Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Productivity hacks

I've had a lot of people ask me how I was able to graduate with honors from a rigorous MBA program while parenting a young child and getting promoted in my career. I made a few missteps along the way, but ultimately I've learned a lot about efficiency and delegation in that almost two-year time frame. I will summarize it here in the hopes you glean a tip or two that helps you.

My favorite app for managing my school notes is Evernote. I organized my notebooks by semester with tags for course names and subjects. You can use Evernote to photograph and record, too. The app also works great for saving tax information like charitable receipts; just tag them with taxes and the year.

I save any emails of appreciation in a Thank You email folder, and I use this to track my work accomplishments in a quarterly basis. I include verbal feedback using the Job Journal format suggested by the Essential Pay Raise workbook for Women at Work Options (please note my affiliate status).

Managing your to-do list, rather than letting it manage you, is a tricky proposition. I use the built-in task list on my iPhone for stuff that needs to get done but not this week. I schedule items such as making a phone call into my daily schedule in Outlook.

For my overall areas of focus at home, school or work, I employ Peter Bregman's 18 minutes 6-box to-do list. The format keeps me on track. I re-do it every week or so, rather than every day.

Another time management tool I love is the Pomodoro technique. I was able to write the draft of all of my graduate school essays in 1 25-minute period of focus. I still had to revise them, but it took a lot less time than if I hadn't set a timer.

Another cool tool I've used with success is Doodle. This easy scheduling tool allows you to pick the optimal date for an event among many busy people without sending 50 emails back and forth.

What time management tools do you find most effective?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Secrets of a busy mom

Well, they're not secrets exactly. More like Stuff I Learned the Hard Way. Mostly through experience and trial and error. And also through my amazing moms' forum hosted on Big Tent.

Rather than keeping separate calendars, I find that a shared calendar of everything going on in my life works best. I have the same 24 hours each day and some work time bleeds into home time and vice versa, so tracking everything in one spot makes sense. This Business Insider article supports this philosophy. I use Google Calendar sync to send all of my Outlook calendar appointments to my Google calendar so my husband can see what I'm up to. Make sure to set up a 1-way sync if you attempt this, as I think my 2-way sync broke the internet back in 2011.

I can't say enough about how telecommuting has made my life easier! Pat Katepoo's site Work Options (please note I am an affiliate) sets the gold standard on how to win over even the strictest boss on the merits of telecommuting. Her system couldn't be simpler or more effective.

Delegating the hundreds of chores I have has been key to being able to focus on the right things. If you live in Boston, you can post for a mother's helper on the BU jobs board. Having the extra help with housework makes me feel less pressure to spend evenings cleaning up. 3 hours a week seems to be enough to keep the laundry, dishes, clutter, etc. at bay. If you have a local college or high school students nearby, see if they want to earn some extra money by helping you with the laundry or dishes. A regular (twice a month) cleaning service is also a luxury upon which I've grown dependent.

I also get help in the cooking department from the food delivery service Cooking from the Heart. It costs under $200 for nearly a month's worth of dinners delivered to us. If you prefer to cook yourself, save some shopping time by using a grocery delivery service like Peapod.

I also use the site Task Rabbit for small errands. I've had people help organize my condo, clean before a party, insulate my windows, and install a microwave. This code PAL18413 gives you $10 off your first task!

Give some thought to whether your schedule is working for or against you. For my husband and me, splitting the schedule works best. I leave the house at 5 am to beat traffic and get to the gym (my commute is 50 minutes). He drops our daughter off at daycare at 7 and heads to work. Since I start work at 7, I can leave between 3:30 and 4 for my 50-60 min. commute home. I pick our daughter up and come home. For the pickup, I carpool with a mom who goes to our daycare and keep 2 carseats in my car. Brainstorm creative ways you can ease the stress of pressure points like daycare pickup in your schedule.

For the small amount of time spent with family in the evening, I try to just turn off or ignore my phone and enjoy that time. I like to make the bath and story time part of our evening ritual.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


I've had several friends approach me for tips on networking. While it's hard for me to put my specific tips or networking style into writing, since it's more of an in-person thing, I figured I would give it my best shot.

First of all, decide the reason for your desire to network. Are you doing it just to expand your professional circle, or are you trying to find your next job? The urgency of your situation might determine how aggressive you want your networking approach to be. I always prefer low-pressure networking, when I have a job that I like and I'm just exploring to meet like-minded people and get some new perspectives. Understanding your reason for networking will allow you to choose an event that may be worth your time.

Find out if anyone you know is in the area of the event. I sent out an email yesterday to a couple of my former coworkers and was lucky enough to run into one at the local coffee shop. It made my day to see her smiling face and we caught up quickly before she began her workday and I began mine. Thanks for the coffee! 

Take time to enjoy your surroundings, no matter how briefly. I love walking through the streets of Cambridge, observing the interesting discussions going on around me and adding new books to my reading list at the MIT Coop.

I attended a networking event this morning, the Boston Tech breakfast.

It was my first time attending the event, and I heard some really interesting new business ideas, and also met some fascinating people. I also used the opportunity to invite along an existing colleague in my network, and he was happy that he made time for the event too.

If you are attending an event with a specific objective, such as a job search, it can be helpful to do a search of the attendee list and pick out a few different people you hope to meet at the event. It doesn't hurt to contact these people in advance, or follow up with them after the event if you don't have the opportunity during.

Make sure to listen attentively during the event, rather than following distractions on your smartphone. The presenter at this morning's events gave attendees the opportunity to speak about their situation, and one woman mentioned that she was looking for a program management job. I followed up with her after the presentations since she is in my field. We had a really interesting conversation about the PMP certification, lean six Sigma, and bridging the gap between technical and business-minded people. I was able to pass on a couple of resume and interviewing tips that I hope will be helpful in her job search.

Smile! Be open to any opportunity to meet someone new. While waiting to speak to the organizer of the event to see if I could help him to ask my company to sponsor an upcoming tech breakfast, I met a person from the Swiss Consulate who is looking to support new startups. We had a fun conversation, and I got to practice my French to boot.

If you are typically a shy introvert, give yourself a little pep talk before you enter the meeting. Then fake an extroverted personality until you make it.

See if you can connect with someone by trying to find a shared interest. Ask questions about the person, such as why they attended the event. People love to talk about themselves, so listen with attentiveness and see what you find in common. 

Many times, these small conversations at networking events don't lead to anything, but that is missing the point. I always find them engaging and inspiring. It's an excellent way to stay involved in my field and meet new people. 

I love to deviate from my routine and try something new, or take the chance to revisit something I enjoy. Today I had an excellent lunch at Penang, which I rarely get the opportunity to because my family doesn't enjoy Malaysian food. While the lunch or networking event by themselves don't necessarily equate to higher productivity, I always come away with a new idea or two. Today I found out about a cool new whiteboarding app startup I'm going to try to beta test with my team. I feel like a change of scenery and new experiences gained from networking really enhance my life and expand my horizons, both personally and professionally.

Monday, May 5, 2014

More on mindfulness

I just finished a book, 10% Happier by Dan Harris, that helped evolve my perspective on mindfulness. I won't hold it against Harris that he attended my alma mater's arch nemesis Colby College. He had some interesting things to say on mindfulness. He started out as very skeptical and critical of Zen attitudes and meditation, and ended up on a transformative journey that led him to write this memoir. He embraced the parts of mindfulness that worked for him and left the rest. Harris's final view on meditation evolved into a very self-serving model. Yet how could he avoid this when he is hawking books on meditation for profit?

What resonated with me the most was Harris's struggle with a Zen mindset conflicting with his ambition. He finally comes to the conclusion that "Striving is fine, as long as it's tempered by the realization that, in an entropic universe, the final outcome is out of your control."

A mindfulness misconception I've encountered is that being mindful means ignoring your responsibilities, or burning your to do list. Rather, mindfulness to me means being grateful for what you have in the present moment and compartmentalizing and letting the other stuff go, while still dealing with your to do list over time. It will always be there waiting for you. But the precious moments of life won't, if you ignore them. Mindfulness is realizing the impermanence of every moment, and bearing witness. It's tempting to live elsewhere, to judge yourself on past accomplishments or tasks done. Just as seductive is falling into the expectations trap of "I'll just be happy when ... [insert accomplishment, coveted purchase, etc.]." Isn't that type of happiness always fleeting, though?

I've had a lot of important pieces of my life up in the air over the last several months: where I live, work, and send my daughter to school. Struggling through these challenges, all of which were not totally under my control, allowed me to practice my mindfulness. This was not an easy time for me, though I feel very fortunate that everything turned out better than I could have hoped. Now, on the other side of these changes, I can see that my daily worry was not fruitful, and that time could have been better spent practicing gratitude. Still, that type of judgement about my past thought process is not very Zen, either. I can only resolve to remind myself to ask, "Is this thought useful?" as worries inevitably enter my consciousness going forward.

I tend to think of my setbacks in my life like a mosquito, an annoying, buzzing sound that will go away if I swat at it or ignore it. But that's a short sighted approach, and I find the same issues keep popping up over and over. As Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says, “Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” (recently quoted by Kate Hanley at Ms. Mind Body). In cases like this, it's important to assess what this challenge is trying to teach me? Maybe it's two steps forward, one step back for a good reason.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


I met Margaret Atwood yesterday. I still can't believe I just typed that. I saw a few weeks ago that she was appearing at the Brattle St. Theatre in Harvard Square before a showing of the movie based on her epic book The Handmaid's Tale. I bought 2 tickets immediately and eagerly anticipated the event. Since we are moving in 2 weeks, the 2 hardcover copies of The Robber Bride I keep in my library as my go-to birthday gift are packed away in storage, so I had to visit the Harvard Coop to pick up a couple of paperbacks in case I was lucky enough to get an autograph. My dear friend agreed to go with me and we waited in line to get in, and got some excellent seats a few rows back near the middle. I was sitting there, waiting for the show to start, when I realized that Margaret Atwood was seated 10 feet away across the aisle, and only 1-2 people were waiting to talk to her! I immediately scrambled into the ad hoc line and chatted with the woman in front of me about how awesome Margaret Atwood is. She mentioned that she felt she was a Canadian national treasure. I grabbed my purse from my friend so I could try to get a photo, which the girl in front of me took and I reciprocated. I gave her my card so she could email me for her photo.

When I got to sit next to Ms. Atwood, I said what an honor it was to meet her, and told her that she is my all-time favorite author. I said that I wrote my honors English thesis at Bates College about The Robber Bride and The Handmaid's Tale, and that I'd won a grant to travel to Toronto to photocopy her original manuscripts so I could analyze the notes. She replied, "That sounds like a lot of work!"As she signed my books, she commented on my name, Charis "like the character in The Robber Bride," and I told her, yes, that's why I originally read the book, except you pronounce my name Charis not Karis like the character. Fortunately, I had practiced what I would tell her with my friend over dinner at the Beat Hotel, a poorly named bar and not hotel but a good restaurant around the corner (try the buffalo cauliflower appetizer!). The practice run alleviated some of the jitters and allowed me to be slightly less starstruck in the face of greatness.

We watched The Handmaid's Tale, which stood up better than I expected. Atwood's introduction of the movie was so insightful. She mentioned that the voiceovers of Natasha Richardson were removed, which was supposed to convey an inner dialogue, and that the late actress had been annoyed about this because she thought it made the silences that had been voiced over seem awkward. She also mentioned that many people were disappointed with the ending, which deviated from the original. Lastly, she told the audience that a TV series of The Handmaid's Tale is in the works! I was on cloud nine the entire evening, and still am! I'm going to try to find out how to get in touch with my Bates English thesis advisor so I can share this blog and photo.

Thanks to Marie for suggesting this blog topic!