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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Challenges, Barriers, and Finding a Path Around Them

How many times have you decided to do a thing, figured out the steps you need to take to do it, then berated yourself for not getting it done?

Here’s an example: Improving nutrition. For years, I would decide to “eat better” then really struggle to do so. The soundtrack in my brain was pretty ugly. I wasn’t eating well because I was lazy, didn’t really care, etc.

In order to change my dietary habits, I had to break the process down into steps: making a menu, listing the items necessary for the menu, shopping, prepping, keeping the kitchen clean, and accounting for the time it takes to cook. Turns out, nutritious meals don’t just magically appear when you decide you want to eat better.

Even after I plotted out the steps that are necessary to improve my nutrition, there were still barriers. What would I do when I was *really* hungry and needed to eat immediately? How would I handle the craving for something sweet after a meal? What kinds of snacks, if any, are appropriate between meals? The answers to all of these questions turned out to be much more important than I realized in those early efforts to improve my nutrition.

This same process of recognizing barriers has turned out to be crucial in everything important goal I’ve worked toward, including running Smiling Tree Writing, developing an exercise routine, home improvement projects, and on and on, right down to doing a better job of keeping the bathroom clean. When I identify the barriers I can figure out a way to walk around them.

When it came to better nutrition, I decided to make it a pleasure as far as possible. Usually Saturday or Sunday mornings are dedicated to a leisurely press of coffee and time on the sofa with my iPad and a notebook, browsing new recipes and listing the ones I’d like to try, looking at the weather forecast for the upcoming week (I like to grill on nice days, or have stew on chilly days) and creating a menu that includes what we have on hand, what we need to shop for, any prep that needs to be done, and options for lunches and snacks for the week. If I’m planning to exercise, I’ll include that, too, because sometimes I get dinner started and my partner finishes it while I go run.



It’s a bit of a time commitment, but since I’ve been doing it, we’ve had far more enjoyable and healthful meals. I don’t feel guilty for what I eat (most of the time) now. Splurges and treats are largely planned in advance. One of the biggest barriers was actually having to figure out what to cook each day, so the menu was an important path around it.

I can think of a bunch of other examples of how this process of figuring out what’s stopping me from reaching a goal has led to a breakthrough. Sometimes it’s a very small thing—I wanted to spend a little bit of time working on my quilt most evenings, and putting my sewing box with everything I need within reach on the coffee table helped more than I imagined. Before, it was on a shelf on the other side of the room, about 8 steps from the sofa. Those 8 steps were a barrier when I was settled in and comfy.



Have you ever identified a barrier and charted a path around it?

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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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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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