Remembering the Milk, Moving on to Wunderlist

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One of the things I love about working at a place like Automattic is being surrounded by like-minded folks obsessed about productivity. Our internal operations manual even has entire pages devoted to particular productivity apps like Alfred (<3) and Things. Much of the conversation is driven by my colleague Bryan V., who is the productivity master, but overall Automatticians are very much a productivity-driven bunch of folks.

I wasn’t always this way. Before I got my first smartphone (a Palm Centro in 2008), I relied exclusively on a hefty Day-Timer. Bulky and packed with Post-Its, business cards, and receipts, it nevertheless served me well for years – I ran my entire freelance writing career on it and somehow managed to accomplish way more than you’d think considering how limited a paper planner seems now.

Once I launched my social media/content marketing agency in 2009, though, whatever latent obsession I had with productivity and efficiency suddenly bloomed and I found myself trying out ever project management tool, task manager, to-do app, and calendar app on the market. Seriously, name a project management tool, and chances are, I’ve at least researched it. Especially after I began hiring contractors and other freelancers, my need to find the perfect productivity tool expanded, and I must have subjected my poor brain to a new tool every month. I somehow managed to get things done, but I was frazzled with the learning curve each new tool demanded.

Eventually, it dawned on me that the tool itself wasn’t the problem. I was the problem. What I needed wasn’t the perfect tool but rather the dedication to actually using the damn thing. Anyone halfway familiar with how productivity works understands that, but despite my college degree and graduate education, apparently that basic fact escaped me for years.

So I picked the app that seemed both the simplest and most comprehensive: Remember the Milk. I used it for a few years, moving it from my old Nexus 4 to my current Moto X and then my iPad. I even paid the annual $25 subscription fee for premium features, primarily the on-demand sync option. When I find an app that helps me get things done, I’m more than happy to pay the developers to help them continue maintaining and updating it.

Recently, though, I’ve been trying out Wunderlist, which I’d experimented with a couple of years before but somehow dropped. I don’t remember why, but the current interface on the Android is beautiful, yet still minimal. Unlike Remember the Milk, where all your tasks for the day are just thrown into one big list, I can view my entire day’s tasks on Wunderlist on one page, broken down into different categories. I can just focus on my Work tasks when I’m at my desk, but also scroll down quickly to view the Phone Calls list or the Emails list if I find myself with spare pockets of time during the day. I don’t ever have to leave that particular page.

wunderlist to-do app review

Plus, bonus: Wunderlist also has a handy-dandy Chrome browser extension that lets me add any page on the web to my to-do list, and even categorize it right within the extension.

I still have my Remember the Milk account, but I haven’t looked at it in several weeks as I’ve been resting out Wunderlist. I have a feeling it will be a keeper, especially since it’s free. There’s a Pro version, but it seems to be largely for businesses or freelancers, so while I’m happy to pay for an app I use all day, everyday, if I don’t need to, $25 is still $25.

My latest favorite book (and inspiration)

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CT daily-rituals01.jpgI finished reading Mason Currey‘s Daily Rituals recently. It’s one of those books that you have to read with a highlighter in one hand and a hot cup of tea or coffee in the other. A notebook might be nice, too, but it’s not required.

I can’t remember how I first heard about this book (probably from Arts & Letters Daily, one of two websites I must read every single day if I’m going to feel complete before I tuck in at night — the other one being NPR.org), but I’m sure that when it happened, I must have immediately opened a browser tab and searched for it on Amazon. I went to several Barnes & Noble shops over the next few weeks, but not one of them had a copy. I guess I could have called each one rather than wasting so much time and gas traipsing from one to the other, but I like going to bookstores. Bookstores are my Tiffany’s — nothing bad could ever happen to you in there. You get rid of the mean reds, blues, violets, and blacks.

Except, of course, if you don’t find what you’re looking for, which was the case in my search for Currey’s book.

I wanted to give my local bookstore a chance to make me happy, especially after the disappearance of not one, but all of the brick-and-mortar bookstores in my town last year, but I finally gave in and ordered it from Amazon.com. Once I had it in my hands, I devoured it in two sittings.

It’s actually a pretty short, quick read. Currey collected interviews, essays, and vignettes about various creatives — over 200 of them — from Stephen King to Henri Matisse, Somerset Maugham to Twyla Tharp. You can dive in and read a one- or two-page written snapshot of how each creative professional worked, their routines and habits, even their tools. It’s not meant to be a little encyclopedia of artists, and Currey doesn’t really even bother explaining who these notable figures are. If you pay any attention at all to the worlds of arts and literature, you will likely at least have a passing familiarity with just about everyone featured in this book (Louise Bourgeois, Friedrich Schiller, Knut Hamsun, and Maira Kalman, are just a handful of folks mentioned whom I had to look up on Wikipedia), but really, it’s not really necessary.

Currey goes into intimate detail with many of his subjects, from Picasso’s habit of sleeping late and rising late as well, getting to his studio by 2pm to begin his work of the day; to Alexander Graham Bell’s own regimen of working around the clock, which he eventually had to modify to take his wife’s pregnancy into consideration. If you’re looking for techniques on how to be creative, or tips on how to call forth the muse when you’re stuck on a paragraph or a blank canvas, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

What I got instead, however, was a deep appreciation for the sacrifices artists must make in order to engage in the hard, unrelenting work of creating something: a book, a painting, a piece of music, or a piece of software. Austin-based writer, artist, and blogger Austin Kleon frequently laments the creative’s practice of sharing only finished work with the world and hiding all the messy, gut-wrenching process that made that work possible. Currey’s answer to that was this book, a wide-open door into what artists throughout history have had to do in order to make time and room for the act of creation in their lives. Whether it meant working feverishly around the margins of a day job, or a family’s demands, or crafting a rigid schedule of daily hours, these folks got it done.

I have it on my desk now as a reference, right next to a lot of history books and notebooks (and receipts, pens, random Post-Its, and folders), and dip into it frequently. I’m still working on a schedule that works for me and the many things I juggle with on a daily basis (home, work, dogs, volunteering, extended family needs, reading, and writing), and this book reminds me that others with far more demands on their time were able to carve out the space in their lives to make art.

 

It’s April 13th. Do you know where your W-2’s are?

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I totally do not mean to sound smug at all, but I did my taxes way back in February. As in 2007 and 2008, I pretty much started doing my taxes almost as soon as all the W-2’s landed in my mailbox solely for one reason: I knew we had a big refund coming to us, and we needed that money badly. Badly. That will overcome an procrastination tendencies I may have to put off filing the return until, say, the evening of April 15th. I’ve done that nearly every year since I started doing my own taxes way back when.

Okay, I take it back. There is another reason why I do taxes early, and this will sound very geeky and goody-two-shoes: I actually like doing my taxes now. Seriously! Yes, I like seeing the refund amount increase and increase and increase as I plow through the different pages of my online Turbo Tax program, but honestly, I actually like sifting through my tax forms and working the numbers. Strange as it may seem for someone who didn’t do well in college statistics, but I actually love working with numbers now. I’m the CFO in my little family, the one who pays the bills and plays around with Quicken and balances the checkbook every couple of days. In a way, we pretty much have to be this diligent because of our limited income, but much to my shock I’ve found that I derive real, perverse pleasure in organizing our paperwork and working through the spreadsheets. I know, it’s weird, huh?

There’s a huge, huge amount of satisfaction in knowing exactly where we stand financially all the time, even if that actually means that we have, oh, $10 in the bank. (No, it’s not that bad, but there have been times in the past, I must admit. Talk about being creative.) Knowing that I have exactly $10.21 in the bank, however distressing that may be at times, is still infinitely better than the terrifying experience of constantly being in the dark, not knowing if I have enough money to cover a check I’ve written. I’ve been in that situation before. It’s not pleasant at all.

So yeah, we got our refund two months ago. It helped us tremendously with our moving expenses and in paying off one of two credit card balances. I’ll do it again next year, too, and begin filing as soon as we get our W-2’s and 1099’s. It’s amazing how easy it is to set up a tax system — I have a single file folder labeled TAXES [insert tax year here] in which I throw anything that I think will be useful and necessary when tax season comes in. Donation receipt from one of a handful of nonprofits that we support? It goes in there. (Not that we’ve ever had to use it, since we don’t itemize enough to surpass the standard deduction, but you never know.) Business-related receipts? It goes in there. (I tape all business receipts on to copy paper and put the latter into the folder. It’s infinitely better than shoving a thick sheaf of small, odd-sized receipts into the folder, where it will inevitably fall out.) Health care receipts for expenses we couldn’t deduct from our Flexible Spending Account? It goes in there.

This year will be a little different, depending on my job situation. If nothing of interest comes up, I may decide to continue freelancing and hope that I’ll be able to double my income, as I did in 2008. With the economy still very shaky (anyone else sick of hearing analysts trying to predict when we’ve “bottom?”), it’s not promising, but I’m nothing if not optimistic. Besides, who knows? Perhaps I’ll finally finish my novel and sell it for a million dollars to Random House, after which I option it to Steven Spielberg (call me, baby, it’s right up your alley!) for an equally jaw-dropping amount. Hey. If you’re gonna dream, you might as well dream big.

It's April 13th. Do you know where your W-2's are?

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I totally do not mean to sound smug at all, but I did my taxes way back in February. As in 2007 and 2008, I pretty much started doing my taxes almost as soon as all the W-2’s landed in my mailbox solely for one reason: I knew we had a big refund coming to us, and we needed that money badly. Badly. That will overcome an procrastination tendencies I may have to put off filing the return until, say, the evening of April 15th. I’ve done that nearly every year since I started doing my own taxes way back when.

Okay, I take it back. There is another reason why I do taxes early, and this will sound very geeky and goody-two-shoes: I actually like doing my taxes now. Seriously! Yes, I like seeing the refund amount increase and increase and increase as I plow through the different pages of my online Turbo Tax program, but honestly, I actually like sifting through my tax forms and working the numbers. Strange as it may seem for someone who didn’t do well in college statistics, but I actually love working with numbers now. I’m the CFO in my little family, the one who pays the bills and plays around with Quicken and balances the checkbook every couple of days. In a way, we pretty much have to be this diligent because of our limited income, but much to my shock I’ve found that I derive real, perverse pleasure in organizing our paperwork and working through the spreadsheets. I know, it’s weird, huh?

There’s a huge, huge amount of satisfaction in knowing exactly where we stand financially all the time, even if that actually means that we have, oh, $10 in the bank. (No, it’s not that bad, but there have been times in the past, I must admit. Talk about being creative.) Knowing that I have exactly $10.21 in the bank, however distressing that may be at times, is still infinitely better than the terrifying experience of constantly being in the dark, not knowing if I have enough money to cover a check I’ve written. I’ve been in that situation before. It’s not pleasant at all.

So yeah, we got our refund two months ago. It helped us tremendously with our moving expenses and in paying off one of two credit card balances. I’ll do it again next year, too, and begin filing as soon as we get our W-2’s and 1099’s. It’s amazing how easy it is to set up a tax system — I have a single file folder labeled TAXES [insert tax year here] in which I throw anything that I think will be useful and necessary when tax season comes in. Donation receipt from one of a handful of nonprofits that we support? It goes in there. (Not that we’ve ever had to use it, since we don’t itemize enough to surpass the standard deduction, but you never know.) Business-related receipts? It goes in there. (I tape all business receipts on to copy paper and put the latter into the folder. It’s infinitely better than shoving a thick sheaf of small, odd-sized receipts into the folder, where it will inevitably fall out.) Health care receipts for expenses we couldn’t deduct from our Flexible Spending Account? It goes in there.

This year will be a little different, depending on my job situation. If nothing of interest comes up, I may decide to continue freelancing and hope that I’ll be able to double my income, as I did in 2008. With the economy still very shaky (anyone else sick of hearing analysts trying to predict when we’ve “bottom?”), it’s not promising, but I’m nothing if not optimistic. Besides, who knows? Perhaps I’ll finally finish my novel and sell it for a million dollars to Random House, after which I option it to Steven Spielberg (call me, baby, it’s right up your alley!) for an equally jaw-dropping amount. Hey. If you’re gonna dream, you might as well dream big.

Are you smarter than a cellphone?

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My column this week focused on my new toy, a Palm Centro I snapped up last Saturday at the local AT&T store. Ohhhhh…I’m sooo in love with this gadget. Truly, madly, deeply in love with it. Really. I have it near my bed every night (that is, when it’s not charging). I understand the whole Crackberry addiction. It’s very disturbing, yet terribly exciting at the same time.

Those of you who have smartphones, you know what I’m talkin’ about.

I’ll admit, I feared that I would have buyer’s remorse, although I did mitigate that somewhat by buying the cheapest Palm on the market, a $50 ivory beauty (after $100 mail-in rebate that I hope to receive before my daughter graduates from college). I wondered if I would suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms upon surrendering my trusty-but-unwieldy day planner and all the receipts and random slips of paper crammed into its many pockets. Who would I be without the planner? If I didn’t lug around a massive purse/suitcase, would I still feel secure in my identity as a fashionista/professional writer/businessperson?

Sigh. As it turned out, I had nothing to fear. It was love at first touch.

I don’t miss the planner at all. At. All. Nuh-uh. Ciao, Franklin Covey. I’ve no clue why I clung to you for so long. You leave a legacy of sore shoulders and too much paper clutter.

I’ve got million to-do lists all nicely organized, everything from grocery lists to Target lists to my long-term goal list to a list of possible book titles. (No, many of those titles haven’t a shred of a story attached to them, but I liked the sound of the title, so there.) I have my calendar, a daily to-do list, great Web access, and yes, a Messenger service that I rarely use because my plan — while it includes unlimited Web browsing — charges by the text (both sent and received). It’s so small — about 4″x2″ — and while slightly heavier than my old Motorola flip phone at 4.2 oz, it more than makes up for its additional weight by eliminating the need for the brick of a day planner. I’ve actually switched to using my vintage Fendi satchel, a nice, compact purse that forces me to streamline my daily baggage and for which my back is sooooo very grateful.

Do I recommend a smartphone? Abso-bloomin’-lutely, folks. What the hell are you waiting for? I juggle several writing projects, a major life project I’ll be writing more about in the coming months, a growing business, and a small-but-busy household of two professionals. I’m still working on the whole Say-No idea (I hear it goes a long way towards alleviating much of the stress modern women often feel because of too many commitments), but for now the Centro gives me some feeling of control over my life. Some.

Structure and Software

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I’m constantly surprised at how much I’ve been able to keep up with my NaNoWriMo responsibilities. It’s amazing at how much one can get done when one creates a detailed schedule, no? I used to keep an hour-by-hour schedule when I first went to college. I wrote it all out every night for the next day, in half-hour increments, sort of like this:

5:30-6:00 Wake up, shower, eat breakfast
6:00-8:00 Study
8:00-9:30 Anthropology
9:30-11:00 Study
11:00-12:30 Algebra
12:30-1:00 Lunch
1:00-5:00 A&P Lab
5:00-7:00 Work
7:00-7:30 Dinner
7:30-9:00 Study
9:00-10:00 Read
10:00 Bed

It’s pretty specific, but I find that, being the chronic procrastinator that I am, this is what I need to plan out my day. Otherwise I could end up, say, at 5:00 and wondering, Where the hell did the day go? Oh yeah. Emails and watching The Daily Show on Comedy Central’s Web site. Riiiiight.

It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but so far it’s given me the chance to keep up (for the most part!) with NaNo. And this weekend I’m going to see about upgrading my old cell phone and my trusty-but-hefty day planner into either a Palm Centro or a Blackberry. I’m finding that my shoulders have reached an allowable weight limit, and my planner — sooo useful though it may be — is giving me shoulder and neck pain like crazy. That, plus my TMJ, is keeping my physical therapist nice and busy. Hence, the move to a PDA that will hopefully (hopefully!) keep me more streamlined and even more organized. Am I asking too much out of a little handheld device? Probably. I mean, it’s called a smartphone for a reason.

I’ve taken up a couple more projects this month, so that’s both keeping me busy and financially afloat. I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but I found a nifty little online software program called Zoho.com (I think I mentioned it on Twitter) for project management (among other utilities, but PM is what I use it for most often). I tried the free option (1 project at a time), but found very quickly that I actually have more projects that need juggling and would therefore need to upgrade. For $12.95/month on the Standard Business Plan, I can have up to 10 projects and 2 GB of file storage. Not bad, eh? Especially since I can write it off on my taxes as a business expense (Gawd, I love deductions). Although I worked as a PM Assistant several years ago, I’m still learning my way around project management and know that I haven’t even come close to mastering even this relatively simple program, but so far I’m totally loving it for allowing me to keep track of everything on my little plate.

Everyone else seems to use Microsoft Project, which I did have loaded on my business laptop years ago during my corporate days, but I never did really get beyond playing with it, since I was laid off not too long after I was promoted to that position. At the time everyone hated it, thought it was more unwieldy than Photoshop (is that even possible?), but lately I’ve heard fewer complaints and more compliments. Good on Microsoft, but considering the cost, I’ll stick with Zoho.com for now unless and until something better comes along.

Okay, back to the daily schedule. Structure, structure, as my writing teacher used to say!

Bootstrap for your accounting/invoicing

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As a freelancer, I know I should be keeping close track of my income, let alone my expenses, but for some reason I’d yet to really grasp that until very recently. Until January I’d only really been freelancing part-time, so whatever income I was making was small enough so that my tax forms weren’t too difficult come every January. Indeed, since I learned of the magic that is TurboTax Home & Business, taxes have never been much of a problem. In fact — shhh, don’t tell anyone — I actually rather enjoy doing my taxes.

I know, sick, huh? But when you’ve been getting consistently large refunds every year, you kinda enjoy seeing the amount tick upwards on the top right hand corner of your computer screen as you merrily click your way through the software. (And yes, I realize that large refunds are a sign that I haven’t been paying attention when I fill out those W-2s and am basically giving the government a big, fat loan for free, but honestly, I’d rather do that than owe taxes on April 15th. It’s just not fun.)

Starting January of this year, though, I started freelancing full-time. As in, the only paychecks coming in with my name on it are those directly stemming from my own marketing efforts and querying rather than from punching a clock at some office every morning. If I slack off one week, I can count on having a pretty pitiful payday, if at all. Plus, now I have more personal expenses than I usually would had I been content to be, well, normal, i.e., I need business cards, travel time to appointments and interviews, stationery, a new printer, some more office equipment, etc., all of which come out of my pocket, not from some generous corporate benefactor (i.e., the supply and requisitions department).

In other words, I needed to get serious about what’s going in and out of my pocket and bank account, otherwise I could end up in a big, fat mess by the time the next tax season rolls around, and have to pay more than I need to.

Until recently I was using OpenOffice‘s Calc software (the open source equivalent of Microsoft Excel) and a manila folder to throw all my receipts and check stubs in. Not the most elegant of systems, but it does its job. The only problem was that still didn’t really help me get a good grasp of where I stood, and since I’m not the most expert user of spreadsheets in the world, inputting the data and getting good, reliable numbers could be time-consuming at best.

Enter Bootstrap. I can’t remember who first told me about this, but I’d like to send them a million virtual kisses for the recommendation. In a nutshell, Bootstrap is a small business accounting program that allows you to input your income and expenses into this Web-based interface, and voila! It calculates not only your profit but also your estimated taxes for that tax year. Right now they offer only federal tax calculations, but according to the site they’re working on adding state tax functionality as well.

Here’s a quick screenshot of the program:


As you can see, you have four critical tabbed pages: Income, Expenses, Taxes, and Reports. Under the Income tab, you can input the date; relevant information (payer, article, invoice and/or check number, etc.; and the amount. Punching enter or clicking Save will update the table for you. In the top right-hand corner, the software automatically calculates your profit, based on what you enter into the Expenses table.

Again, you’ll see that all you have to do is enter the date; the nature of the expense; the category under which the expense should be filed (here, Bootstrap uses the standard Schedule C categories used by the IRS); and the amount. Click Save, and voila! It adds it to your table.


The third tab is the most fun: Taxes. Here, you can view your approximate tax owed, based on the numbers you inputted in the Income and Expenses tables. Bootstrap notifies users that they use a conservative calculation system to determine your tax liability and that you might want to double-check using the IRS worksheet, but this gives you a very good idea of how much you will owe for each quarter.


The fourth tab is, of course, Reports. You can get a bird’s-eye view of the entire year, with the option of reviewing your monthly, quarterly, or annual profit-and-loss statements.

I absolutely love this software. I finally, finally know exactly how much I’ve made, minus whatever expenses I’ve incurred. I don’t have to say, “Oh, I think I’m reaching my goal for this month,” as all I have to do is fire up Bootstrap and know exactly whether or not I’ve met my goal for that month or even that quarter. And it’s super-easy, even for non-accounting folks like myself, to enter the data into the tables. Every time I get a check, I put it into the Income tab and let the software recalculate my Profit, Loss and Taxes for me. I do the same everytime I have an expense.

Plus, you can export any of these reports to Excel or OpenOffice Calc, so you can save your data on your own computer anytime. When the time comes for you to file your taxes, you have all the information you need to fill out your Schedule C form, without having to worry about digging through a year or a quarter’s worth of receipts and check stubs.

The site is still in its infancy, and the company is still tweaking it a bit to give it more features. The developers have been very helpful and responsive to my emails suggesting future add-ons (including one that would automatically calculate mileage deductions based on current IRS guidelines), so you know that they’re working on it. I highly recommend this to any small business looking for a basic accounting program. It probably is most useful for sole proprietors who file Schedule C forms with the IRS.

Again, I absolutely, positively recommend this program. If you’re wary of online accounting software, know that this only asks for basic information, including an email address and company name. It does not require that you input any other personal financial information, i.e., you are not requested to enter banking or credit card information. Indeed, there isn’t any place for that info.

At the moment use of the program is entirely free while they’re in beta testing mode. The developers write in their FAQ’s that they will probably charge for certain features in the future. Assuming that it’s a reasonable charge, I will probably continue to use this program and pay the fee. It allows me to do what I do best and make money from: write articles and market myself. I can leave the basic accounting to this program and let it do the work for me.

Organization tips for women writers

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B. teases me ever so gently sometimes for being such a workaholic. Even on my so-called “easy days,” I’ll rattle off a list of tasks that I accomplished, oblivious to my defiance of the meaning of the term “easy day.” Still, like a lot of women, I find myself often running around in several different directions, frustrated that there aren’t more hours in the day and wondering how to maximize my precious time.

I haven’t quite figured out the key yet, but I have learned a few things in this experiment in productive-and-fulfilling living. I still manage to make most of my weekends free for fun and spending time with B. while maintaining a pretty good schedule of work during the week, so I think I’m on my way to finding that elusive balance of work and play that all of us so long for.

  • Minimize housework. This is a big one for me. I loathe housework anyway, so my work is the perfect excuse to avoid it. B. dislikes it as much as I do, although we both do our even share so the other person doesn’t feel exploited. What we do instead is try and minimize the circumstances that create housework, e.g., we don’t wear our outdoor shoes at all when we’re in the home. No outdoor dust = minimum dirt to vacuum.
  • Lower your expectations. Theoretically, I would love a home worthy of a Better Homes & Gardens layout, but realistically, that ain’t gonna happen. Instead, I aim for clean, if not neat. As a true-blue Filipino, I never, ever go to bed without having cleaned the kitchen, but I don’t have to have an immaculate living room. Newspapers sometimes pile up on the floor or the coffee table, and books and other detritus sometimes stay on the floor for days, if not weeks. However, neither of us sweat it if we can’t get around to tidying things up for days, if not weeks. Life is too short to worry about every single dust bunny under the couch. I prioritize my day and my schedule and plan accordingly. Eventually, the housework does get done, but it’s not the #1 thing on my list.
  • Demand help. Don’t just sit around and get all passive-aggressive, hoping that your husband will take the hint about taking the trash out. Yeah, it can be annoying to have to keep asking, but you’ll only resent him if you don’t and he neglects to do it. If you must, make a list of his assigned tasks and place it on the refrigerator where he can’t miss it. Have him check it each week (or every day). I know, it sounds kind of maternal, but trust me, most guys worth their salt want to help. They’re either just too lazy or don’t know how, but if you give them direction, they’ll rise to the occasion. I remember a hilarious Dave Barry column about the difference between a man and a woman’s idea of clean. Men have different expectations of what constitutes “clean.” It’s not wrong, just different. If you want him to learn your expectations, you need to teach him.
  • Don’t expect perfection. Okay, so you’ve taught him your expectations, and he’s still not getting it. Or maybe he gets it but isn’t quite living up to them. Remember, though, that they’re your standards, not his. You might want to really think about whether or not it’s worth the hassle and frustration of having to constantly nag him to do things the way you want them to be. Besides, what makes you think you’re more perfect than he is? I know I want the bathroom to look a certain way, but I’m also aware of the fact that I have my own habits that annoy B. We overlook each other’s flaws, though, and focus instead on what’s good about the other person. Do the same for your spouse. See “Lower your expectations” for more hints.
  • Learn to say “No.” I used to be really bad about this, and I still have my moments, but I’m getting better. I had a hard time declining social invitations and requests for assistance, thinking that of course I could squeeze it in and that I couldn’t possibly turn so-and-so down. Well, you know what ends up happening. Your schedule ends up dictated by the needs of others so that you can’t get anything of your own done. Plus, you wind up resenting others for infringing on your time, when really it’s your own fault for not recognizing your boundaries and sticking to them. Just say “no” to any social or professional or even familial obligation that could potentially overtake your plans. You’ll be surprised at how dispensable you really are, and how much more you could get done if you weren’t at everyone’s beck and call.
  • Clean up your office. Oooo, another big one for me. I’m currently in the middle of yet another mess, but I do take some time each week — half an hour, tops — to try and put things in some semblance of order. Buy baskets and filing boxes and whatever else you need to be able to put things in their proper place. What’s often the cause of piles and messes is the lack of a place to put things. Avoid that by making sure that everything has its place. Try and set aside some time each week or every other week to organize your things. You’ll be grateful each time you quickly locate something on your desk, whether it’s a proposal or a valuable piece of research, so that you can proceed immediately to work without wasting time on needless searches.
  • Make a schedule and stick to it. I’m still working on this, but I had some practice when I was toiling away at day jobs and was expected to do certain things at certain times during the day. I’m still tweaking my weekly schedule, but it helps that I have a monthly goals list taped above my desk. Whenever I work on my schedule, I check it against the goals list and see if each of the tasks I’ve assigned myself bring me closer to one or more of the goals on that list. If it doesn’t, then I lower its priority and schedule it accordingly. The schedule and the goals list are thus closely related, and I can end each day with a sense of accomplishment.

Admittedly, each of the above is a work-in-progress for me, but as I progress in my career as a freelance writer and novelist, I find more and more ways to improve upon my productivity and organization to achieve my goals. What about you? Any tips you care to share? I’d love to hear them!

Where do you like to write?

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I’m currently at home, writing from my dedicated office space. As I’ve posted before, I divide my time between writing at my desk and writing remotely, usually at my favorite coffee shops around town. The advantages of writing at home, of course, are legion:

  1. Easy access to bathroom. As someone who drinks water constantly throughout the day, I like being able to do my bid-ness without having to worry about having my laptop stolen. At the coffee shop I generally wait until I’m just about to burst before hurriedly packing everything up and heading straight to the WC. Not especially elegant, but I hate having to pack up all the time just to go to the bathroom.
  2. Easy access to everything I need, from office supplies to reference books. Most of the reference books I use are actually online (Dictionary.com, Wikipedia.org, etc), but especially when I’m writing my research-heavy novel, I like having resources at my fingertips. My backpack can only carry so much reference material, and quite frankly I don’t like looking like I schlepped my entire home office to the cafe.
  3. Secure wireless. If I need to do some financial housekeeping (say, balancing my checkbook) or order something online, I do all of that at home.
  4. It’s a time- and gas-saver. Okay, the gas part doesn’t really bother me too much, as I have a small, fuel-efficient 1995 Geo Prizm that gets awesome mileage. However, the time part is critical, as I can easily spend up to an hour packing up my stuff, getting my own little self ready, loading up and warming up the car, driving over to the cafe (only 2 miles from my house, but lots of lights along the way), ordering-paying-for-and-waiting-for my cafe au lait, then settling myself onto a table. At home I can just open up my laptop, charge it up and go. I don’t even have to brush my hair.
  5. I can make business phone calls without worrying about disturbing others. Yes, I’m one of those people who loathe loud cell phone users in public facilities, so I’m not about to inflict the same torture on others. When I need to make a business phone call, such as an interview or follow-up with an editor or subject, I do it in my home office.

The advantages of writing at a remote office, however, are equally compelling:

  1. Possible increase in productivity. I fear that — despite its appeal — I’m actually less productive when writing in my pyjamas than if I were dressed for presentation in public (even jeans and a nice shirt). I actually haven’t tested this hypothesis, but I suspect that part of it is true. When my hair is a tangled nest around my head and I’m still in my husband’s boxers, I think I’m more apt to linger over Google Reader and Plurk than if I were to actually don real street clothes and work in a public place.
  2. It gets me out of the house. I have hermit-like tendencies, as most writers do, but even I need the anonymous companionship of other cafe denizens. I feed off their energy (and my usual go-to place, Traders on 7th and Patterson, overflows with laptop-wielding warriors during the day) and don’t feel so isolated, as I often do when I’m stuck in my home office for days.
  3. It helps me to keep to a schedule. When I’m at home, I sometimes find myself still lolling in bed at 10 am. Now, that doesn’t happen very often anymore, but I think it’s because I occasionally force myself to get out of the house, which necessitates that I get up earlier in order to take advantage of the daytime working hours. If I spend all day at home, it can be so bloody tempting to linger over breakfast or catch “just a half-hour or so” of Flight of the Conchords on DVD during the lunch hour. At the cafe I’m generally just working.

I don’t often work at a cafe and usually limit that time to 2-3 three-hour periods a week, either morning or evening. However, it’s a nice little change in environment, and it’s always good to get out and get the pulse of the community, even listen in on occasional conversations around me. (Yes, I do sometimes eavesdrop, and if the gab-fest is especially fascinating, I might even post the juiciest tidbits of it here.)

What about you? Where do you write best?

Vanity searches and the usefulness of Google Alerts

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A couple of my columns for the Free Press over the last month or so have made their way to the greater social consciousness, specifically one about Nader and another one about Generation X. The latter was especially popular on a news aggregator site and generated a decent amount of comments and feedback, not all of them good. Still, it was great to get the publicity, and any freelance writer at the beginning of her career can tell you that even bad publicity can be good for your business, as long as the publicity is focused on your content and not on your person.

In any case, the Gen-X one prompted me to do a quick Google search on the article. Lo and behold, I found several blogs and other aggregators that had picked up the column and had cut-and-pasted it in its entirety onto their sites. Now, technically, this would be considered violation of copyright, even with the attribution or links to the original article on the Free Press Web site. However, as I’m fairly unknown and am still working this whole freelance writing thing like mad, I don’t generally spend too much time worrying about it. I have written to a couple of the sites and asked that they at least link to my Web site or blog. It’s the least they can do considering that they’ve basically scraped my content. I’m a pretty easy-going person, though, and won’t worry about it too much until I get all J.K. Rowling-rich-and-famous and can hire a team of attorneys who’ll do all the copyright infringement fighting for me.

However, one little neat trick I learned while doing all this Googling is to sign up for Google Alerts of my name. I already do this with subjects I’m especially interested in for work or research or even just for fun, such as comfort women, Flight of the Conchords, Singapore World War II, and others, but this particular Alert just pops up when my name gets mentioned elsewhere on the Web.

Check out this addictive feature sometime, especially if you’re beginning to create a name for yourself and want to know what people are thinking/writing about you. Sure, it’s a bit of a vanity exercise, but you’d be surprised at where your content ends up. Most of the time, it’s all harmless, and people just want to continue the discussion you generated with your original article/blog post/column. It’s always good to know what others are saying about you and your work. And yes, it’s a great way to keep track of scrapers*, on whom you should definitely keep an eye in the future.

*Scrapers: People who “scrape,” i.e., steal your content, from your blog or Web site and post it on their own. This gets more worrisome if your content only gets partially scraped so that, say, your outbound links are eliminated, including to your site or the original article. It can also be of concern if the scrapers are posting your content to pornographic or otherwise illegal sites. If you have the time to monitor this, you might consider doing more comprehensive Google Alerts so that you catch violators as they accomplish the dirty deeds. Once you’ve found evidence of copyright infringement, don’t hesitate to contact the blog host (i.e., the administrators for Blogger.com, WordPress.com, LiveJournal.com, etc.) and let them know that one of their members is violating their terms of agreement.