Equity Trading Desks, Parenting and Workload Balancing

I have always wondered why homemaking is not considered a “proper”job.  The Mental Workload of a Mother today summed up all the unseen things that homemakers do, everything from the stuff sort-outs to the organisation of the social calendar, meal planning, not to mention the childcare.  To my shame, the intellectual hubris of having an honours degree and a masters once made me think that childcare was easy.
That was until an old codger told me to take a week off work and look after Jr solo, which I did and learnt that childcare is anything but easy, and it doesn’t give two hoots how smart you think you are.  Little kids know a billion ways to outsmart you.  I did it with as little help as I could, and after a week I went back to work for a break.  The lesson: Solo childcare is more tiring than a 60 hour work week.
The above week is also an exercise of mums.  Dads will intially be incompetent, they will stumble and they will make many mistakes.  My better half had the restraint to hang back and let me take the pain, letting my mistakes snowball from one day to another.  I did not have the right habits and processes in place to make it work, and it was very hard for her to not step in to save me.
You see, when dads look after their kids for a day, most of the time they’re in survival mode.  Their goal is to get to the end of the day with their children more or less in one piece so that mums can take over.  I’m sorry but the “The kids are asleep but they went to bed late pumped full of sugar and will be a bit grumpy tomorrow.. sorree.  Did you enjoy your day out?” isn’t good enough.  Mum’s the one who’s going to have to deal with the aftermath the next day, so it’s very tempting for her to step in and limit the damage that you might unwittingly do.
This presents any family where one parent is the primary caregiver a problem.  If the parent who isn’t the primary caregiver can’t be at home enough, he or she will not have sufficient time to learn all the processes, procedures and rules that have to be in place.  Said processes, procedures and rules are complex, they are time sensitive, and many also require on-the-spot decision making.
One of my day jobs is running a trading desk in an asset management firm.  There are two traders, one of them primary trader, and the other a backup when #1 is out of the office.  Like childcare, trading equities has complex processes, procedures and rules.  Trading is time-sensitive and often requires on-the-spot decision making.  They are not so naive to believe that the backup will do as good a job as the primary, but they know they can trust the backup to do a job that is good enough, and they define what is good enough very carefully.  It is an arrangement that both of them buy-in and agree to.  To ensure that everything ticks over, they have an very well defined set of processes, documented so that it can be referred to if needed.  There are well understood escalation points when the primary trader must be called, and the both traders communicate constantly to keep the body of knowledge required to function up to date.
Their situation is analogous to that of the asymmetric arrangement between parents, and there is a profound irony in the fact that we are willing to put so much effort into process and risk management when we’re dealing with money, but glaze over when we’re faced with the same effort with our children.  Traders would never ever allow someone with insufficient trading into the market, so shouldn’t we owe it to our partners who are not primary caregivers to give them adequate training?  Parenting is harder than most day jobs, so why shouldn’t we go to at least the same level of effort?
In my little family, said implementation of the trading desk procedure is far from perfect.  We have, however found that things run a lot easier.   When we started defining things, I found myself asking a lot more questions about what jobs were important to get done in the house every day and discovered that much of it wasn’t what I expected.  Equally, my wife found that she had to be a lot clearer about how she wanted things done, and why.  I understood what she expected and why she needed it done, and we both agreed on what was good enough.

The Trickster

You might notice at some point that there is a you who is not you, and he’s known by lots of different names, but I like to call him the trickster, because he likes to play tricks on you and fool you a lot.  He’ll make you believe things that aren’t true despite the wealth of evidence to suggest otherwise, see things in a way that isn’t helpful.
He’s not logical or rational, in fact most of the time he works against your best interests, and gets you into a lot of trouble.  He can compel you to think and do things that on reflection are completely insane.  The bad news is that you can’t catch him all the time.  Richard Feynman said that you are the easiest person to fool, and he’s right.  The trickster is the best at fooling you, because he IS you so he knows all the right things to get you to say to yourself to believe the things that sabotage yourself.  He might convince you that going out just before your exams is a very good thing to do, or maybe that girl or guy is really into you when there’s nothing to suggest it.  Yeah, the trickster does his work best when you want to believe the falsehood.
Whilst I can’t answer the question of why he’s there, I can offer a solution so that you can at least catch him some, if not most of the time.
I might have mentioned mindfulness is a really helpful thing to cultivate (You’ll hear me saying it again lots) and it’s this that will help you notice when the trickster is out and doing his dirty work.  If you can be mindful enough, you can catch him at work, and sometimes you can even stop him in his tracks.  The good news is that you can get better at this, and over time, the more mindful you get, the more you can catch him trying to pull a fast one on you, and you can stop him.


You might find mindfulness touted a some sort of snake-oil for your psyche. I call it the art of watching yourself. Mindfulness is the awareness that allows you to realise that you’ve just been a jerk to one of your colleagues, notice that you get angry really quickly when your child is oppositional. It might also allow you to notice that you’re actually pretty good at certain things, or that you respond well to certain types of communication. That realisation is the event that empowers you to change things.

Once you’re aware of something, you can change it for the better. This could be not being so much of a jerk next time by saying more pleasant things, or figuring out a way to sharpen that skill that you’re really good it. Awareness is the start of this process.

So how do you become more mindful? In principle, it’s quite simple. All you have to do is create a bit of space in your day to still the mind. It can be as little as five minutes. You can meditate, or just sit quietly. Making this space and quieting the mind is the condition that enables mindfulness to develop. Think of it as a preparing the ground so mindfulness can grow. Horticultural metaphors aside, stilling the mind doesn’t mean staring at the smartphone for five minutes. Resist the temptation to fill the space you have just created. As to what you do to create the space, you’ll have to find what works for you. There are loads of mindfulness exercises that you can find on google. Try a few.

I’ve always found meditation to be the method that works best for me. It’s been a practise that has endured for centuries, so I’m taking the stance that there’s quite a lot of evidence that it actually does work. I’m not so sure that the raisin meditation might be around in a hundred years or so, but you never know, some cyber-archaeologist might discover it in a century’s time.

So, be more mindful, learn more about yourself, and keep changing for the better.

The Pocket Money Lesson

JJ wanted to spend his birthday money on a Lego Minecraft set that cost £74.99.  There’s enough birthday money there as it’s been accruing for several years, but it did pose the question of what we should do now.  Let him spend it, or make him save for it?
Annie and I had a discussion that turned into a bit of an argument.  Sometimes two cultures collide in the most unexpected ways.  My wife is English and she comes from a culture of pocket money, and being allowed to spend it on anything you wanted.  I’m from Asia, and there whatever money you had, you saved.  Annie talks of the things she bought with her money, some of the unwise purchases she made as well as some of the memorable things she did, and she’s really good at assessing what she wants to buy before she does ahead and gets it.    I just remember being bummed as an 8 year old that I had been given loads of red packets full of money at Chinese New Year and all my mother would do was put all that money in the bank.  That and I always buy the cheapest thing I can.
Being allowed to spend all the money you get doesn’t always teach you good saving habits.  When you’re a kid, you’re not exactly going to think about your pension plan,  nor is the college fund a concept on your radar.  Annie’s good at saving money, but she didn’t get further than the savings account.  Investing is something that she never really learnt.
My mother had only one financial lesson, “Just save”.  It is a good lesson as I’ve become familiar with the miracle of compound interest and have a plan for investing.  However, within your lifetime, you will be forced to spend money at some point, be it on a new suit or a new roof.  Learning how to size up a purchase and assess what value you might get from it is a necessary skill.  “Just save” doesn’t teach you this, and when you couple that with always buying the cheapest thing you make a lot of mistakes.  I’ve made some horrible spending decisions from the lemon car called “Squealer” to the pager just before mobile phones took off.   I’d rather my son made spending mistakes that he can learn from as a child when he’s on a £3.50 a week allowance rather than with a £30,000 inheritance or something even bigger.
The reality is that you need a balance of both, knowing how to spend money and also how to save it.
The dilemma we had was what to do to teach this to our son.  Aged eight, he was ready to start learning about money, but the question was, what lessons did we need him to learn?  More to the point, when was the best time to learn which lesson?
We decided that the lesson that we wanted him to learn most now was the value of money.  Money is sometimes a gift, but most of the time you’re going to have to work for it, just like when you grow up.
So, we decided that we’d give him 50p for every day of good behaviour, and fine him £1 for every day of bad behaviour.  He’d get a list of chores in the house that he could get extra credit for if he did them to boost his income.  Any gifts of money he received were going to go into a savings account (and/or invested).  This way he can save for his Lego set, at a pace we get to control, and he also gets to spend on anything else he wants.  If he overspends, he’ll just have to save it all up again.
When we spoke to him about it, we stressed the fact that this was a learning experience.  Once he has developed good spending habits (we didn’t tell him when this would be) he’d be able to spend his money as he pleased.  For now, he’d have to make an effort to earn his money.  In return, once he had accrued his cash, he could spend it on anything he wanted to, so long as it wasn’t illegal or dangerous.
JJ was pretty bummed when we told him this, and he was disappointed that he couldn’t spend his birthday money on the Lego sets that he wanted.  Whilst I felt for him, I thought that the lesson he’d learn would be far more valuable in the long run than the short term pleasure I’d get from making my kid happy.  Sometimes you just gotta play the long game.

Getting Better Sleep Part 2 – The Review

Disclaimer:  This is really a nerd post, in which we go over the data collected to see if we have had any improvement.
The short version for cool people is to report that over the month, the number of screentime minutes has been reduced to zero, and that weekly restfulness scores are up, by quite a lot.  Over the month I have managed to eliminate screentime, and my sleep has benefited as a result of it.  I figured out that my discipline is lax over the weekends, and that I’m more tired on a Wednesday despite no screentime due to getting back late.
The Good News
The good news is that weekly total minutes started off at a whopping 80, and are now at a very satisfactory zero.  So far so successful.
The even better news is that the average weekly restfulness score is up to over 7.5.  This appears to be having an effect.
The Not-So-Good News
If you look at a plot of average minutes of screen time by day vs average restfulness score, you will see that the days where the minutes dip are followed by days where the restfulness score spikes.
Also my discipline is a lot more lax at the weekends.  The average number of minutes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday are much more than during the week.  I suffer for it as the weekend restfulness scores are much lower than during the week, and so is Monday’s.
Tuesday night is Taiji class, and I get back late, so even though I don’t look at a screen and go straight to bed, I don’t get as much sleep and I am not so well rested the next day.  This is  something I’m going to make a note of and come back to sometime in the future.
Adjusting the Plan
In this iteration of “Act”, I have decided to be stricter with myself at the weekends.  Willpower is a finite resource, so what I’m going to do is just switch my phone off when the bedtime timer goes off.  That way, I’ll probably not switch it back on again during the next hour as it’ll be such a hassle.

Getting Better Sleep Part 1 – The Plan

Having written about life as practise,  I thought I would show you how it works in practise, give you a worked example as it were.
I once used this idea when I wanted to improve the quality of my sleep.  The mornings would see me waking up, but not feeling well rested.  Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night and lie awake for what seemed like ages. In the morning, I’d be slow to get going, and I didn’t like feeling grumpy all the time.
So, what do you have to do to turn “Improve sleep quality” into something you can practise?
Plan – Get a list of one or two easy things you can do
Action one was that to start googling, and read some books, filtering out the repeats and discounting sources that weren’t quite good enough.  There’s a fair amount of hearsay in suggestions people make, so I decided to stick to science.  There’s been a lot of research made into sleep and how to make it better, so that’d be a great place to start.
What I’d do is make notes as I went, building up a body of knowledge on the subject.  What did I find?  Let’s start with the benefits.
The Benefits of Better Sleep
The benefits of better sleep can be summarised by the following question:
If I were to offer you a performance-enhancing drug with no side effectd that was scientifically proven to boost your learning, cognition, physical performance, emotional balance and mood, what would you do?
The (My) answer is undoubtedly yes.  Well that drug is more and better sleep.
So, the good news is that I will get a lot of other goodies in addition to feeling better rested and being less grumpy.  This is starting to look like a very good deal.
What the Research Said Would Improve My Sleep
The main points I found were:
1) No screen time before bed.  The blue light from screens acts as a signal to the brain that you need to wake up.  It’s the mechanism our body uses to get going in the mornings, so if we get exposure just before we go to bed, our body will be trying to wake us up just as we’re trying to go to sleep.
2) Temperature – the room should be between 18 and 24 degrees.  This is something that we have little control over right now, as we don’t have air conditioning, so I’m going to put this on a to-do list and work on it later.
3) Dark – This follows on from the no screen time thing.  Good news is that we already have blackout blinds installed as my wife is quite light sensitive.
4) Stilling the mind – I have something that covers this in place already.  I stretch before bedtime, to keep my back in good shape, and do a bit of meditation at just before I head up to bed.  This is already somewhat covered.
5) The bed should be comfortable – No issues here, we have a good mattress and decent pillows.  I don’t think we have an issue here.
Formulating the Plan and Metrics
The two options open were controlling the temperature, and no screen time before bedtime.  Both of these are quite actionable, and the quick win is no screen time.  I don’t have to spend any money, and it’s a very small thing that I can start doing immediately.
So, for the next week or so, I would try to not glance at my smartphone or tablet within 1 hour of bedtime.
As a rough measure of how well I was doing, I would log approximately how many minutes I’d spend looking at a screen of any description within one hour of  bedtime.  The goal was to get this number of minutes down to zero.
A second measure would be to log a restfulness score out of 10 the next morning.
The next step would be to do the plan, and see how this little action affects my life
Well, in practise it wasn’t as simple as I had thought.  The call of social media seemed to be too much for little old me to resist.  The first few days saw me peeking at my phone for up to twenty minutes at a time.  This wasn’t good, because I hadn’t realised that I’d been looking at my phone for that long just before bedtime.  No wonder I wasn’t sleeping well.
After a week I took a look at the results.
Here, we have the plot.  It’s only a week’s worth of data, and I won’t make a firm conclusion, but there is a tendency to have better scores on restfulness after an evening of no minutes on the screen.
On day 3 I had no minutes and the following day I had a restfulness score spike.
On day 6 I had 20 minutes on screen and the following day I had a restfulness score plummet.
The conclusion after a week – I’m rubbish at limiting screen time, there is some evidence that I will get better sleep if I am successful.
Time to press on a figure out what I’m going to do to improve
What I wanted to find were small things that I could do that would help me limit my screen time.
One easy thing to do was to put a screensaver ony phone saying “No screen time after 9pm”.
I’d also put an alarm that went off at 9pm, and this would serve as a signal to me to stop doing whatever I was doing and start winding down to bedtime, pack my bags for the next day and also start the stretch routine.
Now that a suitable action plan was in place I’d monitor this and review after a month to see how things were going.

Life As Practise

When I was seven, I asked my mother, “How can I get better at life?”
It seemed like a sensible question at the time because, as it felt like everything I did was wrong.  Mum laughed.
“Life is something that happens to you,” she said.
 She was right of course, as mums often are, there are events in life that you have absolutely no control over.  However,  there are little things in our every day that we could probably do something to make our lives easier.
We spend our lives doing broadly similar things, our jobs don’t tend to vary considerably from day to day, and we often only try to improve on the big things in our life, our skills, our job or our relationships.
What if we looked at our life as a practise?
What if you made a commitment to keep improving small aspects of your life, day after day?  You’d make small changes every day.  Over time, enough small changes will add up and deliver something of tangible value.  In fact, the Japanese already have a term for it.  They call it Kaizen, and they’ve been using it in industry for ages.  It’s a concept that allows you to make your life something that you can practise and get better at.
So how can we Kaizen our life?
Find Something You Want To Improve
Take a couple of minutes to make a list of things that you could do better.  This can be anything, big or small,  from losing some weight, getting more exercise, getting better sleep or even brushing your teeth more thoroughly.
What’s important is that you have to believe that it’ll add value to your life.
We are going to make a commitment to make it a little bit better every day.
Now, we can apply the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle to help us implement the change and more importantly, practise it.
Plan – Pick one simple thing to do
Pick one thing on your list and find a small action you can work on to effect that change.  If you’re not sure what to do, go do some research and you’ll probably find loads of things that you can do.
The most important thing here is that the action is small, simple and doable.  You must feel, psychologically that you can do that action.  For instance, “Set foot to the gym” is a lot easier to do than “Lose 20 pounds”.  Set your expectations low, and look for the smallest action you can take that will take you in the right direction.
For example, just setting foot in the gym, without any expectation to work out seems like a really small and silly thing to do.  Small and silly has power though.  Once you get to the gym, you might find yourself thinking that you might as well work out.  You’re there already right?  Before you know it, it’ll have cascaded into a regular workout habit, so don’t underestimate the power of small things.
Once you have your little action, if you can, see if you can find a metric for it, e.g. number of times you set foot in a gym, or number of times you glance at your smartphone before bedtime.
Remember, you want to make this as easy as possible to do.
Do what you’ve planned
Over the next few days, consciously try to do that action whenever possible.   Try to get into the habit of it.  You’ll need to repeat it a certain number of times before it sticks.  Whilst the number of reps is different for each person, it’s the consistency that will eventually make the new habit stick.
Don’t be afraid to fail at this point. Sometimes habits are harder to change than you might think.  What matters is that you keep trying, and not down, without judging anything that gets in your way, or conspires against you.
Check it
After a convenient period of time (a week is good), review the feedback you have for yourself.  What makes you do the action?  What makes you not do the action?  Is there any pattern to it?
Come to a new awareness of your habits and of how you both help and hinder yourself.
You can do this with intuition and gut feel if you like, but I find that hard data usually works better.  You can’t argue with properly constructed metrics.
The important thing at this point is not to judge yourself.  Your habits are what they are, and by giving yourself the awareness of what they are, you empower yourself to change them.
Act on it
You’d made the plan, you’ve done the little action, you’ve checked it and now you need to figure out what you can do to help yourself do that action whenever you need to.  For instance, if you’re always late to the gym, put in an alarm on your phone to remind you to go.  You should be able to come up with a few small, and achievable things that you can do to help you progress just a little bit every day.
Once you’ve done this, keep going, just keep at it until you feel that you’ve turned this little action into habit, and no longer need to monitor yourself.  You can then move onto something else and do this all over again.  Keep it up for long enough and you’ll eventually find that these little bits all add up, and you’ll have achieved something of real value.