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A Freelancer's Guide to Setting Boundaries

When I was a magazine editor, the company occasionally sent us away for a day of off-site training.

One of these training sessions was based on the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. At the time, it felt pretty self-explanatory. Plan, prioritize, be proactive. Collaborate, listen, work on mutually beneficial solutions. In an office environment with limited independence and not a huge amount of input on long-term, company-wide strategy, the methods they set forth over the course of the day weren’t exactly earth-shattering.

Now that I’m at the helm of my own business, however, I find myself thinking back on that day (and not just because of the free lunch). It turns out, when you have control over literally everything your company does, effectiveness extends far beyond just hitting your deadlines. Suddenly, you’re in charge of researching the strategy to build the processes that create the products that result in the timelines that necessitate the deadlines.

No pressure.

The one habit that seemed the most superfluous at the time is now the habit I have the hardest time with, and the one that has become absolutely crucial in the sustainability of my business:

Habit #7: Sharpen the saw.

Back when I was clocking in at my cubicle every day, this seemed like the easiest thing in the world. Sure, I had days when my work spilled over into the evenings, when I would stay late or come in early or take work home for the weekend, but taking time away from my work was basically my raison d’être. I took holidays, I went out for dinner, I slept at night. I read books on the elliptical at the gym. I did yoga every Saturday morning.

Essentially all the things that went out the window when I became my own boss. (And, er, the things that went way out the window when I had kids, but that’s a whole ’nother blog post.)

When your office is 15 feet away from your bed, it’s easy to find yourself working more than you’d intended. One more email. One more blog post. One more Facebook post. One more hour…night…week…

If you find yourself caught in the cycle of overworking, it may be time to start setting some boundaries. I know this is easier said than done — it’s something I’m working on every single day. And it may feel like you’re doing your clients a disservice by not being available to them every waking moment. However, you’ll find that the version of you that’s cared-for, well-rested, and happy is ever so much more beneficial to the people you’re trying to serve than the version who’s burned-out, overworked, and ready to throw in the towel. Caring for yourself is a love letter to your clients, and setting reasonable boundaries is the first step in penning that letter.

Here are a few ways you might begin to create the space you need to thrive.

Set office hours.

I once had a conference call at 2am when I was launching a partnership experience between Disney and HSN. It was a really long night (and made for an even longer next day), but while nights like those happened from time to time when I was working a “regular” desk job, they were a break from the usual schedule, not the norm. When you create your own workday, you can easily find yourself sitting at the computer at 10:00 on a Friday night, every Friday night. Your to-do list probably has enough to keep you busy for three days straight at any given time, but if you’ve set office hours, it makes it a lot easier to say, “Okay, it’s closing time. Is there a deadline coming up that I need to finish right now, or can the rest of this list wait until tomorrow?” That way, a big project might push you into overtime, but you’re less likely to let the end of your workday creep later and later each night.

Schedule your emails.

I spend a lot of time with my phone in my hand. So when I see an email come in at 8pm, there’s a very good chance I’m reading it at 8pm. The problem is, if I sit down and send a response right away, I may get another back at 8:15…or 10:15…or 2am. This is an even bigger issue when you find yourself serving clients all over the world. When you factor in time zones, you could easily be on call 24-7, and shooting off a “quick” email reply can easily turn into another couple hours on the computer during what should be your downtime (or your bedtime). But if you schedule your email response to send out during your set office hours (see above), it doesn’t matter if you’re replying at 2am, 10am, Friday at midnight, or over Sunday brunch — you get to control when the conversation continues. I like Boomerang for this, but you may find something that works better for you.

Plan time off.

Whether this is a lunch break every day, recognizing a federal holiday or two, taking weekends off, or scheduling a week’s vacation sans internet, intentionally taking time away from your work forces you to focus on yourself for at least a little bit. And you have to be intentional about this. Remember that bit about sharpening your saw? You can’t do it if you’re constantly sawing — and the more you plug away, the duller you get. If I go too long without taking a day off, I suddenly find myself spending an hour replying to an email, and I can’t get anything done at that rate. But after a day or two away, I’m like a new person. Decide in advance when you want your time off, and let your clients know you won’t be available. This might be something you do by publicizing your office hours on your website, or maybe you just need to let clients know you’ll be away from your computer for a week in March and schedule your deadlines accordingly. If you plan to take more than a day or two away, make sure your VA is comfortable handling your email, or at least set up an autoresponder to let people know when to expect a response from you. Chances are, you’ll be able to structure your work schedule so that (almost) no one will even notice you’re gone.

Micromanage your deadlines.

You’re probably already tracking your major deadlines — blog post by Tuesday, client project next Thursday, analytics report the first of every month. But sometimes when you only list out the final dates, it can be hard to manage your time. You may find yourself feeling like you need to keep working and finish everything in one sitting, or you may end up procrastinating until you have to finish it all in one day. But what if you broke it down into even smaller deadlines? You might try spreading a blog post over a week, to get a fresh perspective on it each day (Monday: choose a topic, Tuesday: write half the post, Wednesday: second half, Thursday: edits and HTML, Friday: social media and newsletter). You might give yourself a month to outline a sales page, with micro-deadlines all along the way. The more specific you can be about what you need to accomplish in a single day, the easier it will be to log off at the end of your “work hours,” and the less likely it is you’ll be cramming (into overtime) for the deadline at the last minute.

Close the door.

This is one of the first things you read in articles about working from home: close the office door after hours so you’re not tempted to wander in for “just one more…” Well, my office became a kids’ room almost five years ago, and I now do all of my work in a room without a door. I look forward to the day when I can have a dedicated work room again, but in the meantime, I set other boundaries for myself. I may read emails on my phone, but I only reply from my computer. Unless there’s something that needs my attention right away, my laptop stays closed outside of my regular business hours. I’ll admit that I’ve pecked out more than one blog post from my phone as I sat up with unsettled children way past their bedtime, but I won’t sneak in work when we’re having actual quality time. If you have an office door, great — make use of it! But if you don’t have that space in your home, find some other way to create a barrier between your work and the rest of your life.

Find a hobby.

This ties into planning time off, but if you have something you’d really like to be doing, it makes it more fun to frame it into your schedule and makes you more likely to do it. Maybe it’s 20 minutes of a video game when you hit a certain deadline or a two-mile run every morning before you get started. Maybe it’s stand-up paddling every Saturday or a standing lunch date every Tuesday. Whatever it is you want to be doing, make it a formal part of your schedule and be firm about it. You may need to make the occasional exception when there’s a big deadline on your schedule, but making this part of your routine ensures you’re usually finding the time for it. I don’t care how much you love your work — make time for play, or you’re going to burn out eventually.

Take care of yourself.

No, this is not the same as spending time doing something you enjoy, though that’s a different part of taking care of yourself, and you need both. I’m talking about the basics: sleep, eat, shower, exercise. In the most functional terms, if you’re not caring for yourself, you’re not going to be productive. It may feel counterintuitive, but if you’re feeling worn-down, stepping away for a nap or a shower or some lunch could save you time if you’re able to come back and get work done twice as fast. (This sounds like an exaggeration. It is not. If anything, I’m understating how much this helps me.) And don’t forget to nurture a creative practice of some sort. I spend a lot of time writing copy and coming up with strategies for other people’s businesses. But if I never allow my own creative mind to roam free, I find I run out of things to say. Whatever your creative practice — reading, writing, painting, gardening — make time to let your mind wander and do something that allows you to replenish that well.

Practice saying no.

I have a bad habit of volunteering for things. The friend who needs a little resume help? Sure, I’ve got that. Looking for someone to speak at your conference? Count me in. In need of a cake for your upcoming event? I’ll bake it. What I’m learning is that I have to choose how I really want to spend my time, because when your schedule reaches a certain level of “full,” you’re going to have to give something up for every new thing you take on. I’ll gladly lose sleep to bake my brother’s wedding cake. I’m not going to put off writing a new course so that I can revamp the resume of someone I haven’t seen in 10 years. I’ll accept the invitations to sign up as an alumni interviewer for my college once I have a little more free time. It’s okay not to take everything on yourself right now. And this goes equally for those little, “One more thing…” additions to your client projects. If a request is out of scope for your project, let your client know. There’s a good chance they’d rather have you approach it fresh as a new project than try to shoehorn it into your current project as an afterthought, especially if it’s going to be to the detriment of the work you’re already doing.

Let go of your guilt.

I may be projecting here (not sure if I should blame Catholic school or motherhood for this one), but I suspect you feel a little bit guilty every time you do something just for yourself. You need to let some of this go. Not every minute needs to be dedicated to your work, and not every spare penny needs to be dedicated to training and hiring and reinvesting in your business. Sometimes, it’s not just okay, it’s necessary to, say, take an extra long lunch and get a really good massage. Remember, caring for yourself is necessary to make your work sustainable and to make you productive and efficient. Setting boundaries makes your work better. And while I certainly can’t say that I don’t feel guilt when I choose self-care over eight to ten solid hours of productivity, I know I’m a better person (mother, writer, etc.) when I do. Your clients don’t expect you to work through every weekend, every holiday, every late night — and if they do, there’s a pretty good chance you’re working for the wrong clients.

It’s so much easier to leave work at work when you have somewhere to physically leave, but that doesn’t mean that life as a freelancer has to equal endless hours and creeping schedules. When you treat yourself with care and compassion, it opens you up to increased creativity, productivity, and efficacy — and while your clients may not notice that you’ve scheduled yourself some time away from work, you can be sure they’ll notice the benefits.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

How do you set boundaries in your business? Is there a practice you’ve tried that helps you make the space you need?

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We talk a lot about finding our “Right Person.”

It’s really the core of everything we do here at The Voice Bureau. The Voice Values get the most attention, but they really underline that work — they’re essentially a tool we use to signal to our Right Person that we’re a great fit for what they need.

But why the obsession with finding your Right client? Aren’t most marketing businesses focused on finding you the most clients? Isn’t that the whole point of marketing?

Well, first of all, it’s time to let go of the scarcity mindset. This idea of getting the most sales sounds great on paper. (More money! Broader reach! Success and fame and fortune!) Sounds like anything but scarcity, right? But, when you start to look closer, you realize what you’re actually saying: I’ll take anything I can get.

You wouldn’t name your grisly murder mystery novel Harry Potter and the Fluffy White Puppy in order to tap into the youth market. You wouldn’t run your therapy practice out of a taco truck in order to find clients who don’t need therapy but do want some lunch. And do you really want to pay the extra fees to have 50,000 people on your mailing list who never once open an email?

There are enough of your Right People to support you.

We’ve talked before about what happens when you say “yes” to your Wrong Person, so I won’t rehash that here. But here’s the thing to remember: you don’t need them. In fact, there are so many potential clients out there, you can speak directly to your Right Person and stay friends with your “competition” without ever running out of people to work with. I won’t tell you that it doesn’t take work, but it’s healthy and pleasant and so, so worth it.

So if it’s okay to limit your focus to your Right Person, what does that actually look like? What happens to your business when you find your Right Person?

Here are a few things you might find:

 

They buy more, and more often, with less selling.

You still need to have a great product and you need to work to get the word out, but when your Right Person is tuned in, you’ll find that that’s just what it is: getting the word out. There’s no hard sell, no bending over backwards to make exceptions and changes and customizations. Just sharing the work you do best, and connecting with the people who want what you’re offering. You actually get to focus on the work you love and not so much on the sales part (that I think we all hate). Amazing.

 

They like you. They really like you.

There have been a few times in my online business career when I really thought I’d have to give it up, and almost all of those have been when I was trying to be someone I’m not. This work just doesn’t feel sustainable if I can’t be myself, especially when I’m trying to connect authentically with my clients. But there’s something really interesting I’ve discovered: when I open up and put myself out there — introversion and opinions and flaws and all — people react. I get emails. Comments. Notes from readers who get me. Who relate to me. And I can’t tell you how amazing that feels. Not only does this business feel sustainable, it feels like it’s actually keeping me going. (Thank you.) Self-employment means we forgo the water cooler and the casual chats at a coworker’s desk, but having a quick email from a reader who’s been thinking of you more than makes up for it.

 

They thrive on your natural connection.

Do you break out in hives every time you see some marketing guru insist that you need to use vlogs to reach your audience? It’s okay, there’s a good chance your Right Person understands. Might they enjoy seeing you outside your box? Sure. But the kind of client who insists on you doing things outside of your zone of genius is also the sort of client who, mid-project, wants to change the scope…and the timeframe…and the process. In other words: if they’re asking you to change who you are before you’ve even worked together, there’s a good chance it won’t be the last time. But the ones who get you? They’ll take you the way you are. And whether you’re inherently inclined to share every detail of your life or you’re more reserved, your Right Person will not only understand, they’re right there with you.

 

They talk you up.

I can’t think of anything more genuinely flattering than a natural referral. And it’s a great way to stretch that marketing budget. (You have a marketing budget, right?) When you have the positive experience of working with your Right Person, there’s a decent chance you’ll be at the front of their mind when they have a friend looking for [insert what you do here]. On the other hand, you might be awesome at what you do, but working with your Wrong Person…well, you probably don’t want to hear what they have to say about having a bad experience, but you can be sure that someone will be hearing it. (Ugh.)

 

They trust the process.

You know how you have a particular way of doing things that really works for you? Maybe (like us), you know that you work best in writing and not on the phone. Maybe you prefer single-day intensives to long-term retainer packages. Maybe you really need your new clients to complete a series of exercises before you can get started. Your Right Person understands that you have a way of doing things, and they’re more than happy to come along for the ride, which means you get what you need to do your best work.

 

They let you live in your zone of genius.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m an introvert. My marketing style isn’t loud or pushy or in-your-face. Can I write copy for businesses who go for that sort of thing? Sure, but it’s not what I do best. It’s in my wheelhouse, but it’s not my zone of genius. The cool thing about my Right Person is that they want what I do best — which means I get to do that, instead of trying to fight against my instincts.

 

They’re excited by what you do.

A while back, I wrote about my blind spots — the things I love to do and do well that seem so natural to me, I can’t imagine anyone hiring me to do them. Organization. Project management. Content strategy. Brand voice development. They’re all things I live and breathe…and apparently, not everyone feels the same way. Turns out, there are a lot of people out there who are thrilled to have someone do those things for them. It’s a great feeling to send a project out to a client and get their enthusiastic response in return. (There have been tears. It’s true.)

 

You’ll probably find that you need to rethink your Right Person a few times throughout the course of your work, and it’s also possible that your Right Person blog reader and your Right Person paying client aren’t the same person. It’s great to imagine that you can just be yourself and the money will come rolling in, but you do need to keep working to get yourself in front of the right eyes, and it takes more than just “being yourself” to run a successful business. But when you focus on the Right Person and manage to connect with them, it’s absolutely magical, in every way. And there’s plenty to fill your schedule — trust me.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

What sort of experiences have you had working with your Right Person?

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In Defense of Saying "No"Have you ever worked with your Wrong Person?

It’s not a phrase we use often — we’re more focused on the positive here, the Right Person ideal client who you really want to do business with, day after day.

It’s a very different experience with the not-so-ideal client.

There’s a mindset in certain circles of business that’s focused on getting as many sales as possible. Don’t say anything too “out there” or you might scare off clients. Try to mimic the voices of the big names; it’s working for them. Appeal to as many people as possible. Hustle. Promote. Sell sell sell.

But here’s the thing: when you dilute yourself to appeal to everyone, you’re going to miss out on the people who would love your weird little quirks. And you’re going to attract people who are looking for…well, whatever it is you’re pretending to be.

Your Right Person comes to you because she believes you can do the job better than others in your market. Sure, it might take some convincing — samples, testimonials, great sales copy, even an exploratory intro session if that’s your thing — but by the time she signs on that dotted line, she trusts that you know what you’re doing. This isn’t blind trust, and it’s probably not boundless, but generally speaking, she hired you for being good at what you do, and she believes you’re going to do it well for her.

Your not-so-right person? They question you every step of the way.

Do you really need to follow this process? Can’t we do it my way?

I know you said you needed this, but I thought maybe you could work around it.

I was talking to my partner’s sister’s neighbor’s friend, and she knew someone who did work like this once, and she said…

It’s exhausting.

It’s not that they’re bad people, or even bad clients — they’re just not your clients.

See, that’s the thing about the Wrong Person.

It doesn’t mean they’re wrong, just wrong for you.

Someone else is already following your Wrong Person’s process. They totally agree with the partner’s sister’s neighbor’s friend’s acquaintance. All those areas of friction that keep you stalled and sluggish? Like buttah.

Your Wrong Person is their Right Person. And yet, here you are…

They’ll fill up your schedule. They’ll take all of your energy. Six weeks into a two-week project, you’ll glance back at your scope in the rear view mirror as you fly into double-overtime with no end in sight. You’ll work nights. Weekends. Your daughter’s birthday. You could be hit by a bus, and you’ll be pecking out an email on your phone with two broken thumbs, responding to the 8,654th “I know it’s a bad time, but…”

You remember how you were so excited to make the sale? You’re spending twice as long on a project that doesn’t bring you half as much joy. Too many of these, and you’ll find yourself questioning if following your dream is really worth it.

(It is. But not like this.)

Working with your Wrong Person takes a lot out of you. They expect you to work outside of your comfort zone, because they don’t understand where that is for you. It’s not their fault; they probably don’t know any better.

So here’s the thing. You do know better. And you know what else?

It’s okay to say no.

I’m not talking about after they’ve signed on, though, you know, feel free to have someone without two broken arms shoot them a message to that effect if you have a run-in with a Greyhound. I mean, at the beginning.

“I’m sorry, but I really don’t think I’m a fit for your needs.”

Boom. It’s that simple.

(It’s not. It never is. But it’s a start.)

Of course, some people will take it personally. It’s not. You just see what they need and know what you have to offer, and you understand that there’s a disconnect. So help them see where that disconnect is. Keep it simple but straightforward. You want X, I do Y. You don’t owe them a thesis, but be kind; they’re lost and don’t realize they haven’t found their solution. Try to have a plan for how you’re going to approach this in advance, because, if you’re anything like me, rejecting someone  — even for all the right reasons — is going to give you all kinds of anxiety, and having a script to fall back on takes some of that pressure off of you.

If you know of someone who’s a better fit to support them, make a referral. I know, it sounds totally crazy to pass a potential client on to someone else. But think of it this way: if you’re a dog-walker and someone comes to you looking for a birthday cake, you’re going to send them to someone who bakes birthday cakes. This isn’t really any different, just a little more specialized.

When we live in our own zone of genius, we tend to do our best work. That’s not to say you shouldn’t stretch yourself and try to learn more, but you understand what you’re all about, and you probably know, in your gut, when a potential client is asking for something different. Don’t fill your schedule with the Wrong People and then find you have no room when the Right People come calling.

So how do we avoid attracting the Wrong People?

Some of it is probably unavoidable. You’re going to get the occasional rogue inquiry, whether from a random web search or just someone who likes your philosophy but doesn’t really understand your process. Learn how to say no to them gently and with kindness. Make sure they understand that you simply don’t offer the experience they’re seeking, and steer them in the right direction if you can.

Other times, it’s just a matter of keeping your content authentic. This is especially true if you’re selling a physical product — you can’t exactly stop someone from pressing that “Add to Cart” button, but you may find yourself disputing their bad reviews and processing their returns for a product they just didn’t really understand (because, um, it wasn’t meant for them).

Remember that warning about scaring people off? Try to reframe your thinking. So you geek out over systems, or you cry at ASPCA commercials, or you take one week off every month to re-center on a desert meditation retreat. So your throw pillows are designed to suit a funky witchy-goth-boho vibe, or your hand-thrown ceramic mugs are intentionally a little bit wobbly. The kind of person who is going to love working with you is going to love that about you. They’re going to see you in all your quirks and think, “Finally, I have found my people.” And you’re going to have an awesome time working with them. But not if your schedule is already full.

So don’t be afraid to say “no.” It just frees you up to say “yes” to the Right Person — and it gives your Wrong Person a chance to find the place where they’re all Right.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

Have you been approached by your Wrong Person? Did you end up working with them, or did you pass? How did it go?

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Nurturing Creative Practice - Blog

I’ve been writing a novel for almost six years.

(What a cliche, right?)

It’s meant to be the first in a series of seven, so at this rate, I expect I’ll be dictating book seven from my death bed, while being interviewed by a local news crew for the secrets to my longevity.

So what can I possibly have to teach about maintaining a creative practice?

Well. In the past six years, in addition to writing (and editing…and editing…and editing…) just north of 50,000 words of that neverending novel, I’ve also:

  • Had two kids
  • Launched a business
  • Worked full-time for nine months while also running my business full-time while also pregnant
  • Taken over as Creative Director and owner of The Voice Bureau
  • Served more clients than I’d care to count, on more projects than I think I can remember
  • Been a full-time at-home mom while running my business (think 19-hour days, seven days a week, for nearly four years now)
  • Maintained some level of sanity and a baseline non-hoarder level of home cleanliness
  • Been a wife/daughter/mother/sister/friend, with varying levels of success

I mean, if I’m being gentle with myself, I have to admit that it’s been a busy six years. I might be able to fit a novel into there, but it’s kind of understandable that I haven’t finished it yet…right?

Whether you’re working on a novel of your own, journaling, writing poetry, painting, or doing some other form of creative self-expression, making time to regularly sit down and do it can be really hard. Even just writing blog posts for your business can be tough when you can’t get the head-space to be creative! But self-care (and yes, a creative practice is self-care, even if it’s also deeply personal work or even a career to which you aspire) is critical, especially to those of us who are self-employed. Self-employment is hard, yo. It’s lonely and all-consuming and exhausting, and if you let it, it will take over your life and leave you a shell of your former self, blearily pecking out emails on your phone as you lie in bed, watching the sun rise yet again.

But a creative practice? Oh, to regularly set aside a space in your life just to make something that brings you joy! To create something in this world that is for you, just because you want it to exist! It’s important. And it doesn’t really matter if it’s “good” (whatever that means) or if anyone else ever even sees it — a creative practice is saying to yourself, over and over, that your expression matters. That you matter, beyond what others need or ask or demand from you.

So what happens when life gets in the way and your creative practice becomes “that hour I get to sleep” or “my show on Netflix, because I don’t have the energy to think right now”?

Well, the usual advice applies.

Try spending 15-20 minutes creating at the beginning of your work time, because our work does tend to expand to fit the time we give it, and there’s a good chance you won’t even notice a few lost minutes. Or maybe you can get someone to take things off your plate — a VA to handle the admin work that sucks up way too much time, or a housekeeper to mop your floors, or a caregiver to watch your kids for an hour or two, or a delivery service to handle your grocery shopping. Ask for help. Let yourself be selfish. If you force yourself to schedule some time every single day that is just for you, and you prioritize it above everything else, you can make it fit. Maybe skip the occasional shower. Bail on a couple social gatherings.

But it’s not always that easy, is it? I often sit down to work at 5 or 6am after being up most of the night with my girls, and every minute I spend working after I put them to bed is a minute that I’m not sleeping — and for someone who averages 2-3 hours a night, telling me to schedule an hour to be creative is a cruel joke. I mean, I’m sure those sleep-deprivation-induced hallucinations would make for some excellent novel fuel, but I’m not writing the sequel to Naked Lunch.

I don’t think we can talk about making time for a creative practice — or, truly, any kind of self-care — without talking a bit about gendered expectations. Because they’re real, and they’re hard to overcome, though a bit less so when you acknowledge them.

(Down with the patriarchy! Smash the hegemonic systems of oppression! Other catchphrases from my Feminist Political Theory class!)

Many — though not all — of our clients are women, and I don’t think any of us would dispute that showing up as a woman in this world is different than showing up as a man. The expectations are different. In some cases, this means working even harder for the same level of recognition. In others, it means carrying the emotional work that’s so often discounted but is not only time-consuming but costly to your own health and sanity. In others, it might mean that expectations are lowered, but then so are the rewards. We’re passed over for promotions. Talked over in meetings. And, of course, there are the implications of having a family…

Whether or not you have children, there’s a good chance that somewhere out there, someone is wondering if they’re on your agenda. And once you’ve had one, it’s, “Well, you have to try for a boy/girl now, so you have one of each!” or, “When’s number three coming?” But here’s the thing: kids take it all out of you. Including (especially?) the time and energy you might have had for a fulfilling creative practice.

So. Not to go off on a huge tangent, but you know how famous male authors have these wild life stories of alcoholism and failed marriage after failed marriage and kids born when they’re in their 70s, while female authors have life stories of spinsterism and seclusion? Yeah, there’s a reason for that.

I know that, with what I have on my plate, I can’t commit to writing my novel every day, or even every week. I have kids and clients, and I really do need to sleep at least a couple hours a day. But that doesn’t mean my novel isn’t progressing, even as my Scrivener file gathers dust.

So here’s my creative practice, right now:

I’m a sponge.

I read those clickbait-y lifestyle articles on Facebook — you know, the ones with the headlines like: “She opens the fridge. But what happens next will amaze you.” I watch TV — good and bad. I read books while I’m up in the night with the kids (thank god for that backlit screen on the Kindle, amirite?). I learn about strange things out there in the world. I take notes.

And, in every spare quiet moment — few and far between though they may be — I’m spinning the stories that will eventually be tapped out on my keyboard and become the novel series I can’t wait to write. I extrapolate possibilities, spin off variations on characters and plot twists. I sketch out the ending of book seven in my head, knowing it’ll probably change 50 more times before I get there. Eventually, the ideas tend to boil over, and when I sit down to write, thousands of words just fall out of my head without me even stopping to take a breath. Because they’re already written — in the shower, in bed at night, spacing out in the car on the way home from Target. They just needed to finally have the space to be born into the world. And I do eventually find that space — late at night, early in the morning, when the kids at the store with my husband, or when client work slows down just a bit (which it does, in the same sort of cycles every year).

So what can you learn from my overbooked schedule?

Sometimes, we need to accept that our lives look a little different than we might like. You may have an idealized picture of how you’ll light some candles, pour a glass of wine, put on some ambient music, and sit down at your vintage keyboard to tap out the next best-seller. You’re probably wearing a cozy sweater and poring over a hand-written storyboard detailing all the key plot points. But it may be that your writing happens in the car as you’re waiting to pick the kids up from practice, or on your phone when you sneak off to use the bathroom for 15 minutes, or for a couple minutes every morning until you can’t put off those client emails any longer. It doesn’t make you less of a writer. It doesn’t make your work any less valid than those professional types who crank out a new novel every year or two. They aren’t better or more deserving just because their lives are more conducive to long stretches of creation.

Physically creating isn’t the only way to create. We can learn and grow and plan, even in our busiest times. There’s a lot of background and organizing and research that goes into writing a great novel — or, even, a great poem, or painting a great painting — and taking the time to really do that work is a completely valid form of creative practice, even if it doesn’t feel quite so intentional as sitting down with that typewriter and your scented candles. You aren’t behind schedule just because you’re working on the foundation.

There is no schedule. It’s hard to feel like you’re making progress when it takes you six years (er, or more) to write a novel. Believe me, I know. But I also know that the experiences I’m having are making my stories richer — even as they, ironically, keep me away from actually writing them down. But if we take the time to absorb and process and think through our creations, in those little moments we can sneak in, they’ll pour out of us. When they’re ready.

What if you’re not really interested in developing a creative practice? Well, kudos for getting this far, anyway. This general philosophy is something I apply to my work, too. I know I can’t write copy or blog posts or even social media all the time. It’s not just a matter of finding the time; if I tried to create on that scale, I’d burn out almost immediately. No, I need some time when I can just stare at the TV and handle my admin work. Or listen to some music and review analytics. Or have a snack and reply to emails. I know that my overall workload includes tasks that require all different mindsets from me, and I plan accordingly, knowing that every task has its place. And, even when it doesn’t feel like I’m getting any work done, I know I am.

Anyway, don’t hold your breath for my debut novel — it may be a bit before I finally wrap up those last 30,000 words or so. But do save a spot on your bookshelf, because it is coming. Eventually.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

Do you have a regular creative practice? How do you make time in your schedule?

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29 Lessons - Blog

Five years ago this week, I incorporated as an LLC.

*cue the confetti*

 

When I first dipped my toes into the world of creative self-employment, I didn’t have any expectations. All I knew at the time was that the traditional job market wasn’t working for me (or, at least, I wasn’t finding work in it). As a classic car magazine editor with literally no interest whatsoever in classic cars, my career path was sort of…niche. I figured, if I couldn’t find the right job, I’d make one until something better came along. I didn’t expect that this necessarily would be the right job, but here we are — I love what I do and have no desire to go back.

Over the past five years, I’ve picked up a few things. I have no illusions about sharing these insights with you — some of these lessons, you’ll have to figure out for yourself if you want them to stick. And I definitely don’t know everything. Far from it. Please don’t think I’m all, “Well, I’ve been in business for five years now, so I’ve basically figured it all out.” But I’ve made some mistakes and gotten some things right, and I’ve learned a lot in the process. So sit back and listen, and maybe I can save you from learning a couple things the hard way.

And so, without further ado: 29 lessons I’ve learned over the past five years.

 

  1. You have to set boundaries. Really. This might mean having an office with a door that stays shut “after hours” or just saying that you don’t reply to emails after 10:00 at night. But when your home is your work (and your phone is the entire Internet), it’s way too easy to let it creep into every waking moment. Don’t.
  2. A day job isn’t a life sentence (or a bad thing). Going back to a day job doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You are not trapped. Sometimes, a steady paycheck (or some employer-subsidized health insurance) is exactly what you need to give you the freedom to take important risks in your business. If you’re scared of getting stuck, consider temp work. My nine months at HSN — starting just a few months after I officially “went solo” and ending, um, when I went into labor with my daughter — were exactly what I needed to build up some savings while I built my client list. I probably wouldn’t still be in business today if I hadn’t taken that time.
  3. SEO is BS. Okay, before you totally write me off as a copywriter — obviously, it’s important for search engines to find you. But trying to fit in a million keywords is stupid. Once your Right Person finds your site, they’re going to turn around and leave because you sound desperate and confusing and generally awful. Be genuine, informative, and straightforward, and the keywords will naturally work themselves into the page. (This is why you’re not a “happiness sparklepreneur” or a “rogue copy-hawk.” Literally no one is looking for that. Or knows what it is.)
  4. You have to spend money to make money — but maybe not as much as you think. You’ve gotta have a website. You’ll need an email client. Sooner or later, you’ll probably need to hire some support. You may benefit from courses and training and consulting work. But you don’t need very much on your first day. It’s easy to fall into the trap of taking every course and doing everything you can to prep for your business before you even have your first client, but you run a definite risk of being an eternal student and never actually launching. Try putting some work in. It’ll become very clear very quickly what you actually need.
  5. Sometimes, the greatest benefit of a group course is in the connections you make, not the material you learn. (And, in this respect, bigger isn’t always better.) Being one of five people in a tight-knit Facebook group could have a lot more impact on your business than being one of 200 in the latest round of a big-name course, all shouting over each other to promote their business. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming the biggest name is going to give you the best connections.
  6. You will eventually need help. Sure, you can do your own taxes and customer support and web design and copywriting and client work and accounting and strategy and projections and marketing and coding and tech support and social media and graphics and networking and blogging. But if you want to grow your business, even a little bit (and sleep, even a little bit), you’re eventually going to have to hand a few things over to someone else. Figure out what needs to be done by you, and start divesting the things that are keeping you from getting that stuff done. And do it before you’re desperate.
  7. Trust the process. You’ll figure out a working style that suits you. I have two small kids home with me all day, so I tend to work via email rather than phone or Skype so I don’t end up the next “BBC Dad” [er, Mom]. When we do things at The Voice Bureau using the particular process we’ve developed, the projects go so smoothly. When we fight the process, they don’t. Trust what feels right, make adjustments as you go, and you’ll end up finding the best way for you. Then, stick with it. If you find a project management client you love, don’t let your client talk you into using something else. If you need two weeks to design a logo, don’t offer to do it in two days, even if you really really want to make that sale. Do what you need to do to deliver your best work, every time.
  8. Don’t fight for what isn’t working. If you do best replying to emails on the fly throughout the day, don’t force yourself to do all your daily email in one batch at 9:00 just because some productivity expert says that’s what you should do. If you hit a wall at 3:00 every afternoon, don’t schedule client sessions then — schedule nap time or a walk around the block. You get to write the rules of your own business, and that means saying no to things that don’t work for you.
  9. Not all clients are right for you. My very first client was a terrible fit. She wanted me to do work that was so far outside the scope of our project, it was like walking into a dry cleaner’s and trying to order a pizza. When you find someone who trusts your experience and is excited to work with you, it’s magic. Chase that, every day. Write your copy like you are speaking directly to that one Right Person. Pass on the projects that are covered in red flags. They’ll fill up your entire schedule and keep you from the ones you really should be serving.
  10. Be who you are. Do what you do. If you’re an introvert business coach, don’t try to be an extrovert lifestyle brand just because you think that’s what people want — or vice versa. There are people who want what you have to offer. Trust that they’re out there. Because pretending to be someone you’re not sucks.
  11. Don’t forget about taxes. Seriously, set something aside from every sale. Self-employment taxes can be super high. You do not want to have that dropped on you April 14th.
  12. Treat yo’ self. It’s easy to forget to take care of ourselves when we’re wrapped up in running a business. Just because you can wear the same clothes every day doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to look nice if you want to. If you have the spare cash, shell out for something that makes you happy from time to time. If you don’t have extra money, set aside time to take a bath or watch a movie that makes you laugh (without your laptop open in front of you). Have a glass of wine on a Tuesday. Recharge your batteries, replenish your well, sharpen your saw — whatever metaphor you like. But don’t forget yourself, or your business will suffer.
  13. You’ll never have it all figured out. That’s okay. None of us do. You learn more every day, every project, every launch. But not even the “experts” have all the answers.
  14. A good website is your best and most important investment. Your site is like the world’s best wing(wo)man. It should set the stage for working with you — give all the important details, let people get a feel for who you are and what you do and what it would be like to work with you/buy products from you/have coffee with you. It should do it at 4am Thailand-time, or in the middle of a snowstorm, or when you’re in bed with the flu, or when you’re out celebrating your birthday. This is how people will find you, how they’ll evaluate you. It’s worth the time and resources to do it right.
  15. Everyone deals with imposter syndrome. We all have moments when we feel like we’re total frauds and are going to be found out, no matter how much experience we have or how good we are at our jobs. I think it’s good not to get too confident, but don’t let yourself get in your own head. Just because you don’t have every single answer doesn’t mean you aren’t good at what you do.
  16. This is a real job. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. This is a hard one, especially early on when the money may not be flowing freely. What’s worse is that it’s often a lesson we have to teach ourselves before we can convince other people. And I think women, especially, have a hard time with this. I’ve heard men who don’t even have the inklings of a business call themselves “consultants,” and women with a dozen published pieces and a novel in the works struggle to give up the “I mean, I’m working towards, maybe, I’d like to be” that comes before “a writer.” So how do you get past this? Give yourself a title that doesn’t sound ridiculous. (Seriously.) Practice your elevator pitch — the one-minute summary of what you do. Say it in the mirror. Say it to strangers. Say it until you believe it. And then don’t let anyone downplay your career.
  17. You need to know your own value. Believe it. Then add 15%. Yes, it’s hard to put a price tag on your time and expertise, but don’t shortchange yourself. And don’t forget about business expenses. You’re providing a valuable service to your clients. If you’re not paying yourself enough to be sustainable, you won’t be doing this for long.
  18. You are not an expert on day one. I know I’ve just gotten over telling you to value your time, but that doesn’t mean treating yourself as if you’re the foremost expert in your field your first day on the job. Be humble. Learn things. Don’t charge $200 an hour for consulting work when you’ve never helped a client. Learn constantly.
  19. Hustling isn’t for everyone. There are other ways to make sales. If the thought of cold-calling gives you hives, don’t do it. Find ways to connect that work for you. That doesn’t mean slacking off — no one is going to be lining up at your door without you putting in some serious legwork — but this is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. And if you’re not a hustler, figure out what you are and do that, instead.
  20. Find your zone of genius. Live in it. It can be hard to see our own strengths, but figure out what you have to offer and make that the core of your business. You never know how many people are looking for your particular blend of skills until you put it out there. If you’re a master wordsmith but hate podcasts, don’t do podcasts. Write. You’re in charge of your own job description.
  21. Find your weak spots. Learn enough to get help. Let’s say you wake up tomorrow morning to find a giant puddle in front of your refrigerator. You don’t need to know refrigerator repair to know something is wrong. Your business is the same way — you need to know enough to know when you need help, but that doesn’t mean you need to be an expert in everything. Focus on being the absolute best at the work you do, handle the things you understand (and have time for), and learn just enough about the things that don’t make sense to you to knowledgeably hire someone to take care of them.
  22. You’ll want to quit. You’re going to spend hours on a proposal that isn’t accepted. You’re going to have 50-hour work weeks without a single sale. You’re going to miss getting paid to check Facebook, or having coworkers to chat with, or a steady paycheck, or company lunches, or a job that you can turn off when you walk out the door at night. You’re going to feel overwhelmed by the idea of keeping up with the newest ideas and best practices and training. If you feel this way a lot, it may be time to sit down and decide if this is right for you in the long term. But don’t assume you’re destined to give it up the first time you feel a twinge of regret. We all do, sometimes.
  23. Connections are everything. Your best clients are going to be your biggest cheerleaders — and referrals are the absolute best endorsement. You may even be lucky enough to connect with other entrepreneurs who become your closest friends and strongest allies. (Of course, luck has nothing to do with it — you have to seek those connections out.) Don’t assume that just because you’re working by yourself in your own home, you’re alone in this.
  24. You are going to meet some amazing people. Some, you may even meet in person. I’ve made some fantastic friends over the past five years through my work, but I live in Florida, and most of them do not. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet up with a handful of them in person, and it’s been amazing. But the ones who I’ve never actually seen face-to-face are no less important to me. The internet is so cool, isn’t it? I have so much more in common with my chosen tribe online than I do with many people who just happen to be located in the same city as me. I’m thankful every day that this job allows me to spend time with them, even if we’re never in the same room.
  25. Change out of your pajamas. Every. Day. Seriously, even if you’re just putting on your “day pajamas.” Get dressed. You have a business, not the flu. (Unless you also have the flu, in which case, keep those pajamas on and get back to bed.)
  26. Not every idea will work. That doesn’t mean it’s a failure. When I started out, I was running a monthly burlesque/life drawing event on the side. It was so much fun, but when I figured out my “hourly rate” for the work I was doing…it was about $1 an hour. Literally. Not exactly a raging financial success. You’re going to do things — come up with consulting packages, write courses, create products — that just don’t sell. Figure out what you can learn from the process and salvage that, and scrap what didn’t work. For me, I got a lot better at graphic design from making fliers, I got out of my introvert box networking with local performers, and I honed my event planning skills, which have helped me with managing projects. I also had a lot of fun and made some great friends, and I can’t regret a single, unprofitable second because of that.
  27. Inspiration is often inconvenient. Never ignore it. You’re going to get ideas for your business in the shower, out running errands, at 5am, and when you’re elbows-deep in a kid’s science project. Make sure you can take notes so you don’t forget about it (Did you know they make waterproof notepads for the shower?), because there’s a very good chance you’re going to go totally blank the second you sit down in front of your computer to work. You’re much better off spending a super-inconvenient hour at 5am being really productive than spending four hours staring at a blank screen at noon.
  28. Everything comes in cycles. Those first few months in business, I was slowly picking up clients, building my presence…and then crickets. All of a sudden, no new inquiries, no connections, nothing. The more I’ve grown my business, the less that summer slump hits me, but that first year, it was like everything came crashing down just as it was getting off the ground. But then the fall came, and all of a sudden, it picked up again. If you’re just getting started, don’t freak out. It can be scary when you’re used to a steady day job (and its steady paycheck), but over time, you start to even appreciate the ups and downs. Use the quiet time to learn something new, or create a product, or take a vacation. It’ll pick up before you know it.
  29. Tools and systems aren’t sexy, but they are everything. I know, as a left-brain creative, I’m sort of a rare bird. But show me an amazing spreadsheet or an intuitive, flexible process, and I will go weak in the knees. Because I know that these are the things that make business so much easier, even if they sound boring on paper. (Or in a blog. I know.)

So that’s it — a few of the things I’ve learned over the past five years working for myself. I’m sure I’ll come up with half a dozen more over the next week that I’ll kick myself for leaving out, but let’s go with it. Gotta leave something for the next five.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

What’s been your biggest business lesson so far? Do any of my lessons hit home for you — or totally contradict your own experience?

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