time management

“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?

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.

Tech Thursday: Online Storage, Toggl, and Beyond

Happy Tech Thursday!

As promised, we’re adding our new Google Hangout Tech Thursdays to the blog as we go (also, this format is a lot of fun so far)!

This week, we discuss online storage options (so, when the next version of iOS or what have you comes out, you aren’t deleting all your music and pictures off your phone like Kassie). Some options include Dropbox and Google Drive (which we use here at Breaking Even) and iCloud, if you’re only using Mac products. We also had a brief Throwback Thursday moment to Bates’ online storage system, Paris (lots of colleges have something similar).

Productivity and time management are always of interest to us, and we wanted to share our newest tool- Toggl. It makes everyone’s lives easier here, and we thought maybe others could benefit from it, too! (Plus, I just read this interesting piece from Seth Godin on Optimistic Time vs. Honest Time– which is why we love tools like Toggl).

Feel free to send us your questions/ideas for topics- we’d love to have them for next time!

Is It Worth Your Time?

Sometimes, with any task in life, it’s easy to wonder (out loud or otherwise): Is this worth my time?

While I can’t answer that in every instance of your life, I can help you with the internet stuff. Here are some questions you should ask yourself before you do something:

How many eyeballs are looking at this?

For example, I’ve been wanting to improve the ‘clients’ page on this website for about three months… but I had to pick between working on that page or updating my ‘events’ page. The events page gets more traffic (plus we had two workshops this month to promote) so that took precedence.

You can do the same thing in real life. Should you spend your money upgrading your lounge area or bathroom? Asking yourself how many of your customers see each might clarify where your priority should be.

Who is looking at this?

As important as the number of eyeballs to think of is who is looking at this.

For example, if you just sent out an email newsletter with a link to a page on your website you want your subscribers to see, you know that people you care about are going to be looking at that page from the moment you click ‘send’… so make it beautiful and functional before you do.

If less people are looking at something but they happen to be important people to you, it’s worth prioritizing.

What does it matter?

Now there are people who make a living dissecting words on a page. Should you be using ‘hair stylist’ or ‘beautician’? Should you put the customer quotes in the middle of the page or have them scrolling on the side or the page? Is the 14 point Helvetica really better than the 12 point Veranda font.

This is minutia, people, and you know it.

Also, all these questions can paralyze you into doing nothing.

When you have a slow news day, that’s when you can implement what you’ve learned in Copy Hackers to optimize an important page. That’s when you decide it’s time to overhaul all the slides in your slideshow. Make a list of those things you’d do if you had time and you can knock them out over the course of a few months.

What matters?

1) Up to date information (hours, menu, pricing, etc.).
2) Nothing weird/off putting (a slide that won’t load, a button that links to a social media page you haven’t updated in a year, the top of your favorite employee’s head cropped off).

If you have an hour or so to devote to this a week, spend it first on that critical stuff.

What’s gravy? The best wording possible. New photos. Trying out that font. Social icons that match your brand.

You can spend an infinite amount of time online but asking yourself ‘What’s worth it?’ will let you still do what you need to do online and run your actual business.

Tech Thursday: How to Manage E-mail

Know that you could be managing your email better? Here’s a few tricks to get you down to a ‘zero inbox’ (though if you are interested in this topic, you should totally read that book). Also a shoutout to emailga.me, the website that makes checking your email kind of fun.

Run your inbox, so your inbox doesn’t run you!

Project Management Software

asanalogoIt seems like it would be pretty easy to run a two person business with a few subcontractors, right?

Well increasingly, it wasn’t easy. Emails get lost or misfiled… that and I can’t easily look at my email and know a project status if Alice is working on a design or Matt’s working on fixing a functionality issue for it.

Matt found Asana in his travels and we’ve been using it really successfully over the last three months. Every client is a ‘project’ and we can assign tasks to each other with due dates, easily attaching notes, comments, and actual files if we wanted to. Then if a client calls or emails, any of us can check on the project status and let them know what is going on. It’s integration with Google Apps made it an easy choice for us… oh, and it’s free.

In addition to the business side of Asana, there is also a ‘Personal Projects’ section which no one else on the team can see but you. You can put reminders to ‘bring back library books’ or ‘make bedroom curtains’ which can have subtasks associated (ex: buy fabric, measure windows, etc.). There is also the same ability to set due dates.

What the Asana interface looks like. From http://allthingsd.com

What the Asana interface looks like. From http://allthingsd.com

What are Asana’s weaknesses?

  • There is no way to locally download (ie download onto a computer) the file. In other words, not being able to back up ourselves means we are a little vulnerable (But with Dropbox and Foursquare also using it, we feel in good company).
  • Asana emails you when others in your team make changes with no way to control the amount of email you get.
  • There is no Android app. Since we are an entirely an iPhone company at the moment, this isn’t a problem yet but as we grow it might become one.

Now, no project management software will ever be perfect. You’ll probably need to try out a few to find one you like. I would suggest doing this by yourself or in a small group before making your company use it. Nothing like making people learn a software they will never use to lower company morale and make people not tolerate other changes in the future. In your shopping around here are some questions you may want to ask:

On your network or web based?

The first big decision is whether you are ok with your system being ‘in the cloud’ or you want it on your local computer network. Clearly, I am pro-cloud (hence using Asana, which lives online and can be accessed in any web browser or on my iPhone) but if you aren’t there are systems out there you can install on your computer network for internal use only if you feel like you want the system to be more insular.

Do you need full CRM capabilities?

Basecamp and other software like it is pretty full featured… and at $50+/month, you’d expect it to be. But we don’t need a full CRM where clients can log in and other bells and whistles related to that so we are forgoing it. What you don’t need is as important as what you need in terms of making any software decision. It could save you money… or simply a steep learning curve.

How can tasks be organized?

Sometimes you may feel limited by how a project management system categorizes. Maybe you can make subtasks but can’t assign deadlines to those like you want. Maybe you want the search box to search for content words within project notes and it won’t. You’ll only know if you like how your project management software organizes things if you organize a few separate projects in it.

Do you need other features (time tracking, live chat, etc.) or can these be accomplished elsewhere?

We use spreadsheets for hours/billing and Google chat for chatting so we weren’t looking to have these functions… but you might be. Make a list of ‘dream’  integrations (Time tracking to Quickbooks, client login with their Gmail, etc. dream big!) and prioritize each one and you’ll be more likely to end up with something that’ll work within your company.

But if you are looking for some relatively simple software to make you more efficient, we love Asana and think you might too. Let us know what you end up finding/trying so we can get to know other options out there!

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