Time, education, training and experience are the key to the success of every professional - and professional investigators are one of the unique professions for this - together with attorneys, doctors, accountants and others.
We strive for more education and training, each passing day is another day of experience. However, time is a commodity which is a constant - it passes and renews each day. Time is never shorter or longer - unless we waste it or creatively make time our partner. Our time is either productive or not; billable or not.
Over the last 29 years we have seen many time-savers come and go. Some save time, others seem to take more time. From templates to texting, for better or for worse, technology is with us and impacts us 24/7. When Dean started the agency, in 1987, he had an answering machine which notified a beeper and then he used payphones or courtesy phones to return calls from the field. Later would come a fax and text paging - then email, followed by cell phones and mobile computing. By 1995 a complete mobile office as needed and Dean had mobile technology before law enforcement. From late 2012 through early 2015, while traveling in our RV, we learned how to be more mobile, more paperless, and more creative with our time.
What have we done to be more efficient? The right combinations of smart phones and laptops with the functionality of a desktop PC, with the right programs and apps, are the key. In an RV there is simply no room for storing unneeded equipment, supplies and documents. Learning from experiences with traveling to conferences, we embraced ‘the cloud’. It can be hard to send emails and faxes if you’re suddenly without online access or are driving a 32’ RV. Be prepared. Adapt. Our agency uses several, for example:
- Synched cloud storage and remote files access, with redundant backup;
- Use of email filters for 'email triage';
- Use of templates in communications;
- Scheduled, delayed and recurring email;
- Desktop / Smartphone synched and scheduled texting;
- Scheduled, delayed and recurring social media;
- Online fax send and receive - including scheduled and delayed;
- Online scheduling; and
- Multiple monitors or split screen views.
Not only are we professional investigators running a busy agency, we are also heavily involved in multiple associations (Dean is on multiple boards and committees and Karen is the Administrative Manager for the World Association of Detectives) - like you we have personal lives. Two things we have done to make our business more efficient in time and cost is using an external drive and being paperless.
In recent years the external drives, now no moving parts and now Solid State Drives (SSD) are very reliable - they are the same as PC internal drives. Using an external drive is easier for backup, travel, or upgrading a PC - new computers only need the programs installed and mapped to the existing hard drive. What used to take a weekend to change and upgrade a computer system now takes a few hours. The original reason to use external drives was networking office computers to share files efficiently. If configured correctly, another benefit is protection from data loss if your computer should go down. Let’s face it - if your computer goes down for hours to days, which is productive time and information lost. If your computer goes down, swap the hard drive to another computer and you’re up and running. You do have a spare laptop or did keep one of the PCs you replaced - right?
Being paperless became easier with scanning and saving files as PDFs. Everything is scanned or saved as PDF or other graphic file. Paperless also makes transferring files to clients easier, and because most other businesses are also paperless, our efforts also save them time. Paperless saves on time and expenses in multiple ways. We do many expert consultation cases - thousands of pages of discovery to review. For mobility, having an external drive is much easier than a box of files when you travel or are working from the field. Indexing, sorting and searching PDF files is much easier than searching page after page by hand. Its not foolproof, but its helpful.
Once you tackle and embrace the use of external drives and being paperless, the transition to other means of improving your time and multi-tasking is easier.
- Synched Cloud Storage
The first USB flashdrive was from Sony and was a maximum of 32MB. At the time it was the easiest way to transfer files between computers. External drives were big and expensive. Recordable DVDs were used for backup. Then came cloud storage - a place to send and archive files. Over the next several years came sharing and using cloud storage as an external drive replacement.
Now cloud storage varies, but commonly includes automatic computer backup, automatic computer to cloud file synching, proxy drives, secure file sharing, automatic backup of programs, automatic backup of phone apps and photos - the list goes on with ones needs and imagination.
We use DropBox for most of our file archiving, storage and transfer. Our phone apps, photographs and videos instantly send to DropBox. We also use DropBox as a backup for our travels or storing files to synch as we travel. There are other options, such as One Drive. Its mostly a matter of personal need and preference.
- Use of Email Filters for 'Email Triage'
Without going into issues of security - web based email is essential. Long gone, for us, are the days of transferring email from one PC to another using a program - such as Outlook. Web-based email has many functions, and continually grows with functionality. One is having access 24/7 any time you have online access, emails pushed to your mobile devices, and integrated apps. Dean prefers Gmail and Karen prefers Yahoo. Emails can also be one of the most time-consuming, and wasteful, needs of the day.
If your device is setup to alert you with every email, you will be looking at your PC or device by the minute. Turn off alerts and look at emails only when the need dictates. Some will look only at 10am and 3pm, others every half-hour or hour, others just whenever. Overnight your mailbox might have dozens of emails, some spam or needing no attention, and others needing attention but missed or delayed. Filters - or as one colleague put it - triage. To avoid having dozens of unread emails to sort through every hour or morning, Dean wasted time deleting unnecessary emails as they alerted, and concentrated on important emails as time permitted. This was not a time-saver and was more of a distraction. Karen suggested delaying reading except at certain times. It worked, until one day we were traveling and stayed a weekend in a state park canyon - with no service of any kind. This was really nice and stress free - until we hit ‘a signal’ and each of us had well over a couple hundred emails to sort, delete, and answer - we had no triage. Then Karen suggested filtering might help.
Triage is necessary to separate what needs attention from what doesn’t. If it needs attention, either leave it unfiltered and in your inbox - or filter it to a folder for important emails. Next are those emails of lesser importance to no importance. Three basic filters, for most PIs, is a start - Important, Groups, and Miscellaneous. Groups are for various investigative email groups you may be subscribed to - but most often do not have anything of importance for you. Because your associations may send important emails - but not client level important - it is probably best to have an Associations filter. Miscellaneous would be for all other uncategorized emails. You can further filter this; however, remember filtering is meant to save time - not create more work. Start with the basics, and if you find you need more defined filtering, then make those necessary changes. Set up the filtering so the unread messages are sent directly to the appropriate folder. Next, set a schedule to look at those filters - hour, morning and afternoon - whatever works best. Groups are probably good to check hourly and Miscellaneous a couple times a day. Here is a tip - when you send an email, or reply to an email - use a helpful subject line! Something like ‘Hi’ often gets sent to spam - or deleted; something like ‘Help needed’ is not helpful; but, something like ‘Surveillance needed in City, State’ is best - not too much, yet enough to determine if it should be read. Next, if you use an old email to contact someone - at least change the subject line. Best practice - actually compose an email with their email address. Huge pet peeve - getting an email with an old subject line and message - chances are its been filtered or deleted unread. Triage isn’t just about your email inbox - its also about how others see, or not, your email.
Next is sorting. Your subject line should always contain something to help you and your client sort - key words. Your email should have folders for specific needs - cases, tips, persons, associations - anything helpful. If there is not a folder for it - it should be deleted once its need is done. Your clients are likely doing the same. This is the second point of composing new emails and not using an old email (besides its just lazy) - sorting.
The goal is to reduce the size of your inbox, while also reducing the time you spend reading and answering emails.
- Use of Templates in Communications
All correspondence can use templates - from letters and reports to emails. You can create Word documents, and/or draft emails, of templates for both documents and emails, frequent requests, etc. If you find you frequently receive emails asking about your services - have a draft reply ready and simply personalize or customize it. If you make frequent requests for records from the same agencies - keep the template request and simply change the relevant information. Even as simple as an IRS W-9 form, which many clients ask for in December for 1099s or before sending any payments over $600 - have one handy and just change the date as needed. You can save hours each month with templates in responding to common requests.
Do you have memorandums and reports you frequently use? Templates! Some can be as simple as a form, others require new text or adding and deleting subject headers. If you save one hour on a report and compile two reports a week - 100 per year - over two weeks you have ‘recovered’.
- Scheduled, Delayed and Recurring Email
Next to filtering and triage - this is Dean’s personal favorite! Unfortunately, we have yet to find direct scheduling options for Yahoo; there are several options for Gmail. There are limitations to some, check carefully. Most are simply a browser extension - not a new app - and are integrated in your email. In trying a few, some would not post to email groups. Others didn’t have ‘recurring’ send options. Most are inexpensive - $5 a month or $50 year is common. For Yahoo, there are indirect solutions - you would send your email to a service and they would then send the scheduled email. We have not tried this - there are security concerns, and there are also email management concerns. As an example, if you do not receive a needed reply, you can’t use the original email - because it will show having first been through a service. Boomerang and RightInBox both work directly from Gmail. If you know of a solution for Yahoo mail, please share with us.
What is the benefit of scheduled email? You’re sitting at your desk, working at midnight on a Saturday - maybe after a surveillance or late field assignment - and you want to draft your thoughts to the client while its still fresh; but, you don’t want your client knowing you were up at midnight. Maybe you’re relaxing on vacation and something important comes to mind, but you don’t want to send it from vacation. Another time you’re planning a project and need to email others, but you know some aren’t going to read their email until Monday afternoon - and its Thursday. Draft the email and schedule it for the appropriate time. You can schedule them to send based on time zone, which can be helpful. There were times of traveling we didn’t want an email sent until Tuesday morning, but knew we would be unable to send - or might even forget - draft, schedule and done.
We typically have between 50 and 100 emails scheduled for the next days and weeks. The time this saves is incredible. One example, invoicing and final reports or case status updates. These often occur at specific times - beginning of the month, end of the month, etc. If your agency has 10, 15 or 25 invoices, reports and case status emails to send out - which can be a time draining event for the administrator or assistant. Draft the invoices and correspondence as soon as the case is complete, then schedule to send on the 1st, 5th or whatever date. Is your report done, but the client is on vacation? Schedule it to be in their inbox when they return.
Probably the worst times to send email is Monday morning and Friday afternoon - schedule for Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning, or Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. But, if you’re thinking about it on Sunday, the old way was to save a draft and then remember to send it. Another benefit - avoiding potentially embarrassing emails. This most often happens when you are in a hurry and reply to an email, and later realizing your reply was not as intended. Simply draft your email and schedule it for an hour later - this gives you time to make sure your email is informative and appropriate, and an hour to change it if not.
Our agency recovers hours each month using scheduling - probably one of the most productive aids. As soon as the thought comes to mind to send it - draft, schedule and done. If you can break up what would be a block of time - hours to all day - into organized fragments, especially used in your ‘down’ time - you are recovering valuable time for other tasks. This is also helpful if you have similar messages to multiple people - copy and paste, schedule and continue your day.
The next best is recurring email. This is most helpful when you have the same message for the same frequency. If you have regularly scheduled conference calls - schedule a recurring email to remind everyone, including yourself. Do you often remind others of specific events? Do you need your own regular reminder? At times this can be easier than making calendar appointments - saving steps. Previously we would set a calendar reminder to send an email - which required stopping what we were doing and drafting the email; or we might be busy and then forget until later in the day or week. Recurring emails are so much easier.
Finally, there is auto-respond. In the event you send an email and need a response, you can set up a reminder for hours to days for a response. If you send an email with a two-day reminder, and a response is not received, you will receive a reminder to follow-up. You can also schedule your own message - by replying to your sent message with a ‘hey - did you get this?’ and then scheduling it. If you do get a response, just cancel the scheduled or recurring email.
- Desktop / Smartphone Synched and Scheduled Texting
Texting was difficult to embrace, but has become a popular form of communicating. Texting is most often a distraction; but, if you receive a text it is an assumption to be important - at least we treat sending a text as usually more urgent than email - or even actually talking and responding to voicemail. We have found many will respond to a text faster than an email - some never respond to an email or voicemail, and if so can take days. It’s a mystery how a person can be in business and not communicate effectively. Some will have entire texting conversations, spanning hours, instead of a five-minute voice conversation. There have been times group texting is easier than email - due to being instantaneous, and less necessary than conference calling - due to the lack of urgency. We originally looked into phone apps for texting in order to preserve texts. Learning, or more accurately realizing, many use text (or SMS) to regularly communicate.
We found MySMS - an app which synchs all mobile and PC devices, and is also web-based. In addition, texts can be archived to popular cloud storage services. Sending photos and videos by text is also popular, but saving from phone to a PC or external device has not been. Using the web platform, it is easy. Also, when you change mobile devices - just install and synch the app and no more lost text messages. MySMS and others also provide scheduled texting. Although not as handy as scheduled emails, there are some uses for scheduled texting.
The time saver is both being synched across devices - if your tablet is handier than your phone, and your desktop. If you have carried on a text conversation for 30 minutes (it happens - although a phone call would be better), you know the frustration of being distracted from an important project. Instead, have it on your desktop and tab over to reply and back to continue. You can also copy and paste messages much easier than on your phone. Like emails, if you have a similar message for multiple people, but not a group text, copy and paste the message much faster than retyping.
Another issue is keeping your cell phone number confidential. We presently have zero landline phones, but do have a fully functioning office phone system. This is accomplished from a cloud / VOIP based service from many choices - we use Ring Central. A Ring Central digital line also allows you to send and receive text messages on your business number. Like MySMS, there is an app for your mobile devices and PCs - you can send and receive text messages from your phone or desktop using the app. As previously mentioned in the modern age of communication - in which many do not even listen or respond to their voicemails - although they will quickly text a reply. When attempting to contact a witness, if we do not get an answer we leave a voicemail (unless it is not activated or is full) and immediately send a text message. As most are template texts - we simply copy, paste, edit and send. The response rate to our text messaging is higher than voicemail, email or snail mail.
- Scheduled, Delayed and Recurring Social Media
There are several apps for making your social media presence more efficient. We actually don’t presently use these; instead, we use features included in the social media platform. Two of the more popular include Hootsuite and Mail Chimp. The concepts are the same as scheduling and recurring email, as well as email marketing.
Presently, our preference is to use a combination of templates, linked social media, and scheduled social media. For example, our Twitter account is linked to both our Facebook and LinkedIn business profiles. When a post is made to our Facebook or LinkedIn account, they automatically post on Twitter. We don’t schedule posts on Facebook, or make posts on LinkedIn, on the same days to avoid double Twitter posts. LinkedIn does not yet have scheduling, so it is a matter of copy and past from Facebook to LinkedIn - one to three messages a day. Facebook does allow scheduling. We have a series of regular posts we schedule for the month - it takes about one hour per month to do this. Before scheduling, this could take 15-30 minutes a day (excluding those distractions). Going from about 10 hours a month to one hour is definitely more productive, and is recovered time.
- Online Fax Send and Receive - Including Scheduled and Delayed
Yes, some still use faxes - mostly government agencies, and faxing can be more secure. If you have not yet taken the leap into online sending and receiving faxes - do so now! Our agency has been faxing online for 20 years - when eFax first came to being and only receiving was possible. If you remember thermal paper fax machines, you know the frustration of archiving faxes. Online faxing is essential to an efficient and paperless office. Our necessity was much different - it was actually to have an open data line without the extra cost. In 1996 we had multiple phone lines, but were limited to how many were available for our home office. So, we forwarded our fax line to an online fax service and used the open line for data - when you had to dial in modem to modem for AOL, Compuserve and investigative databases. Time was literally money as these services had limited hourly use - 10, 20 or so a month. The PI databases often charged you for the access and then the data, because they were also charged for bandwidth. Much of Europe is still the same way. Still needing more phone lines, but having no more capacity, we later forwarded our business line to a cell phone. Necessity is often the key to solutions.
We now use Ring Central to send and receive faxes. You can subscribe to local and toll-free numbers, and also port an existing number. The cost is minimal and is much cheaper than a separate phone line. Simply provide your fax number to the client and receive faxes in your email, usually as a PDF. Save these PDFs into your case file and/or organize in your email; you can also forward these by email to clients.
To send a fax, it is often a fax number / email address format - 1112223333@onlinefaxcompany dot com and send. You can group send, and using a scheduler you can schedule in advance. We often send faxes to a post office for change of address information - but if we are working the case at 7pm or a Sunday, the fax could get lost in a group of other faxes. Instead, schedule to send during a time you know someone will retrieve the fax.
- Online Scheduling
Scheduling your time is no longer just for appointments. Sometimes you need reminders, once or recurring, to not only keep track of your tasks - but to organize them. If you regularly send out a monthly newsletter, schedule a recurring time to draft it. The same for any regular task - from client follow-up to doctor appointments. If you serve process and have a recurring schedule to be in the field - calendar it. If you regularly conduct phone or in-person investigative interviews - calendar it. These become priorities and a more efficient use of your time.
Using an online calendar, such as Gmail, allows others with access to see your availability and also allows you to ‘invite’ others to the appointment. Online calendaring also allows you to set alarms - such as email or screen pop-up notifications, and you can schedule advanced reminders from hours to days and weeks in advance. Take advantage of how you schedule business and personal appointments - make appointments for your tasks. You will get them done and you will have better organized your time.
- Multiple Monitors or Split Screen Views
Most newer PCs have the ability to add additional monitors. At first this did not seem beneficial - just change or tab from window to window. But, it will be quickly realized how efficient one extra monitor can be. One of the more common uses is reading one document while drafting another - such as reading an arrest record and completing a report; or watching a surveillance video and completing a report. There are many benefits - your needs and creativity will determine this.
But, what if you simply do not have the desk space for another monitor? Welcome to Split View and similar programs. For about $50 you can install this program on your PC and split your monitor between two screens. This only works for larger monitors - smaller monitors split are very difficult to use.
The idea is to be able to smoothly read one screen while working on the other. If you are copying and pasting - such as from a template document to an email - having them both open is a matter of moving from one to another; not opening and copying from one, closing and then opening and pasting to another. Every person in your office will benefit from being able to do so.
Many of these suggestions came from realizing how time-consuming distractions are - like TV commercials are a distraction from the entertainment. If you are deep into a project and your email buzzes, a text beep is heard, or you just peek at your social media account - you went from a small distraction to 15 minutes. A recent study found these distractions were about 1/3 responding estimated 30 minutes, 1/3 responding estimated one hour, and the remaining 1/3 responding estimated from two to five hours of wasted time - and revenue - a day! As this article is geared toward self-employed PIs, many also have office staff - and everyone is easily distracted. By modifying your office policy, you might recover 15-30 minutes per day of productivity from yourself and employees. By modifying your practices and adapting some of the suggestions here, you might recover 30-60 minutes per day of productivity. Maybe not per day - but average per day through the week and month, certainly. Those recovered minutes are hours - five to six a week (300 a year) - a six to eight week vacation earned, or 300 billable hours.
Let’s face it - you won’t take a six-week vacation, and you are looking to bill any hours earned. What you can do, in reality, is use those 300 hours to take some time off, pursue projects needing completed in your agency, and better market your agency. Those distractions - yours or your employees - are costing you time, money and potential. Harness it and improve upon it.
- Combining These Tools for High Efficiency / Personal Time
Our agency is busy - from case work to conferences, and associations to family. These all take time - and no matter how we delegate our time, we only have 24 hours in every day - no more and no less. We can artificially create more, just as easily as we lose time. One of the areas we use these resources is to create more personal time. While being professional and productive, without losing any time.
Having grandkids in school, we are invited to lunch, plays and other activities. When they are not in school, perhaps we can spend a day with them. If we plan carefully, we can take some other available time to complete tasks to free up a future day. Another scenario - which happened while preparing this article - was a last-minute client request to be at a scene investigation - the travel and assignment would take twelve hours; and, although billable - would interfere with other planned tasks. In our line of work, we often cannot delay tasks - they need done. Although our office is mobile, we are not always able to take our focus away from an immediate task - or time with our family. We can also schedule our communications - from emails to social media - during the time we are away from the office. Imagine if we had invoices all due to be completed the same day we needed to be away; or we needed to make multiple requests to agencies for records - not something you can do on a weekend, and being on the road for hours on a Monday makes that impossible. Instead, you reorganize your time - take up a bit of your weekend - and schedule tasks for while you are on the road. No one knows the difference, your work is done, your clients taken care of, and all your time is accounted for and billed.
WE NEED YOUR HELP!
These are just some of our experiences. From necessity comes solutions - whether its using one phone line for two needs, or one monitor for two views - we can greatly improve our time and productivity by limiting distractions and creating multi-tasking opportunities. There are specific case management programs for our profession, but those are just a small part of being efficient. This article touches on those which many do not realize - at very small cost, little learning curve, and great benefit.
How can you help us? By sending us your own treasures - from apps to processes - let us know what you do to improve your productivity. Visit this article on our blog at www.deathcasereview.com/afi-llc-blog/time-is-money-multi-tasking-is-time-recovered and post your resources and contact information in the comments. Please share any Yahoo mail tips and tricks!
Our Preferred Tools - Time is money!
- Remote access and backup via cloud - http://OneDrive.PrivateInvestigations.org
- DropBox - http://DropBox.PrivateInvestigations.org
- Right Inbox for Gmail - www.RightInBox.com
- Desktop Texting - www.MySMS.com
- Ring Central Faxing - http://Fax.PrivateInvestigations.org
- Ring Central VOIP - http://RingCentral.PrivateInvestigations.org
- Toll-Free Numbers - http://Kall8.PrivateInvestigations.org (PIs - contact our office for more uses)
- Split View - www.SplitView.com
What tips do you have and want to share? Let us know!
Associates in Forensic Investigations, LLC
A Rocky Mountain West Agency
Expert Consultants and Legal Investigators
Personal Injury, Negligence & Death in Civil, Criminal and Probate Litigation
www.DeathCaseReview.com ~ beersda@DeathCaseReview.com
CO - (970) 480-7793 Office / TXT and (970) 480-7794 Fax
WY - (307) 222-0136 Office / TXT and (307) 222-0138 Fax
'Quaero Indicium' - To Find The Evidence
Keep informed - visit and 'Like' us on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/4N6Associates and our agency blog at www.MedicolegalPI.com
Listen to Facts & Forensics at www.GIMG.tv
On-Demand Distance Learning at www.InvestigativeCourses.com