Using a Daily Routine to Maximize Productivity

Some things that work for me might work for you, too.

BooksI’ve been a freelance writer since I left my last full-time job in 1990. While freelancing might sound great to the folks who punch a clock or work some version of the typical 9 to 5 grind, it’s not all about working in your pajamas and goofing off in coffee shops. It more about finding work that pays and getting the work done on time. If you’re a good freelancer, you’re doing those two things every working day. If you’re not, you’re probably not earning a living as a freelancer.

My Background as a Writer

Peachpit Logo
Lynda.com

My career has followed what might look like a bell curve. A slow start in 1990 with a steep rise in the late 1990s that peaked in the mid 2000s and began a decline in 2006 or so. This is mostly because the market for what I wrote — computer how-to books for beginning to intermediate users — has gone into decline, pushed into obsolescence by the rise of Google, Internet based software support, and video how-to. I was fortunate enough to hop on the video train in 2006 and have authored a number of videos for a great organization, Lynda.com. I still do this and I really enjoy it. But the heydays of writing about computers is definitely over.

Fortunately, I still have enough of a reputation as a writer that I can get opportunities to write short how-to articles and blog posts for paying markets. I did quite a few of these over the years, but lost interest in 2011 and hit a mental road block in 2012 that made it very difficult to write much of anything. I’ve worked my way though that now, mostly out of necessity. My recovery is due, in part, to two new editorial contacts that have offered me money for fresh content. Because my other work as a helicopter pilot is seasonal and very slow in the winter months, I’m embracing these new opportunities. My book and video course royalties only go so far.

Unfortunately, I’m also still “flaking out” once in a while — basically dropping the ball on opportunities I should consider myself lucky to get. As I told one of my editors the other day, I’m my own worst enemy. When I’m focused, I can write good content very quickly — my editors are always happy with what I send. The trick is getting and staying focused long enough to get the job done.

And that brings me to today’s topic: setting up and sticking to a routine.

My Current Routine

I am a morning person. I have been for longer than I can remember. I wake up early and work best before noon. This becomes extremely important as I try to maximize productivity and still have time to take care of the other important things in my life — like the construction of my new home, socializing with friends, and exploring new hobbies like beekeeping and warm glass work.

That said, I generally wake between 4 and 6 AM. (Yes, I know that’s pretty freaking early, but that’s the way things are these days. I haven’t set an alarm clock in years.) I usually stay in bed until at least 5; if I wake before that, I check in on Twitter and Facebook on my iPad before getting out of bed. I’ll also check the weather and my calendar for the day. (More on the calendar in a moment.)

After taking care of bathroom stuff, I head into the kitchen to make coffee, wash the few dishes that might be in the sink, and feed Penny the Tiny Dog. Sometimes I’ll make breakfast, too.

I take my coffee and breakfast to the kitchen table where I spend some quiet time writing in my journal about the previous day’s activities and thoughts. (If you think I share a lot here and on social networks, you should read my journal. This blog is the tip of a very deep iceberg. I’ve already made arrangements to have it published when I die.)

By 7 AM, I’m at my desk working. I try to spend a solid 4-6 hours writing. I’ll try to write work I can sell first, but if nothing comes to mind, I’ll write in my blog about something that’s been on my mind. Sometimes that stimulates my mind enough to trigger ideas for a piece I can sell.

Yesterday was an extremely productive day. By 8 AM, I’d already written a 450-word illustrated how-to article for an editor, a short illustrated blog post for this blog, and a brief proposal for a new video course. I’d gotten an early start — I was at my desk by 5 — but I was still pleasantly surprised.

Distraction is my enemy and it takes many forms. Social media is the worst. Using the Internet to research and shop for things that interest me comes next. Reading old blog posts comes after that. If I’m not careful, these activities can blow hours of my day.

Oops! I’m back. Just lost 30 minutes doing all of the above. Seriously. I wish I were kidding.

The key is to not allow distractions to take you away from your work. Face it: if a task takes 4 hours to complete and you blow away 2 hours on distractions, you now have a 6-hour work day. Wouldn’t you rather finish your work and have the rest of the day off to deal with other things, including those distractions? I know I would. But sometimes it’s difficult to avoid them.

(This is something that’s been on my mind for a while. In 2007, I blogged “5 Tips for Staying Focused.” And in 2009, I blogged “Writing Tips: Avoiding Distractions.”)

When I’m done with the task at hand and have nothing on my calendar to take me away from my desk, if I’m on a roll I try hard to keep working. Yesterday, after a lengthy midday distraction, I made several false starts on a blog post for an aviation blog, started to write a different flying-related blog post for my own blog, and realized what I was writing for my blog might work for the other blog. I pasted the text from my blog composition software — yes, I still use ecto — to Microsoft Word and finished it up. I sent it in and crossed my fingers that it’s accepted. If it isn’t, no sweat; I’ll publish it here on this blog and write something else.

I should mention my calendar and its importance in all this. Because I do my best work in the morning, I try to schedule all my non-work activities for the afternoon. This reserves the morning time for work. I also put everything on my calendar, mostly because I forget scheduled responsibilities if I don’t. And I use to do list software that automatically syncs between my Mac, iPhone, and iPad to keep track of tasks that need to be done and maintain a shopping list. (I should probably blog about that one day, too.)

Yesterday I had to run errands down in the valley (on my to do list), buy a few items (on my to do list), and join some friends for dinner and pumpkin carving (on my calendar). Because I was determined to finish that blog post before I joined my friends and because I allowed midday distractions to eat into my work time, I arrived late for the social activities and only ran two of three errands.

That’s my basic routine: Wake early, coffee, journaling, and writing work in the morning; personal and social activities in the afternoon and evening.

I should mention here that I’ve tried working in the afternoon after something takes up my morning and I simply can’t do it. There’s something about the morning that makes me more productive and enables me to stay more focused. When I sit at my desk in the afternoon, I can’t even get started. The distracting influences are simply calling too loudly.

I should also mention that the short days I experience here in Central Washington State make it very easy to occupy myself at my desk in the early morning. The sun rose this morning at 7:43. (Of course, next week, when we change the clocks, that’ll drop back to 6:43.) But, on average, I’m awake for two or more hours before the sun rises here in the late autumn, winter, and early spring. If I’m not working at my desk, what else could I be doing when it’s still dark out? To me, I’m spending the least useful part of the day doing something that helps me earn a living, leaving the most useful part of the day available to do other things. In the summer, of course, things are very different — and so is my routine.

Setting Up Your Routine

That’s my routine. Now think of yours.

First of all, consider when your best work period is. I’m certainly not suggesting that you wake before 6 and hit the keyboard. (Hell, I wish I didn’t do it.) That works for me but it won’t work for everyone.

Once you know when that golden productivity time is, schedule your day around it. Make that period of time sacred, a time when the only thing you’ll do is work-related. Follow the suggestions in the two posts I linked to above to minimize distractions. Know that distractions will only lengthen your time at your desk. Don’t allow yourself to leave a task unfinished if it only needs another hour or two of your undivided attention to get done. Finishing tasks is extremely rewarding.

If you finish early and have other tasks to complete, do them! Do enough of them and you might get a whole day off.

Ddo your best to make each day’s work schedule pretty much the same, creating a routine. This adds a rhythm to your life that should make it easier to get work done.

What do you think? Use the comments link or form to share your thoughts and tips.

Damaged Evernote Images Email Scam

I’m so tired of writing about these, but I really do feel a need to share and inform.

The other day, I got a very short email message from “Support” that claimed I had damaged images. There was a link apparently to the image. A footnote had an Evernote copyright. Here’s the whole thing:

Email Scam
This is the entire message.

Yes, I do use Evernote. But I don’t put images there. So it was pretty easy for me to expect a scam.

How to Be Sure

Here’s how I knew for sure it was a scam. Pay attention, newbies!

Who is it from?

Address
Evernote Support’s email is debra@tazland.net? I don’t think so.

The first thing I did was click the name in the from field. In Mail on my Mac, that displays a menu that includes the email address of the sender. This is obviously not Evernote support. It’s an idiot scammer.

What is the link really to?

Link
This is not a link to an image. It’s a link to a PHP file that can install malware on your computer.

Just because text is colored and looks like a link doesn’t mean it links to what the text says. In Mail on a Mac, I can point to the link and wait until a popup appears, telling me exactly where the link goes. Never click a link to a PHP file. It could install malware on your computer.

The same thing goes for buttons. Point to see where it goes before clicking. This button goes to the same place as the link text above it.

What Evernote Says

Enough people reported this problem to Evernote that they have a knowledge base article about it. You can find it here.

Be Careful Out There!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times more: never click a link in an email message unless you know for sure that it was sent by someone you know and trust. Even then there could be issues if that person’s account was hacked.

An Apple ID Hack Attempt

Two unrelated incidents? Maybe.

The other day, after having lunch with a friend, I happened to check my email. There were two messages from Apple’s iCloud service, which I’ve been a user of since its first incarnation more than 10 years ago.

I should mention first that I actively use about six different email addresses and have another six or so more that I seldom check or use. The bulk of my email comes to a throw-away address on one of my domain names. Only good friends, family members, and important folks like my divorce lawyers have my keeper email addresses, including the one on Apple’s servers which I use with the @mac.com domain.

The messages were from Apple and I’m pretty sure they were real. Here’s the first:

Hack Attempt 1
First message I got warning of a hack attempt.

In case you can’t read it, it tells me that I recently initiated a password reset for my Apple ID and gives me a link to reset my password.

I looked at the URL in the link. It looked real. But I didn’t click it. I didn’t need to. I hadn’t initiated a password reset for my account.

Apparently, someone else had.

I have to admit that I first thought of my wasband and the desperate old whore he’s living with these days. Back in January or February, they’d hacked into one of my old investment accounts, probably searching for funds for their never-ending legal battle to steal what I’ve worked hard for my whole life. I’d found out because they’d actually gotten in — I’d been foolish enough to put his name on the account when I thought I could trust him — and changed the security questions for the account. I’d been automatically emailed about the change by the investment company, thus exposing their little trespass into an account my wasband knew was mine. Fortunately, there was nothing in there for them to take. Not long afterward, I discovered that I’d been locked out of another investment account because of too many incorrect login attempts. His name is not on that one so they couldn’t get in.

I couldn’t see any reason why they’d want to hack into my Apple account, though, other than to possibly access privileged communications between me and my lawyer. What would that get them, though? Unless they’re concerned about legal action by me against my wasband for his lies under oath in court?

About 25 minutes later, another message from Apple came through. This one told me that they couldn’t reset the password because too many unsuccessful attempts to answer my security questions.

Hack Attempt 2
This message told me that someone had gone so far as to attempt to answer my security questions.

Whoever was trying to hack my account was apparently rather determined. But why? Could some hacker be trying to access my credit card information on Apple’s account? I don’t store naked selfies — or anything else that should be kept private — on iCloud to leak onto the Internet.

I should mention here that both messages came to my throwaway email account, which is set up on my Apple account as a backup email contact. Obviously, if I didn’t have a backup email account, Apple couldn’t email me instructions for resetting my password on an account I couldn’t access. It seemed to me that security on the Apple servers had protected my account.

Overnight, another message came in. This was definitely not from Apple.

Hack Attempt 3
This message was definitely not from Apple.

How do I know at a glance that it isn’t from Apple? Let me count the ways:

  1. Dear Customer. A legitimate email message from an organization you do business with should always be addressed to your name. Not even to an email address.
  2. Message was from “Service Apple ID.” Who? The address for that account was service@customer.com. Yeah, like I believe that’s Apple.
  3. Link was to a page on chatkajamnika.com. No, I didn’t click the link to see it. If you point to a link in the Mail app, a tip comes up with the full URL inside it. ALWAYS check links before clicking them.
  4. Typos. Apple doesn’t have typographical or grammatical or punctuation errors in its messages.

What seriously creeped me out about this is that it also went to my throwaway account.

Now my throwaway account is “throwaway” for a reason. It’s the email address I use to sign up for things. As such, it’s subject to spam. The idea is that when incoming spam reaches a critical mass, I throw away the account and create a new one for the same purpose.

There is definitely a chance that the person who sent this message sent them out to everyone they could, hoping that some of them would have Apple IDs associated with the account and click the link. But what worries me is that it came on the same day that my actual Apple account was attacked. Coincidence? I don’t know, but I don’t like it. Still, I know my Apple account is secure, so I’m not losing sleep over it.

But I do want to spread the word.

Have you gotten messages like this? At least one of my Facebook friends has. Could this be a coordinated attack against people with Apple IDs? Perhaps a way to get access to their data for use with the Apple Pay system? Or something else?

I might never know. But if you have any insight about this, please do share it — or at least point me to a reliable source of information with real answers.

Apple, as we all know, is pretty much impossible to reach.

Getting the Facts Straight on Honey

A beekeeper ought to know, right?

I started keeping bees in June 2013. So, yes, it hasn’t been that long and no, I’m not an “expert” (yet). But I do know some things about bees and beekeeping and honey.

Maria the Beekeeper
This is me last year, examining a honey frame in one of my hives. Can’t believe how clean my gloves still were!

I posted a status update on Facebook yesterday that mentioned snacking on a piece of honeycomb from my beehives. The comments I got from my friends made me realize that there are some misconceptions — or simply knowledge gaps — out there about honey. I thought I’d take a few moments to clear things up.

Nature’s Perfect Food

I like to think of honey as nature’s perfect food. It’s created by nature, requires no refrigeration to preserve, and it doesn’t go bad. Smithsonian’s “The Science Behind Honey’s Eternal Shelf Life” elaborates on this. It mentions that the bees “regurgitate the nectar from their mouths into the combs combs to make honey.” But no, honey is not bee vomit.

Beeswax

Extracting Honey
In this shot, I’m scraping the wax caps off a honey frame before putting it into the extractor to the left.

Bees store honey in wax honeycomb they create. Most beekeepers use Langstroth hives that provide their bees with frames specially designed for them to create nice, neat honeycombs. This makes it easy to extract the honey using centrifugal force in a honey extractor.

Some beekeepers prefer more natural hives, such as top-bar hives, which allow the bees to create comb as they might in the wild. (I don’t know how they extract honey from natural comb. Maybe they just sell the honey in the comb.)

Bad Comb
This photo shows some natural comb made on a Langstroth frame. This is not normal. I think it was a result of the frame’s plastic surface not being properly coated with beeswax by the manufacturer. I won’t be buying my frames there anymore.

Beeswax is edible. If you buy comb honey, you can eat the entire thing. I occasionally have comb honey that I get from removing unwanted natural comb from my Langstroth hives. I eat it with a spoon, chewing it gently until the honey is gone from the wax. The wax does not stick to my teeth. It ends up as a little wax ball that I spit out (like gum). Swallowing it would not hurt me, but I don’t think there’s any reason to.

Buying Honey

The absolute best place to buy honey is at a farmer’s market. A real farmer’s market. Chances are, you’ll be buying the honey from the beekeeper.

And if you don’t think there’s a difference between store-bought honey and fresh honey from a beekeeper, think again. The first time I tasted my own honey, I threw away all the store-bought crap I had in my cabinets. Then I gave away too much of my honey and had to ration the last jar so it would last a whole year. (It didn’t.)

Raw honey is best. Don’t buy the flavored crap. Who knows what they added?

Creamed honey is honey that has been processed to control crystallization. Nothing is added. It’s just been stirred or whipped at a specific temperature.

Spending a lot of money for honey does not mean you’ll get better honey. It just means that someone’s marketing scheme worked on you.

Honey sold in glass jars is not necessarily any better than honey sold in plastic jars. In fact, many beekeepers package their honey in plastic containers — even the bear squeeze containers! — for sale because they’re cost effective, they’re lightweight, and they don’t break. Do you think it’s a good idea to shlep heavy cases of glass jars around from one farmer’s market to the next?

Storing Honey

Store honey in the container you got it in. I generally put my honey comb in plastic containers so that’s what I store it in. When I extract honey, I usually put it in quart-sized glass mason jars so that’s what I store it in.

If you’re refrigerating your honey, take it out of the refrigerator now. It doesn’t belong there. Refrigerating it can hasten crystallization. While crystallization doesn’t make the honey taste bad, it does ruin its nice, smooth texture.

If your honey gets crystalized, you can heat it to dissolve the crystals. You can do this in the microwave if you like or by putting the honey container in a bath of warm water. They crystals will come back when the honey cools.

Beekeeping Costs

The main cost of producing honey is buying the equipment: hive boxes, frames, bottoms and tops, beekeeper suit, etc. My initial investment was about $500. I’ve since spent about $1,000 more — I really do know how to throw money at a hobby — but now have what I need for six hives. You can save money by building your own bee boxes and frames.

All of the equipment is reusable, so once you’ve made the investment, the only thing you’ll spend to keep bees and make honey is your time. This year, I was neglectful — my new home under construction kept me very busy — but my bees didn’t seem to care. They did their thing — including keeping my vegetable garden pollinated — and I pulled another 6 frames of honey out of my hives. That’ll probably yield about 2-1/2 gallons.

And yes, I do hope to sell some of it. In glass jars with fancy packaging. In roadside fruit stands that cater to tourists from Seattle.

Heck, if a fancy jar and high price tag makes people think they’re getting something extra special, why not play the game?

IRS Tax Payment Rejection Scam

Are people really this stupid?

I got an email message from “TAX@irs.gov” today claiming that:

Your federal Tax payment (ID: HF2IRS598523201), recently sent from your checking account was returned by the your financial institution.

For more information, please download notification below. (Security PDF Adobe file)

http://www.feftechnicalsupport.co.uk/google/[REDACTED].php

Seriously?

Are people really stupid enough to click a link on a site based in the UK for an IRS tax issue? Are people really stupid enough to click a link to a PHP file that’s supposed to be a PDF file?

Here’s a copy of the message. If you got one of these, “raise your hand” by posting a comment below. I’m curious.

And spread the word; you have no idea how much it irks me that scammers are preying upon people dumb enough to believe crap like this.

Tax Scam Email