Virtuosity 11.11

Where words become worlds…

10 Tools to Help You Stay Productive While Working from Home

Over the last few years, both Yen and I have used a ton of different applications to help us stay focused and productive. We’ve seen a lot of people saying that they’re struggling with working from home, so we wanted to share some of the apps and browser extensions we’ve found that were super helpful! 

We’ve broken these tools up into three sections: Task and project managers, accountability, and staying on task. We hope these tools will be helpful to you, whether you’ve worked from home for a while or if you are just starting to work from home. 


Task and Project Managers


Todoist is a task and project manager app you can use on your computer and phone. It’s been around a long time and it has a lot of options for integrations with other organization software. You can even use it to prioritize things like email and they also work in some gamification by having achievements and streaks. 


Asana is another project manager and it works a lot like a Kanban board. Tasks are organized in cards and you can progress them through the board as you work through and complete them. Asana is really good for people who like to have a visual representation of the different stages of their project. It also has a timeline view, so users can look at the timeline as a whole. 


Monday has a similar Asana, it’s a project and task manager. Each of these progams has a different user interface and different pricing plans, so we suggest you take time and try out each system and see what works best for you. Good productivity often comes out of finding the tools that mesh best with your work style. 


Trello can be used in a variety of ways. You can create various boards and then create lists within them. From there, you can add cards to lists. 

You could create a shared board that has a repository of resources that you/your team can access. We’ve used it to plot out our content calendars by month, so each list represents a month of the year and we put all our tasks and planned content for that month in that list. 

If you like Kanban tables, you could easily create them in Trello as well. Their free version has a lot of versatility. Go here for Aubrey’s blog on Trello.



Slack/Discord and Accountability Buddies

You can use apps like Slack or Discord (or even good old email) to co-work with each other virtually and help keep each other on task. I talked about this more over on my blog on The Taming of the Muse, but having friends who you are accountable to is a great way to stay on task. Discord and Slack make it easy to create a space to talk, check-in and collaborate. If you’re writing, they also have bots like SprintoBot you can use to time your productivity sprints.  Check out Aubrey’s blog here for more information about co-working virtually. 


Rescue Time tracks your time spent on different sorts of apps, so that you get a good idea of where you are spending your time. You can check your progress daily and they also send you a weekly report that shows you how much time you spent focusing on productive applications and programs and how much time you spent on things like social media or games. 


Staying On Task 


Momentum is a browser extension that replaces the typical screen when you open a new tab in your browser. You can put in your main focus for the day and every time you open up a new browser tab, you will be presented with a reminder for that focus as well as a peaceful wallpaper and a small inspirational quote. You can also create a small Todo list or even integrate Momentum with apps like Todoist. If you’re like me and you open a million new tabs daily, it’s a great reminder to help you stay on task. 


StayFocusd is a free browser extension that sits on the toolbar of your browser. It will block out all other websites except the one you want to use. You can also set a timer with it so you can limit how long you are allowed to look at certain sites. 


Freedom is a program that will not only block websites, but apps, as well. If you have trouble focusing on the program you’re supposed to be using and are distracted by other programs, this is a good option to keep yourself on track. Freedom has a monthly subscription as well as a forever plan.


Strictworkflow also uses Pomodoros, but it makes it very difficult to try and break your Pomodoro. If you want to access a blacklisted site during “work time” you will have to uninstall the app completely, so it’s sort of the nuclear option for browsers. You can edit what sites are in your blacklist to add which sites are the most distracting for you. You can change the work/break times as needed to fit your needs, it also has a ringer option, so you can hear the timer go off and start your next work/break time. It’s a free browser extension.


The Entrepreneur Balancing Act

I was talking to Marcy this morning. Marcy is the Dr. Watson to my Sherlock Holmes, and she had defined entrepreneurship and the act of building a startup very succinctly as, “You come in with a well thought-out plan, but you have to be flexible enough to throw everything out the door if needed.”

So true. A lot of the hard work behind creating a startup is finding the product-market fit. What this means is being able to create a product that clients and customers actually want. Finding product-market fit means talking to many, many people to learn what their pains and needs are before designing the product as a solution for it.

You have a plan. In fact, a lot of your time is spent planning and replanning as you learn more about your customer’s needs. But then, you have to be willing to throw out that plan in favor of another if things don’t work out. It is a process called agile product development. You develop and plan enough to move forward, but not too far so that you can get feedback to inform your next steps.

That balancing act comes from keeping your nerves intact as you move forward into the unknown!!! What it means, though, is that it takes the guesswork out of product development. Rather than guessing what people want, you ask. Then, you design. Eventually, you’ll come to that product market fit!

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

Continuing the Entrepreneur Story

The other day, my husband said, “One of these days, you should write a memoir of all your experiences being an entrepreneur. It might save people a lot of painful mistakes. That’s when I realized that this blog is the perfect place for that.

I started my company on April 5, 2018. This was the date written on my business license from when I sent in my paperwork to get my business registered. Since that time, I’ve taken classes, participated in networking events, and took advantage of a lot of resources in my area to get to where I am now. Here were some things that I didn’t know about business until I had to figure it out:

It takes a long time to solidify your vision for your company. You’ll find that there are a lot of different kinds of entrepreneurs in the world, and they all get to success in different ways. There is no one pathway that they follow. However, there IS a certain order to things. If you sort of know what you want to do, your first step is to start asking to as many people as possible about your idea. Notice that I said asking, and not talking. The reason why is because no one cares about your idea. What they care about is how this idea will benefit them. The only way you find that out is by asking people about their needs and to understand their pains around what it is you want to do. Your customers needs come first before your idea, and be prepared to change your idea to best fit their needs.

Take advantage of your local resources. In the United States, there are Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) in every state, and probably near where you live. You can schedule a free appointment to sit with a business consultant, who will help you understand your market and help you develop your vision, goals, and the steps that you need to take to get started. Local universities and colleges may also have internship programs and outreach that you can take advantage of, where you can have a marketing or business undergraduate work with you (as part of their internship) to help you develop your business. I, myself, took advantage of the Startup Factory program here in Iowa to learn about managing, marketing, and business.

Don’t go for investment or investors until you know and fully understand what you are doing. I was very lucky and dodged many a disastrous bullet when I first started. First and foremost, NEVER partner or give parts of your company to anyone for services or investment until you understand what you’re doing first. Partnerships are like marriages — so take them seriously, and KNOW who your partners are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, whether you can work with them, and whether giving them a part of your company is going to actually benefit you in the long run. You should never be rushed into a partnership, and if you are, then that is a big red flag for you that something is wrong.

You will spend hours, days, and weeks doing research on the Internet and reading books. This is all part of being a CEO. There is so much information out there, and you will need to invest a lot of time learning and sifting through it all. Welcome to entrepreneur life!

Learn from your horrible mistakes and failures. You MUST make mistakes in order to move forward. Some of your greatest breakthroughs will happen after your biggest failures. If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t going fast enough. Entrepreneurship is not comfortable. It’s not for the hobbyist, and it’s certainly not for those who aren’t willing to take risks or who are afraid of failure. Granted, there are exceptions to all of this, but in my experiences, you’ve got to have nerves of steel, and a deep belief in yourself that no matter what, you’re going to figure things out. Just know that how you figure it out is by engaging in the process of imperfect action and lots of mistakes and failures.

Remember why you are an entrepreneur. Success happens when you don’t give up, and you adapt/pivot/adjust to what you are learning. I became an entrepreneur because I knew that this was the only pathway I had to change the world. It is the hardest thing I have ever done, but it is also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, too. I love knowing that each and every day, I’m working on my dream and my vision. That’s why your vision is so important, and it may take months before you get clarity on what your vision is. Once you’ve established your vision, it becomes your focus from which everything else happens. #entrepreneurlife

3 Books that Every Entrepreneur Should Read on How to Start a Business – Part III

In addition to talking to people and accessing networks, prepare to spend days and weeks consuming YouTube videos, watching courses, and of course, reading books. Here’s the books that I’ve found that were most helpful to me on my journey:

Start with the Business Model Generation book! It’s a quick and easy read, but the Business Model Canvas will help you organize your thoughts and develop a working (and constantly evolving) business model for your company.

Cover of the Business Model Generation Book
Business Model Generation by Osterwalder and Pigneur

Kawasaki’s The Art of the Start, is next on my list. This book gets your head in the game, and gives you the mindset that you need to be an entrepreneur. You’ll get a surface view of entrepreneurship, and links to help you dive deeper.

Cover to the book, The Art of the Start by Kawasaki
The Art of the Start by Kawasaki

Startups run on a completely different model than other companies. The Startup Owner’s Manual will help you truly understand what running a startup entails, and it includes great advice and guides for building your company and how to get started. I also highly suggest that you take the free complimentary course by Blank called, “How to Build a Startup” which is hosted on Udacity. Chock full of great advice, and it will give you more details than the manual.

Cover to the book "The Startup Owner's Manual" by Blank and Dorf.
The Startup Owner’s Manual by Blank and Dorf

Well, that’s my top 3 book picks to start you off. There’s tons of other books out there, and you’ll need to choose them based on the style that speaks to you. However, I’d say that I built my business foundation from the three books that I’ve mentioned right here. Happy reading! ~Y

How to Start a Business and Where to Go for Help – Part II

In my last post, I shared how you should share your ideas with friends and family. Once you’ve got a fairly good idea of what you want to do, and have practiced communicating this idea clearly to others (incidentally, clarifying what you want to say about your business is an ongoing process that never ends), it’s time to leverage your local community support systems. Here, I list a few places you can go to help you get started.

Connect with your local Small Business Development Centers (SBDC). You can go to the website, and find your state and region. Reach out to them, and schedule an appointment to come in and talk to someone. They will give you really good advice on how to move forward on your business. The local SBDC gave me a complete step-by-step guide on the applications and technical pieces for getting started. You’ll also find that they have experienced business people who can give you good advice on starting your company.

Tap into your local university or community college business networks. Oftentimes, academic institutions will have services to help out entrepreneurs. For example, Iowa State University has the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship that acts as a hub to connect entrepreneurs from across the state. See if your local institutions may have similar things.

Tap into your state resources! See, states realize that growing local business is good for local economies. That’s why they all have resources for getting entrepreneurs started. For example, when I Googled, “Legal assistance in Iowa,” I found a site that had links to affordable legal help all over the state. Believe me, at some point, you will need a lawyer to trademark, protect your intellectual property, or get your business paperwork in order. These resources help to get you started. If you Google the term, “Entrepreneurial support for (put your state name here),” you’ll find a host of localized state links to help you. D

Don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to people for help. Oftentimes, you’ll get connected to a whole host of other resources and people who will be there to support you. Plus, the more people hear about your business and what you’re trying to do, the more they can spread your message through their own connections. So, get out there, and get connected!

How to Start a Business and Where to Go for Help – Part I

I’ve had a few friends of mine who have been interested in my entrepreneurial journey reach out to me about their ideas. While there are a lot of resources out there, it can be very difficult to vet out good information, and info that is specific to what you need. Because there’s so much advice I could tell you, I’ve broken up this blog into 3 parts so that you can get that red pill in smaller doses (because you are about to embark on the journey down the rabbit hole). Here’s how I got started:

Talk to friends, family, and people about your idea.

The goal of talking with others is that it will help you solidify your concept and clarify just exactly what you want to say about your business idea. However, do it with a grain of salt, and be selective about the advice you take and don’t take. You’re going to get SO MUCH advice, it’s going to be scary, at first. Listen to everyone with a critical lens, and as they give you advice, evaluate it based on:

  • How much expertise they actually have on the subject. If they’re not an expert, then be careful about taking their advice as if they understand your market. I had two businessmen lecture me about what education really needs, even though they’ve never taught in a classroom. Yeah, thanks but no thanks.
  • Whether they actually understand the concept you’re trying to convey. Some people will totally understand and advise accordingly. Others will understand your concept in a completely different way, and their advice may not fit what you’re trying to do. In these cases, you have to ask yourself two things: (a) Am I being clear (and not confusing or vague)? and (b) Have I already considered what they’re saying (or is this some aspect that I really need to give some thought to)?
  • Whether they are encouraging you OR discouraging you for the wrong reasons. You’re going to get a lot of naysayers and cheerleaders on this path, and you’ll hear plenty of advice from both sides. Some of it may be helpful, and some of it will be total BS. Listen with an open mind, but then see whether their information will help you.

As you talk to people, give yourself time to think and reflect on these conversations. Each convo, whether good or bad, should help you think more deeply about what you are trying to do, and it can help you grow if you are willing to change.

Also, don’t take things personally (even if the person you’re talking to had intended for it to be personal). Entrepreneurship is rough, and you will find yourself frequently in a Shark Tank environment where, if you haven’t grown a thick skin by this stage, it could spell disaster for your business. Remember, the criticism is about your ideas/business, and not about you, personally (and if they are, then stay away from people like that).

Stay tuned for Part II of this blog in how to leverage your local resources and networks.

How to Find Your Tribe, No Matter How Weird You Are

I’ve been following a blog entitled, “Sweatpants and Coffee.” The title of the blog itself was enough to grab my attention — I mean, it IS about coffee, and all. What’s not to love about people who love coffee? Substitute sweatpants for pajamas, and you’ve got me on any given day (yes, I’ve found that I am most productive working in my PJs — habit I formed from my days as a grad student).

Recently, a guest blogger, Lauren Dykovictz, shared a post there that was entitled, “I Don’t Have a Tribe.” Her post lead me through an entire range of emotions; I felt frustration and anger from past experiences where I never fit in, to appreciation for where I am now. Her post helped me reflect on my journey in a different way. Although the next part of my post started off as a Facebook comment in response to Dykovictz’s blog, I thought I would share it with you. After all, this “finding my tribe” thing seems to be a fad like kale and quinoa. Only, its roots run deep, and it pulls on that very human need of wanting to belong and to find one’s niche.

I’ve spent half a lifetime not fitting into one tribe or another for multiple reasons. To put this in perspective: I’m a workaholic. When I’m not spending time with my kids and husband, I’m at my desk, doing the work that I really love. I don’t go out drinking, I don’t really socialize, and I find small talk and “hanging out” a waste of valuable time.

The number of people I call true friend is small: less than ten. The number of people I call close friends: two. I don’t remember their birthdays, I don’t call all the time. In fact, I haven’t talked to my best friend in over a year, and I know that things will still be okay — when I call him, I know we’ll just pick up where we left off. 

I’ve learned, after lots of rejections and of not fitting in, that my tribe is who I define as my tribe, and they don’t fall under anyone’s expectations, and they don’t fall under anyone’s expected numbers. If you have one close friend (even if it’s your pet cat, or a houseplant, or a book), then that is all your tribe needs to be. Your tribe is what you want it to be, and not to what everyone says it should look like.

Funny thing is that once I let go of wanting to belong to a tribe, and of trying to make myself fit into a particular tribe or niche, the more I actually found a tribe of my own. I focused on just discovering who I truly was becoming (although that’s always it’s a work in progress). And, in the act of simply enjoying the things I like to do and in finding and being myself, I came to know my tribe as the people who accepted me for who I am. It’s a tiny number, to be sure. But that’s okay. I’d rather have two quarters who love and accept me for who I am than fifty pennies who try to make me into a penny like them.

How Tough Love Toughens Entrepreneurs and Makes Them Better

I felt inspired to write this blog after reading Aubrey’s “Conquering the Fear of Failure” post on her blog, The Taming of the Muse. She talks about how one must fail in order to grow. Meaning, it is through the feedback we receive through failure that we gain the knowledge that sticks with us (fortunately, this isn’t the only way we gain it, but it is, by far, one of the more impactful ways). Building upon this, when I was at MiSK Global Forum, I learned a quote that I, and many entrepreneurs, live by:

If you’re not making mistakes, you aren’t going fast enough.

So, suck it up, butter cup! This is the entrepreneur’s creed. You see, there is a LOT of competition to be the first on the market so that we can dominate the market. Because our vision is entirely unique, I know that if I don’t get to market with it first, I’ll lose to someone else who will deliver mediocre quality that never quite fits the needs of my customers — and I’m really tired of mayonnaise one-size-fits-all education — aren’t you?

The only way we really know what the customer’s needs are, and the only way we can design a solution that helps them entirely is that we must involve them in every step of the developmental process. But, we aren’t mind readers. So, we build and develop through iterations. I call it the “cardboard and duct tape” prototypes before we actually pour our soul into constructing the real thing. These prototypes are important, because we must learn quickly so that we can move fast.

This brings us the long way to the subject of my blog: tough self-love. My biggest enemy is the one that sits in my head. Entrepreneurs are cursed to be on this roller coaster ride of, “WEEEE! I’m on top of the world!” and, “OMG, WE ARE GONNA DIE!” In either state, there’s a part of us that wants to stay on the ground and stay put. Steven Pressfield talks about this a lot in his book, “Turning Pro.” He refers to this need to be safe and to resist change as the “Resistance.” I like to think of my resistance as the broken-down, gas guzzling, smoke-spewing eyesore of an old rusted pickup truck with a rusty motor that’s going down the highway at 30 miles an hour, and I’m behind it.

There’s a comfort behind this exceedingly slow car. It could be raining, the roads could be slick with ice, the terrain is incredibly rough with ups and downs, sharp turns and oh…did I mention? To the right is a 1000 foot sheer cliff drop down. Way down. So…maybe going 30 on the highway isn’t so bad, right? Except the smog from the truck will kill you, and if you stay this way, someone’s going to pass you and win. This resistance greets me every morning. So does the cliff. …and every day I fight it.

One of these days, I’m going to write the exact transcript of the self-talk that goes on in my head when I’m facing my resistance. It shows up when I face obstacles like finishing that grant, balancing my budget sheet, or something as simple as resisting the urge to get up from my computer to check out what’s in the refrigerator to munch on. Unfortunately, I may not get to share that transcript here, because my mother reads this blog, and I can only imagine the yelling I’d get from the not-so-ladylike language that I use on myself; the four-letter-expletives fly, and there’s enough creative name-calling in the dialogue that Trump would be inspired.

That’s my fight. I give myself tough love, and I don’t give in. You can’t build an empire on excuses, and so I curse my way up that damned highway so that I can get to a point where I’ve passed that resistance and can finally make progress. No lying, though. I fight this battle every day, and it doesn’t get easier. However, it does help when you can talk and curse about it in your head. ^.^

Thoughts That Go Bump at Midnight

I used to be an avid roleplayer, and have roleplayed for years. In fact, throughout grad school, roleplay and writing were ways to escape the stress of real life for a while, and become the person I wanted to be. Little did I know that all the things I loved about my roleplaying alter ego were things that were already inside me all along. It wasn’t until after I passed my dissertation defense that I realized that I had become the person that I had envisioned — and my roleplaying self sort of…merged with me.

However, this is not the subject of this blog. Rather, it is the background to explain why it’s almost half past midnight and I still haven’t been able to get to sleep. See, after graduation, a lot of my writing stopped. Whether it was for roleplay, prose, or grad school, I used to write every day, and I loved it. No one told me — or I should say, no one could prepare me — for the existential crisis that blindsides you once you finish and they start calling you “Doctor.” For a short, unpleasant while, I was in a space where I had finally become, after all those years of grad school, the person I wanted to be, and now I had to figure out the person I wanted to be next! In other words, I spent seven long years trying to become a “Doctor,” and not that I had received the title, I had to quickly figure out life after. Was I going to be a professor? A post-doc? A researcher? A consultant? For over a year, I had to push back that nagging in the back of my mind that I had to become an entrepreneur. However, once I graduated I knew that the only way to fulfill my life’s goals and dreams was to pursue it and create my own company.

Again, this is more background, and not the subject of this blog yet, but I’m getting to it (I promise that it will be in THIS paragraph). My point being that once I decided to become an entrepreneur, it left me with very little time to do anything else but panic, reach out to any and everyone for help and advice, and to basically get my sh*t together (I can’t curse in this blog, because my mother reads it). So here I am, and on April 5, Qi Learning will be a year old. Tonight, I’ve been reflecting on this, and I realized that in the past year, I really stopped writing. I mean, I write reports, professional papers and blogs, but not writing like I used to — writing with heart and with the “me” of the writing in it. ..and I miss writing this way.

I miss the addiction of staying up late, writing that one roleplaying passage about my alter-ego facing some challenge and somehow conquering it with wit and guile. I also miss writing about theory, staying up late talking and learning about people, and writing to feel free.

Writing, to me, used to be as addicting as coffee, and I asked myself tonight: (because I’m in my head a lot) WHY DONT YOU WRITE ANYMORE? And my answer shocked me. It was because I had forgotten to include myself in that writing. The work I’ve been doing, even though it’s a labor of love and a mission for me, has been missing the ME in it.

Why, you might ask? I think it’s because I’ve spent all this time trying to be an entrepreneur, and trying to be this person that I’ve had little experience being. I thought that I had to act a certain way, and show myself in front of the public in another way, etc. etc. But in doing that, I left out the part of myself that loves to have fun — the person who writes passages to make people smile or laugh. That used to be left for roleplay, and real life was oh, so much more serious. But since I’ve become my alter ego, in a sense, I realize that it’s time to come back to my roots, again. I need to write for myself, and I need to write for fun.

Thank you for staying with me, if you’ve read up to this point. This is my long way of saying that tonight, I stayed awake because I’m starting to grasp an important life lesson. While I’ve been pursuing the things that drive me professionally, I also need to pursue the things that make me laugh and smile. I’m in a whole different place than I was last year. However, in roleplay, in grad school, or here, sitting in a dark room after midnight, I need to remember to write things that make me addictively happy.

What I mean by addictively happy, is that I need to find things to write that make writing addicting, again. That means writing about the things I love to talk about — like theory, education, and crazy things that happen in life (as opposed to my old way of writing about the fictional life). Life has become such and adventure, and while I love it, writing about it will make me love it even more, I think.

It might take me a few tries (well, maybe more than a few) to get into my groove again, but hopefully I will find it soon. Wish me luck, and I hope to be writing with you. Thank you, and write on, everyone! Write on!

How Instructional Design Can Help With Teaching

People wonder about what I do, so I decided to make a short video on at least one aspect of my job: instructional design.

Instructional designers help people structure information in a way that makes it easier to understand. They also help instructors reframe how they teach so that their lessons are more interactive and relevant to students’ interest. While I don’t talk about it in this video (but I’m sure it will come up in others), I have a unique spin on instructional design because I think in terms of the ways that we learn; and, as we have all experienced, how people teach isn’t necessarily the same as how people learn. But, if you can structure information (and activities) to take advantage of natural learning processes, teaching becomes much easier, and the lessons are far more meaningful to students! Do you have a question about instructional design, or teaching that I can answer? Go ahead and put it in the comments.

Thank you, and happy designing!

Post Navigation