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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.

Low Information Diet Update

As part of my plan to simplify and eliminate the clutter in my life I decided to go on an info diet a few weeks ago. I dropped dozens of feeds from my reader, dropped almost all internet group memberships, and cancelled almost all internet newsletter subscriptions. By themselves these things made very little change in my day-to-day activities except for vastly reducing my e-mail load, which confirmed that I just didn’t need most of them in the first place.

The second part of the diet is I completely disengaged from the news. I mean completely. I previously just sort of ignored the news but would have the TV on in the background or would read the newspapers delivered to my door each day at the hotel. For some reason I thought I needed to do this to stay current. Well, I don’t. Now I studiously avoid newspapers, talk radio, and the TV with the exception of glancing at frontpage headlines as I walk by news stands (I don’t stop.) Turns out people I know and talk to on a daily basis also read and watch this stuff. And something interesting has happened to our conversations.

Now when they ask, “Did you see so-and-so in the paper/news/airport?” my response is “No, I didn’t. What happened?” They tell me and I get to listen. I actually listen. I’m not busy trying to express my own opinion because I don’t have one. Another nice thing – I can now have small talk, which has always been a problem for me. But now it’s really simple. I can sit down with someone I barely know and ask, “So what’s happening with the elections/industry/stock market/whatever?” And they actually enjoy telling me. Again, I get to listen.

People love it when you listen to them. It’s not like I didn’t know this, but giving myself the opportunity to practice it via my info diet has been really interesting. My ego no longer sits in the shadows going “Speak up! Speak up! You know that!” – competing with my desire to listen. And I don’t feel the least bit stupid because I have no idea where Britney Spears was last night. In fact, I feel better because I don’t know.

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.

The Trouble is the West

An interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the November issue of Reason magazine. My favorite quote is her closing statement:

But I don’t even think that the trouble is Islam. The trouble is the West, because in the West there’s this notion that we are invincible and that everyone will modernize anyway, and that what we are seeing now in Muslim countries is a craving for respect. Or it’s poverty, or it’s caused by colonization.

The Western mind-set—that if we respect them, they’re going to respect us, that if we indulge and appease and condone and so on, the problem will go away—is delusional. The problem is not going to go away. Confront it, or it’s only going to get bigger.

Robert Plant Apparently Did License Cadillac

This is old news by now and my source is not impeccable, but I asked the question a few days ago, “Who sold the rights for commercial use of Led Zeppelin’s music to Cadillac?

Apparently, Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin did. Scroll down this Led Zep tribute site and you’ll see news photos of Plant at Cadillac’s 100th Anniversary celebration.

I’m shocked. Shocked, I say.

Guess all that money from the ’70s ran out. But it says something interesting that they still control their music, unlike the Beatles and lots of other musicians. Good for them.

Can We Please Just Do The Obvious?

For anyone who’s managed to miss the news for the past 6 months, the southeast US is in a 100-year drought. As we are wont to do in such cases, we have ignored this for the past several years until now all our lakes and reservoirs are nearly empty. Suddenly, we have a crisis.

Imagine that.

So what do our vaunted civil servants do in this precarious situation? They implement outdoor watering bans. They argue with other states. They complain to the Army Corps of Engineers. They shutdown car washes and landscape companies. They go on TV and tell us how dreadful it is, and how sorry they are that people must lose jobs, and that they just can’t help this awful, awful situation.

All the while they completely ignore the blindingly obvious, brain-dead simple, straightforward, and guaranteed 100% foolproof solution to the problem. Any 3rd-grader could suggest this.

Raise the price of water!!!

Oh, I know we can’t raise the price. After all, it’s completely unfair to the poor.

Bullshit.

The average person can live comfortably on 1,000 gallons/month. They don’t even need to be particularly conservative to do that. We could probably survive well on 750, but let’s say 1,000 to be compassionate. So for a family of four you need 4,000 gallons.

Let’s be really, really compassionate for the poor. Set the price for the first 5,000 gallons at $10. Set the price for the next 1,000 at $10. That’s $20 for up to 6,000 gallons – enough to serve a family of 7.

Set the price for the next 1,000 at $20. The next 1,000 at $30 and so on. At 10,000 gallons you’re paying $150. By the time you get to 15,000 gallons (a typical amount of water used in one month watering a yard) the cost is now $550. Nobody gets a pass. Everybody pays.

You think people won’t stop using excess water once they get a $550 bill? I sure will. If they won’t (or don’t), raise the incremental price to $20 per thousand. I don’t know anyone who would spend $1,100/mo on water. If you have that kind of money more power to you – there aren’t going to be enough of you to significantly raise total usage and we can all get on with our lives without these self-serving, jackass politicians grandstanding on TV with all their new emergency regulations.

Car wash owners would have to run out and change their coin-ops from $2 to $10. Or $20. That will hurt business, but people who want to spend $10 or $20 can still wash their car now and then. And maybe the owners will figure out they need to recycle. Ditto for industrial users and the power company. Office building managers will have to figure out how to actually operate their sprinkler systems, or turn them off. And landscapers will have to stop guaranteeing their plants. But we’ll get over it.

It’s absurd to try and reduce the use of limited resources in every way imaginable except the one way that is best designed for managing limited resources – economics.

But this is the government. I wish I could be surprised.