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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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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What To Do When You Mess Up

Throughout the majority of my writing career, I’ve worked with long-term clients. Usually, my clients are business owners who need regular content for their blogs or their newsletters. We get to know each other fairly well. Lately, I’ve been diversifying a bit and adding in a few publications.

A few weeks ago, I pitched an article to an editor I’d never worked with. She liked my idea and gave me a rather short deadline. It was exciting because it was a topic that I love, and the pay was higher than

Perfection is over-rated.

Perfection is over-rated.

I’d expected it to be. I put the deadline on my calendar on the right date, but got it mixed up in my mind.

In case you are wondering how that is possible: The article was due on Monday, August 4. As I planned my schedule, I somehow thought the 4th was on a Friday. I scheduled time to interview, write, edit, and proofread on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Duh!

My subconscious, though, had a better grasp of dates than my conscious mind. I woke up in the middle of the night Sunday night — suddenly — and realized that Monday was the 4th, and that the article wasn’t started. Cue the panic.

I got up early Monday morning and went to work, cobbling something together. It wasn’t great. I wasn’t proud of it. In the email submitting it, I told the editor that since it was my first article for her, it would probably need revision. She responded that it was totally inappropriate, and asked if I could write something that included original interviews and was more suitable by Wednesday. I owned up to the mistake, agreed that the first draft wasn’t good, and said that I absolutely could send something better.

Feeling pretty good about getting a second chance, I went to work, contacting people who might be willing to interview, writing questions, and generally doing my job. I wanted the second attempt to be outstanding. And, at the risk of being a braggart, it was. The editor published it within 10 minutes of receiving it, and send another assignment the next day.

That is just one example of my many, many stories about messing up. Through years of stumbling along, screwing things up, and carrying on with life, I’ve come up with a list of things that help when you know you’ve messed up:

1. Own it. Confess. Admit that you screwed up. Honesty is the best policy, and you will really put some bad juju out in the universe if you try to blame someone else.

2. Apologize. Say you are sorry. You don’t have grovel, but once you confess the next thing to do is apologize.

3. Come up with a plan to make it better. Make some suggestion that may help remedy the situation.

4. Deliver superior results. If you get a second chance, as I did in with the new client, make sure you come through.

5. Remember: everyone messes up. Don’t spend time beating yourself up. Just do what you can to make it better and move on with your life.

Have you messed up in a big way? Did you recover? How? What are your best tips for getting past a screw up? 

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Doing the Right Thing at the Wrong Time

There are so many ways to procrastinate that look like work, it’s a wonder anything ever gets done. For instance, I have a friend who loves to market her writing, to talk to editors, interview, and put together outlines. But she detests turning those outlines into articles. She will send out an extra five letters of introduction, reconcile her finances for last year, make

I also take photos of flowers when I'm avoiding writing fiction.

I also take photos of flowers when I’m avoiding writing fiction.

budget predictions for next year, and scrub the toilet in order to avoid the actual writing part of her job. All of her procrastination activities are useful and helpful, but they are a good example of doing the right thing at the wrong time.

I’m writing a novel. I have a gap-ridden first draft, and am about a quarter of the way through first revisions. It has taken me about ten times longer to get this far than I ever imagined it would. There are lots of reasons it’s taking so long — from the fact I have to earn a living writing other things to being fearful. If you’ve been a reader your whole life, and you have a good idea of what good writing is, it can be terrifying to put your own work out there.

In any case, I find myself doing the right things at the wrong time constantly. Yesterday, during my scheduled writing time, I found myself wondering what categories I would use on Amazon when the book is completed. If you know much about self-publishing, you know that categories and keywords are critical because they are how people find your work, so choosing the best ones is the right thing to do. Choosing them when the book is only a fraction of the way to being finished is the wrong time to do it. I have also chosen an editor (who I will not be able to afford, barring a winning lottery ticket or other unforeseen windfall), and have discussed cover art with an artist whose work I admire. Right things, wrong time.

What productive things do you find yourself doing to avoid the hard stuff? Do you go with it, or do you exercise some discipline get yourself on track?

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“I’ll Take a Look at It on Spec”

The majority of my writing clients are regular clients, and most of them are people I’ve met. I work with several local business owners, and a few folks I met or found online. In any case, my invoices go to pretty much the same group of people month after month. Sometimes there will be additions, and sometimes clients will drop off. Now and then, I like to look for new work — either because I’m ready to boost my income, or I want to learn about a new industry, or I have a good story idea.

Recently, I decided to look for publications within a particular industry. I had some ideas for stories and wanted to see what the market was like. I identified a couple, called

It's nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

It’s nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

one, and learned they preferred to receive queries. I read several past publications then pitched three articles. The editor liked one of them and emailed me to say that she would “take a look at it on spec.”

If we were talking about a publication I’d dreamed of seeing my name in for years, maybe I’d feel differently, but my first reaction (in my mind only) was “I don’t work on spec.” But then I thought about the fact that this editor doesn’t know me. She would be taking a risk by assigning an article to an unknown. I offered to send clips in my introductory letter, but maybe she doesn’t have time for that. Even if she does have time to look at my clips, she has no assurances that I will turn in clean copy; there’s always the chance that my clips were cleaned up by some other editor.

However, I would be taking a risk by spending the time to write a good article on spec. It would, of course, be tailored to fit the tone and voice of this particular publication. There would be several interviews involved. It would take time and effort to do it right — time and effort that I could be spending on doing work for clients who know (and regularly pay) me, or looking for clients willing to take the risk of getting to know me. There are definitely two sides to this spec coin!

Ideally, I could offer this editor some kind of compromise, but I’m having trouble coming up with one. The publication is lovely, and one of the best in this particular niche. The pay is what I’d call average to low in the wider lens of magazine writing, but high for the industry. I’m opposed to working on spec — on principal, and because this is what I do for a living. It’s not a hobby. Getting paid matters. There’s the possibility of pitching the same story to several publications in case the editor doesn’t want it, but that doesn’t feel quite right either.

Have you dealt with this situation? What was your response? 

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Diversify & Other Lessons from the Freelance Writing World

There are some pieces of advice that turn up ubiquitously in articles and blog posts directed at freelance writers:

One wide, deep income stream might be attractive, but can be dangerous!

One wide, deep income stream might be attractive, but can be dangerous!

  • Learn to say no.
  • Always have a contract.
  • Never stop marketing.
  • Diversify your income.

Smiling Tree Writing has existed as a business for about six years now (I think. It might actually be 7. I’m losing track!). I’ve had the opportunity to learn why certain bits of advice show up over and over again.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about having a diverse income and what that means for me. Summer before last (the summer of 2012) was the lowest point my business has encountered to date (and hopefully ever will). My income was down to about $800 a month — a fraction of what my family needed. At that time, most of my income came from 2-3 regular clients and a couple of one-off projects each month.

At that time, I was reading “diversify” to mean that I should earn money from writing articles for publications, selling my own books, working with clients, and then create a few “passive streams” from things like ads or affiliations. My idea about what a diversified income looks like now is drastically different.

Back then, I was trying to diversify my income by adding more article writing to the mix. The majority of my work was with small business owners, creating site content, blog posts, and newsletters. I began sending out letters of introduction and writing for print publications, even if the pay was lower than it should have been. It wasn’t working.

It’s hard to pull out of that kind of downward spiral, and the thing that helped me was to take a job. It ended up being a short term thing, but it was exactly what I needed in order to mentally reset. In the year since, I’ve taken definitive steps to diversify my work activities, and have finally hit a comfortable mix.

I have two part time jobs, one of which is completely outside my realm of expertise and gets me out of the house for about 15 hours each week – I work at a restaurant 2 evenings a week. The other is a marketing job that I do from home for 10 hours each week. I got into marketing after going to https://www.springboard.com/workshops/marketing-career-track/ in order to fine-tune my skillset. Then, there is client work, which creates the bulk of my income and takes up the majority of my time. I also sell a few books, and am working on writing more with the goal of that portion of my income gaining significance.

Although working in a restaurant or as an hourly employee may not be the typical freelancer’s dream, it means that my income won’t suffer too much should any one client decide not to use my services. It also means that I have more flexibility to follow one of those other often-repeated bits of advice: I can turn projects down if they aren’t a good fit, without being terrified I’m making a financial mistake.

Now and then, I play with the idea of dropping a couple of clients in order to have more time to work on my own projects, or quitting the restaurant job to find more clients or to look for another part-time marketing job. This mix of work gives me options.

During that terrible summer of the downward spiral, it didn’t feel like I had many choices. I think that is why the advice to diversify is repeated so frequently — it gives you more room to wiggle. My particular working situation is also highly flexible. I can do client work in the middle of the night, we have been able to take several short trips this year, and I can make time to pursue personal projects (like writing fiction).

What piece of tried and true advice have you found to be of vital importance when interpreted correctly for your personal situation? Have you ever discovered any conventional wisdom that needs a bit of twisting to work well for you?

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