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Quarantine Activity: Check In With Your New Year’s Resolutions

South London

 

South LondonI woke up in a panic the other morning; I couldn’t remember what day it was. At various points throughout the day, I had to consciously remind myself that it was Monday, not Tuesday. Making matters worse, the clock in our living room died last weekend. So every time I tried to check the time, a blank wall stared back at me.

Because of the Corona Virus, it’s a weird time to attempt to have any semblance of a routine right now. Monday bleeds into Wednesday. You fail to change your clothes for days on end because…why bother? It takes you several weeks to grasp that your feet are actually sticking to the kitchen floor because you’ve forgotten the last time it was cleaned.

So I decided that one way to mark time would be to circle back to the ten resolutions I set in early January to see if I’m making any progress. After all, if you can’t tackle your goals when you’re under quarantine, when can you?

We all know that the success rate for sticking to New Year’s Resolutions is abysmally low. But on the principle that you’re more likely to realize any goal if you say it out loud, I thought I’d use this blog post as my own, personal accountability yardstick to see how I’m getting on in 2020.

Here’s what I learned:

a. Affirmations.  Of all the resolutions I set for myself back in January, the one I’ve committed to the most – because I’ve incorporated into my morning ritual – are my affirmations. I have them sitting right next to my computer so that I recite them aloud before I start work. They are mostly keyed to believing in myself as a salesperson (my least favourite part of running my own business). And guess what? The first quarter of this year was my highest earning one since I started my company two years ago. Those are a keeper.

b. Walking. I vowed in January to walk more without purpose. (I believe the technical term for that is “wandering.”) Needless to say, living under lockdown here in London has made walking a necessity. While I know North London fairly well, I moved to South London five years ago and still lack familiarity with much outside my own neighbourhood. So I’m using these walks to explore this part of the city. Each time I go out, I make sure I stroll along at least one street I’ve never been on before. Then I take a photo of that street’s name. Fun!

c. I’m doing a 24/6 workweek. With one exception, I have consistently “honored the Sabbath” for the past three months. I know that’s nothing to jump up and down about, but I’m really pleased with the direction of travel. And when I work on Sundays, I mainly use that time to catch up on emails and plan blog posts, which I don’t think of as “work-work.” Plus, because most of my work right now entails adapting my communication consultancy to a virtual space, working hard right feels good right now. That said, I do need to start using some of the project management tools I teach to ensure that I’m carving out time for the “important but not urgent” category of work.

d. I’m *still* not writing enough. I need to own this. I do write every morning. And it always makes me feel happier, more relaxed and more authentic. But I’m not writing enough outside of blogging. And this is a disappointment. I need to figure out how to write more each day and still accomplish everything else I need to get done. Sorting that out is my priority for June. (See below)

e. I’m not a bath person. While I’ve occasionally contemplated taking a bath over the past few months, I’ve never managed to actually make it happen. So I’m striking that one off the list. Ah, the liberation! Calgon – do NOT – take me away!

Most of us write down our resolutions on January 1st and then fail to revisit them for another 365 days. My new vow is to do a quarterly check-in with myself. Who’s in?

Share how your 2020 goals are shaping up in the comments section.

Image: The Shard and South London by Phyl Gifford via Flickr

Virtual Volunteering in the Age of the Corona Virus

virtual volunteering

virtual volunteeringIn the wake of the all-consuming Corona virus, there is plenty of advice floating around  for how to keep yourself calm and occupied at home. I personally liked Margaret’s list over on Sixty and Me. In addition to the usual ideas of crafting and exercising at home, she also had some great suggestions like virtual travel, watching Ted Talks, and doing a “life review.”

But there’s another way to occupy your time right now that will also help make you calmer and happier: virtual volunteering. At a time when we’re getting daily reminders to be mindful of the most vulnerable, volunteering on line is not only good for the community, it’s also good for you.

The Value of Volunteering as You Age

There’s plenty of evidence out there to suggest that volunteering is good for your physical and mental  health, particularly as you age. As one author wrote long before the Corona virus set in, volunteering – by allowing her a place to deposit her abundant, mid-life energy  – became her personal “chill pill.”

Volunteering also taps into a larger sense of purpose. In his book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Jonathan Rauch explores the science behind the so-called ” Happiness U-curve.” The U-curve, a statistically robust finding which cuts across countries, shows that life satisfaction falls in our 20s and 30s, hits a nadir in our late 40s, and then increases steadily until our 80s. But that upwards curve, Rauch suggests, is not only the product of greater personal acceptance and expectations-adjusting as we age. It also derives from a greater ability to re-direct our focus away from ourselves and towards our community.

The numbers back this up. As Marc Freedman notes in his book, How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, fully a third of older adults in the United States already exhibit “purpose beyond the self”  – i.e., they identify, prioritise, and actively pursue goals that are both personally meaningful and contribute to the greater good. That’s 34 million people over the age of 50 who are willing and able to tutor children, clean neighbourhood parks, or work for world peace.

Virtual Mentoring

Obviously, in an age of social distancing, we need to move all of that good spirit and energy online. One of the easiest ways to do that is by becoming a mentor.  The beauty of being a mentor is that you don’t need to work inside a large company – or even a formal hierarchy – to make a difference. All you need is a transferable skill set, a bit of empathy and the ability to help someone breakdown their work, life or education challenges into tractable, bite-sized chunks. Writers, scholars, artists, social workers – not to mention you corporates out there – can and should mentor.

Nor, in this globally connected world, do we need to work or live down the hall or street from our mentees. When I worked at the BBC, I mentored a young journalist via Skype who lived and worked 5,000 miles away from me. I gave this young woman tips for how she might communicate better with her introverted boss. I advised her on stress-management when she got stopped and questioned by her government for having taken photos of a taboo region in the country. We even discussed how she might navigate societal expectations that – as a single, unmarried woman in her early 30s – she was long overdue to have a baby, even though she didn’t feel ready.

Online Campaigning

You can also get involved with online campaigning for a cause you’re passionate about. An American artist friend of mine in London recently launched a Kick-starter campaign to support a beautiful Haggadah collage she was making for the upcoming Passover holiday. Unfortunately, she launched this fundraising drive about a week before Corona virus awareness hit “red” on the dial in the UK and the US. So she abruptly cancelled her own campaign to support a friend in Texas who was raising money to build a safety net for the restaurant workers she was going to need to lay off.

This is also a good time to get involved in political campaigning. It’s sometimes hard to remember that there’s a major set of elections in the US approaching us in November. Going door to door in swing states is ill-advised in the current moment. But there is plenty to be done online to support your political party/candidate. I personally plan to re-direct the volunteering time I normally spend teaching creative writing to children into depolying online tools to mobilise the large and occasionally pivotal swath of Americans voters living abroad.

Ageing  and Wisdom

One of the concepts Rauch talks about in his book about aging and happiness is “wisdom.” His argument is that wisdom is not only, or even primarily, about knowledge and expertise. It’s also about rising about self-interest in order to promote the common good.

I, for one, feel wiser for knowing this. And I can’t wait to spread my wisdom online.

Image: Volunteering Hands via Needpix.com

Working Remotely: The Importance of Active Listening

Ear

EarAs we collectively settle in to a long stretch of working from home, we’re quickly adjusting to a host of new challenges. Seemingly overnight, we’ve all become experts in using “gallery view” on Zoom. We’re gradually working out which headsets will best enable us to drown out the sound of barking dogs and screaming children. We’re even figuring out what counts as an acceptable Online dress code, somewhere between pajamas and suit.

One challenge that’s harder to surmount virtually, however, is the art of people skills. If you’re in a sales role,  it’s absolutely vital that you pick up signals about when to pull and when to push the client along the sales journey towards “yes.” This is especially important if you’ve never met that person before. Equally, whether you’re leading a team or managing up, you need to establish some sort of personal connection if you’re going to persuade the person in front of you to move towards your desired goal.

There’s no question that it’s harder to do all three of these things when there’s a computer monitor between you and your interlocutor. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

One useful strategy in these circumstances is to practice what’s known as active listening. ‘Active listening‘ means, as its name suggests, actively listening. It requires concentrating intently on what is being said, rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker. This means listening with all senses – so that you can read the subtext of what the speaker is saying.

You might, for example, pay attention their body language. Are they leaning forward in their chair, ready to pounce, when they ask a question? This can suggest an aggressive sub-text. Or are they chilled out, relaxing back into their chairs, which might imply a more supportive, or at least neutral, question? How about their tone? Is there a decided hint of hostility in what they say? Are they trying to be helpful? Or are they simply curious?

You should also pay attention to where they place their emphasis in a sentence. The phrase, “Did you do this?” is utterly distinct in meaning from “Did you do this?,” as well as “Did you do this?” Try to read these subtle, verbal cues.

Another reason active listening is vital – particularly in an online environment – is that it shows that you are actually paying attention to what’s being said. Interest can be conveyed to the speaker by maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, or saying “Yes” or simply, “Mmm hmm,” to encourage them to continue.  By providing this feedback, the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and therefore communicate more easily, openly and honestly.

The last thing in the world you wish to convey in a business meeting is that you are thinking about something else. So don’t. This skill is particularly vital in an online meeting where you may be tempted to sneak in a quick peak at your email or your social media account. Nine times out of ten, if you pull your attention away from the speaker, you’ll fail to hear the question properly and – consequently – subtly convey that someone or something else is more important that what’s happening in front of you. Think about the message this sends when someone does it to you.

Above all, when you listen carefully to what someone’s saying, you’re much better positioned to address their needs and interests. And at the end of the day, that’s what effective sales – and management – is all about.

So work at being fully present. It’s one of the most powerful tools afforded you in the virtual age.

Image: Ear by Hana Ticha via Flickr

 

 

 

 

How to Tackle an Addiction to Work in Three Easy Steps

workaholic

workaholicMy chief goal for this year is to figure out why I work. Yeah, I know that sounds absurd. But when I created my New Year’s resolutions this year, I  realized that while my writing and personal goals were crystal clear, I couldn’t articulate a work goal beyond “work more.”

Another way to say this is that I am addicted to work. One definition of addiction is: “a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug, activity, or substance, even though it is causing psychological and physical harm.” Coming from a large, sprawling Irish family with its fair share of substance abuse problems, I use the term “addiction” advisably. But I think in my case, it’s apt.

Now that I have  – in classic, 12-step fashion  – identified the problem, it’s time to step back and begin to craft a solution.

Here’s where I’ve gotten so far:

What would you do if this was your last day on earth?

This is the question the HeadSpace App uses to guide its meditation on prioritization. Given that Headspace is a mindfulness app, the question is posed softly and gently. But it is, of course, the eternal question we all need to answer.

Oddly enough, it’s also the first question I ask my friends who come to me for career advice. “I don’t know what to do with my life,” they will say, or some version therein.  I always begin by asking, “If you had an entirely free day tomorrow with no commitments whatsoever, how would you spend it?” Or, if you prefer, “What your 90-year-old self would advise you to do?”

In my case, I know I’d prefer to spend at least a third of my day writing. Of all the things I do in a day, writing is the activity where I feel most authentic and most relaxed. But at the moment, I’m not even close to achieving that 1/3 goal.

Practice Being Your Future Self

I’m stealing this strap line from a Harvard Business Review article. The upshot of the article is that once you’ve figured out the key components of your ideal day, you need to block out time to practice being that future self. (This is a familiar piece of advice to anyone who wants to be a writer, which essentially boils down to:  Start writing.) But what really resonated for me in this article was the way the author, Peter Bregman, framed the “future self” imperative. He writes: “You need to spend time on the future even when… there is no immediately apparent return to your efforts. In other words… if you want to be productive, you need to spend time doing things that feel ridiculously unproductive.”

That framing really hit home for someone who consistently conflates being productive with being busy. On any given day, doing the thing that you love can feel like you’re taking valuable time away from the 10,000 things you “need” to get done. Not so, says Bregman: “It’s the wildly important stuff that never gets done because it’s never urgent enough…or it’s too risky or terrifying” that you need to prioritize. True dat’.

Create Affirmations

Once you’ve set aside your “me” time, create some affirmations to reinforce that positive image of yourself. I’ve written before about how I’ve used positive self-talk in both my writing and my work. But in recent weeks, I’ve really doubled down. I’ve made a brand new list of ten affirmations tailored to the first quarter of this new year, which I repeat out loud every morning before I start my work day.

Of those ten, the hardest one to utter – but the one that matters most – is this: “It’s easy for me to say no to people.” It isn’t. And that’s not (entirely) because I often need the money. It’s because – courtesy of my addiction – I measure my productivity not in terms of number of sales or level of income (like most business people), but in terms of the number of hours worked. And with that as my metric for a job well done, more is always better. Isn’t it?

I’m trying really hard to focus on these three, big-ticket goals as I slowly work my way towards managing my addiction to work.

What strategies do you employ when you need to hit re-set on your own work/life balance?

Image: Workaholic writer via Pixabay

Portfolio Careers and the Corona Virus: Risks and Opportunities

webinar

webinarIn the wake of the outbreak of the Corona virus, there’s been much speculation on how it may affect the global economy. Former Economic Council Chairman Austan Goolsbee wrote an insighful piece in The New York Times last weekend about  what the virus my portend for the U.S. economy. He pointed out that the American economy is likely to be particularly hard hit by the virus because of the size of its service sector (think restaurants and gyms), its sports-related economy (which hinges on large events), and its health care expenditure (which may dry up as people become more reluctant to undergo non-essential medical procedures).

I run my own small business as a communications consultant in London, one that relies heavily on face-to-face interaction in the form of workshops and one-to-one coaching. In the last week, my entire business model has been upended by the virus, and I’m not alone. This state of affairs has caused me to think a lot about how this virus is affecting small businesses more generally and what we can do to mitigate risk. Here are five direct impacts I’m already experiencing:

a. Cancellations are on the rise. I’ve had three workshops cancelled in the next month, two in Germany and one here in London. All three involved people flying in from different parts of the globe and all three were considered too risky to hold right now. That was to be expected. Less expected was an an offer run a large, lecture-style workshop to a large group of undergraduates at a London university, which was rescinded within a few days of being floated. Apparently, only three people signed up for a similar lecture that was meant to be held today – intended for 300 people. So the organizers decided to cancel my planned workshop as well, before we even formalized the terms. I’m lucky. All four of these events will be postponed, not outright cancelled, and three were already paid for before awareness and panic around the virus reached its current level. But I can’t expect that trend to continue.

b. Travel restrictions also creating new opportunities. At the same time, the travel restrictions now kicking in have also created opportunities for my business. Late in the afternoon on Friday, I received a call from a client at Oxford University where I routinely deliver workshops. Because the academic department in question had to abruptly cancel an upcoming trip to Africa, it is now scrambling to deliver something worthwhile for their students on campus. So they called me up and asked me to deliver two workshops on short notice. With my newly open diary, I said “Yes, please.” That was a good phone call to receive.

c.  Virtual offices have their upsides. I’ve written before about the ups and downs of working from home. But man, am I glad that I have a virtual office right now. One of my coaching clients, with whom I normally meet face to face, agreed that the next session would take place over Skype. Not having an office also means that I’m not wasting money on overhead to run an empty office right now. I’m also saving money on transport, meals out and other business expenses. Mostly however, I just feel safer. I’m also helping others with more compromised immune systems stay healthier by not exposing them to any germs I may be unwittingly harbouring.

d. Investing in virtual tools. Given that I deliver workshops for a living, I’ve been asked many times whether I offer webinars. Delivering virtual training has long been a goal of mine, but until now, it was a back-burner issue for me – something I’d like to get to, once I have time. Now, in full-on risk management mode, it’s become a front burner issue. While it’s difficult to teach public speaking effectively via webinar (at least if you’re going to use a camera, which in my view is optimal), that’s not true for teaching writing. So as the old adage has it, necessity has become the mother of invention. I am going to begin developing a webinar ASAP. I may also opt to do more editing, something I’d side-lined in recent months because I felt I could afford to do less of it. This is a long way of saying that having a portfolio career is proving to be a real asset in the wake of this unforeseen crisis.

e. I’m writing more. Part of my portfolio career – mainly the unpaid part! – is my writing. Only a couple of weeks back, I bemoaned the fact that I’ve been so busy this year with work that I’ve not given proper pride of place to my writing. That’s no longer true. Now that a large chunk of my calendar has been cleared in the coming month, I’ve discovered – much to my delight – that I have time to write again. And that makes me incredibly happy. The trick is to take this unexpected bonus and turn it into a long-term benefit once, God willing, this epidemic passes.

I’ll be eager to see the UK government thinking actively about how to help small businesses during this crisis, particularly those of us in the gig economy.

In the meantime, I’m going to lean into my portfolio and see what happens…

How about you? How is the Corona Virus affecting your work?

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Image: Webinar by Nick Youngson via Picpedia

Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips for Speaking to Slides

PowerPoint

PowerPointFor those of us who give a lot of presentations, Powerpoint is like an extension of our body. An economist friend of mine put it best. He stood up to deliver a talk at a conference many years ago, only to find that the projector wasn’t working. Forced to speak without his slides, he quipped, “I feel like I’m standing up here with my fly down.”

I knew what he meant. PowerPoint has become synonymous with “giving a talk.” Have deck, will travel.

But while PowerPoint has revolutionized our ability to deliver an engaging talk, this tool can often do more harm than good. And that’s because when you think about your talk in terms of slides, you forget the key point about public speaking:  you are the message. So anything that gets in the way of that message by definition dilutes it.

Here are five suggestions for using slides more effectively:

a. Write the talk first, then design the slides. Yes, I know. That sounds counter-intuitive. But it’s the right way to go. If you design the slides first, your natural inclination will be to create ever more slides to narrate your message. Before you know it, you’ll start creating slides for words like “it” and “the.” In contrast, if you write the talk first, you can be much more selective about where and when you use slides. In particular, you’ll learn how to *only* use slides that add value, rather than as filler.

b. Less is More. Remember that as soon as you put a slide up, you are competing with it for the audience’s attention. So the less text, the fewer bells and whistles (read: videos, animations, sounds, etc.), the better. An employee who creates slide presentations at Microsoft for a living put it like this: “Draw eyes where you want, when you want.” Otherwise, in a battle against even an ugly slide, you will invariably lose.

c. Separate out listening and reading. The reason you need to be so spare in your use of slides is because people cannot read and listen at the same time. We all think we can  – “Sure honey, I’ll do the dishes,” we say, while scrolling through our smart phones. But we’re only half listening. (Little wonder the dishes still remain in the sink, unwashed, an hour later.) And that’s because of a concept called cognitive load. We’ve all got a limited amount of working memory. So when we have to handle information in more than one way- say through simultaneous auditory (spoken) and visual presentation of text – our load gets heavier, and progressively more challenging to manage.

d. Shift away from text to images. The upshot of the previous point is that the less reading that’s going on, the better. One way to avoid overdoing text in your slides is to shift to images. A picture paints 1,000 words and all that good stuff. If you’re addicted to bullets as a way to bring people along with your argument, try replacing your bullets with images

e. Don’t use Powerpoint at all. Whaa?? Perish the thought! If you don’t believe me, watch how Bill Gates – the inventor of PowerPoint – has come to deploy slides over time:  sparingly, or not at all. Try it. You might like it.

Image: Slideshow via Wikimedia Commons

Like what you’re reading? Sign up to my “Good Reads for Grownups” newsletter, a monthly round up of books and films I’ve liked, the latest research on aging, and other great resources about the eternal journey of adulthood, plucked from around the web. Subscribe here

Why Rejection Helps Me Persist

early morning writing

early morning writingI got a lovely email yesterday from a literary agent. I’d sent her my book manuscript a few months back. Her email read accordingly:

Dear Delia,

So sorry for the delay.  I went round in circles… the thing is, I love the writing and the idea but I am just not sure how I would sell it.  Sometimes I come across a book that I long to read, but fail to know how to edit and get sold and this is one.  Hence my circles!  Thank you for your patience – am quite sure you will find the right agent.

It was probably the 20th or so rejection I’ve had in the last 18 months since I started shopping my book. That number is possibly even higher. Most of the time, you don’t hear anything back from agents. If they liked your idea enough to read beyond the cover letter, you’ll usually get something along the lines of “While I liked this….you need someone who can get behind you 100%.

Occasionally, you get a blow to the gut. One person’s PA told me that while her boss “loved the premise, she didn’t like the writing.” Ouch.

You may wonder why I’ve chosen to adopt such a halcyon reaction to this particular rejection. After all, this lady ain’t publishing my book.

But the email did lift my spirits. When you’re a writer, you spend a lot of time alone, often in the in the dark. (Shout out to The 5am Writers Club!) You have no audience save your own inner critic, and you often lose hope. Your writing starts to look ugly…unpolished…preposterous. More dangerous still, it may start to look beautiful, one-of-a-kind and revolutionary. (And then you wander over to Slush Pile Hell and remember why so many writers get rejected by agents.)

When I tell friends and family that I’ve yet to find an agent for my book, they remind me that J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before landing the Harry Potter series. Or they point me towards this comedian who vowed to get rejected 100 times as her New Year’s Resolution.

It’s kind of them to support me like that. They don’t want me to give up. But I have no illusions that I’m the next J.K. Rowling. I just need the odd reminder that the thing I created – which, at the time, felt like the book only I could write – wasn’t total shit.

So for someone – especially a professional – to say something encouraging about my writing, even when they reject it, makes me feel less alone. It also makes me feel like I wasn’t insane to spend a couple of years on said topic. And it gives me hope that someday, someone might actually take a punt and choose to represent me.

In short, rejection helps me go on. When my teenage daughter tells me that she’s afraid to audition for something – an orchestra, a theatre production, anything – because she’s sure she’ll be rejected, I exhort her to go ahead and apply anyway. “If you don’t apply, you’ll be in the same place you are now,” I remind her. “Whereas if you *do* apply, you might be somewhere different.”

This is one of those cases where if I’m going to talk the talk, I need to walk the walk. So I will keep waking up early to write fiction.  I’ll also keep getting out there and sending my book manuscript to agents.

If nothing else, this morning I wrote this blog.

Image: Early morning essay writing by Oliver Quinlan via Flickr

 

Tips for Adulthood: Five Things I Learned From Keeping Track of My Time

keeping track of time

keeping track of timeOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

Like many of us, I wake up most days feeling like there’s more to do in the day/week/month than I can possibly accomplish. So I pile my To Do list high with a list of impossible goals, accomplish a few, and then – instead of feeling great about what I *did* get done  – feel lousy about what I failed to achieve. Sound familiar?

I resolved to do better this year. But there’s knowing and then there’s doing. How to actually execute this goal?

In her book, Entrepreneurial You, marketing and career development expert Dorie Clark suggests that when you find yourself overwhelmed by an impossibly long list of goals, try taking an inventory of your time. The idea is simple:  keep a log of everything you do in a workday that takes more than 15 minutes. Do this for two weeks, and then step back and examine the results.

I’ve been doing this for the past month, and it’s been highly illuminating.  The best thing about this method is that you don’t judge yourself. Instead, you go into data-collection mode and observe. That’s hard for a “do-er” like myself, but boy, is it useful.

Here’s what I learned when I studied my use of my time:

a. My writing is suffering. A while back, I committed to spending an hour every morning writing before I do anything else. I may not always be able to hit an hour, but most mornings, I am able to achieve this goal. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there is a trade-off in what I write. While I’m able to produce my target of one blog a week, my other writing – my book, my fiction, and any opinion pieces or personal essays I may wish to write – fall largely by the wayside. Which means that I’m really only achieving about half of my writing goals right now, possibly a third. And that’s not good enough. Of all the things I do in a day, writing is the one I enjoy most. It’s where I feel most authentic and most relaxed. Don’t get me wrong. I love blogging and I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. But this experiment has shown me that I need to find a way to create more writing time in the day.

b. I need to clear time for “Admin time.”  Another thing that gets short shrift in my current life is “admin time.” On the personal end of things, admin time encompasses everything from scheduling my daughter’s 10,000 activities, to planning social events with friends, to collecting  interesting items for my monthly newsletter. On the work end, it involves things like answering emails, booking travel and keeping track of my finances. The latter is particularly vital for we self-employed types, because we’re always in a constant cycle of invoicing clients, chasing them for payments and keeping track of expenses. And yet, “admin time” is usually the first thing to drop when you hit a busy week. After a few weeks of ignoring all those niggling “to do’s,” you can easily find yourself doing nothing but answering emails for a day. My big revelation from doing this exercise was that I need to set aside two separate blocks of time for both types of admin:  the stuff that keeps my personal life going, as well as the stuff that keeps my business going.

c.  The time/money trade-off. In light of the above, it was also really useful to examine how I spend time with clients. Because my business has been in a growth mode over the past two years, I’ve never really stopped  to think about whether or not certain clients/activities were worth spending time on. I just kept saying “yes” to work. Now that I’m tracking my time carefully, however, I can clearly see that I need to be choosier in terms of how I spend time with clients. For instance, while I love writing coaching, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of that work needs to happen virtually, rather than face-to-face. Otherwise, I can easily spend half a day reading  a client’s work, coaching them in person, and commuting back and forth to that meeting. That simply isn’t an efficient use of my time from a cost-benefit standpoint. In other cases, if I really want to prioritise writing *and* make ends meet, I’m going to need to let go of certain clients unless they can pay more.

d. Prepare less. When I told my husband that I’m still struggling to work a normal, five- day work week, he immediately commented: “You need to prepare less.” I do tend to prepare a lot before I deliver a workshop. That’s partly so that I’ll go in knowing the material so well that I can relax and be myself. But it’s also driven by a crippling fear that I won’t wow the audience/be letter perfect/and or – egads! – only deliver a B+. So much like reducing the time I spend commuting to see coaching clients, I need also to reduce the time I prepare. For me, that’s like asking myself to deliver a workshop blindfolded. But I need to get more comfortable with it.

e. Make a change. It’s been extraordinarily useful to keep this log for the past month. I could happily study my schedule for the rest of my life. But I don’t want to get trapped in the paralysis of analysis. I need now to do the hard part, which is to make the changes in my schedule that will enable me to write a bit more and work a bit less, all while maintaining my target income. That’s going to be difficult for  me. Among other things, it will threaten my addiction to being busy. But it’s time to act.

How about you? Have you ever kept a log of your time? What did you learn?

Image:  212-365 (Year 7) by George Redgrave via Flickr

Tips for Adulthood: Five Reasons to Celebrate Paying Your Taxes

self assessment tax return

self assessment tax returnOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

The UK tax year ends on the 31st of January each year. So last Friday night, at approximately 8:04 pm, I hit “send” on my electronic tax return for my business.

I felt ridiculously happy. Despite being four hours short of fulfilling my commitment to Dry January, I nonetheless cracked open a beer and basked in the glow of a job well done. That glow carried well into Saturday.

Yeah,  I know what you’re thinking:  Taxes? Seriously? Get a life, sister.

But here are five reasons paying your taxes can make you feel great:

a. It’s an enactment of citizenship. I’m not all that patriotic in either of the two countries where I hold passports. I don’t have antipathy towards either nation; I simply don’t feel some overwhelming affection or bond. But somehow, paying taxes does make me feel like I am fulfilling the duty of being a citizen. Unlike voting, which is a privilege, taxes are an obligation. Perhaps this makes me a Socialist. I don’t think so. (Nor do I mind).  But when I pay taxes, I do feel that I am holding up my half of a bargain with my government, for which I get so much in return.

b. It’s an expression of pride in your work. I always feel good about paying taxes. But I think that this year felt particularly momentous because it was the first time that I paid them as a sole trader (British for small business). In painstakingly reviewing my past year of invoices, expenses and business travel, I was reminded of how far I’ve come since I set out my shingle on my communications consultancy less than two years ago. And that was a really great feeling.

c. It feeds your inner project manager. On the advice of a friend, I began using an electronic accounting software called Free Agent last year to map my business expenses electronically. It’s a fantastically user-friendly program with exceptional customer support. Don’t get me wrong; it took me a while to learn the ropes (see below). But now that I’ve got the hang of it (which occurred at approximately 7:57 pm on January 31st…cough), I know exactly what I need to do and can’t wait to carry on coding my bank account every week going forward.  For the “managers” amongst us, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

d. It’s a useful reminder to ‘read the instructions.’ This is one of Gretchen Rubin’s mantras. And boy, is she right. Despite the myriad webinars and online topic guides that Free Agent offers, I blithely blundered into using it without really knowing what I was doing.  On January 2nd, I’d smugly allocated one afternoon in my calendar to file my taxes electronically this year. Needless to say, the week before they were due I was up at all hours of the day and night, googling things like: “What is a credit note?” Never again.

e. You learn a new skill. Sure, there are these individuals called accountants. As my business grows, I’m sure I’ll be availing myself of one of them shortly. But in this ever more automated day and age in which we live, there’s a heckuva lot of things you can now do on your own if you put your mind to it. I’m a big believer in life-long learning. Especially when it’s DIY.

Years ago, I posted a blog entitled “5 Signs You’re a Grown Up.” It included things like “no longer draping tapestries on your sofa” and “serving something other than beer at parties.” I would now like to add “paying taxes” to that list. At least as long as you learn to master the software…

Image:  Self Assessment Tax Return 2019 via Flickr

Why do you Work?

growth

growthI woke up on January 2nd this year in a complete state of panic. I’d slept poorly – having a version of my standard “getting lost” dream. (This time, I was on a bus you couldn’t disembark.)  And then I proceeded to have the normal re-entry freak-out that occurs when you take a vacation, amplified by the fact that it was a new year, with all the attendant expectations.

I realized in that moment that if I were merely to pick up where I left off at the end of 2019, I was going to have yet another year that left me busy and stimulated, but also frazzled and depleted.

Setting SMART goals

When I teach project management in my Life Skills for Offices course, I encourage my students to set SMART goals for projects. SMART is an acronym which stands for:  Specific. Measurable. Achievable. Relevant. Time-bound. According to this approach, the more you can make your goals conform to these five principles, the easier they are to implement. So, for example, instead of setting a goal for yourself like “Read More,” you change that to “Read 10 pages per day.”

I decided to see if setting some SMART goals in my life might help to manage my anxiety. I began with a brain-dump, writing down all of the big-ticket, top-line things I wanted to achieve in the coming year. When I finished the list, I was relieved to see that they sorted neatly into three categories:  work, writing and personal life. So far, so good.

But here’s the kicker. My writing and personal goals were crystal clear – and readily lent themselves to becoming SMART. But what also came through starkly on the page was that I didn’t actually have an over-arching professional goal.

When I tried to come up with a SMART goal for work, all I could think of was: Keep Working.

What do I want from work?

In some ways, this lack of a goal where work is concerned is entirely understandable. I launched my own business about 18 months ago.  The first year of any new job – but particularly one where you are in charge of all sales, delivery, marketing and content development – is grueling. Moreover, because you are trying to build a name for yourself, you tend to take on any work that comes your way:  You need the income, you need the “social proof,”  and you need the experience under your belt.

18 months in, I wouldn’t say that I’ve “arrived” as an entrepreneur. But  I’ve certainly begun to amass some of those markers of success. What doing that SMART goal exercise laid bare was that it was time to sit down and ask myself a question I find incredibly hard to answer:  What do I want from work?

How much work is enough?

In his book, Company of One: Why Staying Small is the Next Big Thing for Business, Paul Jarvis argues against the idea that business needs to be about infinite growth. Instead, he begins with the proposition that you should first decide why you work and then decide how much you need to do in order to support that goal. In Jarvis’ case, he works to support his life. He frequently takes a month or two off from his software design business to go hiking in a remote location. So he deliberately limits the number of new customers he takes on in order to facilitate that lifestyle.

The key takeaway here isn’t that there’s an optimal amount  of work you ought to be doing or an optimal size for a company. The key, as Jarvis explains it is that – particularly if you are self-employed – “You get to define what’s important. Maybe growth and hiring a team to divvy up the work is important to you. But then again, maybe it’s not. And if it’s not, then maybe growth at all costs in all directions isn’t the best thing for you either.”

It’s such an obvious idea and yet I’d never thought about it with respect to my own work. How much work is enough for me (over and above paying the bills)? I have to confess that it was really scary to ask myself this question. Because it meant thinking about work as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

My new work goal 

I wish I were at the point where – like most of my self-employed friends – my work goal had a concrete target, like a dollar figure or a certain number of days per week. But if I can’t identify why I work, I don’t think I’ll ever know how to devise the appropriate metric.

So now I have a new goal where work is concerned. By the end of this financial year – which in the UK ends on the 5th of April – I will have figured out an answer to the question of why I work.

A year and a half ago, I vowed to try and replace all my micro-goals with one, over-arching macro-goal: that of achieving peace within.

I’ve utterly failed in that endeavor. Maybe now I can finally make some progress.

Image: Growth chart map graph arrow via Pixabay