seem to be higher than the average. If we look at the United States, the percentage of American adults meditating rose in five years from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017. Such percentages can also be seen in the Netherlands, where in 2015 around 16 to 21% of Dutch people meditated from time to time.

But though people in (these) Western countries meditate more than the global average, these numbers are still relatively low. If the benefits are so clear, why do just 10-20% of people meditate?


Making Time to Meditate

In my opinion, there are at least three reasons why ‘we’ don’t meditate as much as you would expect. First, despite it having existed for thousands of years and recent scientific studies on meditation, for many people, the practice is not part of their culture; meditation is a foreign concept, only practiced by people other than themselves.

Second, even if we do know the benefits of meditation or meditate ourselves from time to time, we have busy lives. And that means that it’s difficult to find the time to meditate. I wouldn’t be surprised that if we would survey meditators, we would find that the majority would like to meditate more often than they currently do.

With a simple Google search this becomes even more apparent; there are hundreds of articles providing tips on making time to meditate: Schedule your sessions in advance in your calendar; do it right after you wake up; be mindful whenever you’re traveling. These tips and many more work to an extent. But for first-time meditators, finding the time can be a hassle.


Meditating is like Eating Healthy

But perhaps the most important reason why we don’t meditate more, is that meditating is like taking the train instead of the plane; like refraining from smoking; like eating healthy.

What do I mean by this? Well, just like with meditation, the result of (in)action will only manifest over a longer period of time.

Take eating healthy for example. Obesity is on the rise, and we know its cause. But because the impact of eating too much sugar or fat plays out on a longer period of time, it’s very easy to choose fast food over a home-cooked meal. Diabetes won’t hit us the next day. And the exact same thing occurs when it comes to making conscious decisions to help fight the climate crisis, like taking the train instead of the plane. Or when it comes to smoking and its long-term effects on our health.

In each and every one of these cases, we know the negative consequences of taking a certain (in)action over and over again. But making the right decision is difficult because there is no direct feedback loop. This is the same with meditation. If we meditate today, we won’t immediately feel less stressed, sleep better or be happier. In contrast, the result of daily meditation practice plays out over a longer period of time, and that’s why it’s so difficult to keep on keeping on.


To Meditate or Not To Meditate?

So we know the positive effects of meditation, but for many people it’s not a part of their culture. In addition, we often can’t find the time to meditate — and we have to do it again and again and again to enjoy its benefits. Unfortunately, there’s no direct solution to these problems. But we can make a difference in a few ways.

For instance, we can make meditation more accepted by talking about both the practice with friends and family. We can try to make more time for meditation — by using a variety of online tips and mobile apps (like Headspace, Insight Timer, Waking Up, etc.) that help us to meditate and be mindful throughout the day. And in this way, we keep reminding ourselves of the positive effects of meditation, and that daily practice will have long-term benefits. Hopefully, that will get us a long way.


Strengths and Happiness: Using Your Strengths to Become Happier

Like many, or perhaps like every person on this earth, I’d like to find happiness.

Happiness, of course, is an elusive concept. It means something different for me than it does for you. And to some, finding happiness is the ultimate goal in life. For others, it is not something to be pursued at all; it’s something you may find along the way, but definitely not the goal itself.

But what do you do if you do want to find happiness? How do you go about this? Where do you search and who do you ask for help? In my case, I read a book!

My thinking is: ‘where there’s a book, there’s a way‘. Or in other words, someone, somewhere knows a lot about happiness, and has probably written a book about it — which I can learn from, and hopefully apply to my life.

This reasoning is perhaps a bit simplistic, but it has worked quite well for me. One book I recently read is Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman, a popular American psychologist. The book gives you a wealth of information — from how to think about happiness to tips and tricks you can use to become happier in daily life.

And one particular section in that book is about your strengths and happiness, and using these strengths in your daily life or job to become happier. So how does that work?


What do Strengths got to do with Happiness?

According to the author, each and everyone of us has several signature strengths. There are 24 strengths in total*, ranging from hope to teamwork and from forgiveness to social intelligence.

The idea is that if you can find your signature strengths — these specific character traits or values that really describe who you are — and apply these in your daily life, you can become a happier person. But how do you find these strengths?

Luckily, there’s a test for that. The author (co-)developed the so-called VIA Character Strengths Survey, which is, according to the website, “the only free, scientific survey of character strengths in the world.” But before you go and take the (quite lengthy) test, let me show you what an example of the test and its outcome looks like.


* According to the VIA Institute of Character (an institute founded by the book’s author), these are the 24 character strengths: Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence; Bravery; Creativity; Curiosity; Fairness; Forgiveness; Gratitude; Honesty; Hope; Humility; Humor; Judgment; Kindness; Leadership; Love; Love of Learning; Perseverance; Perspective; Prudence; Self-Regulation; Social Intelligence; Spirituality; Teamwork; and Zest.


An Example of the VIA Strengths and Happiness Test

If you take the test, you’ll need around 15 minutes and answer a variety of questions. The questions are very broad, but always relate to your character and the way you view the world; from how often you keep your promises, to how interesting you view the world at large. The questions (a total of 240!) look like the following:

Showing questions of the VIA Character Strengths and Happiness Test

In my case, after some 20 minutes I found out these were my core strengths:

Forgiveness, Curiosity, Fairness, Equity, Honesty, Authenticity, Teamwork, Loyalty


Applying your Strengths in Daily Life

So, now what?

As mentioned earlier, the idea is that now that you know your strengths, you should position yourself in such a way that you can easily apply them. Simply put, the better and more often you can apply your strengths, the happier you’ll be (up to a certain extent, of course).

The thing is, however, that it’s not so easy to find ways to apply these strengths. Think for instance of how you would apply one of my character strengths, fairness, in your life. How would you do this? Or suppose that you’re a project manager; how do you get into a position where you can apply ‘forgiveness’?

When it comes to fairness, you can think of situations in which people (or animals) are treated unfairly, and try to correct this unfairness. This can be something as simple as getting coffee for a colleague who was somehow skipped in the ‘coffee round’. And in terms of forgiveness,  you could think of people who wronged you in one way or another, or even try to forgive yourself for a mistake you made in the past.

Nonetheless, it’s not so easy to directly see how you can apply certain strengths, especially those that you might not fully understand, like zest or prudence. So if you need additional ideas, this article provides extra tips.


Do the Test and Find Out!

Before you go ahead and take the test, I do feel the obligation to give a brief disclaimer and tell you to take these tests with a grain of salt (which also relates to my article on Issues with Personal Development). Happiness, as stated earlier, is not a clear-cut concept; it’s not black-and-white. You can’t just find out your strengths, apply them in your life and be happy. But I do think that it can make you happier. And even if it doesn’t, it’s a very interesting exercise in self-reflection.

So with that out of the way, I’d advise you to do the test! Find out what your core strengths are, and write them down. Discuss them with friends or family (or send them my way!) and see what they mean to you.

Then, take a look at a specific area in your life, such as your work or specific relationships. Ask yourself: How can you make sure you can apply these strengths more often? How can you make sure your strengths are more present in your daily job? Or can you move into a position where you can e.g. apply your curiosity — work more with others — or take the opportunity to be brave?

Set aside 15-20 minutes, and take the test! Share your results below, and I’ll see you on the other side ;).

Lying in Sales: From Software Demos to Job Interviews

If we think about sales, we often think about the work salespeople do. From selling complicated enterprise software products to selling new telephone contracts. But as many people who actually work in sales say, sales is not just ‘sales’.

In fact, you can also see sales as a more all-encompassing term. Perhaps you sell yourself, when going to a job interview. Or you ‘sell’ your book club to a friend, trying to get them to join. In that sense, selling is something we all do.

But however you sell something or whatever you sell, all these types of selling have one thing in common: Lying. And lying in sales is so common, that we all do it, whether we actually work as salespeople or not.


Distorting the Truth and Selling Software

The idea of the prevalence of lying in sales came to me when talking to my girlfriend about software sales (indeed an incredibly romantic topic). In both our experiences working in software companies, we’ve seen that lying in software sales is super common.

And just as the term ‘sales’ can be quite broad, similarly the term ‘lying’ can be quite broad. So perhaps we should call it ‘distorting the truth’ instead. But however you call it, it’s common.

Case in point: A SaaS (Software as a Service) startup where I worked some time ago. When demoing the software in front of potential clients, I would specifically show certain aspects of the software — which I knew were working well.

Other aspects, like certain bugs or database entries that weren’t fully populated, I would purposefully not show. Similarly, I would try to avoid as much as possible to get the potential client in control of the software, as he/she might see things that weren’t finished or working yet.

This is not to say that the software wasn’t working at all — it still provided value. But showing your software’s bugs would definitely not get you the client. And this kind of distorting the truth is done by almost any salesperson, in software or other industries.


Upgrading your CV

Another example of lying in sales (again, taking both ‘lying’ and ‘sales’ as broad concepts), is making yourself look better than you are during a job application.

Starting with your CV, you may indicate you’re an ‘intermediate Spanish speaker’ whereas you’ve finished only half of Duolingo’s exercises. Or you say you ‘led a team of 4’, even though there wasn’t really a leader in the team.

Or during the job interview, most people will choose to not give the full picture. Instead of ‘filling in an Excel spreadsheet’, you ‘created a financial model’; instead of ‘assisting a professor’, you ‘conducted independent research’; or instead of ‘being let go’, you simply ‘took a break’.

Surely, there are varying degrees of lying — you can take a small or large step away from the truth. But the fact is, we all do it.


Fake It Till You Make It

And in these particular cases, it often comes down to ‘fake it till you make it’. What does that mean?

Well, you first fake it. In other words, you distort the truth, tell white lies, are dishonest, false, or perhaps even mendacious or perfidious (thanks, thesaurus). In other words, you make the truth look better than it actually is.

And then, you make it. Even though you have made the truth better than it actually is, you now have to deliver on that promise. You now have to actually show you can create financial models, conduct independent research, or speak Spanish relatively well.

However, this is not always the case. When you lie, you don’t always fake it till you make it. Especially when you’re not lying about yourself. Take my first example: if you’re selling software, you’re often not responsible for delivering the software you sell. In other words, sometimes you fake it ’till others make it. Because you’re selling a lie that others have to deliver on.

Sometimes you fake it ’till others make it.

Or, perhaps you fake it to pass initial scrutiny, for instance on your CV. No one will actually test you for that specific knowledge (i.e. the great Spanish you definitely speak), but it is something that you could lie about to sell yourself to a potential employer.


Downsides of Lying in Sales

Now I’m not saying that you should lie about speaking Spanish while applying for a job in Barcelona. Or that you should say your software has features X and Y, while it only has feature Z. I’m not sure whether that’s a criminal offence, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend it. In any case, it won’t withstand any scrutiny.

But there are more realistic downsides than facing prison, when lying in sales. One negative impact of ‘faking it till you make it’, is stress.

Depending on the situation, it can be incredibly stressful to act like you know some topic or have experience in a particular field, without actually having this. It means you have to ‘stay ahead’ — just like teachers sometimes do; making sure they’re one page ahead of the class.

And in case you’re faking it till others make it, you can make life seriously difficult for your colleagues. Suppose you sell those features X and Y to a new client, and the client ends up buying your software. Now the developers in your company have to be able to deliver on these features that you sold; or you’ll lose the client.


Lying to Yourself?

Another downside of lying is that it may result in cognitive dissonance. In my personal case, I’m known to be quite an honest person. I also pride myself in being honest. So if I lie on my CV or in a sales demo, that means I’m going against a specific value I find very important, which leaves me (at the very least) with a bad taste.

But despite these downsides, distorting the truth is incredibly common. And in this sense, I think it’s not something to frown upon.

Especially if you consider that this lying is something we must do — even when you’re the most honest person in the world. Because in the end, you’re competing with others. Competing to land a job, a particular client, or even a new member for your book club.

Whatever it is, you’re competing. And that means that if you are totally honest, you probably won’t stack up against the competition. And sure, this is a slippery slope and a kind of prisoner’s dilemma. But it seems that if you want to compete in both sales and life, you may just have to lie a little.

Problem Space and Solution Space (and what so many people do wrong)

Recently I’ve been talking to a variety of product and project managers. One thing I always ask them is: “What books would you recommend?”. One of the answers I got was the Playing with FIRE book. Another recommendation, which is what this article is about, came from a product manager at a fintech startup: ‘the Lean Product Playbook’. After reading it, I’ve gotten very enthusiastic (as you can also see on the basis of my Tweets), and today I want to discuss one particular prominent concept that I think many entrepreneurs, including myself, can learn from. And that is the Problem Space and the Solution Space.


The Solution Space

Let’s start with the solution space. According to the author Dan Olsen, this is the fictional space in which you, as an entrepreneur, product owner or creator, build a solution. Let’s take an (entirely random ?) example and say that you run a meetup for entrepreneurs.

In a way, this meetup is a product or solution. In this case, the solution has certain aspects: It is held every month, the focus is on learning and meeting others, and it is held somewhere in a city centre.

If you would want, you could change the solution and what makes it unique. Perhaps you want to organize the meetup someplace else, outside of the city. Or you might invite other kinds of people. By changing the solution, you make sure that it takes up a different location in the solution space.

But regardless of what location (or space) it takes in the solution space, your product should ideally be a solution to a particular problem. And that’s where the problem space comes in — which is what makes this concept truly interesting.


The Problem Space

If you want to properly build a product, startup or company, you should start with the problem space. The problem space, according to the book, is the space where you can find a particular problem.

Keeping in mind the example of before, perhaps you’ve found that entrepreneurs find it difficult to meet like-minded people. To them, that’s a problem. Alternatively, perhaps these entrepreneurs don’t feel as if they can easily learn about entrepreneurship. These problems, or customer needs, take up different locations in the problem space.

So far, so good, right?

Well, yes. But also, no.

While the concepts of problem and solution space are useful, they only become really useful if you are aware of what space you currently operate in — and if you look at how they relate to one another.


Problem-Solution Space Mountains

Another way to think about it, is to picture the two spaces as two mountains, just a meter (or couple of feet) apart. The mountain on the left, the problem mountain, is devoid of bushes or trees. It’s slick and slippery, and not easy to climb.

In contrast, the mountain on the right or solution mountain, is filled with greenery. You can easily find your way up the mountain — just use all the pretty trees to climb up.

If you stand on the right mountain and want to go to the left, you’ll have a really hard time. You can’t throw a rope to the other mountain, because there’s nothing there for the rope to hold on to.

But if you stand on the left mountain, you can easily build a bridge between the two, and move to solution mountain. Simply find a protruding branch of a solid-looking tree, tie your rope, and off you go.

Perhaps this metaphor sounds weird, or doesn’t make much sense. But the point I want to make is that (too) many founders start in the solution space — or on solution mountain. They start with building a solution, and only much later defining a problem.

Too many founders start on solution mountain.


Personal Examples of Climbing Solution Mountain First

If you think about this as an entrepreneur or founder, I’m sure there are almost too many examples that come to mind.

For instance, a few years ago, I started a subscription box for long-distance runners. Why? Because subscription boxes were the hot thing in founder-land, and I regularly ran 5-10 kilometers to stay fit.

But I didn’t first try and find a problem. Turns out, as a runner, I didn’t need a subscription box. And very few people did either.

Similarly, two years ago I started a consultancy in blockchain technology called Infloat. Blockchain was hot and I figured with my knowledge on the subject, I could consult other businesses on the technology’s implementation.

I was proudly waving my flag on top of solution mountain.

But again, I was proudly waving my flag on top of solution mountain. It’s only after my co-founder and I launched the consultancy that we started to look into the problem space: What was the actual problem that we wanted to solve with Infloat.


Start on Problem Mountain — and in the Problem Space

In all these examples, what I should have done — and what you should do too if you’re a starting entrepreneur — is to start in the problem space. Start on problem mountain.

And this is not easy to do. After all, it’s much easier to just think of cool solutions: Instant teleportation. Flying cars. Airbnb but for office spaces. Uber but for animals.

But to think of the problem that these solutions solve is much more difficult. But that is exactly what you should do. Start with a specific target group in mind, and find a problem.

Do whatever you can do to climb problem mountain. To start in the problem space. Test your assumptions with your target group — and make sure they actually find it a problem.

Only when you have verified the problem’s existence, is when you move, slowly but surely, to solution mountain.

After that, you’ll definitely go back and forth a number of times. To test your solution; and refine the problem further. But the first step should be made on problem mountain; don’t be attracted to that beautiful shrubbery.