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The Freelancing Fallacy: You Believe a Freelancing Career Means You’re Your Own Boss

Man jumping over some mountains, looks like he's jumping over the sun. The sky is orange.

Enraptured by the idea of running your own business so you’re your own boss? Sick and tired of answering to a tyrannical boss at work? Love the idea of getting up whenever you want to without having to apologize to your manager and team at work?

Please, please listen to me when I say this: When you run your own business, you have lots of bosses. They’re your clients, vendors, and, yes, even the government.

So don’t quit your day job to start your own business just because you can’t stand the manager you have right now.

Freelancing is Like School

One of the best things our education system teaches us is how to adjust what we produce to meet the needs of the person in power. In school, college, and university, that’s your teacher, instructor, professor. At work, it’s your boss, and likely even your boss’s boss, your boss’s boss’s boss, and so on.

You had to look at the course requirements, you likely listened for hints from other students on how to succeed in a teacher’s class, and you may even have visited rating sites to find tips for profs you were stuck with.

School was the perfect training ground for running your own business. Some clients will be happy with almost anything you produce, and some will have exacting standards you need to meet. If you want to find success, you’ll have to learn to adjust to each client’s preferences.

Running by Your Own Rules

There are also consequences if you ignore your clients’ wishes and requirements. Yes, you can set your hours without asking anyone for permission. That’s true. But if a good client calls you up and says they have $1,000 worth of work for you to do the week of your vacation, what will your answer be?

There are ways to mitigate such situations, and I thankfully haven’t lost any business yet because of family time away from home. But I have taken on last-minute work that needed weekend time to get done, because otherwise I would’ve lost out on $700.

Choosing Your Clients

The plus side to needing a variety of clients is choice: you can choose whom you want to work with. For some, that is the ultimate freedom. If a potential client is already very demanding on the phone before you’ve even agreed to a contract, you can politely decline, saying you’re busy. Or you can refer them to someone who may be willing to work with them. (Just because you don’t jive with that person doesn’t mean someone else will have that same feeling.)

If your client roster is full of people you enjoy working with, then almost every assignment is fun and fulfilling. Unlike in an employment situation, where you have the same boss, no matter your feelings about them, you have some leeway with your clients.

 

Employment Laws

I love freelancing, and I don’t want to turn you off running your own business if that’s what you really want to do. But if you’re doing it to escape the nightmare boss you’re working for right now, you may be better off just getting another job.

Running your own business can cause a lot of financial insecurity, and you have no employment laws to protect you. Client not paying on time? Can’t call the labour board. Client shouting at you over the phone? Can’t talk to their boss about harassment. Did someone choose not to work with you because of your sexual orientation? I’m certain you won’t have much of an argument at the human rights tribunal.

If you need to force a client to do something, it’s up to you to get a lawyer involved. And it’s up to you to pay for it.

Do This Self-Test

If you’re planning to freelance, write up your business plan. In it, include your ideal type(s) of client AND where you think you could find them. Then gear your marketing plan towards that. Estimate time and cost, and add 15% (because it’ll often take longer and cost more than you think).

You still run the risk of finding less-than-ideal clients, but once you sit down and think this through, it should help clarify if running your own business is really what you want.

Why?

Because you will hopefully find out how hard marketing is and think twice before you strike out on your own. Freelancing is extremely fulfilling, but some aspects of it are extremely hard, and finding the right clients can be one of those aspects. But don’t go into freelancing because you get to be your own boss.

Because you don’t.

Getting Back on Top of Your Goals

Black mug with the words "eternal optimist" in gold.

It’s Not too Late

The first quarter of 2018 is almost over. So, I’m going to ask that ominous question, the one that sounds like the monster that’s been hiding in your closet all these years, whose presence you keep denying to yourself.

How are your New Years’ goals coming along?

Ouch. Did that hurt? Did you feel an arrow fly into your stomach? Or maybe into your head as you suddenly remembered you even had New Years’ goals?

I’m certain you’re not alone, and I’ve got news for you: it’s not too late to start the pursuit again.

Review the Last 3 Months

This might be painful, but quarterly reviews clarify for you what’s going on. What’s really going on. They break the safety bubble you live in, because you’re faced with the good, the bad, the ugly, and the very ugly when you review your progress of the past three months. But keep this in mind: In my experience, the more honest I am with myself and my progress, the easier pursuing my goals becomes. Why? Because I fear less.

When you review your last few months, ask yourself these questions:

Am I where I want to be?

If so, what did I do that got me there? (And continue doing it.)

If not, what did I do that didn’t work? (And find a new way of doing it.)

Get Support to Reach Your Goals

If you’re on track with your goals, you probably don’t want to mess with things. But if you’re off track, then it may be time to get help.

Here’s what happened to me last year: For the first time during my annual review, I calculated how much the time I’d spent on marketing efforts, multiplied it by the hourly rate of what I’d earned for the year, and used the total as a measure of how much money I’d “spent” on marketing last year. I then reviewed how much new business I’d won over the year. The final figures weren’t pretty. In fact, they were pretty devastating. So, I contacted a marketing consultant to do an audit on my efforts and set me on the right path.

But that’s what I’m talking about. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, haven’t reached your word goal, or still have the same number of customers as last year, get help! Either join a group, see your doctor, find a good therapist or coach…Whatever your means allow, now’s the time to get a little assistance.

Do You Need to Re-Align?

The beauty with checking in on your goals every quarter like this is that it gives you a chance to re-align them with where you are now. Remember, you created your New Years’ goals in a certain frame of mind, at a certain time in your life, under a certain set of circumstances. If your situation has changed, you may need to adjust how you achieve your goals.

That’s okay!

What if you planned to write 1,000 words a week but the serious diagnosis of a loved one rammed you off course? It doesn’t mean you can’t write at all.

What if you wanted to quit smoking but in the meantime lost your job, leaving you with more stress than your non-smoking self can handle? That  doesn’t mean you can’t regain your footing. You adjust. (And, of course, get help so you can make it through.) Remember, every little bit helps, so don’t discount small, regular steps towards your goals. Not everything has to be achieved by leaps and bounds.

Don’t be Afraid

Looking at progress is a powerful motivator to help you move forward. It’ll help you figure out what’s gone wrong and hopefully inspire you to plan your next steps to get back on track.

They say every journey begins with a step. Take that next step now to get back on the path you dreamed for yourself this year.

Returning to Grad School After 13 Years: What I’ve Learned So Far

Black and white drawing of a mother and her baby, and a book floating in the air and shining.

Considering grad school? I did. For over 10 years, actually, after I’d completed a Masters and two years of a PhD. Now I have a husband, two kids, a freelancing business, and my sanity. So I added a part-time PhD to the mix. You know, just to liven things up a bit.

Many things improve with age, and grad school is one of them. What strengthens my story a little is that I returned to the same department and program I had left over 10 years ago. Even my prof this semester is one I had back then. So the changes I’ve experienced at least can’t be attributed to a change in subject matter or school.

The Importance of Purpose

In my 20s…

I was too scared to step out into the real world. Teaching at the university level looked like fun, so I figured I might as well do it, since I had no idea what else to do with my life. (By now, I had become a professional student, though I didn’t realize it at the time.)

In my 40s…

My goals are crystal clear: to improve my German, my translation skills, and add literary translation to my freelancing business. Now, every book I read, every paper I write, every project I do is fuelled by this reason.

A Willingness to Learn

In my 20s…

This goes back to my Masters. My prof in my research methods course strongly advised us to take off one day a week. It was the only way to handle the workload, he said.

And you know what went through my head? He’s a prof. What does he know?

I also followed instructions literally. If our assignment for that week was to read a range of pages, I read them. And then I stopped. I’d love to blame the absence of the Internet to explain why I didn’t spend time looking up supplementary reading sources, but alas, I cannot: we had the Internet back then, too. The honest answer is that I just couldn’t be bothered to put in more effort than was necessary.

(I think I was actually angry that so much work was regularly assigned in grad school. And I was the one who’d chosen to be there…)

In my 40s…

Some of what we read is really difficult. My writer self can now see that it’s a case of bad writing and can try and decipher it. But more important than that, if I don’t understand something, I look up supplemental information, sometimes spending up to two hours if needed. (If I still don’t get it, I stop there. Yes, I’m in grad school, and independent learning is the cornerstone of that level of education. But I’m also here to be taught.)

As with any grad class, we have major assignments to complete: for this course, it’s a group project on a not-so-well-known author, and a 15-20-page paper. I’m no longer scared of spending time going down a few rabbit holes to find information that may or may not be useful. Why? Because I’m here to learn, and those rabbit holes often leave some interesting crumbs behind for later investigation and exploration. Moreover, I know from past experience that spending time reading and exploring is actually a lot of fun, and once I have the exact topic I’m looking for, researching, writing, and editing flow much easier.

Planning is My Friend

In my 20s…

I had no plan for anything I did in grad school. I just knew that I had to keep working so I could be ready for class the following week. I invariably left essays until the last minute, too. I just dove in, because, hey, who wants to waste time planning when you can just get the stuff done?

The result was a lot of stress because, without clear plans, work never ended.

In my 40s…

I plan each upcoming week over Friday and Saturday evening. It takes me an hour, sometimes two, and I’ll expand the plan into the following weeks if needed. The bonus: I often have Sundays free, despite all my commitments. However, if I need to work on a  Sunday, I make sure my time is carefully planned so I only do what’s necessary to stay on schedule.

These plans aren’t carved in stone, and the moment a kid gets sick, or a client suddenly needs more work down now, I have to shift my plans around. But because they’re already set, it’s easy to see what I have to give up and, more importantly, decide if that activity or plan is worth giving up for the new one that’s taking its place.

The Meaning of Boundaries

In my 20s…

Boundaries affect many areas of your life, including schedule, social, and work.

Without a clear schedule to my entire day (teaching and seminars excluded), work just bled and bled and bled. I couldn’t shut off. I was starting to analyze people’s speech patterns during casual conversation, because I hadn’t told my mind to stop working. It’s hard to enjoy a conversation when you’ve got theories running through your head to help you analyze it.

At first, I chalked it up to excitement at having discovered an area of study I loved. However, this excitement built and built and turned into full immersion: I studied and socialized within the department, and even dated within it. (And if I wasn’t dating within it, I was dating another PhD student within the faculty.) My studies, friendships, and relationships all deeply affected on another: Class was more exciting sitting next to my boyfriend, my friendships were more exciting because we could lament about not enjoying class all the time, and my relationship acted as a crutch to help me get through some of the tougher areas of class.

My studies had become my life, and if one thing went wrong, my whole world fell apart. Trust me. It’s not fun.

In my 40s…

The bus won’t drop my kids off when it’s convenient for me, and I can’t cook supper when I feel like it. So, when I calculate the time I have left over after my familial duties are taken care of, suddenly my available time for my studies becomes that much more valuable.

And guess what? I get a lot done in that time, more than I did in my 20s.

(Now, before you criticize me and ask how I know this, let me answer that for you: Once in a while, I fall back into old habits, for example, checking how many more pages I have left to read after every single page I read, or letting my mind wander far too many times. It makes a difference.)

How Did All This Change?

What happened, I believe, is that I spent about 15 years in the working world, where you risk getting fired if you don’t perform up to par. And unlike in the academic world, work keeps piling up and you’re left to your own devices to learn how to deal with it.

As a writer, that means meeting deadlines. A family member had an operation at the end of last month, and I had a short assignment due two days later. I handed it in before the operation. There was no way I was going to ask for an extension: that would embarrass me far too much now, because I see my prof as my boss.

I’m not saying that grad school is easy. The material we have to read can get really heady and often leaves me wanting to scream at the researcher for writing in such dense language. But I have processes to help me deal with the workload, and the maturity to once in awhile shrug my shoulders and go to class not fully prepared. In addition, I know roughly how long assignments will take, so I start working backwards to see when I need to start a project.

But it all comes down to what I just said: I know what I’m looking for, I’m open to learning, I take time to plan, and I live in a world of boundaries and commitments.

So, yes, returning to grad school can be done with work and familial commitments. But in my experience, you need discipline, project management skills, and a dose of humility: there will be times when you just can’t do it all.

And that’s okay.

Mixing Work and Kids = Inspiring Your Creativity

A colourful box of crayons in the foreground, a young child in a colourful shirt is colouring in the background. Kids and work can be done.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a hard time balancing work and kids. Next week, we celebrate Family Day in Ontario, and I realized I’ve book the day full of work duties! But the upcoming holiday has also reminded me that your family can feed your creativity and reinvigorate your brain for work.

If you’re more on the cerebral side of the spectrum, like I am, you may find communicating with kids a little hard, because you have difficulty breaking down your thought process to their level. Heck, you may even find what they do boring, because it doesn’t challenge you intellectually. I’ve been there, I’m still there, and I’m still trying to work on it.

(Granted, as hard as I try to find interest in my kids’ hobbies, I can’t develop any amount of enthusiasm for watching YouTubers play video games.)

Over the years, though, I’ve pushed myself to spend creative time with my kids, not just chore and parenting-related time, and not only does this push my brain in different directions, but it brings me closer to my children, and I find they even listen better.

See if any of these ideas work for you.

Creative Activities for Parents and Kids

Mad Libs: You buy these as pads, usually somewhere in a bookstore. They’re short texts with blanks, and you have to fill them in. The blanks are usually described as a noun, verb, adjective, or something similar. Not only will they help your kids recognize some parts of speech, you’ll likely both find yourselves in stitches as you read back the zany story you’ve both created.

Lego: This I find hard, because I’m stuck with some old inhibitions (I can’t create anything out of Lego except basic houses), and because I need to concentrate on the very foreign world the kids have created. But nothing makes my kids happier than showing off their Lego creations, and the brain drain I experience when playing with them improves my concentration.

Sewing: If you own a sewing machine,  just letting the kids (carefully!) run some fabric through it can be fun. I used to let my older son control the foot pedal when he was four or five. But certainly use your parenting judgment here. A sewing machine does have a needle, and kids’ hands are very small.

Sports: You don’t necessarily have to play a game that already exists. My husband loves making up games with our kids, and they have a blast at it. They’ve even created their own boardgames that the two play together in the evening. I’ll admit, this is less suitable for me, because I like consistency, but then again, maybe it could force me to use my brain differently.

TV: Yes, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest you watch TV with your kids. Not only does this help you, the parent, see what they’re actually watching, but it will, again, force your brain to focus on something different. If watching YouTubers playing video games is all your kids watch, then try a movie on the weekend, with some popcorn.

Painting: Yup, show your children that they’ve probably already bested you in the arena of art. And if you are talented in art, show them one or two tips that’ll make them better. (Of course, if your kids are old enough, maybe actually painting a room might be more engaging for all of you.)

Colouring: Those adult colouring books are more than suitable for kids over the age of five. My older kid (in the junior grades) will occasionally sit in the same room with me as we both colour for ten or fifteen minutes in separate books.

Writing: My youngest loves this. He’s in the primary grades, so he still finds spelling and printing arduous. He absolutely loves to dictate a story to me as I type it out in Scrivener. I set the timer for 10 or 15 minutes (my forearms can’t handle anything longer), and he’ll easily produce 300-600 words.

Dancing: Kids don’t care how you move. If your kids is active, turn on the tunes and get dancin’!

So, those are just a few ideas of how to build in some creativity time that will help you in your profession but also connect you with your children. Do you do any of these activities already? Or other ones?

Even Groups That Don’t Cost a Dime Cost You Time

A wooden hand holding up the think branch of a tree leaning to the right.

Make the Most of Your Group Membership

Unfortunately, when I started writing, I didn’t have the equivalent of my 20 years of dancing training to teach me how to do it. I’d taken an online course, contacted a magazine I had a vague connection with, and pitched an idea. They took it! AND they paid me for my work! But I wasted A LOT of time on those assignments, because I didn’t belong to an appropriate group:

  • I spent an hour interviewing people instead of 15 minutes.
  • I wasted hours trying to find a “creative angle,” not accepting that standard formats exist for a reason.
  • I spent so long trying to figure out HOW to write that I’m certain 20 hours passed before I finished a 1,000-word article.

You could argue I was learning how to “make it,” “putting in my sweat and tears,” as it were. And some of that is true. But, as my grade 11 teacher said, pushing harder on a pen cap to take it off the pen may be working harder, but it isn’t working smarter.

No matter the goal, a journey is par for the course. But if you’re going to go on that journey, take the highway, not the country road.

How Groups Help

Look at the goals you’re trying to achieve, then take three minutes to watch this video that illustrates, using jelly beans, how many days in your life you have to achieve them.

Now ask yourself this question:

Why on earth would you waste time re-inventing the wheel and trying to achieve your goals on your own?

7 Suggestions to Get the Most Benefit From Your Group

I’ve been a member of a group for non-fiction writers for, I think, seven years now. So it’s my turn to pay it forward and share with you advice that will help you get the most out of your group.

  1. Show up. Even if the meeting topics don’t sound interesting, show up. You may be reading the writing of someone who makes even a visit from Elton John sound like you’re going to watch the fireplace channel the entire time. You joined the group for the people, but you won’t meet them if you don’t show up.
  2. Bring questions. This will help you stay focused during your meeting. If you don’t get a chance to ask them, see if they can be emailed to members. After all, you’ve joined this group to get something out of it: Don’t sit on the sidelines and wait to be asked if you have any questions.
  3. Volunteer, if you can. This is how you meet more members in larger organizations, e.g., national ones, and how you get to better know some of the members in your local group.
  4. Know your members. That way, if you have questions you’d rather not ask publicly, you can ask them privately. If your group is large, focus on getting to know a few, and then branch out.
  5. Give your opinion if asked. If someone asks your opinion, assume they actually want it. You can show respect and be honest at the same time, and, speaking as the leader of my group, I want to know what my members think so I can improve their experience. In other words, don’t be afraid to speak up.
  6. Take home one action item after every meeting. And commit to completing it (or at least starting it) before the next meeting. This cadence will help you assess your investment (even if it’s only time): the membership is either helping you or wasting your time and possibly your money, but you won’t know what it’s doing if you don’t put what you’re learning into practice.
  7. Be prepared to say something about yourself. Most groups start off with some informal chit chat before everyone gets down to business. Having something to share in those situations will help others get to know you.

Take advantage of your membership, even if you have to push yourself at the start. You joined for a reason, and you won’t see any benefits if you don’t jump in.

In other words, don’t wait for the group to do something for you. Take an active role and get something out of it yourself.

Get the Best out of Your Goals: Join a Group

A group of people placing their hands in the centre of the circle.

Joining the right group can help you achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself this year. Not only can group members help you stay accountable to your plan, but being around others with similar goals can really affect your ability to stick to your own plan. I belong to a professional writing association in Canada, and it has kept me going over the years. But how do you know you’ve found a good group?

Speaking from Experience

I’m a writer and therefore belong to a profession that has an unusual trait: it invented a term for when you run out of ideas: writer’s block. I forget who said this, but it seems writers are the only ones who’ve done this. Have you heard of doctor’s block? Sales rep’s block? Politician’s block? Writers can easily spend an entire evening talking about how they have no ideas.

But I pay $250 a year to belong to a group of professional writers. You can bet I don’t want to spend my evening talking about not having ideas! Nor do I wish to spend an entire meeting lamenting about industry changes, bad clients, or the like. With my group, even if several members have had a depressing month, there’s always someone there to say, “Yeah, but did you know there’s a way to deal with that?”

Groups That Raise You UpTeam-building fist pumps over a table.

The catch is that you want to surround yourself with people who are moving forward. Even if these people fall three steps back, they find enough energy to take one step forward. If they then fall back five, they still get up and take one forward. You get the picture, right?

No matter what group you join to help you with your New Years’ resolutions, it’s the you-can-get-past-this attitude you’re looking for. The last thing you want is for everyone around the room to nod their heads in understanding and then start sharing similar stories. By the end of the evening, you’re all depressed. What good does that do?

So now you may be asking, “But I’ve had a rough time since the last meeting. Am I not allowed to talk about that?”

Of course you are! Whatever your goal, you’re going to hit roadblocks. It’s inevitable. And those roadblocks will at best frustrate you and at worst make you debate if your goals are worth striving for. How do you overcome these ugly monsters? You differentiate between venting and commiserating.

Venting releases the pressure that a roadblock has built up, and there’s nothing more freeing than talking with others who know exactly what you’re going through. Commiserating, on the other hand, means everyone joins in and laments with you, and nothing is accomplished.

How a Group Can Help You

In the end, you’re going to have to make a decision, and hopefully you’ve found a group that sees things the same way, because this decision really boils down to three choices:

  1. Keep stewing about the issue, wasting valuable creative energy.
  2. Let the situation go, if possible. (E.g., if you’re having a hard time paying taxes, you can’t let that go. But if some stranger said something rude to you today, you can imagine turning it into fuel for a fire and using it to warm yourself up.)
  3. Decide to change something in the situation (which often means changing something about yourself) and take your first step towards that change.

Ask your group for various options, and then commit to your next action, even if it’s that you’re going to think things through and report back to the next meeting.

Finding a Good Fit

If you’ve already joined a group that can help you with your goals, and if that group meets your expectations, then you’re doing awesome! If you’re not sure about joining a group, though, here are a few tips:

  • Check out the group’s online presence and see if it feels like a supportive, knowledgeable group to join.
  • Ask the group’s organizer if you can participate in a meeting. Then you can see how the members support each other.
  • If you don’t want everyone staring at you, ask if you can meet in person with one or two members.

There are ways to get a feel for the group before committing to it, and these suggestions are especially helpful if the group costs something to join.

Joining the right group can be just the thing to propel you forward faster than you planned. Don’t sit back and deliberate if you should join: do some research, then send out those emails and ask for more information. Do it now before the month is over.

Time to Focus

You’ll find that one of the hardest things to accept with leading a more creative life is that you will need to focus. Despite what many self-help gurus say, you can’t have it all. (I’m not against self-help gurus, but you do need to read what they say with a grain of salt sometimes.)

I’ve been working my way through David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and it’s given me the full picture of everything I’m trying to accomplish in life. It’s quite daunting, actually. The first exercise he has you do (and I’ve blogged about this before) is to write down absolutely everything that “has your attention.” I like how he uses that phrasing, because it gets you out of the mindset of a formal to-do list and into the mindset of brainstorming all the things you’ve got swimming around in your head.

What this all means for me, then, is that I’m changing the purpose of my blog. I’ll be starting grad studies soon to further my education in German, so the time I spend writing here each week will shift over to preparing for my studies. (If you’re here because you’re looking for a copywriter, I’m still taking on clients.) As such, I’ll use the blog for announcements, book reviews as they come along, and special interviews and important topics, but I’ll no longer be blogging weekly, at least not for now. If there’s one thing that reading David Allen’s book has made clear to me, it’s that I need time to focus.

Enjoy the few days left of summer!

Guilt Getting in the Way of Your Creativity? These Suggestions Might Help

Guilt is never a nice feeling. At its worst, it reminds us we’ve hurt someone (which is what I think its original purpose was for), and many live with that feeling for the rest of their lives.

But, like many negative emotions, guilt can also interfere with other aspects of your life. Like worry, it can hijack your mind and keep you from creating, because your mind is occupied by all the other things you should be doing.

To be clear, I’m not going to rant about how important it is to feed your creativity to the point where it looks like I’m asking you to ignore your responsibilities. What I’m talking about here is the guilt that comes after those basic – and hugely important – duties have been completed.

But a Parent’s Duty Never Ends

I know. Even when I’m in my office, with both doors closed, my ears are open, listening to my kids. As much as I dream of spending a week away at a writers’ residency, I think the silence would be too distracting.

But let’s look at the context: Do you feel guilty about spending time on your creative work because you could be chopping up vegetables for tomorrow? Or because you forgot to dust the baseboards again? Oh – a few doors have fingerprints that have been driving you crazy, right?

I’m not teasing you here – those are things going on my head, too. (Garage door from the laundry room and office door from the kitchen – fingerprints galore!) But my point is you’re not feeling guilty because your kids are hungry and you insist on continuing your art.

Look at the Full Context

You need to step back first and examine the big picture (the trees vs. forest thinking I was talking about last week). Let’s look at an after-work situation. You finish at 5:00, want dinner on the table by 6:00, and feel guilty for not having a full, standard supper ready for your family. When it comes time to work on your own personal project, you’re chewing yourself up at having made tacos with last night’s leftover ground beef instead of finding some ingenious way of turning cooked ground beef into steak, baking huge potatoes, and julienning carrots for the wok.

The thing is, you’re almost never in the door until 5:30. What options do you have? Well, you can

  1. Continue berating yourself for not living up to your high standards, but we’ve seen this hasn’t been working for you.
  2. Move supper to 6:30.
  3. Put supper in a slow cooker in the morning.
  4. Prepare the meat in the morning so you can throw it in the oven the moment you get home.
  5. If your kids are old enough and are home before you are, start getting them to help.
  6. Lower your expectation.

Your feelings of guilt that you can’t have a full meat-potatoes-vegetables meal on the table every evening will only sap your creative energy. They’re not worth it.

Use Your Creativity and a Little Self-Compassion to Solve Your Problem

Years ago, I dated a guy whose mom always made us meat, potatoes, and a vegetable for supper when we came to visit. He wondered why she didn’t try pasta on occasion, or other dishes. Her response was that, as students, we likely ate pasta all the time, and she thought this would be a nice change (she was right). But I think part of it, too, was that she knew exactly when to start, how long each step would take her, and she could quickly switch up meats and vegetables as needed. It was easiest for her and let her focus her energy on other things.

A word about lowering your expectations: Keep in mind your overall goals and the least amount of work needed to accomplish them. For example, I want my kids to have healthy, home-cooked meals. For me, this means one substantial protein, at least one vegetable (usually two), and a grain. Possible options include

  • tacos (minus the high-sodium spice mix that comes in the package)
  • pasta and a good meat sauce
  • oven-baked chicken, roasted vegetables, and quinoa
  • turkey and carrot casserole, with brown rice, tomato sauce, and cheese

And if things are so harried sometimes that all I have time to cook is frozen, breaded meat, frozen peas, and toast, then that’s okay. (But not all the time – a few times a months is my limit.)

You deserve time to be creative. I would even say that you need it. If you’re finding yourself feeling guilty while you’re creating, examine the source of that guilt and what can be done to get rid of it. Guilt does have its purpose, but killing your own personal creativity is not one of them.

 

Are You a Forest Type or a Tree Type?

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From unsplash; photographer unknown

 

“This constant back-and-forth is one of the most metabolism-consuming things that our brain can do. We step out of time, out of the moment, and survey the big picture. We like what we see or we don’t, and then we go back to the task, either moving forward again, or backtracking to fix a conceptual or physical mistake. As you now know well, such attention switching and perspective switching is depleting, and like multitasking, it uses up more of the brain’s nutrients than staying engaged in a single task.” – Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind

 

The old forest vs. trees spectrum, but I’m starting to see it in a different light. I’ve been reading this book for the past week or two, trying to learn more about how my brain works and how I can work more efficiently with it. On the one hand, many things aren’t new to me, e.g., it’s more efficient to stay on one task, multitasking doesn’t actually exist (he means multitasking as in “flipping between tasks,” not as in actually doing two things at once), etc. The difference here, though, is that Levitin goes into the science, using examples and highlighting individual studies to make his point. That makes the information more alive for me, and that’s when I start to see connections and start asking more questions.

Volleys of Insult

For example: Is this energy-draining task a reason for many of the insults firing back and forth online?

It’s a bit of a scary time in the world right now, I feel, because of the high-noon stand-off between the American and North Korean governments. Although I’m starting to see that humanity will always be scared of something and claim the world is coming to an end (i.e., Chicken Little), I have to admit, I’m a bit more nervous about this one.

With how often the President of the US has been in the news, I’ve noticed on Quora recently questions about conservative thought in the US, how liberal Europe is, questions about Canada’s prime minister, and comparisons among all three parties. Unfortunately, some of these discussions have often turned into Facebook-style exchanges, where very generalizing comments get catapulted around, and invariably someone says, “If you don’t like it here, then you can move.”

But It All Started Out So Innocently

What does this have to do with Levitin’s quote above? Usually, the first few answers on such contentious subjects are detailed and considerate, regardless of the person’s opinion. Someone took time to write them and to explain their point of view to anyone reading the string. Some respond in kind.

These are the answers that are most interesting, whether I’m reading a Republican’s or a Democrat’s answer. I may still disagree with the answers, but these kinds of answers are the closest I have to being in someone else’s shoes.

This Q&A process, when done with respect, lets you find commonalities between both parties (e.g., “I’m doing this because I think it’s best for my children”), and you suddenly realize you’re not that different after all, even if you disagree on the subject.

And Then Came the Slingshot

But why the mud-slinging? Because it’s easier? Mud-slinging involves insulting someone and cutting down their ego through generalizations and assumptions about the person. I’ve often wanted to engage in it myself, simply because someone’s ego grates me the wrong way (we’re past rubbing) and I want to shoot them down using the written word.

Instead, I start writing down a more detailed answer, and before I know it, 20 minutes have passed and I haven’t even posted my thoughts. Looking at the time I’ve already wasted, I delete everything and move on.

What Levitin is saying above is that it’s hard for us to switch between the general and the detailed, the forest and the trees.

Tornados and the Blues

Last night, my family and I went to the local blues festival to catch Steve Strongman, a singer-songwriter we’ve all come to really enjoy. The entire festival was cut short by a tornado warning. This usually only happens maybe once every year or two in our area, so it was scary. While I was waiting with the kids for my husband to get the car, I was frightened that lightning would hit any of the many trees we were near – the festival was in a park. The lightning was bright and thick and flashed down from the sky. (If you’re wondering if I’m overreacting, a student on the campus where I work got struck by lightning three years ago, because she stood under a tree.)

My husband drove up the street, and I was waiting at a four-way stop with the kids. The motorists all waited for me to cross and get the kids into the car. That’s when I saw the trees – that people are kind and compassionate – instead of the forest – the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

It’s Not All Hellish

It’s easy for us to read the headlines, whether we get them via social media or traditional media, and start to worry. And I will be the first to say that this old-fashioned pistol-drawing going on between these two governments does worry me. But it also makes it far too easy to have a negative view on the world.

Back to my original problem: I know hurtful things cause feelings of hurt, and I see the natural reaction in kids, namely, to hurt back. But what if we stepped down from the forest and into the trees and actually took 20 minutes once every week or two to explain our points of view instead of three minutes everyday slinging insults? I think we’d come a little closer to humanizing all the arguments out there and seeing that, yes, we actually have more in common with each other than we thought.

Do You “Risk It All” for Your Dreams?

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Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

I’ve been reading self-help books on and off for years, and I wonder how they can promise that you can “have it all.” However, I also find these inspiring, and they often get me to think about my life in much different terms, and I think I’ve finally figured out how to balance my dreams with my life.

I’m reading The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer right now. I came across this advice:

That silent inner knowing will never leave you alone. You may try to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist, but in honest, alone moments of contemplative communion with yourself, you sense the emptiness waiting for you to fill it with your music. It wants you to take the risks involved, and to ignore your ego and the egos of others who tell you that an easier, safer, or more secure path is best for you. (page 152)

I love the book, but I find advice like this potentially misleading: he’s suggesting you don’t listen to your inner doubts and just take the plunge towards your dreams. For me, that would involve stopping all work and just focusing on writing fiction, which doesn’t bring in any money until you’ve developed somewhat of a following.

Tell that career decision to the bank that wants to take back your house.

Stay Safe

On the other hand, though, is the “stay safe” advice he talks of. There are varying degrees of this, at least in my experience. Here’s one side of the spectrum: An older relative of mine was once worried about the whole-grain, no-sugar diet my parents were raising me and my sister on (in the 80s and 90s, before it became trendy). The relative thought I’d have a hard time finding a husband by being on that diet. I eat sugar now, but I still prefer whole-grain baking and cooking to regular, and yet I somehow managed to find a husband AND have children with him. The relative meant well, but this is one version of the “safe” advice that Wayne Dyer is speaking of.

Here’s the other side: “You have a family to look after. Why on earth would you quit your job to become an artist?”

To which the person might respond, “Because I just know in my heart that it’s what I was meant to do.”

That last statement may be true – many of us push off what we’ve always felt to be our calling because others told us we’d never make a living with it, whatever it is.

But where are you in your life? Do you have a mortgage or rent to pay? Kids to get through university? A weekly grocery bill to feed others besides just you?

Yes, right? So, what to do?

Think of the Possibilities

Don’t be afraid of blue skies dreaming. Dream, write it down, dream some more. Many of these self-help authors are good at putting you into the right frame of mind for that. You let your mind go free with all the things you dream of, all the things you want to do and to have, and start envisioning this new version of your life.

Now, this is where I would halt the process: Before you go any further, you need to look at your life as it is now and start setting things up to work towards your dream.

You want to become a master painter? Find an appropriate painting class, sign yourself up, and squeeze in 10 minutes a day to practice.

Want to work your way up in your company? Talk to managers and ask them how they got to where they are. Then start emulating what they do. (But make it your own; as the saying goes, “Just be yourself; everyone else is taken.”)

Want to change your career? Find more responsibilities in your current job that are applicable to that career change.

I don’t want to make it sound like these ideas are easy. You may have to shift your schedule around, or risk standing out from the crowd at work…and I wonder if these are the risks Wayne Dyer is really talking about but not explaining? There are legitimate concerns surrounding any major life-changing decision, but there are also fears that hold us back, like a thick woollen blanket wrapped around you: it’s warm and cozy but immobilizing.

The trick is to differentiate the two categories.

What About Bob? Baby Steps…

I don’t know your situation, of course, but I do believe that if you want to change something for the better, you will find a way to make it happen. For me, it was deciding to forego TV after the kids were in bed and spending that time on my novel.

Would I like to spend part of each writing fiction, at a time when my brain is more functional? Yes. But I chose to have a family and a mortgage. To just drop all my streams of income to “follow my dreams” would be hugely irresponsible.

But that doesn’t make following my dreams impossible.

Don’t feel guilty or frustrated if you aren’t living your dream life. Whatever life you are living, so long as it’s generally helpful to you and others, can probably teach you something that will benefit the life you are dreaming of. But figure out what those baby steps are that can get you moving in the right direction: the real risk, in the end, may be just prying open the door.