Why the Right Premium Services are Always Cheaper

By nature, I’m frugal. I love getting a great deal, and getting the most of out of my purchases. When I was fifteen I got a new MacBook Pro for free by working those “get a free MacBook pro” ponzi schemes online: my obsession with a great deal started early.

I’ve learned that it’s often worth paying for premium services when your time is at stake. Not only your current time, but time that a premium service could possibly save in the future.

Opportunity cost is a real thing: it’s important to consider what you can’t do or time that could be possibly spent on fixing a future problem with the service or product.

Here are a couple of failures from recent memory:

Low Cost HSAs. I have a high deductible health insurance plan coupled with a health savings account. I picked one from a big name bank, with average ratings, and the best fee structure. Wrong choice: the time spent on phone, faxes (no ability to communicate over email??), etc have incurred most cost in terms of time than I ever saved in fees. Local Banks. My local bank has a great fee structure and a convenient location nearby. However, they are lagging behind in keeping up with tech advancements. Because of their remote deposit limitations, I’ve lost lots of time driving to and from the bank. I should have signed up with Simple or BoA. Budget Home Router. Anytime I spend fiddling with router settings is time lost on better, more interesting problems. I used to attempt to save money on routers: I now buy the most expensive router I can get. Price Shopping. Amazon has great shipping, customer service, review system, etc. It isn’t always the cheapest. However, it’s not worth my time to shop around for a better price. Amazon is nearly always within 10-20% of the best price – and most of the time it is the best price out there. It’s not worth my time to price shop. Low Cost Phone Service. One dropped business call and the $10 you saved that month on your cell phone bill most likely isn’t worth the perceived sloppiness on your end.

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How to Save Hundreds on Your Next MacBook Purchase

When it comes to something which requires a lot of my time on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, I purchase the best tools for the job.

I’m a designer & software engineer: my computer is the most important tool in my craft and I make sure I have the best. However, the best doesn’t mean the most expensive: to me, it means the most utility for the dollar.

I’ve always bought every mac I’ve owned used. A couple of people have asked me recently how to find the best price on a replacement MacBook. Here is the process I’ve used to save hundreds of dollars when I’m getting a new computer.

Determine what you need. Most likely, unless you work in tech, 11″ or 13″ MacBook Air will work just fine. Hard drive space is not important. You can easily buy a huge amount of external storage for under $50 for music, movies, and videos. You can always leverage unlimited photo storage via Amazon Prime, or cheap cloud storage via Google Drive to expand your storage capacity without buying an external hard drive. Processing speed isn’t as important as RAM. If you have the choice between 4GB and 8GB of RAM, and a 2.0 or 2.2GHZ processor, get more RAM. Determine the maximum price for the model you need using the AppleInsider price guide. For instance, a brand new 11″ MacBook Air is $800. This will be the price you are going to negotiate and make decisions against – it’s your “worst case scenario” price. Search craigslist for a MacBook that is less than a year old. Every MacBook comes with a year warranty that is applicable to the current owner of the device. If you buy a used MacBook that is less than a year old and it breaks the next day, it’s covered under warranty. This mitigates the risk of buying a used machine. Craigslist is the best marketplace for finding a great deal. There are no transaction fees, there are less buyers (local vs the entire internet), and people are willing to negotiate. This logic applies for any high-priced item. Determine your minimum price. This is the lowest price you can get for the device on craigslist, minus 10-20% depending on how much you want to negotiate and how long you are willing to wait. If the lowest price you can find on craigslist is close to the sale price on AppleInsider, you may just want to buy the machine new. For lower cost machines (like the MacBook air) the amount saved is often not worth the hassle. Email every listing your found on craigslist with an identical email offering your minimum price. Increase your minimum amount if no one accepts your minimum offer.

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How to Tackle an Overwhelming List of Tasks

This last week I didn’t keep up with my task list. Some work with a client required all of my attention and the notification badges on my email, todo list, and Slack messages kept growing.

When Saturday rolled around I was buried. After dumping everything in my mind and organizing tasks into logical contexts I realized that there was no way I was going to get through everything. The glowing red double digit notification badges didn’t give me any hope or encouragement either.

I’m not in the clear, but here’s what helped me gain momentum and dig my way out of the hole:

Split tasks up – even if they are small. It’s helpful to break up tasks, even if they should take less than 30min, and schedule the pieces sequentially through the week. Defining the different steps will assist you in tackling them with the slices of spare time you may have throughout the week. Give yourself permissions to punt. In my case, there was no way I was going to get everything done. I scheduled some tasks for later in the week and notified anyone who was waiting on the task that it was going to be delayed. Prioritize. Give all of the items on your list of a priority, this helps give you some additional context about how to start attacking the list. Todoist has some great prioritization functions. Start outsourcing. There were a bunch of tasks that I could send to a VA Look at tasks as an opportunity, not a burden. All of the items on my list are things I’ve chosen to do, chosen to commit to. No one else has put these on my plate, which means they are opportunities that I’ve decided are worth the pain. This is a gift, not a burden!

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Working on Your Life vs In Your Life

I’m reading the E-Myth Revisited. One of the key concepts is the idea of working on your business instead of in your business. In other words, working on streamlining the process that you or your employees use to create the product or execute the service rather than actually performing the service or creating the product.

Without improving the system you can’t scale the outcome. You’ll be a slave to an undefined process that you can’t delegate.

The same principal applies to my personal life. I need to work on improving the systems an processes that I use to run my life. Working on my life, not just living it.

Here are a couple examples:

Where am I wasting time? What tasks or processes are time consuming but necessary? Automating the purchase of recurring consumables (like toothpaste) was one that fell into the category for me. Where is there a lack of a clear process? For me, my morning routine needed tweaking. Writing down an explicit morning routine has helped bring clarity and focus to what I want my mornings to look like. Is there a lack of focus? Define your goals. Create your own personal “job description” to give yourself the permission to say no to what doesn’t align with your personal mission.

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Results Follow Clarity

Clarity is hard. It takes effort to defined what you are looking for, why you are looking for it, and what you are going to do to get it.

Clarity creates results. It creates momentum. Opportunities appear with knowledge of exactly what you are looking for. Without precise goals you can’t adjust your time and energy to seek out opportunities that align with that vision.

Without a framework to interpret opportunities or situations from it’s hard to say no. It’s hard to choose between opportunities when all the opportunities are better-than-great.

Driving results requires saying no. It requires cutting out the good to make room for the great.

And, sometimes, it means cutting out the nearly-great for the extremely-great.

Create a plan: put pen to paper and create a written description of where you want to go and why in all aspects of your life.

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How to Get Clarity When Your Mind is Scattered or Distracted

When I have a week that is concentrated on a single project I often feel as though I loose focus. My mind can forget other projects or important tasks that were not contained within the context of the project I was working on.

If I don’t catch myself, there is the opportunity for things to fall through the cracks. I forget to respond to important emails, to close the loop on an important task, or push the ball forward on an important project.

Here’s a practice I use to recalibrate myself:

Organize all the paper with ideas or tasks in a single stack. Get a blank legal pad. When my mind seems scattered a blank piece of paper brings clarity. It’s important to get some distance from your phone or computer during this process – even if it’s just for five minutes. Write down everything that comes to mind. Don’t filter ideas or tasks. Don’t worry if you already have them written down. “Brain dump” everything onto paper. For me, it’s important that I write everything down and then move all of the items onto the computer. Open up Todoist, or favorite cloud based task management system. Review new written notes in addition to older notes from the week. Convert all notes into actionable tasks, then throw out all the paper notes. Important: ensure that all notes are translated into action items. If you leave ‘just a couple’ notes or abstract thoughts on paper it will clutter your mind and you’ll feel weighted down.

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Send & Receive Faxes Online for Free

An important aspect of building a business that’s scalable – one that operates when you aren’t around to “press the buttons” – is eliminating paper.

I’m going to be writing about what I’ve put into practice over the last couple months to eliminate all my paper in my software consulting business. One of the easier (and obvious) aspects of going paperless is eliminating the fax machine.

Yes, even if you run an internet-only business you will run into a vendor that only offers a fax machine as an alternative to snail mail.

Here’s how to setup your business to send and receive faxes online with no monthly fee.

Sending Faxes

They don’t advertise it on their home page, but eFax offers a dedicating incoming fax number with 10 free pages for no monthly charge.

You’ll get a dedicated number you can use to receive faxes. Faxes will be converted to a PDF and emailed to you.

Receiving Faxes

eFax doesn’t offer a free tier for receiving faxes.

However, HelloFax offers the ability to receive five faxes a month with no monthly fee on their free tier.

On another note, if you are a developer check out Phaxio, a fax API service.

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How I Learned to Never Forget Anything

Remembering things is hard. The constant firehouse of information – especially if you’re a entrepreneur everything-is-a-potential-new-product-or-idea type – is overwhelming.

Here’s the secret to never forgetting anything: write it down. I’m not kidding, it’s that easy. Just follow these couple rules:

Write it down right away. When you have the thought, or an action item is assigned to you, write it down right away. Don’t wait even a minute or two. In the moment, as the idea or action item is coming to mind, write it down. Don’t use paper. Some people would disagree with me here, but I believe this is crucial. Paper gets lost. Paper isn’t with you all of the time. You can’t edit paper. Paper isn’t backed up. If you like paper, make sure that you transcribe your notes into a digital cloud-based system that syncs with your phone and computer. I use Todoist for daily tasks and Trello for idea collection and project management. If it’s a recurring task, you can set these up to automatically appear in todoist. Write it down somewhere that you look at daily. Or Hourly. It’s important that wherever you record these ideas, thoughts, action items, etc is a place that your subconscious knows is safe. It has to be a place that you review on a disciplined schedule. You need to be able to trust the system that you are using to track your thoughts.

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Closing the Loop vs Completing the Project

Completing the project is crossing the entire thing off the list, eliminating the chunk of work completely. It’s moving a project from development to maintenance.

Closing the loop is different. It’s eliminating the dependency that someone else has on you – or at least updating them on the state. Every project has dependencies, and if you are pushing for excellence your role is most likely key to the projects success.

Leaving others hanging is the worst thing you can do. It’s when someone’s dependency on you becomes a blocker to the project or a drain on the projects momentum.

And it’s one my biggest faults.

I’m a recovering perfectionist. I love when things are complete and I can deliver them to a teammate or client. I also struggle to switch between different contexts or projects: it’s easy for me to forget to give a status update on something that I’m currently working in.

When something isn’t a top priority (e.g. a side project) it’s easy for me to treat communication around that project as less than top priority. To not spend the time on responding and communicating but instead concentrate on “doing work” on another project.

A trusted mentor recently gave me some very direct feedback on this:

You have to close the loop: don’t leave things hanging for hours or days if you can send an update. Even if you can’t deliver what you promised, make sure you close the loop and keep the momentum building by being relentlessly responsive.

Ouch. I’m off the mark in this area and here’s what I’ve done to fix this:

I’m viewing responsiveness as part my personal brand

Your personal brand – how people perceive you and how you work – is one of your most valuable assets. It’s important to protect this.

I want the people I work with to say “Mike is a great communicator. He responds to email within 24 hours and makes sure to update us on progress, even when the progress isn’t as quickly as we expected”

I want people to know that if they email, call, or text me they will get a response and it will be prompt. It may not always be complete or comprehensive, but I won’t leave them hanging.

I’m all-in on InboxZero

InboxZero is hard. Processing every single email in your inbox is not an easy feat.

But it really does create clarity. Getting everything out of my inbox and either 1) handled or 2) into an external system that I can trust is huge. It creates the mental peace that “everything is under control” – all my todos are properly organized and schedule, I can plow ahead and executing the next segment of work without worrying about missing something.

Four weeks ago my inbox had 800 items in it. I’ve been archiving 50-100 messages a day and slowly cleaning up all of my inboxes. Getting to zero is really possible!

I’m communicating that I’m behind

When I’m behind on a project or getting back to a contractor or vendor I’m going to let them know before I’m behind. This isn’t always comfortable, but it’s the right thing.

I’m being creative about pushing the ball forward

Closing the loop – being responsive – doesn’t mean giving a complete response. When responding my goal should be giving the most value to the other party with minimal input on my end.

If I don’t more than 1 minute to respond to this email, what could I say that would move the ball forward? Can I ask a clarifying question that I will need the answer to later? Can I offer a link or article that articulates what I would want to say better?

The art of moving the ball forward without allowing others to set your priorities is incredibly important.

I’m going to be ok with grammatical mistakes

I’m not a english major. I’m (insert New York accent here) horrible at English. I believe spell check has destroyed my ability to spell. I got a 10% on the state spelling exam.

I need to improve my English, and it’s something I’m actively working on. However, it’s not going to happen overnight, and that’s ok.

Making sure spelling & grammar is correct on every email and blog post takes time. If it’s a choice between sending a response or putting it off till later and ensuring the grammar and spelling is correct, I’m going to press send.

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Why I Break Up Task Lists

I’ve been using Todoist for a couple months now. It’s a great implementation of the Getting Things Done system. I highly recommend both.

However, using a robust task manager doesn’t eliminate the trappings of a yellow legal pad: pages of tasks and ideas without context or prioritization.

The lists can still get out of control. As a type-A personality, I love creating tasks and crossing them off a list: the temptation to constantly grow my task list doesn’t go away with a robust task management system. It only gets worse.

Less Than Ten

You can only do so much in a day. I’m optimistic. I enjoy looking at the day and imagining all that I can accomplish.

But, I can only do 10 tasks a day. I’ve tracked, tested, and analyzed this. My ten things might be composed of a couple large tasks and a couple quick phone calls, but it doesn’t matter. On average, my limit is ten tasks a day.

And although it might be nice to think I can do more, 90% of the time, it’s not possible.

If I were to guess, you probably work the same way.

Keep it Short, Get to Zero.

Don’t be unrealistic with your output. It’s important that you keep your list short and realistic. Be sure you can actually cross off every single thing you put on your list. If you don’t, you’ll feel like you’ll never win. The feeling of always being behind and being “too busy” will haunt you.

Getting to zero will give you a victory. Wins create momentum.

Keep your list short. Keep it specific. Make the items actionable, tactical, and break them up into smaller tasks if they can’t all be done in one sitting.

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