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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List Making Mania

For the last couple of weeks, maybe longer, my anxiety has been running amok. Anxiety is a sneaky beast and doesn’t always show up as heart palpitations and shaking. Sometimes it’s the feeling of being behind on everything, or a sense of impending doom, or even thoughts about how there’s no possibility you can do it all, for whatever value of “all” you want to consider.

a blooming dogwood tree with green grass and a cloudy sky
The serenity of April didn’t extend to my brain

As I reviewed the month of April during my not-quite-really-a-vacation last week, I began to understand why I’ve been feeling anxious. A bunch of things that wouldn’t have been noteworthy alone happened all at the same time: a project that had been difficult from the beginning continued being difficult and I ended up making the worst hourly rate I’ve made in years; another challenging project was, well, challenging; I had to do an entire rewrite on a piece; three families I care about encountered extremely difficult times; and those were just the bigger things. All the normal day-to-day difficulties persisted, too.

Once I identified the source of the problem, I got down to figuring out what I could do about it. This sounds pretty simple, but it took a few days. I’d wanted to do so many things during my quasi-vacation, but it turned out what I needed was to rest. It was Friday before I felt like even tackling trying to solve the anxiety problem. I made more progress on Saturday and Sunday than in the entire week.

On Friday, I wrote a long journal entry and pondered the question of why I was feeling like my life is out of control (it’s not). I ended up making a bunch of lists, one for each area of my life that I felt I was not keeping up with:

  • Work/money
  • Exercise
  • Food/nutrition
  • Gardening
  • Housekeeping
  • Home projects
  • Personal projects
pot with a pink geranium in front of a triangular-shaped garden bed
A geranium with my raised beds in the background

Then, I wrote out the steps I needed to take in each category to feel better. I half-expected to feel overwhelmed at this point, but instead, it all felt much more doable written out like that. Saturday I worked in the garden and ended up feeling better about that—it’ll always be more work than I can get done, but now at least I might end up with some tomatoes—then Sunday I did a ton of cleaning and straightening.

My favorite iris bloomed this morning


I’ve always been a list-maker. And it is always surprising how much better I feel when I’ve given thought to the steps necessary to complete a project, write a book, grow a garden, or whatever endeavor I’m chasing at the moment. Why is it so easy to forget?

Are you a list maker? Does it help you feel calm? Or does all of this seem a bit much?

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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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Ideation

One of my strengths as a writer is being able to think up lots of ideas—story ideas, ideas on how to tell a story, ideas on how to find new clients, ideas about running a business. Ideas are usually the easiest part of the process.

Even though I like brainstorming and coming up with ideas, I don’t usually enjoy pitching story ideas to publications. One reason is that it takes a ton of time, and it’s unpaid time. Another is that publications aren’t great about responding an uncomfortable percentage of the time.

The problem is that if I don’t spend time brainstorming on a fairly regular basis it’s much harder. Recently, an agency client asked me to put together a list of potential ideas for one of their clients. They were paying me to do the work, which was awesome, and since it’s one of my favorite things, I agreed. When I sat down to actually start the list, I felt that deer-in-the-headlights thing. Frozen. Unable to come up with anything. For one panicky moment, I thought I’d lost it; my idea well had run dry.

Of course, 10 minutes of reading and an hour or two of thinking (while doing other things—you can’t let ideas know you’re chasing them, you have to come at them sideways) I had a pretty good list. But it was a good reminder that even the things you’re good at require some practice.

I’m adding “participate in a pitch fest once a quarter” to my list of goals for 2022!

A beautiful setting helps stimulate creativity

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My Plan Is My Map

Do you participate in business planning? Does your plan sit in an ignored folder all year? This post details my planning process and it’s long. I’d love to know if you have a similar planning process!

I’ve always been a planner. Usually, the urge to start making lists and considering goals and looking at the previous year starts in December, but this year it came a little early, and deserves a bit more thought. In 2020, I tossed the plan out in March and decided to simply concentrate on survival and self-care. At the end of 2020, I decided to carry through with the same in 2021. Like many others, I wanted some time to recover from living in the middle of a pandemic.

This year, though, I’m ready to return to my plan because without it, I feel a bit lost. I still have goals, but I don’t have a clearly mapped path to reaching them because my plan has always served as my map.

It came to my attention recently, during an excellent Thursday session of #FreelanceChat on Twitter, that not everyone plans in quite as much detail as I do. I’m sharing my planning process in case others may find it a useful jumping-off point for their own planning.

The basics

Everyone I’ve ever talked to about planning, calendaring, or tracking goals has a different set up, so what I’m describing is the mishmash of tools that works for me. There are several elements:

  1. My notebook – I use a half-size, 3-ring binder with some dotted paper and some plain paper for the different sections, which include my daily task lists, my home-related goals, an area for jotting and journaling, and a budget area.
  2. A Google Drive file – it’s officially called Notes, but within the folder, there’s a document titled “Marketing 2021” and that’s where I pretty much free-write what I want, how the previous year went, what I’m planning, and anything else remotely related to my business.
  3. Wave Accounting – Although it may not seem like a planning tool, my accounting software is also my client list, and it shows how much I earned from each client, my monthly earnings, my previous years’ earnings, and any weird dips or spikes in my income.
  4. Google Calendar/Calendly – These tools are for the day-to-day, nitty gritty but are also useful in planning my marketing efforts across the year.
  5. A Google spreadsheet – I track potential clients using a spreadsheet. I note their name, title, company, LinkedIn profile, email address, date contacted, and the result. If I’m actively seeking work from them, I try to get in touch every three months either by email or through LinkedIn.

I told you it was a mishmash! It works for me though. Now, I’ll explain how I use the tools and end up with a clear map for running my business.

Using the tools to plan

When I begin planning, the first step is to dig into the plan from the year before. I can’t do that this year, but I can look at my statistics from the last few years. Did my earnings increase? (they did!) Did I have a more balanced client list? (in some ways) Were my earnings spread evenly across my client list? (more than in years past, but there’s room for improvement) Did I keep up with my marketing plan? (no plan meant nothing to keep up with) How many hours did I work, on average? (this number is ALWAYS lower than I expect it to be, which isn’t a bad thing)

And, because I can’t separate my professional life from my personal life, I also look at my household goals (like budgeting or saving, home improvements, and vacations) and my self-care goals (fitness, nutrition, health concerns, craft projects, books, and on and on – this is often the longest list!)



Once I’ve taken a hard look at what happened the previous year, I start thinking about what I want for the next year. I figure out how much money I want to make, then break that number down into quarterly, monthly, and weekly amounts. I decide if I want to actively seek new clients, and if so, how should I find them? I think about the industries I write for, and whether or not I’d like to add to that list and if so, what do I want to add? I consider personal projects that are related to work, like writing this blog, or working on a fiction project. I jot down pretty much all of my wildest dreams — for the next year — in this phase. This part is pretty fun.

I do the same kind of thing for household and self-care.

Next, I try to be realistic, and decide if anything on the “wildest dreams list” should be pushed out into a 5- or 10-year plan. I look at the gains made in the last few years and try to aim for similar improvements in my goals and also try to figure out what the “stretch” goal would look like. Then, I break it all down again into quarterly, monthly, and weekly goals.

The big plan is useless if that’s where it ends. I review it all each quarter, and make adjustments to the monthly goals if necessary. Each week, when I lay out the two-page daily task spread, I look back at the monthly plan and fill out a section titled “this week.” That section also includes things like due dates, bills to pay, and anything else important to remember.

(A note about the weekly and daily lists)
This is super nerdy, but I write the day/date in a different color pen. Monday might be blue, Tuesday, pink, and so on. I write the list itself in black, and cross items off in the color pen for that day. This helps me to see exactly what day I did the tasks on the “this week” list. It also gives me a decent overview of my productivity. I’m almost always most productive on Monday and it declines as the week goes on.

New additions

Another element of how I plan has to do with adding or taking away parts of the process. I used to treat my 3-ring binder like a bullet journal, with all the pretty spreads and such. Now I simply use my color-coding system and create the sections. I don’t find a lot of creative fulfillment in drawing pretty headers for each week or graphs for progress toward goals. I’d rather spend my time working on a quilt or reading or taking a walk.

One area that I’ve included in my plan each year and struggled with is that of professional development. One year I planned to read one business book per month and only finished one or two. Another year, I planned to do a couple of courses but didn’t. I want to give this area more thought, figure out exactly what the specific barriers are, and try again to get better at what I do.



I’m thinking more about the number of direct clients versus agency clients that I work with, which is another fairly new element to my planning process. I tend to prefer agency clients, but with worries about the PRO Act, I think it’s wise to balance things out a bit and add more direct clients to my roster. I’m also spending much more time analyzing how I found the best clients on my list. I’m hoping that can inform my marketing efforts. Sadly, I think most of the best ones came from sending LOIs (letters of introduction). LOI campaigns are an enormous amount of work.


(A note about LOI campaigns)
My ratio is usually somewhere around 1 good client for every 100 or so LOIs sent. Finding the companies, the correct contacts, their email addresses, sending the emails, following up, and tracking it all takes a ton of time and effort. Usually, if I’m doing an LOI campaign in a given year, I pay for LinkedIn Premium for a month or two, along with an email finder (it’s been Hunter.io in the past) then spend a set amount of time each day building a database. Once I have 200-500 potential contacts, I cancel the paid subscriptions and start working the list, sending LOIs, followups, following the people on LinkedIn and Twitter, and commenting on their stuff.

Accountability

I have several friends and colleagues who are my accountability partners. One exchanges emails with me at the end of each month, saying what we did and didn’t do and what we want to do in the next month. Another has become something of a planning partner and we’ve been doing Zoom calls where we discuss our client lists, our niches, our incomes, and so on. We’re doing a series of calls to help each other work through the planning process this year. I’m also part of a group of technology writers who casually chat and discuss issues we might be having or brag on ourselves, or whatever.

Each of my accountability partners has been crucial to my business journey. If you’re going to plan, it’s enormously helpful to have someone help you pay attention to whether or not you’re following it.

My Plan Is My Map

You can probably see why I felt a little bit lost the last year or so. Without the detailed plan to refer back to, I didn’t always feel like I was on the right track. Instead of following a defined and clear path through the forest of running a business, I was taking a leisurely stroll whichever way the wind blew me. For some people, strolling is the better way because there’s less pressure. But for me, the map can serve another purpose, and that is confirmation that I’m actually getting somewhere.



Plenty of times, I’ve gotten out my quarterly plan, and been able to see that I did exactly what I set out to do. Maybe minor adjustments are in order, but often, I’m trekking along the path I charted at the beginning of the year. That is as motivational as anything else I can think of.

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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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