Hi. My name is Eran and I’m a software consultant since I can remember myself. But this blog is not about me. It’s about something I care deeply about and want to share my experience of with you.
This blog is about how I’m endeavouring to optimise my life. Hopefully some of my experiences will apply to your life as well.
So, what do I mean by optimising my life? Quite a few things, really. I mean automating menial tasks so that I don’t have to spend time and the cognitive drain that ensues. I mean improving my experience when menial tasks are unavoidable. I also mean improving myself so that I can do things better, both at work and at home.
Now, these will be my personal experiences I’ll be sharing with you. I don’t believe there’s a one-fits-all solution to our daily problems. I’m hopeful some of my advice will be relevant to yours. If any of it is – I’ve achieved my goal.
In Part 1, I discussed the fundamentals of being a contractor in the UK. In this post, I will cover some aspects of an (outside IR35) contractor’s finances. This should also shed light on why you can’t make a direct comparison between a contractor’s rate and an employee’s salary.
Over the course of the years, I picked up a lot of profitable tips for contractors. I have not yet found one central place that lists them. And so, hopefully this post will prove useful.
I must emphasise that I am not an accountant and not a tax consultant, and you might want to speak to one to discuss your own circumstances.
With the legal bit out of the way, here are a few things you should do if you’re a contractor:
Withdraw only what you need
Withdraw as much money as you need from the company to cover your day to day expenses and to top up your ISA, but no more. Your accountant could help you efficiently split your withdrawal between your salary and dividends.
There are two reasons for this advice:
The lower your income, the less tax you have to pay.
Money left in the company can be invested without paying any additional taxes that you would have to pay when withdrawing the money. You could, for example, lend it to another company of yours that invests in real estate. Or, you could put it into a savings account.
It stays in the family
Is your spouse working? If not, can they help you with your business? If so, add them to the company as directors. They can then withdraw a salary and increase your effective tax allowance. They can also own shares in the company, allowing them to withdraw dividends. There are other benefits to having them as employees of the company, as we’ll see next.
Take care of your employees
Your company has at least one employee, and that’s you. Your spouse may also be an employee. Employees are entitled to some perks from the company. Categorised under staff welfare, you can buy each employee a £50 gift card every other month. I have a reminder in my calendar to do this every other month. Follow the link to make sure you get this right.
It’s party time
Another tax benefit a contractor has is an allowance for an annual event. The amount is £150 per person (so, if you and your spouse are the only employees of the company, your budget is £300). As with all other allowances, read the fine print. You can split the budget into two events, so long as you hold them regularly. A restaurant or a hotel would be good – so long as you don’t exceed the budget by even a penny.
In case of emergency
If you find yourself in a tight spot financially, and have kept money in the company, you can withdraw it as a director’s loan. While you will hopefully not need this, it’s good to know the option exists.
Leveraging your position as a contractor can prove incredibly profitable. Make sure you know your rights. With the benefits mentioned above, you can end up earning considerably more than the equivalent permanent employee in the long run. Speak to your accountant.
Do you know of any other smart financial moves a contractor could make? Let me know!
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I lost £50. I then got them back. Here’s how it happened.
I bought a product from AliExpress for £50. I bought it with confidence, because the product page clearly stated they offered free returns. I then received a faulty product. Of course, I immediately took pictures and reached out to AliExpress.
Initially, I had to deal with the seller directly. They offered no refund whatsoever. I kept trying to negotiate for days, but they would not budge.
It was then that AliExpress intervened. They said the shipping back would be too pricey and offered me a £10 refund. For a faulty £50 product. I declined their offer, but they repeated the exact same offer twice more.
Just when I was about to lose hope, I remembered I paid for the product with my American Express.
I found the transaction on the website, and raised a dispute. I uploaded screenshots of my communication with AliExpress and the product page offering free returns. I also uploaded pictures of the faulty product, just in case.
American Express issued a refund the same day, while they started their investigation. The next day, they confirmed my dispute was found to be valid and the issue was closed. I got my money back in full. What a relief!
Disputing the charge not only saved me money but also gave me peace of mind knowing that I wasn’t going to be stuck with a product that was not usable. If you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t hesitate to dispute the charge with your credit card company. It’s a simple and effective way to protect yourself and your money.
We recently had our lovely elderly neighbours over for dinner. It was then I introduced them to our Google Home.
“What an incredible invention”, the husband said. “If I had this Google thing when I was a kid, I’d never stop asking it questions. I could have learned so much”.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him what we did with all this knowledge that’s so readily available.
But it also got me thinking. Whether it’s Google Home, Alexa or Siri – if I used my assistant to learn something new every day, I’d keep improving every day. That’s an amazing notion. I’m going to give it a go. I really hope I’ll be able to stick to it.
It’s been a while since I last published a post. In the meantime, my wife an I bought our first house. Buying a house was a major educational experience for us. I will probably dedicate a few posts to the lessons we learned.
The first, overwhelming lesson was how hard it was to find good tradesmen. From cleaners, to internal designers, builders, decorators or electricians – we failed on all fronts. Every single tradesperson was an utter disappointment.
The worst thing for us was there was no lesson we could learn: every tradesperson we spoke to had good recommendations and sounded highly professional. Yet, one after the other, they let us down. Some wouldn’t turn up to the first meeting booked for evaluation. Others would turn up, only to never be heard from again. Those that did get back to us with a quote ended up doing such a terrible job we had to hire someone else to fix their mistakes.
Renovating our kitchen and living room, which should not have even taken a month, ended up taking over four months. We’ve spoken to friends from around the world since, and it seems their experience was similar – although not quite as terrible as ours.
We did end up with a couple of take-aways from our experience:
Never pay the full amount until the work is absolutely done. Any loose ends you expect to be tied after the last payment is made are likely to remain unattended.
Keep a list of the best tradesmen you’ve worked with. This list will prove priceless. Finding good tradesmen is hard. Don’t make yourself go through that pain a second time if you can avoid it.
What are your secrets for finding good tradesmen? And why are there so many incompetent ones? I’m looking forward to hearing about your experience!
After a period of not posting, I am very pleased to present this post. For those of us who tend to forget things, nothing beats a good list. And so, without further ado, I present to you the most exhaustive list of lists you could find anywhere, written by the master of lists himself, Sakis Kaliakoudas.
I’ve always had trouble remembering things: I would go to the supermarket to buy a couple of things but end up forgetting an item, or I would tell someone that I would do something and then not remember to actually do it. The most annoying of all probably was forgetting something when preparing for a trip. I thought that maybe I wasn’t focusing/paying as much attention as I should or that some people have a better memory than others, and I was doomed to continue like this for the rest of my life.
What has it done for me? Well, three things come to mind:
A guarantee that as long as I structure my life around lists, I will never forget anything.
I am offloading information from my brain to a list (which can be a piece of paper or some software), meaning that there is “more space” in my brain for the important stuff.
A consequence of the second point is that I feel substantially less stressed, as I don’t have to worry all the time about possibly having forgotten something. I trust the system that I’ve built instead.
Hopefully, this list helps you the next time you are travelling. It has undoubtedly helped me 🙂 The list didn’t start this big, but over time I keep adding things to it, making it harder and harder for me to be surprised about something missing during a trip!
My travel preparation list lives in Evernote, and then I duplicate it so that I can delete things as I go through them. To speed things up, I initially pack/prepare everything without using the list, and then I check the list, in the end, to see what I have missed. Doing it the other way around (checking the list one entry at a time and putting it in your suitcase/actioning it) takes substantially more time)
Shut off the main water pipe (a few friends returned to find their flat flooded, so I decided to start doing this)
Take trash out
Empty fridge from things that are expiring
If you are leaving the flat for longer than a week then you need to shut down the reverse osmosis water filter and place the filters in the fridge (this is a recommendation from the manufacturer so that bacteria don’t grow in them!)
Glasses + case
Sunglasses + case
Glass cleaning cloth
Travel sleep mask
Travel sleep pillow
Earplugs (I actually have some always with me in my key chain. We go to quite a few concerts/music festivals throughout the year, and I really don’t want to get Tinnitus)
Make sure that Revolut is topped up (I had a case where I happened to be abroad without internet, and I couldn’t use my card)
Some cash in the currency of the destination country I am going to.
Separate emergency cash with me, in both the currency of destination and British pounds (I live in the UK)
Check-in for the flight
Download podcasts and audiobooks to be available offline (the last thing you want to do is to get stuck on a flight with nothing to do!)
Open some tabs on Google Chrome on my laptop with articles I want to read during the trip before I lose internet connectivity.
Set an alarm clock to go off at the time the flight departs, to remind me to set my phone on airplane mode (This is an interesting one: I used to forget to put my phone on airplane mode most of the time, and my phone once picked up network signal from a random country local network provider as I was flying above it. Then all the apps started syncing, and I got charged roaming charges.)
Set an alarm clock to go off when the flight arrives at the destination, to remind me to tell my mom that I’ve landed! (My mom gets a bit worried when I travel and she likes it when I keep her in the loop ❤️, so why not, only takes a minute!)
Check for train travel disruption going to the airport and back. (This has only happened once: I booked a return train ticket to the airport and back, but trains weren’t running on the day of my return. Now I check for any possible service disruption before booking)
Clear browser cookies (I might be presenting on the laptop, and I prefer if it’s in a clean state)
Need any software artifacts? Get them or build them locally from a clean build. (Sometimes, you might be unable to produce these artifacts when you get there. e.g. VPN issues)
A hard copy of any books I want to bring with me. Also, bring a pen to highlight things and add notes to the book. (I usually stick to Audible audiobooks, but from time to time I do carry some real books)
750ML water bottle (These days, I pay a lot of attention to making sure I stay hydrated while travelling)
Put my phone on focus mode during my holidays and enjoy my time with friends or family without any random interruptions! (Referring to this focus mode, which I’ve been using for a while to minimise notifications while working. In the last few months, I started experimenting with using it during my holidays to take a break from my phone and engage more with the people I am travelling with!)
Is your trip special in any way? Spend a few minutes to think about anything extra that you might need.
Please remember that this is only the beginning. The power of lists doesn’t stop here. You can create lists for anything in your life to help de-clutter your mind and get more organised!
For anyone interested in digging a bit deeper, some recommendations:
Companies rise and fall. Nothing is forever. This isn’t a cliché. The largest companies in the world gave way to other companies. Giants have gone bankrupt. It’s a fact of life.
What I find extremely frustrating is when great companies fall over easily foreseeable errors. When the red flags were waving, the alarm bells went off, people were waving their hands in the air to warn of the imminent crash, yet the ship kept on straight into the glacier.
An amazing book was published in 1975. That is over 45 years ago now. Every professional heard of it. Not as many read it, I am sure. It is called The Mythical Man-Month.
The Mythical Man-Month explains in painfully simple detail why throwing more bodies at the problem won’t solve it. How faced with an unrealistic deadline you are bound to fail. How scope and deadlines should be managed, not the workforce.
The idea is simple: hiring incurs overhead. From interviewing to onboarding, you spend your existing workforce on tasks that don’t get you any closer to delivery. Then, you start paying the real price: the communication matrix becomes so complex that even critical information gets lost. More people also means more resources – whether it’s money, space, computation power or support.
Before you know it, you’ve thrown money at the problem like there’s no tomorrow and are still no closer to meeting your goals. The board of directors is fuming. The investors are furious. Where has all the money gone? Why hasn’t the company delivered on time?
I am writing this in 2022. If you’re reading this and it sounds familiar, please, please get a copy of The Mythical Man-Month and read it. Then get everyone around you to read it. Let’s not make the same mistake again. Not over 45 years after we’ve learned better…
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It is with great pleasure I bring to you my first guest post.
This one was written by Igor Wojda. Igor is a Senior Android Developer I’ve had the opportunity to discuss this blog with. We started discussing life optimisations, and he shared with me a recent optimisation he made to his life. I am now in the process of adopting it myself. Igor was kind enough to suggest writing the post below. I hope you find it as useful as I did!
Friday evening, it’s 5 o’clock and I finally closed my gray Apple laptop lid. I made it to the weekend! Right? Time to start relaxing, right? No… The nagging voice in my head objects: “I am busy…I don’t have time to go out! Friends? How will they help you get through that to-do list? So many urgent things need my attention…”. And then, on top of that… think about all that “life-related stuff” I have to do before my life turns to chaos. This was the moment I realized that I needed to change something, I needed to claw back my time, I needed to stop doing things, or at least get a handle on things…
Should I be doing all these things?
At some point in my life, I have realized that there are things I like to do and things that I have to do. I have also realized that some things provide (usually long-term) value in my life, while others are just a waste of my time.
Working on personal projects or reading personal development books excites me (I like it) and allows me to learn (provides value). However buying groceries or throwing away garbage is on the other side of the spectrum – I have to do it, but it is simply so that the more worthwhile activities can be enabled and these things don’t really provide (much) value. These things simply must be done.
The above examples are from my life, but you will easily recall your own. Consider these 4 zones:
I like to do (internal drive)
I have to do (external drive)
1 YOU WANT TO BE HERE
Does not provide value(or provides minimal value)
4 AVOID IT
It’s best to do only things from zone 1, avoid things from zone 4 and keep zones 2/3 optional – you may do it, but you may choose not to. There is very little point in doing things that you have to and provide zero value. The only exceptions are the tasks that are impossible or hard to delegate.
It is important not to confuse doing things you have to do yourself, with things that have to be done. Don’t get me wrong, I can do the things that do not provide value. I just choose not to do them anymore. I have better things to do. I have many things that excite me and that I am eager to do. I need some time to live and work meaningfully!
Losing precious time, by doing “nothing”
Many of us have this unfortunate tendency to underestimate the length and complexity of tasks. Look at these tasks – wrap a present for your friend – 10 minutes, buy groceries – 15 minutes, pick mail from the office – 25 minutes, fix a bike – 2 hours – … every single one of these tasks looks easy in isolation. If you calculate all of the above tasks then all you need is 2 hours and 50 minutes to make all of this happen (in theory). It is quite easy to fool yourself and get the false impression that these tasks will not eat more of your time
In practice, every one of these tasks may have a different twist that is not always obvious upfront. It may be an upstream dependency (to wrap a gift you have to buy the paper), constraint (grocery shop is now closed), multiple interactions separated over time (call a bike repair shop, schedule the visit, drop a bike for repair, pickup bike later), may have unexpected side effects (bike was not fully fixed), may involve waiting time (bike is being repaired) or involve asynchronous interactions (send multiple email messages to agree on something). It is quite easy to be overwhelmed by all of this and lose productivity especially when you are dealing with many tasks in parallel.
Every one of these tasks is simple in isolation, but when you consider these hidden aspects and combine all of them together, then you will realize that they may be eating up a much bigger chunk of your precious time and drain your cognitive battery.
Can someone help me?
The above realization blew my mind – I have to delegate tasks or I will not be able to keep my own pace. At this time in my mind, a personal assistant was a person reserved for rich people and leaders and mostly within the work/business context (wrong mindset). After all, none of my close friends hired one and none of my friends even considered this option, so I had no one close to discuss this solution with. This was something outside of my comfort zone and I had many internal objections:
It will take me a long time to find such a person
I will not have enough work to delegate
It will be expensive
No one will want to work for only for few hours a week
No one will want to work an undefined number of hours
People will not want to do these simple tasks
Do I really want to spend money?
What will my family and friends think about this?
How to pull this off
I have decided to look for help – take advantage of my salary and payback to regain some of my precious time back.
The first step was to define the needs and decide what I wanted to delegate.
The first step was to review all of the tasks I was dealing with. I made a list of things I could delegate and over the next few days I was reviewing all of the ongoing tasks carefully, asking myself a single question: “would it be possible for someone to do it for me?”. After a few days, I have drafted a list of tasks that I could potentially delegate:
Pick a package from an automated post terminal
Help me unpack boxes (I was moving in)
Buy stuff from a physical store
Check my mailbox
Fill up my car with petrol
Repair the bike
Value is defined at a personal level, so everyone will have a different list, different hierarchy, different things on this list – for me the top things are learning new things, becoming a better person, and experiencing positive vibes. I am sure you can craft your own list.
I realized that most of the tasks I had on the list required interactions with and visits to my flat. This meant that a remote personal assistant was not an option for me. I needed someone who lived nearby, someone who would be there when needed without any commute hassle. I also realized that most of the tasks were not day/time specific – they just needed to be completed anytime within the next few days. Flexible work time would be a pro for a personal assistant.
I did some quick research, set a budget, and wrote an advertisement:
Hey neighbors. Recently I have had a lot of work and I would like to focus on my career because I have an amazing opportunity to follow. I am looking for someone who could help me with daily things for a few hours a week (groceries, picking packages, etc.). If someone has free time and wants an extra job please let me know (in a private message). Work time is quite flexible. I am looking for an honest, reliable, self-sufficient person who lives nearby. Cheers
Notice that I mention only two simple tasks. The goal here was to communicate that these things can be done by anyone who wants to work. I decided to provide more details later. No salary info as well (this is culture/country-specific) – I wanted to attract a person who wants to work. My mindset was that if a person really wants the job and I really like the person we will likely reach an agreement.
Two days later I got the message from the first candidate…
Making sure that work will go smoothly
We scheduled a chat (informal interview) for the next day in a pizza place next to our building. As with every interview the goal was to verify if this is the right person for this job.
I have explained to her my current situation, so she could have a better understanding of my needs. I gave her more examples, discussed them in more detail, and asked her if she would be able to help me with each one. Quite quickly I realized that this is the right person. We have quickly aligned on her availability, skills, salary expectations, workflows, and communication channels and decided to do a 3 months trial run.
To make sure our interactions would go smoothly I decided to use very simple tools:
A shared Google sheet to keep track of work time (task/time/desc columns).
Todoist app to delegate the tasks
We are doing this
I was quickly able to delegate some tasks like getting groceries, switching the electricity provider, or getting something from a remote store (fortunately my personal assistant has a driving license and owns a car).
I have noticed that many (flow breaking) interactions were required and I had to be in my flat. This was not good enough for me. I wanted to mentally “forget” about these delegated tasks.
I have decided that we should focus on the result and keep these tasks happening silently in the background with as few interactions between us as possible. Ideally, there should be only two interactions – the first where I explain what the desired state is (personally or by adding a task to the todo app), and the second when I was being informed that the task was completed. Some tasks still require decisions to be made, but I am trying to predict them and communicate upfront to mitigate unwanted interactions.
To move things two levels up I have decided to give my personal assistant keys to my flat and a bank card (with a reasonable limit). This is where the honesty trait plays an important role. These two changes have enabled additional, previously impossible workflows:
Each day my personal assistant checks if there are packages to be picked up from the automated post terminal. If packages are there they will be picked, unwrapped, packaging will be thrown away and the package content will be waiting for me at my kitchen table. One day I am buying something online, another day it “magically” appears at my kitchen table – this beats the Amazon 1-Click Ordering 😉
The personal assistant can come to my place, grab the car keys, fill up my car with gasoline, wash my car, and put the keys back (fortunately in Poland insurance is issued just for the car, not for individual drivers)
I asked my personal assistant to take care of my flat, so she empties the garbage and occasionally deals with things like unpacking the dishwasher or cleaning a glass – all of these simple things that may be out of place (I have a cleaner, so the flat is usually in order).
I have bought a new bed, so my personal assistant was responsible for the whole assembly process. She found the assembly crew, scheduled the assembly, was keeping an eye on them, made sure packaging was thrown away, and withdrew cash from the ATM to pay for the service. On top of that, she made the bed (without me even asking or knowing) and moved the laundry from the washing machine to the drying machine.
The personal assistant has nicely wrapped all of my presents before Christmas.
Many of the above tasks just “magically” happened while I was working with my noise-canceling headphones in my room behind closed doors.
Few other aspects to consider
Some of these tasks like dealing with laundry are quite personal in nature, so I am making sure that the personal assistant does only the stuff she is comfortable with. This is new to me, so I am still figuring out where this should work and where these boundaries are.
I am always teaching her that mistakes are a natural element of the learning process, so she should be making some decisions by herself. For me, it usually means that she may work more when a bad call is made, but I am 100% fine with paying for more hours of her time. Over time she is learning and she is getting a much better understanding of my needs, even predicting some things ahead.
Time-wise she works 20-30 hours a month for me, so this is much less time (and money) than I had initially anticipated. This “extra” time helps me to have a better work-life balance and boost my mental health.
Finding a pay rate was a bit tricky because this is not a common job. I decided to use remote personal assistant rates as a reference. This was just a guideline. My goal was to do a 3 months trial run, so my initial budget was higher, but I knew what a reasonable rate was. In the end, the personal assistant has proposed the hourly rate – it was the same rate I had in mind.
My friends are fully supportive of this idea, yet very curious. They are mostly asking what exactly is she doing for me? At first, I was saying that she is doing all of the things I don’t want to do but got a bit of a negative vibe, so now I am communicating that she is helping me with daily things because I want to focus on my career and learning (I am keeping it simple, no value & drive lectures). My friends also often ask how much am I paying her. My brother’s wife said that she was already doing all of these things for my brother and now my brother has to pay her for last the 10 years of her service 😂 Some of my friends want to know “how did I found her”, but you already know this.
Hiring a personal assistant was a successful experiment that had a significant, positive impact on my life. Most of the obstacles I had in my head turned out to be imaginary.
By using delegation I have a clearer head and can spend more time on the things I like to do. I already crossed a few things from the “I will do it one-day” list. At the same time, I have a feeling that everything that should be done is done. This is priceless.
Just to be clear, having a personal assistant does not mean that I have a few hours free a day…I am still busy, but I am busy with things I like doing and I am busy because I choose to be, not because I have to.
Whatever your line of work, I’m sure you noticed companies constantly want to earn more. The intuitive way to earn more is to work faster. Produce more in less time, and you earn more for the same time window, right?
As a contractor, I’ve worked with many companies of varying sizes. From start-ups to scale-ups to international corporates, I’ve worked with them all. One thing most of them had in common is they bought into the Agile promise.
The problem is, the name chosen for Agile is unfortunate. It has nothing to do with agility. And so, when companies adopt it, they buy into a fallacy. Agile isn’t about moving faster at all.
To fully understand what Agile was all about, I went to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. In his book, Clean Agile, Robert C. Martin (Uncle Bob), one of the people behind the Agile Manifesto, takes us back to when a group of passionate software engineers came up with the idea of Agile.
I strongly recommend picking up the book, as it’s a great read. There’s no point in me repeating everything already written there. I will say this, though: every company I’ve worked with that adopted Agile – was doing it wrong.
The key idea behind Agile is predictability. It’s not about delivering as much as one can in a sprint. It’s about producing high quality code over time. The higher the quality, the easier it becomes to maintain the same pace over time. This is invaluable for the business, because it can now plan forward.
Predictability also improves trust and respect between the Agile team and the rest of the business. Estimates mean something, and promises are consistently kept.
To achieve high quality, Agile advocates for some methodologies. I have to say, I’ve not seen those adopted by those same companies who think they adopted Agile. I don’t see enough pair programming, or I see too much pair programming (ahem, I’m looking at you, unnamed car manufacturing company).
I don’t see test driven development (TDD) followed at all. The common excuse is that the implementation is temporary. Of course it is. That is the nature of software. Surely this can’t be an argument against writing tests that will evolve with the code. This usually suggests the mindset is of tests being second-class citizens.
Not following core Agile ideas leads to lower quality code. Combined with a misunderstanding of what Agile is and what it’s there for this leads to unpredictable results. The business looks at these results, and declares the Agile experiment a failure. Everyone loses.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but Agile is not about moving quickly, despite its name. This does not mean it’s not valuable. It’s just different value from what you’d expect.
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If there’s one thing I could probably never get enough of it is good books.
Since I got my Kindle, I stopped buying paper books. I have gone full digital. There are many advantages to digital books. Being free is not one of them.
Imagine my joy when I found a way to get bundles of excellent books for a great price and give to charity while at it.
If you aren’t familiar with the proposition, I am referring to HumbleBundle.com. HumbleBundle offers regularly changing bundles of books (as well as apps, games and other digital content) for a fraction of the market price of their contents. Not only that, but a portion of your payment goes to charity. How great is that?
I got plenty of my technical books that way. HumbleBundle exposed me to topics, writers and publishers I had no earlier exposure to.
If you read E-books, I urge you to pay HumbleBundle a visit. There’s something for everyone there.
I mean, giving should be a reward in its own right, I know. But getting something extra back isn’t bad!