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My spring forward challenge is simply this: How many ways can you save an hour of your time?

1. Organize it once now to save an hour, at least, later.

I am just catching on that every time I re-enroll my son in the after school program or sign up for day camp, or even just fill out a field trip form, I am going to need all his emergency contact and medical information.  Now I keep a copy of a completed form so that all that information is in one place for me when I fill out the form next semester.  Most of the information is still current.  Otherwise I find myself looking up the same information over and over (the address of the doctor’s office or my husband’s work phone number) and those minutes add up.  Or even worse, I put the form aside to fill out later because I have to look up the information online when I am working.  Personal tasks could disrupt my workflow.

2. Do for your business what you would do for your clients.

This golden rule is really just a variation of the first.   As an admin specialist, I create simple systems or procedures for my clients to get the routine but important administrative work done.  Busy people often skip the step of taking time to organize an approach to admin work because they have other priorities on their minds.  That’s why they need assistance.  But your business needs the same top-notch care that your clients get.  Otherwise there’s a risk of the unbillable work of running your business taking over all of your free time or not getting done at all.  As my own assistant, I have to spend time solving my own organizational woes and build my own routines for follow-up, keeping my calendar and bookkeeping current, and managing my online presence.

Sometimes, it’s doing something for a client to save their time that triggers the a-ha moment for me (hey, why aren’t I doing that for my business?).  Converting all paper bills to an electronic bill paying system is just one example.  Because it takes some extra time to set up the account the first time, I decided to just convert one account each month so the task never became too daunting.  Once the account is set-up, it’s much more convenient to pay my bills electronically each month.  I save time, paper, postage, and storage space by doing so.  That half hour I invested to set up each account results in saving me time each month, at least 10 minutes.  Over a year, that 10 minutes a month becomes 2 hours saved.  And that’s just on one account.  I might even save a whole day if I convert all of my accounts!  That’s some serious daylight savings.

What about you? What do you do that can save you an hour?

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This desk in the corner of our living room is the "office" of Beam Virtual Assistance.

This desk in the corner of our living room is the "home office" of Beam Online Business Services.

Loved the peek at the workspaces of the famous over on Lifehacker (see at http://lifehacker.com/5367129/nine-workspaces-where-famous-folks-get-stuff-done ) last week.  And since I just got my own space “just right” after 8 years of working from a home office, I could not resist posting a picture of my own workspace, as humble as it is.

No matter how busy I get, I try to keep my desktop as clutter-free as possible.  Clutter can be distracting and I need the empty space while working on projects.  Still, I prefer to think of the open space as an invitation to creativity.  Just as I need some free space on my calendar in order to foster my creative projects, I need some free space on my desktop to welcome new ideas.  It’s a visual metaphor and reminder of potential and possibility.  It also inspires me to work towards the ideal of a paperless office.  I either bookmark, scan, or PDF what would otherwise become paper that I would have to find a place to store.  There’s plenty of space on my computer for my virtual files but not so much in the file cabinet.  I use the cabinet to store what clients send me and other projects in process.

As my office is a part of my living room, I try to keep it neat to match the rest of the room.  When my work is put away, not only is it safe from the family life that takes place in the same space, but it’s also less likely to capture my attention when I am not working.  Boundaries are tough in any home office situation and visual reinforcement helps me stick to my work limits.  Really it’s sticking to those boundaries that keeps the ideas and creative projects coming.  Left to it’s own devices, work and/or family could easily and definitely take over my life and my space.  Rather than give in or give up, I choose to allow the time and space in my life for thinking.  And my (almost) empty desktop is there to remind me of this priority.  While work is in progress, it really looks a lot more like the photograph of Tina Fey’s office with orderly post-its (they still work) and a baby at the keyboard (only my baby is six now and into lego.com in a big way).

This entry would not be complete without a nod to my favorite blog Unclutterer at http://www.unclutterer.com where every week they post a photograph of a readers’ workspace.  I love to see the variety and creativity of how people set-up their spaces to work for them.

Online workers need to take breaks too. And it’s not just the coffee that is needed to refresh and refuel you for the tasks ahead. Home office workers especially need to reach out and connect with others to reduce a sense of isolation that can be a drain on productivity. Chatting with co-workers off-topic (not about work) provides a pleasant connection with others and can keep you going. The popularity of social media such as Facebook will attest to this. It’s just fun to check in with your friends and colleagues now and then.

A colleague who works with a virtual team introduced me to the idea of “virtual coffee breaks.” She insists that members of her team check in personally with one another just to make that connection that will build a stronger working relationship. After all, even though we are working virtually we are still real and complex beyond our online presence. A virtual coffee break can also be a convenient alternative to getting together over coffee when schedules collide. Taking breaks from work is so important to maintaining a healthy level of productivity yet so many of us power on through until we run out of steam. Checking in with another on a regular basis can help us integrate regular breaks into our workflow, bringing a better balance into our work and life.

It’s a fun exercise to look back every now and then and marvel at how far we’ve come.  Why not put together a technology timeline for yourself and see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same?  What dates you and what have you updated?  Here’s what I remember:

Grade school in the 1970s: Listening to 8-track tapes, of John Denver and Ray Conniff and the singers (hey, my parents were buying the music then).  I learned to type on an electric typewriter, white-out and all.  I had a cassette tape recorder and would tape songs like Hot Child in the City and Carwash from the radio.  I did have a record player but only two rock albums from K-tel to listen to and some 45s including Muskrat Love by the Captain and Tennille.  We could watch movies on Betamax videocasettes.

High school in the early 80s:  My parents bought an Apple IIe with the big floppy disks and a dot matrix printer so I could type and revise papers for school.  I heard about MTV and the walkman but would not personally experience either until college.  My music collection consisted of one cassette tape of Styx’ Paradise Theater, and two LPs of Cheap Trick, At Budokan and Dream Police.  I may have also had something by the Police but that’s all I’m willing to remember.  We switched from beta to VHS videotapes.

College in the mid-80s: I wrote papers on my electric typewriter in my dorm room my freshman year.  By sophomore year, I was using a Macintosh in the computer lab.  We’d store data on a 3.5-inch floppy disk and send our papers to be batch printed in a print queue within 24 hours.  Still no Internet for us.  But at least I could watch MTV in the dorm lobby and had my own walkman.  During a Junior Year Abroad at the University of Essex in England, I took a computer programming class without any actual computers!

Temping in the late 80s: After I graduated I moved to Chicago and worked for New Office Temps while looking for my dream job in publishing.  I would train on WordPerfect at headquarters and fill in for secretaries at Amoco and advertising agencies.  Computers weren’t quite universal in the workplace and sometimes I would have to tangle with a hybrid typewriter/computer on the job.  Eventually I settled at a position for Yearbook Medical Publishers where everyone had a Wang computer.  Just by sheer curiosity, I became the department go-to person and trainer on the system.  Still no Internet or email.  I bought my brother’s old stereo system and could now listen to CDs.  By this time I was listening to what we called alternative rock after happy experiences with REM, U-2, the Talking Heads, Squeeze and the Violent Femmes in college.

More temping and investigating claims in the early 90s: After I moved to San Francisco, I was looking for a job again until I could go back to school to get a teaching credential.  I did it all: transcribing reports from a tape, using a dictaphone to write my own reports all the while protesting that if they’d just give me a PC, I could type the report faster myself at a stint at Norcal Mutual Medical Insurance.  I put myself through school while working for start-ups in digital imaging and consulting doing back-ups and bookkeeping in Managing Your Money among other administrative tasks.

Teaching in the 90s:  I bought my very first personal computer, a primitive Apple laptop with 4K of memory, I think.  Later I bought a 14K modem so I could surf the Internet and use my American Online email account.  As the journalism advisor, I taught students how to use desktop publishing programs, Quark and Desktop Publisher, and even learned html at a workshop so I could put the paper online.  We worked through a succession of Apple computer generations ending with iMacs in the student computer lab.  I still had old Apple Macintoshes in my classroom and just after I left the school in 2000, every classroom was finally wired for Internet access.

Back to school, 2000-2005: I started with a job in the computer lab and improved my Photoshop skills and learned how to make digital videos with Final Cut Pro.  I ended up in an MFA program with a job as the program assistant, working on campus as needed but mostly from my home office thanks to email and the Internet on an Apple G3 and speedy DSL connection.  And I finally got a cell phone and a personal CD player so I could listen to my own music while painting in the studio.

An online office manager is born!  I upgraded to a mac mini with the Intel chip and now run a virtual PC and Mac OSX simultaneously.  I connect to the Internet via our cable connection and have an all-in-one printer with a scanner and fax.  My disc drive burns both CDs and DVDs.  Always curious and a quick-study, I am so pleased to be working with technology again and am just delving into the social networking sites.  Of course, our music is all digital now and we store data on thumb drives.  We watch movies on DVDs and watch videos clips on the computer.  My husband has an iPhone and I’m thinking about it just because it’s so cool.

I wonder what’s next?

The solo service professional, whether he or she works from home or from a small office space, never really works alone.  Some of the lure of entrepreneurship is going it alone or taking on all of the responsibility for the company.  That may be so, but building the business involves engaging with many others.  Whether connecting with clients or colleagues, or collaborating with other professionals, doing business involves one in many relationships, in person and online.

Always seeking a better balance myself, I enjoy immersing myself in a project and working free from distractions in my own home office.  Such a space and time enables me to work mindfully and find the flow, the state in which we lose track of time and ourselves.  Working from such a space produces better work and greater satisfaction in the work, to the benefit of the client and myself.  I also really enjoy people and would start to feel isolated if I did not connect with others on a daily basis.  It’s easy to do by participating in discussion groups online and by attending weekly local networking events and following up with meetings for coffee and lunch with colleagues afterwards.  And of course, communicating with clients is all about creating and tending a professional relationship.  And asking others for help is always a wise move, whether it be for professional services that the business needs or the moral support that the owner needs.  And providing help to others in making connections or relieving other owners from some of the burden of the work they need to do to run their own company.   Starting one’s own company truly is a pleasure in terms of both working alone and working together.