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Thursday, August 21, 2014

4 Tricks for Working Productively From Home

I've worked at home in some form or another for nearly three years.  It took some getting used to--setting my own agenda, sticking to my own deadlines, reaching out to clients when I needed clarification on a project (instead of just walking down the hall to talk to a co-worker).  But I love it.  I enjoy setting my own rules and holding myself accountable for the myriad tasks that are tossed my way.  Some people say to me, "I could never work from home; I would never get anything done!"  Well, it's not always easy, but there are some tricks I use that help me to stay on task, keep focused, and produce excellent results.  Here are my top four:

1. Create Your Own Office

Carve out a space in your home that is meant for work, and work only.  Do not stream YouTube videos there; do not surf Facebook or Twitter.  Train yourself to go to this space, sit down, and work.  It may be difficult at first (and you might have to start in fifteen or twenty minute intervals), but after a while, you'll get used to getting into "office mode."

Your office can be simple--just a desk and a laptop situated in the corner of your living room--or it can be more elaborate.  Ideally, you would have an entire room that is dedicated to your work, somewhere quiet and well-lit where you can focus in peace.  And try to keep your office neat and free of clutter.  I have found that it is easier to concentrate on your work when you don't have stacks of paper distracting you.

2.  Make To-Do Lists

This is a biggy.  At the beginning of every, single day, outline what your day will look like.  Make a list of tasks you would like to accomplish, even if some of them are a stretch.  Be sure to include all your appointments, lunch dates, etc. on the list so you can figure out how to work around them.  Remember: no item is too small!  If updating your time sheet, for instance, is something you need to do every day, include it on the list.  That way, nothing gets neglected.

Once you have your list, number your tasks in order of importance.  That will give you a sense of how you should approach your day.  If one of the tasks is large and daunting, don't be afraid to break it up in bite-sized pieces.  For instance, I am in the thick of editing my second novel.  Instead of writing, "Edit Novel" on my list, I write something like, "Edit Chapter 2" or "Edit 20 Pages."  That way, you can move onto other tasks without being bogged down by a monster of an assignment (and it's easier to cross off "Edit 20 Pages" than "Edit Novel!")

In conjunction with my daily to-do lists, I also make a long-term list that includes everything I would like to achieve in the near future.  I refer back to (and modify) this list regularly so things don't slip through the cracks.  I also keep important deadlines on my Google Calendar.  Since I work anywhere from four to seven jobs at any given time, I'm not sure what I would do without it!

3.  Dress The Part

No one takes you seriously when you work in your pajamas, including yourself!  When you prepare for your day, incorporate "getting ready" in your morning routine.  I usually don't wear anything terribly fancy (and certainly nothing uncomfortable), but I never work in pajamas.  Taking the time to get dressed, brush your hair and teeth, eat breakfast, etc. before starting your day is all part of getting into the aforementioned "office mode."

4.  Take Breaks

You can't work from sun-up to sun-down and you shouldn't!  Allow yourself to take breaks during the day, but be in control.  Don't, for instance, sit in front of the television with the intention of watching one episode of House of Cards. You know what can happen.  One episode leads to another, leads to another, and soon three hours have crept by.  Instead, get out of your chair and walk the dog.  Or do the dishes.  Or take out the trash.  Maybe call your mother or check social media for a while (but be careful with that one too!).  Figure out how long you need to rejuvenate, and then get back to it!

If you don't take regular, purposeful breaks throughout the day, you'll most likely find yourself periodically checking LinkedIn or Buzzfeed while you're sitting at your desk, trying to gather your motivation.  Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project, advises us to work in hour and a half increments.  His studies have shown that the typical worker can fully focus on a single project or task for 90 minutes before their concentration slips and their thoughts begin to wander.  At this point, he suggests going for a run or eating lunch--anything to let your body rest in a meaningful way until it is ready to take on another 90-minute work session.  While I don't always adhere to the 90-minute cycle, I do try to work in a meaningful, focused way and then set aside quality time for breaks.  This method gives me something to work towards (a break, yay!) and helps me accomplish projects in purposeful, bite-sized pieces.

What are some of the methods you've used to get work done at home?  I would love to hear your tricks and tips.

And don't forget to follow my blog!

Happy working,

Friday, August 8, 2014

Revolt of the Writer's Laptop (Laptop Guide 2014)

*This post got a little longer than intended, but I wanted it to be comprehensive! Skip the first part if you want to get right to the laptop guide.

Maybe my laptop is periodically shutting itself down lately because it knows I am using it to search for its replacement.  It's cruel, in a way.  I feel like I'm sending an IT guy to India to train a batch of people who will be taking over his and his co-worker's outsourced jobs. Just plain mean and my computer is not happy.

But then again, it hasn't been happy for months.

Just a few weeks ago, I was typing like a mad woman, furiously wrangling my recent flash of inspiration into a Word document, when my laptop decided it had enough.  It shut off with a lights-out snap and I lost three pages of valuable notes.  I was seething like a freshly branded bull.  I wanted to hurl my laptop across the room.  Instead, I calmly turned it back on, pulled up the Word document, and began typing again.  Unfortunately, not all my inspiration was captured with round two of furious typing and my relationship with my faulty laptop grew increasingly hostile.

It was having issues (shutting down when it was overwhelmed by the combination of a graphic design program and radio streaming, for instance) before the catastrophic three-page loss, but I dealt with it grudgingly until this point.  Then, I got serious.

When I began searching for a new laptop, I realized there are not many layman guides to help writers find a machine designed to meet their specific needs, so here is mine.  I'm fairly tech savvy, but no guru, so you're not going to find a lot of technical language and jargon here.  And please, if you have additional thoughts or insights into the current laptop market, add your comments below.

The Screen
Do you ever arise from your office chair after staring at a screen for several hours, agonizing over word choice and sentence structure, and feel all "buggy-eyed."  Sometimes your eyes might feel strained or tired; sometimes you might even have a headache.  Your screen may be part of the issue (although there are many factors that can contribute to eye strain. Read this article by All About Vision to gain a little more depth on this issue).

What does an eye-friendly screen look like?  For one, it has a high resolution (standard resolution for an LCD screen right now is 1366 x 768).  It might pay, especially if you experience chronic eye strain issues, to invest in an HD quality or higher screen (something along the lines of 1920 x 1080).  However, one caveat: higher resolution screens may make text or program icons (most notably in Photoshop) seem extremely small if viewed on a small screen.

So, that's another thing to keep in mind: screen size.  I work on a 15.6" screen and would not recommend dipping below 14".  All About Vision, however, recommends a much larger screen (along the lines of 19"), but for me that size becomes impractical if I want to haul my laptop around.  Additionally, consider screen glare and whether or not you want a matte or glossy screen finish.  The verdict is out as to which is better to prevent eye strain (although instinct says matte would be better, apparently glossy finishes distribute light more evenly and have the ability to create sharper images).  I'm not going to weigh in on this factor, since it is out of my realm of expertise.

The Keyboard
How do you type? Do you have a wide finger spread or a short one?  Do you rely on looking at the keyboard or do your fingers fly without having to sneak a peak at the keys?

First of all, consider the size and layout of a keyboard. Are the keys spread apart the way you like them (really, the only way to figure this out is to physically test the keyboard at a store like Best Buy)?  Are all your shortcuts readily available?  I personally like having both a Backspace and Delete key, as well as a Home and End key, and a PgDn, PgUp key.  These shortcuts make navigating your page much swifter.

Secondly, how does the keyboard react to your touch?  Some laptops have nice, springy keys and others are more sticky or need greater force to press them down.  I prefer keys that respond to a nice, light touch.  Again, go to a tech store and start typing away.  I recently paid Best Buy a visit and typed about quick, red foxes jumping over lazy, brown dogs over and over and over.  My personal verdict?  The Toshiba keys required the heaviest touch, whereas the ASUS and Lenovo keys were the most responsive.

Another factor to consider: Is there space to rest the balls of your hands while you type?  Some laptops, like the Acer Aspire S7 line, have an extra wide platform for resting your hands, whereas other laptop brands (and smaller laptops) do not.  

And one more thing: Take the touchpad for a spin. Make sure it is responsive, but not jumpy or erratic. One complaint about my current Samsung computer (a laptop which I've never really loved) is that the scrollbar is too sensitive to the touch.  It sends you sailing to the top or bottom of the page at the slightest touch, whether you want to go there or not.

This may seem obvious, but does your laptop have USB ports (most do) and an HDMI port (many don't)? An HDMI port is important to me because I often connect my laptop to a large, external monitor.  This can be especially useful when you're formatting pages and want to look at the big picture from a wider angle.  But ultimately, this is a personal preference.

Will you be lugging this thing to internet cafes across the city?  Will you take it to work?  Or will your laptop mostly remain on your desk in your home office?  Laptops can range from 2.5 lbs (the remarkable ASUS T100 or Mac Air) to a hefty 9 lbs+ (some of the ASUS ROG models used primarily for gaming). 

Battery Life
Again, will you be schlepping your computer around the city, or perhaps traveling with it on business trips?  Long battery life is something I always appreciate.  Today, anything under 5 hours is not terribly great.  The ASUS T100 (recently lauded as one of the best travel laptops available) lasts about 11 hours with one charge.
This is something that's not often discussed in tech articles, but it is an important (and often deciding) factor.  Most writers are not doing quite as well as John Grisham or J.K. Rowling, so a pocketbook-friendly machine is the way to go.  That rules out most Macs and most high-powered gaming laptops. There is a reason audio specialists and videographers use Macs--they are designed with great graphics cards and sound systems, but so are many other machines (that you can purchase for a fraction of the cost). Furthermore, Macs love Appleware, meaning that they don't easily adopt outside software (even using Microsoft Word and Excel is a bit of a headache with Mac compared to any PC due to the illogical menu layout and lack of shortcuts). But, let's not hate on Macs. They are perfectly fine machines in many respects (although I've had one too many encounters with the spinning rainbow wheel of death!), but the bottom line is this: if you are using a computer for writing, surfing the web, streaming videos, editing photos, making power point presentations, doing basic graphic design, or keeping up with social media, ANY brand will do.  It is up to you to sift through the features, get a feel for the keyboard and touchpad at some computer shop, and decide your own personal price point.

Right now, you can get a perfectly good laptop for $500-$700, less if you go for a Chromebook (which I personally steer away from because of the low HDD space and its inability to support graphic design programs).  Many laptops in this range are also touchscreen capable (if you're into that) and the monitor may or may not detach as a tablet or bend 180 degrees into a pseudo-tablet (like the Lenovo Yoga 2).

Other considerations:
Everything listed above is geared specifically toward writers, but don't forget to consider other factors as well:
Processor (Will you be multi-tasking and running a variety of programs at the same time? Go with at least an i-5 processor; an i-7 will be more expensive)
HDD (Store many photos or videos?  500 GB should be your minimum, but you can easily find 1T these days. If you're not worried about storage space (or prefer cloud-based systems), you might want to consider a laptop with a solid state drive.)
RAM (Standard now is 4 GB, but I like a little more (because I tend to run larger graphic design programs), so 6GB or 8GB is better for me and not difficult to find these days.)
Aesthetics and Feel (Does it feel cheap and breakable? Chances are, it is.)
Connectivity (I haven't looked into this much, but apparently some chipsets are better at connecting to WiFi than others. I've read that the Qualcomm Atheros chipset has issues, but don't want to smear its name too harshly since I don't have first-hand experience with it).
Webcam, CD/DVD disc drive, sound system (other considerations that may or may not be important to you)

Well, there you have it.  Please remember that I am tech capable, but not an expert.  I hope you learned a thing or two from this guide and please, if you have any feedback at all, leave it in the comments section.  The goal is to make laptop hunting as smooth and simple as possible, so we'd all love to hear your two cents!

Happy hunting for your perfect electronic companion.

Thursday, July 17, 2014


Don't use it's as a possessive.  Don't like participles dangle.  Don't write words with numb3rs (unless you're seven!).

These are some of the useful tips Weird Al offers in his new music video about grammar: Word Crimes.  It's based off Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, but it's much more clever than its inspiration (see how I used it's and its in the proper way there?)

Anyway, here's a bit of fun for your day.  Enjoy.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Procrastination Can Be Lovely

I've been planting a lot lately.  Putting little blips in the ground, covering them up, hoping they sprout.

It's a satisfying endeavor.  I yank weeds out by the root, shaking them free of dirt so they can't rob the precious soil from my seedlings.  Some of the dirt flies back into the ground, a good deal ends up under my fingernails.  I don't mind.  I wear my dirty half-moons proudly, stepping into Home Depot adorned in my grungiest shirt and tennis shoes that are ripping at the seams and stained with earth.  I fit in here, among the project-doers and tinkerers.  We walk around each other with ease, like a group of people at a political rally.  We're all here for the same purpose; there's no need to talk about it much.
Courtesy of

At some point--in between yanking and watering--I wonder what I am doing.  What's the point of all this planting?  Why do I care about the things I place in the ground?

I suspect it all has something to do with my need to nurture.  To care for, to watch something grow, to love.  It satisfies some primordial urge to mother.  And it feeds my desire to root around in the dirt and create something out of little.

And then, there's the progress.  I enjoy watching the tiny heads sprout out of the ground and unfurl into something beautiful or something I can eventually eat.  That tiny sprout will be a radish someday.  And that one, a forget-me-not.  And that one, a beet. It's satisfying to see such measurable progress while my writing is languishing.

And then I realize, that's the point, isn't it?  It's all a distraction from what I should be doing.  It's a way to procrastinate when I should be spending more time with my third novel.  I ignore my pangs of guilt, turn away from my laptop, and go outside to pull some weeds.

Taken on Nicollet Island, Minneapolis
In the past, I might have been hard on myself for my inattentiveness.  I might have been horrified by my lack of writing.  But this time, I decided to forgive myself.  I decided I lend myself a month of flitting around the foliage before I return to ink and paper.  After all, how can a writer draw on her experiences if she has none?  So, for the rest of June, I will experience my garden.  And I will nourish my roots so that something lovely may grow.

What's your favorite way to procrastinate?

Monday, May 12, 2014

4 Lessons from Central America

 Travel can teach a person many valuable lessons--acceptance of differences, adaptation, flexibility--but some places are more trying than others. In some travel destinations, the only challenge might be finding someone to refill your margarita glass, but I prefer to steer clear of those areas, to venture off the well-worn path. It is in these remote places, filled with local flavor and authenticity, that I have found my greatest life lessons.

I am not a stranger to Central America (I lived in Panama for 6 months at one point and have traveled to every country, minus El Salvador), but I hadn't set foot in that fascinating strip of land between Texas and Colombia in a few long years.  During that hiatus, I forgot many of the lessons I previously learned in Central America. Last month, when I exited the San Pedro Sula airport, they came roaring back.

Here are my top four:

1. Practice Patience
Whether you're waiting for the bus, in line at the only ATM in town, or waiting while the hotel clerk figures out why your room is double-booked, it pays to have patience.  Buses don't always arrive on time, meals might take nearly an hour to reach your table, but what's your hurry anyway? It is ingrained in the American mentality that efficiency is the best policy--whisk into a restaurant, immediately order drinks and food, chat absentmindedly with friends while you're catching up on work emails and adding events to your Google Calendar, gulp down your food, pay, run out the door to your evening pilates class.  That's not the way in Central America.  You are meant to sit down, make meaningful connections, stay a while. If you let events unravel at their own pace, you're more likely to find enjoyment in them.

2. Have Trust
I was startled for a moment when a small child clambered into my lap in a severely crowded micro-bus in Guatemala.  Then, I shrugged, put my hand on his back to keep him balanced, and watched as his mother struggled to fit into the tiny space between the seat and the door, while shuffling another child into place. People trust people in Guatemala. It's a novel thing for most Americans--handing our kids off to strangers, allowing someone to take our bags and tie them to the top of a bus, buying mangoes off the woman with a basket of fruit on the street--but this kind of trust is almost unavoidable in Central America. If you want to get from Point A to Point B, and you want to do it on a budget, you'll be crammed into public buses with everyone else. There are tons of horror stories about armed robberies and petty thievery on buses, but I have never experienced that. Mostly, the buses are filled to the brim with ordinary people trying to get to work or visit their cousin in Antigua.

That said, you should not, of course, completely let your guard down. Trust, yes. But be street smart as well. Don't wave your money around or keep your cell phone in your front pocket. There's a difference between having trust and being careless.

3. Quiet Your Mind
If you're like many Americans, you have a packed schedule and little downtime.  And, whatever downtime you might have, you spend filling with TV, Facebook, or YouTube cats. Do you ever take the time to sit, be mindful of your surroundings, and do nothing?

When I started my two-week long vacation last month, the lack of distractions agitated me. I found myself sitting in the middle of a four hour bus ride to Copan, alternately looking out the window and fidgeting with my guidebook, attempting to keep up small talk with my travel partner. Silence bothered me; the lack of productivity bothered me (I could have been writing or updating my Twitter account, or...). I stopped. I realized where I was and what I was doing, and focused on relaxing.

It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? Focusing on relaxing.  But it's what I had to do for the first few days to stop myself from feeling antsy and unproductive.  Eventually, it wasn't so hard to keep my body still, focus on my breathing, and watch the scenery as it slid by. Now that I'm back in the states, that kind of quiet is difficult to find at times, but I'm making a concerted effort to pursue it.

4. Open Yourself To New Experiences
You could travel to Central America and get by just fine on pizza and burgers, only speak English, travel only by charter bus, and only visit obvious tourist attractions. You could. Or you could try that thing on the menu you've never heard of, engage locals in conversation, attempt to order food or ask directions in Spanish. Either way, you'll probably be perfectly happy and have a nice time on your trip.  However, if you choose to be a little daring, to stretch yourself out of your comfort zone, you'll likely enjoy a fuller, richer experience...and you'll find a whole set of adventures, tasty food, and interesting people to add to your life's fabric.

Happy travels,

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Am I an Impostor? (Overcoming Self-Doubt)

Thank you to Margaret Smith for her guest blog.  Margaret is a career coach, author, and professional speaker with over thirty years of experience in corporate leadership and sales. Find out more about Margaret at her WEBSITE.
It happens to even the most accomplished among us: That nagging feeling that it’s only a matter of time before we’re found out to be frauds. Thoughts like ”I don’t actually know what I’m doing here,” or, “I’ve done well so far, but eventually they’ll realize they made a big mistake hiring me,” are token examples of someone experiencing this phenomenon. Which begs the question: Where does this intense self-doubt come from?
Known as the Impostor Phenomenon (IP), it is more prevalent than you might expect. (You can view a small test see if you have the IP traits HERE.) In her new book, THE EMPRESS HAS NO CLOTHES: CONQUERING SELF-DOUBT TO EMBRACE SUCCESS, Joyce M. Roche, president of Girls Incorporated, both reveals why many of us have such thoughts, and lays out practical ways to combat them.
Roche writes that conquering self-doubt lies in ”learning how to metabolize external validation to turn it into the core strength of internal validation.” In other words, instead of letting your negative thoughts define who you think you are, focus on concrete successes you can point to in your life and let those fuel your sense of self-worth.
A few more points on overcoming self-doubt:
1. IDENTIFY THE SPECIFIC PARTS OF YOUR LIFE THAT MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE AN IMPOSTOR, AND TALK TO SOMEONE YOU TRUST ABOUT THOSE SPECIFIC THINGS. The simple act of verbalizing your fears shines light on the faulty thinking you used to create them.
2. FOCUS ON THE EXTERNAL FACTORS OF YOUR PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCE INSTEAD OF YOUR INTERNAL THOUGHTS. You’ll see your track record for what it really us: there will be both successes and failures, sure, but be sure to give yourself credit where credit is due.
3. WEAR YOUR FAILURES AND SETBACKS AS BADGES, NOT BLEMISHES TO COVER UP. As cliché as it is, our failures really are what propel us forward by showing us exactly what not to do, and failures are usually closely followed by successes.
Roche, Joyce M., and Alexander Kopelman. THE EMPRESS HAS NO CLOTHES: CONQUERING SELF-DOUBT TO EMBRACE SUCCESS. San Francisco: Barrett-Koelher, 2013.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Art for novel #3: A sneak peak

Well, hello.

Welcome back! You, sir or madam, follow my blog or my Twitter account or my Facebook page.  Here's my way of saying thank you!  I am giving you a sneak peak of the very first drafts for the artwork that will be included in my third novel.  It's a dark mystery about a man who creates elaborate paintings while high on a drug called the white wizard...but where do his paintings go?  And why does he get the feeling that some of the bizarre dreams he's been having are actually true?  Stay tuned!  Find Frank comes out next year.  In the meantime, enjoy a preview of the art-to-come: