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?

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It's always sunny and green outside the catalog windows.

A blog about making time to be creative definitely needs to include some creative work as well as posts about time-saving strategies, home office productivity, and work/life balance. I plan to continue to post helpful tips for the office on Tuesdays. Fridays will be for “Time to Create” to include photos of work in progress, poetic fragments, and other thoughts around the creative process. It’s a little bit left-brained/right-brained but that is how my mind works!

I remember papering the walls of my cardboard box barbie-dollhouse with pictures from catalogs so that they could live in style and I could pretend that they had all that they could wish for.  I never stopped collecting images or wishing and my current project (wishbooks) considers the allure of catalog settings.  I’d like to figure out what it is we are really hoping for when we are shopping and outfitting our homes with what we want and need.

This wishbook features romantic outside views for those of us who live and work in urban environments often lacking in such beautiful natural ambiance.  I write this as I listen to the street in front of my house being torn up today and can look out and see fences, parking lots, and neighboring buildings.

What do you want to see when you look outside?

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?

Is cold-calling still an effective technique for reaching potential clients? I’ve been asking myself and people in my network this question for awhile about whether or not it made sense to try calling potential clients directly. For the most part, I accepted the answer I heard from more than a few people: don’t call, I don’t have time to talk to you. Reach me through email and my online networks and if I’m interested, I will contact you.

This was an easy answer to accept because it’s what I would say too. What do I do when someone I don’t know calls me up to sell something?  Exactly.  I try to firmly and politely get them off the phone as soon as possible so I can get back to what I was doing before I was so rudely interrupted.  This was my airtight case for not calling potential clients unless I had a lead or a referral or anything that would warm up my reason for calling.  I really didn’t want to be the person on the other end of the line, getting rejected.

How could I get over that fear? I accepted the challenge on a job for someone else. I called up 200 people and experienced every shade of gray on the scale between no answer to getting an appointment scheduled. Here’s what I learned:

1.  Have a script to follow loosely. I stumbled through reading it the first few calls and am grateful for the patience of the people who still listened on the other end of the line. Once I warmed up, I could improvise but still convey the same message, only more naturally and less like a voice on an answering machine.

2. It really does help if you smile while you are talking on the phone even if nobody else can see you.  It improves your own attitude and warms up your voice. The listener can hear that smile.

3. Most people are very polite about expressing their lack of interest. Thank goodness! It’s not personal. Move on to the next call.

4. Some people don’t understand your message in the way that you intend. It’s so tempting to try to explain what you really meant.  Any clarification I tried to offer did not change the refusal and in some cases only irritated the recipient of my call.  Better luck next time and move on to the next call.

5. It really helps to offer an incentive. What will they get for their time? Is there some advice or tip that will save their time or help them out in their business, even if they don’t engage your services? The more you show your respect for their time, the better reception you’ll get.

6. That said, keep it brief and deliver your message about the value of your services as succinctly as possible. Practice makes perfect and a script helps.

7. Keep track of your results. A simple table with the name of the contact, the name of the company, and the phone number will do with columns for the response (no answer, refused, or scheduled) and another column for the appointment time (and additional contact information) as needed.

8. Some people are interested! After calling a list of 200 names, I was able to schedule 4 appointments for my client.

Is that effective? For a small business, like myself, that’s a lot of time to spend on the phone, not connecting. It all depends on what happens with the 4 sales calls. If they result in large or long-term contracts, it will be worth the clients’ investment in me and my time. But is it enough of an incentive to motivate me to start calling potential clients? What do you think about making or receiving such calls?

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?

Whether you love or hate it, keeping up with your emails is good for business.  The trick is to stay current without spending all of your time responding to emails or becoming mired in a backlog of emails that all needed your attention, last week.  Here are some tips to help you keep your emails manageable:

1. Block out time to do your emails.  Even though I can get through my emails in half an hour on most days, I schedule an hour each morning to do emails and then I feel really good when I finish up early, just like it feels when a meeting wraps up successfully before the time you’ve alloted.  Instead of constantly checking and replying to my email throughout the day which can distract me from my day’s tasks, I will check my email again before and after lunch and at the end of the day.

2. When tackling a batch of emails, start at the top and work your way down the list.  You might be tempted to answer the fun ones or the most pressing emails first, neglecting the others for another time.  Warning–it’s those neglected others that become clutter and clog up your email inbox, making it harder to see and address those important emails.

3.  Use email folders for storing emails that you want to answer later.  I use a “reply later” folder for my non-work related emails which I respond to after my prime working hours.    I can catch-up with a friend or help find a volunteer for my son’s classroom on my own time. Tucking these emails away for later keeps them out of sight and out of my mind while I am working.

4.  Use a folder for storing your online networking (Facebook and Linkedin) messages.  I respond to these in a batch once or twice weekly (I really don’t want to spend all of my free time on the Internet! After all, that’s what I do for work).  I find that I can keep up with my messages this way so that I am networking online and re-connecting with people.

5.  Another useful folder is for “Bills to pay.”  I park my online notices there until Tuesday when I sit down to take care of bills for the week.  Everything gets paid on time and I don’t have to look at the PG&E bill every time I review my email or worry that I’ll miss it this month.

6. Limit the number of folders that you will review later.  I use just the 3 described above.  The point is not to spend my time moving my emails from one file to another.  I do keep archive folders for emails that I need to keep around for reference but don’t review very often unless I am looking for something.  I have folders for client correspondence, events I am considering, resources I might want to investigate some day but not this week, groups I belong to, and topics I am interested in. I let the size of my email window dictate the number of folders I maintain so that I never have to scroll or open a folder to find a folder.

7.  Unclutter your email inbox.  You only want to look at and think about what you need to do today.  Everything else needs to be reviewed and responded to immediately (anything that can be done in 2 minutes or less, just do it per David Allen’s advice in Getting Things Done), stored in a folder to respond in a batch later, archived for reference, or deleted.

8.  Don’t be afraid to delete emails.  All sorts of useful information that you have requested either through Google Alerts, Yahoo group digests, e-newsletters, and blog notices will flood your mailbox every day.  Scan these for useful information.  Bookmark any interesting links for future reference.  Delete the email messenger, the email that delivered the information.  Trust your snap judgement on this one, if it doesn’t merit your attention now, when or why will you ever look for it again?  I love to think of the Internet as a vast storage system, holding all this information for me whenever I might need it.  And yahoo groups archive their messages already so I don’t bother keeping copies in my mail system because I can go to the message board and search for items posted in the past.

9. What do you think might slip through the cracks?  I used to worry about change of address notices because I store contact information in a couple of places.  Now I keep a folder of “database updates” to review whenever I am working on my contacts.  I will review the change of address notices and make the necessary revisions while I already have the database open.

10.  What about those smart mailboxes?  My mac has an interesting feature that will sort emails by predetermined criteria.  For example, all emails from a certain sender will be grouped in a smart mailbox.  I watched the demo at the Apple Store with interest but increasing horror as I say how it worked.  All of the emails stay at the level of the inbox.  When you select a smart mailbox, it pulls up the relevant emails.  Nothing is actually filed automatically for you, just searched and reprioritized for you.  I couldn’t imagine looking at that many emails all the time and not stressing out.  Each one is like a trigger to my brain and I would get lost in distractions if I had to look at all of my email all of the time.

Any other ideas for keeping your email inbox under control?

Want to keep your office lean and green?  Or do you just want to see the top of your desk again?  Get in the habit of using and keeping as little paper as possible in your office by following these 10 simple tips:

1.  Think twice before you print anything from your computer.  Better to create a PDF document to file on your computer where space is endless than a paper document you have to file in the limited space in your cabinet or desktop.

2.  If you do have to print something out, print on both sides of the paper.

3.  When you are done with the paper, shred it (if it contains confidential information) or recycle it.  Think twice before hanging on to it for future reference someday.  Keep a virtual copy in your computer filing system if you must hang on to it.

4.  Use the Internet as your filing cabinet for reference materials.  Bookmark all that interesting stuff you find or that finds you.  You don’t really need it on paper because it’s out there, waiting for your attention someday.  If it’s really critical reference information, see tip #1 about filing PDF documents on your computer because links are dynamic and content does change.

5.  Evaluate your paper clutter.  Do you need the whole paper or just the information from the paper?  Information belongs in your databases where you can search and find it as needed.  Store contact information in your database and events in your calendar.

6. Do your banking and pay bills online.  This will cut down considerably on the amount of paper mailed to you each month.  Be sure to download and file your statements as PDF documents now so that your bank isn’t tempted to charge you for it later.

7.  Scan receipts and other paper that you have to keep.  Your flatbed scanner on your all-in-one printer could do but the time it takes will discourage this habit.  A “Neat Receipts” scanner (http://www.neatreceipt.com) works quickly and is available for the Mac and PC.

8. You’ll have to use smart file names in order to find the documents fairly easily again.  One great idea is to prefix the filename with 4-digits for year, followed by 2 for month and 2 for date (2009_03_06filename…) so that the computer will sort the files chronologically.

9.  Back up your digital files regularly.  I’m sure you back up daily online and to an external hard drive, right?  If you are really going to really on your computer for e-filing, you need to make the system redundant.  Saving your digital files to a CD often works too.  Best practice would be to store those CDs in a safe deposit box, away from your computer so if disaster strikes…

10.  All that room left in your filing cabinet!  What should you keep in there?  Signed original documents such as birth and marriage certificates, contracts, deeds, etc.  If it’s really important, keep a copy in your file drawer and the original in a safe deposit box.    What else is there?  The stuff you need and want to keep forever like the artwork on your refrigerator door.  Tax returns from before the time you e-filed.  That lottery ticket that just might win.

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.