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 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.

Godzilla Cake Disaster of ’98, or How to Work With Your Limits

My brother’s 7th birthday party was Godzilla themed. The movie (with Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno) was alright in my opinion, but Stephen thought it was The Greatest Movie of All Time. Of course, this is the same kid that made fun of me for crying at My Dog Skip, so I’m inclined to question his taste in cinema. In order to make this party the greatest Godzilla party ever thrown, Mom decided NOT to consult Hannaford (Shop ‘n’ Save, at the time) for a cake. Instead, she asked a local cake-making woman if she could construct a cake that resembled Godzilla. The Cake Woman seemed a bit hesitant, but agreed to the task at hand.

It turned out awful.

I haven't located the original picture, but this is an eerily accurate artistic rendition a la MS Paint.

I haven’t located the original picture, but this is an eerily accurate artistic rendition a la MS Paint.

No one wanted to eat the Godzilla cake- including me, the cake-eating aficionado of the family. It was a one-layer cake, vaguely shaped like a t-rex, topped with a green, gray, and brown frosting combination, and a garish face that would give Stephen King nightmares. Mom clearly regretted not going the Hannaford route, and was a little peeved that the Cake Woman thought this offensive cake was appropriate to give to a customer. 

I don’t know why, but Godzilla Cake-gate has been on my mind a lot lately (so has cake in general, but that’s neither here nor there). Did The Cake Woman simply agree to a task she knew nothing about, thinking “Eh, how hard could it be?” Was it a personal challenge gone wrong? I refuse to believe that The Cake Woman simply made this particular cake and wiped her hands of it. What happened?  Why did she expose us to this cake horror show? 

One of the possible conclusions is that The Cake Woman agreed to do something she wasn’t 100% sure she could do. Honestly, I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with that. I agree to do quite a few things that I’m not absolutely sure I can handle (besides- how certain are we, really, of anything?). Should you be a certain percentage of surety before committing to something, on a work-related level?

Andy Dwyer, the Everyman.

Andy Dwyer, the Everyman.

“Never challenge yourself” is not at all the moral of this tale. If you never challenge yourself, you never learn. There are thousands of articles and blog posts out there asserting the idea that we must push ourselves in our search for improvement. In fact, that’s something that I really enjoy about this job: I’m learning something new on a daily basis. In fact, we have a set time once a week specifically dedicated to learning something new. The Cake Woman may have seen the Godzilla cake as a learning opportunity.

Giving yourself time to learn and execute a new task is also recommended. “Rome wasn’t build in a day” seems like a tired cliche, but it’s spot on. Maybe you’ve seen the various 30 Day Challenges out there. It’s worth noting that these are a) challenges,  and b) they are issued for a month long span. That’s some time and dedication. If The Cake Woman had put off making the Godzilla cake until the night before the birthday party, she probably didn’t give herself enough time. If she had instead started toying around with the idea a week or so in advance, she could have toyed with the general shape of the cake, the color of the frosting, how it was going to be decorated, and so on.

Here’s another baking experiment example: I was part of a group project for a class at Bates, and our project involved making amazing cupcakes for our entire class (it was senior year). Before the final presentation, where we brought in a few dozen cupcakes, we spent about a month practicing, toying around with recipes, different flavor and frosting combos, and figuring out how long baking actually took. Sure, it may sound like a lot of work for what it was worth, but we were able to deliver a polished finished product to our classmates. And everyone was psyched to eat cupcakes at 8 a.m.

Challenging yourself, whether in your personal or professional life, is something most everyone recommends these days. If your particular challenge involves giving a customer a finished product, give yourself some learning and executing time. Trust me, you don’t want to be in the position of giving a customer a product or service that is the equivalent of Stephen’s Godzilla cake.

That being said, I did totally eat some of that Godzilla cake. Waste not, want not, right?

Set Up Your Intern For Success: A Cautionary Tale

I will say that interns are a great resource. We’ve had some here and for the most part, it has gone well.

The backstory as to why I’m writing this now? I spent a total of two days of billable hours fixing the work of a Client X’s intern from this summer.

This wasn’t doing new work, this was fixing work that had already been done. To the tune of $75/hour.

Doing this has pained me, not just what it is financially costing this client but because of what it can cost you. Because if you think this upcoming generation of ‘digital nomads’ always knows what they are doing on a computer, I am here to tell you that is not even close to always the case. Whether your intern is 13 or 31 or 113, the rules are the same.

Give them a structure.

So in this case the intern for Client X did keep the site up to date… but there was no method to where the information was placed on the website. A new page was created for every event and there was no hierarchy. For example, if you wanted to see all the events that happened in 2013, there was no way to do that easily since they were scattered all over the place.

Also, all the pages were formatted differently. Some were centered with big pictures, some had thumbnail size pictures and were left justified. Some even were in different fonts. So if you looked at a couple in a row, it looks like a crazy person maintained this website. Only it wasn’t someone crazy, it was someone who had no structure.

As the person hiring, you need to create the structure for the person to follow. When in doubt, create the how-to document for them so they can refer back after the initial training.

If part of the reason you hired this intern to create methods, have that be the very first thing they do. For example, say that you want a consistent new format for every flyer your company creates. Have them not only figure this out (possibly after researching how other places use flyers for event promotion) but make the how-to document so anyone creating a flyer in the future can follow the instructions. This will ensure the work is done consistently.


Evaluate their actual skills.

With Client X, the intern told them he was a website expert. But before giving anyone the keys to the car, why not give a small driving test? Have them write some copy for your website or chose and resize images for a slideshow. (These can be given to someone like me to upload very quickly.) If that goes well, have them do something a little technical like make an intake form that gets automatically sent to three people when filled out, including yourself. Over the course of a couple weeks, you will have a very good idea of what they can do (they do it right away, it works great) and what they can’t (they’ll ask a lot of questions, the work doesn’t get done, an outside expert sees the work and warns you).

I’m not saying give them fake work during this period. Give them things that need to get done… but do so in small pieces of increasing complexity, testing different skill sets during the process.

I can say this from experience: I once worked with a subcontractor where I assumed that, since they could use Twitter to send tweets, they could successfully schedule these tweets in Twitter. I went in to check their work, only to see they had all the tweets scheduled to go out on the same day instead of throughout the month. Had I not caught it, this would have been disastrous. (31 marketing tweets from a company = lots of people unfollowing and otherwise annoyed) From then on, I had the intern write the tweets and I did the scheduling. The moral? Play to their actual strengths, not the ones they mention on their resume.

Note: If you were going to have this person for over a year, by all means train them on more difficult tasks. But if the point of an intern is short term work that helps you move forward, you are best playing to strengths versus training out weaknesses.

Double note: If you don’t know enough to evaluate this person’s skills, find someone who can help you. This is not a step to skip.

Check their work. 

Just because an intern is there, doesn’t mean you have less work. It means you spend more time on other things, one of them is checking this person’s work, especially at first.

If you don’t like what you are seeing, speak up. Talk to your intern, showing them concrete examples of what you want different. Otherwise they will do what they are doing for the whole period of time, making cleanup for the person behind them that much more substantial.

Give them training.

Give your intern a leg up by giving them some training. An online seminar, adult ed class, or even someone coming into the office for a couple hours can be relatively low cost and give the intern some of the skills they need to do the work you want them to. If during the initial testing period you find, for example, that they can’t code well in HTML but you need them to do that regularly, offer to pay for their time to take a class on the topic online. If you want them to edit video but no one in your office can use the software you want them to use, look around for a local expert and have them come in to train your intern. (Sure, I taught myself how to use Sony Vegas with the owner’s manual at one job I had but it took me a couple months. I could have gotten there a lot more quickly if someone would have sat with me even for a couple hours to show me around.)

While this idea of training seems like an up front cost, this will save you hundreds of dollars of productivity time or staff time redoing intern work. Bonus? You can send a staff person with the intern to also get the training so then you have two people in the company who can do new things, one who will leave and one who will be around to help other people in the future.

In short:


Not because interns can’t be smart or helpful or life affirming… but because they need some help from you to get there.

Why I Don’t Volunteer Web Work

About a year ago, I made a policy that I don’t do volunteer work related to my field. And I told people.

I will gladly get in a lobster suit for charity, I just won't do anything that involves a computer. (This isn't me, but I did offer to do it.)

I will gladly get in a lobster suit for charity, I just won’t do anything that involves a computer. (This isn’t me, but I did offer to do this. Just for the record.)

99% of people totally got it… and some even said it was a ‘great idea’.  About 1% don’t say anything (and secretly think I am a jerk I’m sure).

Note that the lack of volunteer work is in my field only. I will happily lug boxes for the food pantry. I will help clean my church during spring cleanup. My help just doesn’t come in the form of a website, blog, social media, or email newsletter.

There are a few solid reasons for that:

1) Less time at the computer. For someone who once had carpal tunnel and tendonitis in both arms, being at a computer 8-10 hours a day, 5 days a week is enough for my body. More seems like asking for trouble.

2) Get to do/learn new stuff. Although I get to problem solve all day, it’s fun to solve a completely not-typical-for-me problem or learn to do something completely new. Sometimes this knowledge (like taking on credit card processing for the MDI Seafood Festival) ends up being helpful in my daily work, though sometimes it doesn’t. I’m fine with either.

3) Heads off bad leads. The other day at Rotary, one of the other members said to me, ‘This non-profit was asking me about you because they need a cheap website and I told them you don’t do volunteer work.’ I could have kissed her. If I am going to lose money on a project (and I’ve gone over why websites cost what they do and why social media marketing costs money), I don’t want to do it as part of the business.

4) It’s not fair. For awhile, my policy was to do three volunteer projects a year. If you hadn’t gotten to me in January, basically it was a no go. But ‘you helped so and so’ worked against me when I said no to a new volunteer project. So even though I helped three organizations FOR FREE, I was still being guilted. Now to give you an idea of the workload, there are more than 400+ non-profits on the island I live on. Just the island itself. Add to that my actual family and friends who don’t make a ton of money who I’d like to help and you see a workload I could never take on for a reduced rate, let alone for free. So I just charge everyone the same so no one can feel slighted.

5) People don’t value what they can get for free. I once volunteered for a very big website project for a non-profit that had ‘no money’. It took over 100 hours of my time and made the lives of all involved easier. I took phone calls nights and weekends. I came on site three times for staff training. Three years after, when they had a budget for a website redesign, did they come to me for a bid? Nope, they went straight to a competitor. I was mad, not because I didn’t get the project but because I wasn’t even considered for the job. My theory: when you get it for free, you don’t value it, even if it is awesome. Paying for something means thinking about what you want… and the time involved for someone else to do it. Both of these mean the person is happier with the end product, even if it is actually crappier.

6) I have a big enough portfolio. When someone tells me their project could ‘build my portfolio’, I have to smile. I’ve been doing this six years. I’ve helped build over 100 websites. I have worked with over 300 companies and non-profits with online marketing. (P.S. It’s kind of condescending to a professional to imply they need to build their portfolio, especially when you have not looked into their actual past work.) Every paid project I’ve ever done has helped build my portfolio, and will continue to do so. Volunteering is something I do for good, not to further my business.

So if you are looking for a cheap or free website, I suggest you go elsewhere… but if you have insulation you need sprayed in the crawlspace of your homeless shelter or want some bread baked for your cocktail party fundraiser for the local skate park, I’m actually pretty good at those things too.

Seven Reasons You Should Work For Me

I’m taking the hiring of my first full time employee very seriously. As my friend Ogy put it, this is an important decision because I am essentially doubling my company. I can’t help but think more about this on Labor Day.

Jennifer Hooper has done some fine work here at Breaking Even Communications but she is off to get her masters degree so it’s time to find a replacement, quite a task really since Jennifer is so awesome.

Over the last month, as I emailed colleagues and friends about leads, they have asked me, “Nicole, what are you really looking for?”

Above all, I am looking for a good person: hardworking, smart, friendly, interested, and honest. Anyone who fits that description I can train on the technical aspects of the job. (And I am pretty patient too since I remember what it is like to learn this stuff!)

And I have decided whether it takes me a month, two months, or six months to get the right person here at the second desk here, I’m going to do it.

If you are thinking about applying to work at this company (and meet the basic requirements as stated here), here are a few reasons I think you’d like to work here at Breaking Even Communications:

1. Rewarding work.
Helping small business owners and non-profit boards is pretty rewarding. People contact Breaking Even Communications because they want to learn about the internet, and watching the light bulb moments people have is pretty fantastic. If you want a job where you are making a difference and solving problems, this is a job where you’d get to do that.

2. Different every day.
Whether it’s a bed and breakfast learning about Twitter, a retailer optimizing their Youtube channel, or a non-profit needing some blog direction, you get to learn a bit about the goals, and challenges of a variety of clients. Breaking Even Communications has between forty and sixty clients at a given moment meaning there is never a dull moment!

3. Get paid to learn.
Want to learn more about internet and business, both from online resources and directly from colleagues in the internet marketing industry? At Breaking Even Inc., we build in time for professional development so we can stay on top of it all. So if you like to learn about web development, this is a good way to do it.

4. Flexible schedule.
Honestly, sometimes you need to be in the office or helping at an event like a workshop. But a lot of the time, you can work from home, your favorite coffee shop, wherever! One perk we can offer you is the ability to work with your schedule. Yes, very aware that there are other things to life besides work!

5. Live in Downeast Maine.
The saying is you can’t be a real Mainer until you’ve spent a winter, so this job can totally help you meet this unofficial requirement. Plus, it really is very fun to be in such a beautiful place with nice people year round. And when summer 2012 rolls around, you already have a job in Bar Harbor.

6. Your boss is pretty cool.
I (Nicole Ouellette) am a pretty nice person, and I think I’m a pretty good boss. More importantly, I am always trying to get better. Here are some recommendations here: Even better, ask around about me!

7. Get in on a growing company.
If you are the kind of person who wants to make a lasting contribution to a company, Breaking Even Communications has been growing steadily (and at times exponentially) and is going into its fourth year (!) of operation. Your ideas will be heard and as the company grows, you could play an increasingly important role (and help shape it within the company). That’s pretty exciting!

So Happy Labor Day to you and if you know someone who’d be a good fit for this company, please pass this post along. (It’s my 800th blog post, can you believe it!? Time flies when you’re having fun!)