SECOND SECRET OF TIME MANAGEMENT

Diaries are meant to be an aid to help us all manage our time allocations but in most cases are rarely used in a way that actually helps people to really achieve this.

Man using electronic diary

The problem is that most people use diaries mainly as a means of giving other people access to tying up the available time. For example, when I was working at SAP, by the time I had diarised the requirements of things like board meetings, executive meetings, regional reviews, country visits, budgeting sessions, sales meetings, direct report weekly one-on-ones, mentoring sessions, customer conferences and speaking engagements about 70% of my available time was already allocated by the time the year started. The 30% that was left was quickly eroded by ad-hoc meetings, emergencies and a myriad of other reasons why people just had to see me.

Close up view of a diary open

If one of the critical success factors of competent managers is to spend time planning and building the future, then there was not a lot of time available to do this. Most studies have shown that very few executives spend more than about 10% of their time planning, and actually spend most of their time in meetings, “fire fighting” and handling emails and correspondence.

Businessman juggling clocks

So how is an executive meant to be able to find the time to plan and the time to actually complete the “A-level” items on his priority list (see First Secret of Time Management posted September 23, 2010)?

I have found that one key way to help achieve this is to make appointments with yourself, in the same way that you would make appointments for other people, and to treat these with the same level of priority and importance. You have to make sure that your assistant understands why this is important. I used to always tell my PAs that they had to give these times the same level of priority for non-disturbance as if I was with one of my direct reports doing a formal performance review, which meant that unless the building was burning down I did not want to be disturbed. My PA was not to say that “I was on my own”, as that is an immediate invitation for a knock on the door, only that “I couldn’t be disturbed” and to then either schedule an appointment or to take a message for me to call back when I was free.

These “private-times” need only be as little as an hour each, but it is important that you do not allow interruptions as these can destroy any creative train of thought, and planning requires both thought and creativity. If you don’t have a PA or are in an open-plan cubicle, book a meeting room or go and sit in the park, and turn off your portable. I have found that it is better to schedule these daily private-times early in the morning when your mind is fresh and there is also less chance of interruption. If you leave it to later in the day there is a good chance that circumstances will overtake you, and you will end up having to surrender them to address some “emergency”, but I also understand that this is not always possible. I always set these daily ones at 8.00-9,00 am each day, before most people came into the office, before the normal day’s frenzy had begun, and before most scheduled meetings. Travel permitting, I would try and schedule an hour per day, an extra 3 hour session per week, and also a day per month out of the office, giving me about 10 hours of uninterrupted, jealously-guarded, personal time per week. Not a great amount to take out of a 50+ hour working week, but precious and productive if used properly. You should also try and schedule these before you start looking at emails, as these have a way of taking over your attention and activities, and are also just another distraction from your focus on those tasks that are critical for your own role, its responsibilities and your own success.

I know of people who receive, and handle, over 200 emails per day, leaving very little time to actually do very much else, and who probably go home at night content in the thought that they have achieved a lot in their day.
The challenge is to be able to differentiate between the important and the urgent. The urgent will always be there, but if you don’t make time for the important, it just won’t get done.

It is important to remember that “When you are up to your arse in alligators, it is hard to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp”.

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VIVE L’AVANTAGE

On September 7th and 23rd 2010 French workers staged nationwide strikes against the government’s plans to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62 (most developed countries are already at 65 or 67, see ”Vive La France” posted June 25, 2010). The French Left claim that these were the biggest strikes since the 2003 “manifestations”, also against pension reform, when about 2.5 million took to the streets in 220 different demonstrations throughout France. More strikes are planned throughout the rest of 2010.

It is claimed that most people in France oppose the governments pension proposal as they say that “… a decent pension is a right for older workers, and a way to open jobs and careers for younger workers …”.(Workers World September 17, 2010).

But is this really what it is all about?

I have a belief that this opposition to the pension reforms (which are quite minimal) have really very little to do with these stated altruistic reasons.

I believe that the real reasons have more to do with what the French call “l’avantage” (advantage).

I do not believe that the majority of people in France are so incredibly concerned with having the official retirement age increased by an additional 2 years, as today very few actually work till 60 anyway, the majority retiring closer to 55 than to 60. In France only 51% of workers are still employed at 55-59 (69% in UK) and only 12% at 60-65 (40% in UK). (Source: OECD Pensions at a glance 2005, HRS, ELSA and SHARE)

I believe that the problem is that in a socialist state, people worry more about whether someone else is getting some advantage that they are not, rather than about what the true effect of any change actually means to them personally. The problem is that everyone in France knows of people who were able to retire under a pension system that was theoretically based on having to work 2 years less than is now proposed, and that means that these people have gained an advantage over those that have not yet retired.

The fact that conditions have changed dramatically over the last 50 years, (with life expectancy having risen by 12 years in that time) and that the 60 year retirement age was initially set back in 1982, is irrelevant to the strikers.

The evident reality that the current pension conditions are unsustainable financially (also true with retirement at 62) is also irrelevant to them. French Labour Minister Eric Woerth said “If we don’t modify our pension plan, then tomorrow there will be no money left to pay the French pensions”.

The only relevancy to the strikers is that Jacques will now, in theory, have to work 2 more years than did Pierre his slightly older friend, and that this advantage is unacceptable in France.

The maths is simple.

If the average true retirement age in France is about 55, and if the life expectancy for those who actually do reach retirement age is about 85 (remembering that the overall average life expectancy of 80 in France includes those that die before 55), then this means that the length of work and the length of retirement are now almost the same.

There is no taxation system in the world that can support this, no matter how much you “Soak the Rich” (Socialist Manifesto in French National Elections in 2007), particularly as the rich are mainly the ones who are retiring, and who are leaving the country for tax havens like Mauritius and Andorra in increasing numbers when they do so, to escape the current tax system.

This whole culture of “l’avantage” doesn’t just apply to the retirement age. It is the same attitude that drives the habit of denouncements in France, where neighbours inform on each other to the authorities when one believes that the other is benefiting somehow in a way that he is not. It includes situations where someone burns their garden rubbish pile on September 14th, one day before the legal date, and the fire brigade is summonsed by a neighbour even though it is raining that day, or the water board is advised that someone is hand watering some plants when water restrictions have been imposed, even though the water is being pumped from an underground spring and is not coming from the mains supply.

The problem with this attitude is that it is based on trying to pull everyone down to the lowest common level possible, French wealth tax being another such instrument. Countries that are more successful are those, like Singapore, that understand that for the betterment of all their people it is ultimately more sensible to try and raise everyone’s standards as high as possible.

I do strongly believe that it is the responsibility of every country to look after those that have no real ability to look after themselves, but not those that just want to be looked after by the state because they can’t be bothered working any longer.

The right to work is a privilege, as many people unfortunately are discovering in these new economic realities, rather than something that you discard just to get your “turn at the trough”.

FIRST SECRET OF TIME MANAGEMENT

Can anyone really manage time?

We all get allocated exactly the same amount, just 24 hours per day, and yet some people never seem to have enough time and always have a growing mountain of undone tasks, and others seem to be able to do an incredible amount in the same period, and rarely fall behind.

I believe that it is obvious that we can’t actually manage time per se, but we can all definitely manage the events that take up our time..

We have always been taught that to be successful, one of the first things that we should do regularly is to take our “To Do List” and categorize it by importance into A,B,C tasks, and that we should not do the Bs until all the As have been done and so on. I believe that in managing how to effectively use our time, this is definitely not the starting point.

The critical starting point is to look at whether the task should be on the “do list” in the first place and, particularly for those in management roles, whether it should be allocated to someone else or whether it should be done at all.

For example, over most of my working life, I had a basket on my desk marked “PRORITY” in very large letters.

Whenever I got a request from above or from a peer requiring significant work by me or my people, usually having to provide some mountain of statistics on my part of the organisation to someone in some vague part of the matrix, I would always ask myself whether, by completing this task, I would be adding serious value to the organisation. Would this task somehow enhance critical elements such as revenues, profits, competitiveness, customer or staff satisfaction? If the answer was a resounding “no” to all of them, I would place it in this priority basket strategically placed in a prominent position on my desk. If the requestor then stuck his head in my office to ask me where I was with his request, I would show him that it was in my priority pile and that I would get to it as soon as I could get out from under the mountain of other tasks that had even more priority. This would normally satisfy him long enough for his departure, usually pleased with the fact that his request was considered critical.

Metal tray filled in documents

I would then ask myself the same questions as I had originally, as to what would be the value to the organisation if I now spent the time to complete this task. If the answer was still “none at all”, it would go back in the priority basket. If the request had come from my direct supervisor, or above, after about three requests or a serious demand, I would actually allocate the time to do it. However, most of the time, it simply just went away.

I am not advocating open anarchy in the corporate environment, but am just illustrating an example of what I mean about our ability and responsibility to “manage events”. I have found over the years, and particularly in a matrix-obsessed structure, that there are many people who justify their existence simply by asking others to provide multiple variations of metrics in the organisation. These can create an incredible amount of work for many, but do very little to actually deliver any benefit to anyone except for helping build the perceived importance of the requestor. I have found that many times these requests are just based on an incompetent’s need for some visible activity, and like a bad case of wind, will just pass with time.

The skill in effectively managing ones use of available time is in allocating priorities, but only after deciding whether the tasks should be done at all, and if so, then by whom.
Too many managers, particularly if vocationally brilliant, will pick up difficult tasks or problems from their subordinates, just to show the world that they still have the vocational skills.
This then creates a situation where the subordinate can now take management control by being able to ask his manager for progress reports, removes an important learning opportunity for the subordinate, and takes up time that the manager should be using to run his business. I once worked with a senior head of development, with responsibility for about 5000 people, who often took on the task of debugging a piece of software that one of the programmers had been struggling with, and he considered this as being a reasonable way to spend his time.

The best (and most amusing) book I have read on this subject was “Managing Management Time” written in about 1960 by William Oncken, Jr (1912-1988), and I have always recommended this book as one of the most illuminating on this subject. Even after 50 years, I still consider this book a must read for anyone in a management role.

The ultimate way to succeed is to do the critical things that focus on the business of effectively fulfilling the role and responsibilities of the position to which you have been appointed. This is very different from focussing on the busyness of completing a myriad of tasks, particularly if you should not be doing them anyway.

Vive l’European Parliament

How could anyone become disillusioned with such wonderful creations as the European Union and the European Parliament? Unfortunately it is not hard.

The European Union currently has 27 member countries which have transferred some of their sovereignty – or law making authority – to the EU. Three more countries have applied for EU membership: Croatia, Turkey and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”
(Taken from Europa, the official website of the EU)

The European Parliament (EP) is the directly elected parliamentary institution of the EU, and is composed of 736 (due to rise to 751) democratically elected MEPs (Member of the European Parliament), who are elected every five years. The two major political parties are the European Peoples Party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. The official seat is in Strasbourg, where they have just twelve 4-day plenary sessions per year. The complementary plenary sessions, as well as committee meetings and political groups, take place in Brussels, which has become the larger of the two locations.

One of my first “retirement” jobs was to chair an EU sponsored work group in Brussels on intellectual property rights, as there had been an attempt by the far left to bring in legislation to ban patents on software. It meant that I had to spend 2 days per week over 3 months locked in a room with about 20 patent attorneys, who if allowed could have argued about the meaning of a single word for an entire day, and have still felt that it had been time well spent. In the main, they were a great bunch of dedicated and hard working professionals, and we did manage to stop this insane legislation from becoming a reality, however for someone who had spent his working life in a fast moving, exciting and ever changing industry, I could not dismiss the feeling that if this was going to be the flavour of my retirement, I was ready to visit Jack Kevorkian (Doctor Death).

The project meant that over the 3 month period, I got to meet a large number of MEPs, to test their views on software patents and the proposed legislation. My impression is that they were in the main, a very unimpressive group, and it appeared to me that many of them were people who had failed to gain seats in their National Assemblies, but as they were good “party apparatchiks”, had been rewarded with a seat in the EP.

This however did explain to me the reasons why whilst Europe was imploding economically, losing in business competition against China and India, struggling with ageing populations and the assimilation of countries like Romania and Bulgaria, the European Parliament had busied itself on major pieces of legislation for the EU like banning dogs in hotels, bars and restaurants, banning cheese being made from unpasteurised milk, and not allowing hotels in the countryside to have livestock close by just to be able to serve things like fresh farm eggs to their guests.

Beyond this I have found that in the EU there is a law on the straightness of cucumbers and the bendiness of bananas before they can be legally sold, three separate directives on the loudness of lawnmowers, regulations on the “green-ness” of the little man on the pedestrian crossing, and even laws on what legally constitutes an island … for example, anything with a bridge to it cannot be legally considered an island.

We now have all these wonderful life enhancing directives and for this we pay MEPs about € 84,000 per year plus generous expenses. The actual annual budget for the running of the European Parliament in 2009 was € 1,529,970,930 or roughly € 2 million per MEP.

France currently has 72 MEPs including such luminaries as Jean-Marie Le Pen and Bruno Gollnisch of the National Front (Front National) of the extreme right. Le Pen who has led the FN since he founded it in 1972 has been criticised and fined by the French Government for “…apology of war crimes, apology of crimes against humanity and of trivialising the holocaust …”.
In 2005 Le Pen declared that the German occupation of France “… hadn’t been so inhumane … “.
In 1987 he had already described the Nazi gas chambers as “… a point of detail of the Second World War …”. On immigration Le Pen had this to say “When Joan of Arc was asked why as a Christian she did not love the British, she answered that she did love the British, but in their own country. In the same way, we do not hate the Turks, we love them, but in their own country”.

Not to be left out, Gollnisch in 2004 had declared “I do not question the existence of concentration camps but historians could discuss the number of deaths. As to the existence of gas chambers, it is up to historians to make up their minds.” On the Roma problems in France he said “… perhaps the Roma could all move to St. Peter’s Square … “ (translated from the French).

I am so pleased that my tax euros are supporting such intelligent world citizens, with such astute minds, to control the future of Europe. I await the next round of legislation that will make the European Union an even better place to live for the next generation, like maybe declaring an ashtray and a pillow as being deadly weapons, or making it illegal to call a pig Napoleon.

Whoops … too late … they are already laws here. … I will just have to keep waiting for the next round of world shattering pronouncements from these great leaders of the 21st Century.

FIRST SECRET OF SUCCESS

I have long held the belief that one of the main differences between successful people and those that are less so is that successful people use the same amount of time doing things, as do less successful people apply to wasting their time.

By successful, I am not talking about how much money they have made, but about how successful they have been in achieving significant things in their lives. I have a nephew who is a talented and dedicated high school teacher, who has played a significant role over the last 30 years in changing and developing his young charges, and I am sure that he will be remembered with gratitude by those that have passed through his classrooms. In the same vein, I doubt that Mother Theresa spent much of her time sitting in front of a TV set watching re-runs of Sally Field in “The Flying Nun”.

As well, when I talk about doing things, I don’t just mean things that are necessarily of world shattering significance. I mean things that expand our life experiences, skills and knowledge, like sport, reading, going for a walk, working in the garden, or sitting and thinking about something real rather than just sitting and watching the general rubbish that is dished out on television these days.

This was well understood even back in Geoffrey Chaucer’s days (c 1343-1400) , when the expression “Idle hands are the Devil’s tools” was a well known maxim, so why is it that so many people seem have forgotten it these days.

I recently read “Outliers, the story of success” by Malcolm Gladwell. In it he discusses the fact that to become an expert at something you need to be able to put in 10,000 hours of commitment, practice and application to achieve this, whether it is as a pro-golfer or a concert violinist.

Girl playing violin

10,000 hours is a number that is large enough to not be easily comprehensible, so I decided that I needed to break this down into smaller chunks along the lines of the expression that “the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time”. So, over 20 years these 10,000 hours equate to 500 hours per year, which are about 10 hours per week, or only 1.5 hours a day. This means that it should not be terribly hard for most people to become expert at something that they find important with just a little application, commitment and planning.

Even if we start this journey say at 30, assuming that before then we are still in the irresponsible phase of our lives, we could all be experts at something worthwhile by about 50, which would still give us a lot of time to use this expertise well. Furthermore, this use of 1.5 hours per day is not a major sacrifice, as for most people it just means giving up just 30-50% of the time in front of their TV ….they can still watch a large number of re-runs and bad movies.

Theoretically, if people gave up watching TV completely (apart from things that they actually planned to watch and were worth watching), many people could easily halve the elapsed time needed to achieve their 10,000 hours and actually become experts in their chosen field in just 10 years rather than 20.

Unfortunately it just isn’t going to happen … we will continue to have a small number of true experts, and a large number of people who just think that they are experts.

As John Cleese points out in a must-see 10 minute video which you can find on Youtube by searching on “John Cleese Creativity”, to know how good you are at something requires the same skills needed to be good at that thing, so if you are absolutely hopeless at something, you lack exactly those skills to know that you are hopeless at it.

This does explain a lot about life, and why there are so many people around who are self-proclaimed experts about all sorts of things in life, and yet who do spout the most awful drivel continually on their area of so called expertise, and why there are so many obviously incapable people in senior positions around the world.

I have decided that when I come across these people in the future, I will ask them to prove to me that they have actually passed the requisite 10,000 hours in true dedication and application to their claimed area of expertise, before I accept anything that they have to say on the subject.

I do hope that I have the skills to be able to identify them.

LET’S BURN SOME HOLY BOOKS

American Pastor Terry Jones (of Dove World) announced that he would have a public Koran burning ceremony in front of his church on Saturday 11th September 2010, on the 9th anniversary of the attack on the twin towers.

On September 9th he announced that he was cancelling the event, but then changed his mind on Sept 10th, thus keeping the media frenzy alive. On Sept 11th itself, he finally announced that he would cancel the Koran burning, and instead would fly to New York to try and meet with US Muslim leaders, now that he was such a globally important power broker.

This is the same Pastor Terry Jones who wears a 45 calibre pistol strapped to his hip, and who sent 2 children of his congregation to school with T-shirts saying “Islam is of the Devil”, and when they were sent home from school said that he didn’t care as “… spreading the church’s message was more important than education”. The same Pastor Terry Jones that was fined for falsely claiming a doctorate whilst spreading the gospel in Germany, and who is being investigated by state authorities who question the church’s tax free status, because he uses child parishioners to work in his furniture business.

For someone who had a congregation of about 50 (now 30 after some quick departures), he has managed to get the most incredible amount of free media coverage and notoriety because of his extreme reactions to Islam. The whole question of how to relate with the Islamic community has become the single most contentious religious issue in the US today, and when coupled with the plans to build a mosque/community centre just 2 blocks from ground zero and the fact that a recent poll showed that 18% of Americans (31% of Republicans) believe that President Obama is a Muslim, it has become the most contentious political issue as well.

This flood of media coverage has managed to attract other like-thinking “great minds” from around the world, and instead of just a local idiot burning a few books, it has become a rallying point for extremists from both sides of the divide causing fury, demonstrations and US flag burnings in Muslim countries everywhere.

This hitherto insignificant lunatic (whose own daughter has just declared is insane and needs help) has had direct public appeals and statements from power-lords like President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defence Gates and General Petraeus as well as other local and global political and church leaders, in reaction to the planned Koran burning ceremony, and has created a deluge of press and television around the world. Jones’ arrogance built to the point that he announced at one point that he would call off the Koran burning exercise only if he got a personal call from President Obama asking him not to do it, or if he got a personal sign from god.

Why couldn’t we have just left him in his obscurity in Gainesville, Florida and let him burn a few books in isolation? Based on the published state of his church finances, he would have struggled to buy just a handful of second hand copies hence creating a fire that would hardly have singed a marshmallow, but with all the visibility and resultant outside support the number to burn had become 200, and the planned fire has inflamed the world.

But should we really care?

If the word of god is so powerful, the burning of a few bits of paper that it is written on should have little effect, in the same way that flag burning has had no effect on the power and well-being of the US.

As Jones even considers the United Methodist Church just a few blocks away as being “… lily-livered, yellow-bellied Christians …” for running an inter-faith prayer service on September 10, I don’t understand why he had limited himself just to the Koran. He could have gotten even more press and media coverage (and probably support) by deciding to simultaneously burn Jewish Torahs, Hindu Bagvadhgitas, Buddhist Dhammapadas and the religious writings and holy books of all other religions that he doesn’t agree with, and that he believes should all convert to his version of Christianity or be damned for eternity.

This would have at least gotten him his own talk show in the US, and kick started yet another TV ministry to make millions in the name of god.
I would not be surprised if this still happened anyway.

Jones, a hotel employee before discovering god, follows a long line of book burners, such as the destruction of the Libraries of Alexandria (burned by Julius Caesar in 48 BC) and Baghdad (destroyed by the Mongols in 1258), the book burning in China’s Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) and the destruction of Mayan codices by the conquistadors and priests in the 16th century. More recently, the Nazis organised a countrywide action in May 1933 to publicly burn upwards of 25,000 books considered un-German.

German author Heinrich Heine (whose books were amongst those burned by the Nazis) wrote in 1820 in his play Almansor “Where they burn books, they also burn people”.

We can add to this a new quote that in our world of instant global communication and instant celebrity … “He who threatens to burn books will become world famous”.

VIVE LE FRENCH CHEAP AND CHEERFUL

Before I came to France my idea of lunch was to grab a sandwich on the run or at my desk on workdays, and a long barbeque or waterside lunch with friends on a nice summer’s day. The evening meal was always the main meal of the day.
In France lunch is a serious past-time and the four course plus wine lunch is more common than not. It didn’t take us very long to get into the habit, and whether we are eating out or lunching at home, it has become our major meal of the day. Our evening meal, except for when we are out to dinner with friends in mostly a non event.

We are surrounded by “cheap and cheerful” eateries, some better than others, and all with their own character and style. It’s not an expensive exercise, and the menu of the day will set you back about €12-15 per person, often including a carafe of local wine. “Local wine” can mean just about anything, from “chateau cardboard-box” to some reasonable rough red from a local winery. We once asked whether the wine we were drinking was local to be told that it was definitely not, as it came from another village about 5 kilometres away.

The St Martin in Langoiran just down the hill from us sits on the banks of the Garonne river, and in summer sets up a marquee on the waters edge. This location is made the more exciting in winter, as the Garonne regularly breaks its banks, giving a whole new meaning to waterside dining. It has changed hands many times over the years, but this reincarnation is probably the best. We happened to be their first customers on their opening day, and despite the fact that the menu hasn’t changed much over the years, it is still our regular haunt.

Podensac on the other bank and about 10 kms away has the Le Tonneau (the Shed to us) which is basic and quirky, and the building is so ramshackle and neglected that for a long time we thought it was derelict. The first time we went there was in winter and our eyes wouldn’t stop watering from the smoke coming from their pot bellied stove. As no one else in the restaurant seemed to be having the same problem, they must have thought that we were in deep grief.

The Bellevue (and there isn’t one) in Camblane has great food, but they don’t like to be too busy, so it pays to go early to avoid being turned away, despite being half full. The Nord-Sud in Verdelais, which is relatively new, has interesting and creative food, though the violent purple décor is slightly unsettling and Le Cap in Preignac is great in summer when you can eat outside under a large leafy arbour.

We think that the best in the area is Le Chanteclairet d’Anatole in Quinsac, which has fairly recently been taken over by our fishmonger from Latresne, and is named after his English bulldog who wanders around looking for attention. Quite a few English visitors assume that the restaurant is named after the owner, and call him Anatole in an attempt to be friendly. It happens so often that he may have to change his name by deed poll.

Being France you need to be aware that they all tend to take their lunch times very seriously and it will be hard to get accepted after about 1.30. Whenever we have overseas visitors we always advise them that if they want to make sure that they get lunch, they are best to arrive at restaurants sometime before 1.00pm. After that it will depend on the mood of the proprietor and/or the chef, either of whom may decide that they have better things to do in the afternoon.

Unlike Burgundy, Bordeaux is not really known for its cuisine, which has always amazed me, as one would think that as it produces arguably the best wines in the world, it would also be very particular about its food. It is therefore important that you be very selective about where you go, and you can’t always take the advice of the locals, who may often equate good eating with volume. A local cab driver once waxed lyrical about a restaurant on the edge of Portets (about 5 kms from us), and about how wonderful was the “all you can eat seafood buffet”. The place was crowded when we got there but came to a halt when we walked in, with some stopping their forkfuls in mid-trajectory to gape at the “etrangers” who had dared to enter their sanctum. The seafood buffet was mostly made up of some oysters and small prawns, mystery dishes like bright orange crab sticks and rather strange salads obviously thrown together from what hadn’t been eaten the previous day. On top of that the customers looked as though they had come out of an episode of the BBC series, The League of Gentlemen, and from the fictitious town of Royston Vasey. (something out of Deliverance for my US friends). I kept waiting for someone to come up and say “… this is a local shop for local people …”.

In the old days, if you saw an eatery in France that was full of families and workers the chances were that it would be OK. Today, the families are just as likely to be English or Dutch tourists on a budget holiday, and the workers to be Polish or Czech truckies looking for some high volume intake. We have had some of the most questionable (though large) meals when erroneously following the old maxim of “eat where the truck drivers do”.

Unless you are desperate for red meat, I would keep away from the steak in other than an upmarket establishment, or if eating at L’Entrecote in Bordeaux central, where steak is the only main course and is fantastic. The French generally tend not to age or tenderise their beef, and unless you have the sort of teeth that can rip open a tin can, I would stick to the poultry, particularly the duck when you are in the south-west, or an omelette anywhere in France, as they do treat eggs with the deserved respect.

Just remember, as Ronald Reagan said “I never drink coffee at lunch. I find it keeps me awake for the afternoon”.