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Virtual assistance and a review of TimeSvr, ODesk

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I’m starting to get the hang of this delegation thing, and I like it.

Jeff Widman pointed me to, a virtual assistance outsourcing service that’s priced much more affordably than similar services like AskSunday, GetFriday, and LongerDays. With a USD 69/month plan, you get unlimited 15-minute requests and up to 8 hours for complex tasks.

I took advantage of their a free 3-day trial period to give them a whirl, sending them 10 small tasks I’d been meaning to work on.

Tasks with clearly defined processes (approve Facebook friend requests except for those who found me through Friend Finder, request books from the library, post my checked-out books on LibraryThing and Shelfari) worked out pretty well. I may set up repeating tasks to take care of these things.

Web research tasks had mixed results.
When I asked them to find me a Linux-compatible black-and-white laser printer and scanner that could do both sheet-fed and flat-bed scanning, they recommended two Samsung printers available from FutureShop. One of them didn’t do sheet-fed scanning, but the other was a pretty good deal, and we went out and picked it up the same day. (I’m very happy with my new Samsung SCX-4828 – it actually works!) When I asked them to find me that Firefox extension that adds numbered shortcuts to Google Search results, I got back a page that didn’t have anything to do with it. Your mileage may vary.

How does this compare with the dedicated virtual assistants you can hire from oDesk or other services? I’m coming to similar conclusions as Sid Savara in his post Can Virtual Assistants Make Your More Productive? An Experiment, and a TimeSvr Review (with pretty diagrams!). TimeSvr’s 24/7 availability is a big bonus. Because of their focus on 15-minute tasks, I don’t feel nearly as guilty assigning them routine, well-defined tasks. On the other hand, I’m quite impressed by the initiative and personal development shown by one of the VAs I’ve hired off oDesk. I think web research tasks benefit from having someone build up background information and certain tasks benefit from processes that we develop, so I can lean towards asking her to do more of those kinds of things.

I’ll continue with TimeSvr past the 3-day free trial to get a sense of what my small-task volume is like over a month. I’d already carved out a small portion of my budget for outsourcing experiments because I see it as valuable (and otherwise hard-to-get) education on delegation and management, and that + a little web research by Ana would fit in my budget nicely. After a month, I’ll review it to see whether it’s been a good fit, and what would make it even better.

UPDATE: Added affiliate link to TimeSvr for better tracking. Disclosure: If you do sign up and you like it, I’ll get $10 from that, up to a maximum of $30. =)

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VA Days: Calendar Management

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Hey, this actually does work. =) I experimented with outsourcing calendar management, and the results so far are promising.

I invested some time in writing detailed calendar management instructions, and then I forwarded details for five events I’d like to arrange over the next couple of weeks. The VA I assigned the task to entered in all the details. The only part she forgot was to create appointments on my tentative calendar for each of the events, but that’s okay. The oDesk work diary shows me that she created them, but they were on her own calendar.

She took an hour to set up her account and type in the events, and she’ll probably do things even faster next time. And the process works! =)

Here’s my process so far:

Calendar Management

I use AgreeADate ( to set up appointments, and Google Calendar ( for my calendar.

To find timezones agreeable to people, use this Meeting Planner: I am okay with meetings after 7:00 AM EST and before 11:00 PM EST (Canada – Ontario – Toronto).
To convert between timezones, use

See XXX for password information.

Setting up potential appointments

  1. Open my main Google calendar in a separate window so that you can see when I’m available. You can access it at XXXXX with your username and password.
  2. Log on to with the given username and password in Accounts and Passwords.
  3. Click on “Add a New Event”.
  4. Set up basic event details.
  1. Type in the event title (and venue, for in-person events), and the duration I specified
    Preferred venues:
    • Lunch during weekdays
    • Ichiriki – Japanese – 120 Bloor Street E, Toronto  Hours: 11:45 – 2:30?
    • Camros Eatery ( – Vegan Hours: M-F 11:30am to 7:30pm  (no travel time necessary)
    • Weekends: Linux Caffe ( – 326 Harbord Street, Toronto. Hours: M-F: 7am to 11pm, Sat 10am to 11pm, Sun 10am to 5pm
  2. Set AgreeADate to send a reminder 1 day before the event. 
  3. Add additional text:
    • If people have not indicated their phone numbers, add

Please use the “Send message to host” feature to send me the phone numbers / Skype ID I can reach you at just in case something comes up.

  • For phone appointments, include the following segment in the Additional text box:

    Times are given in Eastern Standard Time. If you need to change the timezone, use the link on the AgreeADate reply page labeled

    “Not your time zone? To convert time zone click here.”

    Sacha Chua’s contact information
    Skype ID: XXX
    Mobile number: XXX
    Work number: XXX
    E-mail: XXX

  • For in-person appointments, include the following segment in the Additional text box:

    Sacha Chua’s contact information
    Mobile number: XXX
    Work number: XXX
    E-mail: XXX

  • Click on the Next step.
  • Set up dates
    1. Offer 3-5 choices, making sure that they don’t conflict with events on my main or tentative calendars.
    1. For in-person meetings, I prefer lunch (12:00 PM – 1:00 PM) or coffee/tea/hot chocolate (any time between 3:00 PM and 5:00 PM), preferably on a Thursday or Friday
    2. For phone meetings, I prefer calls on Saturday or Sunday (9:00 AM – 9:00 PM), preferring Saturday afternoon
  • Create Google Calendar events for each slot on the Tentative calendar. That way, I can glance at my main calendar + tentative calendar to see where I might potentially have appointments.
  • Click on the next step.
  • Invite people.
    1. Type in the e-mail addresses of everyone I want to invite. You can generally skip the names, although I’ll ask you if I need the names typed in.
    2. Click on “Save changes.” DO NOT SEND INVITATIONS YET.
    3. E-mail me at XXX with a link to the event to tell me that it’s ready for review.

    When I ask you to copy the calendar information:

    1. Open the event on
    2. Click on Review and Select.
    3. Open my Google Calendar in another window.
    4. For each confirmed slot, update the corresponding calendar event. Set the event title to the event subject and invitee name(s). Copy any contact details (see the bottom for the messages sent to the host, and your e-mail for other contact information) into the body of the calendar event. Move the event to the main calendar.
    5. If all the appointments in this event have been confirmed, delete the other tentative calendar events from my tentative Google Calendar.
    6. Report completion through e-mail in your status update.

    I use the Google Labs “Canned Responses” feature to set up the following mail template:

    Hello, XXX!

    Could you please set up the following event:

    Event type:
    Your timezone: Leave this at Eastern Time
    Dates and times:


    Additional text:

    For your reference:

    Link to calendar management instructions: XXX
    Link to accounts/passwords: XXX
    AgreeADate site:
    Google Calendar: XXX


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    Terrific comic from UserFriendly about my favorite text editor.

    I might take sick leave too! ;)

    Random Emacs symbol: general-holidays – Variable: General holidays. Default value is for the United States.

    Sent by Stephen Perelgut

    On Technorati:

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    Waking up

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    Day five of waking up before 7:30. I’m starting to like this. Waking
    up early means I have lots of time to myself for reading, writing, and
    learning new things. It has also helped me make sure I drink enough
    water. Not bad!

    Random Emacs symbol: repunctuate-sentences – Command: Put two spaces at the end of sentences from point to the end of buffer.

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    These are the four words that resonate the most with my desire to grow
    to be a better person: meaning, abundance, integrity, and love.

    I help people connect with their better selves and
    with other people in deep and meaningful ways. I create a better self
    and a better world through action and reflection so that I can do
    meaningful things.
    I can do all this because I enjoy an abundance of
    blessings and opportunities. I have enough time, energy, and resources
    to share with others.
    Because of this abundance, I can always act with
    integrity: keeping my word, living according to my values, and
    respecting others and myself. When I make a mistake or give in to
    temptation, I catch myself through reflection or the support of my
    others around me, and do what I can to return to a life of integrity.
    Through all of this, I act with great love and
    compassion. I strive to choose the loving option even if other choices
    are easier, and I also open myself to the loving kindness of the

    My understanding of these values will evolve over time, as I follow or
    even lose sight of them along the way. Still, they’re a good guide.

    What are your values?

    Random Emacs symbol: tramp-do-copy-or-rename-file-directly – Function: Invokes `cp’ or `mv’ on the remote system.

    Jedediah Smith wrote:

    Love as much as you can, yourself and others
    Responsibility take control of your life, fix whatever mistakes you can, let go of those you can’t
    Forgiveness if a grudge isn’t helping you, let it go
    Truth always search for what’s real even when you would prefer the unreal
    Fluidity embrace change, seek novelty, face your fears, grow
    Sarcasm yeah, this is a GREAT value
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    I realized today that Nethack isn’t fun for me. I admit, I like some
    of it, and it’s kinda cool that I have a level 13 wizard who’s
    currently wandering around the Quest level, and it does give me some
    geek cred, but it’s not really doing it for me. My character runs into
    problems, and I’m like, darn, now I have to remember where I put that

    Freeciv is a little bit interesting because it’s one of the strategy
    games my friends play.

    Maybe I should try more puzzle games. I remember liking the fish

    Random Emacs symbol: ido-cache-ftp-work-directory-time – Variable: *Maximum time to cache contents of an ftp directory (in hours).

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    Slowly but surely making progress

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    Goal: inbox zero by New Year!

    This will be somewhat easier if I don’t check mail between now and then, of course… ;)

    Random Emacs symbol: eshell-glob-include-dot-files – Variable: *If non-nil, glob patterns will match files beginning with a dot.

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