February 25th, 2008
If you’ve visited this blog before, you know I have a love-hate relationship with the web. In the interest of attempting to overcome some of my Luddite fears, I recently put these web productivity questions to Anne Zelenka, web technologist, former editor of Web Worker Daily, and author of Connect! A Guide to a New Way of Working.
Q. Some days, I feel like email is the bane of my existence, tempting me away from deadlines and productivity. How do you recommend self-employed types stay on top of email without letting it rule their life?
A. There are numerous schemes for managing your inbox, but what’s worked best for me is a post-email era approach. I don’t get all my information through email. For example, I use Twitter to stay in touch with my online professional network, instant messaging for quick discussions with colleagues or clients, del.icio.us bookmarks to share things I find interesting, and blogging to think out loud with feedback. That lightens the load on my email inbox and it makes me feel more hooked in throughout my workday. Email on its own can feel a bit disconnected, I’ve found.
Q. At the expense of sounding like I’m writing a white paper for one of my software clients, I have to ask: What are three things even a Luddite like me can do to use the web more effectively and boost productivity?
A. You’re a great example of the most effective way to use the web to succeed in your work life: get yourself a professional presence online with a blog or other website. Don’t focus on making advertising dollars from it — use it to make connections and promote your work. Most of all, be authentic online so that when opportunities come to you because of your online profile they will be opportunities you’re really excited about pursuing.
Q. What are some of your favorite online tools for freelancers?
A. The tool I rely on most for managing my work life is Google Docs. I use spreadsheets to track income and expenses and documents to plan projects and collaboratively edit papers. Gmail, Adium (an instant messaging aggregator), and Twitter keep me hooked in with my professional network — and I couldn’t succeed without that.
Q. You have an entire chapter on online money management, including tips for freelancers. Can you share one or two of those web banking tips for freelancers?
A. If you’d like a good and secure way to manage your various financial accounts, check out Wesabe. It offers a downloadable tool into which you input your login and password information, then you can regularly update your transaction information and see where you’re spending your money and what your balances are. It includes a social network where you can swap tips and share financial goals — so it’s like the Web 2.0 version of Quicken.
If you have a lot of clients and need to manage a bunch of invoices, check out FreshBooks. That site makes it really easy to create and send invoices then track payments.
Q. Despite the fact that this will be outdated next month, what are your favorite social networks for freelancers who want to mingle and market online? Or do you think social networks are one big fat timesuck?
A. Three sites I like for freelancers and in particular freelance writers are Freelance Switch, Freelance Writing Jobs, and mediabistro. These aren’t specifically social networking sites, but Freelance Switch and mediabistro include forums and Freelance Writing Jobs gets good discussions going in the comments.
I tend to network with other web technology geeks, since that’s my main area of expertise. For that, I like Twitter and also networking via blogging. I’ve tried Facebook and it hasn’t been all that useful to me professionally.
Q. As a freelance writer, when I’m in the thick of trying to bang out a draft, email and an open browser is the kiss of death. Do you work on deadline with your inbox and browser open? Just wondering.
A. When I was working on the book, I regularly closed my browser, including my inbox (I use Gmail), and set my instant messaging status to “writing.” I write blog posts on deadline with my browser open because I need it to do research and I’ve trained myself to work while I’m connected. This kind of group-oriented productivity is something you can learn to do, and it’s a mode that we see teenagers of today often using. They stay in constant contact with their friends and use multiple electronic tools, switching back and forth as necessary.
Q. You mention a preference for pen and paper when it comes to writing to-do lists. Why is this? Any other parts of the workday we should be reserving for paper?
A. I personally love the physical experience of writing and rewriting my to-do list, then crossing off items when I’ve finished a task. I also like to be able to take my to-do list away from the computer to work on it, where I feel like I gain some perspective on my priorities. Paper is generally useful for you want to slow yourself down and take a broader perspective. If I want to really think about something — a blog post I’ve written in draft, a project plan, a list of goals — I do it on paper.
Q. In the book, you talk about this brave new way of working called “bursty work.” Can you explain what that is and why we should be doing it?
A. I came up with the idea of bursty work when I realized that many career achievements arrive in discontinuous leaps rather than through step-by-step action.
I observed that many people working online had different habits than [those in] the typical 9-to-5 gig. Instead of working standard hours, they would work when they felt like it, according to their energy, sometimes in bursts. Instead of shutting themselves off from other people in order to get solo work done, they would stay connected via instant messaging or social networking or other electronic tools and get information and inspiration from colleagues and associates throughout the work day. Instead of building things totally from scratch (or just on top of what their coworkers built), they would use what they found online — whether open source software or research that someone had already done or photos that someone else took — to get where they needed to in leaps and bounds rather than step by step.
The reason the web promotes a bursty style of work is because of the network of people and ideas it makes available to us. Instead of just having ourselves and our office coworkers available to us, we have a whole wide world of resources just a hyperlink away. This means you can navigate shortcuts instead of always working step by step.
In practice, bursty work often builds on busy work — there will always be projects where you have to spend lots of dedicated, focused time working step by step towards a goal. Building a network of professional connections, for example, takes effort over time. But once you’ve done a lot of the busy work, bursts of innovation or achievement may happen almost as though by magic. It’s not magic, though; it’s navigating a network.
You can read more about busy vs. bursty in the Web Worker Daily article I wrote on the topic.