Change Catalyst with Shanna Mann: Strategy & Support for Sane Self-Employment

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Reasonable people can agree to disagree on the appropriate length of time to plan forward — a year, six months, six weeks, two weeks. To me, this decision depends on how quickly things are changing and what stage of growth you’re in.

But one thing I’ll go to the mat for is Quarterly Reviews. Allow me to explain their role.

A Weekly Review is a crucial device for making sure things aren’t falling through the cracks. I can’t tell you how often I’ve started a Weekly Review, only to realize that this week I completely forgot about several things I felt were important LAST week.

Of course I know why that happens — something else that is MORE important supersedes it briefly. So you have to make sure to catch these things.

These important but not crucial projects are often big, open-ended, or both. They bob along, getting worked on in tidbits here and there. Even when you finish one, it’s hard to feel much relief, because there’s always another one waiting patiently for its turn.

The problem with this is that you don’t necessarily feel like you’re getting anywhere. You’re handling each thing as it comes, sure. But are you making real progress?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s just as likely that you’re making GREAT progress as it is that you’re bogged down. The trouble is, with a weekly review, all you’ve got is a microscope, when what you need is binoculars. Without some distance, it’s easy to let things get out of perspective. Hence, the quarterly review.

Three months is a good stretch of time for larger projects to gain steam, and for small fires to recede out of importance. It gives you that crucial distance to say, “Three months ago I was there, now I am here.” And you can do this for both business and personal life.

So if a Weekly Review ensures that you move these projects forward, the Quarterly Review ensures that you record their success. Use the Quarterly Review to acknowledge those efforts. It’s doesn’t have to be too formal — in fact, mine is on a note card right now.

Step 1: Write Down The Stuff You Got Done

This doesn’t have to be complicated. You can start with a sheet of paper. Just write: Accomplished – Q1 (or whatever quarter it is right now.) Then, write down the things that come to mind.

Don’t worry if this goes slowly at first. Because unless you’re the organized sort of person who already had a list of goals and targets for the quarter, it will take you some time to think back to where you were three months ago, and what you’ve done in the interim.

If you still can’t think of anything, look at your calendar and see what happened. If you keep a dayplanner or a to-do list, look at the stuff you checked off. If there are metrics you can look up, like revenues, sales, or clients won, absolutely record all that.

A day goes by in a blink, a week feels like a heartbeat, but in three months I think if you take the time to look, you’ll be proud of what you accomplished.

Step 2: Share and Celebrate

Remember when I said we don’t get any satisfaction from finishing those big projects because of the ones backed up behind them? Well, this is your opportunity for satisfaction. You’ve got your list. Crack a bottle of champagne, treat yourself to a massage, and most importantly, tell somebody!

I always recommend my clients share this list with their partner, if they’re paired, because all too often even your partner doesn’t know what you’re up to! This kind of progress report comes at a neutral time (i.e., not when you’re burnt out from overwork and feeling like a failure because it took so long.) These accomplishments are safely back a few weeks, so you’ve got your perspective and you’re ready to accept your kudos.

You can also share with your entrepreneurial peeps — in the Happy Hour, or with some close friends. We all love to celebrate our friends’ wins, so let that be your impetus. Who doesn’t love a chance to celebrate?

Finally, keep your Quarterly Review someplace close. We all tend to assume will be more productive than we are. But with a few QRs at hand, you’ll be able to see your output and plan accordingly.

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It’s an interesting exercise, to try and ‘replace’ yourself. As some of you may know, I run several businesses — this one, the Amazon retail business, and my ‘sideline’ of articles for pay. I’m also a very serious gardener (a very time-consuming hobby), and, I occasionally suffer from repetitive strain injuries that limit my ability to work at a computer.

I like juggling these various aspects of my life because they tend to balance me out. When I have only one focus— one business, one goal, etc, I suffer from tunnel vision and destructive single-mindedness. Multiple threads, each with overlapping demands, is a forcing function for my time and priorities.

As time has gone on, I’ve gone from simply casting aside lower priorities, to finding a backup, to selecting people to take over the responsibility entirely. It’s been a very worthwhile process, even aside from the productivity clawback.

That thing you do (And what it’s worth)

You should try this. Try writing a job description of one of your business responsibilities. Specify the level of expertise and English proficiency. Then see what the job is ‘worth’ by seeing who applies. In some cases, it will be very little. Usually of this is because you chose ‘entry level’ as your experience level. Other times you see that, since updating plugins doesn’t require native English skills, it can be done by someone in Bosnia. And so forth. These are not things I’m necessarily recommending that you outsource, but it might help to know in the back of your mind that it could be one day.

In some cases, the hourly rate will be quite high. This will be due to the experience or rarity of the qualifications. Sometimes, prices are used as a proxy to signal quality, even in a purely commoditized, global workplace like Upwork.

Either way, you can learn one of two things. Either “hey, this is pretty inexpensive to outsource, I’m going to think about doing that” or “Holy shit I can’t replace myself without going out of pocket. I better raise my prices.”

Every time I talk to someone about this, it triggers some existential angst. The reasons fall into three general patterns:

  • It doesn’t matter what other people charge for this, I can’t afford to outsource it
  • I could outsource it, but I don’t think that person would do it right
  • If the people are selling my service for $X, what does that say about MY price?

However hard it is to hear, this is important information for you to consider. Your business doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You exist within a market. You need to be aware of the realities of that market.

Is there gold under your feet?

This isn’t about figuring out whether you’re underpriced — that’s just a side effect. It’s more about looking at the allocation of your resources; time, attention, and money.

As self-employed people at a such a small scale, we can easily become insulated from the reality of the market. In some cases this is great! It can mean that you’ve built a following or curated an ecosystem where people are willing and able to pay upmarket rates.

And in some cases it’s bad, like when you get pushback from clients on your already-low rates.

But mostly it’s pretty neutral, like the way that you don’t realize that you could have someone maintaining your website for a fraction of the time and money you spend on it now, merely because they know what they’re doing, and they’re only doing one thing at a time.

And that’s where the possibility of leverage comes in. You don’t realize you could outsource these things, in most cases because you never looked. That tends to mean that there are big wins just waiting for you to notice them.

If you’ve thought about outsourcing but felt daunted by the effort it would take, or you thought it would cost too much, I would encourage you to pick 1-3 non-critical tasks that you do — updating the plugins on your website, sending invoices, putting information into spreadsheets, or whatever, and then typing a general description of the role into Upwork. Just try it. It’s just information. You don’t HAVE to do anything with it.

I’m just saying, you might get some ideas.

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My mom was a nurse and before that a baker, so when me and my three siblings were growing up she was anal about hygiene. Every task began with washing your hands, and every task ended with washing your hands. I suppose trying to keep four grubby-handed kids clean in the middle of a dusty ranch, she probably erred a little on the side of overkill.

And even today, when I walk into the kitchen I wash my hands. And when I come in from outside, I wash my hands. It might have started as a way to prevent cross-contamination, but for me, it’s just what I do to signal to myself the transition from one (physical) task to another. Maybe this is what it takes for me to establish a habit — years of someone shouting “Did you wash your hands?”

But when it comes to other things, I have difficulty establishing these kind of clear-cut boundaries, sometimes called “task hygiene.”

For instance, just as I’m typing this, I have the impulse to check and see if the credit card website that wouldn’t let me log in yesterday will let me log in now. I’m sitting next to a pile of unfiled receipts and a stack of un-thrown-out mail.

There was nothing preventing me from filing or throwing those things of my desk, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t just jot down a note to myself to check on the MasterCard account later. But I didn’t and I don’t. Why? Why is good productivity hygiene hard to maintain?

Similar to the concept of “task hygiene” (where you execute one task wholly and completely before moving onto the next) is the concept of “clear to neutral.”

Clear to neutral is where, after a task or at the end of the day, you take your workspace back to a neutral, could-do-anything state. And again, it’s weird, I have ZERO trouble, for instance, setting up coffee for the morning or picking out my clothes or having the car packed and ready to go (Thanks for that habit too, Mom!) but the idea of “putting away” everything on my desk, and especially within my computer does not seem to register in the same way.

And maybe it’s a personality thing. Maybe I prefer to anticipate more than complete. My husband goes the other direction. He loves to finish things. But on the other hand, he was taking wraps for lunch for something like 4 months before he struck upon the idea of creating the whole week’s wraps at once. I think he just quickly got into the habit of building a wrap every morning and it didn’t occur to him to change it up.

So working on this anticipation/completion rubric, depending on which way you tip, there’s no reason why you (I) couldn’t switch the emphasis from one side to the other. So for instance, I wouldn’t be “cleaning up” my desk at the end of the day. I would be “getting it ready” for the morning. Is this a stupid distinction? Maybe. But maybe it is a necessary one to put the emphasis where it will be most motivating.

So what motivates you?

Figure it out, and you’ll be that much closer to getting the things done that you want to see done.

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