Outsourcing Tasks with Fancy Hands

I’ve been using a virtual assistant service called Fancy Hands for eight months now, and it’s been a tremendous productivity tool.

I had been following the tool for many months before I finally pulled the trigger. I really missed having an assistant when I left Groupaya. We had considered trying a virtual assistant, but our ops director convinced us that it wasn’t cost efficient. She was right. We needed a lot of hours and a lot of in-person support because of the nature of our work, so we were better off finding someone local and developing a strong relationship with that person. We did, and it worked out beautifully.

Because my experience with a local assistant had been so positive, I was loathe to go the virtual route. Still, I wanted to cover my bases, so I examined my options. Fancy Hands had not been around when we were looking for a Groupaya assistant, and it seemed almost too good to be true. Most of what I needed was scheduling, and its cheapest plan was $25/month and included unlimited scheduling. At that price, it made sense just to try it.

My concerns were:

  • Scheduling is a big part of my administrative work, and I have strong preferences around scheduling. Furthermore, because my work is so relational, it’s critical that whoever is representing me acts with a certain level of decorum. Would a virtual service where I wasn’t guaranteed a single person address these concerns?
  • What would I use my five virtual tasks a month for? This wasn’t a huge concern, because if the scheduling worked out, that alone would have been worth more than $25/month. Still, I didn’t want those requests to go to waste either

My experience with scheduling is that it isn’t as good as having a real assistant, but it’s well worth the price. Fancy Hands lets you note some guidelines for scheduling, but my notes are extensive, and the virtual assistants don’t seem to refer to them. I also have to be more specific in my requests than I did with my Groupaya assistant, who understood my various quirks and preferences, and who also could interpret my calendar more accurately. They have to follow up with me for clarification or confirmation far more than my real assistant did, and I occasionally have to have them reschedule.

That said, they are prompt, reliable, and professional, and they save me a ton of time with scheduling alone. They apparently can do group scheduling as well, but I haven’t tried that yet.

As I said before, the scheduling alone makes it worth it for me, but I’ve found the additional tasks extremely valuable. It takes a while to get into the mindset of coming up with tasks for them, but once you get started, it becomes a natural.

My biggest use case beyond scheduling has been for research. I’ve had them research restaurants, hiking spots, dry cleaning, etc. Because I’m anal, I often have fairly intricate requests and constraints, but they do them without complaint, and they save me a ton of time that way.

For example, I recently decided to upgrade my MacBook Pro’s hard disk and RAM. I didn’t want to pay the enormous Apple Store premium, so I asked Fancy Hands to find me the highest rated Apple service centers in San Francisco, then to call the top five and get price quotes for some very specific requests. They pulled together the research, along with links to the reviews so I could audit their work.

They’re particularly useful in a crunch. A few months ago, I was in Seattle for a meeting, and I realized I had forgotten my laptop’s power cord. Again, one of the annoying thing about Apple products is that not everyone carries them, and so finding a replacement power cord was going to be a challenge. I had Fancy Hands call my hotel to see if they had a spare cord (they didn’t), then locate the closest Apple stores to my hotel, call them to see if they had the cord in stock and to get price quotes and hours, put a cord in stock, and email me the address and directions. I made my request, ran to a meeting, and by the time I was back, all the information was waiting for me, ready for me to take action.

You can make requests via email, phone, or their mobile apps, and I’ve found all of these venues useful. I’ve also found their slew of assistants consistently reliable, friendly, and professional. Their dashboard also has a cool feature where they show you how much time they’ve saved you.

They recently added a few new features that have made me an even bigger fan. First, your unused tasks now roll over month-to-month. Second, you can gift your requests to friends.

At some point in the future, if things get busy enough, I may once again want to go the real assistant route, but for the foreseeable future, I can’t imagine life without Fancy Hands. I am loathe to admit it in public, but I would easily pay double for the service and it would still be well worth it.

Tom Bihn Bags for Micro Four Thirds Cameras

Tom Bihn Side Effect and Camera Lenses

Choosing a good camera bag is hard. It’s a very personal endeavor on two levels: style and functionality. How people use their cameras and what they decide to carry differ significantly for different people.

When I decided to step up my photography game earlier this year, I decided to go with a Micro Four Thirds system — specifically, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 — rather than a DSLR. The reason largely boiled down to size and quality. There are awesome lenses available for Micro Four Thirds, and the equipment as a whole is significantly smaller and lighter than the equivalent DSLR camera and lenses. When I see my  friends lugging around giant packs of equipment, I just shake my head. In this day and age, it’s just not necessary.

Once I had acquired my new equipment, I needed to figure out how I was going to carry it all around. Specifically, I wanted something:

  • Small. What’s the point otherwise of smaller equipment?
  • Ergonomic. Again, what’s the point of small and light if your bag is not designed to feel comfortable?
  • High quality. My equipment is expensive. I didn’t need to be putting at risk in a cheap bag.
  • Accessible. Compact isn’t helpful if you have to dig around to get your equipment.
  • Stylish. I’m not exactly a fashionista, but I like things that look good.
  • Flexible. I didn’t necessarily need a single system to work for all occasions. If it made sense to have different bags for different occasions, I was willing to do that… within reason. I didn’t want to have a bunch of unitasking bags floating around either.

Given the flexibility requirement, the first question I asked was, “How can I use my carry this equipment in my existing bags?”

I’m brand loyal to very few companies, but one of them is Tom Bihn, a Seattle-based company that makes beautiful, functional bags. I bought my first Tom Bihn bag in 2008, and I have consistently bought new bags (for different purposes — these things are designed to last forever) approximately every two years. I also have a boatload of accessories. They are not cheap, but they are high-quality, they look great, and they are superbly functional. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

I first bought a Brain Bag as a travel backpack that could hold a whole bunch of stuff efficiently and ergonomically. That bag was so comfortable, I replaced my messenger bag with it and started using it as my every day work bag. However, there were certain situations — walking around the city for the day, for example — when a big bag was overkill, and all I needed was something that would carry my water bottle, a pocket camera, and a book. I eventually bought a Medium Cafe Bag to fulfill that role.

This past year, I bought a Synapse 19, which has become my primary day and work bag. There is a larger version of the Synapse (the Synapse 25), but the smaller one is more comfortable, it fits quite a bit for its size, and it forces you to be smart about what you carry. I realized that most of the stuff I had been carrying around in my Brain Bag were “just in case” items. I was better off focusing on what I actually needed. It’s a shift in my philosophy about bags, one that colored my choice in photography bags.

So the first question was, could I carry my equipment around in my existing bags? The second question was, did I need to get another bag to fulfill different needs? The answer to both questions was yes.

Tom Bihn makes a camera insert for the Brain Bag called the Camera I-O. However, it’s designed for a DSLR system and was overkill for my camera. It also only fits in the Brain Bag. I wanted something that worked with my smaller bags.

I ended up buying this $20 insert from Amazon.com. It’s holds my camera and two additional lenses easily, and it fits perfectly into my Medium Cafe Bag, as you can see from the video below:

It fits easily into my Brain Bag, of course, but it’s a tight fit in my Synapse, and I can’t fit my laptop sleeve at the same time. My Synapse is good for carrying additional gear — lenses in lens pouches or the Side Effect (as described below), a flash, etc. — but it really doesn’t work well as a camera bag. And frankly, I don’t want to be using a backpack as a camera bag. It’s too hard to get my gear in and out.

The Medium Cafe Bag with insert works fine for most cases, but it’s not big or functional enough to carry additional gear. It’s also not functional enough for volume shooting — for example, if I’m shooting an event. In the latter case, I don’t want my camera in a bag. I use a BlackRapid Metro shoulder strap to hold my camera, but I needed something to hold my lenses. The Medium Cafe Bag or any other camera bag would have been overkill.

As it turned out, Tom Bihn had a great solution: the Side Effect, which can be used as a waist pack or a tiny shoulder pack. It can easily hold three lenses or two in heavily padded pouches. It can also fit in the bottom pocket of my Synapse 19, which gives me a modular, padded system for carrying my lenses in my backpack.

I wear the Side Effect with my lenses around my waist, as I describe in the video below. The original Side Effect had built-in, tuckaway waist straps, but it seems that most customers didn’t want that, so they replaced them with removable waist straps. I’m probably the only person in the world who wishes that they had kept the old waist straps, but it’s not a big deal. This system works fine.

The above bag combinations covers a good percentage of my needs. However, there are times when I don’t want to be carrying my camera on my shoulder (if I’m walking through a sketchy neighborhood, for example), I still want to have easy access to my camera (meaning a shoulder bag rather than a backup), and I need to carry more than my Medium Cafe Bag can easily accommodate (a flash, for example).

I thought about getting a Co-Pilot to fulfill this need, but the lack of built-in padding and my concerns about how efficient the space would be for this specific needs were deterrents. I decided I wanted a dedicated shoulder camera bag for this, and unfortunately, Tom Bihn does not make one. (Please consider it!)

I investigated a ton of camera-specific brands, and I ended up getting a Billingham-Hadley Small. These are gorgeous, high-quality bags, and it turned out to be the most functional as well as the perfect size. My only gripe is that it does not have a handle on the top (larger versions of the bag do). It’s perfect for keeping what I need most accessible, and if I need to carry additional items “just in case,” I wear my Synapse 19 as well.

I ended up choosing expensive bags, but it’s all well worth it in my opinion. Often, people buy cheaper bags, find that they don’t quite work, and then buy additional bags. It ends up adding up, both in expense and also in space and mindshare. Better to pay the money up-front for the right bag. If you do your research and especially if you’re willing to buy used, you can also find some good deals on the above bags.

I also can’t help reiterating how awesome the form factor of these systems are. I can carry quite a bit of equipment around very discreetly, and I don’t feel the effects of the weight, even if I’m on my feet all day.

I invested a ton of time into thinking about how I wanted to use my equipment and finding the bags that fit my needs, but it was worth it, and I hope others find the fruit of my research useful as well.

Getting Things Done

Last year, I reached a point where I wasn’t managing my time and tasks to my satisfaction, so I decided to check out the Getting Things Done bandwagon. I went to Green Apple to buy David Allen‘s book, but I couldn’t find it in the business section. I asked a salesperson for assistance, and to my horror (and amusement), they suggested I check the self-help section.    (LPB)

Getting Things Done is indeed a self-help book of sorts, but it’s also full of good advice on information management. More importantly, the philosophy it espouses not only has important implications on task management but also on collaboration.    (LPC)

The problem it seeks to address is, how do we manage our day-to-day, overcommitted lives in this age of information overload? Allen’s solution is simple. Keep your mind in a relaxed, ready-for-action state, which he compares to the “zone” that athletes often experience. In martial arts, if the body is tense, it will not react quickly or powerfully. Keeping your body relaxed is what separates the masters from the novices.    (LPD)

Easier said than done, right? Allen’s method for getting your mind into this state is two-fold. First, get things out of your head into a system you trust. Second, frame tasks as something actionable. Starting with managing the nitty gritty in your life will free your mind to do the higher-level thinking we all wish we had more time to do.    (LPE)

The ready-state and trust are critical concepts. Much of our day-to-day tension is the result of trying to balance all of the things we need to do in our head. The brain is not good at this sort of thing. Once you move all those tasks into a system you trust, you relieve your brain of that stress.    (LPF)

Allen cited one of his clients, who said that she never stressed about forgetting about a meeting, even though she had a lot of them, because she knew that information was in her calendar. Whenever she scheduled a meeting, she immediately off-loaded it into her calendar, so she knew that it was always current. She wanted a similar trusted system for managing other types of tasks.    (LPG)

Allen also noted that just as we feel guilty about breaking agreements with others, we also feel guilty about breaking agreements with ourselves. If you tell yourself you’re going to eat a salad every day, but you keep eating cheeseburgers, you’ve broken an agreement with yourself, and you’re going to feel bad about it. Even worse, you’ll lose trust in yourself, or at least, your system, and so continued use of that system will make you even antsier.    (LPH)

How do you resolve this? By acknowledging that you are in fact making an agreement, and treating it as such. Just as you would call a friend to reschedule, you need to explicitly renegotiate the agreements you make with yourself.    (LPI)

Explicitness is critical. The act of framing a task as an action is an important, but oft-neglected step. “Eat better,” is not actionable. “Eat fish three times a week,” is. The act of writing down an action item makes it both real and subject to renegotiation.    (LPJ)

In keeping with his philosophy, Allen’s book is full of concrete actions you can take to improve your information management. These have been covered in great detail elsewhere, so I’ll just point out a few that I’ve found useful:    (LPK)

  • Keep your file cabinets two-thirds full.    (LPL)
  • Use a label-maker on your file folders.    (LPM)

(For a more comprehensive list of my GTD implementation and some other tips and tricks, see Life Hacks.)    (LPN)

These sort of tips sound trivial, but when performed with the larger framework in mind, they are extremely effective. One of the things I really like about Allen’s book is his emphasis on environment, which parallels my philosophy on collaborative spaces. How you structure your workspace will have a great effect on whether or not your work processes are successful.    (LPO)

Allen doesn’t spend much time on the implications of Getting Things Done on collaboration, but he does reiterate the importance of trust in groups. When you have a list of action items, and you’re not getting them done, others who are depending on you are going to lose trust. Since trust is the foundation of good collaboration, it behooves you to to be good at Getting Things Done.    (LPP)

This is essentially the Personal Information Hygiene point that I made last year, although I like how Allen explicitly incorporates trust into his explanation of its importance. However, I also think it’s an oversimplification. One of the inherent advantages of a team over an individual, is that you can compensate for individual weaknesses. I’ll write more about this in a later post on Group Information Hygiene.    (LPQ)

Good Personal Information Hygiene

Chris Dent and I were chatting about my recent forays into David Allen‘s Getting Things Done, which led to this classic line from Chris:    (KXN)

Someday someone, maybe one of us, will poop out a “collaboration requires good personal information hygiene” thing.    (KXO)

Consider this post a poop.    (KXP)

When we founded Blue Oxen Associates, we were supposed to be a place for those on the cutting edge of collaboration. I quickly discovered that most people who want or claim to be on the cutting edge are held back by poor Personal Information Hygiene. People need to start with themselves before they worry about the group if they want to improve their ability to collaborate. (This is a general theme that extends beyond Knowledge Management.)    (KXQ)

Signs of poor Personal Information Hygiene:    (KXR)

  • Not keeping track of action items. (Not delivering on them is a sign of poor work discipline.)    (KXS)
  • Constantly asking questions that have been answered before. (This is also a great sign of poor Collective I Q.)    (KXT)
  • Asking to resend an email rather than looking things up yourself.    (KXU)
  • Losing track of email (including not responding quickly).    (KXV)

I have good Personal Information Hygiene, with two exceptions: I don’t answer email promptly, and I have a poor paper filing system (hence my recent foray into GTD). My digital information repository, on the other hand, is excellent — well linked and decently refactored. I generally find what I’m looking for and sometimes even find things I’m not looking for. I’ve started collecting some of my habits on my public Wiki at Life Hacks.    (KXW)

(Bill Seitz has often strongly expressed a similar view — that good organizational Knowledge Management needs to start with good Personal Information Hygiene. See his Wiki page on PersonalKnowledgemanagement.)    (KXX)