Manage my time and business
July 27, 2016 11:55 AM   Subscribe

The short version: I need help figuring out time management, project management, prioritization, and customer relationship management (CRM). I missed the adulting lessons growing up, and have no clue how to do all this. I've read every time management thread in Ask. But snowflakes abound.

I have a direct sales business that I love. Currently about 150 customers, working on expanding. I also have volunteer work that's incredibly important to me, and I'm taking college courses. I need help figuring out how to prioritize, manage time, keep track of projects in the three main time categories, and handle CRM. I've been trying to handle it all between notebooks, paper filing systems, databases on two different websites (neither of which gives me the functionality I'm after), and best guesses. I want it all online and shareable with my assistant. I primarily use a desktop computer running Windows 10. My tablet is great for when I'm away from my desk, but requires wifi for internet service.

All of this is complicated by disability. I spend 95% of my time in my bedroom. Between physical and mental illnesses, I can only work on anything for 2 hours at a time. After that 2 hours, I have to get away from the computer and lie down for 2-3 hours. Among the symptoms I experience is memory loss, so everything has to be notated somewhere. If I need to follow up with Susan B. Anthony, there has to be a record that I need to do so, otherwise, I'll never speak with her again.

I'll use business as my example, but I have sub-projects and sub-sub-projects in all three umbrellas (business, volunteer, school).

Business - The big project headings are things like: Contact 3 month reorder customers. Contact referrals from John Q Public. Train assistant on how to process incoming inventory.

CRM, primarily for business, but also for medical folks - Has to tell me when appointments are, when I have to follow up, when birthdays are, when I contacted George W. Bush, what type of contact it was, what the message was, when he replied, what the result was. I need to know if we're connected on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MeFi, or GeoCities. If I go pull up W, I need the entirety of our business relationship at my fingertips.

My goal is to do something in each umbrella every day. Please tell me what apps or websites will teach me how to keep all this straight (preferably free/very cheap), so my business doesn't run off the rails, my volunteering is productive both for me and those I'm helping, my grades stay up, and my assistant doesn't want to kill me.

(I'm trying to keep things in broader strokes, hoping for a wider range of suggestions.)
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess to Work & Money (4 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
We use a bug tracker to keep track of things at home, from getting termite inspectors out to look at the house to planning vacations. I just recently switched from various lists to a bug tracker (different project in the same instance) for my writing and volunteer stuff. It's awesome.

We use Jira but there are lots (Redmine, Pivotal Tracker, Asana, Trello, etc.) and some are free. If you have a technical person who can set it up for you, that's awesome. If not, you can probably do some research and find instructions for how to do it online.

There's some initial mental investment when setting it up (what's your definition of a story or an epic? Do you want to use Kanban boards? How long do you want your sprints to be?) but I've found it to be great overall.

On every ticket, you should be able to write comments, attach files, etc., etc. - pretty much all you need to store the history of a particular small task or big project - and to connect them to each other with tags and labels. They should also have a search function, so you can pull up everything that mentions Susan B. Anthony, for example.

You should also be able to have a login for you and a login for your assistant, with separate permissions (if you want).

I've worked at startups that use bug trackers and my husband is a software engineer, so I'm probably biased toward being comfortable with these, but I think they can do a lot of what you want. They're specifically designed to let folks keep track of a whole lot of moving parts in one place. In my experience, if you ask an engineer to do something, they say "file a ticket :)" because they want all their to-dos in one place.

If you're not familiar with the concept of a bug tracker, here are a bunch of links that came up in a few quick Google searches. I didn't read through them, so I'm not sure how helpful they'll be, and some may be outdated, but they might point you in a good direction for further research.

Wikipedia definition
Stack Overflow thread
Bugherd (purportedly a simple bug tracker)
Sifter (purportedly another simple bug tracker)
Quora question 1 on using bug trackers for non-techies
Quora question 2 on using bug trackers for small businesses
Slashdot question on using bug trackers for non-techies

Good luck, and much admiration for all the plates you're spinning! You rock!
posted by bananacabana at 1:43 PM on July 27, 2016

How about something like Basecamp and/or Highrise? Unless you're fairly technical and willing to install, maintain, secure, and admin a self-hosted solution, I'd be looking at a hosted application. You may spend a bit more money up-front, but you'll potentially save yourself a lot of headaches and misery down the road.

Given that your business is one of the main focuses, I'd give Highrise a look first. From a quick glance, it seems to do pretty much everything you need, although I didn't get a good sense of how it does project management. Their low-end plan is $288/year, which is a fairly trivial amount if you're making actual money off your business.

Basecamp seems to be more project management oriented, but it looks like you can organize tasks and reminders. It looks to be more expensive than Highrise ($348/year), but seems to do more stuff. Both products have a free trial, so you could take them for a test drive and see which one worked for you.

Note - I've not used either of these products, but they're been around forever and have a pretty loyal following. And there is a lot to be said for having someone else host these kinds of systems.

If you're looking for information on how to manage your time and your projects, then that's more difficult. You could pick a methodology like GTD, implement that, and then cast off the parts that don't work for you as you go along, adding in things that do. I work better with lists and checklists than I do anything else, so my project and time management revolves around that kind of setup. My boss just keeps a running list of everything and works from that, and our boss somehow manages to use his e-mail as a project/task manager. So a lot will depend on your personal mindset and what works for you, and sometimes the only way to find that out is to try something, realize it doesn't work, and move on to something else. It doesn't have to be perfect right out of the gate.
posted by ralan at 10:28 AM on July 28, 2016

I have been thinking about your question for a couple of days.

Let me suggest you try to make better use of things that are already familiar. That will most likely be the the easiest path forward and the most likely to stick. Putting lots of time and effort into developing a system will take time away from other things and may not be sustainable. You need easy answers that you will stick with.

Exploring additional uses for familiar applications has been the most effective means for me go get better at this stuff. Like you, I have medical issues and one problem this causes is forgetfulness. I need reminders, something I never needed in my twenties. I just kept everything in my head when I was younger.

I have tried a variety of To Do apps and they do not stick. I email myself reminders, email my sons and, because I do a lot with Blogger anyway so it is familiar, I have created several private blogs that either only I can access or I and my sons. I can post useful links in the side bar, make posts about specific clients and what is relevant to the work I do for them and so on.

If you have a Gmail account, it gives you access to a To Do list, contact list, etc. I really do not use those features, but it sounds like it might make sense for you. I have, at times, made To Do lists in Gmail and that wasn't totally pointless, but the other thing I have done is just arrange my life where I get email notifications for all kinds of things and this helps me follow up on things relevant to my work and personal projects.

My personal projects would be sort of equivalent to your volunteer work, though with potential to generate income if I get my act more together. But, mostly, I am doing stuff I believe in without pay for now, but that does mean I sometimes need to follow up with people. Most of my need for follow up shows up in my inbox as an automatic notification of some sort.

Also, you might consider downshifting your commitments temporarily in order to prioritize getting your mental and physical health more stable. That is my single highest priority and working on that is yielding results in terms of improved functionality leading to improved income and more progress on my personal projects. There is no cure for my condition and I expect to always work only part time, but I am more able to focus when I do work and I am more able to work consistently. On a good day, I can get two to six hours of paid work done, plus up to two hours of "administrative" type tasks plus up to two hours of working on my projects. That doesn't mean I am working ten hour days. At most, I probably work eight hours on various things on a really good day. But Iget a great deal more done than I used to do.

But, it took time and still takes time to improve my functionality. I have arranged my life where I can prioritize taking care of myself. That's part of why I do personal projects these days. When I was younger, I did a lot of volunteer work. But volunteer work tends to impose on my schedule and on me in a way that personal projects do not. I work on personal projects when I feel like it, as much as I feel like and I get notification emails for comments and other interactions from other people. Then I decide whether or not I really need to respond in some manner to those things. It is easier for me to deal with those things.

posted by Michele in California at 10:12 AM on July 29, 2016

I recommend reading the following books:

1. Getting Things Done: Will help you manage your time and learn how to do basic project management for your life and work. After I read it I bought Omnifocus and it helps me a lot.
2. Work the system: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Workingless. It will help you automate most of your processes making you more effective.
3. The 4 hour workweek: Will help you further on the automation route.

For the time being recommend you cut back on some activities..outside of work and within work. Learn how to say no and take it from there.
posted by The1andonly at 8:59 PM on July 31, 2016

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