Freelancing

25+ ways I automate my workflow, or how I am trying to become a cyborg

Calista Bruchi, an editor I met at IPEdCon2013 (who has her own blog here) had these kind words to say about a guest post I wrote for Katy McDevitt’s PublishEd Adelaide.

I have just read your guest post on PublishED Adelaide and have to tell you I really enjoyed it. I’m sure I read it with your voice and your enthusiasm in my head as I was going along, and it was a really lovely insight into who you are. I was particularly interested in how you try to ‘automate’ as much as you can and I’d love to know more about how you do this – I have no doubt that it would be incredibly helpful!

Thanks Calista!

I took this as an order to hold forth on automating/hacking things. Sometimes I say “automate”, sometimes I say “hack” – basically it’s any trick I use from a thought process, to a tool or something to do with software that makes my working life easier to handle and/or speeds up things without sacrificing quality or gives me more time and more energy. I talked about this a bit during the freelancing workshop at the conference and touched on it in the guest post.

Some of them are extremely simple and obvious – some aren’t.

There are two caveats that I have to make before I start:
1) As I have to wear three hats in my working life – writer, journalist and editor – feel free to use what will work for you in your process. Calista is an editor – she’s only going to use what will work for her.

2) The hacks or tricks that WILL work for you are the ones that go along with your habits and thinking. If something suggested here doesn’t work for you, then take the principle and go find the way of making it happen that does work for you because chances are it might not be the actual trick that is no good but just that my method of doing it won’t work for you and yours won’t work for me.

 

Forex Money For Exchange in Currency Bank by epSos.de via Flickr

Finance 

1) I only get billed for two things: power and my phone. That doesn’t mean I don’t have expenses – I do but those I can pay for as I go. My phone bill comes to my email as a PDF. You can ask for this to be done by calling all the companies up. I have yet to do this with my power bill (matter of fact, I might do it tomorrow). I no longer have to keep a file folder for all my bills which is a HUGE thing for me. Instead I download it and put it in a folder on my desktop and I can burn it off on to a CD at the end of the financial year with all my other records.

2) I have a smartphone so I have downloaded an app on to it that lets me check into my bank account. This allows me to pay bills and check my balances without needing to find a computer. All I need is a wi-fi connection in a cafe somewhere. Anywhere in the world. Your bank’s website should tell you if they have an app that you can download.

3) I struggled with the best way to keep hold of all my receipts for tax time and deductions (Society of Editors WA’s next meeting in June is about tax so rock up if you are in Perth). Finally, I went and got a packet of envelopes from Kikki K. I pinned one up on a bulletin board near my desk by the flap so it hung open. I drop my receipts in there, they don’t fall out, nothing falls in or gets tipped over and I can shake them out and write up the details on the top of the envelope in the nice little table that is printed on them and pin it up again till tax time. Most of the time I just drop them in and wait till I am sufficiently bored to write the details down on the front. Boxes were no good for me because clearly I couldn’t be bothered to flip open the lid and I couldn’t leave them open to the air. The envelope works – it only takes seconds. And it doesn’t drag me into useless busywork as it would if I scanned them all as they came in (this way I can scan them all at tax time before I burn everything onto a CD).

4) I use E-tax which is a program created by the Australian Tax Office to lodge my tax each year. It’s free, you download the updated version each year and just put your details in. Then once you have filled everything out, you submit it and you are done. Unless there is stuff about depreciation at which point, you cry for help and go to an accountant which I recommend doing if you do want to put down anything related to depreciation.

5) Set up direct deposit for bills and regular expenses such as the MEAA membership fee so that they are paid regularly. Set up the same thing for regular transfers to a superannuation account, for savings and if you  are saving to pay tax, then for that as well. Anything you can feel you can regulate without panicking that you will have nothing in the bank in between, do so.

6) Consolidate your superannuation. You only need to do this once and you never need to feel pressured whatever work you take on to adopt your employer’s preferred fund. You can ask them to pay it into your chosen account and this way you only have one fund membership number to remember.

Caveat 1: When you do consolidate into one fund, make sure you take a look at what kind of investment options you have and pick and choose what will work for you or what mix you feel comfy with. I have 50% in high growth investments, 50% in stable ones but that is what I’m personally comfortable with.

Caveat 2: If you are outside Australia, the rules for pension/superannuation may and probably will work differently so call up your government department for tax and finance. Here is the UK’s Treasury’s advice on how pensions and funds and associated fees works: http://t.co/vKEuZUfD60 and my thanks to Anthony Haynes for pointing this out. If anyone wants to send me a link to the US version, please do and I will put it up.

CD Spindle by EyeBee via Flickr

Backup, storage and other such things

1) I have two online storage methods. There is Google Drive which is somewhat automated and there is Dropbox. I tend to lean towards Dropbox since I have used it for the conference organising and now the Society uses it for committee business. It is password protected and what it means that I have a copy of every important document on my computer in a folder in the cloud.

So if you were wondering how it is that I can work from anywhere – well, provided I can get assignments that I can do from where I am, my documents to help me do it are all accessible if there is an internet connection. And there is a Dropbox app on my smartphone so again, the computer is preferable but if I don’t have it we are not doomed.

And this has happened before where I have been in a meeting and someone has said “I would like to see what we said about this in the minutes three months ago.” and I can say “Hold on.”, pull out the phone, and find it on Dropbox immediately.

I do this for university assignments as well when I cannot remember specifics of what I was supposed to do for example and I am out and about.

2) Templates are key. Word templates wise – I have one for invoices, one for science articles, one for general documentation, one for contracts, one for quotes, one for manuscript assessments and one for cover letters. I also use InDesign if asked to apply for a position and so I have an InDesign template for that and one for my CV. It speeds up my work a great deal to have these especially when I don’t have to waste time trying to remember my ABN for my invoice for example. Over the years the design has changed but that’s just a question of saving it as a new template file. I also save all my files as PDFs (you can do this from Word but you may need a plugin depending on which version of Word you use) unless they are articles or work for editing.

3) I mentioned before that I backup onto CD/DVD. All the business related stuff goes into a folder and gets put onto a CD at the end of the financial year. Sometimes personal files in a separate folder gets backed up too in case I need space.  All my photography gets uploaded, then the ones that get edited are chosen and are edited from copies of the original files and then final versions, copies and originals, both RAW and JPG format are burned onto DVD at some point, labelled and put into a box. If you are really keen to know the box is labelled Photographs. I don’t use hard drives to back up photos – the one I do have is chock a block full with music, movies and my Honours thesis and data. It’s called Clothis – the hard drive not the data.

Tangent: I suppose if I wanted to I could call my Dropbox account Lacheis. My phone is called Hermes, my music folder is Terpischore and whatever USB memory/flash drive I am using is generally called Mnemosyne. My hard drive on the computer is called The Library.

 

Diary and Moleskine Hack by Traveliter via Flickr

Scheduling and all that CRM nonsense

1) I work out of Gmail. Which means again, accessibility wherever I go so long as I have the internet. Gmail also is my contact book – or at least my basic core of it. It syncs with my smartphone so if I add someone’s number to my phone, it will show up in my Gmail contacts. I can also send Gmail from my phone though these are often very short messages so if it’s an email that needs a quick “Yes” or “No” then I can do that on my phone if need be.

There are also other quick tips and tricks. I get about 3000 new emails each day but I have filters set up and so the email gets funnelled into folders and into the trash/spam. So anything from particular addresses goes into the Society folder, anything from my editor at SNWA, into the SNWA folder and so on. I tend to set up folders for people/clients under other bigger folders like “Employment”, “Social Media” “Blogs I will read at some point” “Freelancing” “Volunteering” “Mother Alert” and so on. Well, save for the “Mother Alert” one – that goes into the “Family” one. I also get news updates sent to me and that goes straight into “News”. All very straightforward and because the folders are formatted in bold type if there is new email and there are numbers  after the titles indicating how many are new, I only have to look at the folder/label list to see what’s new. “Social Media” tends to get deleted straight away because it’s email notifications of what has been said or done on Twitter or Facebook and I check those anyway.

2) I use Google Calendar and it syncs with the smartphone and with an app called Any.Do which I recommend you try because it is the easiest thing to use with ensuring that I get stuff done. it allows me to set times for the tasks, it will automatically set up a missed call as a task and it will ask me to delete a task, reschedule it or mark it as done. So if I put deadlines into the Calendar, my phone will remind me. And it lets me list out my tasks before deciding when they should happen which is pretty much the way my brain works. It also doesn’t give me a problem when I need to accept other people’s invites to meetings and things.

3) I think I should mention here that Billings for Mac maybe worth trying out if you have a Mac OS – it will integrate with Gmail and do all your scheduling and invoicing and CRM for you.

 

Social media & website madness

1) Tweetdeck is awesome. I have it as both a extension in Chrome (though it is mostly disabled until I need it) and as a program on the desktop.

The reason it is awesome is because I can tweet from @mwikramanayake and @editorswa at the same time without signing in and out and I can send stuff to Facebook if need be. But I can also have everything set up in columns so I can keep an eye on interesting conversations via hashtags, while looking at my replies and retweets and follows and watching what people I follow are saying.

2) Every blog post is scheduled. So if you something get posted at 10 am on a particular day – it’s not me. It’s the code in WordPress creating a page on my server at 10 am and sending the link through to Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn automatically. Then another little gimmick/app on Facebook called Networked Blogs posts it to my Facebook Page a little while later. When this happens, my Facebook Page sends it straight through to Twitter again because anything posted on my Facebook Page goes through to Twitter automatically.

I keep telling people this but they don’t seem to believe me so here’s the proof:

automate03That box sits to the right of the box I type each post in. That’s how the magic happens. Upgrade to the latest version of WordPress, add Jetpack as a plugin and you will be able to do that too.

3) I have a WordPress app on my phone. Now this makes sense to me because I do all the technical stuff for Guys Read Gals and I have access to the Australian Women Writers blog as well to post my editorial thoughts on all things non-fiction. And then there is the occasional tweaking to do for the Society’s site and if I want to post something quickly to this one I can. Two days ago I used to it to delete a post that was no longer required on the Society’s site. It was done in a matter of minutes and then that was one more thing off the to do list.

Habits, thoughts and other such little but big minutiae

1) The “Urgent? Text me.” rule. What this means is that I don’t respond to anything urgently unless you call or text me. In other words, if you email me saying it is urgent and I don’t see it till the day after, then tough. My work number is online and in my email signature and basically everywhere. Text me or call me.

Most people don’t want to disrupt your day with a call but a text is fine. I check email once/twice a day unless I am expecting something or doing something like interviewing that requires me to look at it all the time.

2) The “What is my priority right now?” rule. Right now, at the time of writing, I can tell you that it will be university related work and paid work. In two weeks I can tell you that this will change to paid work, books and packing up my house.

But I need to know because then I know if I have time, energy or motivation to do anything else especially anything else that is voluntary. And because you can have yearly goals but projects never last just a year – they are either less or more than a year long. The conference took two and half years, Masters has taken three and a half though the thesis took one year and the current WIP is seven years and counting. It takes how long it takes. But there are gaps. So when semesters are over, I can swap back to another project like the book. Or focus more on something else.

3) The “Keyboard shortcuts” rule. As in if you use a program online or offline, know the shortcuts. There are short cuts for Gmail, for Chrome (the browser) and for most programs you have on your computer and for many of them you can set your own keyboard shortcuts.

4) The “Check what’s under the hood” rule. This came up at the last Society of Editors (WA) meeting in conversation with one of the editors afterwards. You wouldn’t buy a car without getting it checked out and you wouldn’t buy a house without getting it inspected. In the same way, when you have a program, go into the preferences/options section and see what you can tweak or change. My version of Word can save documents as PDFs, it can import new fonts and it can be set to save documents automatically at an interval of your choosing. Did you know MS Word could do that?

If I know what a program can do, then I can be more efficient at using it and more importantly I can figure out whether I need it at all before I buy it or download it. Go read reviews and articles online before you get a new program or a new version of one and ask around. And if by chance you spend your money on a program that doesn’t run on your OS then I am sorry but that is the most idiotic thing you could have avoided doing by being the least bit interested in what you have and how to make it work for you.

5) The “Fear is a lousy sharehouse flatmate” rule. In other words, you ignore fear until it’s doing the only thing it’s good for – warning you of impending doom. Like the lousy sharehouse flatmate you ignore until they let you know that they may have accidentally set the house on fire. This rule takes practice. Lots of practice.

6) The “Toss everything you don’t need” rule. After all this blathering, am I dis-organised? Yes I am. Because I may have created a system but I have done it over years and the detritus of those years still needs to be sorted through and tossed and that is the next stage. So all of that has to go.

7) The “Most important stuff front and center” rule. I am going to show you a screenshot. It may look strange. My taskbar is at the top of the screen.
automate01
Why? Because your eyes automatically (unless you were raised reading Japanese or Arabic) go to the upper left hand corner where you can start to read something from. It makes sense for my task bar to be where I am naturally going to see it especially because…

… it has those icons on it. In Windows 7 (it worked a bit differently in previous versions of Windows), you can pin shortcuts for programs to the taskbar but also files and folders. So from left to right is the calculator, MS Word (with all the shortcuts for the important templates & then the latest documents I have opened in the drop down box – right click with the mouse), the Sound Recorder, Google Calendar, Skype, Google Chrome (if they look different it’s because I give them my own icon images), iTunes, Folders, Excel, Access, yWriter 5 (used for books), Photoshop, Kindle, and InDesign.

I don’t have these as shortcuts on the desktop – having them on the taskbar means I don’t need to do that. What I have on the desktop are all the documents I will be using for the next few weeks and eventually they get dumped into a folder called the Inbox and then I sort them out into the relevant folders in the Business or Personal folders. Anything I don’t need to use right now gets saved into the relevant folder straight away.
automate02The second screenshot shows my browser home page. It’s very boring. But it has the required shortcuts on it and that’s the important part. Chrome also recognises frequently visited sites and will suggest options from the moment you type one or two letters into the address box. Hitting two keys, “M” and “Enter”, takes me straight to my Gmail inbox for example (“M” for “mail.google.com”).

Mobility

1) My internet connection is a USB flash drive modem thing. When it isn’t that, it’s a wi-fi connection in a cafe somewhere. When it isn’t either of those things, I can get on to the mobile network on my phone and use my phone as a portable secure wi-fi hotspot and get my laptop online.

2) One laptop connects to wi-fi and doubles as a desktop at home if it hasn’t been shoved in a bag and propped up against something on the table in a cafe. The other can go anywhere as well but is completely offline because I use it to write my books. The smartphone can store documents and can be either offline or online.

And that’s about it for me as far as the tweaks/automating/tricks/hacks I use to make my working life easier. I will keep updating this post as I remember more.

If you try them, let me know in the comments.

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

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