Lest you be tempted by the dream of freelancing …

I’m not complaining for a minute; this is the life I have chosen for myself and I love it. As in any job, though, there are good days and bad days.

I am often asked for advice by people who are considering going self employed in creative fields and my first line is a reality check. If I had known all this when I started three and a half years ago, I don’t think it would have changed anything, but this is my second attempt to “go it alone” after I learned some hard lessons the first time round, which was about ten years ago.

Dream

Reality

Shuffling to your PC in your pyjamas with a cup of coffee at 11am to start work Getting up at 6am and sometimes working ‘til midnight to meet a deadline.
Lunching with friends Skipping meals because you are “in the zone” and don’t want to lose the flow
Being your own boss and beholden to nobody Working for a string of “bosses” in succession and often simultaneously
Never having to fill in another job application Being on a permanent job hunt to line up the next month of work
Never having to go through another annual performance review Trying to stay on top of your game and develop your skills with virtually no guidance
Holidays when you want them No paid leave and the laptop comes on holiday with you because it’s impossible to “abandon the baby”
Extended amounts of time in your own little world Missing the banter and mutual support of a work environment
Doing what you love every day Tax returns, accounts, marketing, pitching and admin at least 30% of the time
Time to work on your “big idea” Shelving the “big idea” until things calm down a bit
Having control over your working environment Moving to the kitchen because the desk is too cluttered, tripping over the laundry pile and the dog/cat who is doing everything in its power to distract you
“My office is a coffee shop” Spending half an hour trying to get access to their unfeasibly slow WiFi, getting the shakes by lunch time (after your 4th espresso), going outside to take a phone call that you don’t want to be overheard
Practice the guitar in your “lunch break” Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and Stumbleupon in your “lunch break”
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8 Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Tips for Freelancers

Back in my nursing days, my right to practice was contingent upon staying up-to-date with developments in the field and being able to show evidence of continuous learning and improvement. The possibility that the NMC could call in my learning portfolio at any point was always in the back of my mind. In reality, the organisation I worked for also required, and arranged, a certain amount of mandatory training and extra courses that covered my CPD needs.

As a freelancer, nobody sends you on courses or asks for evidence that you are keeping up with changes in your area of expertise; it’s down to you.

You are your own training department.

You expertise is your stock in trade and you are responsible for keeping it fresh and for staying informed. I aim to spend at least three hours a week on CPD and, as you will see, this doesn’t have to be much more than religiously reading a few blogs or listening to a podcast. Remember, Most freelancers sell a skill they have developed plus the stuff they have stashed in their brain cells; we need to keep the stock fresh.

My field is copy editing, document support and coaching written communication across  academic, business, technical and fiction writing. As we go, I will share a few links to free resources for my fellow word-mongers, but here are a few CPD ideas to keep any freelancer on the ball.

Dedicated time

We all know where to go to download information if we need it. I use web searches several times a day to check facts or verify current practice, in the middle of my workflow. However, the CPD dimension of my work requires time that is set aside for it (out of office hours, usually soon after waking up). Decide how many hours a week you are going to spend purely investing in yourself as a professional and block out that time in your schedule.

A professional musician racks up hours of practice on a daily basis; they don’t rely on performance time to learn and improve technique. It should be no different for other freelancers.

The reading list

A shelf of books to consult on-the-fly is essential for any freelancer. However, you need as much of that stuff on the tip of your tongue as possible because you can’t take “SEO for Dummies” to a client meeting. For this reason, my books divide into “to refer to” and “to digest” categories.

Maintain a list of books to read and books read, and set yourself a target to read two or three books in your field every month. It is tempting to read more books on becoming a better freelancer or running a better business, and these should form part of your diet, but don’t neglect learning more about your actual trade – the stuff you sell.

While we are on the subject, libraries are great, too. How about using your local library once a week for a dedicated reading session.

Grab the news

As well as subscribing to the leading RSS channels in your field, it is worth setting up a couple of Google searches for key terms and having them pushed to your inbox. This makes it easy to add keeping abreast of developing news and trends into your email-reading routine.

For example, I currently have a news search on “grammar” set to send me a daily email so I don’t miss a story.

Read a blog, or two

This is not difficult for most of us. In fact, the challenge is to restrain a tendency to disappear down the rabbit hole on a fairly boring “clickathon”, only to emerge a few hours later either choking on information reflux or wondering how we ended up looking at LOLcats … again.

Choose two leading blogs in your field and read them, religiously. Separate them out from all the other channels. My online RSS reader aggregates lots of fluff for me to read in my spare time, but these come to my mailbox.

For me, these are Daily Writing Tips (absolutely leading the field from my point of view) and Copyblogger (slightly off-topic for my speciality but often useful).

Podcasts

If you have a commute, these are ideal for the train or car – you can get edumacated on your way to work.

Since my journey to work tends to be down the stairs and through the living room, I still make time to listen to podcasts every week. As with the blogs, pick one (two at the most) and block out time to listen. Think of it in the same light as learning a language: you are going to spend a certain amount of time with the headphones on … learning.

If you listen at home or in an office, you may even want to treat it like a classroom and take notes.

Quite apart from the fact that Mignon Fogarty taught me most of what I know and is still my “go-to guru”, the 15 minutes I spend listening to her Grammar Girl podcast two or three times a week often gives me the edge.

Find a coach

There is no substitute for the walking, talking expertise of someone who is further along the road than you.

I’m extremely lucky to have worked for and with Hannah Juby of Express Language in the last few years. This has included informal mentoring and feedback that has corrected a lot of my worst habits and pushed me to improve.

Finding a mentor who is prepared to share their knowledge with you for free could be tricky, especially if you are a potential competitor. However, scroll through your phonebook now and you will surely spot someone, perhaps in a parallel or overlapping sphere, with whom you are friendly enough to be allowed to draw on their brilliance.

Online (and other) courses

Finally, I have a few thoughts on courses, because I’ve thrown money at them and I know people who have thrown money at them.

Be cautious: there is an industry that plays on your ambitions by reselling stuff you could find out quite easily for yourself. Having said that, they are not all scams. Some will offer certification of some sort and, at the very least, someone has usually put a lot of time into making the information structured and digestible. You may also find that paying for something means you are more likely to follow through on it – so courses do work for some people.

In my experience, people who have completed courses don’t necessarily have more expertise than the folk who rig up their own CPD program as recommended in this post.

Use it reflectively

Reflect on learning before moving on to the next chunk of information.

In my nursing portfolio, I used to have blank copies of a form I would fill in every time I read an article. I forced me to think about how what I had read would affect my practice in the future. It asked me to respond to a few questions (if I recall correctly):

  • Do you agree with this?
  • What are the problems with this article?
  • How will you apply what you have learned?
  • Has it raised any further areas of enquiry to direct future learning?

Put what you learn into practice at the earliest opportunity.

In summary …

  • DO take your continuing professional development seriously and block out time in your schedule to train yourself.
  • DON’T flood yourself with information or lose yourself on the web, find a few good resources and digest them thoroughly on a routine basis.
  • DO draw on your personal network.
  • DON’T sign up and shell out for courses on a whim.
  • DO see it as a journey and enjoy every minute of it.

Let “Finishing” be your Drug of Choice

As much as I despise psychological profiling, I know I don’t score highly as a completer/finisher.

Nevertheless, few things beat the thrill of finishing something; it’s a natural high.

If you have woken up to Monday morning blues, could it be the hung-over unfinished things of last week that are to blame?

If I ever start to feel bad about myself, I often find that not finishing something is at the root of the bad feelings. Conversely, actually finishing just one thing can put me back on top of the world and inspire me to go on to finish something else.

Unfortunately, it sometimes feels as if the price to pay for finishing is too high; I often settle for the cheaper thrills such as being ‘tweeted’ by a ‘celebrity’:

 

Finishing doesn’t have to be an expensive drug. There are all sorts of small things you could finish in the next five minutes – like emptying and reloading the dishwasher.

In order to get the week underway, I prescribe what I call a “finishing ladder”.

    1. Start with a small task and finish it. It feels good.
    2. Enjoy the endorphins but move up to a slightly bigger task before they subside.
    3. By the time you have two “finishes” under your belt, you’ll be looking for your next hit – go get it!
    4. Move on up the ladder towards bigger tasks.
    5. Before the day is over you just might be hooked on finishing.

Try to finish some stuff today …

Your dopamine receptors will love you for it.

Freelancing: a Time Management System that Works for Me

As a natural procrastinator and date-phobe, deadlines do nothing to lower my blood pressure. In the last two years of trying to get established as a freelancer I have tried every single time management strategy available. I have probably spent as much time re-structuring my diary and prioritising to-do lists as I have spent actually working. More recently, my growing workload has made it an imperative that I get this thing nailed down – pinned down, to be precise.

All my experimentation and money spent on index cards and software has not been in vain. I’m going to share with you the system that I have evolved to suit my way of working in the hope that it might help other freelancers like me.

You will need

  • A large cork board
  • A large assortment of different coloured pins (I have about 50 of each colour)
  • A marker
  • Some labels
  • Possibly some coloured tape or sticky notes that are the same colours as your pins (these are to indicate deadlines)

    It should start to look something like this.

  1. Take the marker and divide the board into eight rows (for days of the week and a label) and as many columns as you can fit across it.
  2. Label the bottom seven rows Monday to Sunday (or Monday to Friday if you strictly don’t work weekends …  as if!)
  3. Use the top row to add labels for each coming week. These will need to be removable so you can update it with fresh weeks every so often.
  4. You are ready to go.

How to use it

There are a few simple principles to grasp:

  1. Each pin represents an hour’s work. When you take on a new job you need to estimate how many hours it is going to take you and set aside that number of pins (I write at about 500 words an hour and copy edit at about 1,500 words an hour).
  2. Use different coloured pins for different clients or jobs.
  3. Populate the “calendar” with the pins, showing when you are going to do each hour’s work. Each of my days has space for nine pins (nine working hours). Loosely, the first pin is 8am-9am and the last pin is 5pm-6pm (with an hour off for lunch).
  4. Use a specific colour (I use white) to block out days when you are not available and hours when you have appointments or non-work commitments during the normal working day.
  5. Indicate your deadlines with a piece of tape (or even a dedicated pin) in the colour for that job.
  6. You can play with the pins as much as you like but there is one rule: red pins can’t go past the red deadline, and so on.

Advantages

This system works for me because there is something about physically moving pins around that really helps me to understand how my time is distributed in a way that paper or a computer screen never does. I can tell at a glance if someone phones me up and says “can you do it by Tuesday?” If a job takes less time than I expected I can just subtract a few pins. For each hour of work completed, that pin gets removed and put to the side so progress towards completion can be seen instantly (and taking a pin out is a nice feeling). If something else needs to be slotted in, it is very easy to arrange the pins around it.

Handy tip: take a photo of the board with your phone camera and set it as your screensaver/background so you can carry it around with you.

There is lots of flexibility and scope for creative variation, but here are the basics.

It is not until you start using it that you realise the elegance of the system. Give it a go!

Mistakes: The Departure Point for Creativity

Light bulb patent application. Photolithograph...

Edison's Light Bulb

Accept that you will make mistakes as everyone does. If mistakes are so inevitable would it not be better to incorporate them into your creative process and use them as opportunities to be exploited rather than set-backs or even fatal flaws in the project.

The ever wise Dorye Roettger famously said, “There are no problems – only opportunities to be creative,” and for a person who adopts this as their maxim, every mistake made in the creative process can become an extraordinary opportunity, too.

At the very least, a mistake can be a lesson in what doesn’t work. The inventor Thomas Edison said, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.” However, a mistake can be so much more than that. It can be a prompt that kicks you off the tramlines of your typical thought processes and in pulling your best effort in order to compensate for your “mistake” you may find that you excel yourself or stumble into new paths.

A chess player who makes an error in their opening line of play could throw their opponent off guard with their unorthodoxy, be forced to invent a new line of strategy and work ten times harder because of their vulnerability.If your inventive mind has a tendency to fall into a rut a mistake can jerk you awake and bring you back to a sense of presence in the task.

A songwriter who always finds themselves going back to the same old chord progressions could take a hint from John Lennon and switch to a less familiar instrument. He is reputed to have done most of his writing at the piano because it was much less familiar and he was therefore more likely to stray into new musical territory. He may not have called it progress by mistakes but this is much closer to the kind of attitude that an opportunist creative needs to take to make the best of the inevitable.

Hints for using mistakes as a departure point for creativity

Get Socratic: Ask “why” at least five times until you get to the root of something. “Why did this happen?” “Why do I see this as a mistake?”

Get Freudian: Is this slip up some expression of a deeper subconscious intelligence? How might this “mistake” be seen as a wise move?

Get Existential: Instead of lamenting your stupidity in the past, even the past five minutes, embrace the fact that you are here now and nothing will change that. Enjoy the moment. Assess your options in the “NOW”.

Zen Out: Walk away from it for a while and settle your mind on something else. You may have made a “mistake” because you were trying too hard or wanting it too much. If you take a break and look away as if you do not care quite so much, you give your mind a chance to engage the subconscious.

A creative breakthrough is never far away from a mistake, let it find you.

Using Beads as Visual Reminders of Values and Priorities

I periodically attempt to realign my daily activities with my values, goals and priorities in life. Being someone who has “serial passions” (i.e. I get profoundly “into” things for weeks or months and then drop them for the next thing), I am constantly needing to check that the stuff I am spending my time on is developing in line with some sort of overarching sense of meaning.

This afternoon I got into this by imagining that I was the me I hope to be in two years time, getting some thoughts on paper to send back in a time machine to the me now. Some good stuff came up and I was able to identify five categories into which I could fit all the things that matter, and that I should be doing with my time.

At various points I have worn what I call a “matter band”. This is just any old elastic band that goes around my wrist but it reminds me, whenever I see it, to ask the question, “does what I am doing right now matter?”.

Today I took this one step further, my matter band now has matter beads on it, too. Beads have been used for thousands of years to focus the mind in prayer. Putting this together was a meditative and prayerful process of re-orientation. I’m also hoping it will nail down some of what I have been trying to develop in terms of a “values based” time management system.

We have an old box full of beads so had a rummage and I made myself a bracelet with a different bead symbolising each of the five broad areas I had identified.

"Matter Beads"

1. The Heart – Loving People: This one is to do with reaching out to others, being generous with my time and skills, listening, flowing  downwards and outwards. Something Rumi said comes to mind, “step out of your house like a shepherd.” Lots of activities fit into this from staying in touch with people by letter and phone, through preparing material for the people I am mentoring, to giving practical help or sitting and listening to others. I’d love to grow in these things but I’m repeatedly foiled by being absorbed in personal projects.

2. The Butterfly – Growing Creativity: Last year I felt I emerged from a chrysalis, leaving one job to give more time to creative stuff that had been brewing for a long time. Growing creatively for me now means investing in two or three very concrete and specific projects in the now. I know what they are and need to keep them to the fore. The sense that surrounds this butterfly phase is one of giving wings to dreams and embarking on what I might call in the future, “my life’s work”.

3. The Flower – Stewardship and Providing for Needs: This is about doing the things I need to do to make sure a roof stays over our heads and food on the table. It’s not just about putting time and effort into developing income streams and keeping to budgets but also about creatively looking at meeting our basic needs through things like growing vegetables. Cultivation of this area of life is mundane but rewarding, like gardening.

4. The Fish/Alpha Symbol – Simplifying: This covers a broad category that covers putting the house in order, getting rid of clutter, paring down, being organised, practicing the presence of laundry and dishes, hewing wood and carrying water. Making space to keep the main thing the main thing. This bead is also a reminder to let “ΙΧΘΥΣ” be the “α”.

Cloisonne beads

I'm a sucker for cloisonné

5. Cloissoné – HUGS: This is the only coloured bead, blue and green cloisonné symbolising quality time with loved ones, breathing, worshipping, being in nature, enjoying life.

The bracelet serves as a reminder to be present to what I am doing at any given moment and to be conscious of how and why it matters … and, I guess, I hope, I am less likely to fritter time away on inconsequential nonsense that has nothing to do with these five things.

One final thing I noticed was that I took a very long time over choosing the beads. I passed over some of the more obvious beads to symbolise certain things, because they didn’t feel right. For instance, I initially picked the butterfly for simplicity and a sense of “touching the world lightly” but the more I looked at it, the more I realised it needed to stand for the creative development, so it displaced the star which never made it into the final five beads because it just didn’t fit even though it was saying something to me about “shining a light.” What this indicates is that although I chose the beads to fit the categories I now have an odd feeling that the beads are shedding new light on those categories. Make sense? No … ok, well, welcome to my world … this is how I roll.

Surrounding ourselves with symbols, I think, has a similar effect to the hole behind the strings in the body of a guitar. Symbols take the sound of a single note and amplify it so that it sets all the harmonics in motion and deeply enriches that simple sound. This is one of the most precious things about being human; a butterfly is never just a butterfly, it’s a thousand metaphors and it dances like a needle, stitching Heaven and Earth together. And a butterfly lives alongside other sound-holes of meaning on my bracelet of things that matter.

Other posts a bit like this one:

How to be Brilliant at Anything

Five Wise Things I Learned from My Dog

Two Little Time Management Tips

Unblocking With Mind Maps

FreeMind 0.9.0 RC4 - Mind Map with User Icons

Image via Wikipedia

With a good plan, an article or blog post practically writes itself.

There has been a deathly hush on this blog for a few weeks now, broken only by the tumbleweed of the odd visitor bowling through. Since making a decision, for a season, to concentrate on a couple of fiction writing projects I seem to have lost the ability to churn out blogs and articles that require a bit more research and a different sort of attention. It has brought home to me the broad difference between essentially factual and fictional writing.

When writing from the imagination, in spite of having a vague idea where things need to go or end up, the author experiences many surprises and cannot predict the outcome. Like remembered dreams, plots and characters continually bewilder me because I know that they arise from my own mind but I am as surprised to see them as anyone. Getting used to this kind of writing has its own kind of thrill but I have fallen down when I have expected to be able to take the same approach to non-fiction. It is a very different discipline – of course, silly me, anyone could have told me that.

A simple tool is unlocking things for me again.

I have not posted on this blog for a long time because of the overwhelming amount of things whirling around in my brain and my utter inability to get a handle on it and work it into any shape.

Enter: Mind Mapping

Around New Year I always give some thought to identifying priorities and threads to follow in the coming year. Sometimes I work through a list of questions I ask myself at such times. This year I opened up a nifty piece of Mind Mapping software called “Freemind” (it’s free); and started storming ideas and organising them into nodes and branches. Wow! In ten minutes I had 2011 mapped out on a single page. Since I had the application open, I started to get down a few ideas for articles I have been meaning to write. Suddenly, everything seems manageable again. With a good plan, an article writes itself painlessly … sweet!

I always hated doing “spider diagrams” at school because they were something that we were supposed to do and I was against that in principle (the “supposed to” bit, I mean). Subsequently, attending training days and work related meetings where some appointed “scribe” would have to put our pointless ideas on a flip chart in spidergram form has done nothing to improve my taste for them.

Mind Mapping, invented by Tony Buzan, is so much more than a spider diagram, however. In its truest form it uses as much colour and visual signage as possible. It hangs on simple keywords and it adds the possibility of multiple branching or hierarchies that enable the representation of vast amounts of conceptual and material information for any purpose. As a system it is intended to imitate neural pathways in a way that is supposed to be really intuitive for the brain.

Where it has saved me today is by helping me to get unblocked. Paralysed by information and ideas? Unable to settle into any one of the hundred things calling for your creative attention? Pull up a page and sketch out a plan, make a mind map, and get something on paper. It feels great.