Finding Time vs. Making Time

Lately I’ve been feeling exhausted, as if I could close my eyes at any given moment and bam, be fast asleep. Granted, I’ve never had a great track record for getting a good night’s sleep, but this recent stretch has made it incredibly hard to do all the things I would like to in a day: finish writing snail mail to my grandparents, get quilting tutorials from Gram, carve out some creative writing time, relearn the saxophone, learn how to play the ukulele, spend more time baking, do more yoga, take any sort of new class, read something challenging, get the oil change my car desperately needs, go to the track and workout…I have a lot of ambitions lately. This past weekend, I disconnected from this list (except item 2- my Gram gave me a brief quilting intro and hilarity ensued), and complained to a relative about my lack of time. Her response: “‘I don’t have time’ is just another way of saying ‘I don’t want to.’ The time is in there, somewhere, it’s up to you to make it happen.” Not the answer I wanted, but it was definitely the answer I needed. Funny how that happens.

We can’t ever find time, not like the way we find a $10 bill in a pair of jeans during laundry. Time is happening here and now. So, as I wail about never “having” or “finding” time for my various projects, I should really be shifting my attitude to “I already have the time, I just need to use it differently.” Here are some general ideas I’ve gathered to start putting into practice:

Well, would you look at the time…If you have to set an alarm to remember something, no matter how trivial or ridiculous, set it. Having an external reminder reroutes your attention so you can get in a new routine for doing things (the key is remembering to set the alarm). I tend to lose track of time generally, so having an alarm keeps me focused. Well, maybe just less distracted.

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 9.16.50 AM

If you have ever seen Disney’s “Mulan,” this will make sense. If not, well…it’s still kinda funny.

Another trick that a friend has shared with me: first thing in the day, do the most pressing and/or most dreaded thing on your to-do list. This starts the day off with a fist-in-the-air, “I’ve totally got this!” vibe, and you won’t spend the rest of the day with this task looming over you (seriously, it’s a gross feeling). Almost every article and blog post on productivity recommends this,  in some shape or form.

Crossing off that one thing on your to do list feels like this.

Crossing off that one thing on your to do list feels like this.

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun” -Mary Poppins. As an adult, I’ve noticed that a lot of what I need to accomplish in a day isn’t exactly “fun,” like getting an oil change or spending time on the phone with a health insurance provider. These tasks have to get done, and unless you’re rich, famous, or in possession of a super advanced robot, you have to take care of it yourself.

To tie-in my Mary Poppins reference, when I have to clean my room or run on a treadmill, it seems to go by faster if I listen to Walt Disney on Pandora. It would go by even faster if the woodland creatures actually helped instead of staring blankly from the backyard. Disney music might not be your…jam…but there’s always a way to make the necessary, ho-hum tasks more exciting, from grocery shopping to the DMV.

Coffee is not the answer. I’ve always enjoyed the morning coffee. And afternoon coffee. Well…coffee became something I ingested throughout the day without tracking (like water or air). Vaguely aware that beyond 4 cups before noon borders on the excessive, I felt like I was able to accomplish so much more. My brain was ON! A couple weekends ago, I’d run out of coffee at home but was too lazy to go to the store. By 10 a.m. I had a splitting headache. That moment was a bit of a wake up call. It turns out, excessive caffeine can wreak havoc on your body and emotional state.

Scaling back on coffee huge for me, but other people have various things that help push them through (I was an avid Diet Coke drinker for years, too). The issue was not so my body needing coffee as much as the belief that it was going to make me more productive/energetic. Motivation, much like happiness or anything in that vein, is an inside job. Coffee does not equal motivation.

Maybe someday, I'll be down to just one.

Still counts…

Be Accountable. Sometimes, being accountable to yourself just isn’t enough (it definitely isn’t for me). Nicole has shared her accountability buddy experience before, and I’ve realized that 90% of my life isn’t strictly accountable. Most of the time, this is amazing, but it also means I require a lot of internal motivation. What I lack in accountability I try to make up for in self-awareness (or good friends who make constructive observations).


An example: speed work with running is one of my least favorite activities, but necessary in order to get faster. Since I haven’t had a coach since high school, am running purely for personal benefit, and don’t run with other people, I had to find ways to hold myself accountable for these workouts. Trick 1: Reward: even if it’s something little like watching an episode of It’s Always Sunny, it’s amazing how well this works for me. Trick 2: Visualization-this may sound weird, but here me out. If I go to bed picturing the hard workout (or other activity) that I’m dreading, it’s more likely to get done. Once I allow that little voice to say “Well, maybe you don’t have to…,” it’s game over.

If you aren’t accountable to another person (boss, friend, running buddy, etc), find a way to hold yourself accountable. Some tips on that here.

Chill Out. In the frenzy of “do all the things” this summer, I ignored the cues from my body to take a breather. Breathers were not on my to-do list. Even when my body slowed down, my brain was still tying itself into impossible knots. In other words: my stress skyrocketed and I had zero chill. After only a few months, I dissolved into the fatigued, frazzled, and ultimately useless puddle that started this blog post. Even though I don’t have some high stakes job that forces me to work ridiculous hours, or really anything on the surface that would explain it, my body had been coping with high levels of stress for months on end. Much like the aforementioned coffee-intake, dealing with this amount of stress over a long period of time has serious consequences for one’s health.

In other words, I was able to accomplish the bare minimum of what I needed to in a day, and none of the extra stuff. If you have an ambitious to-do list or feel generally stressed out, remember to slow down and take cues from your body. Making time for hobbies and side-projects is important, but you have to factor in some down-time.

As we head into holiday season, keep in mind that finding time shouldn’t feel like squeezing water from a stone. Making time is a reasonable way to approach the tasks at hand, whatever they may be. Prioritize, find the fun, and maintain sanity! And have a Disney music dance party if it helps.

“Chunky Yet Funky”: Thoughts on Productivity and My Writing Style

Chunking” is the idea that when performing recall tasks, like a 40 number sequence, people are better able to remember if they group or “chunk” the sequences together. This is how, to my bank account’s dismay, I unintentionally memorized my credit card number and can now buy things online without having it on hand.

This blog post is not, however, about psychological theories on how humans process information. It is about a different “chunking”- the kind that productivity gurus write about.


This brand of “chunking” means performing similar tasks in bulk, while your brain is in a certain gear. For example, when we’re working on Breaking Even’s blog, chunking is one of the greatest tools ever. In the morning, I like to get all my writing tasks done- that’s when my brain is at it’s peak. A lot of times this is just stream of consciousness writing (we have pre-determined blog topics set out a month in advance). Later on (in the day, week, etc), my brain will eventually shift into an editing gear. At this point in time, I go back and touch up whatever my brain produced in round one (this involves a lot of word-weeding, or translating things from my language to something more readable). Finding relevant articles is also a “chunking” activity, as is headline generation and image ideas.

Blogging is a pretty simple job to “chunk,” but it translates well into many different areas. As a younger kid, I used chunking while doing chores. When cleaning cars, I’d do all the vacuuming first, then go back and clean the inside with Armor All. It just made more sense to do it this way than to clean one car out, and then the other. It’s similar to building web sites. Rather than building one complete page (writing, add pictures, add forms and plugins), then the next complete page, and so on, chunking just seems to work better. This means writing all (or most) of the content, bulk re-sizing and uploading pictures, creating forms as needed, and so on. That way, things are getting built up together, and you aren’t constantly shifting mental gears (something I personally am terrible at).

No matter who you are, your brain will be in different gears at different points. I read this article last year when I was having issues with writer’s block that offered an interesting explanation. When you are relaxed and generally zen-like, your brain is better suited to creative tasks. On the other hand, if you’re feeling pressured or stressed, that creative flow gets cut off (this is what happened to me). When you get into a mental “fight or flight” zone, your time is better spent researching, outlining, editing, or formatting rather than idea generating or writing.

Chunking can also simply mean dedicating a set amount of time to each task on your to-do list. Once we started using Toggl this January, it became easy to see how much time each task was taking us as we performed it, and it made it easier to go back in the archived time logs and see how long we actually spent on certain tasks. Starting a half hour timer and committing to incremental chunks of distraction free time to each task definitely boosts productivity- especially in this day and age where it’s common to have at least a dozen tabs open at once in your browser.

What areas of your life- work or otherwise- could you be chunking?

Making the Most of Your Time (Without Going Crazy)

Maybe it’s the whole winter to spring transition, or the extra sunshine towards the end of the day, but it seems like everyone I know is over-committed lately (myself included). There’s a lot of hustle and bustle going on, with little free time. The more I try to remember and juggle, the less I remember and accomplish. Stress is funny like that (and by “funny” I mean cruel and devastating). So, how do we stay sane when we can’t necessarily slow our collective roll? Here are a few ideas:


Have a system. During yesterday’s Tech Thursday, we talked about the benefits of creating systems. You can have a system in place for meal planning, workouts, scheduling- you can systematize just about anything. At Breaking Even, creating detailed documentation for tasks such as building a donation form and installing Wordpress, and creating intake forms for website design or social media marketing have made our lives so much easier. In meetings, we can consistently get information we need by following a formula. Before, if Nicole and I separately met with a client, there was a 90% chance we’d come back with different information, because we have different brains that prioritize different things. It’s more effective to have a comprehensive, documented system in place that keeps us organized. That way, we can get the information we need regardless of who is in the meeting.

What areas of your life could use a system? It may be scheduling your hair appointments for the year (a brilliant idea by Nicole) or creating “how-to” documents for tasks. It may take time to get the system in place, but once it’s underway, it saves you time and energy. Fun fact: it also makes delegation possible!

Create a list. And actually use it. I have lost track of the number of times I’ve written a grocery list and left it in the car (which is a bummer, because me going rogue in a grocery store is my budget’s worst nightmare). Similar to having a system, having a list of things to do a) frees up some mental real estate and b) keeps you on track. Prioritizing your to-do list is another helpful way to get through. Keep the most important items at the top. I don’t always hit everything on my to-do list, but I still get a huge sense of relief knowing that the one big thing that had to happen today got done. And I don’t jolt awake in bed at night remembering what I forgot the day before.

One to-do list system we use at Breaking Even is Asana. We can add tasks by project and set due dates. Even if a task doesn’t need to be completed by a certain day, the priority is established. Asana also lets others in the company communicate- Nicole can see if I’ve finished making a Facebook Cover image for a client, and I can see if that weird technical glitch was fixed so I can add pictures to a photo gallery.

Get help when you need it. Having a system and a list may not cut it. If you’re considering cloning yourself and/or researching how to grow extra limbs for efficiency, maybe you just need to take a breather and ask for a hand (a hand that’s attached to someone else, though). At Breaking Even, we have a few people who we ask for help in areas beyond our expertise (Marty from Studio 3 for logos and print work, Colin of Root Deeper for AdWords, the list goes on!). We also have a few other tricks up our sleeve. For instance, the intro clip to our old Tech Thursday videos was actually created by someone Nicole found through Fiverr. Fiverr is an online service where you can ask for something, like a logo or a 15 second intro video, starting at $5. There are hundreds of categories of help to choose from. In terms of asking for advice, there are always Facebook or LinkedIn groups (for creative ideas or technical questions).

One funny example (and an incredibly indirect inspiration for this blog post) was a fly-swatter Nicole and I found today while cleaning in Anchorspace. It’s butterfly shaped and bright yellow (so, pretty awesome). Nicole read on the handle “Swatter you waiting for?” I like to imagine that the fly-swatter makers desperately needed a tagline idea for their company, and made a few phone calls asking for advice.

There are only 24 hours in a day here on Earth. Make the most of them, whether you need to make a list, a system, or a phone call. And, if you’re paralyzed by procrastination (that whole “I have so much to do I cannot even move” complex), I simply ask: Swatter you waiting for?

The Temptation To Automation

I was having a conversation the other day with another business person. “You know, I’m trying to get better with systems.” I told her. “Ugh, systems, that’s such a 2015 obsession!” she lamented. And she’s right.

We’re all obsessed with doing things better, more efficiently. I have heard more systems consultants on podcasts and read more blog posts on systems in the past six months than I have for my entire life before that.

Oftentimes, systems are automation. Like automating putting money in a retirement account for example versus someone having to think about making the funds transfer once a week or month.

One place to go with automation is social media marketing. I will say I think it’s one thing to schedule some updates while you travel or are going to be in meetings. It’s another thing to never log in and do a live update. Or to never log in and respond to comments. Or to never repost someone else’s great idea or otherwise engage with them.

Someone once asked me in a seminar if they could bulk schedule tweets… for a year. Talk about missing the point of being on a social network.

But in this age of systems, we’re all getting access to tools that basically suggest we do something like this, something I call automation. What I mean by ‘automation’ is ‘set it and forget it’ marketing. It can look like scheduling tweets for a year. Or writing all your blog entries for six months and scheduling them to publish ahead of time.

Automation does take some work (clearly) but it suggests a one sidedness: you say the things… and you either aren’t ready or willing to respond to what other people are saying.

We may schedule some ‘pushes’ for our clients but was also make sure to log in and interact with people. And here is why this seemingly tedious and definitely time consuming process is worth it to me.


Different networks, different purposes, different content.

Every time someone asks me to make it so everything they say on Facebook goes to Twitter and LinkedIn automatically, I try to talk them out of it. But if they insist, I do it. But I will say here I think this is a terrible idea.

If you follow us on our social networks, you may see 5% of what we post being repeated. Maybe.

But for the most part, we treat different networks differently. I post different kinds of content on Google+ (where I mainly follow tech nerds and journalists) than I do on LinkedIn, where people are more concerned about business and marketing best practices.

I’ll just say what everyone is thinking: people can tell when you’re automating stuff (ie phoning it in). And if you think people on a social network you treat as mediocre at best are open to your message and excited to hear from you when you have something actually important to say, I’m here to say they are not.

Being flexible.

You know when something amazing happens and you are right in the middle of it? Well, if every Facebook status we write has to go through a committee for Company A before we post, it means we can’t be participating in real time on behalf of Company A.

It’s one thing to have something ‘in the can’ as an idea… and it’s another thing to have a better idea and be able to go with it. Automation would keep us from these moments of creativity and community.

Avoiding awfulness.

The best part of checking in regularly for the networks we update? Avoiding disasters.

The one that comes to mind (and one John gets full credit for) is a tweet we had planned about Robin Williams for a substance abuse counselor client. The tweets get composed ahead of time (it’s always easier to write blocks of content) and had we just a ‘set it and forget it’ mentality, this tweet would have gone online two days after he died… and it would have made our client look pretty insensitive.

John not only remembered (because he was checking in and retweeting for them regularly) but stopped the issue before it even happened.

Can we measure avoided awkwardness or awfulness? Not really but there is certainly more than one time when a human brain looking at something in a timely way not only made a client look good… but kept them (and us) from looking bad.

If you don’t systematize your friendships offline, why would you do it online?

Do you accept only every third party invitation you get? Do you only email your friend the third Friday of every month? It’s one thing to make sure you are regularly updating people about next week’s important event but it’s another thing to not be genuinely interested in who is sharing those social networks with you: your family, friends, and customers.

So let me just go on record. I am anti-automation. And let me clarify:

Repeating social media updates is fine, since not everyone sees a particular update… especially on ‘noisier’ networks like Twitter.

Scheduling is a tool that allows us to not be chained to our computers. Definitely do that to save your sanity and make sure important information gets out.

Automating means you aren’t willing to put the time in to develop real friendships with your customers. It’ll look like you’re phoning it in because you are. And your customers won’t care because you clearly don’t.

So, if you’re tempted to make an automated social media system, I hope I’ve talked you out of it. By all means make a plan and feel free to structure 70% of what you want. But let that other 30% give your company the humanity it needs online to be truly successful.

What Toggl Has Taught Me About Life

They say what you can measure, you can manage… and as someone who has at least has a passing interest in productivity, I know this means I need to measure how I’m spending my time.

I know to some of my self employed friends, tracking time can feel an awful lot like working for ‘the man’. Honestly, I felt that way for a long time. I’d try to keep, then eventually get overwhelmed by spreadsheets. I then tried tracking only billable hours, not a complete picture but better than nothing.

For the past 6ish months, when it came time to bill clients I would go through my spreadsheet, Kassie’s spreadsheet, John’s spreadsheet, and Leslie’s spreadsheet to tally totals then invoice the client… or make a note to do more next month. It was kind of making me insane. So I asked everyone to switch to Toggl, a time management system that works with Google (or you can also create a free standing account) built on a ‘freemium’ model- meaning x amount is free but after, you pay.

Like any good leader, I tried to do what I was asking those who worked with me to do. And tracking my time for these last two months has taught me some things.

1. Clients that I thought were taking a lot of time were just taking up mental energy. 

I think we all have these things in our life that we perceive as taking a lot of time but then when you actually look back, it was like 15 minutes. Toggl-ing helped me keep track of not who I thought was taking up a lot of time but who actually was.

2. Checking email takes a lot of my time… and I wonder if it could take less.


Above, according to Toggl, is how much time I’ve spent on email/project management.. this week.

Despite checking my email twice a day (except Wednesdays which is my email cleanout day), I realize I spend a lot of time checking email and putting things from email (or phone call) into our project management system.

3. I spend less on our own marketing stuff than I’ve projected.

What’s nice about all of us sharing a project though is I see just because I’m not spending time on it, doesn’t mean other people aren’t.

4. It’s for now… and later.

This system over time will help me be more fair with clients, and us, about how long things we do really take. So not only is it going to save ME time with billing now but it’ll help us estimate projects, distribute resources, etc. in the future.


5. I get to see when my Breaking Even coworkers are active. 

Like any group of people, we all have patterns. I can see for example John likes to log in Saturday mornings, which means if I am on chat at that time, I can probably catch him.

Am I stalking people with Toggl? No, but it does help me to know what work patterns people prefer. I can also note when I have been particularly productive… and attempt to copy the variables that day that made it so useful.

6. We need an internal system we all agree on.

Yeah, we’re still figuring it out. Some of us aren’t putting things into projects, some of us have accidentally duplicated projects. Any new software has a learning curve, I just appreciate that everyone is willing to use it.

So I will say, if you decide to track your time, the results will surprise you. And possibly delight you. I know my time with Toggl so far has done both.

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

As we hit the time of year when all of us are feeling like changing (at least a little). But I think whether we want to lose 20 pounds or send birthday cards by mail to all our friends and family, we can all agree that being more productive means we are more likely to get what we want done.

I’m a bit of a process junkie: I love learning information that makes it easier to do things. I like creating efficiency. But sometimes I get a little too caught up in the theory versus the practice.

Below are all things I am actually practicing to make me more productive.

1. Asana
Purpose: Task management to get all the details out of our brains and email and into a searchable, prioritized system.
Estimated time saved: 4 hours/week

Hands down Asana has changed the way we do business. Whenever there is a project, we can break it into tasks and due dates. And best of all, it’s searchable, meaning Kassie can note some weirdo website we’ve inherited won’t let us edit it in Google Chrome and when she gets to that task can avoid the headache of trying to do something that literally won’t work.

Also by assigning dates, I can see what tasks are a priority daily and slowly chip away at larger projects that would not get done otherwise.

And the best part? It’s not stuck in my email but searchable by anyone at Breaking Even. They can see what’s been done, what hasn’t, etc. easily and add notes/comments. Ah, things getting done without me needing to be involved! You can learn more in our blog post about it we wrote awhile back about our love for Asana. 

2. Systemization
Purpose: Make routine tasks happen quickly and smoothly to save on time/energy.
Estimated time saved: 2 hours/week

I was listening to Tim Ferris’ podcast a few weeks ago when he suggested everyone for at least a week plan out the first two hours of their day. Have a time frame and system for everything from when and where I walk the dog to how I put together a smoothie. And you know what? Not only did it free up my decision making energy for more important stuff later in the day but my morning did run more smoothly.

I’m not saying we all live like robots but I am saying we spend our energy thinking about stuff that could be automated that is taking up energy and brainspace, both in our personal lives and business lives.

At Breaking Even, we’re working on creating and finalizing one document per month for one of our processes. Then ideally, if we are swamped and needed to hire, we could give our new person the documents and they could get the party started.

In life, I’m trying to automate my morning smoothie (so many possible ingredients and recipes) as a start. And if I save myself 10 minutes a day, that’s over an hour a week… and over time, that’s something!

(You can get a free ‘systems’ book by going to this website and clicking on ‘Free PDF’ in the middle of the screen: Can’t promise how long it’ll work but if your brain doesn’t operate like a Swiss watch (mine doesn’t) then having a blueprint to help you think this way can help.)

 3. Toggl
Purpose: Tracking time between multiple people across multiple projects. 
Estimated time saved: 1 hour/week

I’ll admit it, up until a week ago, I would spend a least three hours a month in spreadsheets, which is how we were keeping our timecards here. So to see how much work we did for Client A in a month, I’d go to my spreadsheet, then Kassie’s, then John’s, then Leslie’s. It was a lot of exhausting first grade math with sometimes a sprint at the end of the month to make up for time we hadn’t put in (but I thought we had). Dumb dumb dumb.

I came across Togglr as a time keeper and I love that it’s not only searchable but tracks time spent on tasks and that multiple people can use it. I haven’t upgraded to the paid version yet but honestly, paying a few bucks a month to free up hours of my time is a no brainer if it comes to that. Plus it integrates with Asana tasks via a Google Chrome extension. Could it be any more in line with our purposes?

Check out Toggl here.

4. Psychology
Purpose: To uncloud the clouded mind.
Estimated time saved: 1 hour/week

OK so it’s one thing to make systems and do all this other stuff but mental fog is a whole other thing to deal with. What if you’re distracted?

I saw this exercise and thought it was GENIUS:

Do it and you too could get at the root of your procrastination, apathy, etc. Because let’s face it, all the tools in the world aren’t going to help you if your ‘inner conflict’ is at work, all the fun timers, task managers, etc. aren’t going to help you.

And speaking of that human element…

5. Accountability partner
Purpose: To be accountable to another human being weekly about what has and hasn’t happened yet in terms of achieving goals.
Estimated time saved: 30 minutes/week 

And if you really want to get something done, there is nothing like having to tell your friend/a slightly detached individual that you haven’t done it yet… and have them push you as to why.

Meeting with Ashley weekly most of the year made me do things I wouldn’t have done… but I think next year we’ll work together even better now that we’ve figured each other out a bit.

If you want to read more about this, check out this previous blog post I wrote about my accountability partner. 

So if I am actually saving myself about 8 hours a week (and these are all fairly conservative estimates), that’s a significant amount indeed. I can’t explain in any other way how I have been able to do so much ‘extra’ this year without having to work more than a handful of weekends.

I don’t see myself picking up more ‘tricks’ than this but I do think implementing these better will allow me to do more and better in 2015. And here’s hoping you’ve seen something that helps you do the same.

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