Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Defeating the Demons of Doubt

I'm working on an article for the April 2007 B2B section of the Ann Arbor Business Review,
so I've been spending some time in research. I'm thinking of writing the article about tools to help small businesses publish ezines with a particular focus on the benefits of services such as ezinearticles.com. As my research continued, though, I discovered more and more about which I could write, more and more about which I knew nothing, more and more articles which already said what I wanted to say. And then they had me.

The Demons of Doubt smelled my fear.

What if I'm not good enough? What if I can't think of anything new? What if my writing stinks? What if I fail?

Once you've started down this path, grave danger will haunt your every step. Before you know it you will begin to question every decision you've made. Left unchecked, you find yourself curled into a little ball and gibbering quietly -- unwilling to take any chances or risks at all.

So, how do you send these foul spirits back to the abyss from which they sprang? I've come up with a few ideas:

  1. Reflect on my successes. Have I done one or two things that were difficult in my life? Sure! Heck, just thinking back to training for my first Black Belt is enough to make my muscles ache. If I can do that, I can do just about anything.
  2. Practice. A year ago, I would never have been able to handle this article. Since that time, though, I've written over 100 blog posts and probably ten or so newsletter articles. I know that I've grown as an author and my "voice" has developed with this practice.
  3. Trust in others. This opportunity didn't just arrive on a silver platter. I had to earn it by submitting a sample article. My writing style has already passed muster.
  4. Trust in myself. Maybe this information is out there for anyone to read, but my words and my take on things are not. I have my own value to add, even, if nothing else, it is only in the presentation of the information in a clear and understandable way.
  5. Know your customers. If you know more than your customers about what you do, then you are an expert. You don't have to know more than your competition. You just have to be the first to share what you know with your customers.
Hey, where'd the Demons go? Must be they got tired of me not listening to them and took their ball and bat and went home.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I use the same tricks when I begin to doubt myself about my business, too!

So, how do you keep the Demons of Doubt at bay?

Another Day (Off)

Man resting in hammockAs most of you already know, when I decided to go full-time on my business, I also made the commitment to myself that I would not work at all on Sundays. That was the day for spending time with my wife, for getting some chores done around the house, and for just kicking back a little and recharging. No email, no phone calls, no programming.

Well, I've now had four such days off and I've got to tell you, I wish I had done this a long time ago. Before the beginning of this year, I was working part time for the University of Michigan and part time on my business. If I wasn't working on Sunday, I was feeling guilty for not working on Sunday. How messed up is that? I've had a number of small projects to do around the house for months (some for years). in the past, I was always waiting for a break in my schedule to attend to these tasks. You can guess what would happen. Right. Nothing. Oh, I would feel guilty that they weren't getting done, but, what could I do? I had work to do.

Now, during my work week, I don't feel that guilt. After all, I know that I have a day dedicated to completing those projects. And when I wake up on the "day of rest", I get pretty excited about all of the possibilities for the day. Just yesterday, for example, I finished the repair work on the drapery rods for our front room, re-organized my basement workshop, and found time to sit with my wife and watch one of my favorite movies, The Sixth Sense.

If you are a sole-proprietor or small business owner, take my advice. Set aside at least one day a week as a "not work" day. I guarantee that you'll still get pretty much the same amount done in your business and you'll become a real hero around the house. Who knows? Maybe your spouse will even remember what you look like!

So, how do you refresh yourself each week?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Clearing the Mental RAM

Getting Things Done by David AllenI've been reading another good book lately. It's called "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity" by David Allen. I checked it out from the library and, ironically, didn't get a chance to crack it open until just recently. Unfortunately, I ran out of time to read it before it came due, so I don't know how it ends (don't anyone spoil it for me!). Still what little I was able to read gave me a number of ideas to apply to my own organizational system.

Similar to one of the sections in Jack Canfield's "Success Principles", Allen maintains that the incomplete tasks in our life rob us of the finite resource of mental cycles. Just like a computer running Windows, we build up so much junk in our minds, that it takes up too much space in our mental RAM and therefore stops or severely hinders the valuable work that we should be doing.

Many of us have had the experience of being "in the flow" while we are working on a project, only to have some random thought on a completely unrelated topic bring the whole train to a screeching halt. According to Allen, we are trying to remember all of these random tasks in our active memory. Unfortunately, our brain thinks that anything in our active memory is something that needs to be worked on. The idea is to move all of this "noise" into an external system so we don't have to think about it anymore.

Allen, who has helped many a corporate president get themselves organized, has come up with just such a system. It takes us from the beginning where we collect all of the incomplete things in our lives all the way through implementation and maintenance of a system to keep track of all of our projects and activities. I managed to read until about halfway through the process before I had to return the book and now I'm thinking that it will probably be in my next order from Amazon.

Wish me luck as I clear out all the cruft in my life.

So, what organizational system have you found or created for yourself?

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Downside

sick personOne of my mentors, Professor Keith Hafner of Keith Hafner's Karate, told us once that the worst number in any business is the number one. If you have only one of anything, especially anything critical, then your business could fail with the loss of that one thing. How many businesses have gone under because they served only one client (or even, to some extent, one industry)? I'm sure a lot of the automotive suppliers have been feeling that pain for a while now. Have one vendor? You'd better be willing to pay whatever price he demands. And what happens to your company when the one guy who knows the "secret sauce" gets hit by a bus?

I tell ya, I'm feeling the pain.

Oh, I'm not really suffering much from any of the above maladies. The one that is causing me pain is more along the lines of the common cold. In fact, it is the common cold. I caught it last weekend. Nothing particularly serious, just sniffles and a cough and an overpowering need each afternoon to take a two hour nap. Guess what, though? I have clients who still want their work done and, looking around, I'm not seeing anyone who can jump into my seat on a moment's notice. Sometimes being chief cook and bottlewasher ain't all it's cracked up to be.

Am I complaining? Not really. I do enjoy the work, even when I'm a bit under the weather. This is just one of those things that most people don't consider when they think of the "glamorous" world of the entrepreneur.

So, for now, I'll get as much rest as I can, get my vitamin C, and just keep plugging along. Tomorrow will be soon enough for the glamor.

So, what areas of your business suffer from the number one?

Where's My Checked Sports Jacket and Loud Tie?

Frank Bonner as Herb Tarlek on WKRPI went to a sales seminar today. This was a free luncheon sponsored by the local franchise of the Sandler Sales Institute.

If you asked me, back when I was in high school or even college, whether I would ever even think about attending such an event, I would have responded with a loud and clear, "No Way!". At least that's how I would have responded after regaining my breath from all the hysterical laughing. A salesperson? I remember Herb Tarlek from WKRP in Cincinnati. There was no way I was ever going to do that for a living!

So, what happened?

Well, I started working in my own company full time and no longer had the safety net of my U of M salary, that's what. Suddenly, if I want to eat, I have to find people who want to purchase my services. Crazy, right?

So, what is a "sales luncheon" like? I was fully expecting it to be a hard-core, high-pressure, "sign on the dotted line for our full training course" experience. I was prepared to resist and poke holes in any verbal traps that lay in wait. I was "pleasantly disappointed".

In reality, Joe Marr, the trainer and owner of the franchise gave a two-hour long, informative, fun, interesting, and completely no-pressure training presentation. It was an honest-to-goodness interactive classroom situation. There were eight of us in the class. We chatted about the challenges we were currently experiencing and get some solid advice from Joe. Heck, we even got a free lunch! I walked out with four or five pages of notes and a couple of "A-ha!" moments which I'll be working into my systems over the next week or so.

Ah, you say, but what did you have to give in return? Oh, that. Well, it was pretty rough. At the end of the meeting, Joe just said that if we wanted to have a private meeting with him to talk more about additional training, we should talk with his son, Joe Jr, about signing up for a time. Otherwise we were free to leave, and thank you for coming.

My appointment is for the Friday after I return from Hawaii!

So, when was the last time you were "pleasantly disappointed"?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Customer Service: A Tale of Two Verizons 2

Part the Second: The Good

I'm huddled in front of my computer tonight because, in keeping with some sort of vast universal law, the temperature outside is around 20 (and tomorrow supposed to be even colder) and our furnace decided that heating the house was really too much trouble. We called up a local furnace repair place, Indoor Comfort, (who claimed 24-hour service). The serviceman on call, Corey, got back to us in jig time. I've got to hand it to him. He was completely honest with me. He told me that he would have to charge me $140 for the service call and, since our furnace is getting a bit long in the tooth, he probably wouldn't have the parts to fix it. You've got to appreciate that kind of honesty. He even suggested another place that might have the part.

Wow! I love great customer service like that.

Speaking of good customer service, I wanted to tell you the second half of my Verizon story.

A few nights ago, I was doing the bills. I went to record the Verizon statement only to discover that it was a little more expensive than I had expected. I checked, and, sure enough, the in-store twits clerks at the Verizon store had put the "handheld" option on Lisa's phone, which I had specifically told them not to do. The handheld option allows you to hook up your laptop to your cell phone and use it for a broadband connection. A cool service, but not worth $60/month!

So, I dragged myself over to the phone, since I always love to call customer service (and the fact that it was a cell phone company only made me even more eager). I dialed the number and was immediately taken to my favorite place, voicemail hell. Then I was in for my first shock.

I went through one layer of options, had to enter my cell phone number, and was immediately connected with "Cheryl", a real live human being (or at least a very convincing facsimile!). OK, I know I shouldn't get so excited, but if you knew my history with voicemail systems, you would understand.

Anyway, to make a long story short, within 15 minutes, Cheryl had removed the "handheld" option from Lisa's phone, reversed the charges for that option, and had explained some of the other options that were on the account, helping me make good decisions on exactly what I needed to make the most of our phones. While we spoke, she was unfailingly pleasant and even chatted with me a little about her experiences working for Verizon. I think the only complaint I have about the whole experience was that she couldn't transfer me to someone there with whom I could register my extreme satisfaction with the whole experience!

Hey, Verizon! Here's an idea. Why don't you send your in-store clerks to the same customer service training that you sent Cheryl? It's wonderful that they know so much about the technology, but I would have been a lot happier if they had treated me like a real human being, instead of just a commission.

So, can your good cell phone company experience beat that?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Customer Service: A Tale of Two Verizons

Part the First: The Bad.

You know I'm always looking for tales of good customer service. Well, tonight I found one in a most unexpected place -- my cell phone company, Verizon Wireless.

Yes, I know. Shocking, isn't it? Cell phone companies are more often known for their customer service nightmares than with anything else. What made it even more unexpected for me was the contrast with my previous experiences with Verizon, in particular with the folks who staff their Ann Arbor store.

But wait, let me go back to the beginning.

Just before Christmas I decided that it was about time for Lisa and I to upgrade our cell phones and that the holidays were a perfect excuse to do just that. So, in secret, I went over to the local Verizon store. I've always preferred working with people face-to-face on these things. For some reason, they seem to be more responsive to your needs -- most of the time.

So, I entered this establishment. The room was huge -- and largely empty. It had displays along the walls, but otherwise the space was devoid of ornamentation of any kind. No places to sit. No furniture at all except for the checkout counter. It took a few moments for one of the three clerks to come over. I had already done my research, so I knew exactly which phone I wanted. It was only a matter of getting the right package for the phones. Simple, right?

Well, forty-five minutes and three clerks later, I found that this was definitely not the case. Apparently I confused them with my need not to transfer the phones right then and there. After all, Lisa might get suspicious if her phone just stopped working all of a sudden, right? At one point, two of the clerks had their heads together and had and exchange which sounded something like:

"We could ramft the cloverleaf function across the bork 534. That would delay the J62 onset and should make the jump-up contract fall on the dispersal date."

They then looked up at me and, I swear, one of them said, "Does that sound like what you want?"

By the time I left, I needed an Advil.

I would have chalked it up to just my bad luck, but this store further solidified its reputation when Lisa tried to take back the leather case which I had purchased separately. The case really didn't work for me and neither of us wanted it. Amongst the other obstacles they tried to throw in the way, the clerk in question came up with this beaut:

"It really would be more cost effective if you keep it."

What more can you say after that?

Tomorrow: Verizon, the Good.

So, do you have a cell company story to beat this?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Frustrations and Limitations

FrustrationAs I've mentioned before, I do love a puzzle. The only times when that turns out not to be the case is when the puzzle just doesn't seem to have a solution. I've run into one of those problems today.

One of my classmates in Leadership Ann Arbor, Jim Anderson of A.J. Boggs & Company, called me in to help them out with some small enhancements and minor fixes on one of their legacy systems. The system was written in Perl, a language with which I have some passing familiarity. One of the "minor fixes" has now vexed me for far longer than it should and has gone beyond the range of a puzzle and is rapidly approaching "true annoyance" proportions.

Skipping over the gory details, the system allows users to get a 7-day subscription to one of the client's services. The user enters his or her vital stats and the system, behind the scenes, adds them to two files. The first is the subscriber database, the other is a password file.

Or at least it is supposed to.

Every once in a while, it just doesn't add them to the password file (which makes it really tricky to login and use the system). I have used every diagnostic that I can think of, examined log files, run simulations, etc, but I cannot seem to make this thing give up its secrets. It's maddening! Oh, I've set up some features so that the admins can fix the problem when it shows up again, but, really, to do the job right, it shouldn't be happening in the first place.

And, of course, sometimes you just have to face the facts of diminishing marginal returns. If the problem doesn't occur often enough for the client to justify paying for my time, then sometimes a work-around is good enough.

But for a puzzle-solver it can be really annoying!

So, in your line of work, do you ever have to be satisfied with just "good enough"?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Tools, Techniques, and Tips on Goal-Setting

library of knowledgeIn my post last night I mentioned a gadget for your Google Homepage which allows you to view your progress toward your goals using "Joe's Goals", a site designed to help you track just that. I know that, at this time of year, a lot of people think about goal setting and goal achieving. To that end, I thought I would share with you some of the resources and tools I've found online and off which can help us achieve those goals. After all you don't want to be one of the 94.6% of the population who gives up on their New Years resolutions by the end of February, right? And You certainly don't want to be among the 76.4% of us who make up statistics on the spot!

So what follows (in no particular order) are some of my favorite (goal) things:

  • Joe's Goals -- A free site which allows you to track your progress in achieving whatever goals you might specify. You can assign different point values for each goal (even negative point for those behaviors you wish to avoid). If you go too long without recording anything, the site will send out a friendly reminder.
  • "Success Principles" by Jack Canfield -- I wrote about this one before. It's a great compilation of all of the rules to follow to uncover your goals and then how to achieve them.
  • Lifehack.org -- A compilation website/blog which gathers information about how to make life easier in any number of ways, from concepts in goal setting to how to get inexpensive airline flights. They gather stuff from all over the Web so you don't have to.
  • "Getting Things Done" by David Allen -- I've just started into this book, but already it has helped me to clear up the clutter in my life. This frees up my mind to focus on the important things.
  • My MP3 player -- I use a Creative Zen Vision:M, but any portable digital audio device will do. I can listen to any of a number of great audio programs which help me by either teaching me something new, or by giving me encouragement in whatever I'm attempting. All this while I take a nice walk around the neighborhood.
  • My (somewhat) smart phone -- I have an LG enV (or something like that). As with the MP3 player, it gives me a chance to use some of those small pieces of time that we all have throughout the day. If I'm early to an appointment or the other person is late, I can take time to check email, read blogs, or even just snap a few pictures of what's going on around me.
I'll undoubtedly uncover more helpful tools and resources in the future. I'll let you know if I discover anything momentous.

What sorts of tools have you found useful in achieving your goals?

Cool Google Gadgets

Google personalized homepageI have really been enjoying using the Google personalized homepage. The gadgets I've found there have made me a lot more effective at what I do. Oh, sure, it has all of the stuff you would expect in a configurable homepage (news feeds, weather forecast, etc), but it has so much more!

Some of my favorite tools so far:

Some of the ones that I'm testing out:
What new tools have you been using?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

In Search of a Schedule

My lovely and long-suffering wife, Lisa, has heard me complain about this since about the time I started working in my business full time. The topic is having a schedule and, more to the point, my need to have one. This latter fact was brought home all too forcefully tonight when I had a private lesson with Professor Hafner down at the Karate School.

The Professor (so-titled for his 7th degree Black Belt status) put me through a short, 15-minute lesson. We worked on the basics and ran through some forms. I'm ashamed to say that by the ten minute mark I was gasping for air. The reason? Pretty obviously, I've allowed myself to get out of shape. To much eating over the holidays, almost no real exercise -- it all adds up. And now, I'm using my business as an excuse not to work out. "I've just got to get this done by tonight!"

Oh, sure, I say that I'll get back on the exercise wagon, "just as soon as I can make it fit into my schedule", but I haven't really put in the effort. As I often do to myself, I feel like I've got to have all of the information before I can come up with a plan (and, of course, I can't accept a plan made up by someone else!). You know what? It isn't working.

So, I'm going to kill two birds with one stone. First, I'm going to give up the paralysis of analysis to which I am susceptible. Lisa came up with a good first-attempt effort at a schedule for my mornings. Right now, I'm committing to follow that schedule for the next week. I get the feeling that I will learn more about a good schedule for me by trying out what she suggested, than all the thinking and planning I will do over the next several weeks (or months).

And, by following her suggestions, I will at least get in a workout or two!

So, do you have a set schedule which assures that the important things get done? How did you develop it? How do you deal when life doesn't cooperate?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

14 Lessons from a Fortnight

Pile of WorkWell, it's been two weeks now since I've headed out on my own. I don't know if I've learned any momentous lessons yet, but I have come across a few minor ones.

  1. Do priority work first thing in the morning. It sets the tone for the day.
  2. Email is only rarely priority work.
  3. Blogging and reading blogs are even more rarely priority work.
  4. Developing a schedule is vital to success. I'm still working on this one.
  5. Make time for things other than work in your life.
  6. A cleared desk at night sets the tone for the next day.
  7. Skipping sleep to work just leads to having to redo the work the next day.
  8. Be curious. Explore the possibilities of new tools, new techniques, new relationships.
  9. Make time to take care of your health.
  10. A twenty minute walk is better than no exercise at all.
  11. A spouse who supports you wholeheartedly is better than twenty great business ideas.
  12. Things rarely go as planned. You expect a quiet month in which you can plan and develop a good strategy for your business? It probably won't happen.
  13. When you are expecting a quiet month and it doesn't happen, be grateful.
  14. When you are tired, a nap will do better than a can of Coke.
I'm sure there are a few more, but I'm pretty tired and it's time for me to get some sleep.

What new lessons have you learned in the last week (or which old ones have reminded you of their truth)?

Fun Stuff: Comics

The Webmaster!After getting out of Karate class tonight, I stopped over at Vault of Midnight, my favorite comic shop, to pick up this week's batch of books. It looks like a slow one this time, as I only walked out with two. One was the first of what looks to be a 4-part series in the world of "Squadron Supreme"™ and the other is the next issue of "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man".

In case you were wondering, I love comics. After all, I am the international superhero known as "The Webmaster" -- rescuing people from their own websites!

More than just superhero comics, though, I love the pictorial story in a variety of forms. Isn't it cool that so many cartoons and comics are now showing up on the Web? Artists who might not otherwise have had an audience are able to get out their fun, dark, quirky, disturbing, hilarious, or whimsical fare for us all to see. In case you are interested, here is a list of some of my favorite online comics sites:

  • Comics.com -- On the United Media site. They have a number of the "newspaper" strips with which you might be familiar, including "Arlo and Janis", "Dilbert", and "Get Fuzzy".
  • GoComics.com -- More "newspaper" strips. Here you'll find "Foxtrot", "Garfield", and "Doonesbury", among others.
  • "Order of the Stick" -- As a former Dungeons and Dragons player, this one really gets me. This one is more of a full page layout of a group of stick-figure adventurers.
  • "MegaTokyo" -- This one is more of a manga style. It turns out that the artist, Fred Gallagher, lives at least relatively close to Ann Arbor.
  • "User Friendly" -- Lots of techie-nerd fun with humorous commentary on the bizarreness of the tech world, including obligatory digs at whichever big tech company is making litigious idiots out of themselves this week.
  • "Kevin & Kell" -- A touching story of an anthropomorphic rabbit who marries the she-wolf of his dreams and the lives of their oddball extended family and friends. I was turned on to this one by my lovely sister-in-law, JoAnn. She met the artist, Bill Holbrook, at DragonCon this year. She bought me his first book as a Christmas gift and I've been hooked ever since.
Now, just to warn you, many of these online comics have their entire history available for you to read. You can waste a lot of time reading five or six years of comics. Still, when you find something you really enjoy.... Oh, and if you want to share the love with one of your non-Internet friends, many of these folks have their books bundled up in dead-tree (paper) form, available at your favorite bookstore or definitely from their websites. Check them out!

So, do you read any online comics? Which ones?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Artrain USA

Art ExhibitAs I mentioned in a previous post, Lisa and I had a date to visit Artrain USA here in Ann Arbor. On Saturday afternoon we made our way down to the railroad tracks near where Main Street runs into M-14. We had reserved a spot in a VIP tour of the current exhibit, "Native Views: Influences of Modern Culture."

When we arrived, we were greeted by Barb Shoffner, who had told me about Artrain when we first met. We were then introduced to our tour guide, Nathan Zamarron, and to the other members of our tour group. Then we were off!

Over the next hour, Nathan took us through the length of the train, four or five cars in all. We stopped periodically for him to tell us the stories behind some of the pieces. Sometime it was to explain some of the Native American symbology, others to tell an anecdote about the artist, still others would be to point out some subtle bit of imagery which my untrained eye, at any rate, might well have missed. His infectious enthusiasm really helped draw us all into the artwork and helped me to appreciate the subtleties of modern Native American art.

While each painting or sculpture was interesting, I found one or two of the pieces particularly intriguing. One was a computer printout of a scanned image of native beadwork. What was so cool, though, was the fact that the artist intentionally chose to print the image at a fairly low resolution. This meant that if you stood close enough, you could easily pick out the individual pixels which made up the image. in effect, it was a modern form of the beadwork which it depicted.

The other piece which really grabbed me was one which emboddied the concept of the "seventh generation". According to Nathan, the tribe would attempt to make decisions based on how the results would effect not only those alive today, but also how it would affect everyone down to the seventh generation. It made me pause to consider: What if we did the same thing today? What if we gave pause to think about those would follow us in seven generations? How would we change our current behaviors. Heck, there are times when I think life on this planet would improve if we considered what effects our actions would have in a week, let alone a time period measured in generations.

Anyway, the current exhibit will be in the Ann Arbor area for the rest of the month. I don't know if any VIP tours remain, but even if you can't get in on one of those, you should really make the effort to get down there before they leave to check it out. Give them a call at 734-747-8300 if you have any questions.

So, what was the last thought-provoking event that you attended?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Ambulances, Doctors and Pfizer, Oh My!

Justin Trojan of Huron Valley AmbulanceWednesday was our third class in the Leadership Ann Arbor course. This month we had Health Care Day, an opportunity to visit several of the organizations associated with the field of keeping us upright and ambulatory (and I don't mean the ones with the flashing lights and sirens!). As usual it was a full and enlightening day -- so much so that it would take me forever (and bore you to tears) were I to relate it blow by blow. What follows (in no particular order) is my list of impressions from the day. I've included the location where I learned this tidbit in parens.

  • On average it takes $880 million dollars, 12 to 15 years and testing 5000 to 7000 compounds to bring a drug to market. (our host, DJ Boehm at Pfizer)
  • Using an Automated Emergency Defibrillator (AED) is actually pretty easy. Just remember to step away from the patient when the machine tells you to. (Huron Valley Ambulance)
  • The University of Michigan Hospital is the size of a small city. Supposedly the Wendy's in the cafeteria is the busiest one in the entire state. (U of M Hospital)
  • According to Justin Giersdorf (one of the hosting EMTs) up to 50% of all of ambulance calls are diabetic related. (HVA)
  • I'm just a pound or two shy of being officially obese. (Pfizer)
  • Michael Marsh of the Clinical Simulation Center has a lot of really cool toys -- even "patients" who breathe, have a pulse, and have eyes with pupil which react to light. (U of M Hospital)
  • Soda (pop, coke, etc) is really bad for you, unless you like osteoporosis, periodontal disease, and obesity. (Pfizer, at lunch)
  • An AED puts out up to 300 joules of electricity -- enough to light a high school football stadium. (HVA)
  • U of M Hospital runs at 97% of capacity on average. Everybody wants to come here! (UMH)
  • Prevention is way better than cure. (all)
Of course, there was so much more, but that gives you a bit of a feel for what we learned. Of course, it was also great to chat with all of the friends that I've come to know through Leadership (one of whom, Jim Anderson of AJ Boggs & Company, has actually passed along some work to me -- my first since I went full-time on my business!). If you'd like to know more, ask me the next time you see me!

So, what surprising facts have you learned recently?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Taking a Day Off

Relaxation DayOn Sunday I had my first Day Off.

When I decided to make my business into my full-time pursuit, I knew one of the dangers was going to be working to the exclusion of all else. With that in mind I committed to "no work Sundays". On Sunday, I wouldn't answer emails, I wouldn't sit and program on the computer (in fact I try very hard not to sit in front of the computer at all). My goal for the day was to relax, be with my wife, and maybe complete a project or two around the house.

Believe it or not, I found this very difficult. I didn't realize how much of a habit it is for me to work (I'm sure much to my parents' utter shock). I had to consciously stop myself from walking into my office and plunking down in front of the computer.

It did feel good to do some actual physical tasks for a change. This week I spent time recording and filing the comic books I've purchased over the last month (and those I received as a Christmas gift from my wonderful sister-in-law, JoAnn). What, you didn't know I collected comic books? Oh, I do. Believe me, I do!

Wish me luck next Sunday!

So, do you have trouble leaving the "office" behind? How do you do it?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Don't Let Them Forget!

Unknown personToday was my last official day at University of Michigan. As you might guess, after 17 years of working there, the send-off they gave me was just shy of unbelievable. As if parading me around on their shoulders wasn't enough, I don't know how they convinced the U of M marching band to come in for the finale. I was completely overwhelmed.

OK, so I made that all up. In reality, I didn't even get lunch. At first I was a little hurt. Didn't anyone care? And then I thought about it a bit.

You see, one of the great perks of my job at U of M was that I was able to work pretty much anywhere I wanted. I quite often worked at home, given my druthers. That was great, except that it meant that I didn't really get to meet anyone. No one really got to know me. If they never saw me, how silly was I to expect that they would remember me? As far as most people were concerned, I didn't exist. Also, to be completely fair, my boss was out of town on a family vacation -- bad timing on my part.

This led me to think about my new position as a business owner. I can't afford for people not to know that I exist. Where before it was enough for me to operate in obscurity, now I need to shout from the rooftops. More importantly, I have to come out of my cave and mingle with the other denizens of the world. My mom has a goal of meeting with ten people a week. I'm not quite the networker she is yet, so my goal is to meet and make friends with at least two per week.

Let me be clear, though, these meetings are not to sell, but rather to find out more about that other person and to find out how I can help them.

Of course, I intend on strengthening my few ties at the University, too. I have maintained a few contacts over the years and I would be foolish to write them off.

Oh, and don't feel too bad for me. My lovely wife took me out to dinner tonight to celebrate the end of one chapter and the beginning of the new one. Delicious Indian food at Raja Rani!

So, what opportunities have you missed in your life and how have you changed your approach so as not to miss them again?

Cool Tools: Picasa

Christmas DogQuick note tonight.

I've been playing with Picasa, a tool from Google to manage your digital photos. For the kind of photo manipulations that most people need, this is the perfect application. You can crop, brighten, sharpen, play with several different effects like blur and sepia tone.

My favorite? Red eye adjustment. Just box in the demonic eyes, click the button, and your niece has become a cherub, once again.

The other cool thing is that, with the click of a mouse, it can upload pictures to the Google web album area. If you've got a minute, feel free to check out my public albums. I'm no Ansel Adams -- heck, I'm not even Gomez Addams -- but this sure makes it easy for me to share some pretty decent pics with my family and friends.

So, which photo service do you use and why?

Monday, January 01, 2007

Starting Off Right

Artist with blank canvasWith the new year and my new chapter of life, I've been paying closer attention to tips and techniques to improve my personal time management and productivity. Even though I've only been working part time in my business, Cyber Data Solutions, I've come to recognize that one of the key components for success for is just getting things started. As happens to almost all of us on occasion, the blank canvas can be a real stumbling block. Actually, the concept of "starting" has a variety of subconcepts for me, each of which requires different tools to overcome.

First is the idea of just starting a project from scratch. Fortunately for me, this doesn't plague me as much as it used to. After seventeen years of programming, I've built up quite a library of code. I've got templates and programming chunks and function libraries already built. "Starting" a project for me often involves grabbing some of these pieces (which already run fairly well) and starting the process of tweaking them. If I built houses, this would be the equivalent of setting up a pre-fab building and then just customizing it for the new owners.

The second area is restarting a project after a delay. Occasionally, I have to wait for some third party to complete a task before I can continue my work. This is not an unusual occurrence. After all everyone has their own schedule. Sometimes they mesh. Sometimes they don't. The biggest problem I run into here is just getting back into the flow of the project. Little details that I had in my head can fade even after only a few days. To combat this I take notes as often as I can. I keep a paper notebook for projects. I have Google Notebook, I put notations in the code itself. Oh, and I keep every single email about a project that crosses my desk. I can't tell you the number of times that particular habit has saved my bacon.

My last challenge in this area is the simple act of starting out each day. This is the one I've been trying to work on more recently. Far too often, the minutia of life seem to jump to center stage. Emails, blogs, working out, eating, etc. Each thing seems either innocuous or tremendously vital. Don't even ask me about checking blog statistics. I'm still new enough at this that I get pretty excited when I have more than ten readers in a day. All of that stuff, though, clutters the morning and before I know it, it's 1pm and I haven't gotten anything truly important done.

Now lately, in order to short-circuit this behavior, I've taken to getting up and going into the office and immediately starting work on my highest priority project. I promise myself that I only have to work for a single hour without stopping. No checking email. No reading (or writing) blog posts. Nothing but the work. Funny thing is, when I really put my mind to it, it's almost laughably easy. The exciting thing is that I can't believe how much I can get done in just that one hour.

I'll let you know if I find any other tricks which help me get things done. Of course, if you have any suggestions, I'd be glad to hear them, too. I'm also compiling a list of helpful sites and blogs on my Squidoo lens. Feel free to visit or suggest some entries.

So, how has the beginning of the year gone for you?