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.

Making Hard Choices

Earlier this week, a familiar foe reared its ugly head: irritability. Every little thing was annoying me, and I found myself wanting to snap at people.

It’s something I used to feel constantly at my previous job, but that I haven’t felt in quite some time. Back then, I wasn’t taking care of myself, and I wasn’t in an environment that encouraged me to take care of myself. Last year was a giant reset button. I rested, recovered, and reflected. I got clear about what I wanted to do next, and how I wanted to do it. I started carefully putting into place the structures that I thought I needed to support me in being successful and in maintaining balance. On January 6, 2014, I pressed “Go.”

Six weeks into the year, I’m doing okay, but I’ve been slipping. Old patterns are starting to reappear. They’re patterns that come from a good place. I’m loving my work, and good things are starting to happen as a result of the seeds I’ve been cultivating. The problem is that, when I start seeing little seedlings sprout, I get excited and motivated, and I want to go faster rather than maintain my pace. This is how I overwhelm myself. This is how my performance starts slipping. Worse, the thing that suffers most is my health and my personal life.

What’s been different is that I’m far more self-aware this time around, and my structures have really been helping me.

  • I’ve been monitoring my self-care dashboard religiously, and I have obsessively made sure I’ve been maintaining these practices.
  • I’ve been good about playing basketball regularly, decent at seeing friends.
  • I keep a timesheet, so I know exactly how much time I spend working, where, and on what days.
  • I’ve been using SCRUM principles for realistic planning and a Kanban Board to track and prioritize my tasks.
  • I formed a “colearning” group with which I’ve been doing regular checkins, which increases my accountability.

All of these things have been working, and yet I’m feeling like I’m about to slip into the abyss again. The reasons are simple: I’m working too much, but I don’t want to slow down.

Earlier this week, I was in a meeting with Rebecca Petzel, where she said, “I’m better at setting boundaries than Eugene is, but I use his tools to help me do that.” She was paying me a compliment, but she was also being real, and she was right. All the tools in the world won’t help you unless you are committed to your goals.

So now I’m in an interesting place. I’m doing too much, and the pace is starting to get unsustainable, but I’m feeling the temptation to do even more. The solution is simple: Do less. Cut something out.

My brain and my gut knows all this to be true, and I know my body will eventually enforce it, but only after I put it through its paces. My heart hates this, and my habits are all oriented against doing it. I want to live a healthy, balanced life, but I also don’t want to stop doing anything that I’m currently doing.

So what will I choose? Because at the end of the day, you can put all of the structures in place that you want, but it still boils down to choice. Will this time be different?

March Progress Report on Balance and Impact

At the start of this year, I reported that I had left Groupaya in pursuit of greater balance and impact. In addition to closing out some client work, my plan was to pause, reflect, and play.

Two months into 2013, I would say I’ve had moderate success. My life is certainly more balanced than it was the past few years, but it’s only been moderately more spacious. It’s been very easy for me to fill up my time, as I predicted it would. Overall, I’ve been good about filling that time with life as opposed to “work,” but “work” has crept in a bit more than I would like. For example:

I could have said no to some of these things, but they haven’t been the main reason for my lack of spaciousness. The main reason has been poor boundary management with my remaining client obligations. Ironically, I’ve been missing a lot of the structures from Groupaya that enabled me to maintain those boundaries. I left the company to create more space for myself, but that also meant losing some structures that enabled me to maintain that space. In particular:

  • I no longer have a team and operational infrastructure supporting my work. A lot of this stuff is mundane (like invoicing and scheduling), but time-consuming. I’m also missing some of our team accountability practices, which helped keep me disciplined in my obligations.
  • I stopped maintaining a regular work schedule, which made it all too easy for obligations to pile up rather than distribute evenly. I’ve also missed some of our team’s practices that helped me maintain a strong rhythm throughout the week, like our weekly checkins and our virtual water cooler.
  • I eliminated my Wednesday Play Days. I figured that all of my time right now is supposed to be play time, so I didn’t need to carve out a formal day for this. I was wrong.
  • I stopped time-tracking. I have historically avoided time-tracking like the plague. But at Groupaya, I actually became one of the strongest advocates and enforcers of the practice, because it enabled us to quantify our progress in many areas. We learned a ton from the practice, and it helped us improve many of our processes. But when I left, I immediately reverted. One of the reasons you leave an organization is so that you don’t have to do stuff like this. This was a mistake. As it turned out, tracking time is a wonderful way to keep you focused and to help you maintain your boundaries.

The good news is, I don’t need to be part of an organization to implement any of these structures. Now that I’ve felt their absence, I’m slowly bringing these structures back into my life, tweaking how I implement them to better fit my current circumstances.

The better news is, I’ve managed to retain other structures from my time at Groupaya that have enabled me to create more space in my life. (I’ll share these structures in another blog post.)

The best news is, I’m much more relaxed these days, my life feels much more balanced, and I’m learning a lot from unexpected places. (Again, more details to come in a future blog post.) Highlights have included:

  • My work! (I know, I know, I’ve got problems.) I’m excited about a workshop I’m co-organizing with Rebecca Petzel next week on how consulting can have a more transformational impact on the nonprofit sector. And I’m super excited by the culture change work I’m doing with the Hawaii Community Foundation. I’ve been able to do these projects slowly and spaciously, which makes them all the more fulfilling. And I’m being disciplined about not taking on any more client work as I finish up these projects.
  • I spent a week with my older sister and her family (including my two awesome nephews) in Cincinnati.
  • I’m seeing and reconnecting with lots of friends. I’ve been negligent about this the past few years, and it’s felt really good to make time for people I care about.
  • I’m cooking more.
  • I’m reading a ton, including two novels, which has been great, because I almost never read fiction anymore. I love to read, and I know my life is appropriately spacious when I’m doing a lot of it.
  • I’m running and hiking more, and I’m starting to play basketball again regularly.
  • I’ve started to get more serious about photography.
  • I’m taking care of a lot of real-life stuff. I’m examining and implementing systems for everything from financials to information management. This will require several more months to complete, which makes me wonder how anyone manages to do this stuff without taking extended time away from work.
  • I’m learning and re-learning a lot about myself. I’m still trying to make sense of what I’ve learned over the past ten years, and I don’t have clarity yet on what I want to do in the future, but I see the fog starting to dissipate.

I’m having to tweak things here and there, and I miss my old team a lot, but beyond that, life is great.

My Ideal To Do List

Last month, I visited my elder sister’s family in Cincinnati. Every evening, I read a bedtime story to my nephew, Elliott. On the last night, Elliott asked me to read him Frog and Toad Together, by Arnold Lobel. The first story followed Toad as he worked through his to do list:

This, to me, is a dream task list, because it is full of space — space to work, space to play, space to reflect, space to dream.

The Dreaded Email Backlog

Got back from my vacation to Korea yesterday afternoon. Here’s my quick summary of the trip: Aaah.

Other than some massive jetlag, I feel very refreshed. I’ve had to hit the ground running since returning because of the usual work pileup and also a business trip later this week. Although I would have loved a few days to transition back to real life, I feel great, and I’m happy to be back.

I took over 2,000 pictures and almost 40 videos, and I filled up almost 100 pages in my manly journal. I have many, many stories to share, both about my experiences in Korea as well as other stuff I had a chance to think about.

But I first want to kick things off by running some numbers on the Dreaded Email Backlog. Amazingly, it wasn’t bad at all, which raises serious questions as to why I (and others) don’t do this more often. It’s a little after 9am on Monday morning, and I’m largely caught up on my email (although the work backlog still beckons).

After two weeks of not checking my work email, I had 202 new messages in my inbox (not counting filtered messages). 14 of those messages were vacation-related bounces, 18 were automatic notifications from the Blue Oxen server (which needs a tune up), and about 40 were newsletters that should have been filtered. There were about another 25 web site notifications that should have been filtered; I just had never gotten around to setting the rules.

Cleaning these up got me down to 100 messages. I used this as an opportunity to fix my filters, and I ended up unsubscribing to 12 newsletters. A quick scan and cleanup cut my inbox in half to about 50 messages. Then I got down to work.

I used Gmail’s Priority Inbox to help. Prior to my trip, I didn’t really use this feature, but with a huge inbox, I was curious to see if it would be helpful. Not so much. I had about 60 messages automatically labeled priorities. About 30 of them were mislabeled, and 10 messages in my inbox should have been labeled, but weren’t.

Working through my inbox took me about five hours. Now that my filters have been updated, it should be much easier in the future. Plus, I realized I was subscribed to way more newsletters than I needed to be, and so taking the effort to unsubscribe will help a lot as well.

All in all, dealing with the backlog was relatively painless. Was this representative? Preparation helped a lot — I put a serious dent on my email backlog before I left. I’m also finishing up one project and starting up two new ones, so the email load isn’t as high as it would be if I were mid-project.

My experience served to reinforce several things:

  • The best way to manage information overload is to reduce the load. Do a careful audit. You’ll be surprised how much junk you’re probably receiving.
  • Filtering is your friend.
  • The world will not collapse if you are not checking email constantly.

More importantly, you will feel significantly better if you take time to get away. I’m going to be a lot more disciplined about having “off” time in my day-to-day life.