Category Archives: Microsoft Products

Pining for Novemberfest

The other day, I posted to Polkadelphia’s Facebook page:

Well, our first Oktoberfest season has come and gone. We had a blast playing from Philly to northern Jersey to the Polkanos. We had so much fun that I've decided to continue the party into... NOVEMBERFEST! Break out the insulated lederhosen, the polka Thanksgiving tunes, and beer beer BEER! We're coming for ya!

It was a kind of tongue in cheek way for me to both take pride in what I had accomplished over the previous month, as well as express some anxiety about the holes in my working schedule.

October was a very good month for me.  Polkadelphia was playing at least once a week, often much more.  While 2 or 3 shows per week for a polka band during Oktoberfest season seems a little low, I’m really proud of how much we accomplished as a band that hasn’t been around a whole lot.  I also had great gigs with 5 other groups across the month some of which were bands I had never played with before.  I got to play accordion in the West Philadelphia Orchestra, giving me the opportunity to expand my role in the group and learn new repertoire on that instrument.  I also got to write new songs as Neon and Shy and perform in one of my favorite venues (shoutout to the Zen Den).

Novemberfest!Last month I got to amp up my business acumen as well.  Booking Polkadelphia repeatedly taught me some new skills for finding work and negotiating.  I actually began to look forward to calling clients, instead of cringing any time the phone rang.  I had the opportunity to teach sousaphone lessons to a colleague, jumping back into the teaching world.  I was hired to build a new website for a client, and I got a few graphic design projects thrown my way as well.  And of course I got the brilliant idea for Novemberfest which, while not a full-fledged idea yet, has great potential for the future.

In October, I managed to meet my financial goals, meaning I earned enough to pay my monthly expenses.  This is an accomplishment of which I am especially proud, as it gives me the confidence and reassurance to continue working hard to make music my primary source of income.  It’s yet another reason I pine for Novemberfest, since I know running a polka band during Oktoberfest contributed greatly to my financial security for the month.

That last sentence there is the insecurity in me talking, and it has been nagging quite a bit lately.  The real trigger for it was the end of October, when I got my car inspected and found I needed major repairs.  The bill made a massive dent in the earnings I had worked so hard for, and I started second guessing myself.  Talking with a few other freelancers who assured me this sort of thing is always happening has made it a bit easier, but I still feel like I’m not accomplishing enough.

It’s an odd pattern.  There’s a very small sweet spot between when I start a project (book a show, write a song, arrange a new piece for a band) and see it to fruition (play the booked show, perform the written song, showcase the new arrangement) in which I’m feeling like all is well in the world and I’m being productive. After that, it’s easy to start to panic that I’m not doing enough.  While it’s important to have a strong work ethic, it’s far too easy to be, as David Bowie says in Rock ‘n Roll Suicide, “religiously unkind” to myself.*

Looking back over October, I can see why I might feel this way.  I’m still finding ways to be physically comfortable after my back injuries.  It’s cutting into my productivity, as one of the few places where it doesn’t hurt to work for over an hour is in bed (where I’m currently typing this).  And as business-like as my bed is, there’s no escaping the fact that I go there every night to rest.  Also, as I learned in 9th grade, you can’t really practice the tuba (or any other instrument) in bed.  It just doesn’t work.

I’m also a little gun shy about performing too much.  It’s hard to feel the correlation between the pain I feel and the performances, so I don’t always know what specifically to stop doing.  While performing is sometimes about landing those big lucrative gigs, I am finding that it’s also about just getting out and being present.  So I’m trying to do that without overdoing it.  As a whole, I’m trying to continue my experiments in productivity without damaging the future of my productivity.

So I’ll continue to find new approaches, develop new ideas, and create new opportunities.  Now that I’ve seen it happen for one month, I know financial solubility can be a reality.  I’ll keep on pushing through the thin veneer of terror and impossibility that can cling like a film to see what’s on the other side.  Onward to Novemberfest, Decemberfest, and beyond!

*

I’ve been really loving this song lately.  While it’s ostensibly part of the Ziggy Stardust story at a point in which he is washed up and depressed, I find it a timeless inspiration.  We as creators feel that timeless drag towards self-destruction, the clock ticking away our time left to say something, anything, and the solitary confinement of the path less traveled.  And in one soaring ride, David Bowie offers consolation and respite.  It’s really such a gorgeous journey.

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Baselines

I had an odd moment this past weekend in which I realized that something I vociferously teach in my classes was being summarily ignored in my own life.  Of course, once I tell you the subject, it might seem a little more forgivable.

Microsoft Office Divine

Now with the Everlasting Life application!

Among the programs that I teach, Microsoft Project is one of the more fringe ones.  Some of you might have just dipped into your Start Menu to look for it on your computer, only to discover that it’s not part of the Standard or Professional or Ultimate or Supreme or Divine Office Suites.  It’s a stand-alone Microsoft Office program designed specifically for project management and scheduling.  I describe it as a mix of Excel and Access with data fields specifically used in projects.  And yes, it is as fascinating as it sounds.

When scheduling a project, you enter all the tasks, the durations for those tasks, the date constraints for the tasks, and the people who are going to accomplish the tasks.  Once you’ve put all of that information in and before you start the project and mark some of the tasks complete, there’s a very important step that often seems insignificant to beginners.  You take a snapshot of all the plans you’ve made and save it into the schedule.  Across the life of the project, you compare the actual completion dates of your individual tasks to the snapshot.  In project management, the name of this snapshot is the baseline.

The baseline is vitally important to the scheduling of the project.  You use it to see how close your plans come to what was actually accomplished.  If they vary widely, you explore the reasons why.  Did your people resources work harder to finish the task sooner?  Did you greatly underestimate the amount of time it would take to meet your goals?  Was there an unexpected disaster that tacked a few more weeks onto a task that was supposed to be only a few days?  Without a baseline, you’re flying by the seat of your pants and hoping for the best.  You have no way to see if your goals are being met efficiently.

The interesting part about the baseline is that it isn’t so much a functional tool as an informational tool.  Once you mark your baseline, the project often takes on a life of its own that cares not for your initial plans.  Marking a baseline won’t make people work harder or have tasks get finished any quicker.  In most cases, it’s something to come back to after the project is finished to see how future projects can be improved.

So as much as I stress the importance of setting a baseline and using it as an informational tool in my classes, I found myself floundering a bit in my personal life.  As I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve been trying to find ways to optimize my time to find time to do the many projects that are important to me.  The idea of setting a baseline, though filled me with trepidation.  Even in that last post, I found myself panicking that marking down my proposed goals would lock me into a routine that I might find unsustainable.  I was looking at my attempts to organize my time as a functional tool instead of an informational tool.

To be fair, schedules usually are functional.  They tell you where you have to be and when.  If you miss an appointment on your schedule, you are often breaking a commitment you have made to someone.  When I was planning my own schedule I was making the mistake of considering adjustment to my planned activities as breaking commitments to myself.  Then the ensuing guilt would roll in.  Rather than have to deal with letting myself down, I opted not to make the plan in the first place.

Planning this kind of schedule is different though.  It too is an instructional tool to figure out what works and and does not work in how I plan my day.  A baseline in a project is never good or bad.  It’s just something to analyze and compare to the actual activities.  Likewise, my scheduling should be free of judgment.  I can plan my hour/day/week, then I analyze my plans and compare them to what actually happened.  I can figure out the activities that do work (tuba practice in the morning works great!) and what doesn’t work (I’m far to emotionally exhausted to write songs after a full day at the office).   Then I can use that data to better plan my activities for future schedules.

Gantt Chart

A Gantt Chart of my activities with baseline and actual measurements

What it comes down to is that by changing my perspective from taskmaster to observer, I reduced my scheduling stress and enabled myself to get more out of the process.  As soon as I realized that my goal was just to set a baseline and see what I accomplish instead of to accomplish everything on the first try (do everything, and if you can’t, you’re a bad person!), it becomes a fun learning activity.  Despite teaching this important concept in every Project class, I glossed right over it when it came to my own life.

Microsoft Office… is there nothing it can’t do?

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