productivity

Tech Thursday: Why You Should Consider E-Mail Templates

Flooded e-mail inboxes seem to be the norm nowadays, and its incredibly stressful. How can you possibly respond to everyone and get them all the information they need? It may seem Herculean, but it doesn’t have to be!

Enter e-mail templates, or, pre-written e-mails. These are great if you are responding to general or specific inquiries that you may recieve from people on a daily basis. Instead of having to start each e-mail from scratch, all you have to do is tweak a few words, and you’re done. Boom!

In this video, we talk a little bit about how e-mail templates are like the cookie cutters of your e-mail productivity. To sum it up: the wheel has already been invented for you, so you shouldn’t waste your precious time trying to recreate it each time you write an e-mail.

As a bonus, here are a couple resources for pre-writing e-mails (without sounding like a robot):

From Ramit Sethi, who also agrees that having a script saves a ton of time in the long run.

Using pre-written e-mails with G-mail

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Accountability Partners: The How And Why

 

Accountability is key! Image from: http://hauterepublic.com/blog/

Accountability is key! Image from: http://hauterepublic.com/blog/

As part of a business program I am doing, one of the challenges proposed was to get an accountability partner and check in with them once a week.

Initially, I thought of this as one more meeting I had to go to but sighed and said I was in. (My usual strategy to something I think will be good for me is to try it at least, even if I think it’s lame.)

I got paired up with A, a photographer and graphics designer in Atlanta Georgia. (A random matchmaker in the group paired us up based on being in the same time zone.)

It’s kind of funny to have gotten to know A as I’ve gotten to know her. Normally when you meet friends, you get to know each other slowly. Maybe you exchange some small talk in the break room.You might send them a “Happy Birthday” message on Facebook or be pleasantly surprised to run into them. But in general this friendship is built over time and starts off casual.



An accountability partner is kind of like getting right to the ‘best friend’ part of the relationship. It’s happens fast because it has to.

A and I had a first conversation (about two hours) on the phone where we spent an hour telling the other our respective back stories. While you might think this might not be adequate time, it was relatively intense and, at least speaking about me summarizing my whole life in about 50 minutes, I can say A knows enough about me from this conversation to be friendly but more importantly to be helpful.

As I write this, I am not entirely sure where A went to college or what religion she is (though I could easily look that up on Facebook because we’re friends or ask her the next time we talk). It’s not really the point.

So if you don’t share anything in particular (even an arbitrary interest) you might ask ‘Well what is the point?’

After the first getting to know each other conversation, we set our 3 month, 6 month, and 12 months goals. We wrote them in Google Docs and shared them with each other. As stuff gets done, we cross it off (no deleting- we want to track progress). Every week (well most every week), we have a check in phone call.

What’s hilarious is that despite taking up an hour every week in my life, this has actually been pretty useful. Talking to A about what I’ve done and not done makes her part supportive friend, part impartial third party, part tough love.

And tough love, I mean asking me the questions I should be asking myself. We didn’t I email that person I said I would? Oh right, because I’m scared they won’t want to work with me. She’s never pushy, just inquisitive. We all need nudging and I’m glad she does it.



Because A and I don’t have lots of time together, we don’t have time to tell each other stories or think of false excuses. We get right to the point. Sure we vent sometimes but it is never long winded  when we do.

The relationship I have with A is unlike any relationship I’ve had with anyone. It’s useful to both of us and, while I’m sure we’d be actual friends if she lived closer or we shared some interest together, it’s kind of better that we aren’t. I don’t have to run into A after admitting to a petty thought. I don’t have to tell her why I am so frustrated that I gained three pounds last week. Her being friend, impartial third party, and nudger in one means she is also not one of those things. She can acknowledge, give an idea, and move on. And I do the same for her.

Now you might ask yourself, how do I get an accountability partner?

First off, it helps if you are set up. The program I’m in does that but your alumni association, business course, or some other group you belong to might be able to set you up. Several places online seem to be able to help you if you are willing to pay a bit of money (my program costs money). The only free one I’ve really seen is this Reddit group.

But ideally this person is someone you don’t know well but someone you can trust whose perspective you can appreciate. If A and I after hearing each other’s backstories didn’t see some common values or ideas, I am sure we would have both opted for another accountability partner option. While I would have probably been offended, I know it would be better in the long run to work with someone you are very compatible with. This isn’t just someone you go hiking or drinking with; this is someone who knows things about you that lots of other people don’t so choosing the right person should take time and effort.

If you want something more intense, this is one of the coolest articles I’ve read this year about an accountability group (It’s a long one but worth a read).

And as a third and final alternative, if you like the idea of a group but want something a bit less intense and a bit more short term of a format than The Elephants, you can always start or join a goals group. 

So while I didn’t invent this idea, I did want to let you know that it’s not hokey or weird. It actually has been working really well for me! Accountability can sometimes be lame (or maybe a little scary) but having someone to be it with makes it much less so.



Some Of My Favorite Motivational Videos

I spend a lot of time watching online video. More than I should probably admit.

Sometimes, these videos distract me. These are usually animal videos.

But other videos kind of give me some inspiration to work hard and do more. Here are three of my favorites:

Productivity from Randy Pausch

This video is about productivity and achieving dreams from a very smart charismatic professor who happens to be dying. If you want some general productivity ideas or just a kick in the pants, this will do it. Everyone from high school students to someone about to retire will get something out of this lecture.

Negotiation from Ramit Sethi

This is the only business ‘class’ I ever paid for. While aimed at freelancers, Ramit Sethi will teach you the scripts you need to negotiate. (If I’ve used any of these on you, sorry.) These series of videos are part of that course and can give you some useful tips on raising your rates, negotiating with providers, and other useful stuff.

Goal Setting With Marie Forleo

If you have a big dream you want to tackle, Marie will break down the process of brainstorming into steps you can implement. This half hour video, if you do the exercises, will give you a goal and ways to work towards it. Since I can’t embed it from her site, here’s the link: http://www.marieforleo.com/htgayw/

Do you have any productivity/educational/business-y videos you like to watch? Share the links in the comments!

 

4 Hour Chef: My Experiences With Weight Loss

Some would argue I’m not that overweight. I don’t have to go to special stores to buy clothes, I can run a mile (most Americans apparently can’t do this), and I do a lot of my own cooking that many would have perceive as healthy.

4-hour-chef-coverBut as a former athlete, having a BMI that is technically obese has bothered me for awhile.

Go to the gym more, people said. Doing this made me hungrier and didn’t budge the scale nearly enough to keep me motivated. I’ve heard before that you lose pounds in the kitchen and ounces at the gym so I figured once I got an eating plan down, I could add the gym back into my routine for toning purposes. But I needed to feel success first… and have some go-to recipes that I could confidently throw together.

Cutting out sugar and carbs didn’t do it. Gluten free didn’t do it. I realized I had to take drastic measures… but needed some guidance.



I plunked down $30 for Four Hour Chef around Christmas. While I thought it was a bit expensive, I realized what I purchased was an encyclopedia. The pages are so dense with information, I don’t know where else he could have added anything. Well worth the price of admission.

It’s been a solid month since really taking on this latest book by productivity expert Tim Ferris. I’ve read his two other books: The Four Hour Workweek and the The Four Hour Body. In the Four Hour Body book, Tim tackled making your body work better. The chapter on weight loss was popular which is probably why he came out with Four Hour Chef, a cookbook that’s not just supposed to teach you how to lose weight but how to cook well.

This plan in summary:

1) No dairy, fruit, grains, alcohol, sugars, or other things that spike your blood sugar.
2) Eat protein, vegetables, and a few exception things sparingly (like avocados, tomato, dark chocolate, and red wine) only.
3) Eat a protein rich breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up.
4) Pick a cheat day and, after your healthy breakfast, eat whatever you want that day of the week.



How has this affected my life? I now take cinnamon in my coffee not creamer. No more quinoa at dinner or clementines in the office, both options I thought were healthy for me. And no popcorn, which is my absolute favorite snack. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m doing it.

This has involved trying new vegetables (for variety’s sake) and learning more about cooking things like eggs in a more flavorful way. This cashew basil pesto, for example, has rocked my world on chicken and also zucchini: http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2011/03/16/vegan-cashew-basil-pesto/

Cheat days have been epic. Derrick, who has been very supportive in my diet, cheats with me hard on cheat day, which usually involves a pack of Oreos, something I would have never allowed myself before. Do the cheat days slow down my weight loss? Probably. But saying goodbye to popcorn and other things I love indefinitely would be unsustainable and possibly cruel. If cheat days mean I lose the weight slower, I am ok with that. The end result will be the same and I’ll have a lot more fun getting there.

So far I’m down eight pounds with 32 to go. 32? Yes, 32. Trust me when I tell you that I know what healthy looks like for me and I’m going there and no where close to anorexic.

If you are the kind of person who’s tried everything and needs something based in science that works, give this plan a shot. There are lots of people doing it (there are forums and everything) and other than the book, it’s free.

I just feel like I’ve been trying to play by the rules of a game and all this time, I’ve had the wrong rule book. And if even one person feels this way that reads this and gives it a shot, it will have been worth writing this.

Buy your own copy of “The 4-Hour Chef” on Amazon (Note: this is an affiliate link)



The Two Things You Need To Work From Home

Does working from home mean you are suddenly relaxed and attractive? Stock photography seems to think so. Check out istockphoto.com for more hilariously inaccurate gems like this.

Does working from home mean you are suddenly relaxed and attractive? Stock photography seems to think so. Check out istockphoto.com for more hilariously inaccurate gems like this.

‘It must be so nice to be in your pajamas all day.’

‘You can do whatever you want- that’s so cool!’

People think a lot of things about working from home, like somehow those who do have some magical gig where they get paid to watch reality television and eat Lucky Charms.

I wish.

For the first three years of Breaking Even, when it was only me, I worked from home. I read the usual tips about working from home. The ideas typically include things like putting on ‘real’ clothes and starting at a set time. In other words, treat it like a normal workday where you’d leave and go work elsewhere. I am completely behind this concept.

For awhile, I did this badly. But then I figured out the two secrets to working at home. You need:

1) transition ritual where you transition into work and out of work. For most people, that’s what their commute does for them.

2) discipline to train others and yourself not to distract you. Because how other people react with reinforce (or undermine) what you are trying to do.

Transition Rituals

My former office at home. Cute but having to have it in my living room meant I had to create my own work-life boundaries. You can too.

My former office at home. Cute but having to have it in my living room meant I had to create my own work-life boundaries. You can too.

My transition ritual into work involved taking a shower, drinking french press coffee, and walking my dog. I would then feed my dog, feed myself and then start work by 9 am. Yes, even in my 220 square foot studio apartment with a three step commute from my bed to my desk, I needed a ritual. For the start of the day, I recommend a combination of getting things done, eating breakfast, and anything you need to do that involves feeling like you are ‘waking up’.

My transition ritual out of work usually involved doing something moderately mindless like some data entry while watching a 20ish minute television show on Hulu. This way I was able to eek out an extra few minutes of productivity while getting into relax mode.  To end your work day, I recommend doing something that needs to get done businesswise but is kind of tedious (like putting in payments into Quickbooks or updating your email Contacts list) while feeling like you are ‘relaxing’.

These are my recommendations. Experiment and see what works for you!

Ask other people how they do it and read other people’s experiences and you may find something you haven’t thought of. Some people’s rituals will fascinate you. I once read about someone who got dressed, got in their car, drove around the block, parked in their driveway again, and walked back in the house to start their work at home day.  The only thing that matters is finding an into work and out of work ritual that work for you. Even if they are a little insane.

Training Yourself And Others

If your significant other comes to your house at the end of the day and comments about how you haven’t done the dishes, set that crap straight.

If your friends try to Facebook chat with you, ignore them.

If you find yourself starting to think about cleaning your bathroom or rearranging your closet by color, put the idea on a list to get it out of your brain and keep working.

The temptations of being at home are numerous. Sometimes you have a noble purpose of wanting to be productive so your family will wow at how you juggle both work and home in an effortless way. Sometimes you are trying to procrastinate and you feel like a naughty kid getting away with something when you do it. Or it could be that your friends have worked with other people all day and the only conversation you’ve had is with the mailman and you are a touch lonely. These are all valid. But these temptations trying to pass off  as needs can not be met during your workday.

In terms of being good to yourself, give yourself a break, one in the morning and one in the afternoon just like legally they’d have to give you if you worked at a job outside your house. I used to keep a kitchen timer on my desk at home and when it went off, I could stop working and take a break (usually after 2 hours). Use your break time to do some dishes (if you really want) or chat with people on Facebook (if you really want). Thing is it’s your break so do something that feels like a break. It is up to you but I recommend getting away from the computer if you can for it to truly feel ‘breaky’.

In terms of other people, it may take a few months to set expectations. People who aren’t in your situation aren’t trying to be jerky, they just don’t understand. So take some time and let them know you can’t talk because you are in the middle of something. Follow discussions up with behavior that is consistent with what you are saying: don’t answer personal phone calls during the work day, keep chats under five minutes that aren’t work related, and let people know they can’t just stop in because you may have a conference call or other time sensitive activity scheduled. The interruptions will die down and people will respect that you are working when they see that you aren’t doing fun stuff between 9 to 5. Or whatever set time you’ve established. ‘I don’t call you during the day anymore because I know you’re working.’ one of my friends said to me a few days ago, completely unsolicited. Exactly.

On the same level, I keep work stuff separate too. I don’t answer work calls during non work hours. If something is urgent, people will leave a voicemail and I can call them back. I try to take one full day off from the computer every week (usually Sunday). Because while you don’t want life to interfere with work, you also don’t want work to interfere with life.

Will you seem like a hardened drill sargent by enforcing this boundary? To some maybe. But this is your life we’re talking about and anyone who needs you to be available to them 24-7 with no regard to your needs or sanity is not someone you want to be buddy buddy with anyway. The enforcement stage usually is only a couple months until people get used to your schedule. And as they respect it, you’ll find yourself starting to respect it more too.

Working from home? It’s not that difficult but it takes a certain kind of person to do it well. Be that person.

This Week In Business: Gas Station Coffee Edition

I always know I’m going on a big trip when I am drinking terrible gas station coffee. I kind of look forward to it actually!

After my presentation at Social Media FTW with Lenny Tracy of the Maine Real Estate Network, who sat through it. See how relieved I look? -Photo Courtesy of Maine Today

After my presentation at Social Media FTW with Lenny Tracy of the Maine Real Estate Network, who sat through it. See how relieved I look? -Photo Courtesy of Maine Today

This week, I headed to Social Media FTW in Portland to present about business blogging. Nothing like standing up in front of 150ish people with a mic on knowing you’re being videotaped. I had a good time but I was also really nervous… I think it went well anyway!

If/when the presentations go online, I’ll link them on this blog. But for the moment, here is a link to the slides of my presentation. You know, in case you want to feel like you were there.

Here’s what else happened this week:

Matt and I got a little more organized with the Downeast Learning workshops.

There seems to be two groups of people we contact about our workshops. 1) Publications who need to know about something way ahead of time to be able to publish it. and 2) People who only need it about a week ahead (as in they need a time constraint to actually register). Matt organized our press email list (and we have a separate email list we maintain off the Downeast Learning website of other people).  Now we can make sure the notification goes out twice: once a month ahead for the publications (and people) and once one week ahead to remind folks to sign up.

Matt and I are also going to try to live stream this next workshop to see if we can have people remotely register to attend workshops. We’ll keep you posted about if it worked.

To make sure we got in the print version of the Ellsworth Chamber newsletter, we also decided on our workshop topic for next month. You’ve Been Yelped! is all about the use of online review websites and how they can help businesses and non-profits can get and use online reviews to their advantage. There, now you know a month ahead! Though honestly, if anyone would sign up this early, you’d officially shock me.

My blog continued its move to Wordpress.

At the talk I gave, I told people how I’ve moved my blog three times to different software/domains. I swear this move to Wordpress was the last (from MyBlog, a Joomla component, in case you were curious).

Last week was the big move: making the software live and making sure everything worked overall. This past week has been tweaking things. I’ve been adding plugins, tagging blog posts, and otherwise polishing the content that’s on this site.

Do you believe it’s been four years since I’ve started the Breaking Even blog? Crazy!

I decided to tell people I would have to hold off on their work for a few days… and the world didn’t end.

I think those of us who work alone can think the world will don’t end if we don’t do everything right away. I had applied to be part of the Social Media FTW conference a few months ago and the last few weeks, work has gotten really busy. Ah, timing.

I had two choices: 1) Not sleep for the next month. or 2) Tell people there was going to be a bit of a delay. Since I need sleep so I don’t become Crazy Sleep-Deprived Nicole, I opted for option 2. Guess what? The world did not end. My clients were ok waiting a couple days. I love that people are reasonable…

I had breakfast with someone absolutely inspiring.

Samantha Warren is one of those rare people that has managed to be friends with a lot of my friends on Facebook without me having met her. And it’s not one of those cases where she knows people from one part of my life. I decided we should meet for breakfast, as cool people and fellow small business owners.

We had such a nice time: great conversation about life, work, and all the people we have in common. One idea she had that I thought was great was making a ‘procedures’ document, in case someone ever has to take over work for her (and also as a checklist to make sure all things she does get done on schedule). Anyway, if I ever need a wedding photographer, I think I’ve got one.

So while this week was a lot of driving, it was a great week in terms of meeting people and networking.

If you met me this week, I do hope you’ll comment below so I can follow you online as well. Have a good rest of the week!

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