Back up your computer every day 
Friday, January 19, 2007, 10:58 AM - Computers, E-mail, Links, Software, Technology
I've learned from experience that almost every computer, at some point, will crash, whether the hard drive fails or something goes wrong with the operating system. Unless you're highly familiar with computer hardware and software, and you can diagnose problems before they manifest themselves, it is in your best interest to back up your data every day.

For personal computers, I recommend SyncBack, a free program from 2BrightSparks. (There's also a full version, SyncBack SE, which is not free.) After installing it, you can create a profile that will specify what files to back up and where to copy them - preferably an external hard drive, although you can send the files off-site via FTP, which is a viable option if you have the connection speed and the necessary disk space. You can automate each backup using the Scheduled Tasks tool in Windows; I've got mine scheduled for every evening, right after I finish work.

To make backups easier, I've separated my hard drive into two partitions; the C drive is home to my programs and computer settings, and the D drive is where I keep all my files, include:

- Business and personal documents
- Digital photos and music
- Work (local copies of the web sites I've developed)
- E-mail (Outlook PST files)
- Synchronized files from my PDA
- Downloaded files

If you run a server, a tape backup is nice, but you're probably better off with a remote backup, in case of fire or some other disaster. A server can connect with an FTP site a lot faster than a personal computer can, so you can usually run a backup script overnight without too many problems. There are plenty of online services that offer backup space, but you can usually get a better deal with a web hosting company.

For example, my company currently offers web hosting plans starting at $9.95/month for 5GB of space.

Even if your computer doesn't die any time soon, it's likely that you'll be replacing your computer within the next three to five years. When that happens, you'll be happy that you have all of your files backed up automatically, which will make it much easier to transition to your new computer.

I've also found it helpful to have immediate access to files that I accidentally overwrite or delete, realizing shortly thereafter that I made a mistake and need to undo my work.

If all of this sounds like a lot of work, just remember, it's nothing compared to the work and expense involved in recovering data from a computer that won't boot, or attempting rebuilding all of your important files.
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Get a Headset for Your Cordless Phone 
Friday, September 29, 2006, 04:28 PM - Phone, Reviews, Technology, Work Habits
I recently bought a headset for my cordless phone, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Because I work at a computer, and often have to type while on the phone, I got really tired of constantly wedging the phone between my left ear and my shoulder. Even worse, I think it might have caused a bit of damage to my left ear, having used it exclusively and probably at too high a volume.

Before I was self-employed, I worked in an office where a sales associate wore a headset all day, and I thought it looked ridiculous. (It is important to point out that I have an aversion to gadgets and habits that people use to feel more important than they really are, or to feel more "high-tech" than their coworkers. Hands-free phone devices have always been high on my list.)

However, I decided that something like this might actually be useful, if not a necessity, so I went ahead and picked up a basic GE headset that retails for about $20. It has a padded ear piece on one side (which I generally use on my right ear), a microphone that extends out near my chin, and a volume control and mute button on the cord that connects to the phone's handset.

So far it's been fantastic. I can put the phone in my pocket and walk around, type as much as I want, and relax my head and shoulders when I'm talking to someone. The telephone has become my friend instead of an irritation.

If you sit at a desk and use a phone for more than a half hour a day, stop by your nearest office supply or electronics store and check out the options that are available, including wireless headsets and hands-free phones. Just remember - whatever you end up using, make sure you don't appear to be talking to yourself (i.e., no earpieces), and don't wear it when you're not on the phone. Otherwise you'll look like a jerk.
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Outlook Tip - Defer E-mails to Prevent Mistakes and Omissions 
Friday, June 2, 2006, 10:23 AM - E-mail
Have you sent an e-mail and then immediately realized that you forgot to proofread, left something out, or otherwise goofed up?

A great suggestion from Defer your outgoing e-mail messages by 2 minutes. You can accomplish this in Outlook with the Rules and Alerts tool.

In Outlook 2003, you can set up this rule by clicking Tools > Rules and Alerts > New Rule . First, select "Start from a blank rule" and then choose the option for "Check messages after sending". You don't need to select any conditions, so click the Next button, which will take you to a list of actions. Select "defer delivery by a number of minutes", and click "a number of" to set the number of minutes to 2. After that, click Next a couple more times, give your rule a name, and then click Finish.

I have a tendency to accidentally press Ctrl + Enter when I type messages, which is a shortcut that immediately sends the message. Usually this is no more than a nuisance for the recipient, but sometimes my image is on the line; for instance, when I'm responding to a prospective client, or when I'm addressing an important issue with several people. This rule will help me avoid potential embarrassment from an incomplete or incomprehensible e-mail.
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How to Take a Real Vacation 
Thursday, June 1, 2006, 11:20 AM - E-mail, Life/Work Balance, Phone, Small Business
Now that summer is knocking on the door, vacation planning goes into high gear for many of us, including myself. Here are some tips on how business owners and freelancers can get the most out of their vacations, including a few things I learned the hard way.

1. Don't be directly accessible to clients. You are not really on vacation if you're taking calls from clients or co-workers. If you must remain accessible, ask a trusted colleague to act as a go-between. Your colleague will be able to handle certain requests without contacting you, and can filter out issues that aren't so urgent. This will help convey to clients that your vacation is to be respected, while still giving them some peace of mind while you're away.

2. Tell people in advance. Make sure that everyone you work with on a regular basis knows that you'll be leaving. Notify them far enough in advance that they have the opportunity to tie up any urgent loose ends, and provide them with information on who to contact in your absence.

3. Make sure you can be reached in case of emergency. There will always be times when you're out of reach - on a plane or cruise, driving through the wilderness, or if your cell phone battery runs out. In most cases, however, there's a way that you can be reached, so make it a point to leave your contact information with the people who need you. If you're out of the country, leave the telephone number of your hotel, or the name of the ship that you're cruising with.

4. Avoid e-mail. Before you leave, set up an automated response so that anyone who e-mails you will be notified of your absence. Make sure to include your date of return, an e-mail address for general service requests (if applicable), and a phone number of someone who can be reached in the event of an emergency. While you're away, do everything in your power to avoid checking your e-mail. If you can't resist the computer, use a personal e-mail account to keep in touch with folks back home. If you do check your business e-mail, you probably won't be able to stop thinking about all the little things that could wait until you get home. Even worse, if you respond to someone, you're essentially telling them that you are not on vacation after all. It's just not worth it. Remember, your clients and co-workers will know that their requests will have to wait, and they will have other ways of getting assistance anyway.

(A note for those who do not manage their own e-mail accounts: Make sure that your IT/hosting administrator is aware of your vacation several days in advance of your departure. If you request an autoresponder the night before you leave, it probably won't be set up until some time after your inbox starts filling up.)

5. Avoid the phone. You should also record a new outgoing voice message before you leave, with all the details that are included in your automated e-mail response. It's important to keep a cell phone with you, so that you can be reached by those who have your number, but don't give out your cell phone number in your voice mail greeting!

6. Get some good help. If you really want to leave your worries behind, it's vital that you have a support system in place. Train a co-worker, friend or contractor to handle the important, day-to-day functions of your job. Consider writing it down in the form a guidebook; for example, I provide each of my staff members with an Administrative Manual that includes access information for each web site and server that we manage, along with instructions on what to do in case of certain crises.

7. Fear not! Even if you have all your ducks in a row, it can be difficult to relax and let go of things back home. But let's face it: If your work was that important, you probably wouldn't be able to take a vacation in the first place. Odds are, nothing serious will go wrong while you're away, and your clients and co-workers will be respectful of your right to have some time off - if you set the right boundaries.

I learned most of these lessons during a Baltic Sea cruise that I took with my family two years ago. I had minimal access to e-mail, no way to be reached by phone, and my colleagues weren't fully prepared to handle any problems that might come up. I was a nervous wreck for several days.

By contrast, I recently took a ten-day vacation through parts of Nevada and California, and even though a few small issues popped up, I didn't check my business e-mail or voice mail a single time, and felt no need to do so. It was a wonderful trip.

Remember, the purpose of a vacation is to relax and recharge. But vacations take work - you can spend a little time preparing, or you can take your work with you. We all deserve the chance to occasionally be free from our to-do list, and more importantly, from our work-related thoughts and concerns.
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Protect Your Online Content 
Wednesday, May 24, 2006, 10:13 AM - Links, Reviews
It's very easy to plagiarize on the Web, but now it's going to be a lot harder to get away with it. Copyscape, an online service by the makers of Google Alert, can help you discover who is using your content - even if it's not exactly identical. Just enter the URL of a particular page, and if there are any matches, you can see which words have been lifted directly from your site.

Copyscape also has a guide on what to do if you find that your work has been plagiarized, as well as a forum where you can discuss your experiences with others.
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Managing Time Thieves, Part 1 - The Phone 
Tuesday, May 23, 2006, 11:57 AM - Phone, Work Habits
We all know people who have nothing better to do but take up our time. One of the favorite devices of these time thieves is the telephone.

In many cases, if I'm stuck on the phone with a client, I can bill the client for my time, when appropriate. But it doesn't always work that way, especially with small businesses and non-profits who have limited resources and are simply calling for advice or to chat. So how do I protect my time without ignoring or disrespecting the person who keeps calling?

Fortunately, most people are intelligent, and are capable of changing how they interact with you, if you set the right example. Here are a few techniques that have worked for me:

1. As a general rule, if you are providing anything of value during a phone conversation with a client, make sure to bill the client fairly for your time. Of course, it's important to not nickel-and-dime the people you serve, but if someone is calling you repeatedly for 15-30 minutes at a time, it is usually not unreasonable to charge them for the service you are providing them. Some clients understand this inherently, and so it's up to you to simply log your time, but others need to have this concept explained in a kind way. For example, "I want to let you know that I am happy to help you with anything you need, but I also need to be a good steward of my own time, so I'm going to have to start charging for phone consultations that take more than 10 minutes." Of course, make sure you actually follow through on this; otherwise, their behavior will change.

2. Most people have a reason for calling you, so you shouldn't just ignore someone if they're calling too much or keeping you on the phone for too long. However, it's important to keep them in check, because it's unfair to you and to your other clients/friends/employees if someone is hogging your time. One way I try to get around this is to limit certain people to only one or two phone calls per day. (Of course, you will need Caller ID to do this.) After that limit is reached, let them leave a voice message and call them back the next morning. This way, it's clear that you're not hiding from the person, but it also sends the message that you are not at their beck and call.

3. Another way to control your time on the phone is to make and accept calls only during certain hours. I would suggest early morning (8:30-9:30 a.m.) and/or late afternoon (4-5 p.m.) - times when you're unlikely to be bothered, but are still within normal business hours. And never take calls at an inappropriate hour (such as 9 p.m.) unless it's someone who clearly respects your time and would have a good reason for calling.

4. If someone keeps calling you without leaving a message, you are under no obligation to return their call. However, if it becomes a nuisance, just answer the phone, tell them that you're in the middle of something (or some other truthful statement), and ask them to send you a quick e-mail or to call back at a specific time - preferably the next day, if it's not urgent.

5. On your outgoing voice message, provide a less intrusive way to reach you, such as your e-mail address. Better yet, if there are certain issues that one of your colleagues or employees (e.g. an executive assistant or business partner) frequently handles on your behalf, provide that person's information as well.

Whatever you do, the most important thing is to be respectful, and make it clear that you aren't dodging the other person (unless your goal is to completely get rid of them). A true professional should be able to treat others with class and kindness, even in difficult situations.

I invite your feedback. Have you tried any of these techniques, or had success with other methods?
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An Introduction 
Saturday, May 20, 2006, 04:29 PM - Life/Work Balance
Welcome to Three Sea Shells. My name is Tom Nagel, and I'm the proprietor of a pair of small businesses, most notably Midwest New Media, LLC, a web development firm based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Over the years, I have learned a lot about running a small business and dealing with an ever-growing workload. I know I am not alone in my attempts to manage a busy schedule and maintain a healthy balance between life and work (and not the other way around). And I also know a lot of people who are working hard to get their own businesses off the ground.

The purpose of this web site is to document and share ideas and tips on how to be productive and efficient, whether you're a fellow business owner or someone who simply wishes there were more hours in a day.

I do not pretend to be an expert, and I know I don't have all the answers. My hope is that this site is an encouragement as well as a resource, so feel free to share your own thoughts and tell me what works for you.
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