How to Make it on Freshly Pressed (plus, “The Couch Manager” Blog has moved!)

If you’re reading this, you’re probably reading it on my old WordPress.com site (thecouchmanager.wordpress.com), which means you probably never received any of my new posts since I moved my blog to a self-hosted WordPress.org site (www.thecouchmanager.com) around 6 months ago.

I did the stupid mistake of not announcing the move on my old site before the move, but here I am doing it now!

If you’d like to keep receiving updates from my blog, there are two ways to subscribe (note, you’ll need to subscribe again even if you have done so earlier through the WordPress “Follow” button):

  1. Through my new RSS Feed (handled by Feedburner)
  2. Through my new email updates (also handled by Feedburner)

You can also find me on Facebook.

Since the move, I have published some pretty helpful posts about working remotely, increasing your productivity and saving time.

I have also been featured on ProBlogger, where I wrote an article on “How I Made it onto Freshly Pressed 3 Times in 6 Months” which I’m sure you’ll find quite interesting.

Thanks and happy blogging!

The Virtual PM: 7 Best Practices for Effective Communication

I recently wrote a whitepaper entitled “The Virtual Project Manager: Seven Best Practices for Effective Communication,” which was published by the Project Management Institute (PMI). You can download it by clicking on the link, but for those of you who don’t want to read through the 4-page article, I included a summary slide deck that highlights its main takeaways.

Let me know what you think about it in the comments section below!

Please, Know When to Shut Up in Meetings

Here’s a common problem in teleconference meetings: some people just don’t know when to shut up to get a point across.

This includes folks who keep making the same point over and over again, and do not understand the concept of “less is more.”

Although this happens in face-to-face meetings as well, it is more common in virtual meetings because the presenter can’t read his or her audience’s visual cues to know whether they’re still actively listening.

In the spirit of knowing when to shut up, I’ll keep this post short and simple, and show a graph of how I think the audience’s interest level reacts to the presenter’s talking time.

So how do you know where you are on the curve?

That’s not an easy question to answer, but here are three possible cues that you’re going downhill:

  1. Uncomfortable Silence: As in, you hear crickets chirping on the phone.
  2. Someone drops a hint: Such as, “Hey, I think in the interest of time, we should discuss the next topic.
  3. Someone says it: Such as “I think we just abused this point to death and everyone got it the first time you said it, next topic please.

For the love of God, please don’t reply to #3 with “Ok, but just to make sure, I want to repeat this one more time for the entire team…

My 1-sentence Summaries of the Best 6 Books I’ve Read on Productivity

I’m a voracious reader of non-fiction books, and I usually read the latest bestsellers in the business, psychology, and finance genres. Every once in a while, I come across one that leaves a remarkable impact on the way I think or act, and the list below includes six of those books (I’ve read each at least twice).

Of course, not every one of them is about productivity, but I’ve boiled each to a single-sentence takeaway that generally increases my efficiency and reduces stress.  I also included the Amazon.com links (affiliate links) on the book illustrations so you can click on the pictures below to learn more about each book.

Know of any other books about productivity that you’d recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!

A Simple Way to Babysit and Work at the Same Time

My daughter just turned two, so I thought I’d share a tip about balancing fatherhood with being a couch manager. When she was around 18 months old, I had to figure out a way to babysit her while remaining productive – especially when my wife had to run some errands in the evenings. I’m all for spending quality time with my child so she has my full, undivided attention, but there are times when I’m inundated with papers to write and reports to draft, that I really have to multi-task while babysitting.

One option was to use my laptop in the living room while she watched her favorite show on TV, but the problem with that was I couldn’t focus on both her and my screen simultaneously – especially since she wanders around picking up random things off the floor and sticking them in her little mouth. Another option was to have her sit on my lap and watch YouTube videos on my laptop, but that meant I was stuck watching Barney with her as well.

So I figured out a really simple way to do both.

I basically split my laptop screen into two parts, with the top part being for me to work on anything I wanted (like writing a blog post on Word), and the bottom part for her to watch YouTube videos she liked. I simply re-sized the two windows so that they sit on top of each other, and hit play in the bottom window while working in the top one.

So the set-up looked something this:

To make it even less interrupting for me, I added several of her favorite videos (she loves Barney, Caillou and the Phonics song) to a playlist and then just clicked “Play all” for continuous playback. If you’re not familiar with how to create a playlist on YouTube, you can find instructions here.

Of course, another alternative is to play full feature cartoon movies by popping in a DVD or subscribing to NetFlix or Hulu – which works equally well.

There are a couple of advantages of babysitting while working this way. First, you have full control over your child because they’re right there in front of you and they’re locked in from falling because of your arms. Second, your child can have a dry snack while watching at the same time, which is an added bonus (just stay away from liquids – keyboards don’t like them very much).

And that’s pretty much it – a simple solution to a common problem. Know of any other tricks to babysit and work at the same time? Let me know in the comments section below!

The 4 Types of Managers According to Abraham Lincoln’s Productivity Rule

Abraham Lincoln famously said:

“Give me 6 hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first 4 sharpening the axe”

I’m a big fan of this quote, and I’ve used it over and over during my career – especially when planning large and complex initiatives. In essence, the quote refers to how much time you should spend planning versus executing a project. According to Lincoln, you should spend two-thirds of the time you have sharpening the axe (planning your project), and the remaining one-third of it chopping the tree (executing the project). While the optimal ratio of planning to executing obviously depends on multiple factors, Lincoln’s basic point holds true: you need to spend more time planning a project than you probably think.

I believe this becomes even more crucial when leading teams in a virtual environment. In most of the troubled projects I had assessed at Fortune 500 companies, a big portion of them failed because the project manager either:

  • Spent way too much planning the project – losing valuable time before executing it.
  • Spent very little time (if any) planning, and started executing immediately – resulting in a hefty price down the line.
  • Spent all the time going back and forth between planning and executing – wasting valuable time due to a high switching cost.

The following visuals show the four types of managers I’ve encountered , and how each of them uses those six hours:

When I first started managing big projects, I was more of an obsessive-compulsive sharpener (like #1 above) – trying to think of every what-if scenario and trying to “perfect” my plans. However, only after taking Lincoln’s advice to heart did I realize that I was being counterproductive and pushed myself to start chopping early (with great results).

How about you? Which type of management style do you relate to? Let me know in the comments below!

14 Tips for Designing a Highly Productive Home Office (GTD Friendly)

UPDATE: I got a tweet from David Allen, the GTD author himself, saying this was “Very Cool” – made my day :)

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I recently moved to a new apartment where I (finally!) got my own room to set up as a home office. I’ve been a hardcore follower of GTD for quite a while, so I wanted to make sure I take the lessons learned over the years from my personal experience, and design the perfect home office from the ground-up. For those who don’t know what GTD is, it is a bestselling book by David Allen called “Getting Things Done” which helps you organize your life. If you haven’t read it, make sure you do; it is hands-down the best book on productivity that you’ll ever read.

Before I delve into the details, I want to make a few comments.

First, although I’m a Cisco employee, Cisco does not compensate me for mentioning any Cisco products in this post (on that note, and as applicable to this entire blog, all the comments made by me are my own views and not those of Cisco).

Second, I’ve included links to the products I own so that you won’t have to waste time researching for them if you like them (disclosure – some of those are affiliate links).

Third, keep in mind that I have designed the perfect office for me – someone who’s uber-obsessed with productivity. Given that I’m usually quite busy running multi-million dollar projects, pursuing graduate studies, participating in the community and contributing to a few side hobbies – all mainly from home – every minute wasted counts against spending more time with my family and friends, which I enjoy the most. Hence, I’ve designed my workspace in such a way as to save time and increase productivity from every possible angle. Having said that, some of the tips might be a little bit overboard for you and you don’t really need to apply all of them. Use what you need and modify accordingly.

Here’s a photo of my newly-minted home office. The numbers in the picture refer to the tips below (you might want open the pic in a new window so you view it in full-size as you read through).

  1. The PC: 90% of my time is spent on my laptop, so it’s positioned front and center, and everything else revolves around me being fixated in that spot most of the time. I use a Lenovo Thinkpad T410 laptop with a docking station, which hooks up to a nice 22 inch DELL external monitor and a wireless full-sized Logitech keyboard & mouse. If you work from home, investing in a docking station & laptop combination is the best investment you’ll make. Unlike a desktop, you’re not stuck to your desk for life (and can work remotely when you want to), and unlike a standalone laptop, you’re not bound to a 14 inch screen and a tight keyboard 10 hours a day. I also use a high-quality Logitech webcam that fits nicely on my monitor (important for video-conferencing meetings).
  2. Second PC: Some customers I work with require that I use one of their company-issued laptops for security purposes. I’m usually not a big fan of that, as it becomes a hassle to manage multiple email accounts, calendars, and contact lists, but when I have to, I put it right there in my field of vision so I don’t keep turning my head 20 times an hour.
  3. Phone: I use a Cisco 7975G IP phone. For couch managers, I can think of no other better phone, especially since it synchs up really well with my WebEx Connect softphone when I’m on the road. Two things to note here. First, I have my phone within an arm’s reach to make and receive calls quickly without moving from my seat, and second, it’s close enough where people can hear me when using the speakerphone. I also have a headset hanging on the wall above the phone, which I use when I need to have a conversation while I’m moving around in the room.
  4. In-Basket: This is my collection basket where I dump everything that needs processing at a later time: unopened envelopes, follow-up receipts, hand written notes, etc. I usually empty it out every couple of days to keep it clean and ready for more stuff. I use a 3-level letter tray with compartments that pull out for accessing documents.
  5. Vertical Folder Sorter: I use a 6-slot incline sorter to keep all my current project files and folders easily accessible so I don’t always have to pull them out of the cabinet drawers. I also keep some new manila folders (which have 3 assorted-position tabs for easier reading) in the front slot so that I can quickly label them and dump in any new reference material.
  6. Notepad & Pen: I ALWAYS have a pen and paper close by. If I’m taking down notes on a call, I usually prefer writing than typing on my PC (in some cases, it is my only choice since typing makes a lot of clicking noises that bothers listeners on the call). Anything I write ends up in my in-basket for further processing.
  7. Wastebasket & Shredder: I have a wastebasket and paper shredder close by as well so that I don’t have to walk up to either of them (plus, I’m a terrible shooter with those paper balls)!
  8. Stationery & Labeler: All my stationery – pens, pencils, stapler, puncher, clips, scissors, letter opener, and rubber bands – are on two shelves within an arm’s reach, but I like to keep them  elevated to remove the clutter from my desk. I also have a Dymo labeler for labeling all my folders and boxes. You’ll be surprised at how big a difference this little tool makes in organizing your life. Buy one.
  9. Filing Cabinet: This is where I store all my file folders. I have a cabinet with two drawers, the top is for all material labeled “A through G” and the bottom one is for “H through Z.” I use hanging folders, and drop the manila folders in them (I never label the hanging folders, – only the manila folders themselves). The black storage unit next to the cabinet drawers is used for storing additional copy paper, folders, and other stuff.
  10. Storage Boxes & Shelves: I installed several wooden shelves to make use of all the dead space on the walls above the desk.  I also use storage boxes that come in two sizes, small and large, to store electronics, cables, receipts, batteries, CDs/ DVDs, extra stationery – you name it. All nicely tucked away. For slightly larger things that don’t fit into boxes, like manuals, gift wrap, coursework notebooks and mailing materials, I use standing magazine file organizers. I label everything so I know exactly what’s where.
  11. Routers & Modem: I have a Cisco Series 800 router (used for my secure virtual office), a Cisco Valet Plus router (for wirelessly connecting my personal devices) and a Motorola Cable modem for connecting to my ISP. I keep them away from me because I rarely touch them, and the soft humming noises bother me when they’re close.
  12. Workspace Area: I have two sturdy desks than I lined up together: a corner desk and a regular one, and I keep a workspace area on my right always clean for when I need to use it.
  13. Chair & Floor Protector: I sit for hours on end at my desk, so I have a comfortable swivel chair, and a floor protector underneath which helps with sliding around smoothly from one spot to the other (and avoids those coffee stains on the carpet!).
  14. Wireless All-in-One Printer: I use a Canon Pixma MX350 Wireless Printer. If you’ve never had a wireless printer before, upgrade to one. Nothing like being able to print and scan from anywhere around the house without worrying about plugging it in.

And there you have it! If you’d like to receive more helpful tips about managing your work from home, subscribe to my blog’s RSS Feed.