productivity

Get the Baby off the Ceiling, Please: When Working from Home isn’t Working

As a parent, I learned quickly that, in order to be productive, I had to be out of the house. I have two young children — a 6-year-old who has some relatively minor developmental challenges and a 2-year-old who has done more to reinforce the “terrible twos” stereotype than anyone I’ve ever met. Both of them need and deserve an extraordinary amount of attention.

For years, now, I’ve telecommuted— one of the things I’ve enjoyed about working at Breaking Even is the ability to work anywhere that has wifi.  Almost anywhere, that is.

My house, be it ever so humble, is a no-fly zone when it comes to being productive. This was reinforced recently when I announced my intention to set up my Surface in the basement to do some editing. “Or, you could go to the library –- they have good wifi there,” my wife told me. What went unsaid, and what I should have picked up, on was the message, “You stupid man. You know what happens when you try to work from home.”

But down the basement I went, folding chair in one arm, Surface in the other. Things seemed to go well for an hour, and then an earthquake struck. Or, at least I thought it was an earthquake. You see, I had set up shop directly beneath the living room. We don’t have carpeting, it’s all hardwood. So there’s nothing to dampen the sound of the toddler stomping her feet as she continually ran between the TV and the couch (I’m convinced running and stomping are the only two modes of locomotion available to toddlers).

A half hour later, there was a series of ungodly screams. That itself is not unusual in my house, where ungodly screams have become part of the daily ambient noise (songbirds sing to greet the day, the tea kettle whistles, children laugh and then the ungodly screams). Nevertheless, my concentration was broken and I had a deadline to make for Nicole.

So I trudged upstairs, walked past the toddler who had managed to duct-tape herself to the ceiling fan, past the smoldering crater where the 6-year-old had burned down the sofa. I kissed goodbye to my wife who had assumed a fetal position on the floor (her eyes reflected the untold horrors our offspring had wrought upon our house) and headed to the library, where I was vastly more productive.

Maybe I’m exaggerating here, but the point is working from home as a parent can be more difficult in practice than in theory, even with another adult at home. Little kids yearn for your attention, naturally. They may not understand why mom or dad has to work, even with repeated, patient explanations, or the concept of deadlines, conference calls or why the preferred parent can’t unstick them from the ceiling fan.

Kassie has written a series of articles on mom blogging, and one, in particular, emphasizes the need for good time management and the need to compartmentalize when working out of the home. I’m a long way from mastering those skills, and I recognize that, in order to be productive, I need to be as far from my family as possible.

For those who can work from home while raising small children –- my hat’s off to you. For those who spend their days watching the kids while their partners are at the office (or the library) — my hat’s off to you as well.

Also, honey, if you’re reading this, the couch cushions may have flared up again. The fire extinguisher is under the sink.

Time Management for Mom Bloggers

Note: Although part of my series on mom bloggers, this post on time management can apply to a variety of people. Moms are just one example of people who juggle multiple priorities. 

Today, a lot of women are balancing both career and motherhood. Some are working from home and are telecommuting, others run businesses from their homes. Still more are finding they can make money blogging about motherhood (a topic we discussed last time).

Interestingly, 95% of mom entrepreneurs — those who aren’t working for someone else — have a spouse/significant other who generates the primary source of income, according to Entrepreneur.

Moms with young children can save money on childcare costs by keeping the kids at home. However, with that comes another distraction for the work-at-home mother.

All this means is that time management is crucial for those moms who work from home to provide supplemental income, especially those starting a business. That also means making sacrifices.

In order to grow their businesses, many moms cut or eliminate entirely other areas of their lives way, as seen in the infographic below. Common areas that get neglected include social life, working out, and any of their usual hobbies. One thing that makes me happy to see is that a good night’s sleep still seems to be a priority among the working from home mom, with 6-8 hours being the average (since I’ve been hearing a lot of “You’ll never sleep again!”, a 6 hour night seems pretty decent).

From Entrepreneur

In terms of managing work time vs. household and kid time, there are several ways to approach things.

Separate work-time and home-time as much as possible. For many, this means having a designated work area (that is also recognized by other family members as such). It also means setting aside time to be in that area and being as productive as possible. One of the best ways to maximize productivity is to figure out the time of day when you are most productive and make that your dedicated “work time” if possible. It’s about setting up a work/home barrier for your own productivity and establishing a routine and boundaries for the others in your household.

Create a Schedule. As I mentioned earlier, flexibility was a big reason why many moms choose to work from home. Flexibility doesn’t necessarily come without a schedule, though. While the routine may vary from day to day (i.e. one kid goes to daycare on Tuesdays and Thursdays only, someone has a doctor’s appointment coming up, etc), creating a schedule for yourself (and your family) is one way to stay on top of work flow.

Work with Your Family. I read this blog post about a woman who was able to work at home without sacrificing any time with her family, which I find pretty appealing. She talks about how she learned to adjust her working habits — from learning to work outside where her daughter slept best to typing while her husband drove on longer car trips. Odds are there are areas where you can compromise and have the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, since every family and kid(s) are so different, I can’t offer any “do this one thing” tips on making this feasible — it will probably require some trial and error on your part.

Learn to say “No.” This means learning to say no to taking on more work than you can handle and even saying “no” to yourself when you start getting distracted by things like social media and the dishes sitting in the sink. Sure, you could probably multitask as many things as possible, but that’s probably going to make you feel crazy and, eventually, burnt out. Say no to the things that are going to hurt you rather than help you in the long (or short) run.

Learn to Say “Yes.” Gotcha! Sometimes, you need to learn how to say “yes” when people ask to help you. Or, maybe you need to take some initiative and let people know when you need help (something I’ve learned in life is that no one can read my mind, no matter how much I’ve tried to get them to). Maybe you’re a perfectionist and worried things can only get done the “right way” if you’re in charge. Or maybe you’re convinced that people are counting on you to do “all the things” and you’re afraid to fall short of that. Accepting help around the house, arranging a carpooling situation with childcare, or delegating certain tasks (even to older kids) can help keep things on an even keel.

Here is a list of general productivity posts that we’ve written over the years, in addition to some mom blog related posts that I thought were helpful in writing this post:

Chunky Yet Funky: Thoughts on Productivity and My Writing Style

Finding Time vs. Making Time

The Two Things You Need To Work From Home

Five Ways You Can Be More Productive … in 2015 or whenever

19 Time Management Tips for Mom Bloggers- Money Saving Mom

Mom’s Guide to Managing Time- Real Simple

 

Kassie is a distance runner and a distance reader really. She lives in Ellsworth Maine and, while she might be quiet when you meet her, will throw out something witty when you least expect it.

Losing the Battle Against My Circadian Rhythm

At another job at which I work, I recently had to cover for a coworker who was on a well-deserved vacation. What this meant was getting up at 4 a.m. every day for the past week in order to meet a morning deadline. Here’s what I experienced on my pre-dawn commute to work:

  • Robins. I heard them a lot. Many people enjoy the sound of robins, but to me, the sound of those filthy red-breasted worm-eaters was just a reminder as to how freaking early it was.
  • Bobbing LEDs. These are used by joggers and bicyclists and serve as a shocking reminder that some people are up at this hour by choice. Seriously.
  • No traffic. Because all the sane people are still in bed. Their warm, soft beds. Maybe with their spouses. Snoring quietly, their eyes dusted gently by the sandman, dreaming under a smiling moon and twinkling stars. 

Once I actually got to work and downed my 14th cup of coffee, I discovered something. I was productive as heck. Why is that? (Don’t say it was 14 cups of coffee because that’s a slight exaggeration.)

It’s possible that with only one or two other unfortunate souls in the office there were fewer distractions. But I also believe that my brain just works better in the early morning. I’m working faster, and my output is more accurate. Yet, after lunch, I want nothing more than to stare blankly at a blank computer screen.

So I have to ask again, why is that?

In search of answers, I read this Wall Street Journal piece that cites molecular and computational biology professor Steve Kay — a man whose job title sounds more impressive than anything I’ll ever do in my life. According to Kay, most folks who work a 9-5 job are at their best in the late mornings, and we tend to drop off shortly after lunch.

The piece also argues that we should instead organize our lives around natural body clock — our “circadian rhythms,” citing “potential health benefits.” The WSJ paraphrases Kay, stating: “Disruption of circadian rhythms has been linked to such problems as diabetes, depression, dementia and obesity.”

Then there’s this article in Harvard Business Review, makings the case for managers to schedule workflow and deadline around that circadian flow.

I never used to work so well in the morning, but that’s changed as my youth has faded. It’s not surprising that our body clock changes as we get older. That teenagers are hardwired to sleep in and work late is nothing new, for example, although there is a movement underfoot to require schools to start later in the day to accommodate that rhythm.

So how did we get here? Why do most folks work 9-5 when our body tells us to take a 3-hour break after lunch? This infographic from Podio.com provides some answers, with its roots made in the wake of the British Industrial Revolution.

My day isn’t 9-5. Rather I start anywhere between 5-6:30 a.m., depending on the day ahead, and whether I need to take time in the day to address the latest family crisis. What this means is my own circadian rhythm has me fighting the desire to eat lunch at 10 am and nap until 3 pm, at which point I start to feel productive again—right when it’s time to go home.

The lesson for me is to get as much done as early as possible because when noon rolls around, it’s all down hill. As I’m writing this, it’s 2:30 in the afternoon and I find that my productivity has dipped sharply. For example, it took me an hour to write the previous sentence. So it’s time to wrap this up.

Good night and sweet dreams.

Six Phone Apps Worth Paying For (For Your Business)

So I was sitting in an airport when I downloaded Osmos without even a second thought of paying for it. It was a fun game (and totally mesmerizing if you never have played… your objective as a bubble is to get bigger by absorbing other bubbles. It’s like more fluid Tetris).

And yet, I totally hesitate when it comes to spending money on apps for functional things like my business. I get that it’s probably because business apps seem more expensive (or maybe your phone is supposed to be your destination for fun). I will say, I’ve been glad to have paid for some of these features because they are handy, have saved me money, or simply made me look good to the professional people I have the pleasure of dealing with. Here are six apps I have paid for and, looking back, I’m glad I’ve done so:

Split Screen Multitasking ($3.99)

How many times have you wanted to watch a Youtube video while checking your Facebook messages? I used to like how my phone made me do one thing at a time but now that I know this exists, I am not sure what I did before.

Cloze ($159.99 annually)

Hope you’ve picked yourself off the floor from reading that price but here’s my thing: I have A LOT of contacts to manage and sometimes, I need to be prodded to contact them. I also want to classify people (Customer, Family, etc) and add notes about them (birthday, kids’ names)… and have things like phone number and email addresses automatically synced. For all that $160/year doesn’t seem so nuts. Plus you can try it for two weeks free and see if it’s you’re thing before buying.

Quickbooks Online (Monthly fee)

So many people have tried to tell me that I should install their free Quickbooks on ONE COMPUTER. This terrifies me for many reasons which is why I use Quickbooks Online. But the best thing I wasn’t expecting about Quickbooks Online is being with a customer and having them say “I think I owe you a check, can you remind me of how much that was?” I’m able to tell them in about thirty seconds and send them a receipt, right from my phone. If it costs a few bucks to get paid faster, in the long run it is worth it for you not having to chase people. Trust me, I resisted forever and now I am a total convert.

Genius Scan+ ($6.99)

So the free version of this app served me for years. You can scan PDFs and email them to yourself or other people. It was great for collating, say, all my physical receipts together every year… until I realized that since I don’t have automated backups on my phone (I know, I know) it could all go poof. The pro version automatically syncs things into whatever Dropbox folder I want and I personally appreciate the backup. The scanning is great on this; I’ve had some people come into Anchorspace looking for a scanner and when they see the results of me scanning with this app, they are blown away. If you need a historical photo scanned to retouch, by all means go to a real and high quality scanner, but if you just need to get a lease to your lawyer, this is more than adequate, doing things like straightening out the document and finding the edges of scanned items automatically for crisp edges.

It looks like they have a cool app called Genius Sign too, which allows you to sign and annotate documents (how many times have you printed something only to sign it and rescan it?)

MileIQ ($59.99 annually)

I resisted this for years thinking I could keep track of own driving. I downloaded this app as a free trial and within the first month, I saw how many business meetings I drove to I wasn’t counting. I got more mileage tax credit than I paid for the annual subscription. Also, classifying drives is something I can do while sitting waiting, say, for a doctor’s appointment where I can check off a business to-do rather than just waste time on my phone. Generating my spreadsheet of driven miles every year for my accountant made me crazy but this year, it’s going to be a one click thing.

Note: This is an affiliate link where you save 20% and I get a $25 kick back if you sign up.

iMovie ($4.99)

You know when you take a video and think ‘Gosh, only ten seconds of this is actually funny’. Having iMovie on your phone lets you lop off those too-long videos. So you can just send the part where your dog runs toward you in the snow without the part where she stops and pees a little. Remember that some light video editing before uploading a video is something 99% of people don’t do so by even trying to do this before uploading to Facebook, your customers will take notice and appreciate (plus you can add your website URL at the end or something similarly useful in case it ‘goes viral’).

Point is, our phones are less the music players/gaming devices they started out as and more like computers that help us run our businesses. As such, investing in them can be a no brainer for your business or productivity.

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

Systems 101: Why You Need Them (And How You’re Already Using Them Anyway)

systems-graphic-what-are-systemsWhen I think systems, I think people wearing suits, being filmed in high power meetings in conference rooms, smiling their capped teeth at the camera.

Truth is, we are all already using systems whether we want to or not. A system is a process for doing something. You have a system for checking and responding to email, for example, whether you’ve thought consciously about it or not.

Sometimes people think about systems falling under two categories:

  1. Anything that needs to be done.
  2. Anything that needs to be done by someone who isn’t you.

Most people only start caring about systems when it gets to #2 (you have to tell someone else how to do it). Something about explaining or documenting a process formalizes it and can help you see inefficiencies. Starting off with making systems for scenario #2 makes sense but ultimately, the most effective people we know move on to make systems for #1.

How do you know when something needs a system?

  1. When it isn’t getting done consistently.
  2. When it isn’t getting done well.

Most systems save time and/or money. What if you came up with systems for three things in your life (personal or business) and saved yourself $500 a month or 10 hours a week? That could be game changing.

So as we head into the new year, think about what personal and professional systems you may need.

Step 1: What needs systems in my life?

If you are like me, it’s hard to view your life under the seemingly cold lens of everything being a system. Sam Carpenter’s book (which you can get as a free PDF or audiobook) called Work The System can help. One of my friends made me come up with a list of ten personal systems I needed and ten business ones to get my brain moving in this direction. Here’s my list in case it helps you start yours:

10 Business Systems I Needed:

1) Systems for ordering/purchasing needed supplies (mainly paper, toilet paper, dishwashing liquid, sponges, binders, paper towels, garbage bags, cleaner)
2) System for cleaning off computers: running scans, how often desktops and download folders get cleaned off, when do programs get deleted, etc.
3) system for papers as they come in: do they get scanned, filed? What gets thrown out?
4) System of recycling: Get a bin(s) and figure out how often it gets taken to the recycling place.
5) System for meeting scheduling/changing- Do they need confirmation? Do I need a VA? This is a time suck!
6) System for saving ideas for social sharing/blogs with my team. I use Delicious and Pocket for long term storage. How can our team be sharing post ideas? How can I be helpful in this system without taking away creative freedom?
7) System for paying bills
8) System for checking email (nicole, info, and maintenance)
9) System for editing podcast
10) System for password management (currently two Keepass files, need to be merged and have a mobile component)

10 Personal Systems I Needed:

1) Meal planning system: How can I use a combination of my farm share, the pantry, and what I have on hand to make a combination of easy to deploy (known) recipes and exciting new recipes?
2) House chores system: who does them, when, to what extent.
3) Morning routine (times when I need to be out the door vary. Need to make sure breakfast is eaten, household chores advance somewhat, dog gets some exercise, and I can leave the house somewhat attractive.)
4) Exercise system: How do I get 3-4 times weekly exercise? Scheduling walks with friends has only somewhat been reliable. Should I make it a group thing?
5) Editing/Writing My Book: How can I get new chapters planned, written, edited, collated? Do I have a deadline and if so, what do I do after?
6) Kombucha system: How to take care of scoby, when to bottle, when to feed
7) System for birthdays/events: How to remember these yearly and one off events, how do I keep others informed who’d want to be informed
8) System for getting rid of excess stuff: How often to evaluate possessions, which things get posted to what sales websites, how often to have garage sale or other mass purge event
9) System for cleaning Anchorspace: What gets cleaned, how often, how is space improved incrementally
10) System for nurturing friendships: How often to have in person events? How to build relationships one on one? How to be thoughtful from a distance (texting, cards, etc.)

Once you make yourself have ten each, it’s easier to think of a lot more. Now pick one (maybe the biggest time suck) and start with that. I’m going to use meal planning as my system because I am sitting here realizing I have no idea what I’m eating for dinner so clearly that’s an issue.

Step 2: What is your system now?

Documenting what you do now is illuminating. What you’ll notice is some gaps/assumptions in your list, like I did. (Really? I expect myself to walk into my house at 6 PM, open the fridge, and feel magically inspired to make dinner based on what is in there?)

I spend Wednesday mornings batch cooking (way to go me for at least putting time in my calendar dedicated to thinking about food when the week is half over!) and I have a system of cataloging and trying new recipes with my Pinterest board (you’ll notice there are three boards: Try This Week, Did It Meh, and Did It Loved).

Step 3: What needs to stay? How can this be better?

In my case, here is not in my system for meal planning:

  • when I go grocery shopping
  • a master list of items I keep on hand
  • an inventory control (way to record what I need or will need)
  • how many and what meals get planned (what from ‘Try This Week’ Pinterest board makes the cut? When does each recipe get moved to Did It Meh or Did It Loved boards?)

Step 4: Make a new system.

So here’s my new meal planning system, which takes what was working and adds in the parts that weren’t.

Ongoing: a piece of paper is kept on the sideboard and as items get used up, Nicole adds them to sheet of paper for weekly shop
Saturday morning: Nicole chooses two recipes to make from the ‘Try This Week’ Pinterest board and three old standby recipes to make considering a balance of breakfast, lunch, and dinner and limited cooking time most days. Nicole archives old recipes based on how good they were.
Sunday afternoon: Nicole goes grocery shopping with master list and preps three meals.
Wednesday morning: Nicole preps remaining three meals.

Step 5: Try and tweak.

It’s hard to do documentation, even if you are being really careful. The key is to try it because there is likely something you are forgetting. For example, it might make more sense for me to prep Tuesday nights between 5 and 6 pm since I have a standing 6 PM happy hour at my house and I’m getting things together for that anyway.

This month, our theme is systems. We create systems to be more efficient, to decrease stress, to make sure things get done, to be able to let others help us, to be able to reach our larger goals, and to be happier. As we head into 2017, it’s a good time to think about systems and what we want to change. We’ll be discussing how to use the internet in some of your systems for getting your favorite (or, ok, just necessary) things done.

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

100 Better Decisions: An Approach Toward A Big Goal

100better

What if you made 100 better decisions? How could things be different?

This is what I asked myself at the beginning of this month. (By the way, if Oprah is reading this, I 100% made this up so please give me the credit if this becomes one of your favorite things.)

A hundred decisions sounds like a lot. In reality, you make hundreds of decisions a day. What time to wake up, what clothes to wear, whether to shower or not, what shampoo to use, if you’ll blowdry your hair, what toothpaste you’ll use, whether you’ll brush your teeth before or after you shower… you get the picture.

Now in your decisions lies your lifestyle, your values, and your ambitions. Once you hack how people make decisions, you can help them reach their goals. Here are two approaches I’ve seen to this:

Option 1: The Limited Decision Approach

Productivity experts like Tim Ferris say to have a completely structured routine for the first two hours of every day. The idea is that your brain uses energy to make decisions and rather than wasting that brainpower on oatmeal versus eggs, you should save it for more important decisions later in the day. This totally makes sense to me. This is why you see a bajillion articles about what successful people do the first hour or two of every morning. It’s a thing.

You can also look at this on the other end of the day, where people often protect the last hour of their day for reflection or planning the next day so they can go to sleep with a clear mind and wake up with their decisions already made for them.

Option 2: Following A Plan

If you aren’t keen on making up your own structure, there are PLENTY out there for you to follow, whether you want to learn to fall asleep faster or run a marathon.

When you are on a plan, you have a set of rules you follow for a set period of time to achieve some goal. It’s easiest to think about this with diet. If I am doing Whole30, for example, and someone offers me a gin and tonic, I say no. Alcohol is not allowed on Whole30. That decision of what I can and can’t eat (or when I can eat things) has been made by whatever plan I’m on: paleo, low carb, Mediterranean, etc.

I have issues with both these options.

Why Limited Decisions Is Not Entirely It For Me

My schedule varies day to day and in particular, weekdays to weekends. The idea of doing the same thing every morning not only bores me to tears but doesn’t work well with my life.

For example, every Friday morning, I have a super early standing meeting. The idea of getting up at 5:30 am EVERY MORNING makes me want to gouge my eyes out. (I don’t mind doing it once a week though.)

My modification to Tim Ferris’ plan is that I have Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning blocks planned for myself. One day is meal prep, one going to the transfer station, one for running errands (post office, car registration, library, etc.) Monday is my ease into the week morning and Friday is my early meeting (ie no time for my block-o-productivity). I am ok with this arrangement as it gives me some flexibility but it chunks out my morning and I get some of the benefits of minimizing decisions.

Why Following A Plan Doesn’t Entirely Work For Me

One of my core traits is my flexibility. You wouldn’t know it to look at me but I can actually be pretty spontaneous and laid back. Like if I go to your house and you made a fresh loaf of bread and asked if I wanted a piece? I would say ‘Yes!’ even though I don’t normally eat or buy bread. Because you made it and that’s awesome. I can’t categorically say no to things; it’s not in my nature or sustainable (in my opinion).

So what’s a gal like me to do?

What if I just look at my life as a series of decisions and write down when I make a better one until I reach 100 decisions?

Like maybe I have one gin and tonic and while considering a second one, I have two glasses of water instead.

So why did I think this would work for me and potentially others?

  1. Most of us remember bad things and forget the good things. This is like an easier to fill out gratitude journal.
  2. Sometimes we fall of the wagon and use it as an excuse for continued bad behavior (well, I had one glass of wine today, might as well have the ice cream too!). With 100 Better Decisions, each decision is an opportunity to start fresh.
  3. By looking at each decision framed by the question ‘Will this get me closer to my goal?’, we train ourselves to spot times when we could make better decisions. Asking the question repeatedly makes sure the larger goal gets cemented in. 

Now my goal has to do with getting healthier. Some things I wrote down out of 100:

Saved half my breakfast and ate it at lunch.
Chose vanilla seltzer instead of a cocktail.
Put cinnamon instead of cream in my coffee.

Has this approached helped me get closer to my goal? Yes.

Does it fit into my lifestyle? Yes.

Do I think you should try it? Please!

 

Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she’s not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.
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