Weeknotes from a break

Today’s my first day back after a relaxing couple of weeks in France. As with last year’s holiday, I resolved to switch off from work properly so I turned off notifications for my work apps and removed my work mailbox from my phone while I was away. It’s great to have a strong team back in the office and to know that they will have everything in hand without feeling that I need to check in while I’m away. (Cate’s weeknote here illustrates how well the team came together to respond to a major network issue: https://weeknot.es/s3-ep6-that-was-the-week-that-was-nt-8759c1da689e).

I also tried to leave my phone in our room during the day to reduce the temptation to get lost in grazing Twitter, the news, and basically trying to read all of the Internet. I wasn’t totally successful in that, in fact I was pretty rubbish for the first couple of days, but I did get better as the break went on.

A benefit of our children being a bit older now is that they spent most of their days playing in the pool with their cousins, so there was lots of time for reading and other selfish indulgences. I used some of the time to get in some runs because I’ve realised it’s less than two months to the Royal Parks Half Marathon that I’m doing in October and I need to get back up to distance. I also tried to improve my rather poor swimming technique (with limited success) and made time to reacquaint myself with a guitar, which was good fun (the holiday hit was ‘Postman Pat’, which my younger nephews and niece did great dancing to!).

Reading list

A shorter list than last year:

  • Sapiens: this is an overview of how human societies have developed over the ages which gave some interesting food for thought. I reminded myself that this sort of whistlestop tour only ever really touches the surface of the topic and it’s important not to take too much of it as definitive information without doing some wider reading.
  • The Stranger’s Child: this was my dalliance with non-fiction for the holiday, and made good on a nearly year old commitment to Polly (our Director of Comms) who suggested a book swap last summer – I think she read the one I leant her much sooner. It was an interesting read about the interwoven stories and relationships around a family which starts from before WW1 and runs through to the early 2000s. I enjoyed the way that the story developed and makes the reader do a bit of thinking to join the pieces together. But I also thought that the main narrative hook of a poem written by one of the key characters in 1913 was a bit overworked, which made the story a bit repetitive in parts.
  • This America: The Case For The Nation: I decided to read this after hearing a conversation with the author on the Talking Politics podcast. The book discusses the competing claims for the notion of ‘the Nation’ in the United States since the Republic was founded, and the tensions between different groups over the years. Lack of tolerance is by no means a monopoly of any one country and the book is a reminder of both the best and worst in human nature. Which led me to…
  • Southern Horrors Lynch Law In All Its Phases: a short book written in the 1890s which makes for genuinely grim reading. The only positive is that it serves as a reminder of how much we have progressed since then, but it’s important not to take that progress for granted nor assume that such things are the preserve of any one group of people or time.
  • The People vs Tech: I’ve been meaning to read this for a while. I liked the author’s framing of the challenges that technology and the exponential growth in data captured about our lives present for democracy and society, and it’s good to see the growing consciousness of the importance of these issues in our national debate (although this book provides a more balanced and thoughtful analysis than many of the over-excited newspaper headlines). I suspect that the ‘solutions’ offered in the epilogue might be easier to propose than to actually implement but it felt like a useful contribution to the topic.
  • Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices: not strictly a book, but as it runs to over 100 pages I think it counts. This is something else that I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while (it was published two years ago) but it still felt like a useful read. The report is a wide-ranging review of employment practices and different forms of work (including self-employment and ‘gig’ style employment) and looks at the roles that businesses, workers, Government and unions have in achieving worthwhile and rewarding work as part of a successful and flexible employment market. This was another time where I finished with the feeling that I needed to read more widely as it challenged some of my preconceptions and I’d like to test that in greater depth.

Reflecting on what I want to focus on now I’m back

On our journey out I read Matthew’s note about the things he’s been learning on his leadership course: https://link.medium.com/qzSMP7gJ0Y. I really liked that and on the journey home I did a bit of thinking about what I want to focus on when I’m back. I’ve grouped that into three areas of emphasis:

  • Something organisational – how can I help to make sure that we make the most of the opportunity that the new Customer Services board presents to further raise our ambitions across the Council?
  • Something specific to HackIT – how can I make sure that I am delegating effectively, in particular making sure that I’m successfully distinguishing between areas of our work where I ‘have views’ and want to contribute, but am not the direct lead, and those areas where I need to be more clearly taking a lead role? This is important so that I don’t unintentionally slow work down and also to help me focus my attention.
  • Something specific to me – this is my annual commitment to be better at focus and not find that time slips away jumping between things on my list / in my mailbox (I previously described this as ‘more quality, less grazing’).

My first challenge will be getting through my mailbox and seeing if I can emerge from the day with a clear direction for the rest of the week!

Something I’ve learned

For our holidays this year we joined what seems to be a growing (and positive) trend of giving air travel a miss and took the train to France. I was pleasantly surprised with how easy it was. 

The check in process at St Pancras was less faffy than our recent airport experiences, and the journeys were nice and quick (and compared well when you consider the time spent in check in queues and waiting for the gate to be called). We also took the opportunity to break the outward journey with a couple of days in central Paris which was good fun. I think we’ll definitely be doing that again.

(As a top tip, seat61.com was an excellent resource for planning the journey by rail. This included a helpful pointer to the low cost upgrades to first class that are available for the TGV, which gave us loads of comfortable legroom. A nice reminder that the Internet can be a positive place to find information that helps you do things better!)