My Experience with a Virtual Assistant using TimeSvr

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Predicting the future with bold certainty is not for the faint of heart. It’s a hard job. A few get it right; most just get egg on their face.

Want some examples?

  • In 1948, the Chicago Daily Tribune gambled that Dewey would beat Truman in the US Presidential election and ran the presses before the final result was certain, a mistake that literally made front page news.
  • In 1936, the New York Times asserted that “A rocket will never leave the earth’s atmosphere.” Wrong.
  • Tradition attributes “There is a world market for maybe 5 computers.” to Thomas Watson of IBM in 1943. Wrong again.

Finding More Time

In a similar vein, pundits and marketing folks predicted that the personal computer would revolutionize the way we work, that we would get more done in less time, and that the work week may actually shrink to 25 or 30 hours as a result of our increased productivity.

Ha! I wish that was the case! Most people that I know are working longer and harder than ever. There just seems to be much more to do in our professional and personal lives just to keep up, not to mention trying to get ahead.

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Hey Buddy, do you have the time?

With so many activities and only a finite amount of time to devote to them, something has to give. You can either stop doing some of the activities. Or, you can somehow find more time. Since most people either really enjoy their activities (leisure) or feel compelled to keep at them (work), finding more time is the more appealing option.

But how to find more time? Unless you get into Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, time is a fixed asset. Everyone has exactly the same amount of time during the course of a week: 168 hours.

The answer: offload some of your activities to someone else, also known as delegation. But what if you don’t have anyone that reports to you? What if you don’t have an assistant to whom to delegate?

Enter: the Virtual Assistant.

Using a Virtual Assistant

With this in mind, I recently decided to try a Virtual Assistant. This is an industry that has really gained in popularity over recent years. If you’re not familiar with the term, essentially it’s like having a personal assistant that’s on call when you need him. A Virtual Assistant can pretty much do anything that doesn’t require their physcial presence.

There are varying levels of experience and skills available from Virtual Assistant companies. Some are highly skilled and can help you with such activities as keeping your financial books, updating your web page, and even drumming up new leads for your business. Other Virtual Assistants focus on doing the more mundane tasks for you like making travel arrangements and doing internet research.

Since this was my first experience with a Virtual Assistant, I decided to go with the a company that specializes in taking care of the many short duration but very distracting tasks that come up throughout the day.

After a fair amount of research on the internet (a task I would have loved to have delegated to a Virtual Assistant), I discovered a relatively new comer to the business, TimeSvr that repeatedly received great reviews from their clients. I decided to give them a try. I won’t fully restate their service offerings here; you can visit their web site for that. Sufficed to say that for 69 USD, you receive up to 8 tasks daily that require 15 to 20 each to complete.

My Trial Period with TimeSvr

I signed up with free three-day trial period with the company on Monday morning. It took just a few minutes and was relatively painless. Shortly thereafter, I received a welcome email describing the many ways I can submit tasks: the dashboard, Skype, email, and a telephone call are all available.

My First Task: A Clarification

I decided to test out the timeliness of their responses so my first request was very easy. I asked for some clarification on their services. Within an hour, I received a very polite email explaining exactly how they can help me to save time during the day. I was impressed since I know that the company is based on the other side of the world and it was night time there.

My Second Task: Location Information

For my second request, I asked my Virtual Assistant to find the closest UPS drop-off location that would accept a box of a certain size. Within 20 minutes, I received another email providing me with the location address. The email even included the name of the person that my Virtual Assistant spoke with confirming that they’d accept packages of the size I’d indicated.

My Third Request: Internet Research

The third task I asked of my Virtual Assistant was a bit more difficult. I asked him to find some possible course materials for a technical class that I may deliver to a client. I gave him a basic outline with a list of topics that I’d like to cover. I also explained some other preferences I have.

This request took much longer to complete; in fact it took nine hours to for me to receive a reply. I can’t say if the research took that long or if there may have been some kind of technical glitch in their system that prevented my Virtual Assistant from becoming aware of my new task.

I did however submit a fourth task before this one was complete and within one-half hour of delegating that task, this one was also completed.

My Forth Request: Internet Searching

My fourth request was very straightforward. I asked for a recipe for cooking pizza in a Dutch Oven. I made it easy for them by providing some potential locations for the information.

In half an hour, I received links to several recipes, along with a link to some instructions for cooking with Dutch Ovens. A nice touch, I thought.

Parting Thoughts

Overall, I was very impressed with the timeliness and quality of services that I’ve received from TimsSvr. Every person I’ve communicated with has been very professional and pleasant.

I’ve only used the Dashboard to submit tasks so I cannot comment on the other means. However the Dashboard has proven very convenient. It even has a good mobile front end page too.

70 USD isn’t cheap, but for what you get from TimeSvr, it’s worth it. The way I see it, if it saves me one hour a month the service has more than paid for itself.

As an aside, I didn’t receive any free compensation for this review. However my Virtual Assistant did have a hand it helping me to put it together. I asked him to find the pictures for me and to find me a list of predictive quotes that later proved to be false. Not bad, eh?

Oh, and one more thing. I’ve referred through this post to my Virtual Assistant. In actuality, it’s a team of people that field my requests. You can, if you prefer, actually contract with a specific individual within TimeSvr. I may consider that one day but for now this arrangement meets my needs.

Now some questions for you:

  1. Have you used a Virtual Assistant?
  2. Would you be comfortable using a Virtual Assistant for more complex tasks?
  3. What are some tasks that you’d like to outsource?

Conducting Effective Meetings

Have you ever received an appointment request for a meeting that you knew was going to be unproductive? Nothing was accomplished the last time this team met; the only thing that was decided was that we needed to meet again. What a waste of time!

Meetings are not free, even if everyone is local and there are no travel costs to consider. The loss in productivity alone can be staggering.

Personal Productivity at the Expense of Team Productivity

I used to just “grin and bear” it as the saying goes. I used to take my laptop to those meetings under the guise of “taking notes”. But what I was really doing was being productive on my own. I was sifting through email in pursuit of InboxZero. Or I remoting into a client’s server to do some “real work” while the meeting languished.

But I’ve learned that although I was being productive as an individual, I was contributing to the ineffectiveness of the team. My mental absence was hindering the team as a whole. My personal productivity was at the expense of the productivity of the team. In essence I was part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I’ve written about some of those experiences and my short-sightedness in a prior post entitled “Closing Your Laptop in Meetings“. If you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to do so and then take the challenge.

Conducting Effective Meetings

Something had to give. I didn’t want to spend scores of hours each year sitting in meetings that even most of the attendees would say was worthless. So, I did a lot of research and experimenting, looking for ways to make the meetings I conduct and the meetings I attend more effective.

I finally found a few critical points that have helped me immensely in making my meetings more productive. I’ll be the first to admit that these are not rocket science; they are common sense approaches that just seem to work.

I’ve wrapped this into a presentation that I’ve delivered to clients with very good feedback. And now I’m delivering this session in a Microsoft TechNet Thrive! webcast next week. Here’s the information:

Language(s): English
Product(s): Other
Audience(s): IT Generalist
Duration: 60 Minutes
Start Date:Tuesday, February 02, 2010 9:00 AM Pacific Time (US & Canada)
To Register: Click here

I hope you’ll join me for this session.

Now, your turn. What techniques have you found for making meetings more effective?

Goals and Theme Word for 2010

I was warned by my father when I turned 21 that, although it seemed like it took a long to reach 21, three blinks from now I’d be 40. Boy was he right! The older I get, the faster time seems to pass by.

We’re two-thirds of the way through January 2010 already and I’m just now getting to my first blog post of the year. Weeks ago, I was tagged by my friend, Tim Ford (twitter, blog), for a meme about my Goals and Theme Word for 2010. A good and timely reminder to set aside some time to think about what I’d like to accomplish in the coming twelve months, and to share that with the world. What better way to hold yourself accountable than to share it with, well, everyone?

Time got away from me and I hadn’t posted anything. That’s when another good friend, Kevin Kline (twitter, blog), gently reminded me in his goals posting that I hadn’t shared mine.

The Value of Setting Goals

As you can probably imagine, the life I’ve chosen keeps me pretty busy. Running my own consulting business, living on a hobby farm with animals and a garden, raising four wonderful kids with my wife of twelve years, and volunteering for church and Boy Scout activities requires me to prioritize. I need to make sure that what I’m doing is important. That’s not to say that it’s all work and no play for me. No, leisure time with my family is important to me. So I make sure that I take the time to have fun.

This begs the question: how do you know what is important? We can go through life putting out the fires that pop up along the way, reacting to the pressing need of the moment. But that’s very reactionary. It’s not planned. And it doesn’t allow you to make sure you’re generally moving in the right direction because your vision is limited to one fire at a time.

To ensure that your overall direction is right, to know whether each of the fires puts before you will take you a step further in the direction you want to go, you must first define that direction. This is where goals come in.

Goals are set when there isn’t a fire immediately in front of us, when we have the time to think about what we want rather than what the pressing issue of the moment is asking of us. Goals give us a vision of the desired future. And with that vision in mind, we can evaluate each opportunity as it’s presented to us and compare it to that future-state that we’ve already defined. If the opportunity moves us a step closer to that future-state, we can embrace the opportunity, if it doesn’t we can take that into consideration as we evaluate what to do about it.

My Goals for 2010

I subscribe to the SMART goals theory. Each goal should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Essentially it boils down to “who does what by when” and in this case you are the “who”. This keeps us from creating fuzzy or indeterminate goals like “I’m going to blog more.” There is plenty of information online about SMART goals, just use your favorite search engine to find a plethora of information on the subject.

For the purposes of setting goals, I like to keep two broad categories in mind: the goals that pertain to my business and career and those that involve my home life.

My Professional Goals
Over the next twelve months (ok, 11.3 months), I’d like to accomplish the following things:

  • Write a business plan for a new venture I’m considering. For several years now, I had an idea for a new and complementary business but I haven’t acted on it. This year, I will. The business plan itself is not really what I’m after, it’s the process of writing it that’s important – doing the research to see if it’s a worthwhile proposition.
  • Post a minimum of 72 blogs to my professional blog site. That’s an average of 1.5 blog postings per week. Of course I’m already behind in this area so I’ll need to do some catch up here. As with my first goal, this goal is really serves as a proxy for two other goals that are more difficult to measure. First I’d like to get better and faster at writing and one approach to that is to do it more often. Secondly I’d like to increase the number of people I help through this blog and studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between blogging frequency and readers.
  • Schedule and have a Weekly Review at least 40 times this year. I’ve been using a customized version of David Allen’s Getting Things Done for years now, but I haven’t quite mastered one of the more powerful aspects of it, the Weekly Review. This year will be different.

My Personal Goals
Before the end of this year, I will:

  • Double the amount of pasture that I have fenced. About one-third of our pasture has perimeter fencing and that’s just not enough for the heard of animals that we have and will have by late spring. I need to give them access to more grass.
  • Read at least 5 books on preparedness, survival skills, or sustainability on the farm. This equals what I did last year and my knowledge on the subjects have greatly increased but I still have a long way to go.
  • Paint three rooms in our house. There’s not much more to say about this one.
  • Resolve an ongoing plumbing issue. There’s not much more you want me to say about this one; trust me.

And there you have it, my goals for this year. Of course I’ll continue to do the other things in my life like teach a Sunday School Class at my Church, volunteer as an Assistance Scout Master in the Boy Scouts, and strive to spend more time with my kids. But these are the new goals for the coming year.

I was close to setting a personal goal of going to Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico this year, but I’m not quite ready to commit to that yet. I’ll go one day, I’m just not positive that this year will work out for me.

There’s nothing really impressive or necessarily inspiring with them, but getting them jotted down so that I can refer to them throughout the year and reflect on how I did at the end of the year will is good. Thanks Tim for tagging me on this one.

Since I was so very late in getting these out, this meme has pretty well run its course so I’m not going to tag anyone for follow up. But if you’d like to share your goals for this year, I’d love to hear about them. Post a link in the comments section below, or jot them down directly in a comment.

What’s Your Biggest Weakness?

Freeze tag taken to an extreme

If you’ve followed many SQL Server blogs over the past few years, you’ve undoubtedly noticed a trend of “tagging” other bloggers. It usually starts with one person asking and answering a simple question. Typically, the question isn’t technical; it’s more of a “human interest” story. For example “How did you get your start in IT?” or “The best thing I learned at a PASS Summit” Something like that.

The person that starts it the question “tags” three other bloggers to answer the same question. The tagged bloggers answer the question in a post to their blog site and then tag three more. It continues from there, growing virally. It’s these kinds of blogs that tend to make the community more personable, more real.

The online version of freeze tag

Over the years, I’ve been tagged a number of times by friends and colleagues. I try to respond and keep the thread going but I must admit that I’ve probably missed as many as I’ve made. Usually that’s not intentional; I just run out of time. By the time I get around to responding, the question and answer craze has run its course.

I’ll confess, however, that occasionally I do skip questions that I don’t find entertaining or worthwhile. I almost did that with this question. Jeremiah Peschka (blog, twitter) tagged me with a question that David Stein started.

Why on earth would I want to share with potential clients, and everyone else for that matter, what I consider to be my biggest weakness? And not only to share it once, but to have it recorded for posterity. I don’t want to do that! Or rather, I didn’t want to do that.

Considering it from every angle

Then I began pondering the question. What would I say if I were to answer it? Would I answer it with the standard interview response to that question? Or delve deeper into some true self-analysis? What are the implications of each?

How high is your bar?

That’s when it really hit me. I was spinning my wheels looking for the perfect answer, one that was a good from every angle, one that was funny yet insightful, sincere yet not too revealing.

Have you figured it out yet, my biggest weakness?

I’m a perfectionist. I like and strive for perfection in everything I do. I set I very high bar for myself and expect not only to meet it but to exceed it. If I don’t live up to that expectation, I feel that I’ve fallen short somehow. I’m very competitive, but mostly with myself. I know I can bat 1.000 in softball. There’s no reason why I cannot get a turkey every time I bowl (even though that’s only once every five years).

Is that really a weakness, though? It can be. If you are never satisfied with your performance that can lead to a very unhealthy perspective on life.

It can also lead to “paralysis by analysis“, the phenomena where a decision cannot be reached because there is always more information to be sifted through or considered.

Fortunately, I’m not naturally affected by either of those by-products of perfectionism.  I tend to have a pretty healthy and balanced view of life, I think. And I’m much more of an action person than one who tends to over analyze.

Always room for improvement

Where perfectionism rears its ugly head in my day to day life is that there is always room for improvement, at least in my mind.

Let me give you a real example. I’ve written several books and authored articles for magazines and other publications. When I first started writing, I spent a consider amount of time writing, rewriting, revising, and fine-tuning each and every paragraph of each of each and every page of the article or chapter. Was the final product better than the first draft? Yeah, probably so. But was it really noticeably better, especially considering the extra effort required? Probably not. At least not to anyone except me. That was not a good use of my time.

Dealing with perfectionism in an imperfect world

Over the years, I’ve recognized my tendencies toward perfectionism and have slowly discovered habits that help to turn that tendency into a positive attribute.

Setting realistic goals
As many others have stated in various ways, it’s important to begin with the end in mind. That is, know where you are starting from and where you intend to go. The former is not a problem for the perfectionist; we can easily identify our starting point. But the latter can be an issue. If your expectations are not realistic or are needlessly over ambitious, that can be a problem. It can be counter productive to set goals that are too far fetched. We’ll either spend too much time trying to achieve the unachievable or get frustrated trying.

Moving the ball down the field
A corollary to “Setting realistic goals” is to keep in mind that often times it’s best to set incremental goals along the way. Sure we all want to achieve great results, but sometimes, getting from A to Z in one leap is too much to ask. It’s better to take two or three steps in the right direction and then once that’s done, set new goals to go a little further. Eventually we’ll get to our destination.

Time boxing

When I set out to accomplish an activity or task, I employ “time boxing”. Time boxing is the technique where you allot yourself a reasonable, yet finite, amount of time to work on the given task. During the allotted time you work as diligently as you can and do the best job you can to accomplish the task. At the end of the the scheduled time, you’re done. Period. No more. Then you move on to the next activity.

Continuing with the writing example, I may give myself a total of eight hours to write an article. I may break this up in to four 2-hour blocks. At the end of the fourth 2-hour session, it’s done. Time to turn it in.

Are there exceptions? Sure. But at least they are conscious choices rather than a continual slide toward never finishing the article.

Setting priorities
Implicit in all of this is the concept of setting priorities. We must take a balanced approach and consider what is not getting done because we are spending what may be considered an excessive amount of time on one particular task or project. It’s good to weigh priorities at the task level (what I’m working on right now) as well as at the overall project level (what projects am I engaged in currently) and even the meta-project level (all of the projects I’ve worked on compared to the direction I want to go).

No excuses!

Now, to be clear. I’m not advocating putting in a sub-par effort or recommending a “well it’s good enough” attitude. That’s a completely different issue. What I am recommending is that you keep in mind the Law of Diminishing Returns when it comes to your work.

Your turn

I was a bit late getting my answer to this post out (not because I kept rewriting it, though) so I’m not going to tag anyone else as a follow on. But I’d encourage you to give this question some thought. If you decide to blog about it, leave me a link to it in the comments section below.

And if you have some thoughts on how to better manage your time, I’d love to hear that too.

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