Category Archives: Organization Tips

Mind Mapping: Draw Your Conclusion

Mind mapping is an activity that might be very familiar with those who understand that they are visual learners, though it could help many of us.Think about a story you read as a child.
Do you remember the words on the page?- or -
Do you remember the pictures that you were able to build in your mind with each of the author’s details?
Because most of us retain pictures, I am convinced that we are all “in-part” visual learners. Mind mapping could be a very effective way for us to develop a more efficient process to develop our ideas. Students, entrepreneurs, and group leaders can use this tool to learn, develop business plans, and even break down group projects visually.

An Example of a Mind Map

Figure 1: How students or professionals can use a mind map.

Figure 1 is a sample mind map that I put together as a visual aid to show (1.) who might use mind maps and (2.) what they might use them for. The stars represent a way that might be most obvious to start mind-mapping.

How to Start Using Mind Mapping

When you begin to work with mind maps, it is important to keep it as simple as possible, and build on the skills you develop. I used a free program called FreeMind. This is a program from SourceForge used to create, view, and save mind maps in XML and HTML. There are many programs available to draw maps like this. However, all you really need to start drawing a mind map is a piece of paper, a pencil, and a central idea.

Mind Mapping for Business

In our very complex business world, we are surrounded by graphical representations of all kinds of information. We like pie charts, interactive menus, and even things as simple as before and after photos to show off our work. How are we using visual aids to develop our business? Mind mapping could be a great tool to develop and break down plans pictorially.

For example, if you have a small project that you can divide into two parts, you could create a mind map for each part. You could visualize when certain events needed to occur, and build on specific details that you think of later or after speaking to a client.

There are two very important questions that still need to be asked before deciding if drawing a picture is even helpful.

1. Does it help us retain what we’ve learned?
2. Does it really help us develop our ideas?

Pictures Help Retain Information

This is an example of short term and long term retention; the two ways that visual aid can help us recall information. I watched a television series on HBO called “The Alzheimer’s Project” this last winter; and I remember a nurse was asking each of three elderly Alzheimer’s patients (on separate occasions) to remember three words that were unrelated. Then the nurse would ask them a couple of more questions, and finally ask each patient to repeat the three words that she had told them only a few minutes before. Only one lady remembered all three. “Do you wanna know how I remembered?” she asked the nurse. “I made a picture in my mind of a table, and then imagined someone put down a penny, and then someone put an apple on the penny.” She was right; the three words were apple, table, and penny.

As I was writing about this past memory, I did not have to watch the television show again to remember this part. In fact I even recalled the three objects without looking up the show. (Except I must confess, I remembered the items as apple, table, and quarter.) I recalled this situation that I saw once, months later because this little lady helped her audience by giving them a really great tip. In its most basic form, she shared the wisdom that a picture (mental or not) can help us recall information. She represented how it can help with short-term memorizing, and I am a real life example of how those pictures can become longer term memory retention.

Developing Ideas in Groups

Mind mapping can also be used in groups to start planning projects. In her book, “The Manager’s Guide to Effective Meetings Briefcase Book”, Barbara J. Streibel describes a term called “displayed thinking” which is mind mapping as a group. Its purpose is to represent analytical and creative ideas in picture form using symbols, colors, and arrows to represent related pieces of the plan. She states that it as an “exploratory tool, rather than analytical,” and “spatial rather than linear”; and continues to accurately describe it as similar to storyboarding. Storyboarding is also used by many web developers to plan visual layouts of graphics and websites.


There are lots of ways to learn and remember information. Mind mapping is another way to represent and develop your ideas. It will not work in every situation. However, there are many situations where drawing a picture can help us work out problems on paper. The trick is to start small and then develop this skill just as you would develop any other, with practice.

Mind mapping is more effective the more personal you make it. Use symbols that make sense to you and bold text that are the most important or plausible ideas. Next time, when your clients or teammates don’t understand your plan or explanation, try drawing them a picture!

Organization is a Tricky Thing

Organization can be a tricky thing, not to mention a daunting task.  However, if it is done in steps, you will not only feel a weight has FINALLY been lifted off your shoulders, but you will feel more balanced when your project has finally been accomplished.

A great point to remember is, what works for one person, may not work for another.  Each person’s organizational system is or will be different; just like a person’s personality.  The trick is to come up with a system that works with you and your natural abilities or habits so as to assist in you in being at your best, whether for your clients or for your friends and families.

I came across an article in the Lifestyle section of MSN awhile back and found it to be spot on.  It offered up realistic tips on how to get and maintain being organized.  I have laid out the basic tips for you and added my own little thoughts; however, if you want to read more, I encourage you to click on the link above.

  1. Custom-design your system = This is something that you will have to put some thought into.  What works best for you?  What goals are you trying to achieve?
  2. Think kindergarten = The old adage “everything has its place” seems to come to mind here.  Make sure documents get filed in their rightful place instead of lying on top of your desk or your to-do-lists are next to your computer or typed up on sort of project management system instead of scattered throughout your office.  Centralization seems to be the key here.
  3. Organize the basics first = Start with areas that are accessed the most often, like a briefcase, which can end up becoming a “junk drawer.”  Once the most accessed areas have been tackled, move on another area…one step at a time.  As you start to see “the light at the end of the tunnel”, the more motivated you are apt to feel.
  4. Study yourself = Find out when you are at your most productive and utilize that time period to your advantage.
  5. Learn your concentration threshold = Tailor your schedule/tasks around your attention span.  If you know you have a big project coming up, cut it into smaller parts accordingly.  Make sure to intersperse those break times as well.  This will help with the wondering minds.
  6. Hire a pro or find a friend = If all else fails and you still feel overwhelmed, as for an outsider’s perspective.  Their ideas could be the difference between success and failure.

For more inspiration, you may want to visit Julie Morgenstern’s site.  She has written several books on the subject of organization and time management.  Her site also offers tips that can further assist you with your goals.

The best advice I ever received was to stay positive.  I think this advice works well for organization and time management, too.  Success and accomplishments will abound, if you just stay positive. 

Good luck and I look forward to your organizational tips!

Policies for Time Management???

Many of you may not know this about me, but I am an avid Real Simple magazine reader. The magazine contains tons of tips to help simplify your life, whether it is for work or home life. Then I came across an article, “How do you say no to people who want too much of your time?” answered by Julie Rottenberg, who is Real Simple’s etiquette expert and it really got me thinking. Julie talks about having policies in place to help manage our time.

Hmmm….Policies for time management? The concept sounds pretty silly to me. But, the more I thought about it, the more I really liked the concept. In our daily lives we are constantly bombarded by things or people who require more time and attention than we may have to give at any given moment. Julie Rottenberg calls them “Time Suckers.” Some examples may be: 1) Running into an old friend while on your way to meet a client, 2) Constant requests to join various groups or clubs for which you either have no desire or time for or 3) Television on “for noise” while working at home. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been caught up in all three of these examples at one time or another, as well as many others. It’s called life. But that doesn’t mean things can’t change.

So, I have decided to do an experiment.  I am going to create and implement a few policies and for the next 30 days I will try my best to follow them.  Here is what I’ve come up with as starters:

  • I have a standing play date for my son every Thursday.  I am going to create a recurring appointment in my Outlook calendar for the next month for this and come rain or shine, I will keep that appointment (that is of course, if my son stays healthy).
  • My hours of operation are supposed to end by 5:00 pm PST.  However, I tend to put certain small tasks off until later in the evening, like sending out daily reports to clients.  I am going to create a daily reminder in my calendar that will alert me at 4:30 pm PST each day to start wrapping up all work related tasks and projects.  This will not only force me get those reports out on time, but will show my family that I mean business when it comes family time.
  • When I run my errands throughout the week, I inevitably run into other moms that I know.  I say “hello” to be polite, but keep going.  I know that if I stop, I’ll get caught up in a conversation that I won’t be able to get out of.  My goal here is to not only wave hello, but to acknowledge the person in a way that lets them know that I do want to get together, but not at that particular time.  Then call or email them later in the day with some dates/times I do have available for that long overdue chat.

What policies can you enact today to help get your time management under control?  Let’s do this together and see what our results are in 30 days.  Good luck!

Virtual Assistant Friends Learning from Each Other

photo by Renjith Krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotosDotNetA few weeks ago Kena, Jen, and I all got an email from another virtual assistant, Darlene Victoria of A Virtual Perception. A Virtual Perception is the audio podcast that provides business resources (and more) to Virtual Assistants and other business professionals.

We were invited to do a podcast interview regarding our virtual assistant group blog! We were all so happy to be invited to share our purpose for writing about our work at home life!

To download the podcast and get links to the services referenced in this podcast, see A Virtual Perception’s latest blog post: Episode 57: 1 Blog + 3 VAs = Awesome Results

To hear the interview while reading this post you can play here:

This turned out to be a fun conversation among all four of us virtual assistants who shared the common bond of building our virtual businesses while balancing a home and personal life. We each have our own story and our own struggles. The highlighted point of this podcast was that even though we have never actually met, and in traditional business we should even be in competition with one another, the truth is that when we work together we can build so much more.

Darlene also asked each of us some targeted, niche specific questions:

Kena was asked for advice about Facebook fan pages for business. She also shared some really great advice for those of us who are working with clients who have us virtual assistants run their fan page.

Amber (that’s me! ; ) schooled everyone on keywords. I also wrote up a little virtual assistant keyword cheat sheet to provide a bit of visual aid and remind you of some of the most important places to use your keywords.

Jen was asked to share a bit about organizing your virtual office. She gave some great tips that anyone can use like how to go paperless!

The Work at Home Life bloggers are virtual assistants who came together to write a group blog to help other internet companies grow their businesses as we have. If you have a team of virtual assistants that you trust and know their quality of work, you may want to consider starting a group blog of your own. It’s amazing what we can learn from each other.

A special thanks to Darlene Victoria from A Virtual Perception for asking us to be a part of one of her professional and educational podcasts!

“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” Helen Keller

Create Friend Lists in Facebook

This weekend, I just started putting my friends in friend lists on Facebook. (You may need to be logged into Facebook for some of these links to work.)

Why should you take advantage of Facebook friend lists?

Business 2.0 Fan Page on Facebook

Click Image to Enlarge

You have a lot of friends from a lot of places. The next time you want to share a link or a video, you can share with one specific group of your friends and not bother the others with info that doesn’t interest them. This especially helps for those of us who get a lot of our business on Facebook.

Once you get your lists in place, you can:

Send out an email to all of your friends in a list

Invite your list of friends to an event, group, or Facebook fan page. For a Facebook fan page, click on suggest to friends, then choose the filter to find the list you’d like to suggest to. See Picture. ->

And be assured that more targeted sharing technology will be utilized in the future.

Familiarize yourself with this technology now!

How to Add Friends to a Facebook Friend List

  1. Login to
  2. Go to “Accounts” in the top right corner
  3. Go down to “Edit Friends
  4. Click on “Friends” under Lists
    facebook friends
  5. Then you should see an alphabetical list of all of your friends in the middle section. It should look similar to the following:

  6. Click on the “Add to List” button and put them in a list!
  7. I just added Jen and Kena to my “Virtual Assistants” and “Virtual Business Owners” lists.

What to Name Your Facebook Friend Lists

You can have up to 100 lists and up to 1000 people in a list. These are some examples of list names you may want to consider:

  • Just Facebook Friends (Perhaps you’ve never met them IRL…yet.)
  • Church Friends (If you’ve ever made friends with someone at church.)
  • High School
  • College
  • Geeks not all of my friends are as excited about the new techie geeky stuff that I am. :) So it’s good to filter that stuff out for them.
  • Virtual Assistants (If you have a lot of VA friends.)
  • Farmville Friends (Yeah, on the weekends I am seriously a Farmville junkie and I am working it out so that not all my friends have to deal with my Farmville pop ups about how I found a lost cow and it needs to be adopted. LOL – only Farmville people will understand or appreciate that! It’s still a work in progress.)

If you are part of a club, list your friends who are part of it too. If you have had lots of different summer jobs, and kept in touch with friends you’ve made, remember where you met them, etc.

*Note: Don’t create a list called “annoying people” or “party animals” unless your friends are ok with being known as that. Your friends can see your lists and who is in them. You can hide your lists, but why risk losing friends because you created a Facebook friend list called: “losers”?

When to Start Grouping Friends

Even if you only have 10 friends so far, you can and should start creating lists right away. Start putting new friends in lists when you accept their friend request.

If you want to start your own virtual assistant list on Facebook, you can add the writers of this blog: Amber Whitener, Jennifer Gallaher, and Kena Roth.

Helpful Microsoft Outlook Tips

So, I am loving Microsoft Outlook again.  Since things are getting pretty booked up around my house, I thought it best to start utilizing this wonderful program again.  Only this time, I am determined to use more of the features Outlook has to offer.  This way, I can coordinate both my home life appointments along with my professional appointments.  And….I can add all the love to-do tasks that need accomplishing.  ;)

For now, I thought I would share a few tips I found, and have actually used, on how to make life easier when using Outlook.

Creating/Using Email Template in Outlook

  • To save an email message as a template in Outlook:
    • Create a new message and enter the subject and content as usual.
    • In Outlook 2007, click the Office button and select Save As.
    • In Outlook 2003, select File | Save As from the menu.
    • Select Outlook Template under Save as type, in the Save As dialog.
    • Type the desired template name under File name.
    • Click Save.
  • To compose a message using the new template:
    • In the Outlook Inbox, select Tools | Forms | Choose Form from the menu.
    • Select User Templates in the File System under Look In.
    • Double-click the desired message template.
    • Address, edit or change verbiage if needed, then send.

Importing Contacts from Excel or a CSV File into Outlook

  • To import contacts from a CSV file or from Excel into Outlook:
    • Select File | Import and Export from the menu in Outlook.
    • Make sure Import from another program or file is highlighted.
    • Click Next.
    • Now make sure Comma Separated Values (.CSV) is selected.
    • Click Next.
    • Use the Browse button then select the desired file.
    • Choose Do not import duplicate items.
    • Click Next.
    • Select the Outlook folder you want to import the contacts to. Normally, this will be your Contacts folder.
    • Click Next.
    • Click Map Custom Field.
    • Make sure all columns from the .CSV file are mapped to the desired Outlook address book fields.
    • You can also create new mappings by dragging the column title to the desired field.
    • Click OK.
    • Then, Finish.

Creating an Email Signature in Outlook

  • Create an Email Signature in Outlook:
    • Select Tools | Options from the menu in Outlook.
    • Go to the Mail Format tab.
    • Click Signatures under Signatures.
    • Click New.
    • Create a name for this signature.
    • You can also set up different signatures for different purposes, like a specific one for work emails and one for personal emails.  Just make sure you name them accordingly so you can choose the correct signature when creating the email.
    • Click Next.
    • Then type the text you would like to see for your email signature.
    • This is also where you would format the font itself, the font size and color of text.
    • You can also select your business card to add under vCard options.
    • Click Finish.
    • Then, OK.

As I continue to re-learn Outlook and find more useful tips, I will share them with all of you.  I encourage you to try these tips for yourself and share any new ones that you may have found.  Let’s help each other become more organized!