Archive for Productivity

Mindmapping as a memory tool

InnovationThis image is a simple mindmap I created several years ago for an innovation project I led.

It does a good job of capturing a lot of information in a simple format. The actual map contained links to several of the sources, which made it even more useful, but it also had a stong visual impact on the audience, and helped us focus on what was important. Read More→

How To Experience Abject Failure

I know when I’m beat. I know how to cut my losses and get out. There’s a lot to be said for perseverance, but even more for not throwing good money after bad. What am I talking about? My outsourcing attempts with GetFriday.com. My God, what a disaster.

After 2 1/2 months I had exactly one – that’s 1 – single success with GetFriday. Every other task I assigned was a miserable failure. Even after getting a replacement PA who was, supposedly, experienced in web search and basic web skills I could not get even marginally relevant results when I asked for search data on specific topics.

Worse, when it became clear to me that this wasn’t going to work out it took nearly an act of Congress to get them to cancel my account. The entire affair was a disaster.

What I learned is simple – if this is the best the Eur-Asian nations can offer then we are in no danger of being overrun by a low-wage workforce. They demonstrated a lack of understanding, competence, response, and adaptability that was hard to comprehend.

I went so far as to start running my task descriptions by two of my colleagues to try and ensure I was being both clear and reasonable in my requests. The results I got were still stunningly inept.

In fairness, most of my colleagues asked the very basic question, “Well, what did you expect?” I don’t know, maybe something a little above abject incompetence? How about someone with enough self awareness to recognize when they did not understand a task and ask for clarification until they did?

If you read my experience with BellSouth tech support from 2006 you’ll see my GetFriday experience is neither my first encounter with such incompetence, nor is it any real surprise. I suspect the cultural and language barriers between a third-world workforce and US-based expectations are just too great to overcome. Or maybe it is something else. I do not know.

What I do know is that from now on I will stick with North American (and possibly European) sources for anything I want done. Given my experiences I do not think there is any non-repetitive task requiring foresight, intuition, or judgment that can be effectively outsourced to a third-world workforce. It may well be that if you can 100% script an activity, and spend enough time to get the workforce to actually read the script, and have enough patience for them to practice and fail repeatedly until they get it right, that you might eventually have some success.

But as a small business my tasks are not repetitive. At least not now. And they do require thinking – which entails all those things mentioned above. The third-world is simply not the place to get these things done.

Outsourcing The Big Tasks

It’s been a while since I updated my outsourcing efforts. I’ve been head-down in trying to get my major task — bookkeeping and accounting — under control. I have been trying to find the right solution for this for over five (5) years.

I am, apparently, unique in my requirements. I just fired my second accountant for failure to help me do what I need. But I can’t imagine that I am alone in what I want. I have a small service business. I am a consultant. I travel extensively. I am a sole operator. I have no employees. I need, and have needed, someone to help me setup a bookkeeping and record keeping system that I can understand, that meets all the requirements of the government for taxes, and for which I can outsource the day-to-day tasks of data entry, filing, etc.

Because I focus on my clients I do a very poor job of keeping my own paperwork in order. Oh, I invoice everything right on schedule. After all, I don’t get paid unless I do. And my client and project records are first-rate – that’s what I get paid to do. But taking time to do my own data entry, organization, filing, etc on anything like a regular basis just never seems to be a priority until there is a crisis. So I repeatedly end up at the end of the year with boxes and piles and stacks of stuff all over the place. And I know, I know, I am not alone in this.

So why is there apparently no one who offers this kind of service? How in the world do all the freelancers and free agents survive? Do they just do like me and spend two months a year under incredible stress trying to get it all together and spend the other 10 months dreading the process? Maybe. But I am done with that.

Previously, my VA helped me locate a very nice young lady with a nearby Staffing Solutions business. Christi has turned out to be a very good find. She took on the first part of my organization project and did a good job. We are now moving to the second phase – getting an accounting system established. For that I have gone through a rather strenuous research and screening process to locate an accountant who specializes in doing what I need.

For this I found the people at Intuit to be invaluable. I started with an online chat with a sales rep there, who gave my name to one of their sales advisors. Kelly turned out to be great. She helped me understand my options, the limitations of each, and what I needed to be looking for. She also made herself available to answer any additional questions and volunteered to help my (former) accountant setup my new system using QuickBooks Online Edition.

When that didn’t work out she helped me locate several more that were certified QuickBooks Advisors. That’s when I began my interview and screening process. I found two that were very helpful and knowledgeable. Both took the time to explain what they do, how they do it, and  talk to me about my particular needs and the limitations therein. This past week I selected a provider to get started. He is former consultant who worked much as I do now, so he understands (I hope) my requirements better than my previous providers.

This next Friday we will meet – me, Christi, and the accountant – to go over the setup and processes for getting all the data in and keeping everything up to date. Of course, I still have to get all the back data entered, and that will be a challenge. But Christi is going to tackle that as soon as we’re ready. This feels like progress.

I am also on my second Virtual Assistant. As mentioned previously, I’m using GetFriday – an India-based service that provides virtual assistant services. My first VA simply did not have the skills – either technically or language – to meet my needs. GetFriday was good about getting me a replacement as soon as I asked. I spoke with Venkat on the phone  prior to his assignment to make sure I was comfortable with his English and we are  working through some early tasks to see how it goes.

Working with a VA is as much a learning experience for me as it is for them. It is a challenge for someone like me who has done everything alone for so many years. Finding the right tasks, communicating them clearly, doling them out in the right amount, etc, are all things I’m having to learn.

It’s also different in that my project work is conducted with a team of highly-skilled specialists and we all work to a common methodology. That means we all know what the other is doing, how it’s done, etc. That’s just not the case when you start using a VA. The type of tasks, and the level to which they can be done, are different. I want my VA to do all those sorts of routine, mundane, non-client tasks that must be done, but which I have neither the time nor inclination to do.

This might be keeping up with my personal calendar, sending reminders to me about friend/family things, or doing preliminary research on new car models for my daughter. It could be all kinds of stuff. I’m still learning.

No More Slogging

I was discussing the 4–hour Workweek principle of Efficiency vs Effectiveness with a colleague today. Efficiency is doing as many things as possible within a given time – more often called being productive. It’s what we’re trained to do since grade school. It’s what all the time management programs are designed around. It’s what we all think of when we start looking at the pile of things on our desks and wonder how we’ll get them all done.

Efficiency creates slogging — slogging through all the crap we do on a daily basis without really assessing whether what we’re doing is the very best use of time and energy. I am a slogger. So is my colleague. Nose to the grindstone. Dedicated. Hard worker. All these phrases are associated with sloggers. We’re taught from an early age that getting everything done is important. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Yada yada yada. This is just not true. Here are two truisms from Tim Ferris:

  • Doing something unimportant well does not make it important.
  • Requiring a lot of time does not make a task important.

Slogging also leads to wasting time. Are you checking e-mail 50–100 times a day? Why? Probably because you feel like you need to respond to things immediately. Do you answer every phone call? Why? Probably because you feel compelled to respond to every inquiry. But every time I check e-mail, or answer the phone, or do anything that distracts me from doing the one important thing I lose 30–45 minutes of time just getting my head back into the important thing. By that time some new interruption has probably occurred and the cycle starts over. At the end of the day lots of unimportant things have been completed, but the one important thing is still sitting there, waiting. And waiting. And so I slog through the night to get it done.

Corporate people are great sloggers. They spend their entire day going to pointless meetings, answering e-mails, and returning phone calls. Then they either come in early, stay late, or come in on weekends to do the important things that only they can do. And the more “productivity” goes up, the more they slog.

Effectiveness is doing the right thing, the one important thing, and only that thing. It requires taking a hard look at everything you do and asking yourself one question — “If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I feel like it was a good day?” If the answer is no, don’t do it. Just move on to something else. Find the one thing that will make it a good day. If there is time left when you’re finished find something else and ask the same question again.

Truly effective people never have more than two or three things on their To-Do list, and each of those things is significant. Everything else gets ignored or delegated. Virgin brand billionaire Richard Branson has reportedly said that everything he needs to do to run his empire can be accomplished in 30 minutes a day. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I do know that people like Branson have a fundamentally different view of the world than most folks, and they don’t slog their way through life.

Slogging creates stress. Effectiveness creates freedom. Slogging is like Brownian motion – random movement that doesn’t get you anywhere. Effectiveness is what creates meaningful output. And meaningful output — e.g. accomplishment — is what creates success.

Here’s my new motto — No More Slogging.

Getting the Office in Order

As I mentioned in last week’s outsourcing update, my Virtual Assistant made an appointment for me with a local staffing service. Thursday afternoon Kristie from Elite Staffing came to my office and we talked about the task I have at hand. We agreed to a trial period at a very reasonable hourly rate and she’ll be back on Monday to pick up the boxes of papers and files I’m now raking off my desk.

The plan is to have Kristie sort and file the backlog of mail, papers, and miscellany I have accumulated over the past two years. Once that’s done I’ll have her start scanning the papers that I actually need to keep and shred the ones I don’t.

I also went to see a nearby Padgett Business Services office this week. I’ve used them to do my taxes before, but I’ve never had anyone actually do my bookkeeping. This definitely needs to be outsourced, as I never keep this up to date. The plan is for Padgett to setup QuickBooks Online so I can access it from anywhere and can grant access to whoever I need in order to get my data entered.

I started out trying to work with Brickwork India on the QuickBooks setup, but it just didn’t feel right. Bookkeeping just seems like something I needed to keep close to home, at least until I get the process worked out. I may have Brickwork, or some other supplier, do the backlog of data entry if Padgett doesn’t have a reasonable enough fee for that type of work, but for now I’ll look for other opportunities to use Brickwork.

Update on Outsourcing

I’ve been in a string of cheap hotels and crowded, delayed airplanes since Sunday night with little time or energy for working on the computer. I’m still recovering from some Zombie Death version of the flu that kept me home all last week and really screwed up my schedule. But things are on the upswing now.

My new Virtual Assistant is Tina with Get Friday. Last week I assigned Tina her first task – find me a temporary office worker who can come to my office and clean, sort, and file nearly two years worth of back mail including all my bank and credit card statements. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, as I’m an independent operator with an individual’s load of mail. It’s not as if there is a container-load of mail for some corporation. Still, it’s significant. I’m terrible at organizing my own back office stuff. I’m great at organizing what I get paid to do, just not the stuff that I don’t want to do. So it piles up and interferes with my ability to do tax returns and such. That’s bad.

I’ve been trying to solve this problem with various accounting and office support things for over five years, including stints with two separate small business bookkeeping services. It’s one of the two greatest burdens in my life and weighs on me constantly that I can’t stay on top of my papers and finances and taxes and such. There have been times when I got caught up, but I never solved the problem and a year or two later I’m in the same situation again. It’s the proverbial recurring nightmare.

So the first task I assigned Tina was to contact temporary agencies and see if they could provide someone to come in and clean up the backlog and prepare the statements for scanning. As a secondary requirement I wanted someone who could do the scanning if I provided the tools. I gave Tina a list of three local services and all pertinent details about the work. I instructed her to start with the three locals and spread out into greater Atlanta if needed.

Over the course of two days Tina contacted a dozen different agencies in the greater Atlanta area and gave me a spreadsheet with all the data about who, when, what, where. In almost every case she got voicemail or some other sort of delay/barrier/put-off – mostly voice mail. That alone would have stopped me cold. Three voicemail responses in a row from businesses that are supposed to be in the support business would have pissed me off to the point I would have dropped the whole exercise. I don’t have two days to deal with fucking voice mail for something like this when all I’m doing is a basic inquiry to determine if my request is even feasible. But this took Tina a total of about two hours over two days.

Wed-Thu of this week some of the agencies began to return Tina’s calls and contacts and she forwarded them to me to ask how to proceed. So I had her give the agencies the details again, and tell them that they could contact me directly if they were prepared to directly answer my three basic questions:

  • Can you offer someone to meet the stated requirements?
  • Can you meet the timeframe?
  • What are typical rates for such work?

That’s all I wanted to know.

So yesterday afternoon I got a call from a nice young lady with an office service just a few miles from my home. She asked me a couple of pertinent questions about the work and my situation, offered a couple of alternative service scenarios, and told the the costs/advantages of each. She was very helpful and very informative. I think she can solve my problem – at least this part of it. And I would never have known about her if Tina hadn’t gone through the exercise of contacting all the agencies. We have an appointment to meet next Thursday when I am home to interview and see if I want to hire them.

It’s too early to judge the overall success of Tina and Get Friday, but this first task result shows great promise. For $25 I avoided all the hassle of dealing with phone tag and I found a new (potential) source of office help. Fantastic.

Joining a Diet Club

My friend Matt has been following my low information diet plans. Today he announced that he reduced his RSS feeds to the point he could read them all in 20 minutes.

Congratulations, Matt. I have gotten mine to the point they can be read in 5-10 minutes, no more than 20 even if I wait a week.  I continue to prune the e-mails by watching for new, low-activity lists as time passes. I don’t feel like I’m missing a thing.

I do find myself looking for some sort of fidget activity to take the place of checking e-mail or RSS. I have to stop myself. I also have to make sure that I’m not arbitrarily wasting time on making blog posts, substituting one fidget for another. But I want to chronicle my progress in case it is of value to me or others later on. I will limit this to no more than 1 post per day and no more than 3 per week. That should be plenty.

The Low Information Diet

Hi. I’m Terry Frazier and I am an information junkie.

One of the principles of Tim Ferris’ 4–hour Workweek is the low information diet. Ferris’ opinion is that success requires massive output – massive action – rather than the constant intake of information. Information that is not immediately useful is nothing more than a distraction. And distractions equal low output.

I don’t know about you, but I am easily distracted. I use this distraction to procrastinate – to avoid the things I ought to be doing but don’t want to do. I cannot count the times in a week that I check e-mail “just one more time” as an excuse to avoid doing something else. The same can be said for reading the RSS feeds in my reader, perusing newsgroups, etc.

Sure, I am up on all the latest chit-chat and brainstorming and minutiae, but very little (most often none) of that contributes to my completing a given task. It usually just sucks time away. So I work longer hours to get the important stuff done. I sit at the computer for hours, typically squeezing in 10–12 hours of time even though I am only billing for 8 (at the most.) Add in phone calls, sorting through spam, and the recalibration time I lose every time I leave a project and go back to it and it could easily add up to an extra day or three per month. I do get an occasional chuckle, or learn some tidbit that is helpful, but nowhere near enough to justify the time.

This is, in a word, stupid.

For the past few days I have been revamping my info-diet. I have unsubscribed from dozens of mail lists that I no longer read. I have dropped out of all but a handful of internet groups, leaving only those that are immediately applicable to a current project. I have reduced the number of feeds in my reader from 97 to 11 – the very few people who I actually know in some way plus two sites that are applicable to a current project.

I have long ago given up watching the news or reading newspapers or news magazines – if there is a serious need I can buy a back issue. I don’t care about the elections. Any candidate the Democrats pick will be a nut-case. And I will intensely dislike whoever the Republicans pick.

That’s the easy stuff. The hard part is stopping myself from watching TV and reading stuff that doesn’t matter. I have hundreds of books. They sit on shelves, calling to me. I want to read them. But most of them don’t make me more productive or effective.

As a practical matter, Ferris suggests checking e-mail and voice mail 2x per day – at noon and 4pm – responding to it and being done.

Ferris is not the first to suggest this. I have read a dozen “productivity” books on time management, getting things done, project management, organization, etc. None of them helped. This is the first time its really sunk in that I should just stop all of it. Just stop.

There are still tasks that must be done that I don’t want to do. This is where outsourcing comes in. I’m working on that. But at the same time I’m going to lose about 20 lbs of excess information fat. I’m going to stop watching my “favorite” TV shows – there aren’t that many and they aren’t any good after one season anyway. But it’s going to be tough eating breakfast without Mike & Mike in the Morning. And leaving the TV off during all that hotel room time I have every week will be tough. But I’m a man. I can change. If I have to. I guess.

Paying For Outsourcing

Outsourcing my burdensome tasks is very appealing, and I have already begun to make inquiries about a couple of specific tasks I want done. But even though the Indo-Asian outsource firms tend to have lower labor rates than comparable US firms, they still don’t work for free. So I need money to pay for them.

I don’t yet have products or services that generate regular, dependable income that can pay for these projects, and I don’t want a net add to my monthly expenses. The idea is to make things better, not worse. So what to do?

I started with a review of the monthly charges for business services I already use. There was plenty of fat in there. I immediately called Sprint and knocked $90 off my monthly cellular bill. I contacted my shopping cart service (for another site I run) and downgraded the service to a Basic package for a savings of $40 per month.

That $130 will get me a Basic-10 package at GetFriday.com, which includes 10 hours of labor per month for whatever tasks I need. I’ve identified another $99 monthly fee that I can probably eliminate outright, but I’m not sure just yet. And I think I can move a couple of small loans to one of those 0-interest-for-a-year credit card deals to free another $40-$50 per month,

With about an hour of effort I’ve freed $130 and identified another $140. That’s enough to get me 20-25 hours of labor per month for various projects. That’s a good start.

The 4-Hour Work Week

4_2dhourworkweekGot a new book over the holidays – “The 4-hour Workweek” by Timothy Ferris. One of my consulting colleagues recommended it a few weeks ago as being a good source for tips and ideas for some of the areas I’ve been investigating as a sideline the past few years. I love the book. I read most of it on a 2-hour flight from Atlanta to San Antonio, so it’s clearly a fast read. But it’s also a practical book, containing specific and usable ideas and recommendations in the areas of personal automation, personal outsourcing, product development, and removing yourself as a bottleneck.

This is what I call a “connector” or gap-filling book. I think you have to be at a certain point in your thinking on these areas in order for it to resonate with you. I’ve spent more time than I care to admit thinking about and poking around the edges of this stuff and made very little progress. I’ve read numerous books on time management and internet marketing and product development and PPC advertising and such. I’ve conducted a few of my own experiments. I’ve tried to find assistants and sources for doing tasks that are necessary but burdensome and low priority for me. But it just never worked like I wanted. There was never a serviceable “big picture” I could latch onto and I never got that mental “click” that happens when a concept gels in your mind and you can begin to make it your own. I don’t know why this is so hard in some things and so easy in others, but I’ve learned to keep striving for that “click” and I know it when I feel it.

“4-hour Workweek” was a constant stream of little connections and examples that fit together to form a proper big picture, such that things which previously seemed isolated and disconnected are now linked in an overall vision. This is important for me as I have no energy for pursuing small things, no matter their potential, when I can’t see a clear contribution to a the bigger goal.

I don’t have any interest in copying Ferris’ global vagabond lifestyle. But his approach to creating a low-pressure, low-risk, low-involvement business structure is compelling – especially if you have already been struggling to do many of the things he discusses. If you haven’t, Ferris’ claims may seem like just so much additional BS in a world already filled with it. But I don’t think they are. My goal for 2008 is to implement as many of Ferris’ strategies as possible, starting with the identification and outsourcing of my “boat-anchor” tasks and moving up to higher-level functions such as product design, marketing, etc. I will outsource as much of this as possible, and catalog my progress and failures here. It will be nice to have a theme for blog entries again.