I almost wince these days when I describe myself as a writer because I’ve been doing very little of that, despite how much I really do want to be writing. I do, I swear. I have a solid list of stuff I want to write about, both for Pyragraph and other creative projects. I have plenty of good ideas, topics, fodder, etc.—but I seem to have a timespan of about 15 minutes these days for anything that’s not mission-critical on my to-do list.
The last two things I’ve spent any real chunks of time on in the last month were bookkeeping which was mission-critical (we’re transitioning to a new bookkeeping system), and editing for a client (they pay me hourly). Otherwise I’m buzzing around doing a million different things, none of them for particularly sustained periods of time. The only reason I got the bookkeeping and editing projects done is that for the past three weeks, for the first time both of my kids are in school. Now I can finally get “in the zone” and get into a little work jag for a few consecutive hours. Still, my days often feel incredibly fleeting.
Looking to your existing body of work can be a good go-to strategy when you’re pressed for time.
Here’s a snapshot of a typical day: I take the kids to school then come home and give a look to the post about to run at Pyragraph. Then I putter with editorial for a while—mostly pushing stories and projects forward with the other editors and doing a bunch of email. We publish new posts every day, plus we have a lot of projects and initiatives in various stages—developing our podcast or refining our branded content program or planning events, for example—and I help these along as needed. It’s a lot like watching seeds grow and deciding which ones need more water or more attention at any given moment, and which ones are OK to let wither if need be.
As my day progresses, I do my best to cut myself off from editorial (which can be hard because I love the editorial stuff) and focus on sales which I’m not particularly good at. I’m a good networker but I’m fuzzy in developing sales lists and managing them and, sometimes, weak in taking that first step of contacting someone. But I’m keeping at it. Mid-afternoon I pick up the kids and often manage to sneak in a bit more work during the afternoon while they’re doing their thing.
But writing? It never seems to happen…until now. Because as I sat here tonight fretting about how another day sped by without any time for writing, I remembered an article I wrote a few years ago about the struggle to find enough hours in the day and the myth of work/life balance when you’re a self-employed parent. It was originally published by Mamapedia in 2010 just after I published a book which was largely written in a race to finish before my son was born. (My son won but I finished the book a couple months later.)
Of course you can’t rehash your own stuff all the time, and to progress as a writer or any creative you’ll need to push forward with creating new, original work. But looking to your existing body of work, or even unfinished/unpublished work, can be a good go-to strategy when you’re pressed for time. I’m speaking as a writer but musicians might be able to make a remix of a previously released song; designers might have great work that clients rejected (some clients are dumb dumbs); artists might have half-finished canvases that could be painted over or reworked in a new direction.
In my case, I found it far easier to write these paragraphs as an introduction to my other post than to start from scratch. Voila, blog post! Here’s my previously published piece.
Let’s Get Unbalanced: Digging into Work
“Master multitasker” has always been part of the job description for us parents. Add self-employment to the mix, and the juggling act gets even crazier. Being responsible for all the details involved in running even a small firm seems to double the number of balls in the air. And business owners also need to find quiet, focused time to work on big-picture business strategy and direction (and I’ll come back to this in just a bit). With all these competing claims on our time and attention, it’s little wonder that the challenge of keeping a semblance of balance between our work and personal lives is a perennial issue for self-employed parents.
But as great as it feels to hit that sweet spot of balance, since kids have entered my self-employed life I often find myself practically desperate to dive deep and get lost in the business—to throw balance to the wind, even for just a few days. Of course, as any mom or dad knows, kids (especially little ones) make this nigh impossible, particularly if you work from home. I look back on the days when I’d live and breathe a project for days or weeks on end and that reality seems as remote a possibility today as my pre-pregnancy waistline.
Bottom line: kids are zone-killers.
Sure, work/life balance is important in the long term (I’ve written and talked quite a bit about it as a small business author and consultant). But sometimes a business owner—particularly those who have no employees—needs to get into “the zone” to get things done. For instance, a graphic designer might need to dig in and lay out a 100-page annual report on a tight deadline. Or a CPA might need to get a raft of client tax returns done as April 15 looms. The owner of a small retail store may need to catch up with generating sales reports after a busy holiday season. But finding the time to hunker down for a big project often feels like trying to solve some impossible math equation.
The problem is, getting into the zone takes at least a couple uninterrupted hours—for me, ideally three or more (better yet, a few days in a row). But fat, juicy time chunks like these are frustratingly out of reach for parents of little ones. Bottom line: kids are zone-killers.
I’m starting to think that sometimes what I crave more than balance is the opportunity to get unbalanced once in a while and immerse myself in work, even if just for a few days. But with a nursing 6-month-old and a preschooler, it’s just not gonna happen.
For me and many self-employed parents I know, working at night is one solution. These days, I do my best work after the kids go down ’round 7-ish. I can get an easy three or four hours uninterrupted work time and still get to bed at a reasonable hour (reasonable for us night owls, at least). If I have a deadline to meet or other important project, I can really get into the zone, working till 2 or 3am. I pay for it in the morning, but a good part of the morning is nursing time anyway which frankly doesn’t require a whole lot of mental effort on my part. So, for now, it works.
However. Even when we manage to get our client projects done, catch up with the bookkeeping, and meet the deadlines—all without letting our children starve or run wild in the streets—there’s more to do when you’re self-employed. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, running a business—even a small one-person firm—involves more than just getting the essentials done. An enormously important (if often overlooked) part of the role of a business owner is to steer the ship, take account of the big picture and define a strategic direction for the business.
(Now, I realize that a lot of small solo operators, freelancers and the like tune out at the words “strategic direction,” thinking that I must be talking about big companies with fancy boardrooms full of high-powered executives hashing out market studies and sales reports and all those things “other” businesses do. Not so! Defining your market and strategy, and regularly revisiting and refining those definitions, is important even for microbusinesses like freelance writers, photographers and consultants. I’ll explain why in a future post.)
Of all the tasks on a busy business owner’s plate, it’s the big-picture, strategic work that most often gets the shaft. And it’s easy to understand why. Strategic analysis and big-picture thinking are precisely the kinds of activities that are best done “in the zone.” You won’t be able to take a mental step back from your business and effectively evaluate what it’s doing and where it should be headed in the stolen moments between feeding your kids, swapping out 2T for 3T clothes in the closet, or preparing snack for the preschool class.
Plus, as you are undoubtedly aware, there are always more pressing issues in a business that end up trumping the strategic work. If you are forced to choose between meeting a client deadline or taking a half-day to wrangle with big-picture issues, the client deadline sensibly wins out.
The strategic, big-picture work as just as important as making the donuts.
But over time, lack of attention to the strategic side of things results in drift, lack of focus and missed opportunities. At worst, a business owner might fail to see a significant shift in the market that leaves her business out in the cold. By the time sales plummet and the owner realizes what has happened, it very well might be too late to turn things around.
To avoid this happening to you, here’s my advice: The next time you allow yourself a little work bender, dedicate it to some strategic work. Pull yourself out of the day-to-day trenches and put some careful thought into where your business is, and where you’d like it to go. Catch up on your business reading, keeping an eye out for trends and opportunities that may have escaped your notice. Maybe a big new company is moving into your town that represents a possible big customer—or a formidable competitor. Maybe there is new technology affecting your industry that isn’t yet being used by your local competition, giving you the opportunity to establish an edge over them. Whatever it is, give yourself a little time to zone out of the day-to-day minutae (I like to call it “making the donuts”) and tap into the bigger picture of your business.
Also remember that staying connected to other folks and steadily growing your network is a great way to keep tabs on what’s going on in your field. Business owners—especially solo operators—can easily get isolated if they don’t actively reach out and network. Have lunch with fellow business owners and media contacts, attend trade shows and conventions, and interact online (you already know that Mamapedia is a great resource). When you do this regularly you’ll be up to speed on the latest trends, putting you in a great position to make strategic decisions.
Nope, it’s not easy to find the time to do this. But think about how you otherwise manage to get the essentials done, like filing your taxes or finishing client projects on time. The main change you might have to make is simply seeing the strategic, big-picture work as just as important as making the donuts. If you start thinking of strategic work as an essential ongoing task, you’ll be well on your way to figuring out a way to escape the daily distractions, get into the zone, and steer your business to success.
Photo courtesy of Peri Pakroo.