What Does the Data Say?

I recently took on an assignment writing about institutional research (IR) in K-12 independent schools. IR in that setting is a type of data analysis, and can be used in many of the same ways businesses are now using data to inform decision-making. From admissions and fundraising to student life and student wellness to diversity equity and inclusion, IR can help schools measure the impact of programs, better understand trends and how to effect them, and even specific elements of teaching and learning.

One thing I didn’t expect in talking to a bunch of data scientists was to hear the word “emotional” mentioned several times. The experts talked about how sometimes, when you collect data and analyze it, it doesn’t say what you expect it to say and that can be upsetting. Or demoralizing.

As I conducted the interviews, I began to understand that I do IR in my business all the time, but it’s an institution of one. I measure the number of assignments I have, when they are assigned, how long they take from assigned to submitted, how I’m paid per project, word, and hour, how many hours I spend on each element of a project, and anything else I can think of to measure. And, I realized, it’s also sometimes an emotional exercise.

An Example

In 2018 or so, I decided it was time to “level up.” My business has changed and grown over the years, and at that time, I was looking to boost my income significantly. I set myself a course of professional development: I read a few books, started participating more in a couple of networking groups, joined a professional organization I’d considered before, and started tracking both my clients and my time a little more closely.

It was the result of the time tracking that caught me off-guard. I work from home and it often feels like I’m always working. Time is … well, it’s difficult for me. I struggle to understand how long it should take me to get places. I get lost in my work (or more often, in a book) and forget what time it is. In order to track my time, I put a piece of graph paper under my keyboard, and jotted down any time I changed activities. “8:45 email” then “8:50 coffee” and so on.

The result: I was at my keyboard, actively working, about 10 hours a week.

That counted checking and responding to email, administrative stuff like bookkeeping, marketing my services, participating in networking activities, and of course, writing. It did not count pulling weeds while thinking about writing, or going for a run and mulling the structure of an article. It also didn’t count random social media scrolling, chatting with friends, or paying household bills. I tried to keep it strictly to work.

This realization brought on a tangle of emotions. I was shocked. It really felt like I worked at least full time, but 10 hours? a WEEK? That’s not even part-time! It also made me ask a bunch of other questions, with the biggest one being what, exactly was I doing with my time? Going back to my graph paper, I found that I was doing a lot of laundry, handling TONS of tasks like dealing with insurance, utilities, and other household things, exercising more than I realized, and generally staying quite busy with stuff that needed to be done.

It’s hard to describe the emotional cascade that followed this data analysis. It seriously took me about a year to come to terms with it all.

This random snapshot of my desk from Dec 2019 shows my to-do list. I should have realized how many non-work tasks I do based on these lists!

Some of the feelings:
* I was proud of myself for earning a full-time income in so little time. Even by that point I was earning more than I ever had in any regular job.
* Looking back over my life, I was sad that I spent so many years beating myself up for being “lazy” when in reality I simply had not had time to do all the things. There’s no way I could do all of the things I do now if I had to work 40 hours a week and commute an hour a day. It’s no wonder I couldn’t maintain a regular exercise routine or do any creative writing when I worked a 9 to 5 and children to care for.
* My hourly rate was far higher than I thought it was before tracking, which gave me confidence to boost my rates a little.
* I wondered what would happen if I set up a schedule that was closer to 20-25 hours a week. Would my income double with more hours worked? What if I filled 10 hours a week with marketing activities?
* I wrestled with the idea of whether or not I work “full time.” Can I really say that I do?

During that year, I also thought a lot about “time wasted.” I felt like if I wasn’t earning money with all that “spare” time I was wasting it. I had to consider whether what I was dealing with was toxic productivity and whether or not I was doing tasks just for the sake of being busy?

Finally, the big question: do I spend my time doing what I want to do? If I knew I only had a year or two to live, what kinds of changes would I make to my daily schedule? If I won the lottery and money wasn’t an issue, what would I do with my time?

Did I make changes?


I did make changes, but they weren’t particularly drastic. I carried on with my professional development plan, and eventually stopped tracking hours so closely (for awhile). Now I’m working between 12 and 15 hours a week, and my income, as of last year, had doubled. I’m on track to increase by an additional 25% this year.

I still fall prey to feeling guilty about the amount of time I (don’t) work, but much more rarely. Mostly I’m very happy to be able to do other things that are important to me in addition to doing work that I enjoy. I’m grateful to have control of my time and understand more clearly now why I don’t clock tons of hours. The work I do requires deep thought and it’s nearly impossible to track that. Even when I’m not at my desk the work is happening in my brain—often in the background, without my conscious self realizing it’s going on. Sometimes I sit down at my keyboard and the words are simply there in my brain waiting to be typed out because they arranged themselves while I wasn’t paying attention. Other times, I write a sentence, scroll social media, come back and write another sentence.

One of the changes I made was to start working in timed blocks and attempting to extend those blocks. On the days the words are waiting to be typed, I can focus for about an hour or so at a time, but on the sentence-at-a-time days, my focus only lasts for about 10 minutes. My goal is to get to the point where I can focus for around 90 minutes at a stretch. Focused blocks of work are super efficient. I’m always amazed by how quickly projects come together when I can shut out everything else.

No matter how many clocks I have, time is still a mystery!



Another change was to expand my service offerings. Until about 2019, I described myself solely as an healthcare information technology content writer. Around that time, I started taking on more varied technology writing assignments, and that has been one of the biggest drivers of increasing my income. Many experts say that niching down more and more is the key to doing well as a freelancer. In my case, expanding a little was more helpful.

I also started feeling more comfortable accepting more projects and stopped worrying about taking on too much. Knowing that my schedule is relatively light most of the time makes me less worried about becoming burnt out. I know that as long as I stay under 25 hours a week most of the time, I’ll be fine. Two or three weeks in a row of 25 hours, though, pushes me dangerously near burnout. In other words, now I know my limits much better than I did before.

Have you done this type of data analysis to see where your time goes? How did you feel about it? Did it make you want to change things?

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Resisting the Urge to Panic

One of the things about freelancing that people complain about is the “feast or famine cycle.” It seems like you’re either covered in work, getting up early and staying up late, struggling to meet all the deadlines or you’ve only got an hour or two of work to fill each day. There are plenty of strategies to beat the feast or famine cycle, but it’s still likely to happen now and again to everyone.

This morning, I got up, did a short yoga practice and came to my desk ready to get the work done. But there wasn’t really any work to do! Even after a dozen years of running this business, I encounter hills and valleys. Mostly, I don’t fret about them anymore. In this post, I discuss why I don’t fret and what I do instead.

Keep a list of tasks for slow times

Slow times can be scary

There are always going to be things that you put to the side when it’s busy. Slow times are great for working on projects. Maybe you have a course you want to develop, or you’re building a database for marketing. Perhaps you have a personal project you often neglect. Have you always wanted to publish a series of e-books? Maybe you’re working on a novel.

I’ve started keeping a list of things to do when it’s slow. They are all things I want to get done, but usually feel like I don’t have time to do. Some of them are work-related, many are not. This week, I plan to do some business planning, research a couple of potential niche areas, and maybe start building my marketing spreadsheet for this year (yeah, I’m behind on that!). I also plan on doing some big work in my garden, making some progress on a decluttering project, and deep cleaning my bathroom.

Plans and lists keep me steady



Reach out to past clients

I’ve worked with hundreds of clients in the last few years, and am guilty of not staying in touch when my work-focus changes or I find new, higher-paying clients. That’s not good business for several reasons.

Editors change positions and staying in touch can mean better work from folks who know you and like you. Staying top-of-mind is important when people are busy or stressed, and really, who isn’t busy or stressed right now? Ultimately, marketing is about building solid relationships and staying in touch is how you build a relationship.

Work on administrative tasks

This year, I’m focusing on tracking my time and projects so that I can get a clear idea of how much I earn per hour on different projects and from different clients. I enlisted the help of the wonderful professional organizer Julie Bestry in building a spreadsheet to help with this, and am finding there are endless ways to use the information. But, the spreadsheet always needs tweaking and analyzing the data I collect takes time. I spent quite a bit of time on that today.

Email cleanup and filing is a never-ending task, and I tend to do it when I’m tired or when there’s not a ton of work. It usually doesn’t make my list of things to do when it’s slow, but probably should.

My colleague Jen Phillips uses scripts and pre-written forms in her business and that seems like an excellent approach. Slow times are great for putting things like that together.

Taming the Famine Anxiety

There’s feast anxiety—how am I going to get all of this done? why did I say yes to this? my work is going to suck and no one will ever hire me again! And there’s famine anxiety—I will never get more work, and my family will starve! this is the beginning of the end of my business! I’m going to have to start from scratch and rebuild my client roster. And the one that tends to get me: If I relax and enjoy this, I’ll be doomed! I didn’t plan this slow time so it’s most certainly a harbinger of disaster.

All of this seems a tad dramatic, doesn’t it? Always, looking back at either a time of feasting or a time of famine, I realize my fears were quite out of proportion to the situation. As soon as I recognize either thing is happening, I start taking steps to avert the worst mental drama.

What’s the money situation?
One of the first things I did this morning was check to see how many invoices I have outstanding. It is enough to pay my bills for two months. Not exactly the best savings plan, but good enough to help me feel calmer. I can pay my mortgage, and two months is plenty of time to hustle up more work.

The next thing I did was make a list of my current anchor clients and how much I earn from them on average each month. Right now, I have two very solid anchor clients and between them I earn enough to pay our bills. So, I’m not only counting on outstanding invoices.

Life wouldn’t be super comfortable if I was only working with my two anchors, though, and I wouldn’t be hitting my target for the year.

Is there work on the horizon?
The second thing I did this morning was take a look at potential work. I have two projects that editors have contacted me about but not yet assigned anything. I’ll email them both this week. Then there’s a much longer list of people I consider “warm” — we’ve talked, but not established anything definite or discussed specific projects. I’ll also be contacting them to say hi and ask how things are going.

Looking out to the horizon can be calming



Simply having those three items—outstanding invoices, anchor clients who assign regular work, and a list of prospects—usually eases the fears associated with famine. There are other things you can do, too:

Build an actual savings
I’m aiming to save enough to pay bills for 3 months, then 6, and hopefully eventually a year. I’m not there yet, but that’s the goal.

Do a marketing challenge
Set yourself a goal to send out a certain number of letters of introduction, or attend a certain number of in-person events. Jennifer Goforth Gregory has a fantastic list of marketing activities for January that work any time of the year. If you think your slow time is extended (it happens!) spend a couple of weeks or a month completing a marketing challenge.

Actually enjoy your time
This is going to be my approach for this week. Since I’ve already realized I’m not facing eviction or actual famine, I’m going to try to relax, enjoy the fact it’s spring time and my flowers are blooming, take extra walks with my pups, try a couple of new recipes, and maybe even find a shady spot to read.


If, next week, things are still slow, I’ll start actively searching for new work.


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Losing Connections, Again

Photo is a close up photo of a lilac bloom with green leaves surrounding it. The flower is elongated and made up of many smaller flowers with four petals each, pale violet in color.
A lilac bloom because it’s spring and flowers are joy

People make fun of Google+ all the time, even now, years later. But, for me G+ was the home of a community that became really important in my life. When Google pulled the plug on Plus, our community was scattered—despite some truly concerted and genuine efforts to keep it together.

“I’ll go wherever everyone else ends up,” more than one of the 70 or so people in the group said. And we tried. We really tried.

We tested Reddit, Discord, TapaTalk, MeWe, and I don’t even know how many other platforms. Some folks flatly refused to be on Facebook (no judgement from me!) and others thought Twitter was too useless to even try.

Although many of us are still in touch, it’s not the same because we are on disparate platforms and no longer a cohesive group. On G+ most of us checked in daily, there were lively conversations, folks shared their art regularly whether that meant short stories, poems, drawings, recipes, or what-have-you. We talked about food, kids, marriage, illnesses, and all sorts of stuff. It couldn’t be replicated, regardless of how hard we wanted it to be.

With Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, I’m feeling all the grief of losing my Plus community again. It’s different in many ways, but that same feeling of loss is there. I fully expect an emphasis on “radical free speech” to make Twitter a place I don’t want to be, and that doesn’t even take into account the fact yet another billionaire owning my information is … I don’t even know the word, but I do know I don’t like it.

The only power I have in this scenario is to stop using Twitter. In fact, that’s all any of us can do, and I think that a mass departure from the platform, even if it happens over the course of a few months, is the best thing. We should just not use it rather than worry about how it might enable this or that bad actor. It’s probably the only way to prevent it.

That brings me to my 2022 resolution: Bring Blogging Back in ’22. A blogging community doesn’t give the quick hit of a social media platform, but it is entirely possible to have such a community. When I started Smiling Tree Writing, the blogs of other writers were so important. There were probably 10-15 I read regularly. They had blog rolls, and I used those to find more blogs. Usually when I commented on a post, the blogger would come here and comment on my most recent post, too. We got to know each other. I’m still in touch with most of those folks, though I admit that we mainly talk on Twitter now. Ha!

I propose we return to blogging. Several friends have done so already. We agree that it feels weird. None of us feel like we have anything to say worthy of a post. We all feel isolated, and each post feels like shouting into the wind.

But it’s far less likely that a blog will get yanked down at someone else’s whim. It’s the only way I can come up with to preserve some shred of community. I’ve set up a Feedly stream to help me remember to check in on my friends’ blogs. Drop a link to yours in the comments, and I’ll add you to my feed.

I’m going to try putting up a couple of brief posts a week, maybe even more, to try and rebuild this blogging habit. If they disappear into the ether, so be it. Maybe, though, these short posts will patch up the foundation of my blog community or inspire others to take a minute or two out of their day to share something (anything!) on their blog. We don’t have to be any more articulate or intelligent on our blogs than on Twitter, after all.

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Nourishment

I’ve been thinking about the word nourish lately. What it means when it comes to nutrition, creativity, self-care, business, and even lead generation. I guess this time of year is the time when I reflect on my goals in every area and what’s working and what’s not.

I used to divide my task list each day into sections: Work, Self, and Home. It helped me remember that the tasks I did to take care of my household were important, and not just impediments to running my business. The Self section came after that, when it became clear that taking care of myself was equally as important as my business and my household. If I’m not engaged in some creative pursuit, my performance in all other areas suffers. If I’m not taking care of my health, my productivity declines.

A image of four triangular raised beds, mostly empty, with a few plants scattered here and there.
My ever-growing medicine wheel garden, early in the season.

This time of year, I look at each of those areas and think about what my goals for the year were and how did I do? Did I get closer? Did I change my mind about any of them? Did I just ignore them and coast along?

After a visit with my doctor last week, it became abundantly clear that I wasn’t making progress toward some of my health goals, which made me reconsider the work I’ve been doing in that area, which led me to the word nourish. As I began to plan some shifts in how I eat (I’ve been following a low carb, keto-ish plan for a few years, and I’m going to move to more of a whole-food, lower fat plan), I also began to think about what else I might need to spend some time nourishing.

Google tells me that there are two definitions of nourish:

1. provide with the food or other substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition
“I was doing everything I could to nourish and protect the baby.”
2. keep (a feeling or belief) in one’s mind, typically for a long time
“he has a long nourished an ambition to bring the show to Broadway”

Those two definitions can apply to all three of my focus areas. There are certain business goals I’ve nourished for a long time (I’m happy to tell you that one of my longest-held income goals is within reach this year). This week, a friend and I have blocked out some time to talk about our business plans for 2022, and help each other figure out how to reach our goals.

Of course to meet those health-related goals I need the right nourishment, and not just when it comes to food. That definition includes “other substances.” In my case that means the right mix of exercise, medications, and rest. The best formula of all of those things changes over time, and it’s helpful to consider what’s working and, for me, right now, what’s not.

Nourishing my creative self is one component of good mental health. The thing that’s been missing here is creative writing. I’m trying to build that habit back, but it takes consistent nourishment!

Do you find that proper physical nourishment improves your creative life? Do you have long-held goals that you keep well-fed?

As a gardener, I know how important it is to keep the soil nice and balanced and full of nourishing substances. If I can manage that, surely I can manage to nourish all the facets of myself, too.

Two triangular raised beds, surrounded by saw dust, filled with healthy-looking plants.
One section of the garden, later in the year.

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It’s Most Difficult at the Beginning

I am back to square one, maybe even square negative five, regarding my fitness level. Similarly, but much less drastically, I’m at a low point in client numbers. Fitness and business have always swung along the same pendulum in my life, likely because they both depend solely on my own motivation and willingness to do the work. At this particular moment in time, I’m working on the basics for good health and for a prosperous business. You know, paying attention to what and how much I eat, making a point of doing some form of exercise everyday, making marketing calls, sending out queries, referring back to my business plan.

And it’s freaking hard.

Easing myself into things, as I do, I started counting calories two weeks ago, and have kept it up. Now it’s time to add in exercise, and that is tougher. I’m trying to follow a fun, slightly silly workout plan, that uses the language of RPG (roll playing games). It’s called The Hero’s Journey, and it looks pretty simple. Except, on the first day, I am supposed to do 100 reps of four bodyweight exercises. I’m going to try, but don’t have much faith that I’ll be able to do it. The first set of 25 almost killed me.

Similarly, I started sending out marketing emails a week or two ago, but I know that to see real results, I’m going to have to do much more. Like make 10 calls a day, every day, for a month or two, and continue to send out several emails per day. That’s just how it works. For someone like me, who feels weird and awkward on the phone, and who struggles with any kind of social interaction, this stuff is hard. Probably not as hard as getting back in shape, but still not exactly as easy as writing a blog post.

The important thing to remember at times like this is that it’s only hard for a little while. It won’t take long before I’m looking forward to working out, or before the marketing has done what it always does and I only need to send out 2-3 queries each week to stay busy. Everything in life is that way. When I first built my flower garden, it took a lot of work to break up the grass and fluff up the dirt. But the next spring was easier, and every one after has been too. Any BIG THING is that way. You have to approach it a bit at a time and know that it will get easier.

A friend learned to play guitar as a teenager. Then she got a job, raised some children, and didn’t play. Recently she picked it back up and says the same thing about her practice sessions. They are tough, but she knows they will get easier.

Have you ever started over with something? How did it go for you?

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Walking the Freelancer Tightrope

The fourth quarter of 2014 was my most lucrative quarter as a business owner to date. It was the kind of quarter that makes you reevaluate and scale up your goals, and spurs you to begin dropping your lower-tier clients. It felt good.

(You know what happened next, don’t you? It’s so sadly predictable!)

The first two months of 2015 have been less than stellar. They haven’t been my worst months ever — not by a long shot — but my earnings did drop to about 30% of what they were in the two previous months. There are many reasons for the drastic drop, and most of them are related to the delicate balance business owners much strike between feeling good and feeling a little worried.

When I’m a little worried, I pay more attention to marketing — it’s just naturally on my mind more. Since it’s on my mind, I see opportunities while reading for pleasure, browsing online, having conversations with colleagues, as well as randomly in the middle of the night. I’m just more open to finding new work.

On the other hand, when I have lots of work, I’m thinking about getting that work done all of the time. I’m making connections to whatever it is I’m writing — and that is good. It gives my work more depth, and sometimes shines a new light on a topic.

When things are tighter, I tend to hoard my pennies, and my time. I don’t invest much in things like software, or in taking time off from writing to go to lunch or to events. Of course those things can, and do, generate new business.

You might imagine that less work = more time for other projects, but that hasn’t been the case in my experience. For example, when I had more deadlines than usual, I got up between 30 minutes and one hour early everyday to work on my fiction projects. Scheduling becomes more important when you are busy, and sticking to the schedule is critical.

When I have fewer deadlines I tend to let things slide, thinking, “Eh. I don’t have anything scheduled for the afternoon. There’s no harm in sleeping in this morning.” Or watching a movie, or baking some bread, or whatever other purple squirrel I can come up with that day.

Luckily, I’ve been working on my own for long enough that I have some safeguards in place to deal with the current situation. I have a long list of publications to contact, and another list of businesses and organizations that might need my services. I have a plan that I can pull up and follow the moment I realize things are off-track.

Recognizing the downward turn and taking the steps necessary to correct it are two different things, of course, but that’s where experience comes into play. It may take me a month or two to see what’s going on, but once I do, it’s easier to take action.

Here are a few of the specific steps I’m taking now:

1. Sending out a set number of letters of introduction or pitches each week. My number is 10. I do a fair amount of research before contacting a prospect so more than 10 becomes overwhelming.

2. Contacting all former clients with whom I enjoyed working. This one is self-explanatory, and just common sense. It also tends to yield the fastest results.

3. Closely evaluating how my time is spent. If there is “spare” time, I try to fill it with either planning, research, or working on my fiction projects. It feels terrible to realize I’ve wasted time on social media or playing games when a glance at my bookkeeping software clearly says I should have been doing something to support my income! When it comes to my bookkeeping, I might take the advice of friends who recommend that I consider utilizing taxes for freelancers done by an experienced CPA.

4. Getting back to my plan. In November and December, I put together a detailed plan for the next year. It has some good stuff in it, and pulling it out and following the steps is helping me stay on track.

5. Making sure the basics are covered. A couple of weeks ago, this site went down because I forgot to pay my hosting bill. That is just a bad way to run a business!

Have you ever corrected a downturn in your business? What are your best tips for avoiding a slump?

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