With a mere 1,440 minutes in a day, home-based workers need to make every second count. There’s no justification for getting lost online, struggling to stay in touch with clients, or sorting through junk that piles up in and around your computer. But these are the sorts of interruptions and hassles that plague just about everyone who works from home. It’s up to you make these daily disturbances go away.
Even if you think you run a tight ship, it’s tough to keep up with emerging technologies and time saving ideas that can slice the fat out of your daily routine. With this in mind, we interviewed computer experts, efficiency gurus, and home-office veterans to come up with a list of surefire ways to optimize your operation and increase productivity.
Who knows? With all the time you’ll save, you may even have an extra five minutes to kick back and scroll through that new Web site you found.
The 10-Minute Web Search
Your 56Kbps connection may help you zip around the Web, but speed increases are only the beginning, says Dr. Anthony Petrosino of Vanderbilt University’s Learning Technology Center. His first rule of Web searches: Think before you log on. “It’s like when you go to the library, you wouldn’t just start pulling books off the shelf,” Petrosino says. “You want to know what you’re looking for before you start looking.”
If images aren’t important to your search, get rid of them. Waiting for a picture to download when you’re only trying to verify a fact or locate a mailing address is one of the most frustrating experiences on the Net. The solution: Go to the “options” menu in your browser and turn off the “autoload images” toggle switch. From that point on, only text will be downloaded, and you’ll notice an immediate surge of speed.
Bookmarks–preset Web sites–are crucial to quick searching. Petrosino recommends bookmarking a good search engine like AltaVista, Lycos, or Yahoo. Rather than learning a little bit about multiple engines, master one particular service so you get comfortable with its quirks and quarks. Also, bookmark link-heavy pages or useful sites that are updated at regular intervals.
A natural language query–asking a direct question like, “What is the weather in Austin, Tex.?”–is a reliable, basic search engine tactic. For more specific results, choose two or three search terms–always in lower case, unless they’re proper names–and use Boolean logic (and, or, not) to narrow your search. Other shortcuts include using the word “image” followed by a colon, which will search only for pictures. (For instance, “image: Great Wall of China” will search for pictures of the Great Wall.) You can also search for text only (text:) or title page only (title:).
Finally, Petrosino recommends going online late at night or very early in the morning, when Net traffic is slower and download times are faster. “Ten minutes can mean one or two searches during the day,” he says, “but it could mean 15 searches at midnight.”
The 30-Minute Power Meeting
You’ve heard about the 30-minute power lunch? Well, you didn’t hear it here. Traveling to and from the restaurant can eat up a good hour of your day, and what happens if you have to wait 20 minutes for a table or repeatedly flag down a snooty waiter? Today you can have a business lunch with someone without leaving your workstation. And it can cost less than a fancy meal.
Diamond Multimedia’s Supra Video Kit ($199; www. diamondmm.com) allows you to make Internet video phone calls over standard phone lines. The package includes a color video camera, a video capture card, and all the software you need to hook up with a client across town or across the country. VTEL’s SmartStation ($2,000; www.vtel.com) is a high-end videoconferencing solution that comes with an interactive whiteboarding feature that allows both videoconferencing parties to “write” on a document in real time.
The only catch to all of this: The person on the other end of the line needs videoconferencing equipment as well, and not all packages are compatible. Check them out before you make a purchase. And check out the image quality too–you may be surprised at how good it is.
“The images used to be pretty herky-jerky,” says Jon Jackson of Intel. “But it’s really a clear image now because of MMX technology.”
“The only disadvantage for all of us is self-consciousness about how we look,” says Paul Edwards, author of Working From Home (Tarcher/Putnam). “We’ll have to be groomed more than we normally would for a phone call. But you can always set a photo of yourself in front of the camera.”
The Two-Minute Phone Call
Everyone knows the most annoying, time-consuming interruptions don’t come from the kids or the neighbors, but from telemarketers. By making a quick call to 800-CUT-JUNK (www.privatecitizen.com), you can slice most of these interruptions out of your daily routine.
“If you’re working out of your home, you’re getting an average of five [telemarketing] calls a day,” according to Robert Bulmash, founder of the Chicago-based CUT-JUNK. “And depending on the type of work you do, that call could mean you’re putting someone else on hold. You risk losing a client on the other line.”
Bulmash sends a directory of names to 1,500 surveyors, nonprofit charities, and sales representatives, informing each institution that you’re unwilling to accept telephone solicitations. Ten of the largest telemarketers in the country–with the firing power of 24 million calls per day–receive the CUT-JUNK list. Targeted companies are subject to penalties of up to $500 if they continue to call you.
CUT-JUNK members, who pay a $20 registration fee, report a 70 percent drop in junk phone calls. “Telemarketers adhere to the list,” says Bulmash, “not because every one of our members will sue. But our members who do sue act as a minefield.”
The 15-Minute Computer Fix
For product specialist David Day, the biggest time waster when he’s diagnosing a computer isn’t the customer’s slow modem speed or lack of computer knowledge. It’s lying. Fifteen minutes into a computer-fix phone call, the caller suddenly remembers–or admits, “Oh. Maybe the problem happened when I added that joystick.” Day hears this all the time: “It’s like the Spanish Inquisition or calling your mother when you’ve done something wrong,” he says. “Every tech support provider was a novice user at one time or another. We all make mistakes. The more information we have from you, the easier it is to fix your problem.” To speed up your tech-support calls, don’t try to diagnose your problem–just list the symptoms and let the technician work.
Here’s a list of information to have on hand when you call tech support:
* Complete brand name and model number of your equipment
* Serial number (it’s usually on the back of your PC)
* Invoice number, purchase order number, or warranty number
* A written description of the problem, the steps you’ve taken so far, and any error messages that have been displayed
* Any emergency or backup disk you created when you first powered up the PC
Another way to expedite the process is to pay to get to the front of the line. If you’ve ever tried to utilize “free, 24-hour” tech support from a software or hardware manufacturer, you probably know how it feels to wait for a seeming eternity. But with Digital Equipment Corp.’s Client Services Support Card (www.digital.com), you can pay in advance for tech support and your investment will connect you to a technician in a hurry. Thirty minutes of support sells for $69; three hours worth of help costs $319. Similarly, IBM’s ServicePac End User Support helpline (www.ibm.com) offers a pay-per-call plan that begins at around $105 for five calls.
But the biggest time-saver, according to IBM media rep Talya Bosch, is to write down any tech-support information you receive. “Often people have the same problem more than once,” she explains. “By the time it happens again, they’ve forgotten how to fix it.”
The 45-Second Voice Mail Message
“Voice mail is a great way to speed up the flow of information,” says Lisa Sack, who designs and moderates audioconferences from home. Learn to think of voice mail as a business tool rather than as a safety net that catches calls when you’re out.
First, redo that outgoing message. Don’t promise to return every call. Adding an unnecessary layer of pressure to your day will slow you down and generate stress. And record your message with a smile on your face after you’ve had your first cup of coffee in the morning.
When making a call, always assume you’ll be getting that person’s voice mail or machine so you’ll be prepared to leave a short, detailed message explaining what you need from them. “I don’t want them to call me back to find out what I need,” says Sack. “I tell them right there, `I’m calling about X, Y, and Z. This is the information I need from you.’ End of story. You can’t spend the whole day playing phone tag with people.”
If you have an especially chatty client who always keeps you on the phone for 20 minutes, call her when you know she won’t be around. Wait until she’s gone home for the day and leave an assertive, detailed message.
If you work for or with a larger company with a full-featured voice mail system, find out if you can wire into that system from your home office. “That leads to a world of options,” says Sack. You can take snippets of information left on your voice mail and forward them to the appropriate person–no need for paraphrasing. “A lot of people don’t know how to use this feature,” Sack says. “But it’s a huge timesaver for me.”
The Two-Hour Business Plan
Most home-based entrepreneurs enter the business arena without a written plan–not a great idea. These documents help you clarify the direction of your company and make it easier for you to chart growth and make course corrections as your venture grows. But because the complexities of drafting a business plan can be intimidating, it’s tempting to ignore this crucial step and hope for the best.
Don’t let fear paralyze you and your business. Several software programs can help you create a concise business plan in the space of an afternoon. These applications come in two distinct flavors: templates and interactive programs. We recommend interactive applications such as Palo Alto Software’s Business Plan Pro 2.0 for Windows ($99.95) or Business Resource Software’s Business Plan Write 4.0 for Windows ($129.95). Both use an “interview” format, leading you through a simple question-and-answer session to help you organize your ideas and goals. And both include multiple charts chat help you visualize your plan of action and enable you to cut and paste sample copy into your personal plan.
Palo Alto Software president Tim Berry remembers the countless days–and nights–spent with a yellow pad and calculator, trying to put together a business plan. “That nightmare is still fresh in my head,” says Berry, a Stanford MBA, who took a semester-long class in the 1970s just to learn to write a business plan. “Now you can let the computer figure out the math–all chat dumb math chat used to get in the way of thinking,” he says. “Now you’ve got online help, glossaries, and software chat can take and format your page and merge text, tables, and charts.”
The 60-Minute Purge
How much time do you spend searching through chat jumble of scribbled-on Post-it notes or your messy hard disk? Paula Ancona, author of Successabilities! 1,003 Practical Ways to Keep Up, Stand Out and Move Ahead at Work (Jist), has a solution for you: Purge!
Reserve an hour on your calendar each month to concentrate on mess maintenance. “Set a kitchen timer and see how much you can do in chat amount of time,” says Ancona. “It’ll give you something to work against and won’t allow you to waste the whole day. You’d be amazed at how much you get rid of in an hour.”
Sort and arrange the wayward files and folders loitering on your operating system desktop. And rename files so they have a uniform style and correspond to paperwork–something Ancona calls “parallel constitution.” As positive reinforcement, keep a little box in your office and drop a quarter inside every time you file or ditch a piece of paper or useless computer file. At the end of the week, buy yourself a treat.
The main rule, she says, is to always have a few key tools on hand while you purge–calendar wastebasket, file folders, envelopes, stamps, and highlighter pen. “Don’t try and go through a pile if you’re not ready for it, because you’ll just wind up going through it twice,” says Ancona.
Whether your litter is taking up disk space or desk space, you need to read it, ditch it, or mark it on your calendar. Just get it outta there so you can move forward. “Don’t save all those little pieces of paper,” she says. “If you need something, clip it and stick it on your calendar. Better yet, create a concise calendar in your computer and file it there.” Place as much as you can on your favorite storage device and get it off your hard disk to eliminate duplicates.
The 90-Second E-mail Check
Rather than helping us work more efficiently, e-mail tends to slow us down. Like the junk mail that clogs up your real-life mailbox, e-mail junk is crowding your computer screen–and your brain.
But you don’t have to just log on and sigh. Anti-spamming sites and e-mail sorters can streamline your e-mailing, says Cindy Tolliver, author of Going Part-Time: The Insider’s Guide for Professional Women Who Want a Career and a Life (Avon).
You can filter out promotional e-mail, get-rich-quick pitches, and other invasive forms of spam by subscribing to services like Nospam (email@example.com). The free “wash list” is used to eliminate your e-mail address from mass mailers. The sites make their income from sponsors who advertise on the banners of their pages, so you don’t have to worry about your e-mail address being sold as part of some new list.
Another way to cut down on e-mail maintenance is to utilize e-mail robots, also known as mailbots or autoresponders. These special e-mail accounts automatically reply to incoming mail with prepared messages. If you operate a Web site and want to spur customer/client interaction without getting bogged down on your primary account, one or more can save you hours.
“If you still find yourself with more e-mail than you can handle,” says Tolliver, “find an e-mail management program, like Banyan System’s BeyondMail Professional 3.0” ($69; www.banyan.com). Equipped with 89 predefined agent actions and plenty of expansion capabilities, BeyondMail works like a personal assistant, reading and rerouting messages so you don’t have to waste time on everything that arrives in your mailbox.
For drastic action–the Rambo solution–Tolliver suggests a mass execution. “Select a bunch of unread e-mails with questionable return addresses and then push delete,” she says. “But like most mass executions, this sometimes results in some innocent bystanders getting axed.
The 20-Minute Office Workout
Some days, the trip back and forth to the gym just has to be sacrificed. But that doesn’t mean your workout has to fall by the wayside as well. An efficient ergonomic or aerobic exercise is as close as your living room, says ergonomic guru John Kella. His workplace exercise firm, Kella Communications, provides equipment and training for corporate clients.
First off, always start with a stretch. Lean your hands against the wall, keep your back straight and heels down, and stretch your hamstring. For the upper body, interlock your fingers and stretch your hands behind your head. Push your elbows back gently. For your neck, turn the head from side to side, looking over your shoulder. Do a few head tilts, leaning ear to shoulder. With your hand at your elbow, gently draw your arm across your body for some arm stretches–and hold for 15 seconds.
For aerobic activity, run in place, raising your heels off the floor. “You can do this to music or to a video, so you don’t get totally bored,” says Kella. “Or use some sort of aerobic activity enhancer–a walker or a stationary bicycle.” Speed up gradually over a 10-minute period to increase your heart rate.
Because you spend so much time perched at a desk, try some ergonomic exercises. Stretch your fingers by making a gentle fist, then gradually relaxing, then opening wide, then gently relaxing. Repeat 10 times. Do some wrist bends to extend your forearm muscles and tendons. Extend your arm and droop your hand till it’s limp. Push down on the hand with your other hand and bend the wrist gently. Do the reverse: Make the “stop” gesture with your hand and gently press your wrist back.
If you spend hours on end at a monitor and are worried about developing nearsightedness, take a few moments to stare out the window and focus at an object in the distance. Bob Anderson, author of Stretching at Your Computer or Desk (Shelter Publications), recommends raising your eyebrows and eyes wide while opening your mouth as wide as it will go. It will relax your face, relieve jaw tension, and make anyone within view burst out laughing. Just one more reason to be glad you work at home.