The things I love about my privilege to work from home

Working from home is a privilege. I have a job where that works. I can accomplish everything from my home office. I have a home office. I have a fast computer. I have three monitors. I have a speedy internet connection. I have a cat sleeping on the cat tower behind me and he’s snoring. Anyway…

My setup is very different from many other jobs. And what did we call people working hard in these jobs? We called them our “essential workers”. It was nicer to say than blue-collar jobs, perhaps? I mean maybe it included some less-blueish-collars. What it really meant was, “people who couldn’t work from home.”

So I do realize my entitlement here. Working from home is my privilege. And I’ve never felt more grateful to have it.

in my home office

Flexibility as a working mom

I work full-time and I’m present with my kids. Sure, it’s a bit of a sacrifice for all parties involved (including my spouse who cooks most of our dinners). I try to start my day early, before my kids get up. This works well for connecting with coworkers on the east coast and in Europe.

Then, I get breakfast with my kids.

After cleaning up dishes, my “commute” takes me moments, walking from the kitchen, across the hallway, into the bedroom-turned-home-office. During the school year, I have a short drive taking my kids to school. In the summertime, they’re working on projects in the other room, or with a part-time nanny.

If I need to make it to an appointment? I work it out.

If I have an evening with extra work? I work it out.

If I have a Valentine’s party in my son’s 2nd grade class? I work it out.

The company that I work for embraces this flexibility, allowing us the autonomy to set our schedules and hold ourselves accountable for our work. This better supports diversity, equity, and inclusion, too. Because of it, we have a global team that includes experts in various countries, as well as those whose lives fit better with the flexibility — a military spouse, other working moms, digital nomads, and others.

I have a good home office

In my home office I have several computers, lots of monitors, and good afternoon sun. Pre-COVID, I used to work some of my days at a coworking space, taking my laptop with me. I do miss that. It was aesthetically pleasing, a place to connect with other working women, and even provided on-site, drop-in daycare for my preschooler.

My home office setup is really nice. I have three monitors for my main PC. Call me excessive! I set them all on monitor risers for good ergonomics. Then, I have a separate desktop connected to an old flat-screen TV mounted on the wall. The keyboard for this is on a standing desk. This is where I connect to Linux servers.

Having a separate work space helps me to focus. It also helps me to step away. When work is done, I leave the room. Setting clear work-life boundaries feel even more important to me as a fully remote employee.

My employer was already hiring remote workers

For a lot of people, fully remote work was a totally new thing thrust on them with COVID lockdowns.

For me and my coworkers, we were already doing it.

On an average day, I interact with my boss in Arizona, coworkers in California, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Ukraine, and The Netherlands. We use email and text as well as Slack and Zoom.

I am an optimist

I realize that not everyone finds the joys of working from home during a pandemic. I’ve been through some serious anxiety this last year, especially after we had a 5.7 earthquake last March.

But overall, I try to find the good. I tend to look for the funny, honestly. If I’m uncomfortable, I’ll probably try to make a joke. So I enjoy the connections I have with coworkers online, I feel challenged by my work, and I feel accomplished with well-executed projects.

Plus, the cat keeps me company.

I’m a self starter

Sometimes, it takes some time to get started, sure. That’s human nature. I can excel at procrastinating, if given enough projects to ignore. But I’m armed with task boards.

I do miss the alternatives

I miss the occasional office hours at Starbucks. I used to do that on my Fridays when my daughter had her preschool dance class. And I worked office hours at McDonald’s while my kids played in the play area. Will those ever feel the same again?

I miss my old coworking space (which sadly shut down, but The Ladybird Society was a dream for working moms). And I miss the days they had donuts. 🙂

I miss team retreats, which were really more like intense planning sessions, but being face-to-face every now and then matters.

Some of these things will be back. Some will look different. And I’ll find new ways to work. I’m excited to see what my career and work life will look like in another five years.

A final note on kindness

Those essential workers didn’t have the same safety through this pandemic that I had working from home. I couldn’t raise their wages, or provide them with safety, or make their jobs into something they could do from a home office.

So I tried to be kind where I could. I would wear a mask. It was such a small ask.

I would smile.

I would say thank you. And include something with the thank you. Even if it was, “thank you for my lunch,” at a McDonald’s drive-thru.

And I got vaccinated. I like how President Nelson said it when he got his: “Receiving the vaccine today was part of our personal efforts to be good global citizens in helping to eliminate COVID-19 from the world.”

Last minute Christmas gifts for the writer in your life

Christmas gift lists are fun to peruse and they’re fun to write. So here’s my third version of great holiday gifts for the writer in your life, whether that’s you, a loved one, or a secret crush.

For reference, you can also hop back to my lists from years past: More gifts, and the original gifts.

So here we go. These year’s list has 11 unique ideas. It just might be what you’ve been searching for! (Some affiliate links used, thanks.)

For the writer that can grow things: Hydroponic Mason Jar Garden Superfoods

I enjoy plants in my home office. These would be nice to add, not only to add the green, but also to add a little healthy to my writing snacks. With these, I can grow beet and radish microgreens as well as wheatgrass. I feel healthier just thinking about it. Plus, these are from a woman-owned business in Arizona, Coco and Seed.

For all the sitting and typing: Gaiam Balance Disc Wobble Cushion

If I have to get my word count in (or more specifically for my work as a tech writer these days, need to finish my documentation for Linux steps), I’ll be in my office chair for hours each day. I do have a standing desk for a separate workstation, but I don’t do my writing there. If you prefer a standing desk, I’m impressed. If not, adding this can help with all things posture. And apparently, you can toss it on your kid’s chair when they’re doing online school to help with their hyper tendencies. My son would probably need this the most for our online Fridays. (Our current school schedule is in-person, masked M-Th with online Fridays.)

Every list must include pens: Prismacolor Illustration Markers

On my previous lists, I shared favorite pens and technically, these are markers. While they’re marketed for artists, what writer wouldn’t want to fill their journals and notebooks with color? I like that these aren’t your typical pen colors. And when I write my notes or jot down ideas, I prefer to use multiple colors. It helps store the memory with a color so when I go looking for it again, I can remember how I wrote it in my notes, based on that color (as well as things like I drew a box around it, I put it in a numbered list, etc).

Growth from the mind of Jane Austen: Succulent Planter

Here’s another option for putting a little green in your writer’s office: a succulent planter. Succulents are easier to care for and this one can grow in a Jane Austen bust. Pretty cute, right?

One succulent is nice. More succulents are even better. So you could add other bust planters to the mix for fun: William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, or Vincent Van Gogh (with both ears).

A great looking website: launch it with WebFlow

Writers need an online platform. If they’re looking for more than social media accounts, you could point them in the direction of a tool that gives them the ability to go above and beyond WordPress (which is how I built my site). Webflow makes it approachable to design a site with modern web foundations. Specifically, it’s built on responsive web design. You can buy them a year of hosting with WebFlow. (It also has the option to export the code and upload it to your own hosting server.)

For sipping a warm beverage: this mug

Can you possibly go wrong with this? I’d argue, you cannot! I have a shirt that says this, although they didn’t include the ‘you’re’ correction. I enjoy starting my morning with sipping on some hot cocoa (I’m more of a soda caffeine person than coffee). Pair this with an almond croissant and I’m a happy woman. One time, I actually followed a recipe to make almond croissants. Have you ever attempted that? It was a task and a half. They tasted incredible. Perhaps I’ll do it again in ten years. #notabaker

For silence: Sennheiser noise-cancelling headphones

Noise-cancelling headphones can help your writer focus. Unless they miss those days gone by when they took their kids to the McDonald’s Play Place, hooked their laptop up to the WiFi (and connected to a VPN, because security/privacy), and started typing away at their word count. Or was that only me? I actually found all of the noise there rather helpful. Until it was my kid crying from the net area near the top where I couldn’t possibly climb up to get them.

While working at home, sometimes the noise of the house gets almost too quiet. And then there’s the noise of online school this year as well. Once I have my kids set up on their iPads with their teachers on Zoom, I could pop these on and get in the flow. Also, these headphones are well scored by Consumer Reports, especially for the price (compare them to Bose, for example).

So their laptop bag smells like coffee: A Starbucks gift card

If you’re really in a crunch for time, send an instantaneous gift with a Starbucks eGift Card. You can add a personal message. I suggest going with a haiku. Confess your love of coffee. Or if you’re not into coffee, your love of the smell of coffee, or of hot cocoa, or of steamers, or of almond croissants, or even of supporting the C.A.F.E. Practices (Starbucks’s ethical sourcing guidelines, Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices). Or go with a specific 2020 theme and write a COVID haiku. Here’s some inspiration: 20 Haiku about 2020.

For writer’s block: The Writer’s Toolbox

Want to send something fun that’s a wee bit helpful, too? This is a little writer’s block kit. It might help dish out a little inspiration, provides a variety of ideation tools to mix things up, and is great for adults. Some of the topics are a little mature so don’t gift it to your teenage writer, but also don’t expect a writing teacher in a box. It’s a game. Have fun with writing. It’s difficult enough! Sometimes, you need a little light heartedness to get over that writer’s block and start spinning out golden threads of fantasy again. Unless you’re a technical writer. Then you don’t need this. Just sit down and write your stuff.

Expand their magazine collection: Journal of the Month

Everyone knows that one of the keys to being a good writer is to read. A lot. And the more literary styles and genres you consume, the better you’ll hone your craft. This subscription is perfect for that: a different literary journal delivered to your mailbox each month. In addition to reading good, published writing, it’ll also provide a glimpse at some of the places they might publish their own work.

Keep the writer warm: a cozy throw

I can’t write when I’m cold. It’s distracting. I feel very sleepy. And my fingers can’t fly across the keys capturing my incredible ideas when they’re cold. It’s nice to wrap a blanket around my shoulders. Then I can go nuts on my word count. Or at least take a nap at my desk in warmth. Napping brings on some inspiration, doesn’t it? Perhaps I’ll dream an excellent fiction and wake up with the perfect plot in mind. Oh. Except I don’t usually write fiction.

Perused Internet Episode 2: meaning, joy, and detrimental individualism

You’ve been waiting for this and it’s here: the second post in my new series, based simply on what I find and spend time reading online.

Waiting for the OS to load on a giant monitor (okay, it’s actually a 40″ TV on the office wall).

A formula for finding meaning

This is another post from Daniel Messler, who I mentioned in my first post in the series. He’s a deep thinker and this article has some interesting thoughts and ideas about why living in the US is too easy and thus, leads to depression.

What do you think? Do you think it’s hard to find meaning in your life because things are too easy to accomplish in the United States? As one who’s struggled from depression, I had it hardest in college when I figured my meaning was to get a degree from a good school. Maybe I got the wrong degree (don’t tell my parents).

The relationship between hardship, struggle, and meaning

But I think a big part of it comes down to the lack of hardship, the lack of struggle, and the lack of appreciation for how easy it is to live in the US compared to most of the world.

daniel messler

Experiencing the ups and downs and still finding joy

I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and this is a YouTube video from the Relief Society organization. This is the organization of women in the church and it’s led by a general R.S. president and board, all volunteers. Sometimes in the church, we tend to put our leaders (even though they voluntarily serve for a time frame then the next volunteers are called to take over) on a pedestal and assume that they live in a rose-colored world.

This isn’t true and this video is a good reminder that these women, incredible and loving as they are, have hardships as well. I like it. Also, I look up to these women. When I’ve had the chance to listen to them speak, they share messages of love about Jesus Christ, but also messages about being strong women and leading.

Just Like You YouTube Video

No matter what we have suffered, He is the source of healing… We must come unto Him and allow Him to work his miracles.

jean b bingham, relief society general president

The cost of running a massive state

This Forbes article picks apart the salaries and pensions of employees of the state of California, including athletic directors, college football coaches, and a crappy public works director in San Francisco. I’m really not surprised by the salaries nor would I say they are outrages. Why?

Have you seen how expensive it is to live in California?

These kinds of salaries might be extreme for Utah’s cost of living, but in California, they might still require living on two paychecks with both spouses working. So I don’t think you could simply cut salaries and pensions and get the budget of California under control. People couldn’t afford to live there with the cuts.

Of course, I recently read that rent in San Francisco dropped more than 30% this year (for a studio apartment). That probably means people are moving out of the expensive city. Where are they going? According to my sister-in-law, all of the families that looked at the house for sale next to them in Holladay, Utah, were from California.

Why California is in trouble: 340,000 public employees with $100,000+ paychecks cost taxpayers $45 billion

In a move praised by fiscal reformers, Gov. Newsom proposed a 10-percent across-the-board reduction in state employee salaries along with state agency budget cuts of five percent.
However, the governor admitted that if the federal government sends states more aid, then the salary reductions will be restored.

adam andrzejewski

Oh look: here’s where I read about San Fran rents crashing

I first read about the San Francisco rents dropping a ton this year from an email from Chartr. They make pretty charts. They are nice. And made with data. Data is good although I understand it’s easy to use data to tell the story that you want.

The interesting bit about the San Francisco rents to me: it still costs over $2,000 a month to rent a tiny, studio apartment there. Crazy, right?

San Francisco apartment rents crater up to 31%, most in U.S.

Renters are likely heading to more-affordable areas where they can get more space at a cheaper price. The future of rents in many of these cities will depend on whether companies require employees to work from the office or continue to allow remote work.

danielle hale

You can’t just blame Donald Trump

With the election happening right now, the liberal argument against Trump is that he’s made the last four years worse for the country. Whether you agree or disagree is your prerogative. In this article, it’s basically a review of a book. That book, The Upswing, gathers data on American social trends, and argues that we’ve been experiencing 50 years of social decay.

I friend of mine recently mused that perhaps we’re seeing the end of the American experiment. If history teaches anything, it’s that no society/country stays on top forever. Has America overstayed its welcome?

I was 20 years old when the jet engines crashed into and destroyed the World Trade Center towers. Shortly after it happened, society changes. For a time. We become united again. We supported our political leaders. They made speeches of unity and rebirth. We talked about the strength of the country standing together.

For a very brief time, we seemed to come together when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, shutting down businesses, schools, churches, gatherings, etc. Perhaps we would be united again. Perhaps this would help the extreme divide in our politics.

Boy were my hopes and dreams crushed.

How to actually make America great: reversing 50 years of social decline

The story of the American experiment in the twentieth century is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism. From ‘I’ to ‘we’ and back again to ‘I’.

robert d. putnam and shaylyn romney garrett

Vocabulary: susurrus

Here’s your new word. Have you heard it before?

SUSURRUS: a whisper, murmur, or rustle

The susurrus of autumn is one of my favorite sounds.

Perused Internet Episode 1: SSH, A Vegas Tunnel, And The Freaky Future

This is the first post in my new series (so exciting, I know), based simply on what I find and spend time reading online. Let’s jump right in. See if you can find any common idea between all of the links because I can’t.

SSH and security deep thoughts by Daniel Messler

One of my favorite emails I subscribe to comes from Daniel Messler. He’s a clever chap. Also, he posts lengthy blogs. Many of them are about concepts above my understanding. The post, linked below, is also a little beyond where I’m at, but with my continual attempts at learning to swim in Linux, I’m moving on from doggy strokes to monkey arms, like my kids do in their swimming lessons.

I use SSH weekly to connect to Linux instances in AWS. I honestly don’t worry about the security of those instances. I mean, what would a hacker do with my small OpenVPN Access Server? The log files aren’t going to tell you much more than that I have some random connections from clients on my PC and laptop every now and then. And on the occasion, a coworker in LA hops on to the admin UI. Exciting!

What I like about Daniel’s post is both his voice and how he explains the concept a few different ways:

No, moving your SSH port isn’t security by obscurity

Don’t let people term-shame you who don’t grasp the underlying concepts.

daniel messler

What’s coming in our freaky future?

NOTE: This one is behind a paywall, but I think getting an account with MITSloan to access 5 free articles a month is worth it.

For the first time ever, the #1 show on Netflix is a documentary, The Social Delimma. There’s a lot to talk about with that show, but I won’t dive into it here. I’ve had in-depth and superficial conversations about it with friends and fam. It’s fascinating. And for some, scary.

So in this article, they dive into the nitty gritty bits of the future of technology. Read up and see if it sounds exciting or alarming to you:

Seven technologies remaking the world

For years, The Walt Disney Co. has applied bioinformatics knowledge in the design of its theme parks. The immersive experience offered in the parks is based on full engagement of the guest’s senses — from the sound of horses trotting on the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street U.S.A. to the sudden drop in Hollywood Studios’ Tower of Terror. Disney’s Imagineers, the designers and engineers of its parks, have raised the task of understanding how Disney guests relate to the physical world to an art form.

albert h segars

What’s the purpose?

Back in March, the world turned upside down with the lockdowns and fears from SARS-CoV-2. Understandably, it was crazy to be in the midst of a global pandemic. Add to that the mess of our disinformation age!

Then, on March 18, a was rattled out of bed by a 5.7 earthquake roaring up the mountain from Magna. I ran up to my kids’ rooms, hearing my daughter calling out in fear, while my son was silently terrified in his room.

My mental world was also shattered and I dealt with extreme anxiety.

This year has dealt a massive blow to our mental health. I’m drawn to articles such as this one, talking about finding your purpose and steeling your emotional well-being.

The focus is on how a CEO can ignite purpose in their team members. Of course, why would a CEO do this? For the good of the company’s bottom-line? That’s the feeling I get from this article, that doesn’t sit well with me, but I can pick out some gems from the research mentioned, and apply them to myself.

Igniting individual purpose in times of crisis

Academic research and our own experience tell us that an individual’s sense of purpose isn’t fixed or static — it can be clarified, strengthened, and, for some, may serve as a lifelong aspiration, or North Star.

naina dhingra, jonathan emmett, andrew sam, and bill schaninger

Tooling around with marketing

I am a technical writer on the marketing team with OpenVPN. It’s nice to find a good fit. I get to use my geekiness to work in Linux operating systems and I get to be creative, helping craft email marketing campaigns and blog content.

It may not sound sexy to you, but I enjoy my job.

I also enjoy reading helpful articles about tools that may help me in my job, like the linked post below about marketing tools. Of the ten tools mentioned, I’ve already used or am using 6 of them.

But I like to find and try out new ones all the time as well. I think I’ll look into Vidyard now.

Also, the guy refers to Home Improvement, which I watched plenty of hours on TV as a kiddo. It’s not every day that kind of reference pops up.

10 best SaaS marketing tools and platforms for 2021

Oh, Google, our mighty and vengeful overlord. No matter how many sacrifices we make, it’s never enough to appease thy algorithm for long.

morgan vanderleest

Like VPN for your car: Elon’s Vegas tunnel

This article leaves me with way more questions than answer. What it says:

  • A “loop tunnel” in Las Vegas is almost done, according to Elon Musk

What it leaves me wondering:

  • Is this only for Tesla owners?
  • Can you imagine running out of battery in one of these?
  • Can I design a t-shirt that says, ‘Mind the Gap’ but with a Tesla logo and it’ll make sense?
  • How deep do they go?
  • Is he serious about doing this in LA?
  • And again, is this for Tesla owners only?

I chose not to dig into my questions and simply figured this news was interesting but had nothing to do with my life right now. So there you have it.

Elon Musk’s tunnel under Las Vegas for self-driving cars is almost complete

Tunnels are the final piece along with electric vehicles and self-driving to complete Musk’s green, driverless urban transportation dream.

sissi cao

Vocabulary: crepuscular

Finally, let’s finish with a fun new word. Or maybe you’re already familiar with it?

CREPUSCULAR: active primarily during twilight

I own a crepuscular cat.

Financial Literacy Month: keeping track of payments by client

April is Financial Literacy Month so I wanted to share some things I’ve learned after working as a freelance writer for a few years . Running your own business requires managing your accounts and keeping track of it all for taxes, too!

Income tax returns are the most imaginative fiction being written today.

Herman Wouk

This is the not-so-fun side of business at times, but as you’re handling your accounting remember: it’s hard work because you’re making money and that’s a good thing.

Through trial and error, I’ve learned a handful of important things that I need to do in order to keep track of payments from clients. This helps me run my writing business smoothly and stay organized come tax time:

  1. Keep an accurate record of payments received
  2. Save those with my invoice attached
  3. Group them by client
  4. At tax time, validate my numbers against 1099 MISC forms from my clients
  5. Set up a recurring appointment with myself to do this regularly

In previous years, I had to use my household budget spreadsheet to figure all of this out for taxes. It took far too long going through the spreadsheet and my PayPal, Venmo, and checking accounts, hunting for all of the payments over the previous year.

Different clients will prefer different methods of payment. Even though it’s harder for you to keep track of it all, providing them with convenience means you’ll get paid. That’s important!

This year, I have a brand new system for keeping track of it all in one place. What I like about my system: it’s free; it doesn’t include lots of other functionality (like using online bookkeeping software); and I set it up for exactly what I needed.

I know there are some awesome apps and services out there for freelance writers to track all of this. I do use Quickbooks online for my music consulting business. For some writers, those are must haves for a variety of reasons, but for me, I didn’t need to pay the monthly fee when I could create my own, well-organized system, without the cost.

Look, Quickbooks and others (Freshbooks, Xero, WaveApps, etc), automate things such as syncing with your financial institution, but the time it requires me to manually enter my information for payments received is so small, it’s not worth the monthly fee. I totally understand if you prefer using that software. Find what fits.

Using Airtable for tracking payments

Okay, here’s where I finally get to the point: what I use for my system.

I set up a base in Airtable. If you want more details on this cloud-based tool, there’s tons of helpful videos and how-to’s already out there.

Or, grab my free, visual guide on how to get yourself started with this awesome tool!

Airtable is a database-spreadsheet hybrid that offers a great, free version and then paid services for more users with premium add-ons.

I don’t need the premium stuff so having free fits.

Here’s how I set up my Base (Airtable’s version of a database):

  1. I named it Tax Information Base
  2. In that Base, I have a table called Payments Received (clever, I know)
  3. I use it to keep track of just the necessary information: date, amount, client, service, invoice, and year
    1. Date: the date I was paid
    2. Amount: how much moula
    3. Client: who paid me
    4. Service: what I did for them
    5. Invoice: the PDF that I sent them
    6. Year: this is for creating a report based on the tax year I need
  4. I also have a view (a.k.a report) which displays the payments by client
  5. I create a new view for each year, because that’s what matters for taxes

Now that I have my system in place, when it’s tax time, I open up my base, click on the view for that year and it displays the total amount I received in payments by each client. This will match with the 1099 MISC forms I should receive from each of them. (If they paid me less than $600 within that year, they’re not required to send a 1099 but sometimes they do.)

Do you want to see it in action? Sure you do! I created a copy of my Base and shared it for anyone with the link. Here it is: Tax Information Shared. If you’d like to use it, simply create your own copy so nobody else can access your information.

Take some time to check it out. Click on the Grid View drop down on the Payments Received table and see how it groups by client. Here’s what it looks like with some imaginary numbers and only two of my clients. See how it rolls up the total number from one client? That’s the number I’ll need at tax time!

Imagine having this all set up to use when you’re putting all of your information into TurboTax (or however you like* doing taxes). The other tables are how I keep track of business expenses. I detailed that in my previous financial literacy month post all about it.

So, what do you think? Do you like this simplified method? Would it help you out? Or do you prefer using something like Quickbooks or Xero? Share in the comments!

*Nobody likes doing taxes.

Financial Literacy Month for freelance writers: tracking business expenses

April is Financial Literacy Month and even though I’m a writer, this is an area where I am passionate. I’ve even taught a class on some areas of tracking finances (more on that in a post scheduled in two weeks).

As a freelance writer, I realized that the number of cats I was herding increased immediately from the moment I started that first paying gig.

Keeping track of finances required a lot more organization on my part than when I was working full-time. One of the big reasons why: TAXES.

I know. Scary. I hate taxes, too.

But…

This year, they weren’t nearly as horrendous even though I also have a small music contracting business in addition to my freelance writing. (Plus, my husband’s good job, our household, kids, etc.)

I want to share with you one of the organizational strategies I now have to better handle one area of my taxes: business expenses.

Tracking business expenses

Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship.

Benjamin Franklin

Previously, I kept a file on my computer where I saved all receipts for business expenses, whether they were scanned in or came through email. This worked fine enough, but it still required me to open each file and go through them one at a time to determine how much, what it was for, and what kind of tax category it should go into.

Today, I use an Airtable database to keep track of this AND it categorizes everything for me. Huge win at tax time! Here are a few reasons why I prefer it:

  1. It’s free! (I don’t have to pay for a monthly accounting service like Quickbooks or Xero.)
  2. The app on my phone makes it simple to grab a pic of a receipt.
  3. It can group expenses into categories that match up with those I’ll use in TurboTax.
  4. It gave me the chance to work with a database, which is something I miss from my previous career!
  5. But you don’t have to be database savvy because, once set up, it’s just like using a good ol’ spreadsheet.

I’ve gone into details about Airtable in a previous post, if you’d like to dive deeper into this awesome cloud-based tool, but below is a brief, high level description of my Tax Information Base.

A few Airtable terms:

  • base: a database, which is a group of related tables (created for one specific project or interest)
  • tables: these are like worksheets on a spreadsheet
  • views: like reports that display your data in a different way
  • fields: like a spreadsheet column, with rich content (examples: file attachments, emails, drop-downs)
  • records: like a row in a spreadsheet

Now you got it, right? Totally! Here’s what my Tax Information Base does for me:

  1. I store each business expense as a row.
  2. Each row has important information I need for my records: date, $, seller, description, receipt, and tax category.
  3. The tax categories are a drop-down list that matches categories in TurboTax.
  4. I can switch to a view that displays these grouped in categories.
  5. Come tax time, as I’m entering in anything under “Advertising”, I simply look at that group from my table and fill them out in TurboTax.
  6. And finally, I have a digital record of my receipts.

Try it for yourself!

Give it a whirl and see what you think. I created a copy of my Base (without my personal information, of course), if you’d like to check it out.

Simply stop in right here: Tax Information Shared. It also includes a table for payments received, while I’ll explain next week.

If you’d like to use it for yourself, simply create a duplicate of the Base and have at it! (You wouldn’t want to use this one since anybody with the link can edit and change things. Talk about lack of privacy and security, yo!)

What do you think? Helpful tool? Are you familiar with Airtable yet?

My system for getting things done (GTD): a physical board, Google Drive, Trello boards, and my notebook

Getting things done (GTD) makes an impact for me as a freelance writer, but also, as a human. Clutter hurts. It’s hard to admit that because I’m often sitting at a desk with piles to my right and left. I clear enough space to put down my coaster and caffeine of choice (Dr. Pepper Ten on ice with a splash of coconut creamer).

Psychology Today reported on how clutter affects happiness. Here’s the gist of it:

  1. Living in clutter damages the way you identify with your home (or work), which should be a retreat from the outside world. Having too much stuff in a small place sets it up as your enemy, not your friend.
  2. Hanging around in a chaotic environment leads to more snacking and cookie consuming. Can confirm this in my personal life.
  3. An essential ingredient in good mental hygiene is having a comfortable workplace.
  4. When you’re surrounded by clutter, you have a harder time interpreting the emotional expressions of those you interact with.
  5. Clutter affects your age-related memory loss in a negative way. Slogging through a messy neural network slows down your information processing.

I continue to try out new systems to streamline my life. For instance, my family uses a kanban board for household tasks. We’ve adjusted things, moved the location of the board, and other changes, since writing that post, but it gives you an idea of our system.

My system for writing work includes some tools in the cloud. Here’s a brief overview:

My Kanban Board

Hands on and visual is a must for me. That’s where I have my board, which is in the wall in my office. I bought a cork board at a thrift store, taped off three swimlanes, spray painted them with three shades of yellow, spray painted the board frame silver, and added some yarn for my columns. Simple.

How it works:

  1. Each 3×5 card represents a larger project or client I write content for.
  2. Each flash card (I bought these from Amazon), represents tasks for assignments. Examples include putting together the draft for an article, researching, interviewing, editing, and submitting.
  3. The first column are the items I need to do.
  4. The middle column are “in progress”. It’s a skinny column on purpose. Too much in progress means I’m not focusing and finishing items.
  5. The last column are all of the tasks I’ve finished. Hooray for getting things done!

In order to make a Kanban work, there is a step that is an absolute must do: using it. It’s not worth its weight on the wall if I don’t update it. Ideally, I do this every single day.

When I worked full-time as a Business Analyst, one of my job roles was that of a Scrum Master (an agile software project manager). I was in charge of getting the team together for our daily standups. These consisted of standing in front of our scrum boards and each team member having a few minutes to share with the team three things: what they did yesterday; what they’re doing today; and any impediments keeping them from doing their tasks. That’s it. They didn’t last longer than 15 minutes.

Each day, it’s my job to have my own daily standup, moving the cards I’ve finished to done, choosing the card or cards I’m working on that day, and adding any new cards for new work.

The Kanban board isn’t loaded with a ton of information. If I want to know what it means to write a rough draft for the “book story” for Utah Life, then I turn to my Google Drive.

Using Google Drive for researching and writing content

I keep most of my writing projects in Google Drive where I can access them from my desktop, laptop, or phone. I have folders for clients. Within those folders, I have sub-folders, which may be status related (Submitted, Research), or project related (graphics, SEO, Facebook ads, etc).

For one of my monthly projects, I write social media content for several small businesses. I put together the same number of Facebook posts, blogs, and emails each month. I use the same template for this, which consists of a Google Doc broken up with the following:

  1. The month and year for the content
  2. The name of the small business and what type of business they are (technology, health, etc)
  3. The description of what the client wants with their content and how much I’m getting paid for it
  4. How many Facebook posts
  5. A table with a row for each post
  6. How many blog posts
  7. A table with a row for each blog post
  8. If they have a monthly email
  9. A row for that email
  10. Reminders for questions that come up frequently (formatting emails, amounts of individual pieces for invoicing, etc)

Each month, I start this over with the rows of the tables emptied. As I come up with content throughout the month, I fill in the tables. This includes the actual content, links to interesting stories, and links to a good image for the post. For the blog posts, the table cell grows as I write until it’s filled with anywhere from 400-900 words.

This is my rough draft and brainstorming document. Then, when I “submit” the content, I do so using WordPress. After submitting, I highlight the post on my Google Doc and change it to italicized, visually telling me, that one is done and submitted.

At the end of the month, it all goes on an invoice and within a week or two, I get paid. BAM!

I then move the Google Doc to my “archive” folder and start a new one. I just finished my December doc earlier this week and have my January 2019 doc started already.

Trello Tracking

When there’s more to my work than what fits in some Google Docs, I keep track of the more granular tasks using Trello. For more detail on all of the different types of boards I’ve put together, I have an entire post dedicated to it so check it out!

Dot Journaling my daily tasks with a weekly review

I also use a dot journal although I need to improve my consistency here. With it, I keep track of daily tasks for anything that I need to do during the day, whether that’s writing or a task at home such as laundry, cleaning, dinner, or taking the garbage cans out to the curb.

I’m also adding to my routine a weekly retrospective. When I first started working as a scrum master, this meeting was dreaded by myself and the team. It was a required piece of the agile puzzle where the team reviewed what went well, what didn’t, and ways to improve.

After a couple of years, my team and I found a way to run this meeting that was fun and incredibly successful. What didn’t work was me sitting at the computer while we all stared up at the projected screen and I typed up the lists as they told me things to put on them.

“Well, I guess we finished most of our tasks so that went well.”

FINISHED ALL TASKS THIS TIME

“We didn’t get a good description for the use cases so that didn’t go well.”

NOT GOOD USER STORY DESCRIPTION.

The new format used sticky notes and a white board. I drew a horizontal and a vertical line on the board, breaking up into four quadrants. I labeled each one: happy, sad, changes, and beers.

Each team member had sticky notes and sharpies. They were required to fill in at least one note for three of the categories: happy, sad, and beers.

Happy meant the things that went well.

Sad were the things that didn’t go well.

Beers referred to something specific somebody did for them that they would “buy a beer for them to say thanks”, figuratively speaking. One team member referred to his as stars instead, because he didn’t drink and that was totally fine.

After filling three areas of the board with our sticky notes, we then voted with stickers. Each team member had two stickers for happy notes and two stickers for sad notes. Once we’d all voted, we talked about those happiest and saddest things. We then took the saddest things and used those to fill in the changes section.

In the past, we’d talked about every single “sad” point and how we were going to fix them. This meant that we were trying to do too much at once. Narrowing our focus helped us to be more successful and actually achieve change.

Finally, we finished our meeting by sharing the “beers” with each other. Adding this recognition piece was awesome. At first, team members felt awkwardly doing it, but over time, it become the best part of the meeting.

I’m not working on a team like this anymore so I haven’t done retrospectives in a long time. I’m starting now to add them back in, though. The format, clearly, is very different. As you can see from my image of my dot journal above, I am writing out a few things: wins, “sad faces”, and one thing to do better over the next week (in my personal and in my writing stuff).

I feel like I still need a way to do “beers”, but I’m at a loss there. Do you have any suggestions or ideas?

How Airtable rocked my world with a payroll database, magazine editorial calendar, and easy, secured forms!

I am a new convert to the gospel of Airtable. Amen. It’s true. It makes me happy. Also, I am reminded that I miss the challenge of working with a database. I’m serious. I used to work with databases every day as a Business Analyst and it was my favorite part of my job.

I went to dinner with some dear friends a bit ago. The four of us met over a decade ago when we all worked in IT at our previous company. What drew me to them were two qualities they each of these three women possessed: kindness and competence.

At our dinner, I was excited to tell them about Airtable. I’d previously told my husband and my mom (and business partner), and they both told me it sounded pretty great. These three friends, though, were the right audience, with their past experiences writing reports, testing applications, querying databases, and son on! As I explained to them one of my particular use cases (for the process of managing the payroll and taxes side of my small business, Opus 26), Nichole piped up, “You need a database.”

See? They got it.

I first learned about Airtable from Nineveh Madsen, who invited me to join the OpenVPN table for the Women Tech Council’s awards. She told me how they used Airtable for their content as well as for her side hustle, HER Magazine.

“Seriously,” she said. “Check it out.”

A week later, I sat down to check it out as I was putting together some possible process improvement options for Flagship Publishing, which publishes Nebraska Life, Colorado Life, and Utah Life. They used spreadsheets for managing their editorial content. I had the idea to put together some Trello boards as possible options to manage it better, based on my personal experience with the tool as well as my “past life” as a Scrum Master.

I also created an Airtable base for them and had far more fun with that.

Airtable is a spreadsheet-database hybrid. Basically, it displays the database as a spreadsheet, which most of us are familiar and comfortable with. You can link between tables, set up views of the data, integrate with other applications, and set up forms for collecting data.

Here are my top 5 ways it has changed my life

I got to work in databases again

Technically, I’m not actually writing SQL queries like I used to, but the ability to figure out the best way to set up tables, linking them to each other, and determining the correct column types was a good challenge. I watched some instructional videos in order to understand how to write formulas for some of the columns, giving me the ability to automatically define editorial dates, sum total amounts, and calculate the total number of pages based on articles assigned to an issue. Exciting things like that!

The example above shows the formula I used to automatically populate the date for when “photos requested for high resolution” should be submitted based on the date the content was uploaded. There were a number of other deadlines, based on a specific date, which meant once I selected that, all of these other columns populated automatically. Yeah, I cheered when that worked out perfectly!

I saved so much time with my Payroll process

With Opus 26, I work with my mother to hire and pay musicians for recording and performing jobs in Utah. She’s the walking rolodex (knows all the best musicians for the job) and I’m the payment side. Previously, I used a combo of a spreadsheet and a CRM to do this. Can I tell you how obnoxious it is to search for the musician’s name on my spreadsheet of hundreds of rows so I can enter their payroll amount for the specific job?

Now that I’ve set up everything in Airtable, I simply start typing the musician’s name in my “checks” table and it pulls the choices from the “musicians” table (see example above). Look how it’s keeping track of who’s getting paid how much and for which job and gives me the option to easily add a new record when we hire a musician we haven’t hired before. I really can’t put it into words how much this has saved me time.

Airtable views are a tax-time saver

Having data is a must when it comes to taxes. I learned last year, that I needed to do a better job of keeping track of who sent checks and compile amounts when we received more than one from the same account. My numbers weren’t matching the 1099-MISC forms they sent. Now, I simply switch to an Airtable view, which groups the checks I’ve received by accounts, telling me the total amount of them all. Just like that, I have a list of the 1099-MISC forms I am expecting to receive the first of next year.

I’ve also used views to give me:

  • A list of all musicians we need to send 1099-MISC forms
  • Which musicians we need W-9 forms on file
  • Which musicians we already have W-9 forms on file
  • How many we paid in 2018
  • The total amount we’ve invoiced for contracting and payroll in 2018

Basically, views give me reports. Woo!

It’s the coolest editorial calendar tool

I grabbed an existing Airtable template for an editorial calendar and began customizing it for Flagship Publishing. If you click on the image above, you can see it in larger format. It’s example information so it’s not the actual, working calendar. It depends on whether or not they decide to use it for their process/business. But, if they do, I hope they find it as awesome as I do. Here are a few things I did to customize it that I thought were cool:

  1. I could set it up with a drop-down choice for which magazine: Colorado, Nebraska, or Utah.
  2. When I entered the Issue Date, the other fields (note the “fx” in the titles, denoting they’re formula-driven), auto-populated with their dates based on defined deadlines! (This was the coolest part to me after I learned how to do it correctly from reading through documentation.)
  3. It was so easy to put together the calendar and all of the deadlines for the next year. It would probably take about 30 minutes to set it up for the next ten years!
  4. A column not pictured showed you the articles included in the issue, linked from another table.
  5. It automatically calculated the total number of pages for each issue, based on those linked articles.

Last, the template included an image attachment column so once you have the magazine cover designed, you can include it. Then, when you flip over to a Kanban board view, how cool is the visual of the magazines in the queue?

Easy to set up secure web forms

One of the challenges of working with many freelance musicians is collecting W-9 forms. In the past, we’ve brought papers to a recording job or concert and asked them to fill them out right then, take them back to the home office, and scan them in. Also, we’ve had people email them to us, which, understandably, is not the most secure way. Now, we’ve provided them a form on our website, which is secured with HTTPS using SSL so all they have to do is enter their name, email, and attach the PDF.

It sounds really simple, right? As a freelance writer myself, I’ve encountered a number of businesses that don’t offer me a secure way to send my W-9 form to them.

Now I’m searching for more reasons to setup Airtable bases

So basically, I’m wishing that I had more chances to set up new databases. It was a lot of fun and challenging to stretch my mind to figure out the design of the tables, how to link them, views I could use, etc.

Did you know that learning new things, whether it’s a language, hobby, or a cool tool in the cloud, helps your brain? I’ve been having a good time treating my brain well lately.

Up next on my Airtable to-do: customizing integrations with Zapier. I’m working through that learning curve in my spare time!

More sweet Christmas gifts for the writer in your life!

Last Christmas, it was fun to put together a list of Christmas gifts for writers. Let’s do it again! Stop back to the last gift list because those are still excellent ideas. Then, take these ideas and add them to your Santa list. You’re welcome.

My favorite pens: Pilot G2 Gel Ink Roller Ball Pens

No matter how digital we are, every writer still needs a good pen. It’s far more fun to get them in a variety of colors, too. I like to dump a whole slew of these in my purse with my current dot journal as well. I certainly don’t have “Pinterest worthy” pages with perfectly crafted titles and pretty little adornments, but having more than one color looks a bit more pleasing. There’s a reason why these pens are so loved. They’re comfortable to hold, flow smoothly, and last a long time.

At times, I grab these through Amazon’s Subscribe & Save program because I always need more pens. That’s a given.

They also have these available at Costco (most of the time when I look), so feel free to toss one in your cart the next time you’re picking up a giant slab of meat, massive amounts of oatmeal, cartons of milk, and some green bananas.

The ca-hoolest pencil cup: Hemingway Pencil Cup

Yes, this one was on my list last year, but I included it again because it’s seriously one of the coolest things I own. Since I haven’t found an affordable antique typewriter of my own, I at least have this one sitting proudly on the bookshelf in my bedroom filled with (not surprisingly) colorful Pilot G2 pens.

Now that I’ve owned it for many months, I can tell you all about it. It’s well made of a “faux stone composite” which means it’s sturdy and doesn’t get busted when my six-year old grabs for it off the shelf and it goes flying. The bottom of it is soft so it’s not scratching up my high-quality Ikea shelves. It will look amazing wherever you put it, whether on a bookshelf, your desk, or even next to an actual, real typewriter if you’re lucky enough to have one.

Last, it’ll make you smile. I know this from experience.

For sending real, tangible mail: Watercolor Thank You Cards

Sometimes, it’s nice to get something in the mail besides junk or bills. I always have thank you cards on hand, but I’m not always good at sending them. Toss in some stamps and pens and you’ve got yourself a writer’s gift basket. How fabulous.

Guess where I often pick up some of my favorite, unique thank you cards? T.J. Maxx! This does, however, require that I actually step away from my computer, get up from my desk and drive somewhere. Right now, it’s 27 degrees and snowy outside. Those or the days I’m more apt to curl up with a hot cocoa and scroll through Amazon. Oh how I both love and hate thee, Amazon Prime!

Tangent: my favorite way to make hot cocoa is with the dark chocolate Starbucks mix, added to Toasted Coconut Almond Milk with a splash of coconut creamer. You’re welcome.

For marking up a book without marking it: Book Darts

My friend, Ashley, gave me a few of these once and I thought, “why has it taken more nearly 40 years to find these?” Absurd, people. But now that I have them, I heart them. When reading books, I often want to highlight a passage but if it’s an actual, real book instead of something on a tablet, I have to pull out a pen or highlighter and go at it. With these nifty little tabs, I only have to slide it over the page, pointing right at the words I’ve fallen for. Chances are, your writer friend might not know about these either and your gift could be life changing.

Life changing.

You can even use these in library books. Because what writer has the disposable income to purchase new books for all of their monthly book groups?

You’re so rad, book darts.

Bring a little outdoors inside (that you can’t kill): Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree

Buried in an office, slaving away at a computer to hit their word count for the day, some writers might not feel like they get out much. Instead, bring the outdoors inside for them with a really cool tree that won’t die. Because it’s not alive.

I kept buying REAL plants for the first four years we lived in our current home and I managed to kill off succulents and cacti. I think I’m a pretty good gardener, but those skills don’t translate to caring for plants WITHIN my home. I am recently converted to the joys of artificial plants. I have tender feelings towards the friendly, artificial tree sitting in the corner of my office.

It brings me joy.

Also, my cat doesn’t eat it or dig in its soil so add that to the list of “things that rock”.

New books to read

Every writer knows that reading is one of the best tools to improve their craft. Here are the books that I’ve recently added to my library hold request list.

Educated, by Tara Westover

I’m drawn towards memoirs so this is a genre I get excited about new, well-received books. Educated has been suggested to me by four different people in the last week alone. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.

Westover writes about her unlikely life, growing up in a Mormon survivalist household where she was home schooled in rural Idaho. Eventually, she “got out” and pursued some impressive education, even snagging herself a PhD from Cambridge University.

My husband works in education so I’m partial to a book that shows the power of it to change lives.

I like what Bill Gates had to say (Bill Gates, yo!): “Her ability to learn on her own blows mine right out of the water.”

The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness, by Andy Puddicombe

Have you heard of Headspace? It’s an app for meditation. I’ve used it off and on, but I haven’t been consistent. It is totally something I could do for only ten minutes a day and it would make an impact. This book is written by the cofounder of the app and this book is “entry level” meditation. If I’m going to start doing it, I need to start small. Isn’t ten minutes a day better than none minutes a day?

I’m pretty sure your writer friend would appreciate the thoughtfulness and usefulness of this book. Mindfulness helps to quiet your mind, cut down on stress, and even feel less tired.

Also, Andy was a Buddhist monk. I’d really like to meet and know a Buddhist monk in my real life one day. Wouldn’t just being around them make a positive impact on me? I’m sure it would.

If they really liked this book and happened to send you a thank you card for it, you could follow up with a birthday present and gift them a subscription to the app. It’s pretty cool.

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg

“Writers’ journals are compost piles.”

Yes! Scour through them and what once looked like junk or garbage can be pulled together and you get “black gold”! I am a fan of this idea.

This book is full of suggestions and advice on the writing craft. The biggest thing: sit down and do it!

I took a memoir writing class a number of years ago and each class we did the same exercise: rush writing. The idea is to start writing and not stop until the time is up. Don’t cross out rules. Don’t lift your hand. Don’t stop to figure out the best word or how to turn that phrase. Ditch your self-editor for a while and get stuff on paper.

Goldberg offers similar advice.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Two excellent writers suggested this book to me, Ann Cannon and Megan Goates. I wouldn’t have picked up a fic

tion set in Moscow, but Megan’s and Ann’s praises are high praise in deed.

Why gift it to your writer friend? Because, from what I understand, the ending is incredibly satisfying. Writers are often looking for examples of both strong ways to start and the best ways to finish. Wrap this book up and put a note on it: “a superb example of giving the reader a satisfying ending.”

Also, the writing is beautiful.

Also, the author worked for 20 years as an investment professional before devoting himself to full-time writing.

Oh, and he graduated from Yale and then snagged himself an MA in English from Stanford.


With that, have a Merry Christmas and spend some time sitting near the tree, reading your favorite children’s holiday book. ‘Tis the season!

(If you’d like some more great ideas, check out Sandra Ebejer’s suggestions: Holiday Gift Ideas for Writers. I bought myself Scrivener this year. Yay!)

How writing makes me happy (and why that matters for my success)

“Do what you love, and put your whole heart into it, and then just have fun,” Tim Cook once told a reporter. He was answering a question seeking advice on achieving personal success. His words were similar to Warren Buffett: “In the world of business, the people who are most successful are those who are doing what they love.”

My friend, Mary Jane, texted me earlier today. She sent a pic she took of a magazine she was reading while sitting at her son’s orthodontics appointment. It was a pic of me in the magazine as one of their writers in the issue. I realized today that I am writing things that I am proud of and will look back on with satisfaction. I feel like I’m in the right direction. I am doing something that makes me happy.

Sure, there are plenty of days where I’m also working on projects that aren’t as exciting (like ghost writing for a cyber security account), but I enjoy these as well because I understand that the more I write, no matter the subject, the better I get.

Here are my thoughts on why being a writer makes me happy today:

  1. I was published in the magazine Utah Life, which is a stunning publication, plus it’s a story about a glimpse into the life of my gritty Grandma DeeDee. Writing this piece was a labor of love.
  2. People keep on hiring me. This means that I am doing a good job. This means that I am providing a good service for them so that they are also happy. This means that I made the right choice switching careers.
  3. I play with my kids. I used to work a full-time job in the office while my son was in daycare, but when my daughter was born, my husband and I decided that I would be the main provider for our kids. It hasn’t been an easy transition, but I am happy that I am able to be with them.
  4. I feel challenged. When I am able to rise up to these challenges, I am rewarded with an awesome feeling of accomplishment. I am enthusiastic about my growth.
  5. I get to be part of a writing community, whether it’s the fabulous writers’ group I am in, the local League of Utah Writers chapter, or online Facebook groups. Writers make superb company.
  6. I can tell people, I’m a writer.

Do what you love. Be happy. Be successful.