work

All the light we see

Photo 16-10-18, 4 23 26 pm.jpg
Photo 16-11-18, 8 40 59 am.jpg
Photo 16-11-18, 7 49 12 am.jpg

As the days grow shorter I find I am following the light around our little apartment, seeking moments of calm in a sun that illuminates but does not burn. In the afternoon, the light slants through the dormer windows and over the table where I paint, creating patterns and shadows that are as real as they are transient, and breathtakingly beautiful.

I sit by the window and make notes in the little ‘field notes’ notebook with a blackbird the cover that I picked up at the Horniman Museum gift shop when we were in London in September. As for so many other people at this time of year (maybe you?), my thoughts are turning to introspection, a kind of ‘life stocktake of 2018’, if you like, alongside all my hopes, dreams and plans for 2019.

When it comes to ‘hopes, dreams and plans’, the key challenge I find is deciding where to put my energy. I have been guilty (and I’m sure I’m not alone here!) of taking on way too much. And as I don’t like to do anything half-hearted, I throw myself into all the things and all too often end up exhausted, burnt out, and unable to be present for my family in the way I want to be.

Do you relate?

Photo 5-11-18, 12 01 36 pm.jpg
Photo 5-11-18, 1 59 59 pm.jpg
Photo 26-9-18, 3 43 16 pm.jpg

Certainly, the first half of this year looked like that, but this extended stay in France has helped give me the mental white-space I’ve needed to see things with a little more clarity.

For example, with the clarity of emotional distance, I can look on our French sojourn as the cumulation of all those missed holidays and breaks. Aside from one week in Tasmania 18 months ago, I have not taken a break since I fell pregnant with my daughter in 2011. I worked up until the day before both of my children were born, and was back at work when my daughter was only six weeks old, and my son only three weeks old.

Of course, I work from home, so it’s not as though I’ve been in the office for all that time, and my hours equate to part time. But working from home means it’s almost more difficult to switch off, and the lines between work and family blur even further. And the rest of the time is taken up with those not-insigificant hours of cleaning, cooking, administering and nurturing to my little family. As much as I enjoy work and parenting none of it feels like a break!

This stay in France has been like a recuperation period, a chance to finally stop and rest and reflect and play. If I’d been sensible and taken two or three weeks a year during the past six years for holidays, they would have added up to the same amount of time out, but maybe just maybe, I could have avoided the sense of overload and overwhelm I’d been experiencing in the lead-up to this trip. (I suspect there’s a lesson in there for me somewhere.)

Photo 26-9-18, 4 59 13 pm.jpg

So now I sit by the window in the weakening light and sip my tea, and make notes in my blackbird notebook. Everything I’ve been doing, work-wise, this year. What’s working for me, and what isn’t. What feeds my soul and supports my family, and what detracts from soul or family (or both).

And I write down all those plans. So many creative dreams, all of which I am eager to sink my teeth into. Finally releasing that snail-mail book. A podcast about meals in the mail. Another colouring book. An illustrated year-book. A collaboration on sustainability that I’ve been invited to take on. A charity cook-book. Weekend intensive workshops for students. Postcard and zine projects. Stationery kits. Seed packets. Finally learning pottery. And how to crochet.

My first instinct is to take on ALL the plans, and pile them on top of everything I’m already doing. But in the calm and quiet sunshine of this much-needed time out, I can see more clearly. Looking down at that notebook, I can see projects that I loved this year but that didn’t serve me or my family. I can see creative ideas that I know I’ll love but that won’t serve us in 2019.

Slowly, I am paring back and choosing favourites… and choosing health and family and joy as well as, well, sheer productivity.

It’s easy to see a holiday as a great indulgence. Maybe it’s a vestige of the Protestant Work Ethic, but both my husband and I find it hard to stop. If one of us doesn’t work at night after dinner, the other one exclaims in surprise, “Oh! No work tonight!” and within the celebration of freedom there’s also an unspoken undercurrent of, “Must be nice to lead such a leisurely life.”

It’s time to reset. We both need to stop glorifying ‘being busy’.

Instead, I want to structure my days like the farmers of old. Work hard all day. Stop for a proper lunch to gain sustenance and energy for the afternoon ahead. After dinner, enjoy a well-earned rest: read a book, paint, watch TV, play board-games, write letters, crochet… in other words, leisure. Earmark at least one day each weekend for family and no work.

And once a year, while the earth sleeps (aka quieter times at work), take a break. Nothing necessarily as grand or expensive as an overseas trip (although wouldn’t that be lovely!), but ensure a deliberate, physical separation from work and obligations, to rest and reset.

These thoughts are all scribbled down in my notebook, in jumbles and pieces side-by-side with shopping lists and plant-doodles and wifi keys from the various places we’ve stayed. As I read over them before the light fades, I realise I may be making changes in 2019, bigger than I’d anticipated, pivoting again. And it feels good to finally begin to see.

Photo 5-11-18, 12 09 36 pm.jpg

Never miss a post

Tea at dawn

tea-at-dawn copy.jpg

This is when I do my best work. In the pre-dawn, while most of the world sleeps. 

I'm not a masochist, nor a particularly motivated person. It's just that I'm a morning person so I wake early naturally, and of course it makes sense to get as much work done as I can while the children sleep. My brain is rested, and rejuvenated, and I can do my best work at this time. I wrote my book The Art of Mail almost entirely between the hours of five and six in the morning. I write most of my blog posts at five, and that's when I research and craft most of my courses. 

Last month I put out a survey in my newsletter, asking people to share with me the biggest challenges they faced when it came to being creative. I gave them a list of choices, based on previous conversations I'd had. Hurdles they faced, like needing accountability, lack of confidence, and too many distractions. I received hundreds of responses to this survey, and the number one reason - in fact more than 80 percent of people ticked this box - was this:

"I want to be more creative but I don't have enough time.

A lot of them felt super frustrated with the popular 'wisdom' that is often spouted about finding time: "If you want it badly enough, you'll make the time." They felt disempowered by this statement and, personally, I think it is cruel. It's one thing expecting people to take responsibility for their own lives - which we all should! - but it is way too simplistic to say "You don't want it badly enough" to someone who struggles to make time for the things that give them joy. 

I have a job, and that takes time. I am trying to build a business, and that takes even more time. I have a husband and two small children. They take a LOT of time. My husband works 80+ hours a week so I essentially run our house on its own. That takes a good whack of time too. I don't have a car, so even getting from A to B if I need to do something like buy milk takes more time out of my day than it otherwise might. This list could go on, as I'm sure yours could too.

And it's not as though I could drop any of those other responsibilities, even if I wanted to (I generally don't want to). I need to work because my family relies on my income. I need to look after my children because my husband is at work and, while they have school and childcare on some days, they also need their parents! I need to cook and clean and otherwise run the house because if I didn't, we'd be living in a pile of rubbish comprised of dirty clothes, lego pieces, dust bunnies and food scraps, while eating takeout for every meal. 

But where in my busy life - or in yours - is the room for creating? For making just for the sake of making? For learning something new? For playing with art? For self-improvement? 

Ruby.jpg

Right now I'm working on a short course made specifically for all those lovely people who responded to my survey, about how to find (or make) time to be creative. It is about guilt-free ways we can use more of our time for the things that spark joy, and train our brains to be more creative, without feeling as though we need to drop our responsibilities or small pleasures. 

That will come very soon (if you happen to be awake at 5am Melbourne time on most days, you'll be able to picture me sitting at my desk with a  hot cup of tea, writing it). In the meantime, today I thought I'd share something else that several people in the survey asked for: an idea of what a typical day looks like for me. How do I divide up my time, they wanted to know, to fit in all those things. 

The short answer is, of course, that I generally fail in one area or another. I'm not super-human and I regularly feel as though I'm playing catch-up, or having to reshuffle priorities. Also, my day - just like yours - is never typical. So, bearing that in mind, here is a rough idea of what my days look like on one of the three days a week that my children are in childcare. 

art-of-mail.jpg

The day always starts with tea

5am: I make a cup of tea and take it into my office (a tiny, windowless room that is actually a converted wine cellar. It is always more cluttered and messier than I'd like it to be). I work on a key writing project, such as course material, book copy, blog posts. At some point during this time my husband usually gets up, showers, and leaves for work. 

6.30am: The children get up. I close the computer, we have cuddles, then get breakfast ready. We put on music (the children call it "calm music" and generally it's classical music at this time of morning), and we sit at the table together to eat. I try not to rush this and I try not to have my phone in my hand. We talk about the day ahead. What's on at school or kinder, any reading they've been doing, events that happened the day before (often they are too tired and their heads are too busy to talk in the afternoon, but it all comes out over breakfast). In Scout's case, there are often elaborate discussions about what she will wear for that day.

7am: While the children are still eating and chatting, I make their lunches and pack their lunch boxes, then check they have everything they need packed in their bags (hats, sunscreen, lunches, bottles of water, tissues, readers, library books, signed permission slips, and a change of clothes in case of over-enthusiastic water-play). At this point I often also realise I have forgotten to let the cat out, so I open up the little outdoor room where she sleeps. 

Honestly, mornings are mostly lovely. Last year they were hectic, but now we are in a rhythm, and most mornings we have fun. Sometimes we change up the "calm music" for something more lively, and take a moment to dance together around the kitchen. 

(At some time after breakfast, I aim to post an Instagram picture. I choose this time because I find that for me, a lot of my tribe are also online at that time, so we can chat and be engaged. I don't post unless I am relatively confident that I can respond to comments, and comment on other people's posts, during the next half hour. That's why if you follow me on Instagram you'll notice that I've been quiet lately. I don't feel it's fair to post a picture and then walk away, so I haven't been posting all that frequently of late, since mornings have been quite busy). 

7.30: The children play or read books while I go upstairs and make the beds, shower and dress, pick out clothes for them to wear, and water the upstairs plants if they need them (it's hot here right now and upstairs is like an oven, so they need watering almost daily). 

8am: I get the children dressed, brush their teeth and my teeth, do Scout's hair, and hunt for their shoes (generally at least one of them has lost at least one shoe). We need to be out of the house by 8.20am on two of the three days. On Tuesdays, all of the above still has to happen, but we need to be out of the house by 7.30am at the absolute latest, so imagine everything occurring at double speed. 

8.30am: Drop Ralph at kinder, settle him in, then walk Scout to school. 

9am: Say goodbye to Scout at school, then walk home, picking up a coffee on the way to bring home, and sometimes checking the PO Box for mail. 

9.30am: Finally I sit back down in front of my computer in the little windowless office. There are four core activities I do in my business. I always try to maintain a balance of these four in my week (preferably even in my day) because if I spend too much time on any one of these, or neglect any one of these, my business suffers. 

1. COMMUNITY: That means responding to comments and emails from my students; responding to questions on Instagram; replying to other emails; and caring for the Me & Orla community (I am a TA/VA for Sara Tasker) by responding to comments and questions from her students. This is also when I'll work on questions, strategies and responses for the people I mentor on a one-to-one basis. 

2. PRODUCTS: To make money in my business, I actually need to be constantly making things that I can sell. Writing courses, writing books, making colouring books, establishing master-mind groups, painting stationery designs for Boots Paper (I am the in-house illustrator for Boots), writing paid magazine articles, painting privately-commissioned pieces.  

3. PROMOTION: By this I mean all the things I do to share my work and my business with my tribe. This blog, updates to my website, my newsletter, Instagram, unpaid magazine articles, magazine and podcast interviews, pitching story ideas to magazines, and guest blog posts. A lot of people have asked me to create video tutorials and this is definitely something I'd love to start doing, but (as you can see) I have a lot to fit into three half-days already, so we'll see!

4. RESEARCH & LEARNING: My business is less than five months old, and I started it without planning or strategy (I wrote about that here), so I have a LOT to learn. I listen to podcasts a lot because I can do that while I'm painting. I research and read material online, I read books, and recent courses I've done include two on Instagram with Sara Tasker, one on Pinterest with Melyssa Griffin, some smaller courses on selling without being sleazy with Jessica Lorimer, and I've joined the Soulful PR community with Janet Murray. I also booked a one-hour coaching call with Jen Carrington that helped give me a lot of clarity. 

Depending on what is going on on that particular day, I prioritise COMMUNITY first, because I don't want people to wait too long to hear from me. Then the balance of PRODUCTS or PROMOTION will depend on what I have going on. For example right now I'm working on that "Time to Create" course I told you about, so I might prioritise that a little more heavily. When I'm ready to release it, or my book comes out, I'll move more into PROMOTION mode.

But to maintain some balance, I try to spread things out. I spent an hour on emails and comments this morning, now I'm writing this blog post. Afterwards, I'll dig back into writing the course. Last week, I spent the bulk of my time painting the artwork for the cover of my book, and the week before that I was editing the copy. Because of all those things, I've fallen behind on the promo side - this blog has been woefully neglected, as has Instagram. So I'll be working on redressing that balance soon.

I like to do my painting and drawing work in the afternoon. My brain is getting tired (remember I've been up since 5am!), so after lunch I'll sit down to paint, while listening to podcasts or audio books, so I can combine my PRODUCTS tasks with my RESEARCH & LEARNING tasks. 

3.15pm: I leave home to pick up Scout from school, then we walk back together, just in time to pick up Ralph from kinder.

4.15pm: We all arrive home and the children have some afternoon tea. We sit at the table again, and pull out any homework that Scout might have (she is only five so it's just readers, and school is so new - we started at the beginning of Feb - that she still enjoys them). 

While the children play, I clean up a bit. Clean the kitchen from meals cooked during the day (my grown-up step-daughter Em is living with us right now so there are several meals going on), empty and wash up lunch boxes, pick up clothes and toys that got scattered about that morning but which I didn't prioritise because I wanted to get straight to work, put on a load of washing, vacuum. Those kinds of things. 

5pm: The children have either a bath or a shower. If they shower, I sit in my windowless office which is right next door, and answer any 'community' questions that have popped up since that morning. If they have a bath, upstairs, I use the time to respond to any comments or questions on Instagram while supervising them as they play. Or I fold the laundry.

5.30pm-6pm: Sometime around this point, the children have dinner. It's only light: normally salad with some kind of protein like tuna or ham or egg or cheese, followed by fruit. On school days they are never particularly hungry but are always exhausted so they just want to go to bed. Then we brush teeth, and go upstairs to read stories. 

6.30pm-7pm: The children are in bed. I come back downstairs and clean the kitchen again after the children's dinner. Normally this is when I'd start to cook dinner for the grown-ups.

Lately though, we've been trying something different. I was finding I'd start cooking this late, so the food wouldn't be ready until 8pm, and often Mr B would then be in meetings or functions and so he wouldn't want to eat at all, and the food would be wasted (plus I'd be exhausted and then have to do even more washing up). Instead, we've started ordering "clean foods" meals from YouFoodz. I can see myself getting sick of them but right now, I like that they are fresh (not frozen), and come in recyclable containers so while not ideal, at least they don't go into landfill. I grab one and either eat it cold, pop it into the microwave, or stir-fry it on the stove-top. I miss cooking, but this certainly saves me at least an hour a night! Once my business gets through this intensive early-growth stage, I look forward to cooking again. 

7.30pm: After dinner, I settle in to work. At this time of night I'm not at my best for crafting words or retaining research. Instead, I do most of my painting at this time. If I have PRODUCT work to do (painting for Boots, or a client, or my book etc), I do that. This is also when I create the templates and paint the samples for my newsletters. If I don't have painting to do, I use this time to write letters to people, edit photographs for Instagram, and make mail-art for the joy of it. If I'm painting or editing photographs my brain is mostly free, and Mr B and I like to binge-watch whatever our new favourite show is on Netflix while he signs thousands of letters. I do sometimes laugh at the incongruence of painting a beautiful, peaceful botanical illustration while people slaughter each other on Vikings, but that's just how I roll. 

10.30pm-11pm: I do the final round of washing up (a lot less since YouFoodz), feed the cat and lock her up, hang up any wet washing from that load I put on earlier, and generally ready the house for the next day. If things are quiet I go to bed. If I'm busy or on a deadline, I can stay up much later, although I don't think I've worked past 1am more than a few times. After a few late nights, I'll often give up and go to bed earlier - about 9.30pm - to catch up. I have to be up again at 5am the next day, or 6am if I'm tired and need a sleep-in, to do it all again. 

painting.jpeg

So... that's what my day looks like three days a week, give or take afternoon kid activities like ballet or karate or French lessons or swimming. On the other two week-days I have Ralph at home with me, so there are no big blocks of working time. I do my early-morning work, then after school drop-off he and I usually go out to the park or somewhere, but he goes down for a little nap after lunch and I work then. I prioritise COMMUNITY during that nap hour and then, if there is still time, I pick from either PRODUCT or PROMOTIONS, depending on what's on that week. After Ralph's nap we pick up Scout from school, and the afternoon progresses in pretty much the same way. 

On the weekends, I'll still work in the early mornings, and again at night on painting, if we don't have to go out, and occasionally in the afternoons if the children have naps. But mostly, I try to make those days about family time. Because Mr B works such long hours, we prioritise the time that he is home to spend time together. Sometimes that has to involve cleaning the house, but we get out and about as much as we can on at least one of the weekend days. 

One last thing... 

I realise my hours are long, and not particularly sustainable. Please don't think I will be encouraging or expecting others to do the same things when I teach my Time to Create course. I'm at a point in my life where I'm building a brand-new business, and my time is extremely limited, so I'm squeezing every last morsel out of it. I don't intend to do this in the long term, and I don't expect anyone else to do this. 

What I do love about my busy life right now is that I have, by trial and error, managed to block out specific times for specific things. For example, I'm not working while supervising the kids. I used to do that and I felt doubly guilty: guilty that I wasn't paying proper attention to my children, and guilty that I wasn't paying proper attention to my work. I don't look at social media while I'm with the kids (except when supervising bath times), nor do I answer (many) emails in front of them. I sit at that meal table and we chat, actively listening to one another, and making eye contact. Then when I sit down at my desk to work, I'm all about the work. My phone is on silent and often in a different room. 

It's not perfect, but as someone who has freelanced for the better part of 15 years, I feel like I'm finally getting into some kind of workable rhythm, even while having small children around. 

How about you? I'd love to know how you balance your work / family / fun time. 

(Everybody sing together: "You can't hiiiiiiide / Your tired eyes....")

(Everybody sing together: "You can't hiiiiiiide / Your tired eyes....")

Never miss a post