Archive for the ‘Downtime Projects’ Category

8 Really Useful Homeworking Tips

November 23, 2009 Leave a comment

Ive been homeworking for more than 8 years now, for a large corporate company, and have learned a lot the hard way.

Hopefully some of these tips will help you avoid some of the pitfalls I hit, and general make the daily grind more productive and pleasurable (as it should be without the commute).

  1. Get a Reliable Internet Connection. Use a well known and stable provider (I use BT). Use decent, simple equipment (router) only.  Good broadband is vital for decent video, web conferencing and IP phone connections. Poor connections really impact your productivity, drive you crazy, and in the worse-case mean you have to drive into the office. As I live quite far from the office I used to pay for 2 connections from two different providers, one acting as a backup. Fortunately my primary is now so reliable that I’ve dropped the backup.
  2. Don’t mess around with your PC network or equipment. The more you play with it, the more likely it is to break. Try to keep separate work and play machines (or at least users).  This includes installing games, other software or indeed hardware that isn’t core to your job.
  3. Be Secure. With good office equipment in your house you’ll need a decent alarm, door and window locks, lighting, and to take a generally secure approach (I didn’t … and got burgled).
  4. Keep work locked away. If possible keep all work in a separate room, and don’t make it too easy to ‘just check something‘. Your real-life/family will thank you for it. Make it an effort to go to work.
  5. When at work, be at work. When working, keep to set hours and be strict to make sure other things don’t creep-in. I use my lunch hour for those household chores.
  6. Don’t get lonely. Some people visit the office once a week, others use online chat, radio and music players or other ways in which to feel part of the world at large. Think about your personality and choose accordingly.
  7. Get out.  Its great to get out into the real world at lunchtime (or whenever suits). Go for a walk or run, play some sport or visit the gym/swimming pool. Even going to the local shops makes a refreshing change. It all helps clear the mental-grime of the morning, and I often get some great ideas that I can action that afternoon. Be tough and make yourself take those breaks.
  8. Self-promote your achievements. You need to make more of an effort to be visible, so create pieces of work that you can show to others (and management) that clearly signify what you are doing and the success you are achieving.

Let me know any tips you have too.


6 Simple Tips for building Self Assembly (aka Flat-Packed) Items

October 30, 2009 Leave a comment

Funny Instructions

After having passed through my “tight-budget 20’s” (using Ikea) and now into my “two-kids-that-need-stuff 30’s” Ive probably assembled about 20-30 items requiring self-assembly and have some nuggets of wisdom to share.  The items are usually furniture (although am also getting expert at toys too), with most items being things like wardrobes, cupboards, tables and chairs,  cots and beds, bookcases, and most recently (last weekend) toy boxes.


  1. Buying the Right Stuff – To be honest, these days if I can afford to avoid self-assembly items, I do.  This isn’t always possible, as the internet allows you to find just what you want, but means it has to come in a shipping-friendly way (i.e. self-assembly).
  2. Having the Right Tools – Usually you dont need more than a screwdriver, but even then you’ll sometimes be better with long-shafted and sometimes with short-shafted. Also make sure the tip fits properly in the screw, else you’ll make a mess of the screw head and will not be able to get it in, or out again.  Get a good range of decent screwdrivers, with nice soft handles too (makes a good xmas present).  Some people use electric screwdrivers/drills, but unless you’re skilled you can just make more of a mess with these.  A good set of your own allen-keys is also handy, especially ones with good grips for when you’ve got 25 things to screw in.
  3. Getting Organized- yes its boring and most people love to drive in, but I cant tell you how much time/frustration it will save.  Firstly set aside the the right amount of time – be generous, in this world 5minutes=1hour.  Next select a good workspace – near to the place it will go (since flat-packed stuff doesn’t travel well) and with plenty of room to lay stuff out. Finally very carefully select any helpers – usually you’ll need another pair of hands at some point (or you end-up tearing/breaking something – either the item or yourself) but too many cooks spoil the broth, especially amongst family members.
  4. Opening the Item Properly – more than once Ive got 90% through to find the next thing I need is missing or broken.  At this point most manufacturers tell you to send the whole thing back (dissassembled)!  Check the peices are there and good.
  5. Understanding the Instructions – easier said than done.  Don’t get upset, or interpret / guess too much, simple try it exactly as it says (without tightening things up), then take apart and try again.  Try to understand what you’re trying to do, before doing it. Never skips steps, take shortcuts or use extra bits – it never ends with a good finished product.
  6. Know your Limits – if you’ve got a friend who is a carpenter or know a friendly carpenter, ask if he’ll help, either for payment or for something he wants that you can do.  You can also try these guys who’ll do if for you, or find advice on the web (e.g. flatpackadvice). This is especially a good idea if you’re struggling and are about to break an expensive item (although you can often say it was broken/faulty and get a replacement).  Sometimes its just not worth the hassle – afterall you’re good at other stuff!!

My 10 Simple Ways To Prevent Information Overload

October 13, 2009 2 comments

The following is a simple list of the best ways I have found to manage the wealth of new information that passes through the various information-input channels I have setup.

  • Create Focused Time.  Set chunks of time aside for specific tasks, and refuse to do anything but those tasks.  This requires huge amounts of self-discipline, but its the number one way of getting things done amid the information-noise.  Try to start with small chunks of time, say 20 minutes and scale-up as needed.
  • Create Non-Focused Time.  To help do the things that are a bit less structured (things like reviewing yesterdays tweets, RSS, emails and such), have some dedicated flexible, more information-friendly time.  Personally I do this early in the morning (as have many overnight inputs), so new information can be used during the day and helps me ease into the day (compared to starting immediately with the nasty job).
  • Block The Interruptions.  During the Focused Time (or whenever), simply don’t read new emails, look at pings, and let non-urgent phone calls go to voice-mail.  Most channels should be closed, turned off, or at least hidden from view (and inaudible).  Ask people to set-up a meeting later if they ask for your time.
  • Schedule Your Day.  Use a very simple tool to help you schedule your day better.  This helps create the focus/non-focus time, but can also be a good reminder of what needs doing. Break the day into hour chunks and allocate time sensibly. Most importantly – try to stick to it.  Use it for not just meetings, but schedule your own work (which has the added bonus of preventing others booking meetings in the slots that you plan to do important tasks).  I also include key deadlines ahead, to help keep me reminded/focused.
  • Fewer Meetings. Don’t setup meetings when things could be actioned right now with a short chat.  If you are free get a feel for the situation and what is needed from you.  Usually it doesn’t require an hour meeting, and these usually bring more information, ideas and general baggage into your world that you don’t need.
  • Archive, But Don’t Over-Index Anymore.  Most people love to use filters and folders to put information in places and whilst this made sense for some time, the modern tools have much better searching capabilities that mean less manual categorization is needed.  Three times a day, I put all email I think I might need to keep into one folder, delete the rest, and keep my inbox empty.  I know where everything is, and can search very easily (on time, sender, recipient, subject etc). I don’t waste any time moving stuff about and navigating to try and find stuff. Its also nice to see everything in one place (or subsets of it), and not have stuff hidden in a maze of folders in folders in folders.
  • Process Stuff Quickly.  There are some simple techniques that can be used to quickly work out if something is interesting and how relevant it is (i.e. worth the time to read).  Good examples are within the popular Getting Things Done (GTD).  Also, if something is causing progress problems, don’t just continue – try to address it immediately so things can be speeded-up as soon as possible.  People will change if you clearly explain the negative effect things are having on you.  Don’t just moan, do something about it!
  • Just Say No.  Sometimes you shouldn’t take on more work, as something more important will suffer. It might be hard to say no, but sneaky ways to help as to give very long completion dates (I’ll try to get to it next week), to make it easier for someone else to do it (e.g. ask lots of silly questions).
  • Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.  If its actually small and not important, don’t waste time on it.  Accept some stuff gets dropped/missed to make room for more important stuff.  Don’t get blinded by seemingly urgent work that is simply not important – learn to filter the noise and properly prioritize your ToDo lists (I use one daily and one weekly ToDo lists, numbered by priority, to help keep focused).
  • Just Do It.  Don’t waste too much time thinking – start doing.  Its much more effective to think-whilst-doing, than to sit there and guess what might be important/related.  The ‘doing’ might be drafting a proposal or a plan, but putting the thinking into some kind of action really helps get better results. It’s also great to do a little work towards longer term goals every day. It might only be 10minutes but its better than nothing and the results do mount up eventually. It is also good for the soul to know you made some progress, and inspires further effort.

I hope these tools help you as much as they did for me (I got an order of magnitude more productive).  They come from about 1yr reading about productivity, and represent the more practical and simple to use methods I found (but are by no means all of them!).  Good Luck.

Incidentally my current channels are: 5 Main RSS feeds, 2 Email accounts (personal + work), 1 Twitter account (see sidebar), 1 Blog (this), 1 Facebook account , 1 Flickr account, 1 Instant Messaging Account, and 2 work-related facebook/twitter-type accounts (other tools that have similar features).

Review: The 4-Hour Work Week – by Tim Ferriss

I’ve just finished this book, after about 2 weeks of reading in bed before going to sleep.  To be honest its probably not the best time to read this kind of book, but that’s my reading time, to its tough!  The reason being in bed isn’t good, is because the book has so many resources (urls, names etc) that I wanted to look at them or write them down to look at later.

So why did I read this book?  I work location-free currently, for a long period in ‘mega-corp’.  I love travel and plan to live overseas for an extended time period, and I love learning.  So from what I know about Tim (blog, twitter, videos) he seems to be speaking right to me. As such, I finally got around to reading his book. I wont bore you with a full book review, but just give me take on it, under a few key areas:

  1. Application to Me
    I am still wrestling with this a bit. Its always going to be hard to please everyone and there is of course the danger of pleasing no-one. I know Tim has tried to cover everyone (employees, business-owners, families and singletons) and I don’t want to be too harsh, however I come away with the feeling this was an ‘instructional’ type of a book, and didn’t really lend itself well to trying to hit such a wide audience. If it was a set of 3 or 4 smaller books, with specific audiences in mind, that would have been better for me (although am sure the publishers disagree).
  2. A Personal Focus
    At the end Tim mentions sharing experiences, however inevitably this book has a very personal focus (my dreams and goals). As such the first step (unless alone) on the road must be learning to share dreams and goals, and working out a joint plan that all parties are more than satisfied with.
  3. Timing
    Personally I think I simply read this book about 4 years too late. Having just started a family, and all the trimmings that go with it (minimum savings, high financial commitments), I really kept thinking ‘yeah would be nice but..’. Obviously that’s my fault for buying/reading an unsuitable book, however I plan to re-read it in about 2yrs time, and then things should be a bit more practical.
  4. Money
    To really start actioning anything like this you need a stable financial base to start from (minimal commitments, and either disposable savings or an income process that only requires management). Tim’s experience (and most of the book) is focused around existing business owners who can automate the business process so their income still comes in without the need for day-to-day personal management.
    This seemed to require a commodity-type product/business. If you need to personally be involved (e.g. service business) then the first step is looking at how to move to a commodity type business, or somehow replace yourself and still turn a profit. This is where the real skill lies for many people and Tim’s examples of how to remove yourself from management are inspirational. Extending this to the other business functions needs some clever case-by-case solutions.
    There were also nice examples of wage earners taking the plunge, but I noticed these all seemed to be people with successful jobs for a number of years, and the financial backing to action their dreams.
  5. Format
    I liked the FAQ sections to help give things a reality-check, although reading one-after-another got a bit dull.  I liked how it was filled with real experiences and examples, it helped me really understand how it can work and how this could be a reality. I also like the way the website ( supports and extends the book, a real value-add (I am trying to speed-reading, language tips etc).

I am a fan of Tims generally, the way he has taken hold of his life is an inspiration to all, and I will try to get people I know who are in a suitable place to read his book.

Moasic Art – my creative outlet

I have always liked creating stuff, from Lego when I was a kid, to software solutions now.

I’ve learnt that I like it too much. The reason this is bad is that almost as soon as I start one thing I find another, even more exciting creative opportunity, normally before any decent results had started to appear.  As such, bouncing from one to another with zero accomplishments results in a feeling of disappointment and frustration.  My problem is not really poor discipline, but too much enthusiasm!  Anyway, enough moaning.

The one thing I have stuck to for a number of years is creating mosaics.  Not exactly a macho pursuit, however without natural talents in drawing or painting, or the patience to learn these properly, I stumbled across the idea of mosaics – making simple pictures using small tiles (or ‘tesserae’ to use their proper name).  I saw some great examples of what was possible and thought ‘how hard can it be’.

I find it interesting how Mosaic Art spans such a huge amount of time. Beginning all the way back in Greek and Roman times, and really flourishing in the Byzantine Empire.  As such we find it commonly used in important relics and artifacts, as well as in large churches and temples built throughout history (often using gold leaf tiles). Even contemporary art includes mosaics, with the most well know examples being in Gaudi’s Barcelona.

To keep things simple (and practical) so far I have only worked on mosaics on a board that can be hung on a wall (inside).  This is quite limited scope, since they are most commonly used as part of building or object decoration (beyond bathrooms) for both interior and exterior enjoyment.

Upon working on Mosaics, I began to learn that they work on several levels … which is kind of mindblowing stuff

  • Overall Impression – is it a picture of something or something more abstract… or something between the two?
  • Granularity – how detailed is it supposed to be (i.e. how big should the tiles be)?
  • Flows (known as the ‘Opus’)- in addition to representing something, how do the tiles flow within and around the objects.  There are standard patterns, however I like extending and customizing these.
  • Media – tiles come in many types; glass, stone, ceramic or anything in between.  Should these be mixed, and which type says what?
  • Grout – the space between the tiles is filled with grout, however this can be different colors, as well as the gaps can be different widths.

I found a great book that got me started, and featured many artists work for inspiration. I especially liked the work of Sonia King, whose mosaics appealed to me on many levels.

Here is my first attempt, using glass tiles I got from a company in a mixed bag, as I didn’t want to waste money on proper tiles.  And yes, as I wasn’t using a proper cutting tool at that point either my fingers got filled with glass shards – ouch.

First Attempt

The most exciting thing I found here was the ground under the tree.  Semi-deliberately I stuck the small tiles in rows, adding more and more rows to fill the area.  This formed a very interesting flow pattern that adds a great feeling of depth and texture to the earth, especially in contracts to the standard opus of the white background.

So I moved on and did a few more, but having run out of my first bag of tiles, I decided to change media a bit, as glass was a pain (literally), so looked for something softer and for a more contemporary mat finish.  I discovered someone who sold ceramic tiles and set to work on a larger mosaic for submission in a local exhibition that had an “Angels” theme to it.  I also wanted to try another idea that I had not seen used, 3-Dimension.

Katies Angel

As you can see, I went a bit crazy on the flow this time, but the body, head and wings have a slight raised feel, adding another concept that I think gives even more visual enjoyment.  It was accepted into the exhibition and I got some great feedback.  Enough to spur me on to the next project – my new babies room.

With my first child on the way, we were decorating her nursery and I offered to do a mosaic for the wall to match the existing decor.  It seemed a nice way to add something meaningful, and another interesting project for me.  With various time pressures, and the Angel haven taken 100’s hours, this time I went for something smaller and more simple to do.


Although this photo doesn’t show it the same bear was on the bed covers, curtains and lampshade (Mama&Papas).

I then decided doing pictures of things was not the way for me to go, and I just loved the flow and patterns so much more.  As such I ‘went abstract’ and the following is my favorite piece so far.

Abstract Lines

This contains a few media types (black glass, mirrors and ceramic) and was essentially an experiment in flow types (hence being so many).

Finally my most recent work was something for my daughters new bedroom, its was a quick project but actually its quite effective since it simplified to just two tile types, uncut, and uses simple grouping rather than flows.


I am currently working on a project similar to the abstract one above, but much larger, and that combines the most effective flows and patterns with the3-dimension concept from the Angel.

I’m planning a work-in-progress blog on this one next.

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