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Emergency preparedness was something I had checked off my To-Do list five years ago.  Thanks to a neighborhood workshop, I had stocked up on bottled water and power bars and other supplies and hadn’t thought about it again in a long while.  Fortunately, there hadn’t been an emergency and we didn’t really need to think about it, right?

And yet, when the need for a flashlight arises, I begin to wonder, are we really ready?  For example, when my husband turned off the power to install a lighting fixture, where were our flashlights?  My son found the one by his bed but it was just a penlight.  We found a lantern in the camping supplies but the battery was dead.  As it happened, our neighbors stopped by to say hello and their six-year-old daughter had a flashlight in her pink power purse!  We were grateful to borrow it to finish the job and get our power turned back on.

The real light bulb moment for me was that emergency preparedness is a continual process, not just a one-time thing.  And for really getting ready for an emergency, I was fortunate to have some help from another friend, Tina Costa Delaney, a personal concierge with a package, a TLCD Concierge Emergency Kit. NERT-certified (NERT is the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team trained by the fire department), Tina not only knows what you need but offers the service of getting it for you.  Tina helped us inventory what we had on hand and got us to organize it all in one place where we could find it when we need it.  She also got us to think about what we would really need to eat as a family of three over the course of three days (powerbars alone weren’t going to cut it) and to provide supplies for our pets.

Then she shopped for the supplies that we didn’t have and found us the best flashlight ever (a 3in1  Tripod flashlight, just right for our family of 3) and stocked us up on extra batteries so we will be prepared.  And that bottled water from 5 years ago had expired so we had to re-stock that too. Tina’s service includes reminders…when the batteries need to be checked, when the expiration date on the food needs to be checked, when the fire extinguisher needs to be recharged…all the things you don’t want to think about when there’s a need for the emergency supplies.

The hardest part of the emergency supply preparation wasn’t a supply, it was a plan.  For the first time, my family talked about where we would meet after an emergency and who we should call out-of-state if something should happen.  It got us talking to our son’s school about their emergency plan because something could happen while we are away from home and our emergency supplies.

Again, I am grateful for the help from a friend!  Her guidance help me prioritize emergency preparedness, something I knew we needed to do but didn’t know how to do efficiently and couldn’t find the time to do on my own.  Best of all, now I know where my flashlight is and have working batteries even!  How’s that for ready for anything?

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My family loves to watch the TV show Cash Cab. Unsuspecting riders get in the cab and give a destination in NYC and the driver announces that this is a TV game show within a cab. It’s so much fun to try to answer the questions as the cash prize adds up. The penalty for 3 incorrect answers is that the cab ride ends and contestants have to get out; the reward for reaching their stop is a cash prize and a free cab ride. What’s not to love?

The ride ends with a double or nothing video bonus question. From the couch, I am always cheering the riders to “Go for it!” because it makes the show more exciting. Indeed, many riders do try the video option and most walk away with double the prize money. Why not? The contestants entered the cab expecting to pay for the ride and instead have gotten a free ride and a cash prize. There’s really nothing to lose in risking double or nothing. That’s what I would do if I were on Cash Cab, I think. It’s an easy decision to make when the stakes are not mine.

What would you do if presented with the same choice? Most people I’ve asked developed a rationale for making the decision. It would depend on how much money there was in the bank (or how much even the smaller sum was needed). It would depend on the amount of the cash offered. If less than a certain amount, the person would risk doubling it.

Most of us approach decision-making with some criteria based on personal experience.  What reasonable limits do we establish for ourselves for making decisions in advance?  What’s negotiable?  What’s not negotiable?  We are faced with decisions all the time at work and at home.  The stakes are usually not so clear so it can be harder to make a tough choice. Evaluating a list of pros and cons is a tried and true method for making such decisions because it helps clarify exactly what is at stake for the decision-maker. And it helps to remember whatever advice you get, from those of us sitting on the couch, you are the one who has to make and live with the decision.

In reality, I would probably walk away from the Cash Cab with a $600 prize in hand rather than risking double or nothing.  What would you do?

After attending several workshops and listening to webinars about developing a social media strategy and just scratching my head, I finally began to understand. Initially, like any small business owner, I was reluctant to add things to my to-do list, unless I had some way to measure the returns. Especially something like social media which involves spending time on the Internet, which I like to do and might find distracting. Once I could understand that networking online was really very similar to networking at events, then I knew what to do.

My notes are so simple, that I smile every time I see them.  But they remind me of what to do and put me in a good mood which helps:

  • It’s a party.
  • You go to the party daily.
  • You stay for at least 1/2 an hour.

Here’s what you like to do at the party:

  1. Update your status bars on LinkedIn and Facebook (personal network and business fan page).
  2. Talk to the people you find most interesting. This could mean commenting on favorite blogs from a list of 10 to check at least once a week.  On twitter, it means responding to and/or retweeting posts that attract your attention.
  3. Browse around other blogs, just looking and commenting as you see fit.  Twitter is a great place to find links to interesting blog posts, especially since you are already following people with similar interests.
  4. Ask and answer questions.  You might belong to a LinkedIn group with an interesting discussion thread. Or it could be a yahoogroup where members are posing questions and sharing referrals. Or a social site like Citymommy where members are posting links and sharing information.  Like most relationships, the more love you give, the more love you get.
  5. Research deeper as needed.  Take a little extra time now and then to really delve into a topic or check out the people you are meeting online.  What does their online presence reveal about them? Do you want to bookmark them for future reference or subscribe to their e-newsletter for more information on an on-going basis?  It’s all good networking and you will find some great resources, both people and information, that you can share.
  6. Post to your own blog and share a link to it on twitter, Linkedin, and your facebook fan page.  All three sites can do this automatically from your blog.
  7. Finally, track and measure the results.  What do you want to measure? Google analytics will track traffic to your web-site which is a good place to start.  Your blog can track the number of visits (besides your own!) or you might use the number of comments as another measure of engagement.

What do you like to do at the online party?

Being a great believer in documentation for office operations, I am creating a checklist to share the process of capturing the step-by-step details in something as simple as a checklist.  For more complex procedures, the same process could be used to create a training manual.

Why? Because most everything you do in the office you will do again next month or next quarter or next year or every 10 years.  Once you’ve figured out the process, get it in writing so that you have a guide for yourself or for the person you would like to delegate the responsibility to.  Relying on the oral tradition alone means that you will have to remember and repeat and possibly leave out a step or two each time you go through the process.

I’ll use an example for each step.  Let’s say you are a member of a professional organization and you have volunteered to help with the annual membership renewal.   Long-time members sort of remember how it was done last year and as a new member, you have to discover this process.

1. Gather what you already have: a manual that needs updating, bookmarks of useful information, or a stack of helpful handouts.

What letter did the last volunteer send out to the membership?  When did they do that?

2. Work through the process and take notes step-by-step.  Capture the skeleton of the process in a list.

  • Send renewal email to membership on _____.
  • Record responses (renew, decline, no response) in table.
  • Collect dues and send to treasurer.
  • Follow-up with reminder email to members who do not respond.

3. Troubleshoot.  What problems do you tend to notice every cycle?

Some emails get lost along the way due to spam filters or overflowing inboxes.  Should we follow-up with a snail mail letter or a phone call if a member does not respond?

4. Ask for feedback.  Who else is involved in the process?  What do they see as the problem areas?  What works best for them? Capture the unwritten knowledge that you and others possess regarding the process.

Depends on the number of calls you have time to make…might be better to send a letter directly to members who do not respond to email notices.

5. Identify needs of stakeholders.  What needs clarification? What needs to be changed to suit a realistic schedule or current staffing situation? Chances are that schedules and personnel have changed.  The process should be adjusted to best fit the current circumstances and even anticipate future growth.

Do we have current email addresses for members?  How do we get that information and update our membership directory on our website?

6. Capture the ideas for solutions.  Brainstorm with the group to tap their expertise and work-arounds.  It’s important not to debate the idea at this point but just list as many creative and even crazy ideas as you can.

What if we posted the renewal notice to the yahoogroup?  Would all members receive the notice?  Or do we need to send it out to each member individually or as a group?  How confidential is this information?  Can we create a wiki on the web directory so each member can update their own information?

7. After you’ve thought of everything, go back over the list and pick the most workable idea to revisit with the group.

Seems okay to email the initial letter to the group but follow-up individually with members on the more sensitive issue of payment reminders.

8. Can the group live with this solution (assuming it means changing/improving the process)?  Everyone doesn’t need to love the idea at first, just agree to try it to see if the improvement is acceptable.

Let’s not spend more than X amount of time on follow-up at this point.  If there are more than Y people who don’t respond to the email, let’s send a letter.  If there are fewer than Y members who don’t respond, let’s give them a call to determine whether they wish to renew or not.

9. Write it down and test it out.  Evaluate the process each time and revise notes as adjustments are made. Depending on the complexity of the process, it may take a few cycles to work out the best steps.

  • Send renewal email to membership on _____.
  • Record responses (renew, decline, no response) in table.
  • Collect dues and send to treasurer.
  • Collect updated directory information and send to webmaster.
  • Follow-up with reminder email to members who do not respond.
  • Follow-up again with call or snail mail notice to members who do not respond to emails.

10.  You should have a working checklist or even a manual for your procedure at this point.  Plan to review at appropriate intervals to capture changes in the process as business grows and new service or products are developed which may or may not fit into the way you are now doing the process.

The next volunteer will have a starting point for membership renewals next year.  Be sure to save a copy of the renewal notice with the checklist.

This checklist leaves a lot of room for revisions and improvements along the way.  That’s a very important part of capturing a fluid process.  After all, it’s easier to improve a process if the basics are already documented.  Time spent improving a process is well-spent while time spent re-creating a process every cycle is not the best use of your valuable time.

You might start with the most important procedures first.  For example, I made a checklist for my consultation and client in-take process.  But the steps for hooking up my web page to Google Analytics each time I update my website is still on my list of things to do.

What process have you been meaning to document?

It’s parent-teacher conference week at my son’s school which means that I met with his teacher to review his report card for this quarter. I am so proud of how well he is doing in first grade! A former teacher myself, I appreciate the value of noting progress made throughout the year towards a larger goal. In fact, I have built in a weekly review of my own progress towards my professional goals into my database.

Every Friday afternoon I take just 15-20 minutes to fill in the responses to the following prompts:

1. Date

2. This week’s wins are:

3. This brings me closer to my goals to _______________________.

4. What was challenging about this week and what did I do about it?

5. I could ask _____________ for help with _________________.

6. Thank you to ______________ for __________________.

7. Next week I will  ___________________________.

This simple but powerful tool builds in accountability for myself and keeps me focussed on making the best choices each day to reach the goals that I have established for myself. It’s a process that could be shared with a business buddy or support group, but I find that putting my goals and my progress towards them in writing regularly is sufficient.

Every week I take a moment to note what I accomplished that week and how that brings me closer to my goals in the fields for #2 and #3. Chances are that the week didn’t go exactly as I had planned so I have some space to reflect on the challenges that arose and my response to them in #4. Field #5 reminds me that I don’t have to solve everything myself and encourages me to think about who to ask for help when I am stuck. And I’m sure to appreciate the help, unexpected and otherwise, that I did receive during the week in item #6. And finally, I set my priorities in writing in #7 so on Monday morning I can pick right up where I left off.

It’s amazing to me to see each week, no matter how trying or unpredictable it proved to be, that slowly but surely, yes it’s true, I am that much closer to my goals. Often I so focussed on what I didn’t get done or what I still need to do that I don’t give myself the credit for what I did do to stay on track. Throughout the week, I check back to remind myself of the priorities and goals I have set for myself, just in case I am tempted or distracted by some new idea. There are lots of those! But I know that at the end of the week, I won’t be accepting any excuses from myself.

What about you?  How do you keep track of your goals and the progress you are making towards them?

Help!  What are you going to do if everything on your list is screaming highest priority as an Important AND Urgent task?  That’s what my list looked like after an initial triage this morning using my favorite and super simple time management strategy of sorting tasks into these categories: Priority 1 for Urgent and Important tasks, Priority 2 for Important but not Urgent tasks, Priority 3 for Urgent but not Important tasks, and Priority 4 for Not Important and Not Urgent.

1. Before even starting on the list, take the time to plan your day and how to make progress on the important tasks that you have to do today.  I do that before I check my email or return phone calls (items most likely to earn a lower priority ranking but most likely to take up my time in the morning).  And remember to breathe.  You’ve got the whole day ahead of you yet.

2. Look for masqueraders. You can rank the tasks again by importance and by just how urgent (now or later this afternoon? or maybe even tomorrow). Tackling the most important and maybe the most difficult task first thing in the morning usually energizes me enough to manage the rest of the list afterwards.  Inevitably, some things that looked impossible become possible once I focus on just the next step.  The important thing is to get started and work through the jobs just one step at a time.

3. Divide the time you have in the day and allot each task a portion of that time. Okay, five big jobs to do in just five hours means a plan to work on each task for an hour.  Some tasks may take longer and others less but you will make progress if you are able to focus your undivided attention (as in not worrying about those other tasks until it’s their turn).

4. Share the workload.  Can you delegate? Do you need someone else’s input in order to move forward on a project? Often you can do one small thing like put in a phone call or an email to someone who can help you by doing the task or supplying critical information that will make the task so much easier for you. Put in those requests for help first and move on to focus on the big job that only you can do today.  As others reply, you can decide to take a break and advance those projects to the next step or to continue working on the big job.  But you will not be be stuck until someone else gets back to you. Ask early and plan to allow the other busy people time for their replies.  It’s so much better than all those urgent last minute interruptions that slow everyone down.

5. Look forward to the rewards.  What task is going to give the most satisfaction to you if you can check it off your list?  What task is going to need some sort of other reward (a latte perhaps?) just to get it going?  Which task is the most fun to do once you get started?  If you know what motivates you best, you can use the reward to pull you through the list instead of letting all those screaming items push you around.

Okay, I’m feeling better because I just checked one thing off my list.  What do you do to set priorities when it seems like everything is important and urgent and there’s just too much to do?

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?

We all get busy and tend to stash the things we know we are supposed to keep track of (like our business finances) into a pile to deal with later, when we have the time.  The pile grows until it becomes a sorting job that could take out your weekend.  In the interest of saving your weekend, you might hire someone to set-up your files or do it yourself.  A few tips from someone who looks forward to filing follow:

1) Pick up some basic file folders and print out these labels:

• Business Checking

• Business Savings

• Payroll

• 2 labels for each month: January, February, etc. as you will use these for filing your deposit records and your petty cash receipts

• A-C, D-F, G-I and so on through the alphabet (you will use these alpha files to file proof of payment of your bills)

• Telephone

• Utilities

• Rent

(and any other bills you pay monthly that you would like to separate out from the alpha files so that they will be easier to find)

• Business Credit Card

• Petty Cash

2) Put the labelled folders into a drawer grouped by income (here’s where you put your deposit records) and by expenses (where you put the bank and credit card statements, vendor files, and petty cash files).

3) Now you have a home for your basic bookkeeping records!  File statements into the appropriate folders and get in the habit of always putting the most recent statement on top or in the front of the folder so that your files will remain in chronological order.  If you print out reconciliation reports from QuickBooks, attach the January report to the January statement and so on.

4) But where do the receipts go?

• Cash receipts go into the monthly petty cash file folders.

• Put your credit card receipts into an envelope in your credit card statement folder.  When your monthly statement arrives, you can match and attach the receipts to the statement in chronological order so that the detail and the documentation they provide are available to you or your bookkeeper when entering data into your bookkeeping system.

5) What about the withdrawal slips?  Keep them in the checking account folder until the monthly statement arrives and then attach them to the statement they match.  Do the same for Point of Sale receipts and any paperwork for transfers of funds between accounts.

6) Deposit slips can be filed by month.  A good practice is to make a copy of the individual checks deposited to attach to the deposit slip so that you have a complete paper trail of these transactions to support your QuickBooks records.

7) To create a paper trail for your expenses, copy each check you write (or use a check stub) and attach to the invoice (bill) as proof of payment.  File these either in the separate vendor folders for those that bill frequently or into the alpha file folders.

These basic practices will keep your financial records in order to support your bookkeeping.  Keeping these records in order means that you will always be able to find proof when you need it.  You’ll be pleased by the time you’ll save when you have to find a receipt for an item you’d like to return or need to show the phone company that you really did pay your bill last month.  It will also be easier for you or your bookkeeper (or your assistant) to enter the information into your books.

Any season is good for making lists, in my opinion.  But the end of the year especially seems to inspire lists.  My son is making a Christmas list and I have a shopping list in addition to a very full To Do list.  I also like to keep a wishlist and am always amazed at how often my wishes, when written down, are granted.  That’s a pretty good reason for keeping a wishlist!

All of these lists tend to look forward to what’s next to do, to get, and to want.  Recently I was reminded that it is just as important to look back on the lists of things that we have done, gotten, or were granted us.  Thanksgiving and the end of the year are an especially great time to make these grateful lists and appreciate that while there may be still far to go, much has been accomplished.

I tried a different kind of list this morning.  Rather than creating a list of what I remember in review from the year, I tried a facebook application (statuscloud 2.0) which generated a cloud of the words I used most frequently over a year of status updates.

I love that the biggest, most frequently used words are morning, enjoyed, and weekend!  That pretty much sums up  2009 as I enjoyed and worked hard every morning online and appreciated my unplugged weekends with my family.

I was especially interested in this status cloud because I had been thinking about making up my own cloud graphic of some of my favorite thoughts and words like gratitude, stillness, lake, peace….  Now I am preferring the simple truth of the cloud included here to the constructed version that I had imagined.

What word or thoughts would appear in your cloud for 2009?

I love this link at PBS Kids which explains the process of time management to kids quite simply!

The easiest way to help you get everything done is to budget that time!   This is all about:

  • Examining your Have-To’s and Want-To’s, and how much time they’ll take up.
  • Working out a plan that lets you spend the right amount of minutes or hours on each one.

It really doesn’t have to be any more complicated for us adults.   A time budget for a typical day for an adult might look like this:

Wednesday:

Sleep 8 hours
Shower, dressing, ready for work ½ hour
Breakfast ½ hour
Commute ½ hour
Work 8 hours
Lunch 1 hour
Commute home ½ hour
Errands or exercise 1 hour
Household chores 1 hour
Dinner 1 hour
TV/media time 1 hour
Reading/personal time 1 hour
Total time spent: 24 hours

Wherever you work, it’s also helpful to specify how much time you have to work on different projects each day.  Eight hours for someone who works in a home office running her own business might look like this:

Wednesday:

Check emails ½ hour
Make phone calls ½ hour
Work on project for client #1 2 hours
Meeting with client #2 1 hour
Marketing activity 1 hour
Finish work on project for client #1 1½ hours
Wrap-up email for the day ½ hour
Meeting with subcontractor ½ hour
Updates (to contact database or bookkeeping) ½ hour
Total time spent: 8 hours

Budgeting your time can be as easy as making a list and checking it twice (what you planned to do and what you really did).

Although I love the simplicity of a list, I can relate better to a visual block or chunk of time plotted on a calendar grid .  The more time an activity takes, the more space it takes up on the calendar and my brain gets that instantly.

Here’s what last week looked like in iCal which is the calendar program that came with my computer.

Here is what I planned to do last week.

Here is what I planned to do last week.

I print out this page and update it manually throughout the week as things go.  These notes are sufficient for managing the time on the life side of the balance.

I get a bit more specific on the work side of the balance and use another program called Klok (available as a free download) to track my billable and my unbillable work time.  This information is critical to billing on current projects and estimating future projects.  I can also see how well I am sticking to my priorities.  Am I really working on marketing activities everyday like I planned to or did I let it slide because I was too busy with another project?  This graphic does not lie and I can make adjustments as I plan for the next week.

Here's how I tracked my work projects (I

Here's how I tracked my work projects in Klok (some things have been left or cropped out for client privacy).