Crazy Busy or Fake Busy?

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012 at 10:01 AM | Category: Business, Life Tips, Meryl's Notes Blog 6 comments

Baby Blues ElectronicsFrom the first job out of college, I’ve worked for organizations where we could choose our hours as long as we were there between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. By 7 a.m., you’d find me at my desk tackling my first tasks of the day. In one company, two of us had an unspoken competition going to see who would arrive first. The guy, an hourly worker, did everything he could to work long hours. Yet whenever I arrived after he did, I’d find him sleeping and I’d dream of crazy pranks to pull on him during his zzz moments.

The fake busy

I’ve also seen people faking their busyness when I walked past their cubicles at the end of the day. They may think they looked busy, but most of us knew they wanted to stretched their hours so they’d look good and outstay the boss.

Sometimes the problem was their inability to end a phone conversation. It didn’t take long to learn that being deaf — among other things — made me a more efficient worker. My phone calls required a third party (the relay operator), so folks were less tempted to call me or have a friendly conversation.

The crazy busy

Then there are those who are truly crazy busy as described in “The ‘Busy’ Trap” from the New York Times by Tim Kreider. Gini Dietrich also shares her experience in “Always ‘crazy busy’?” How many times have you know parents who report some variation of this? “My seven-year-old does scouts, baseball, soccer, basketball, religious school and youth group.”

In the old days, playing three sports wasn’t a big deal because each lasted for one season per year. Soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. Now, these sports have two or three seasons a year. Players who try to stick to a sport once a year may not be able to get back on the team, so they play every season to avoid losing their spot.

I also used to work a lot on the weekends writing content for my websites and handling whatever remained from the week or jump ahead for the next. That changed when I injured my thumb. I could barely work at all, so I broke the habit of not working weekends.

Taking back weekends

By the time my thumb worked again, I struggled to work on weekends. I decided that weekend work would no longer be the norm. Because of this, my family and I went to the State Fair, International Festival, the amusement park. We don’t do something every weekend or even once a month, but we do more than we did in the past.

We’re a low key family of homebodies. (Daughter is the exception and she’s living it up as a college freshman.) But still, I look for experiences for us to do together. With first born in college, I know how quickly a childhood fleets. With my dad’s passing, I know how quickly life fleets.

The one thing I sacrificed? My blog. I’d write blog posts on weekends because I devoted my weekdays to clients. It may have hurt this website’s search engine standings and traffic, but there’s more to life and finding business than satisfying Google Panda, Penguin or whatever search engine best practices has us riled up. People say if you want something, make time for it. I don’t believe that. Instead, it’s about prioritizing your life, starting with the top items and stopping before you fill up your slots. This ensures you have room for the unexpected (and they ALWAYS come up) and taking it easy.

Here’s a great excerpt from Tim Kreider’s article:

Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?

You know what? I look at my life and remind myself I have what I wanted: family, home, flexibility and the time to enjoy the little things and exercise. For the most part, I’m happy. And when I’m happy, I do a better job of keeping my family and clients happy. So it’s critical — not selfish — to take care of yourself first and keep your busyness under control.

How’s your schedule? Are you the right kind of busy? Do you leave room to breathe?


Documenting Life

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012 at 3:29 PM | Category: Business, Life Tips, Meryl's Notes Blog 5 comments

Every year since her birth, I’ve written a letter to my daughter on her birthday reflecting on the past year. Her baby book had a page for “Letter from Mom” and I filled it with the usual corny thoughts of hopes for my daughter. Somehow, I continued the tradition of writing a letter every year since then, and did the same for her younger brothers.

Originally, I wrote the letters by hand. Then I got lazy and switched to typing. It may not be as cool and personal as my handwriting, but it turned out to be a good thing. Some of the handwritten letters were harder to read and didn’t scan well.

I decided to write them until the kids turned 18, and my daughter hit that milestone in February. I had planned to give her the letters, but then an article sparked the idea of turning the letters into a book. Brilliant. A book would keep the letters in one place and make it easier to read. I’ll keep the originals in a safe place as the kids will be going to college, moving and so on.

I’ve been documenting my life in journals since my freshman year of college. Thank goodness! (Of course, I wish I had started earlier.) The journals came in handy when I needed dates or specifics of things that happened in my family’s life.

Documenting your life isn’t just for your personal life and family. It also works well for business.

Early in my career, I ran into a tip to document the work I did and how it contributed to the bigger picture. It was helpful for updating the resume, supporting performance review meetings and remembering things, such as what training I took. The document also provided an overview of my progress toward with business and career goals.

George Angus wrote a post on documenting your writing work in a writing journal. Here’s his suggestion of what could go in the journal:

Your writing journal could have entries for the date, type of writing (blog post, SEO article, novel chapter) word count and even a brief description of what inspired the article. I think it would make for a very interesting read at some point in the future.

Indeed, it makes for a great read in the future. Documenting your work doesn’t have to be time consuming. My career documentation simply consisted of a table with four columns: project, task, accomplishment and date.

Long after you’ve left the position and surpassed those goals, reading about your past work years later can boost your confidence and make you feel proud.

How can you use a journal or documentation of your life? What would you track? How would you use the information? Have you tracked your life or work? What’s your experience?

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Thursday, February 23rd, 2012 at 6:12 PM | Category: Business, Meryl's Notes Blog, Tech 3 comments

Pink whale letter openerIn reading about a letter opener that looks like a whale, my first thought was who needs a letter opener when a finger works fine? OK, sometimes it fights to dig in the little space in the corner. Sometimes it walks away with a shiny new paper cut. (How does something tiny hurt a lot?) Besides, I open my mail wherever I stand as I sort mail right away. A letter opener may not be within reach.

I have that whale letter opener and love it. Yes, the everyday arcane task of opening a letter is fun with the pink whale. Its skinny tail fits in everything and then zzzzipppppp! I love the tearing vibrations as the whale makes its way across the envelope.

Simplicity works. Imagine if the inventor had added bells and whistles. How silly would that be to blow the whistle or jingle the bell whenever I opened mail? “Hey! Gather around, the mail’s here!”

That’s what’s happening with apps today. Twitter’s new interface is live. It requires more steps to do tasks that took one or two steps with the old design. I waste too much time looking for features. Good interface design that’s intuitive doesn’t make you work hard to get around. (Many folks need to read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think.)

For a long time, I used Palm Desktop to manage my tasks and calendar. Yes, the app that came with Palm Pilots. After I recycled my last Palm, I continued using Palm Desktop for years without the device because nothing measured up. Eventually, I moved to Google Calendar while continuing to use Palm for managing tasks.

Google’s tasks wasn’t ready for me because it didn’t have the needed recurring feature. All the other task apps had problems: overkill, missing features, no desktop version, no syncing with smartphone.

Then, I found gTasks. It has the recurring task feature and syncs with Google tasks and my smartphone. (Would you believe someone left a review on January 22 saying it took a long time to find an app replace the trusty old Palm? That says something about Palm despite its rocky last years.)

I’m not a Luddite. The opposite actually. I love my gadgets and technology. I’ve admired and appreciated a good website makeover. But developers think they need to offer everything to be all things to everyone. That just overwhelms potential users. We’d keep looking for a simpler product rather than settling for a bloated or confusing one.

Content is like that, too. Not all web pages need to be covered with words. A lot of great sites communicate with few words. Yes, we customers want to know as much as we can about a product or service. That’s why you have navigation and links to take us there when we’re ready. Too many directions and calls to action send us away from the website.

Mail’s here. Zzzzippppp!

What products do you love for its simplicity? What do you like about it? Have you had favorite products add too many features? Did you abandon it or stick with it?

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Thursday, January 19th, 2012 at 9:39 AM | Category: Business, Life Tips, Meryl's Notes Blog No comments

Darth Vader Halloween costumeOne Halloween while helping my mom pass out candy, I saw a kid in a cute Bugs Bunny costume. The costume was made out of nice material instead of the weird smelling plastic mask and the stiff vinyl bodysuit. See Exhibit A for an lovely example of a vinyl Darth Vader costume. What’s up with my reaction in the photo? I wasn’t happy someone took my picture before I could get my mask on.

I can’t recall exactly how the cute Bugs Bunny costume looked except that it wasn’t the vinyl most of us wore those days unless we were lucky enough to have a parent who could sew or pull pieces together into a clever costume. It was probably some variation of these bunnies.

That costume stuck with me. When it came time to pick a costume for the following Halloween, I told my mom I wanted to be Bugs Bunny. I smiled as I pictured myself wearing that awesome costume instead of the plastic vinyl mashup.

What did I get?


Bugs Bunny Halloween Costume

Think I was a happy wabbit?

Mom and I both understood what “Bugs Bunny” meant. The problem stemmed from her not knowing about the costume I saw the year before. And I didn’t provide more details because I assumed she’d find the right one. The costume I wanted was probably not available in any store. There I go again with an assumption that it was a homemade costume. The only way to find out was to ask the girl about her costume.

Assumptions lead to disappointment. How do we know what to communicate to a coworker, client or colleague? We’re stuck in our heads that we forget the other person doesn’t know XYZ. Learn to over-communicate and remember the other person may not have all the facts you do. Another helpful tool is to share examples. For a web design project, for example, clients can make a list of websites they like and explain why they like each one. Maybe it’s the color scheme in one design, the layout in another, the writing in another.

Sometimes it takes practice and experience. One client has a unique way of communicating his wants. He’s not a poor communicator, but a different type of thinker than I am. Not good or bad. Just is. That’s where understanding personality types helps. When he hired an intern, she confided that she had trouble understanding what he wanted. I admit feeling relieved knowing it wasn’t me and helped her learn from my experience.

Overcoming assumptions sounds simple. However, some folks think you’re not a self-starter if you keep asking questions and talking about it instead of running with it. Some fear asking too many questions reflects poorly on their abilities. Which would you rather have? Someone who erases assumptions with conversation and gets it right the first time, or someone who gets right to work and produces plastic vinyl results?

“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” – John Wooden.

How can you communicate better to avoid assumptions?

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AP, Writers and Social Media

Friday, December 9th, 2011 at 6:32 PM | Category: Links, Meryl's Notes Blog, Social Media, Writing No comments
Old typewriter

Image from user wolliballa

The AP is Changing the Way Their Reporters Use Twitter reports that the Associated Press (AP) is forbidding writers from sharing opinions in Twitter, including opinions of others through retweets. I understand AP wants to ensure its reputation for unbiased reporting remains intact.

My initial reaction was tripping over my jaw that had somehow landed on the floor. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood the concern. Let’s say you read an unbiased AP article about hydraulic fracturing. If the AP writer who wrote the story has a Twitter account and tweeted that the problems surrounding hydraulic fracturing are overblown, how would that affect the article? Future articles?

What if the writer makes no mention of writing for AP in his Twitter bio? When I tweet a link to a story, I often look up the writer for a Twitter ID to credit the person with writing the story. If I do that with the hydraulic fracturing writer and see opinionated tweets on the subject — could that reflect on AP and the writer?

As I think about this, I’m at a loss on the right way to handle this. With so much low quality, biased reporting today — maybe it’s necessary for AP to do it for the sake of integrity.

What do you think of AP’s actions? Are they exempt or should it apply to other publications? What about companies? Can employees be allowed to share opinions about competitors and their industry?

And now for your weekly links.

Brain food …

For fun …

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Thank Clients

Friday, December 2nd, 2011 at 12:50 PM | Category: Links, Meryl's Notes Blog 1 comment

Image from user Ambrozjo

After arriving at my mom’s house on Thanksgiving, my seventeen-year-old daughter hands me an envelope. Perplexed, I opened it to find a  incredible and moving handwritten note of thanks from her. Let’s just say it was enough to bring tears. She wrote one for my mom, my siblings, close friends and — the most amazing of all — her two little brothers.

She said she is about to graduate and leave home. She felt she needed to do it.

I write notes to my clients every year … by hand. Yes, it cramps, but it’s worth it. (I even keep a journal, but I guess that’s not enough to keep the handwriting muscles warm.) You can get more ideas from 33 Ways to Reward Your Customers. These have a lot of retailer-related suggestions. However, every business can pick up something from this list.

It isn’t necessary to wait until the holidays to thank your clients. I do that, but I try to send the notes and gifts earlier. (Sent last week.) I’ve sent them pecan pralines (Texas food), books and Boy Scout Popcorn (delicious treat that also helps the organization).

You could also buy stamped postcards and write a thank you anytime you find the opportunity. They’re small and light, so you can carry them with you ready to write on.

How do you thank people?

Weekly Links

Brain food …

Fun …

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Outdated Software

Friday, November 11th, 2011 at 10:50 AM | Category: Links, Meryl's Notes Blog, Tech 3 comments

When I bought a Flip camera in 2008, I also grabbed video editing software. Before buying the software, I researched for a good editor that wasn’t fancy or power-packed. Just enough to get the job done without spending much time with the user manual. With new software, I can usually dig right in. However, past experience with editing software involved more reading time than editing time. After talking to a few folks and reading reviews, I went with Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum Version 8.

I installed Vegas and never used it. Eventually, I uninstalled it because it took up unneeded resources and space. I decided to do a little winter cleaning by identifying the largest files on the computer. Three HD videos made the list, so that prompted me reinstall the editing software.

It can’t open the .m2ts files. This 2008 software has “HD” on the box, but it couldn’t open these files. I went to the website to see if the company had a patch or upgrade so it could open these files. It turned out they no longer support that version of the software. How hard would it be to create a plug-in to import these HD files? A search of user forums yielded nothing. I guess not too many people are using version 8 or they have cameras that don’t produce .m2st files.

Having learned my lesson that I don’t make time for editing videos, I looked around for freeware and cheap converter to convert these HD files into one Vegas 8 could handle. Unfortunately, no freeware app can handle these big files. Actually, there was one and it failed. Besides, I wasn’t comfortable using it because there had been concerns about the app having malware. (While working on this, I came across 10 Free Apps for Working with Video, but none could solve this problem.)

The trial version of Sony Vegas 11 converted the three big videos into one. Windows Media Player (Scroll way down to MPEG-4 section for why) couldn’t play it. Two other players could. Whew. I’m out of the video editing business. Back to using the old digital camera for videos.

I understand software companies have to draw the line in how long they support older versions of software. Is it fair to stop supporting a three-year-old app? Maybe Sony would’ve had a fan in me if they had a solution other than upgrade to 11.

What’s your take on software and support?

And now for your weekly links …

Brain food …

For fun …

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Doing it Anyway: How I Overcame My Fears about Writing

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011 at 9:16 AM | Category: Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 11 comments

Welcome to meryl’s notes blog (this here place you’re lookin’ at) in Plano, Texas. We’re honored to be a stop in Melissa Ann Goodwin‘s WOW! Women On Writing Blog tour. We’re hosting a giveaway of her book The Christmas Village [affiliate]. Read on to see how you can win.

Melissa Ann GoodwinAbout the author: Melissa Ann Goodwin is a native New Englander, now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband, artist J. Richard Secor. She has written extensively for Fun for Kidz, Boys’ Quest and Hopscotch for Girls. She was a regular feature article contributor to the Caregiver’s Home Companion for more than five years. Her poetry took 10th prize in The Writer’s Digest 2010 annual competition. WOW! Women On Writing Blog tour. We’re hosting a giveaway of her book The Christmas Village is her first novel.

Doing It Anyway: How I Overcame My Fears about Writing by Melissa Ann Goodwin

I doubt there is a writer alive whose brain doesn’t feel as thick and frozen as a Dairy Queen Blizzard before sitting down to write. It’s why we post on Facebook, sort the laundry and make out the shopping list, when our firm intention that day was to get writing First Thing. We do this, often, because we’re scared. A thousand undermining thoughts creep into our minds: What if I try to write and nothing comes? What if what I write is awful? What if, GASP, it’s not perfect?

But how do we silence that insane Drama Queen screaming inside our heads, terrifying us into paralysis of the pen? Believe me; I count myself among the biggest fraidy-cats of all time. In fact, I let fear keep me from writing for almost 40 years. But I found some practices that have helped me overcome those fears. If you feel a bit paralyzed before sitting down to write, maybe these ideas will help you too.

Make Like the Buddha and Calm Down: Besides being a writer, I’m also a yoga teacher. Part of our goal in yoga is to focus and calm the mind. Similarly, clearing the mind of distractions before writing can help quiet your fears and make it easier to get started.  Try this: Sit comfortably and just breathe. Try to empty your mind, but don’t be aggressive about it. Let your thoughts come and go. If you are thinking about your shopping list or other “life” things, just mentally whisper the word, “later,” and try to move on. When you feel calm, open your eyes and start writing.

Leave Your Mind Out of It: The idea of writing without thinking might sound strange at first, but in my experience, it definitely works! After calming yourself with quiet breathing, open your eyes and start writing whatever comes to mind, without even thinking about it. Keep writing fast, without stopping or thinking, for as long as you can.  If you slow down and get stuck, write, “I don’t know what to write this is really stupid I can’t believe she told us to do this and I can’t believe I’m doing it.” Good! Keep going. The next thing you know you’ll be writing something coherent and unexpected and surprising.  You’ll be amazed by what comes out of you that you had no idea was hiding inside there.

Perfect Makes Crazy: I used to think that what I wrote had to come out of me fully formed and close to perfect. What a silly goose I was! No wonder my panic-stricken fingers hovered over the keys like a Zamboni with transmission trouble. How did I learn to let go of this perfection complex? By giving myself permission to write what the brilliant writer Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.” Just let stuff flow out of you without judgment or mental editing. Let it be really and truly awful. Celebrate its awfulness! After all, that’s why they invented revision.

The Christmas Village book

I think that overcoming our writing fears is less about particular techniques than it is about learning to trust that the well of inspiration is deep and limitless. I’ve discovered that no matter how awful my first draft is, there is always something in it that is worth keeping – a word, a phrase, a snippet of dialogue. Something. We’re all different, and different things will work for each of us. The trick is to experiment, and while you’re experimenting, you’ll be writing. And the more you are writing, the more you will learn to trust in that infinite well.

About The Christmas Village: Jamie Reynolds wished that he could live in Grandma’s miniature Christmas village, and now that wish has magically come true. But is the village really what it seems? What stunning secrets does it hold? And how will Jamie ever get back home? Join the fun, come along on the adventure, and find out!

Comment and win: For a chance to win a copy of The Christmas Village, leave a comment about dealing with any writing struggles. How do you deal with perfection? Facing a blank page? Or share what you think happens in The Christmas Village based on the above description. You have until 11:59pm on November 15, 2011 to qualify for the drawing. The unbiased and robotic has the honor of picking the winner.


Big Bad Wolf, Daisy Duck, Donald Duck, Halloween and Clutter

Friday, October 28th, 2011 at 3:42 PM | Category: Life Tips, Links, Meryl's Notes Blog No comments

Big Bad Wolf Halloween PaulMy quest for a nice costume without the cheap material and plastic proved challenging as gal who loves Halloween. This isn’t a one-time costume, but one to use whenever I needed it. I visited the Disney website and found the Big Bad Wolf costume on sale. PERFECT for my 6’4″ husband. Not the best photo, but you get the idea.

Then I found Daisy on sale. (Unfortunately, no picture of me as Daisy Duck.) It clicked. My dad was popular with the kids because he could talk like Donald Duck. It didn’t take long before my mom and siblings showered him with Donald Duck toys, art and knickknacks that his home office looked like a Donald Duck shrine with a few Betty Boops thrown in. (Mom’s thing that we all started bopping her with Boop gifts.)

One thing about collections — it made it easier to shop for people who had everything they needed. My thing was Broadway and dreidels (spinning tops). Broadway didn’t happen by accident, but dreidels did. I had a couple of them and somehow Paul (aka Big Bad Wolf) decided to add a new one — sometimes two — to my collection every year.

Donald Duck ClockThen Dad died in 2007. This left — among other things, of course — Mom stuck with a massive Donald Duck collection. She kept the more meaningful ones like the Donald Duck latch hook I did. She also gave one Donald Duck item to each of us kids that we had given him. I have the 65th anniversary clock.

Between Dad’s death and tightening belts, I decided to stop collecting dreidels because we didn’t need so much stuff. (I had stopped collecting Broadway stuff ages ago.) Stuff piles up creating more upkeep work. Besides, they just sit on a shelf only to be admired whenever company comes over.

Except for gadgets, I cut buying needless things and spent more time on every buying decision. I still make mistakes and experience buyer’s remorse (Viewsonic gTablet).

I cleared a lot of clutter giving up books I didn’t need and items I hadn’t touched in over a year. Yes, I thought “But what if I need it later? I don’t want to spend money on another one.” Well, later has yet to come and it feels great to be rid of the item.

Do you have stuff you’d like to clear out? What makes it hard to get rid of them?

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Let Your Energy Dictate Your Day

Thursday, October 27th, 2011 at 10:23 AM | Category: Business, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 2 comments
Fractal Energy

Image from user zuwiu

In the mid-nineties, I worked with a colleague who was a published romance author. She did most of her writing in the evenings, her most productive time. My night owl friend arrived in the office as late as possible while I came in early. Despite my being the morning person and her night gal, we worked well together and stayed in touch after leaving the company.

Transitioning from Sleepyhead to Early Bird

I discovered my penchant for early hours at the start of my career. Of course, there was a time when I couldn’t imagine waking up at or before 7:00 a.m. That happened way back when I was a typical teen. In high school, class started at 8:00 a.m., and I slept walked around the house in the morning and somehow made it to school on time. By the time I went to college, my body hated the 8:00 a.m. class. Somewhere between that class and the first job, the body clock changed its ways. And I heard it.

It makes sense to exercise as early as possible for a burst of energy to carry you through the day. I don’t workout until the afternoon sometime between lunch and 3:00 p.m. because I save my mornings for work when I’m most effective. Besides, if I workout in the morning, I feel guilty thinking I should be working. By the time I step onto a cardio machine or pick up dumbbells, I do it with a clear conscious.

On weekends, I exercise before lunch so I can enjoy the rest of the day without a drop of guilt.

Finding Your Peak Time

Morning, afternoon, night. It doesn’t matter. Identify your high and low energy times based on the needs of your mind and body. Most of us can figure out when we’re most and least productive. However, if you’re not sure, track your work for one week. Pay attention to when you finish the most work and when you drag that it takes you longer.

Also be aware of the types of tasks you do. For example, you may discover it’s easier to make phone calls in the morning because you’re more alert and social than in the afternoon. For me, I do the bulk of writing in the morning saving admin tasks and editing work for sluggish times.

Knowing my peak time is in the mornings, I avoid scheduling appointments and meetings during that time. I also try to schedule them toward the end of the week when I feel more relaxed having accomplished a lot of work for the week.

When are you most productive? Least productive? Are you a morning or night person? Have you always been that way?

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