Imagine you are on a roll, engrossed in a project, in the “flow.” All of a sudden, the phone rings, an e-mail alarm goes off, a colleague is standing in your doorway, a fax is coming over the machine, etc. Ah, interruptions. If you didn’t define all of those as an interruption, think again.

Experts estimate that the average American is interrupted 73 times per day. Some people find this number to be high, others find it extremely low. It depends on what your definition of an interruption is. My definition is anything that you didn’t want to, or expect to, happen at that time. I equate an interruption to a weed in my garden – if it doesn’t belong there, or if I don’t want it there,  it is a weed. Same with an interruption.

So how do you avoid getting sidetracked? Own your interruptions if you can. It is not always easy, and it depends on what your job is, and who is interrupting you, but try it!

Own your interruptions. Start to think of an interruption as an offer, and your decision as to whether you will take the interruption as a counter-offer. It is okay to say “Thanks for your call/visit. I do want to speak with you, but now is not a good time. Can we talk/meet at 2:00 p.m. instead?” There. You just counter-offered. See if it works. It is certainly worth a try.

Grade your interruptions. Let’s face it – some interruptions are more important than others. You probably need to take interruptions from certain people, like your boss, a sick child, etc. But not everyone. So be selective and if an interruption comes in that does not make the grade, don’t take it!

Create do-not-disturb time. Screen calls, or set up times of the day when you answer and return calls and let that be known to friends, family and work colleagues. Utilize a “do not disturb” sign at the office when working on a tight deadline, close your office door, set “office hours” for visitors and colleagues, or go work in a conference room, library or coffee shop where you can hide. When I was practicing law, I often escaped to another location when writing an important court brief, or closed my door and left a sign-up sheet for people that stopped by that explained that I was on deadline and when I would surface for air.

Use a post-it note wisely. Before you take an interruption, write down the very next action you were planning to take, how long you thought it would take, and whether you can delegate it to someone else. Often, the interruption itself is not as bad as playing catch-up after it. Taking the time to write down where you are and what you need to get back to can help you save precious time.

Plan for interruptions. If you work in an interruption-rich culture, you can only plan out 50% of your time to allow for 50% interruptions. For example, if your job is to put out “fires” all day, you can’t avoid interruptions as they are exactly what you should be handling. An example of this would be a sales manager in a car dealership whose job is to support the sales team on the floor, and to control and manage issues as they arise. This individual will be less able to avoid interruptions and should plan for them in his or her schedule, by blocking out time before or after “floor” time to get his or her project-related work done.

Stop the interrupter. It is worth noting that supposedly 80% of our interruptions come from 20% of the people we come into contact with. Try to identify the frequent interrupters and start coming up with ways to cut them off before they occur. If you know someone always calls you to confirm a meeting, send a quick text/e-mail to let him or her know you are still on as scheduled. Or better yet, explain that it is your policy not to miss meetings and you do not need a reminder (you have your Blackberry for that!), and that you will call in the rare event you need to cancel. Start taking control of the interruptions before they occur and stopping them at their source. Then, you won’t need to “own” as many interruptions in the first place.

Now, go forth and”own” those interruptions so you can get some work done!

For most people these days, keeping up with the daily onslaught of email is a major challenge.  In fact, experts estimate that e-mail has added an extra 1.23 hours to the average person’s workday (E-Writing: 21st Century Tools for Effective Communication by Diana Booher; Managing Your E-Mail by Christina Cavanagh).  If you multiply 1.23 hours by 5 days for 52 weeks, the average person is spending 320 hours per year of extra time handling e-mail.  Wow! That is a lot of time spent on email. And experts estimate that the time lost to email has caused workers to shave time elsewhere, causing a productivity crunch.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the average U.S. worker spends up to four hours a day sending and receiving e-mail. Of that four hours, it is estimated that one hour each day is spent on the 36 percent of e-mail messages that are either irrelevant, or relevant but do not require a response.

So how do your survive the daily email attack? The following tips will help you manage the flow of email:

  • Turn off e-mail alarms and prompts through your e-mail preferences tool. Many people have alarms and prompts set to go off every few minutes upon the arrival of e-mail in their inbox.  These continual interruptions make people respond like Pavlov’s dogs every time they hear the “you’ve got mail” chime. Turning off the chime will keep you from interrupting what you were doing to read e-mail in the midst of other projects.
  • Plan for the reading and response of e-mail in your daily schedule. Create a proactive method of managing e-mail by setting up time in your day dedicated to e-mail.  Do not check e-mail the first thing in the morning, or you risk becoming reactive.  Instead, spend the first hour working on the most important project or planning your day out.
  • Estimate the amount of time you are spending on e-mail now, and cut that time in half. Deadlines usually make most people more efficient.  You may want to spend half of your allocated email time in the morning, and the other half after lunch or before you finish working for the day.  The time constraint forces you to prioritize.  The e-mails that do not get answered are probably not that important and, thus, deleted, or archived in file folders for future use.
  • Create e-mail folders, and direct the flow of e-mail. Create folders in your e-mail system that mirror your paper filing system to reinforce storage and retrieval of important information.  In addition, create the folders to reflects your active projects and change your e-mail settings to direct e-mail that contains project-related language to those folders within your inbox. Added bonus: many e-mail systems impose limits on inbox size, but not in a folder.
  • Use computer storage folders. For e-mails that need to be kept for a longer period of time, create an electronic filing cabinet, with electronic folders for category names that match the physical files.  Use Word or any system your company utilizes and backs up often.
  • Save the most recent only. Delete the earlier string of emails and just keep the most current one to avoid saving redundant emails.
  • Just save the attachment. If e-mail has an attachment and that is all you need, only save the attachment.
  • Control the flow of the e-mail exchange. People often feel they must respond to email instantly. Take time to consider your response and slow the flow of email when an immediate response if unnecessary.
  • Refrain from sending irrelevant e-mail. Be careful not to send e-mail just because it’s quick and convenient.  The same rules apply to e-mail as regular correspondence – if it doesn’t have to be said, don’t say it.
  • Create templates. If you frequently send the same types of emails, create templates that you can use over and over (changing only the specifics each time).
  • Create an e-mail ritual. Every Friday before you leave the office, be ruthless about deleting e-mails no longer needed, saving those you need for a week or longer to personal folders, saving those you need longer to Word, and reviewing those in the personal folders to delete any no longer necessary.  Make this a weekly habit and your e-mail will be a lot more manageable. You can also do the same thing at the end of every day if you so choose.

Many people are familiar with the above tips, but few actually implement them, leaving them to be reactive instead of proactive.  Organizing your e-mail, like any other organizing behavior, allows you to be more productive and better utilize your time and energy.  So stop the madness, and do what it takes to take control of your email. Remember, e-mail is supposed to be an electronic communications tool to assist you, not drive you crazy.

Good luck!

I just found out that I will be presenting at the 2010 National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) Conference to be held in Columbus, OH. My presentation is titled, “Don’t Go It Alone: It Takes a Village to Run a Successful Organizing Business.” It will focus on delegating, outsourcing, developing strategic partnerships, engaging in coopetition, etc. I had the pleasure of presenting to peer professional organizers at the 2008 NAPO Conference in Reno, NV, and am thrilled to be chosen to present again next year. Giving back to the professional association and industry that I belong to is an honor.

And in honor of next year’s presentation, below is the article of the same name that prompted the idea to submit the presentation in the first place. I hope it gives you some great ideas for your own business, regardless of the type of business you run.

Meet Your Board of Advisors

“Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much.” ~ Helen Keller

Imagine a group of people that are available to bounce business ideas off of, to help you make pivotal business decisions, and to serve as a sounding board.  Major corporations have a Board of Directors.  Non-profits have a Board of Trustees.  Why can’t the solopreneur or small business owner too?  You can!  How?  By developing a Board of Advisors for your business.  You’ve heard of Mastermind groups, through which like-minded peers share ideas and support each other’s business endeavors?  A Board of Advisors is similar, but usually consists of individuals from outside your industry, even clients.

Striking the Right Balance

I am a Certified Professional Organizer, Business & Life Coach and Motivational Speaker.  I’ve been in business for seven years, am structured as a Limited Liability Company, and consider myself a solopreneur, in that I have no employees working for me.  My Board of Advisors consists of an individual with a marketing background, an individual with a publishing background, two other successful professional organizers with a very different business model and focus than mine, two long-time clients, and my very supportive, objective husband.  A good number to strive for is 5-8 members.  Be careful not to include anyone on your Board of Advisors that pushes your buttons, saps your energy, or is competitive.  In addition, try not to surround yourself only with “yes” men and women who nod approvingly at everything you do, and never challenge you or hold you accountable.  You want members that challenge you to stretch your entrepreneurial muscles.

Do not confuse your Board of Advisors with your official team of advisors.  Your team of advisors is usually made up of people that you retain to assist you with certain aspects of your business operations, such as a lawyer, accountant, graphic designer, webmaster, etc.  These are paid professionals that you hire to provide services to your company, as opposed to an individual that is voluntarily providing assistance to you and your business.  Yet another category of people that may provide assistance to your business are what I call power partners.  These are vendors that you refer your clients to, or that you partner with on a project basis.  Again, these partners are extremely valuable to a small business, but do not serve as a Board of Advisors.

What Does a Board of Advisors Do?

What can your Board of Advisors help you with?  Everything and anything.  A Board of Advisors can push you when you need a nudge, lift you up when you lose focus or faith, and help to keep you on track.  Mine assisted me with the re-branding of my company last year, including the design of a new logo, business card, brochure, and website.  Yes, I used a graphic designer and web designer to actually create the promotional materials, but it was my Board of Advisors that helped me to capture the overall vision and message I wanted to achieve.  A Board of Advisors can act as a sounding board for the future launch of programs.  When I was developing my signature approach to organizing, DECIDE®, my Board of Advisors provided invaluable feedback.   

You can also use your Board for market research.  These days, we have a plethora of resources available online, including social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, survey tools such as Survey Monkey, as well as forums provided by professional associations (for example, as a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers, I have access to the NAPO Chat, which is an invaluable resource).  All of these are fantastic resources, and serve a relevant purpose to a small business.  But, there is something magical about a consistent group of people that can go deep with you, gets to know your business intimately, and is vested in some way in your success.     

What Are The Rules That Govern a Board of Advisors?

When I recommend to a small business client that he or she create a Board of Advisors, invariably the client will ask me what the rules are that govern this type of relationship.  It is entirely up to you and your Board of Advisors.  Communication is key, so think about how you will communicate with your Board members.  Do you hold in-person Board meetings, or communicate virtually? Should you develop a special online membership forum or website to communicate?  I communicate with members of my Board of Advisors in numerous ways — by email, telephone and in person, as some are local.  I have never convened a full Board meeting, although that may be in my future plans.

What are the benefits to your Board members?  Some just want to be a part of a growing, successful business.  Others may want tangible benefits, such as the ability to take your workshops for free, or buy products at a discount.  Ask what they want in return.  Find a way to acknowledge or reward the members of your Board of Advisors to let them know they are an asset to your business. 

On the flip side, if you are asked to serve on a Board of Advisors, take the request seriously.  I recently had to turn down an invitation because I knew I could not actively participate at that time.  I appreciated the offer and confidence in my feedback, but passed it onto someone else that was a better match. 

Take your time putting together a great complementary Board of Advisors and experience the positive affect it will have on your business.  Now, go forth and create your village!

Continuing with my series of business articles in honor of my presentation to entrepreneurs at the IRIS Conference in Denver, below is the second article. It is all about creating an Operations Manual, an idea I will be sharing with the attendees of my workshops this afternoon. I hope it prompts you to blueprint your business soon!

Can Your Business Run Without You?
 
What would happen to your business if you became ill for an extended period of time?  Could someone else man the shop for you easily?  Would you be more relaxed on vacation (or at the very least, take a vacation!) if you knew that the business could be better taken care of while you are away?  Have you ever thought about hiring an employee or assistant, but are overwhelmed with the thought of training someone in all of your business systems and processes?  Are you holding onto too many tasks that you know you could be delegating, but don’t have the infrastructure in place to effectively delegate without taking up too much of your precious time as the business owner?  If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you are in need of a business blueprint!  It’s time to create an Operations Manual.
 
What is an Operations Manual and Why Do I Need One For My Business?
 
Before you started your business and in the early stages, you probably did a lot of planning.  Most likely, you were told to draft a business plan, and you may have even done so.  Unfortunately, most small business owners rarely look at their business plan after creating it, thereby rendering it meaningless on a daily basis.  A business plan is a static document, as opposed to a living and breathing one that serves as a guide to your business systems and processes.  Developing systems and taking the extra step to document them is vital to a business running smoothly and automatically.  Unfortunately, most businesses are lacking in this area.  Business owners get caught up in the daily activities of running the business, and do not take the time to document or blueprint the systems in place.  In the E-Myth Revisited, author Michael Gerber sets forth the idea that all businesses need to be “franchised” in the sense that they can run automatically, deliver a consistent experience to customers, and can be maintained, at least to some extent, without the owner’s hands-on involvement.  While you may not literally be franchising your business, Gerber’s concept broadly translates into developing an Operations Manual for your business.
 
What Are the Advantages of an Operations Manual?

 
An Operations Manual makes it easier to delegate and run your business.  However, even if you have no employees, independent contractors, or assistants of any kind, the importance of an Operations Manual should not be overlooked.  It provides structure and clarity by helping you examine the big picture and how each part fits into the whole.  It is also a handy tool for reminding yourself of your business systems when things get busy and you are overwhelmed.  The manual serves as a central location for vital business information, making it easier for you to find what you need in one fell swoop.  In a nutshell, an Operations Manual helps promote a consistent experience for your clients, and helps you avoid reinventing the wheel. 
 
What Format Should an Operations Manual Be Stored In?
 
An Operations Manual can be hand written if that is your absolute preference, but I would not recommend it.  As this document is so vitally important to your business, you should maintain it in electronic format.  It is easier to revise, send as an attachment when necessary, and be backed up to avoid loss of data.  Some clients prefer to create their Operations Manual using a 3-ring binder approach.  While this may be tempting, if that binder is destroyed or lost, there goes all of your hard work in creating an Operations Manual.  Do yourself a favor and store the manual on a computer (and back it up!) or online at a secure site.
 
What Should an Operations Manual Include?

 
An Operations Manual is the manual of all manuals.  It can be as comprehensive as you want and need it to be.  It should serve as a blueprint of your business for you, your employees, assistants (virtual or on-site), and anyone else that is on a need-to-know basis.  The Operations Manual essentially covers everything that goes on behind-the-scenes of your business.  Here are some examples of what an Operations Manual may include, but as you develop one for your business, you will undoubtedly think of many more items to include. 

  • Passwords to all of your online and offline business accounts
    (be sure to give some thought to maintaining proper security measures);
  • List of frequently used business supplies with purchasing/ordering information;
  • List of business documents;
  • Prospects intake process;
  • Client intake process;
  • Sample email templates;
  • List of all team members and their contact information;
  • Procedures for hiring new team members and training them;
  • Preparing for client sessions, proposal pitches, speaking engagements, professional association meetings, etc.
  • Client follow-up process.
Take the time to draft an Operations Manual.  It will be time well spent, and you will reap the benefits of it long after you finish the blueprint.

Interested in hearing some great radio interviews on organizing? Click here to listen up.

I had the pleasure of going on air 4 times in the last few years with WTBQ, which streams out of Warwick, NY. Local radio personality, John Moultrie, interviewed me for the first 3, and the most recent interview was for the Frank Truatt show. All were great fun, delve into my path of becoming a professional organizer, offer organizing tips, and a dash of humor! And to boot — they’re free!

Enjoy listening!

In honor of my speaking engagements this week in Denver for the IRIS Conference for interior redesigners and home stagers, I decided to post some of my best articles for entrepreneurs. Here is the first one. Hope you find them useful for your own business!

“It is better to look ahead and prepare than to look back and regret.” ~ Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Regardless of what stage your business is in, chances are you can use some reminders of vital ways to protect your business. The following is a list of 10 ways to protect your business regardless of size, location, or stage of your business. Use it as a checklist to measure your business protection quotient against. If you are doing all of these, then let this serve as validation. If not, then add these tips to your list of business items that need focus. 

  1. Think Big – Do not get caught up in the thought process that your business is too small to incorporate. Entrepreneurs often make the mistake that because the business is a one-person show, it is too small to have a structure that provides protection. Think “big” even if the business isn’t big. Even the smallest company can incorporate or form an LLC.
  2. Put it in Writing – If you are an entrepreneur offering services, develop a basic written agreement to use with clients. An agreement promotes consistency of policies, exudes professionalism, and clarifies the understanding of the parties. It does not need to be fancy or long, but should be understandable.
  3. Make Friends with Tax Deductions – Try to familiarize yourself with all of the basic business tax deductions so that you can maximize your tax write-offs. Even if you use an accountant to prepare your taxes, it will benefit you greatly to be aware of the various deductions that are permitted. It will certainly force you to keep better records!
  4. No Commingling of Funds – Do not use business funds for personal expenses or visa versa. Keep separate bank accounts and credit cards for business and personal. The IRS likes to see the bifurcation of business and personal finances. Give the IRS what it wants, and keep ’em separated!
  5. Proceed With Caution When Hiring or Retaining – If your business is growing and you want to hire an employee or retain the services of an independent contractor, proceed with caution. Be slow to hire. Take your time to interview, check references, do a background check (with permission), etc. It will be time well spent.
  6. Classify Team Members – If you have individuals that work for your business, you need to determine whether they are employees or independent contractors. The IRS has a wealth of information on this topic on its website at www.irs.gov, and you can also check with an accountant. Get the answers you need. Do not guess because if you are incorrect, it will be a costly mistake.
  7. Pad Your Bank Account – In this time of economic uncertainty, it is wise to keep extra funds in the bank “just in case.” If your business should suffer a down turn, are you financially set for several months? Will you be forced to close shop? Think through and be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and then when it does not occur, feel relieved.
  8. Be Insured – If you are in business, you need business insurance. Period. If you do not have business insurance, do yourself a favor and take a look at it. Work the cost into your budget. Yes, some industries are not as high risk as others, but why take the chance? It is generally considered a valid business tax deduction, and gives you the peace of mind of knowing your business is protected.
  9. Get Credit – If you create a fixed work through your business, give yourself credit. Use a copyright symbol on your fixed works to let the world know that you are the owner. You can get even more protection if you file the copyright with the US Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov), although registration is not required.
  10. Snag Your Domain – If you do not own the domain name for your business, buy it now. If you wait, it will most likely be taken. Then, your choices are to pay a lot of money to buy it, wait until it expires, or think of another domain name. For those of you that already have the domain of your business name, buy your tag line, slogan, moniker, or any other name that you feel embodies you or your business. In the world of domain names, you snooze, you lose. Play it safe and act now!  

Last year, I was asked to interpret a reading by an author named Myron Uhlberg for a book he wrote named “Hands of My Father,” a coming-of-age memoir. Myron was born in Brooklyn in the depths of the Depression to profoundly deaf parents. As a hearing child, the responsibility to communicate with the hearing world fell to Myron. He became his parents’ interpreter, and their link to the outside world.

I have a cousin that is deaf. He married a lovely deaf woman, and they have two wonderful hearing children. I grew up watching this couple communicate in sign language with each other and with their children. I was captivated by this beautiful language, and vowed to officially learn it some day. That day came during college when I took an American Sign Language (ASL) class. I then went on to work as an instructor and interpreter at the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains, NY for three years. It was an amazing experience and one I will cherish for life.

Sign language is at the heart of Myron’s book. Thus, the publisher felt it important for the public to be able to actually see the language. I had the pleasure of serving as the interpreter for the excerpts from the book that Myron chose to read. 

If you want to see a beautiful, expressive language, and hear the chosen excerpts read by Myron, click here. I hope you are as moved by this unique language, and Myron’s story as I am. It was an honor to be the interpreter for this project.

Lisa Signature

This summer, I had the pleasure of serving as a member of the NY State Bar Association’s Lawyers in Transition Panel, The Next Wave: A Panel of Lawyers Who Have Tapped Into Their Passion to Find Success in Other Careers, which was held live in NYC and as a webcast online. I shared my story of leaving the practice of law to become an entrepreneur. My fellow panelists — an executive career coach, a reporter/writer, and an attorney-turned-standup comedian — had lots of good stories and advice for anybody contemplating a career change.

Check out the video here and get inspired!

People always ask me for book recommendations on how to get and stay organized. I am in the process of drafting my first e-book, DECIDE to be Organized: An Empowering Process of Change, to be released next month. In the meantime, here are several fantastic books to help you on your organizing journey.

Organizing From the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Organizing Your Home, Your Office, and Your Life by Julie Morgenstern

A comprehensive organizing book offering tips and tools for organizing your home, office, and life, Organized from the Inside Out has helped hundreds of thousands of people clean up the clutter in their life.  Considered by many to be THE organizing book on the market.

10 Minute Tidy: 108 Ways to Organize Your Home by Shannon McGinnis

My colleague and friend, Shannon McGinnis, a professional organizer based in California, wrote this great little organizing book.  At 200 pages and cleverly broken up into categories for ease of use, the 10-Minute Tidy is a manageable resource for those of you looking for some guidance (other than a live professional organizer, of course!) as you try to get better organized at home.

It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys: The Seven-Step Path to Becoming Truly Organized by Marilyn Paul

This book delves into the underlying causes of chronic disorganization. Though it offers some concrete advice, it mainly targets the sources of disorganization, while offering meaningful paths to tackling everything from dirty dishes and filing problems to time management and inner spirituality.

Organizing Plain & Simple: A Ready Reference Guide With Hundreds of Solutions to Your Everyday Clutter Challenges by Donna Smallin

Donna Smallin offers organizing advice with room-by-room, tried and true organizational techniques to ease the burden of managing your money, family, house, time – and life’s big changes.

Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston

Drawing on the success of her first book, Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui, Karen Kingston has expanded on the indispensable activity of clearing clutter. Kingston reminds us that clutter is stuck energy that keeps you stuck in undesirable life patterns. Kingston covers the reasons we keep things as well as the amazing stories of people who have cleared their clutter away. More than just junk, clutter is all those things that have negative symbology and that collect stagnant energy. In an age of accumulation, it’s good to see a book that frees up life again.

Happy reading!

To-do lists. Just the name of them sounds exhausting. They have become the thorn in many of my client’s side. Whether they are written in long form on paper, or maintained electronically on a computer or handheld device, they cause much stress.

And here’s one reason why. Most people unknowingly combine their master to-do list and daily to-do list together. This one act causes the list to become lengthy and overwhelming, which in turn almost guarantees failure. The person with this massive all-in-one to-do list will either abort the list altogether, or try desperately to get tasks done, all the while feeling inadequate and like a failure due to his or her inability to accomplish the items on the list.

What to do (yes, pun intended!)? Keep ‘em separated!

Create a master to-do list and a separate daily to-do list.  The master list includes tasks you plan to and want to get to, but cannot accomplish in one day, similar to a project list.  Your daily list is only made up of the tasks you intend to, and can realistically accomplish, in one day, which is usually only about 3-5 items.  The daily list puts your master list into action on a daily basis. That way, you get the satisfaction of actually crossing off your daily to-do’s, but have a more comprehensive list so you don’t forget tasks you need to tend to at some point later on.

Here’s an example. You need to do a home renovation project like paint your basement. Your master to-do list reads: paint basement. But the daily to-do list will break down that master item into several separate entries over a longer period of time.

  • Monday: choose paint color
  • Tuesday: call 3 painters for estimates (this is called delegating, but let’s save that for a future blog post!)
  • Wednesday: clear furniture from area to be painted
  • Thursday: buy paint.

Get the picture? The master to-do list names the project and the daily to-do list breaks out the action steps in a manageable, reasonable and realistic manner in order to accompish that project. That way, the items actually get done. And isn’t that what a to-do list is supposed to be for anyway?