"At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want."
- Lao Tzu
Why I Blog And Why Should You Care

March 25, 2009

I Heart iGoogle: simplify your online experience with iGoogle

No, I'm not getting paid to post this.

Like with everything else it's easy to have e-clutter. You know, tons of bookmarks, RSS feeds, e-mail, social networking sites. I've been guilty of this for years. I was spending too much time online when all I really wanted to accomplish was a few targeted tasks.

So I started looking around for landing pages - I've tried a couple that I liked for a bit but it just had too many features and options. It just ended up being cluttered. It was defeating the purpose.

First thing I did was delete my social networking accounts including MySpace and Facebook. Then I got rid of old unused bookmarks.
I whittled down my RSS feeds to the ones I read regularly.
I started the process of cleaning my e-mail account (this one's a real doozie).

Then I gave iGoogle a shot.The modules I currently have on it are:
  • Gmail (I can check and send mail directly from here.
  • My feed reader: All my RSS feeds can be viewed here as well
  • Google notebook: for jotting down ideas
  • Google Bookmarks
  • A couple of newsfeeds from NPR and CNN
  • Youtube (I can search and watch videos without leaving iGoogle)
  • a clock (I like to keep track of how much time I'm spending online)
  • and a Sticky Note (I put my daily online to do list on here and delete it as I go)
So using the tools I've mentioned above, I've been able to streamline my online activities. The good thing about this is that you can fully customize it to your own needs. So you don't necessarily have to have the same tools I have, just figure out what's best for your setup.

Related article from NPR that may be of interest to you if you like this post: E-Fatigue

March 23, 2009

Be your own boss (while you're still employed)

I've always wanted to do my own thing. And I did just that for some time. Then came the burn-out. I was left with close to nothing. Almost lost the house, the car, my sanity.

Enter day job. It was outside my field but it literally saved my ass. It was a very humbling experience overall that whole ordeal. I'm still employed at that very same job and I'm very fortunate (it provides me with full benefits). It gives my life structure and stability. I never knew I could be such a great worker bee. But that is when I decided I would never again be put in that same situation.

But the longing to start something that is mine and mine alone is still there. My dad did the same thing when he was younger, worked for a company for years then started to do his own thing while he was still employed full-time. My partner-in-crime has been juggling a full-time job and a small business as well and has been very successful with it. It's been growing in leaps and bounds.

I can't say that it's been easy trying to juggle a full-time job and starting a business but the longer I do it the easier it becomes. I'm trying out the method that I've read from the 4 Hour work week and testing it out. The low-information diet, getting rid of distractions. It's been working out quite well so far, although there's always room for improvement. (As I'm writing this, my work called me again asking if I could come in - I said no, I keep picturing a scene from Office Space for some reason).

As far as low-information diet goes: I've cleaned out my bookmarked sites and RSS feeds to those related to what I'm currently working on.Even then I pretty much scan pages for anything that is really of interest.
Get rid of distractions: I screen my phone calls (unless it's my immediate family), I only check my e-mail once a day.

The benefits of starting a business while you're currently employed:

  1. Stable income - you don't have to worry about dwindling funds while you're working on your dream.
  2. Free on-the-job training - a day job provides you with a structured way of doing things. You're currently on the inside which means you can see what works and what doesn't work for your employer. You can take that principle and apply it to your own ventures.
  3. It teaches you to value the time you have - Since you don't have as much free time to work on your business ideas/ventures, you learn how to maximize the available time you do get.
  4. It keeps your mind alert - Chances are, whatever type of business you're trying to start (brick and mortar/online), you're having to do a bunch of research in that field. There's a lot of reading, testing, writing, and some more testing.
  5. It helps determine if you're in it for the long haul - all the work and effort you'll be putting into your labor of love will show if you're really passionate about what you're doing. If the thought of working for yourself still excites you even after the long work hours, and (at first) no money to show for your efforts, then you may have a genuine thing going.

So if you want to eventually be our own boss, the best time to do it is when you are already employed. Just make sure that you're keeping a proper balance between the two. You don't want your performance at your day job to suffer since you stayed up all night working on your e-commerce site or something.

March 21, 2009

Weekend edition #1: Be a Proactive Dreamer

I've had a very long and exhausting work week (and I was quite ill for most of it)and have missed my scheduled posts but I'm kinda making up for it with my first weekend post.

So what did I do on my first day off? I worked some more! But this is the kind of work I really enjoy doing. Besides work on the house for a couple of hours I was working on my "other job". Without going into details I'll just call it my online ventures. There's nothing like working on something you're really passionate about. My goal is to free myself from he confines of a traditional day job and work from pretty much anywhere I want. I've done it before successfully so I know that it's attainable. It's just a matter of getting back to it and doing it for the right reasons this time around.

How I proactively day dream

I've been meditating at least 30 minute a day for the last 2 weeks and during those times when I've tried to clear my head of any thoughts and worries and just focused on my breathing and relaxing my body, I would actually end up in a day dreaming type of trance. I would visualize my goals and the things I want to accomplish - thoughts of endless family time and travel, eating different types of food, laying about and enjoying nature, not doing much of anything, painting and photography...

then I would come out of my meditation, and write free-style in my notebook, usually in list format, the things I would need to do to realize my "day dreams". By lists, I would usually break it down to short-term and long-term.

I would make a weekly to-do list and further break it down to a daily list. As I've mentioned on a previous post, I carve out a time every day to do something (ACTION) that would bring me a step closer to one of my goals. So as far as daily goals go, I've met mine today and I think that I've even exceeded it.

I tend to be obsessive with my interests and easily can get carried away with my projects so I have to assign myself a time frame to work. Personal time and rewarding myself for my efforts is important and it allows me to stay motivated. So far so good.

My SO (significant other) just got home and we have a movie night ahead of us. We've also decided to just snack on a bunch of stuff instead of eating a big meal. So we have some leftovers, finger food, chips, and home made apple pie to chow down. Life is good.

Have a good evening and enjoy the rest of your weekend folks!

March 16, 2009

Create the time for your passions and interests

I survived working the weekend while fighting off a nasty virus. It's times like these that I miss working from home as a freelancer. It definitely had it's good points. Now I spend part of my days off working on side projects that bring in additional income to the household. The trick is to create the time for it. I can easily get swamped with day-to-day tasks but I make sure to set aside 2-4 hours dedicated solely to my "other job". Depending on my SO (significant other's) work schedule this can be very early in the morning or late at night. It's important to spend time with each other whenever we can since some weeks we have conflicting schedules. I've become an early riser since being back to a regular day job so I usually get any chores done first thing in he morning.

The most important tools I use to get things done:
  1. Dry erase boards - we have a total of 3. One on the fridge, and a couple in each of our home office areas. The one on the fridge is where I list out what I intend on getting done within that day. Don't try to tackle the world in a day, stay realistic with your daily goals.
  2. Clocks/Timer - We pretty much have a clock in every room in the house so I stay aware of how much time I've spent on a particular task.

Once the day's to-do list is done, I usually make a fresh pot of coffee, turn the Skype to do not disturb status, pull up live365 radio on my desktop set to swing and big band music and get to work. I have a business journal that I keep since I'm a big note-taker, I'm constantly jotting things down.

This pretty much breaks down the 4 hours I spend:
  1. Check e-mail - usually takes less than 10 minutes.
  2. Read RSS feeds (news and blogs)- I jot down anything of interest to me - usually lasts around 15 minutes
  3. Research - anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour
  4. Tweaking tech stuff (this is when I futz around with design or a bit of code) - I try to limit this to 30-45 minutes
  5. Writing - I spend the remainder of my allotted time writing, sometimes I do this offline, there's nothing like writing in a journal or just a cheap old composition notebook.
There have been times where I've had to readjust this schedule and break it down into segments. Like working for 2 hours and getting back to it with the last 2 ours later on. I do prefer an uninterrupted 4 hour span though it proves to be more productive when you're focused on only one task.

On days that I have to work, the time spent with the tasks above is reduced to 1-2 hours. I leave out #3 and #4 and limit the time on #1 and #2.

I've gotten in a good groove with this schedule so this is what works for me at the moment. So what do you do to manage your time when it comes to hobbies/freelancing/other pursuits?

I wrote this after reading this article about making the recession work for you. Maybe it's the tone of the author but I have to disagree with the article. He just made it sound like you can just quit your job and do whatever it is that you've always wanted. Not everyone has the luxury of being padded enough to just shoot for the stars. Most of us have family obligations, people that count on us.

I understand sometimes it takes something bad to happen for people to really think about their lives and to take action, which is great - they can then use the experience to propel themselves into transitioning into the life they really want. This is in essence what I'm doing right now. I was doing what I loved and it made me miserable. Yes, I know, it doesn't make sense - it'll take another blog post to elaborate and I just might write about it. Now I'm/we're in the process of crawling out of that hole and I'm using this blog to keep my thoughts sorted out. So far we're doing alright but we can be doing a lot better (and I'm not just talking financially here).

I'm satisfied with my life but I'm restructuring it in a way that will allow me to get even more out of life. That partly explains my blog title and tag line. This is my life restructured, lifestyle design for the regular Joe/Jane.

March 13, 2009

Cut your grocery bills in half

So it's Friday and I'm home early from work. It's been a gloomy, rainy day and its Friday the 13th. Perfect napping weather. Which I'm about to do by the way since I'm fighting a nasty flu and I have to be at work this weekend. I would usually be cooking dinner right now ( I love to cook) but I need to get some rest.

I've been thinking about what we've done around the house to cut corners and keep our wallets padded, just brainstorming for blog posts. For a few months now we've been members of Costco. We decided to join during that time last year when gas prices went up to $3.50/gallon or more. We live in the out skirts of town where we have a small grocery. While the place is alright to get the occasional milk or eggs the prices are a little high for my taste so we like to make the trip to the next town over where the larger chain supermarket has better deals. But even then the grocery tab was adding up. We decided to pay the $50 fee and give Costco a shot. It was either Costco or Sam's club. We figured we would try one for a year and if we're unhappy with it we'll switch on over to the other one and give them a try.

I don't have the numbers to show you today but I can tell you that we have saved a great deal of money by joining a warehouse club. Just a little warning though, it's easy to end up with a basket full of stuff you didn't have in your list to begin with so as long as you have a list and stick to it, all is well.

The following is a sample list for a trip to Costco for my household.

  • Bottled water
  • Orange Juice
  • Milk (we usually get 2 jugs)
  • eggs (we also get 2 cartons)
  • Frozen food - usually a 6 pack of Lean Cuisine for lunch at work and maybe pizza for those nights we come home late and can't be bothered with cooking
  • Lean hamburger meat - we divide it into patties and place in freezer sized Ziplock bags. Easier to defrost that way for individual or bigger meals.
  • Flank steak - usually cut in portions depending on what I plan on cooking.
  • Chicken breast
  • Coffee beans (we grind at home, coffee stays fresh longer this way)
  • Cat food (I've tried the more expensive brands, my cats won't even taste it)
  • Fruit cups
  • Laundry detergent
  • Shampoo (one large bottle lasts us a long time)
  • Cereal

We still go to the store occasionally to pick up "go-withs" for fresh veggies and such.
We go to one of the local Asian markets to get a large sack of Jasmine rice (this lasts forever), they also have better-priced veggies at times.

It also helps to have some idea of what you'll be cooking for the week. For those with busy schedules like us we like to cook for more than two since leftovers can always be brown-bagged for lunch.

So if you haven't jumped the bandwagon yet you may want to give buying in bulk a go. To save with the membership fee you can split the cost between other family members.

No cooking for neither one of us tonight though, we're doing takeout so we can chillax and spend a few hours together. Frugality has its limits. I can catch up on the last night's episode of Hell's Kitchen that I missed.

March 11, 2009

Control your paper clutter, Filter your inbox

Paper clutter comes in different forms: receipts, financial and personal info records, junk mail, magazines, catalogs, newspapers, books. So how do you go about the herculean task of sorting this mess out?

I know I've pulled my hair many times and have had mini panic attacks when faced with this task. I live with a pack rat which makes the act of paring things down even more challenging.

For the meantime what I've done is put away the necessary papers (personal records, car titles, mortgage papers - that sort) in a centralized location, in my case a briefcase. That in itself will be filed and sorted out later on.

As for the rest of it I have these two tips to make the chore a little easier.

1. Conquer one room or one area at a time. Always have a time limit, be aware of how much time you'll spend working on this task. It's easy to micro-manage everything all at once. The point is to optimize your available time. So if you only have 15-20 minutes, don't try to finish an entire home office area. Instead, focus on your computer hutch for example. In my case, I knew I wanted to declutter the living room but did not have ample time to finish it all. I decided to clean up a side table where we have stacks of newspapers, magazines, catalogs, road maps.

2. Have a box where the "to-go" pile will end up in. As soon as this box is full, load it up in your truck/car or put it where you won't be tempted to look through the pile again. You can then donate, freecycle, or just flat out recycle these.

I'll be the first to say that I'm still in the process of cleaning out paper goods in my home. The trick is to consistently control the traffic of what stays. Filter your inbox.

  • We don't subscribe to magazines/newspapers anymore. We can pretty much get caught up with news online. RSS feeds are a great substitute.
  • Receipts are placed in a shoebox or a freezer size Ziploc bag (I know, I know, quit snickering - hey it works) to be entered in expense tracker.
  • Books are borrowed from the library but our local branch has a very limited selection, our preferred branch is in the next town. Use bookmooch.com or paperbackswap.com to trade. We do still purchase books since we are avid readers but we're more conscious about impulsive purchases.

So this is what woks for me. It's no always easy but it's about building better habits. I figured if I do it often enough it wouldn't be such a chore anymore.

March 9, 2009

My catalyst and saying No

Sitting here drinking coffee, half listening to the Today show in the background, Matt Lauer talking about Barbie turning 50 today. I'm thinking back to what made me want to blog to begin with. There's always a catalyst to get the ball rolling and I've kind of touched upon that topic last Monday.

I would say it's an accumulation of many things but it boils down to two.

Life experience - sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to be motivated to make changes and take action. You really have to be resilient during tough times. It helps when you have people you can count on. I was fortunate enough to have the small support system to keep me going during my financial hardship.

Bloggers / Blogs - I have been inspired by reading others' experiences through their blogs. I have a handful in my RSS reader and I'm discovering more. A group of personal finance, simplicity, lifestyle design, location independent bloggers have sparked my interest and many others I'm sure. It's definitely helped me and continues to do so. So thanks to all of you out there especially my favorite blogs - get rich slowly, zen habits, and 4 hour work week.

Recommended reading:
4 Hour Work Week
The Power of Less

It just felt like I had to write about the paragraph above to get it off my chest. I feel better.

Now on to my original post.

It's ok to say No. Really, it is.

Work life sometimes has a tendency to take over our personal lives. It's inevitable. We tend to allow it to occupy our sacred personal space due to feelings of obligation and guilt. I know I used to. We talk ourselves into it.

A true story: You're off for a few days trying to recover from the hectic workweek, catching up on reading, watching movies in your Netflix queue and and you get several voice mail messages asking if you can come in to cover for someone. Yep, that's what happened last week. I swear I think I received an average of 3 phone calls per day for the 4 days I was off.

I work long hours per day that I am in the office and I'm down to working 3 days sometimes 4 days. This is an ideal setup since it saves me money on fuel. Not that I don't want extra hours but in the greater scheme of things it just wasn't worth it.

I thought about it for a second but decided against it. Instead of putting in more hours:

I was home just enjoying being in the same space as my spouse and pets. I worked on my honey-do list of home maintenance/improvement projects (still quite a long list but getting there). I lounged around on the couch and read my Neil Gaiman book. I made a home-cooked meal for us. I watched a bunch of movies. I worked on this blog among other things. I sat out on the porch, had a cup of coffee, listened to the wind chimes and daydreamed.

It was perfect.

March 6, 2009

Home entertainment for less

When we were trying to decide on what we can cut down on about a year ago - our premium cable service was the first one to go.
That was a difficult one to let go since we are both homebodies and enjoy watching films. We occasionally go to the theaters to watch a film but it's very seldom.

My main gripe about it was that we were at work all the time and by the time we got home, we were too tired to watch much of anything.
The cost of the service just wasn't justified anymore. Besides, half the time it's the same old repeats and movies on rotation. The only thing was that it was bundled with internet and phone so we had to reconfigure those too (I'll save that for another post).

With the cable gone - annual savings = $1800-$2000

We bought a digital converter using the two $40 coupons that the gov't. was giving away. After doing some research we decided on the Digital Stream DTX9950. The total for the two boxes were $80 after the combined $40 savings. It picks up all the major networks well considering we live pretty far out in the country.

We subscribed to Netflix for their 1 DVD/month unlimited service which also allows us to stream select movies and TV shows via internet. (Cost: $8.99)

We also use Hulu.com , Veoh.com, and Modernfeed.com to expand our viewing selections. (Cost: free, if you don't include the internet service)

We also have a growing DVD collection of our favorite movies bought at our local used cd/dvd warehouse, bought at a sale price or given to us as gifts. The best thing about this is that we get to enjoy it over and over. It's nice to have a library of your favorite films. (Cost: around $60 every 2-3 mos.)

Cost-wise it's still pretty good compared to the accumulated cost of going out to the theaters once a week and paying for cable.

March 4, 2009

Cut The Crap

I never realized how much stuff I actually had until my interstate relocation awhile back. I've always regretted not paring down before paying a hefty amount for the movers to transport my truckload of possessions. I'm still working on paring down stuff. It's not as easy as it seems. You really have to be brutal about it.

In deciding what goes and what stays you may want to ask yourself what that item means to you or if it serves a function or purpose.

Of course, don't overthink - the longer you spend thinking about it the more chances you'll end up keeping it.

Also, avoid becoming overwhelmed by doing one room at a time. Or one section at a time.

Assign yourself a specific time frame. Let's say one hour to declutter the master bedroom. And so on and so forth.

Make it fun - take a before and after photo for example, that way you can see the transformation of the room.


Things we've gotten rid of so far:
Clothing - ones that don't fit anymore and ones that we just flat out don't even wear. We've recently donated about 4 boxes worth of clothing to a local thrift shop.

Miscellaneous - We've gotten rid of knick-knacks that don't mean a thing. That word even sounds cluttery - "knick - knacks".

Big screen TV that came with the house - still usable but needed a minor repair - would've cost about $100 to fix it but why? We already have a space-saving flat-screen as our main TV. We freecycled it and freed up a large area in our living room.

Next in our list of to be sorted out:
Books (which we have lots of)
Office supplies (electronics / small items / furniture)
Bathroom stuff
Kitchen items
I call this my phase 1 of decluttering, because I have a feeling that once I'm done with everything I'll end up paring down some more.

Some of the benefits (IMHO) from simplifying:
Easier to clean and tidy up.
I have greater appreciation for the items I've kept. I'm able to display the ones that really mean something to me.
Donating and freecycling means that someone else out there is making good use of the stuff I used to have.
My head is less cluttered - slowly getting my peace of mind back. I'm one of those people that can't focus if my space is in disorder.

So far so good, and I'll post updates on how the rest of my decluttering goes.

March 2, 2009

Switching gears and Shifting priorities

Not surprisingly, one of the first news feeds from my iGoogle this morning is about the continuing downwards spiral of the U.S. economy. The topic is unavoidable. Even at work we get a lot of clients tell us that they too, have joined the ever-growing number of recently unemployed.

I've certainly been in the same tight spot about two years ago. I was a full-time freelancer working at home. It was great to begin with - flex work hours, no commute. I had many projects lined up which was what I wanted, I was hungry for it. Somewhere along the line I've lost the balance between life and work and was taking in more projects than I really should have. I would often spend 14-16 hour days slaving away at a project only to finish it and move on to the next one. On top of that, my main clients started being really painfully slow about payment. So there I was - burnt out, getting paid late, with a mortgage and bills piling up. You get the picture.

While that experience definitely left a bad taste in my mouth about being a freelancer in general - I've learned a lot from it. My priorities shifted quite a bit, my goals a little more focused.

1) Spending quality time with loved ones is on top of my list.
2) Saving money will give me the freedom to do more of the above.
3) Being frugal is obviously a key component to saving money.
4) Simplifying my life and my lifestyle in general will help me focus on more important things.

Keeping a simple life will reduce unnecessary distractions and expenses. I won't have to work as hard to pay for the things I don't need.

Where am I going with this? My new priorities will enable me to start working on my goals:

1) To slowly wean myself from my 9-5 (actually it's more like 8-8) and be able to generate enough income doing the things I'm passionate about.
2) Travel more
3) get back to doing photography

It's your turn to share - when was it that your priorities shifted? The moment/event that led you to switch gears.
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