(This article is reproduced from a web article that appears on Solo Professional.)
Computers are a tool that can help you save time and money. They can also help you waste time and money.
What Are Your Needs?
In order for your computer and software to save you both time and money, you need to do three things:
* You must first determine what you want and need to accomplish so that you purchase the right computer and software.
* You need to setup and learn to use your tools.
* You must use the applications consistently so that you have meaningful information.
Computers can be used for many tasks including writing letters, tracking income and expenses, keeping a calendar, maintaining a list of contact names and addresses, generating bills, analyzing information, creating presentations, communicating with others and doing research. For what specific tasks will you use your computer? Plan to use your computer for tasks that are repetitive, require manipulation of numbers, will be presented to others or will require revision or updating. Make a list of your must haves, can’t haves and nice to have functions.
With your goals for your computer in mind, talk with people who can give you unbiased advice as to what software programs might be useful. If you are a graphics designer, speak with other graphics designers. If you are an attorney, speak with other attorneys. Check with trade associations and other solo professionals, asking for recommendations.
With the knowledge of the software you want to use, you can determine what computer to buy. Certain applications will only run on Windows based PCs, others are more suitable to a Macintosh. Some applications will run well on Windows XP Personal, other applications may be more suited to Windows XP Professional. You can also get some guidelines on how much processor speed, memory and hard disk space you need at a minimum, and how much you will benefit by increasing these capacities. Buying a little more now, may enable you to keep the computer longer before you need to spend more time and money to upgrade.
Time and Money Savers
A frequent use of the computer – that saves both time and money – is bookkeeping. You save time by quickly gathering your information for your taxes and for measuring your business. Bookkeeping software, including QuickBooks®, Quicken®, Peachtree®, Simply Accounting®, MYOB® and others can save money by helping you identify the financial strengths and weaknesses in your business. It can also save your accountant time in preparing year-end reports and tax returns. Be sure to discuss this software decision with your accountant and get his or her recommendations both on what software to use and how to set it up.
Word Processing software can help you save time by allowing you to create a document once and then revise it as needed. You can also keep copies of your documents on the computer instead of printing them on paper and filing them in a drawer. This saves time later when you go to search for the document, since computers can search quickly and thoroughly. It saves money on paper and ink.
Spreadsheets can help you save money by allowing you to analyze numbers quickly and thoroughly. This may help you make a better decision because you can look at things more quickly in more ways than if you had to do the analysis by hand.
Billing software can help you make sure you don’t miss out on time that should be charged to a client. In addition, a well laid out bill will reduce calls from customers asking for more information. This will help you get paid more quickly as well as reduce the time you spend on these types of questions.
Time and Money Wasters
Time is frequently wasted with computers as people buy the wrong application for their needs and then try to make the application work their way. Or they get a computer with lots of things they don’t need and spend time trying to figure out all the functions. There is no reason to spend time learning to use software, just because it came with your computer. You can remove it, or ignore it unless you feel it can help you.
Another time waster is the Internet. While there is a lot of useful information on the Internet, there are also lots of ways to waste time. When you go online try to have a specific goal and allocate a set amount of time. If you can’t stay focused and need research on a specific topic it may make sense to hire someone. If you want to go online to “explore,” set a specific amount of time and use a loud buzzer to remind you when time is up.
Over utilizing the computer is another time waster. If you have a simple form to fill in it may be faster to enter the information by hand or to type it with a typewriter rather than trying to create the image of the document on the computer in order to enter the information.
Sending an email instead of making a phone call can be a time saver or a time waster. If the item is complex and may require a lot of back and forth, the phone call will probably be more efficient. I often have people contact me for technical support via email. Sometimes it works very well. However, when the answer is complex or may require many steps or the steps may vary depending on specific information, I get off the computer and make a phone call. In this area especially it is very important to know your audience. Some individuals will do much better with email information or instructions than others.
Think about what you are trying to accomplish and whether the computer will help you with the task, or whether you can do it faster and more easily by hand.
Learn to Use Your Tools
When we get something new we all have the desire to immediately start using it. However, taking the time to read the instructions or to hire someone to train us may make a lot more sense. If you have ever tried to put a bicycle together you know that it is much easier to get it right if you follow the instructions. Without the instructions the odds of putting all the pieces in the right place the first time are much harder. The same is true of computer software; an expert on the program or the instructions for the program may help you get it right the first time.
I’m the first to admit that I have yet to find an entertaining software manual. I wouldn’t expect anyone to read these books from cover to cover, but most manuals have a getting started section and an overview. Using these will help you start off on the right foot and get to know what the software is capable of. Then, as you continue you can refer back to the manual or the built-in help for more guidance.
Many people benefit from hands on training or guidance. Experts can be found on almost every program. If you decide to get one-on-one training for yourself or to attend a class, be sure to check out the credentials of the trainer you are considering. In most cases anyone can call themselves a trainer on a particular product. Ask for references. If certification is available on a product make sure the trainer is certified, and most importantly make sure you feel comfortable with the person and his or her style. I know many individuals who have had to change trainers because of differences in communication style. The web site for the program is usually a good starting place for finding competent trainers. Also be sure to ask others for a referral.
Use the Applications Consistently
There is an old acronym in the computer industry – GIGO. It stands for Garbage In Garbage Out. This is especially true with bookkeeping programs but applies to billing, calendar, contact management and many other types of software as well. The information you get out is only as good as what you put in.
If you want to use your bookkeeping application to track your business and to prepare your information for your accountant, you must enter all income and expenses into your program. Otherwise the information you get out will be incomplete and less useful.
Set up a schedule that will work for you whether it is daily, weekly or monthly. If you do not want to do the input on a regular basis, or if you feel your time is better spent somewhere else, hire someone to do the work for you. However, don’t do this until you know the end results you need and how you want to see the information. Otherwise you will not be able to check that the information is being input properly. It is extremely important to check the work regularly and to make sure you use the data.
The same logic applies to your calendar and contact information. If you don’t keep it up-to-date it loses its value. Set aside regular time to update contact information so that when you go into your contact database you know that what is there is correct.
Overall, the right computer software, used properly can save you time and money. Before you purchase any new program, ask yourself, “How will this help me do my work faster or better, and what steps will I need to take to get it to work with me?” If you can’t answer these questions, or if you don’t like the answers, try to get more clarity and focus before you move forward with your software purchases.
© Copyright, Caren Schwartz, 2002.