Get More Done: 3 free apps and sites I use to make myself more productive

A laptop on a white desk surrounded by a bonsai tree, a jar of coffee, a mouse, and some papers.

Staying productive at work is hard, but the internet (the cause of and solution to all problems) can help!  Image from Pixabay.

I am someone who often struggles to focus at work, and who has particular difficulty with maintaining an even work schedule.  Of all the (many, many) sites, apps and productivity aids I’ve tried, these three have been some of the most helpful.  They are time-savers, procrastination-busters, and focus-enhancers.  Best of all, they are all free, though I’d strongly encourage anyone who can afford to to make a donation if you find them as useful as I have!

  1. My Work Clock

I installed this brilliantly simple app on my phone last year, and I would recommend that every freelancer does the same.  It’s a straightforward punch-in, punch-out time logger that allows you to keep track of your working hours.  You can keep separate time logs for different jobs, and get reports of the hours you’ve worked by day, week and month.  I translate these reports into graphs on MS Excel that help me to visualise how my working hours have changed over time.  It’s a really effective way to motivate myself to work harder and smarter, helping me to figure out when my most productive days are, and my preferred working patterns.  It’s available on the Google Play store.

  1. StayFocusd

This website-blocking app from the Chrome Web Store helps me to limit the amount of time I spend in procrastination traps (scrolling through my Facebook news feed, binging on Twitter, browsing the back catalogue on SMBC.com, etc.).  You can add sites on which you waste time to a list of blocked sites.  Then, you set a daily time limit for those sites.  As long as you’re on any of the sites on the list, a time counter ticks down.  When it reaches zero, you’re blocked from using all of those sites for the rest of the day.  There’s also a nuclear option, which allows you to block all the sites on your list outright for a time limit that you set.  I use a 24-hour nuclear option for days when I’m really busy, and limit myself to an hour’s procrastination on the web per day otherwise.

What I love most about StayFocusd is that it’s very customisable: you get to decide which sites you want to block, and for how long.  You can even determine how difficult you’d like it to be to unblock the sites you’ve added to your banned list.  For those with ultra-low willpower, there’s a security setting in which you must pass a fiendishly difficult typing test before you can unblock any of your banned sites.  Be warned, though: this really is incredibly difficult, so if you ever do need to unblock a site for any reason (if you get a job managing social media and need to spend 7 hours a day on Twitter, for example), it may take you a while!

  1. SimplyRain (and SimplyNoise)

If you have trouble blocking out background noise while you’re working, these two websites are a godsend.  They provide adjustable and customisable white noise to help you focus.  If rain storms are your thing, SimplyRain provides the sound of rain, accompanied by optional thunder sounds at three different intensity settings.  SimplyNoise has three different ‘colours’ of white noise: grey, pink and brown.  Both sites allow you to set the noise to oscillate, like the sound of waves; they also have timer options if you’d like to use them to help you sleep or meditate.  My favourite combination is to use SimplyRain with some quiet background music—I normally use the Minecraft soundtrack.  Both are immensely helpful at tuning out conversations and other background sounds, and you can experiment until you find the volume, intensity and type of noise that works best for you.

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Use Your Voice

A black and white photograph of Zora Neale Hurston next to a quote from her: "If you are SILENT about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it."

Photographer: Carl Van Vechten; Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, LC-DIG-van-5a52142

This blog is mostly about writing, editing and freelancing, not politics.  I’m saying that now so that you know I’m not going to make a habit of this.  There is a pretty important election on tomorrow though (you may have heard about it?), and I wanted to mark the occasion.

I’m not going to urge you to go out and vote for a particular party.  Those who know me personally will be well aware of my own political views, but that’s not what this post is about.

I’m also not going to argue that this election is about one particular issue (security, welfare, the NHS- take your pick, really), and that everyone should vote with that issue in mind.

What I am going to suggest is that, regardless of which party you support, you do two simple things:

1. Check out the Policies

There are many reasons for voting for someone: they might have an honest face, a good voting record, or lots of experience.  They might have really magnificent eyebrows*.

Before you let any of these factors decide your vote, familiarise yourself with what their party stands for, and what they’re intending to do once elected.

Politicians may be are definitely untrustworthy, but the only way that we can hold them to account is to charge them to keep their promises once they’re elected.  Policy pledges and manifestos are those promises, so we should know about them.

Voting on what you’ve heard, what the papers say, or your gut feeling about a given candidate is the same thing as voting blind.  Don’t let other people dictate your political opinions.  Check out the policies yourself, and make up your own mind.

The excellent people over at Vote for policies, not personalities have put together a handy quiz you can take to flag up which party’s policies you agree with the most.  It’s a quick way to find out which party best represents your views.

2. Get out and Vote

Just get the f*ck out and vote.

Whatever party you feel should be in power.  Whatever causes are closest to your heart.  Get.  Out.  And.  Vote.

Even if you’re feeling under the weather, it’s raining cats and dogs, or your polling station is a bit of a trek.  You don’t need a polling card, or any ID.  Just turn up at your polling station and vote.

If my profanity hasn’t convinced you to vote, let me address two of the most common arguments I hear against voting:

1. My vote won’t make a difference

Your vote is THE ONLY CHANCE YOU HAVE to make a difference.

We’re lucky enough to live in a society that cherishes the right to free speech.  That means that we can say whatever we want about politicians, the environment, the decline of western civilization, etc. all year round.

Here’s the thing, though: no one has to listen to us.

Tomorrow, June 8th, is the one day when the people in power have to listen to what we’ve got to say.

We get approximately 1 shot every 5 years to make people listen to us.

Don’t waste it.

If we can post to Facebook complaining about the state of the nation, we can take ourselves off to the polling station, and vote to make it better.

2. Politicians are all as bad as each other/ I don’t want to vote for anyone

Before you say this, to yourself or anyone else, see if you can name three policies from each of the major parties’ manifestos.  If you can’t, take the policies not personalities quiz or have a look at the policies, and find out what they are.

You might be surprised at what the parties stand for, and how different some of their stances are.  If you find some policies that you happen to agree with, GO OUT AND VOTE FOR THEM.

If you don’t, then go out and spoil your ballot paper in protest.  Spoilt ballots are at least counted- which is more than can be said for ballots that are never filled out at all.  The folks at Vote or Vote None have some thoughts on how to do this to achieve maximum effect.

Your vote is your voice.  Please use it.  Don’t let them kill you and say you enjoyed it.

 

 

* Dem Eyebrows Though.

Credit to Sofi Emily Aldridge over at The Briar Fox Blog for introducing me to the wonders of tactical voting by eyebrows.

A Picture of Alistair Darling

Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Br.  Antonio Cruz/ABr – cropped version of http://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/media/imagens/2006/09/05/2150AC062.jpg/view

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Freelance Fail #4 – In Defence of Editing

For many writers, being edited can be stressful. Photo from Pixabay: www.pixabay.com

No one likes seeing their hard work covered in red pen and squiggly lines.  Image credit: Pixabay

“[T]o write is human, to edit is divine.”

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)*

The relationship between writers and editors is often a fraught one.

Whether you write novels or marketing copy, writing is almost always personal.  Oh, you can make a profession out of it, sure.  But at the end of the day, writing is a craft—your craft—and when you send your work off to a client or publisher, it’s your craftsmanship that’s being judged.

Bearing that in mind, it can be hard not to take it personally when your writing is edited.  It may even start to feel like the editor is the enemy, picking your ideas apart, raising their eyebrows at your creative decisions, raining on the big, beautiful parade that is your prose.

There was a time when I felt hurt by edit notes and requests for redrafts.  I felt each comment as an implicit criticism of both me and the quality of my writing.  On the flip side, if a piece of mine was accepted without any edits, I took it as a good sign.

There was one client I worked for in particular who never edited anything I wrote, publishing all my pieces exactly as I had sent them in.  This didn’t bother me at all—quite the opposite, in fact.  I made sure to double check my work myself, and I felt proud (even a little smug), thinking that I didn’t need editing.

For any editors reading who are rolling their eyes right now: don’t worry—I soon learned better.

After a little while of working for this client, I started to notice that actually, they rarely edited any of their authors.  To my surprise, pieces were going out to the public with obvious spelling and grammatical errors.

When I noticed this, something clicked for me.  The reason I wasn’t being edited was not because I was a great writer, but because the client didn’t really care about the quality of my work.  They wanted to churn out content quickly, and they weren’t too fussy about its standard.

Contrast this with another client I’ve worked with a few times.  Any work I sent them would invariably come back to me covered in comments, suggestions and tweaks, and I often had to do several rewrites.  At first, I found this difficult to deal with: it made me feel like I couldn’t do anything right, and I got frustrated.

But having to draft and redraft my work put me through my paces.  I noticed myself thinking more consciously about the style and structure of my writing, and I became better as a result.

These experiences changed my perspective on editing entirely.  Editing is never, ever, a mark of disrespect to you or your work.  It’s the opposite.  If someone takes the time to engage with your writing and edit it, or ask you to edit it, it is because they care about making it as good as it can be.

You and your editor might have different opinions about what that means, but that is part of the point.  If you never submit to editing, you’ll miss the chance to learn what other people think about your writing before it hits the shelves or the internet.

Now that, in my opinion, is a shame.  Because if people notice errors, inconsistencies or stylistic blunders in your writing after you’ve published it, it’s too late to do much about it.

Every writer can benefit from editing.  But more than that, every writer can benefit from learning how to be edited.  It involves swallowing your pride, taking direction, and admitting that maybe, sometimes, your work is not perfect.

Taking edits with good grace is not easy; then again, neither is writing.  But both of them are worth it.

Lessons Learned:

  1. A good editor is someone with whom you can discuss your writing and work out the kinks before it reaches the public.
  2. A great editor can help you to learn more about the craft of writing, improving not just whatever you’re working on right now, but future projects too.
  3. Never assume that you don’t need to be edited: everyone can stand to improve their work.  Instead, try making it a point of pride to always respond to edits with good grace.

 

*I came to Stephen King a lot later than I should have.  It’s my gain, though: I have so many of his novels still to look forward to.  If you haven’t read The Shining and Doctor Sleep, then what are you even doing on this blog?  Go read them.  Right now.

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Freelance Fails #3—Work Experience or Working for Free?

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Not all unpaid work is created equal.  Images from Pixabay.

“She often said/ She’d never make the same mistake again:/ She always made a new mistake instead”

Wendy Cope*

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the following Catch-22: you need to gain experience of a certain role to move forward with your career, but the experience you’re lacking is one of the role’s central requirements.  One way around this problem (if you’re lucky enough to have some savings or someone to support you financially) is to do the role for free until you’ve built up enough CV points to ask someone to pay you for it.

When I was first dipping my toes into the waters of freelancing, back in November of last year, I applied to several unpaid roles to help me develop the breadth and depth of my writing experience.  I ended up taking on two voluntary writing/ editing positions with two very different organisations.  I’ll call them Group A and Group B.

What my experiences at these two organisations taught me is that there are vast differences in quality between the various work experience, internship and voluntary opportunities to be found out there.  There’s a fine line between participating in work experience that is valuable to both you and the company you’re working for, and simply being asked to give away your valuable time for free.  My time with Group A and Group B has helped me to find that line, and stay on the right side of it.

Group A Working in the Dark

Group A put out an ad offering a content writing work experience opportunity late last year.  It was one of the first freelance positions I ever applied for, and I was thrilled when a representative from the company got back to me and asked me when I could start.  It felt like my first break, and I began writing content for them on a regular basis.

To give credit where it’s due, the company always used my work, and always credited me for it.  The list of pros ends there, however.  After a few weeks of regular contributions, I asked my contact at the company, who was an intern herself, if she would mind including a short bio and photograph at the bottom of my pieces to direct readers to my site.  She apologetically informed me that she was not allowed to do this.

A few weeks later, I asked her if she could tell me a bit more about the company’s broader marketing strategy, and how my content writing fitted in with it.  To my surprise, I received an almost identical response: she didn’t think that she was allowed to discuss it with me.

Though I was grateful to Group A for using my work, my time with them was characterised by these sorts of interactions.  Attempts I made to meet other members of the team beyond my managers were rebuffed, questions I had were not answered, suggestions I made about new content were dismissed.

All of this left me with the impression that while Group A wanted my work, they weren’t prepared to give me much in return.  No training, no editing, no networking opportunities.

I was kept in the dark about the company’s wider strategy, and kept away from other team members.  As soon as I got my first paid freelance writing job, I contacted Group A to tell them I would not be writing for them anymore unless they wanted to hire me on a paid basis.  They did not.  I have never looked back.

Group B On the Same Page

Group B is a non-profit organisation for which I volunteer as a writer and editor.  Almost as soon as I started with them, I was introduced to a large team of other volunteers, all of whom were friendly and supportive.

I immediately felt welcomed and included.  My manager’s commitment to good communication cemented this first impression: regular meetings and a group work chat made it easy for everyone in the team to stay in touch and liaise about projects, keeping us all on the same page.

I was given training to help me carry out my role, and learnt some valuable new skills in the process.  Better still, after only a couple of weeks with Group B, a colleague gave me a lead which resulted in a paid project elsewhere.

Group B helped me to grow my client base, taught me new skills, and introduced me to great people.  My experience with them could not have been more different from my time with Group A, which is why I’m still volunteering for them now.

Spot the Difference

I have thought a lot about the biggest difference between Group A and Group B, and I think that what it boils down to is respect.

This is not to say that I wasn’t treated respectfully at Group A—the people I met there were uniformly polite and professional.  But the company as a whole did not have much respect to spare for its unpaid workers.  Take the interns I worked with, for example: they were given all the responsibility of managing me, but none of the authority to respond to my questions on their own initiative.  Their contributions were needed, but not valued.

Group B, on the other hand, is an organization that respects and appreciates hard work and effort, whether it is paid or unpaid.

Don’t underestimate the difference respect can make to workplace satisfaction and self-esteem.  Whether or not you’re being paid for your work, it’s always important to make sure that you are valued for it.

Lessons Learned

1. Good work experience teaches you new skills, connects you with interesting people, and provides (non-financial) rewards to compensate you for the work you do.  Most importantly of all, good work experience accords you the respect you deserve for donating your time and effort.

2. Bad work experience takes advantage of skills you already have, without giving you anything (training, networking opportunities, new experiences) in return.

3. Dont be afraid to ask for more training, more feedback, or more chances to learn and develop your skills. Your work and your time has value for the company or organization you’re working for—if they’re not paying you for it, make sure that they are rewarding you in other ways.

* This quote is from the excellent ‘Rondeau Redoublé’, a screamingly funny poem about dating disasters.  I may have taken it slightly out of context.

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Writing Practise #1: 92% of a Sestina

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One of the things I try to do on a regular basis to improve my writing is practise.  I count writing practise as separate from the freelance writing jobs I take on, and the work I do on personal projects.  When I set time aside to actually practise my writing, I consciously try to experiment, to play around with different styles, approaches, genres and tones.  It’s an attempt to broaden my repertoire, flex my creative muscles, and learn new ways of writing well.

For me, an important part of practising is sharing my work with other people.  When I was still trying to decide whether writing was for me or not, I wrote a lot of 140-character flash fiction on Twitter.  It was a way to work on writing more concisely (a lot more concisely), but also to test the waters, to see what others thought of my style.  Tweeting flash fiction, entering it into competitions, and sending it to Twiction journals (yes, there are journals just for Twitter fiction) gave me an early confidence boost at a time when I was still finding my feet.  Having an audience motivates me to keep writing, and to keep trying to improve the things I write.

This week, I wrote a sestina, which is something I’ve never tried before.  A sestina is a densely patterned poem that is structured not through rhyme but through the repetition of certain words.  Traditional sestinas are composed of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three line envoi.  The last words of the first six lines are taken and repeated, in a different order, at the end of each line of the next five stanzas, and again in the envoi.  If you’d like to see a really great example, my brother wrote a sestina called ‘The Apple Tree’ that was one of the winning entries in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2012.

My sestina plays a bit fast and loose with the rules on word repetition.  It also misses out the envoi (meaning that technically it’s only 92% of a sestina).  It’s about the spring equinox, so naturally it is very depressing.

It’s fitting that I’ve written 92% of a sestina, because 92% of the effort in writing is spent on the first draft.  The other 92% is spent on revising and polishing the first draft.  With that in mind, I’d love to hear your honest feedback and first impressions—it all helps!

Spring Equinox

When the light comes back on behind the sky
The snowdrops have clawed their way up through the asphalt
Desperate for air
And birds are visible through the ribs of hedgerows
In lean trees reaching out with famished fingers
Eager for the return of time

Time turns a corner, admits a pause
Patches and pieces the light
Letting it out with measured fingers
The air sheathes its claws
The laughter of birds returns to the hedgerows
All the desperate things return to life

Despair has slunk away in the night
Shaken loose by the turning of time
Has taken flight, a bird of lead
The light comes back on behind the sky
To reveal an empty bed, an indent like a claw,
And you, smoothing the sheets with tired fingers

Fingers which linger on the pills, on the telephone
Desperation has sloughed you like dead skin
And your hands curl into claws
At the wheedling of time
The insistence of the light
At the birds, which you thought had no power to move you

Your bones are birdlike, hollow but strong
Fingers that catch like branches in your hair
The light fills you (you have nothing else)
Burns away the despair, your flesh
Tells you that it will all come right, in time
Hooks you with its claw

There is always a claw
In the raucous laughter of the birds
Time always dangles a promise
From the ends of those gangrenous fingers
Your heels kick at despair
When the light comes back on behind the sky

 

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Freelance Fails #2 – Late Mornings and All-Nighters

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Time management can be a challenge when you work from home.  Image from Pixabay.

This week, I’ve decided to focus on a problem that’s not unique to freelancers, but which you’ve almost certainly faced if you’ve ever worked from home: sorting out your work rhythms.

For me, this has been one of the hardest things about getting started as a freelancer: in the absence of a clearly defined, externally imposed schedule, it can be very difficult to work regular and consistent hours.

Working the Other 9-5

Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a morning person.  Getting to work on time was a struggle even when I had an office job.  Still, back when I worked in admin, I did manage to drag myself out of bed every morning and stagger into the office at something resembling a reasonable time.

Within two days of starting to work from home, I was back to getting up at noon, sitting around the house in my dressing gown all day, and clocking off for the night at the other 5 o’clock.

Having the freedom to set your own timetable is one of the great joys of working for yourself, but it can become a curse when you’re writing blog posts at 2:44 AM*, caffeine fuelled and bleary eyed, while everyone else in the house is asleep except your night-owl boyfriend (and believe me, no one wants to be setting their watch by his sleep-wake cycle).

I was working late into the night and sleeping through the best part of the day, and it was ruining both my sleep patterns and my ability to socialise with normal, diurnal people.

To make matters worse, I was so frustrated with myself for not being able to nail my work rhythms that I would often try to force myself to get up early after a late night of work, in an attempt to jump-start a healthier working pattern.  This only ever made me sleep-deprived, cranky, and even less productive than usual.

My work rhythms weren’t working for me, and I needed to find a way to fix that.

Working Smarter

Everyone’s attitude to their working patterns is different, so what has helped me may not be what works for you.  Some people (the aforementioned night-owl boyfriend, for example), love being able to ditch the 9-5 entirely.  Others, like my dad (also a freelance author) thrive on a rigid morning-evening work schedule.

For myself, the most important step to sorting out my work rhythms was to accept that, at first, I would sometimes (read: most of the time) get them wrong.  I had been putting a lot of pressure on myself to work solidly from 9 until 5, and feeling guilty when I failed.  Instead, I began trying to figure out the times of day when I was at my most productive, and the working patterns which helped me get more done.

For example, I tend to work very effectively in short bursts.  For this reason, I’ll often set aside small, time-sensitive tasks to complete while I’m on the train or the bus, since I know I’ll have half an hour free then to work on them exclusively.  When I’m at home, I set timers for short tasks to keep myself focused.

Figuring out working patterns that actually, well, work, is a time-consuming process.  It took me months of erratic working days and unproductive faffing around before I began to settle into a rhythm that was comfortable for me, and I’m still not completely there yet.

The simple act of forgiving myself when I do mess up, though, has already helped me bounce back from late nights faster, and get more done.

Lessons Learned

1. Recognise sunk costs, and move on from them: if you’ve accidentally spent the morning playing Final Fantasy rather than working on your portfolio, that’s a shame. It would be an even bigger shame if you spent the afternoon beating yourself up about it.  It’s hard to work productively when you’re wallowing in guilt, so resist the urge.  Forgive yourself and move on.

2. Give yourself permission to take breaks: sometimes, and despite your best efforts, work just isn’t going to happen.  It might be because you’re sick.  It might be because you pulled an all-nighter last night and your brain hasn’t recovered yet.  Sitting listlessly at your desk reading the same sentence over and over again isn’t going to do you or your career any favours.  When you’re not getting anything done, it’s OK to take some time off.  Giving yourself permission to take a proper break will help you to recharge and be more productive when you’re feeling better, while soldiering on will lead only to diminishing returns.

3. Figure out what works for you: the greatest advantage of freelancing is that you can set your own schedule.  This means that if the 9-5 doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to work 9-5!  Take the time to figure out when, where and how you get your best work done—it will be worth the effort.

* Like, say, this blog post, for example.

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Freelance Fails #1 – Working for an IOU

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#FreelanceFail.  Image from Pixabay.

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” 

– Otto Van Bismarck*

It’s been just over three months since I gave up pretending to look for a real job, and decided to devote myself to freelancing full time.  Those three months have been exciting, scary and, like all new endeavours, full of mistakes.  Fellow freelancers: don’t make the same ones I did!  (It would be a shame to copy my pitfalls, you know, when there are so many other, more original pits to be fallen into).  Take a leaf from Otto van Bismarck’s book, and read on to learn (and laugh) at my freelance fails.

Freelance Fail #1- Working for an IOU

The other day on LinkedIn, I saw a post from freelance copywriter and social media manager Robyn Edwards that really resonated with me:

“I am really, really tired of working with people who don’t want to pay when the project is completed.”

It resonated, of course, because I experienced exactly this unwillingness to pay in one of my first ever gigs as a freelance proofreader and copy-editor.  My client, who we’ll call Sidney, was a student who wanted help editing an essay for his masters course.  I am not an expert in Sidney’s course subject, and I told him this.  I am, however, an expert in writing and editing great academic English.  And so, with that caveat, I expressed my willingness to help and accepted the job.

I talked with Sidney to go over his requirements, and asked him if he had any budgetary restrictions within which he’d like me to work.  His reply was that money was not important- he just wanted me to do the best job I could- so I went away and did just that, then sent Sidney an invoice for the work I’d done.  This was where the problems began.  Sidney dropped out of contact for a few days, then resurfaced to ask me for an extension on paying the invoice.  Now, I had had a very positive working relationship with Sidney up until this point, so I was happy to give him some more time: I trusted him to pay me what he owed me when he could.

Turns out, this was a mistake.  The extended payment date rolled around, and the money did not appear.  What did appear was an angry email in my inbox.  While Sidney had delayed paying me, his essay had been graded, and he wasn’t happy with the result.  It transpired that the essay had contained a number of inaccuracies about Sidney’s own subject, and that it had not met the tutor’s brief.  Sidney blamed me for this turn of events, and wanted to cut my fee almost in half as a result.  I replied to him as calmly as I could, pointing out that I had never claimed to be an expert in his subject, or to be able to advise him on the best way to get a good grade.  That is not an academic proofreader and copy-editor’s job.

Eventually, Sidney paid me two thirds of my agreed price.  Given that I had put a full-priced job’s worth of work into his essay, this was not a lot of comfort.  Nor was the money worth the stress, lost sleep and self doubt which had resulted from having my professional conduct questioned.  It took me a long time after my encounter with Sidney to recover my confidence when dealing with new clients, but in a way, I am glad that I ran into him so early in my career.  It taught me to be a little more cautious in the future, and to never, ever, work for an IOU.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Unless you’re working with a client you know and trust, always ask for a deposit up front.  You can also use an escrow service to provide you with extra security, if you feel it’s needed.
  2. Be clear about your invoice payment deadline, and stick to it. You wouldn’t ask for an extension on paying for a meal out or a grocery shop- and your clients shouldn’t put off paying for your work, either.
  3. Hammer out your payment expectations before you begin a job– statements like ‘money is no object’ or ‘any reasonable price is fine’ are vague and unhelpful. Establish what your price is, and make sure that it’s in line with your client’s expectations, before you proceed. That way, there will be no nasty surprises on either side.

To respect the privacy of my clients, I have not used any names- either of companies or of individuals- or any other identifying details, in this post.

* I totally thought that this quote was from Fullmetal Alchemist until about half an hour ago, and I am really, really glad that I googled it before writing this post.

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It’s OK to have a crappy Christmas

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Not everyone’s Christmas is merry.  Image from Pixabay.

Christmas is upon us once again, that most wonderful time of the year when merriness seems all but mandatory.  Yet in spite of- or perhaps because of- the widespread insistence that Christmas is a happy time, there’s an awful lot of misery about.  In a 2015 Samaritans survey of 1600 adults, 1 in 6 respondents said that Christmas was the loneliest time of the year, and 23.6% believed that problems felt worse over the festive period.

One of the hardest things about feeling low can be the sneaking, guilty sense that you ought to be happier than you are.  This feeling is surely never more pervasive than during the annual joy offensive that is Christmas.  Every year around the beginning of December, we’re bombarded with schmaltzy songs, corny TV specials and heart-warming supermarket adverts, all screaming the message that Christmas is about happiness, love and togetherness.  That’s a hard message to bear for people who are suffering from depression or anxiety, for those spending Christmas alone, or feeling isolated and unwanted.

In a way, Christmas is just an accentuation of an unhealthy attitude towards negative emotions that plagues society all year round.  Entire industries- advertising, plastic surgery, self-help literature- are built on the premise that happiness is an attainable (read: purchasable) goal, and unhappiness an obstacle that is easy to avoid, if you only have the right tools.  If you follow my advice/ buy this product/ adopt this diet, the argument goes, you will finally be happy, and your troubles will just melt away.

This mentality is toxic and harmful, and not just at Christmas.  The idea that unhappiness can be entirely avoided through the right kind of attitude or exercise regime only serves to make us feel like failures when, time and again, those feelings of anxiety and sadness come creeping back.  Misery is compounded by guilt, and the treacherous thought that we are responsible for our own low moods.

The best advice I was ever given about taking care of my mental health was that it’s OK to feel crappy: sometimes people just do.  There are things you can try to make yourself feel less crappy, less often, but they don’t work for everyone, or all of the time.  Like most things that are really true, this advice didn’t come with an easy-to-implement, commercially viable solution.  It didn’t change my life overnight.  But it helped.  Like many people, I have long had a tendency to punish myself for feeling low, getting into a meta-spiral of beating myself up for sadness and anxiety.  Now I do that less, and I feel like that’s an improvement.

It’s this idea of trying to accept bad feelings rather than fabricate good ones that underpins the Samaritans’ #RealChristmas campaign.  It counters the message of all those songs, adverts and TV specials by pointing out that in reality, Christmas is rarely the perfectly joyful affair they depict.

So I won’t be ending this post by wishing you all a merry Christmas.  What I will wish for is a festive season in which we can all let ourselves off the hook, and have whatever Christmas we feel like having.  Be kind to yourself, if you can.  Be kind to others: even if you’re feeling merry, remember that they may not be.  And who knows, maybe a crappy Christmas will be followed by an OK boxing day, even a pretty good New Year.

If you are feeling crappy this Christmas, you don’t have to bear it by yourself.  The Samaritans is open throughout the festive period, including on Christmas day.  Their free phone number is 116 123, and their email is jo@samaritans.org.  You can find your local branch using the branch finder on their website: http://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help-you/contact-us.  Samaritans is for everyone, whether or not you are feeling suicidal.

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