5 online calendars your family can’t live without

If you think online calendaring is for scheduling business meetings, appointments and the occasional lunch date, you’re missing out. Online calendars can also be a great way to bring order to the chaos of family life — if you create or subscribe to the essential calendars that will keep your family happy and functional. Here are 5 calendars that can help:

  1. School calendar: With any luck, your kids’ school or local school board publishes an online calendar that shows school holidays, professional development days, and other school closures or special events. As long as the calendar outputs an iCal feed, you can subscribe to it — like the one on this calendar from Sherman Elementary in San Francisco. If your school doesn’t share its calendar in subscribe-able form, let them know you’d like to see their calendar as an iCal.
  2. Family-friendly events: Ever wake up on Saturday morning and wonder what you’re going to do with the kids today? Set up a calendar to track fun events and performances for kids. Look for a family events calendar in your area and (if it offers an iCal feed) subscribe to it, or check out the family category on Upcoming and subscribe to that for your town.
  3. Pick-up schedule: It can be awfully hard to keep track of who is taking which kid to school on which day, picking up who where when, or handling the job of ferrying kids to and from after school activities and playdates. Create a dedicated, shared calendar just for pickups and drop-offs, and mark who is responsible for taking each kid to each location on each day of the week.
  4. Homework schedule: If your kids have reached the age where they have specific homework assignments and due dates, create a homework calendar to track when that book report or science project needs to be handed in. Share the online version with all the adults in your home, so they can help the kids keep track, and if your kids use a computer, smartphone or iPod Touch, sync their homework calendar to those devices, too. Just as crucial, print out the homework calendar every few weeks and post it where the kids will see it — and then remind them to get to work!
  5. Family wireframe: The toughest part of managing family life can be the job of making time for your kids, your relationship and yourself. Create a separate calendar that you can use to wireframe your ideal family life — to create an outline of the way you’d ideally divide your time between work and home, and the way you’d like to allocate your home time to things like family outings, homework time or other activities. I mostly keep mine hidden, but every few months I switch it on and use it to ground my decisions about how to spend my time and structure my work.

Do you use an online calendar like Google Calendar to keep your home life running smoothly? I’d love to hear your tips.

How to stop wasting time on technology challenges

Today’s practice: The next time you dive into a time-consuming tech challenge, stop to ask: what would a normal person do?

Saturday morning I woke up at 4 a.m. in preparation for my flight to London — and accompanying time zone readjustment — later that day. I looked forward to having eons of time to relax before the kids woke up, or at least to getting a bit of work wrapped up before hitting the road. Instead, I spent three hours converting, transferring and syncing video files so I could catch up on my favourite shows while in flight.

About two and half hours into this process — after reading up on iPad video formats, updating to the latest version of HandBrake, finding and tormenting a couple of video files, queuing up my video conversions, troubleshooting our home wifi network,  testing transfer options, clearing hard drive space on my Macbook, and syncing my iPad so it would be backed up before I started transferring video — I stopped to ask myself:

What would a normal person do?

You know, a normal person: somebody who doesn’t want to learn about video codecs, install new software, tweak IP settings or do any of the other little techie fidgets that geeks like me accept as part of the price of online living. I am told that the very device I wanted to watch video on — the iPad — is designed for these normals. Apparently many of them use it to watch video. And I’m guessing that none of them use Handbrake or bit torrent. So what’s their secret?

Imaging the normal person alternative is something that has occurred to me during many of my recent tech (mis)adventures.

Like when I found myself two days into learning the Google Maps API…because I wanted to make a photo album of our latest family vacation. Surely, normal people make photo albums without learning any APIs whatsoever.

Or when I nearly clicked “buy” on a $200 WordPress Plugin that would let me integrate Amazon affiliate links….so I could monetize my compulsive shoe shopping. Surely, normal people indulge their shopping habits without expecting a direct ROI.

Or when I spent 10 hours trying to create a bootable dupe of my Windows netbook’s hard drive….before turning it into a “hackintosh”. Surely, normal people who want a Mac, buy a Mac.

Thinking about a normal person would do when confronted by a particular obstacle has proven to be a useful check on my habit of diving deep into a tech challenge without asking how much of my time it’s really worth. Unfortunately, by the time I think to ask the question, I’m usually several hours into the process, and so many steps past what a normal person would take on that I can no longer fully imagine pursuing the normal person path.

From what I see, the normal person path is usually one of the following:

  1. Pay money for it. Instead of doing my 8-step video download, conversion and syncing process, a normal person would just buy the damn show on iTunes.
  2. Take it or leave it. A normal person would use the digital photo book software as designed, even if it didn’t offer the ability to make a map of where all the photos were taken. If she didn’t like the way that photo book looked, she just wouldn’t use the software. Modifying it to make it work the way she wanted wouldn’t be a viable alternative.
  3. Don’t even think about it. A normal person wouldn’t try to do half the stuff I end up wasting time on. It just wouldn’t occur to a normal person that you might want to turn your PC into a Mac.

Of course, the normal person path has its limitations. Much of the knowledge I have to offer my clients and colleagues is acquired in the course of attempting some time-wasting, non-normal endeavour: just a week after I “wasted” the weekend learning all about Google Maps, a client asked me to mock up a web app that was a perfect use case for a photo+maps combo, and I knew just how to do it.

More profoundly, my fundamental ease with technology comes from a willingness to knock my head against a wall until I finally accomplish what I’m after. Sure, I may spend a lot more time than the task really warrants, and I may not always prevail.

But most of the time my efforts are guided by a simple philosophy: Big woman, small computer. I’m bigger, so I will make the computer bend to my will.

For some reason, normal people don’t make the assumption that being physically larger than a laptop or desktop means that you will prevail in a battle of wills. While they may miss out on the opportunity to test and strengthen their tech skills, they make up for it with sheer efficiency. They can crank out a lot of wax tablets (or more realistically, Word documents) in the time it takes me to set up an RSS aggregator that automagically creates a single web page with a highly customized content structure.

The normal person lifestyle isn’t for everyone. If you get a rush from making a computer or website do something that you weren’t sure it could do, you’ll continue to spend lots of time on tasks that no normal person would undertake.

But if you’ve ever found yourself wondering where the day is gone, only to realize you’ve spent it delving deep into some tech-low challenge you’d have been better-off pursuing in a low-tech way, it’s worth adding the normal person mentality to your repertoire. The more often you practice, the more quickly you’ll stop to ask: What would a normal person do?

4 ways your computer can help you to protect your time

Feel like email and social media are stealing your time? Great news: your communications technologies can give time back, too.  I’m not talking about productivity boosters or clever ways of getting even more work done in even less time. I’m talking about protecting your time from the many incursions (many of them brought to you by email, twitter, facebook or linkedin) that can take your time away from your work altogether.

As I wrote in a recent blog post that is featured today on BlogHer, it takes work for an entrepreneur — or any other busy, successful person — to protect her time from the many (often legitimate) requests for time and attention. When you are dealing with a request for a freebie (as in, let me take 2 hours of billable time to pick your brain for free), it can be hard to know whether or even how to say no.

Here are 4 ways your computer can help you fend off some of the requests it streams to your desktop:

  1. The life wireframe: In web development, a wireframe is a bare bones mockup that shows the different elements you want to include in your web page. In time management, a life wireframe is a calendar that maps out your ideal week, allocating your time as you would ideally spend it. Create a separate life wireframe calendar in your calendaring program, blocking out every minute in your perfect week: wake-up time, hours for focused work, email time, meeting time, family time, workouts — the whole nine yards. Include business development and pro bono time in those time blocks, and be realistic about how much time you need to devote to those kinds of first meetings. Set all the items in your life wireframe to recur on a weekly basis, and set that calendar to visible — as a layer over or under your real-life calendar — at least once a week. Use it to remind yourself of how much of your time to allocate to meeting requests, and how much you need to protect ferociously so that you have time to get work done, or even (horrors!) to regenerate.
  2. The “no” signature: A good rule of thumb that I picked up in my travels is to never say yes to a meeting in 2 weeks (or 3 weeks, or six months) that you wouldn’t book into your calendar this week. Of course, you will often schedule things 2 or 3 weeks out because you don’t have a free block this week, or you are out of town, or on a deadline. But if you simply wouldn’t fit this appointment into a free block in this week’s calendar, you probably won’t feel any happier to see it pop up during a busy week in your future.
    The corollary of this rule is to avoid sending emails that encourage people to ask for your time at a later date. This is usually just a way for you to escape the awkardness of a definitive no. Write a few “no” emails that simply decline a meeting request without offering any ray of hope, and you will toughen up. Turn the best of these into two or three re-usable email signatures (most email clients let you save multiple signature files). When you’re faced with an email you know you need to say no to, use one of your pre-fab “no” signatures (adapting as needed) so you don’t fall prey to the temptation to say yes.
  3. The “maybe” folder: Let’s agree right now that anytime we hesitate before saying yes to a meeting request, it’s a sign that we probably need to say no. But sometimes it’s hard to bring yourself to send that “no” right away, and in the urge to clear out your inbox, you end up saying yes instead. So create a separate email folder for “maybe” requests, and use it as a short-term parking lot for emails asking you for meetings you may or may not want to take. Go through that request pile every couple of days and decide which one or two you’ll say yes to, and say no to all the rest. (My bet: once you look at them as a pile, you’ll want to say no to all of them.) If you find yourself shirking the job of sending those “no” messages, set a mail rule to send a politely declining auto-response to any message that is sitting in your “maybe” folder for more than three days.
  4. Blog your FAQs: If you receive a lot of requests for your time, it’s probably because people see you as a key source of wisdom on one or more topics. Distill that wisdom into written form, and you’ll be able to help many of the people who reach out to you without actually scheduling a meeting. If you find yourself answering the same question from more than a couple of people, or dispensing the same advice on a repeated basis, you can convert your standard-issue answer into a blog post. That’s how I ended up writing my posts on getting into grad school, or more recently, my series on blogging essentials. Point future inquiries to the relevant blog post; this is even easier if you create memorable links to your FAQs (e.g. http://bit.ly/alexblog). If you don’t have a blog, you can do something similar by creating documents that you email in response to recurring questions, but remember: if people keep asking you for your wise answer to a question or questions, it’s a sign that you have valued knowledge that would be the basis for a terrific blog.

Of course, none of these techniques can make you bulletproof. Even people with a zealous regard for the value of their own time will occasionally take meetings that go nowhere. And of course, many of us are less than zealous: we let our fear of awkwardness, desire to please or anxiety about missing a potential opportunity goad us into saying yes to meetings we really can’t afford to take.

Your computer will inevitably stoke those anxieties by feeding you requests and opportunities that challenge your resolve to say no. Turn your online life into an ally in the job of safeguarding your time, and you will find that resolve steadily growing.

Respecting the billable hour

Can I have $500?

One of the interesting things about being a consultant or entrepreneur is that people ask you for that kind of money all the time. I was reminded of this recently while catching up with a friend who (unlike me) is still involved in the daily work of running a web company. My friend had just received what I think of as a “can I have $500?” email, by which I mean an email that asks something like:

“I’d like your advice on my project. Do you have time to meet this week?”

“Would you be part of a brainstorming meeting with our team?”

“Can I take you to lunch and pick your brain?”

When you send an email like this to someone who earns their living by the billable hour, you’re asking them to give you money. When I running Social Signal full-time, giving someone a couple of hours of my time cost me $500: the $500 I wasn’t billing during that time.

One of the delights of focusing our work on projects with an environmental or social benefit is that I usually feel like my donated time is helping make the world a better place. Many of the people who were (implicitly) asking me for $500 were doing so on behalf of organizations or projects that are largely donor funded. In giving my time, I became one more donor.

It’s in the nature of running a business that you have lots of conversations with lots of people, only some of which will turn into actual paying work. We all need to invest a certain amount of time in leads that turn cold, in developing relationshiops for their own sake, in providing other up-and-comers with the kind of advice and insight that generous business people once shared with us.

But there is a big difference between meeting with a consultant to assess whether you want to hire her, and asking her to simply give you a couple of hours to do the work you need. When you are talking to someone whose work includes analyzing problems, offering insight or making recommendations, “picking their brain” is the same as asking them to work for free.

Sometimes that is appropriate. Sometimes you really would ask someone for $500, because you are working on a worthy cause that depends on donations, and you are approaching someone who you think might share your belief in that cause. Sometimes you really would ask someone for $500 because you have a personal relationship, or think they’d be excited about your project, or because you really really need their help and just don’t have the means to pay for it.

Just be crystal clear about what you are asking. If you wouldn’t ask someone to contribute $500 in cash to your project, don’t ask for $500 of their time. And if you do want to ask for that time, make your request with the same care and courtesy you would put into asking for a cash contribution. Make it clear you realize you are asking for a favor. Locate and schedule your date at their convenience, not yours. Pay for the lunch or the coffee, as a gesture of appreciation; don’t think you are paying someone for their time. Ask how you can reciprocate, or look for an opportuity — maybe with a referral or a speaking invitation. Take the time to plan how you use this donated hour effectively, and send a thank-you email that explains the difference that time has made.

That sensitivity isn’t just a matter of being courteous or considerate of the consultants and entrepreneurs you are approaching. It’s a mental shift that will help you make the most of the time and meetings people do give you for your projects. It will change how you see an hour of your own time.

Even though I no longer live by the billable hour, the experience of earning a living as a consultant still affects how I see both my time and others’. (It probably helps that I still do enough work with Social Signal that the billable hour isn’t entirely an abstraction.)  When someone asks for an hour of my time, I think not only about whether that hour would be genuinely useful to them (usually, though not always, I think it would) but abut the opportunity costs that hour represents. Who else could I help with that time? What projects could I move forward? Will that hour require me to move other work into my evening hours, in a way that affects my family? All these questions help to focus my time on the meetings and projects where I can help remove a bottleneck or solve a problem for someone in a way that saves hours or days of their time.

The billable hour isn’t a tyrant that should keep us from helping one another. It’s a discipline that ensures we all appreciate the pro bono help that so many consultants and entrepreneurs generously provide.

Do you have trouble saying no to requests for your time? Read 4 ways your computer can help you protect your time.

How to sustain a social media presence in 3 hours a week

When it rains on a weekend, I don’t bemoan my decision to live in the Pacific Northwest: I just know it’s time to queue up my blog posts and tweets for the week. That’s what I try to do in about two hours every weekend, and since folks often ask me how they can keep their social media presence alive in an efficient and sustainable way, I figure I’m long overdue to blog my system.

First, let me come clean. I don’t maintain my social media presence in just 3 hours a week; for me, it’s more like 40. But that is because social media is what I do, and I do a lot of it: I write for five different sites, contribute to seven different Twitter feeds, and aim to write at least 3 (typically 4 or 5) in-depth posts per week. All that social mediafying is the heart of my work, and more importantly, I love it. I would write that much even if it weren’t my work, so I’m just incredibly lucky that it is.

For most people, however, 40 hours a week would be overkill. And the same approach I use to maintain all my different social media activities can support a much more streamlined — but still very effective — presence. Three hours a week is enough to:

  1. Tweet original content 2-3x day, 5 days/week
  2. Publish 3 blog posts per week
  3. Reply to comments on your blog posts
  4. Reply, retweet and engage in conversation on Twitter

Let’s start with items #1 and #2 — which is what I spend about two hours tackling each weekend. If you’ve got your setup in place, that two hours is all you need to keep your social media presence alive and useful. By “useful”, I mean useful to the people you are trying to reach…which in turn makes it useful to you. The point isn’t to queue up a bunch of junk that keeps your blog and Twitter presence notionally alive: the point is to spend two hours teeing up some content that will provide real value to your target audience by speaking to the topic on which you are (or wish to be) an expert.

Here’s how:

    1. Open up Google Reader and look at the latest blog posts and news stories that are coming in through the custom searches you’ve set up and subscribed to. I’ve put my searches into a separate folder so it’s easy for me to see all latest results in one place:
IRL searches viewed in Feedly

Does my Google Reader look prettier than your Google reader? That's because I view my Google Reader feeds in Feedly.

Quickly scan through the teasers for all the stories that look interesting, Command-clicking (that’s ctrl-clicking for you Windows users) on anything that looks interesting so it opens in a new tab. I do that until I have ten or fifteen tabs open:

Many tabs open in Chrome

    1. Flip through the tabs and skim (or where warranted, read) each post or story in turn. It’s a sudden death system: as soon as I read something that makes me think that what I’m reading is too stale, too weird, too off-topic or too poorly written to share or respond to, I stop reading and close the tab.
    2. If you find something useful, queue it up as a tweet in HootSuite. If you’ve got the “hoot this” bookmarklet installed, it will likely pre-populate your tweet with the title of what you’re sharing:

Hootsuite bookmarklet prepopulated with story title

At this point your fastest option is to just hit the calendar icon and pick a date and time when you want your tweet to go out, but I like to customize at least half of my scheduled tweets so that they reflect my voice and are more intriguing:

Hootsuite bookmarklet with tweet rewritten as "Disable chat (please!!!) plus 4 more tips on how to use Facebook without letting it take over your life!"

  1. Continue flipping through your tabs, skimming and tweeting, but watch out for scrapers. A lot of content you find online will be scraped (i.e.republished or stolen) from other sites. I can’t give you a hard-and-fast rule for spotting scraped content, but you’ll get a feel for it. For example, this page on Youth Service America just didn’t look like it matched the voice of a blog post about online dating. I selected a string of text, dropped it into Google search, and sure enough, it turned up as a blog post that originally appeared on the Social Citizens blog. (It looks like YSA republishes the Social Citizens blog in a totally legit way, but I’d like to share the original post, not the reprint.)
  2. Look for the most thought-provoking stories and posts. When you hit something that’s especially interesting, insightful or simply annoying — something that makes you want to share your own perspective — then don’t tweet it. Instead, use it as the jumping-off point for a short blog post. Your post can share an excerpt or two from the source of your inspiration, but should do more than link to the post. You need to add your own perspective on it, or simply share the questions it raises for you. A blog post like this, which might be 2-4 paragraphs long, can take 5-15 minutes to write. That means you can queue up 3 blog posts in under an hour. (Don’t believe me? My next post in this series will offer proof.)
  3. Schedule your blog posts to go out on 3 different days of the week by setting the publication date and time in WordPress:
    Publish immediately with "edit" link you can click to schedule Date and time fields to edit publication time in WordPress
    Click “edit” next to “Publish immediately”…. …and you can choose when to post.

    That might be Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or perhaps Monday, Tuesday, Thursday; I often front-load my prewritten blog posts because I usually get inspired to write something here or there over the course of the week. I drop those longer, original posts into my schedule on the days I don’t have a post lined up, or I adjust my schedule to make room for them. I usually schedule my posts to go live between 9-10 am, when people in my time zone (Pacific) are at work and people on the east coast are ready for something to read over lunch.

  4. Queue up tweets about each of your blog posts on the day it’s scheduled to be published. Make sure you don’t link to the “preview post” URL you get while editing (where it says “post draft updated” when you save a draft) — that’s not the URL that will let people access your blog post once it’s published. Once you’ve got your post written and scheduled, WordPress will give you a new “preview post” link with the real URL for your post. You’ll know you’ve go the real URL if it doesn’t include the word “preview” in the address.

    Link to "preview post" next to "Post Scheduled"

    This links to the actual URL of your soon-to-be-published post.

  5. Review your “pending tweets” column in HootSuite (you may have to add it if it’s not already part of one of your HootSuite tabs) to see if your tweets are scheduled out evenly. You can click on any pending tweet to edit its text or scheduled time. Ideally you’ll have two or three tweets about other people’s content scheduled each day, and you will have the tweets about your own blog posts spaced out with tweets about other people’s content so that you’re never tweeting your own stuff twice in a row.

And that’s it! Well, almost. Remember items #3 and #4 at the top of this page — where I point out that you need to reply to your blog comments, Twitter mentions, and just generally participate in the Twitter conversation? That’s what your third social media hour is for.

I’m confident that you can queue up 3 blog posts and 10-15 tweets in just two hours each weekend. But that investment won’t do much for you unless you spend that additional hour — ideally as 10 or 15 minutes, 4-5 days a week — engaging with your community.

And yes, you will have a community. Because once you commit two hours a week to delivering real value to the audience you care about, you’re going to have people reading, tweeting and talking to you. So please, don’t forget to talk back.

The 5 requirements for a starter social media presence

I often talk to people who wonder how they can get started in social media. The typical requirements are:
  1. Cost: When you’re starting out, you don’t want to invest a lot in your tools, so you want to choose social media tools that are cheap or free.
  2. Ease of use: When you’re getting started, you want to use something relatively simple and user-friendly. That typically means hosted services rather than tools that require you to install your own software on a web host you pay for yourself.
  3. User base: Services with lots and lots of users — especially lots of geeky users — typically have lots of resources available to help you use them (like on-site documentation, blog posts by enthusiastic users, and even how-to books). These services are also much more likely to have tools that enhance their functionality or that help them integrate with other applications and services.
  4. Scalability/portability: You may want a more elaborate presence if it turns out that social media becomes a bit part of your work, so it’s good to choose tools that can either scale up or that make it easy for you to pack up your files and move somewhere else.
  5. Time commitment: You want a presence that is easy to set up and easy to maintain — not just technically, but in terms of the amount of time you have to put into creating content or engaging with readers in order to make your social media presence valuable.

My cheater workflow meets these criteria. I’ll spell it out in my next blog post.

A techsperiment that puts family tech use in a new light

Last week we conducted a techsperiment on eliminating gadgets from our family time: we swore off using iPhones, iPads and computers from the time we got home (5 or 6) until the time the kids were asleep (8 or 9). We did pretty well during the week, and discovered that our family time was more enjoyable and our kids asleep much earlier when we stayed offline for a few focused hours.

But our weekend was another story. Friday night saw us home late and geeking out; Sunday night we were back online again. And the kids stayed up much later as a result.

What I’m supposed to say now is that we’ve seen the light. We’ve looked the big, bad technology monster square in the face, and seen the terrible perverting effect it’s having on our family life and sleep hygiene. Now that we now the truth we’re buying a safe with a timed lock, and putting all our devices into it each night so that we won’t be tempted to go online until the kids fall asleep.

The truth is that I couldn’t live with my devices in a lock box. I plugged in on Friday night because I was feeling cranky and stressed out, and messing around on my computer is my favourite way to unwind. I plugged in on Sunday evening so that I could meet a Monday deadline and still get to bed on time myself.

In real life there are days that are stressful, there are days with deadlines and there are days when the Tony Awards are on and you have to track the Twitter stream in real time. Categorical rules about when we can and can’t be online aren’t going to work for our family, in which the web is not (just) a distraction, but a part of our professional and social lives.

But our techsperiment gave us the structure we needed to step back and look truthfully at the impact tech has on our evenings at home. Consciously going without the net for a just a few hours a night turned out to be mostly better for us and for our kids. So while we’ll allow for some lapses, we will stick with a new norm: no devices during family evenings.

And we’ll also embrace a new tool, which is to use techspermiments as a way of evaluating the role of social media and tech tools in our daily life. I’ll keep you posted on our next adventure.

The 10 lies of working late

A basic digital clock radio with analog tuning.
  1. It’s not late if you’re not tired.
  2. It’s not work if you’re in bed.
  3. It’s not late if your friends are still online.
  4. It’s not work if it’s blogging.
  5. It’s not late if you like working at this hour.
  6. It’s not work if the TV is on.
  7. It’s not late if you can sleep in tomorrow.
  8. It’s not work if it’s on your iPad.
  9. It’s not late if your sweetie hasn’t gone to bed yet, either.
  10. It’s not work if it’s fun.

So you enjoy catching up on Google Reader at midnight. I get it! I do that too.

But it is work, and it is late. And you do have a choice.

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Tips for avoiding social media compulsion

Chris Brogan’s blog post, Your Blog is Not Your Job, contains some great tips on how keep blogging and social media from overtaking your primary work and focus. These include:

  • Use an egg timer. If you’re going to venture out onto Twitter, time it.
  • Keep a sticky note of your objectives in sight of your monitor.
  • Ask yourself for every blog post what your goal with that post should be.

I recommend reading the entire post on his blog.