Finding Your Creative Time

Posted on Posted in Virtual Assistant, Work Home Blend

I have been a freelancer since late last year.  Working in this way takes some getting used to, not least because of the need to self-motivate and hold oneself accountable.  And one of the things that has struck me as I’ve moved along my freelance path is the fact that my most creative times are not necessarily during my core hours or at the times I might have predicted I would be at my best.

Does anyone else find the same?

In my employed life, I was accustomed to attending a workplace on set days during set hours.  Now, my hours are fluid and although I have weekly core hours in order to give my clients a period of time they know is unchangeable, as I expect most freelancers do, I find myself drawn to working at unsociable hours.   Times like last thing at night when the children are in bed or first thing in a morning before the day has got into its stride.

In the early days of freelancing, I would sometimes find myself feeling unmotivated and flat on some days, but then at other times, even just a few hours into the evening, suddenly creativity and motivation would envelop me.

I read countless articles and motivational quotes telling me the top five ways to get motivated again and all of the helpful foods I could eat, but now I wonder if I was confusing lack of motivation with simply picking a time for my creative work that wasn’t the right time for me.  And I wonder therefore, if we have two elements to our working week.  One is the core.  Our available hours.  Our admin time maybe.  Our client-facing time definitely.   And the other is reserved for the magic, behind the scenes.   It is where we seize the opportunity as soon as it hits us to work at those funny times when inspiration comes calling.  It is where we find our peak.

Musings about the best time of day to work are not new.  There are those who feel that early birds should reserve the early part of the day for their best work, and night owls the other end.  There has also been research suggesting the opposite.  I expect there will be yet more delving into this area as our working world continues to evolve but for now I remain intrigued and I expect I will carry on finding my odd times to bring out my creative side.

Scenic image with text saying start the year on green.

New Year, New Start

Posted on Posted in Virtual Assistant

In reaching the end of the year, I have been doing what I suspect many of us are doing right now – thinking about the year ahead and the things I want to happen. I’m not a great maker of resolutions, because I’m not a great keeper of them. But I do like to have some ideas in mind about what I want to achieve for the next year; both in my personal life and in work.

This year has been an exceptional year for me as it is the year I set up Virtual Madeleine. Naturally, my goals for next year are very much focused around my hopes and dreams for my business. Whilst allowing myself to dream big and be ambitious, I think it is important to adopt a sympathetic approach to goal-setting and not be too hard on myself if things don’t go as planned; after all, mistakes are there to be learned from and not to become regrets.

I love a good mantra and my kitchen walls and cupboards are adorned with various popular phrases. At some point in my life I’m sure I will learn to dance in the rain, live simply, compromise, and all the other lovely things that are written on the wooden love hearts in my house. But not all mantras come nicely packaged. And perhaps my favourite is one that was inspired by something my daughter said to me.

My daughter’s primary school operates a traffic light system for helping the children understand whether their behaviour is okay or not okay. So, green is clearly very good, amber is not so good, and red needs looking at. In the few words I receive from her about the status of each day, my daughter always makes sure to give me a run down of how she and her friends did on the traffic light system. I do sometimes find myself wondering about what happens if you hit ‘red’. What happens the next day? I haven’t had to ask her. She told me anyway – “Every day we start on green”.

Every day we start on green. Every morning is a clean slate. Everybody is at the same point and can have a fresh start.

I’ve come to love this phrase and I think of it myself on the days where things may not have gone well. I may have had an unsuccessful day, I may have lost my motivation momentarily, there may be something upsetting me. But I tell myself that it’s okay, because tomorrow I will start on green.

And so instead of making resolutions that I will not keep, I will have my goals in mind for 2018. But I will always have this in mind too – with the new year comes another opportunity to start on green. No matter how established you are, or how experienced, or how long you have been in business; there is always room to look again at how you’re doing, with fresh eyes, almost as if you’re starting from scratch.

Start on green for 2018 and see where it takes you.

Clock

Not Wasting Time

Posted on Posted in Virtual Assistant, Work Home Blend

If I were to ask you what you hold dear in life, you might tell me about people you care about, or activities you enjoy, or perhaps possessions that are precious to you. I imagine I would answer in a similar way. But one thing that is so valued and so valuable, but does not always spring to mind, is time. How we spend our time influences so many things. How often do you hear people caution against ‘wasting’ time? Or making sure we use it wisely? Or wishing we had more?

There seems to be a drive, particularly in ‘work’ time, to spend each moment of that time to its best potential, and to squeeze productivity out of each drop. I’m guilty of this. Being freelance, it feels there is an added, albeit internal, pressure to make each bit of time count even if it is not time spent on client work. This can mean as freelancers we forget to include in our day time for things we need to do in order for us to be ready to actually start work.

In the days when I worked for organisations as an employee, I had, probably without realising it, a very specific routine for when I arrived at work. You could call it my settling in routine. I suspect most of us have them. Working for a health and social care charity, my morning routine involved greeting my colleagues when I arrived, setting up my computer, checking my ‘to do’ list, and then making my coffee. A simple process but one without which I could not start my day. Especially the coffee bit. And it couldn’t be coffee I had before work and it couldn’t be coffee I bought on my way in. It had to be made at work. I never saw this as a particular ritual but when I look back, I did it every day. And going back even further, when I worked at a theatre, my morning routine had to involve saying Good Morning to the Stage Door Keepers and then walking the same route behind the stage and through the theatre building to the Green Room to get my milk, and then making my coffee. In that order, every day. If the order went awry, it felt like a peculiar day.

Now, I have been in denial about having a new routine as a freelancer and only recently came to accept that I do have one. In the early days of freelancing, I would find myself going straight from the school drop-off to the nearest supermarket to buy an iced coffee before I began to work. After a while, I started to tell myself I was wasting valuable work time visiting the supermarket when I had a perfectly good kettle at home, which was acceptable for the rest of the day, and that this was just a silly indulgence. So, I stopped the little trips. And I found I felt like something was missing from my ‘getting ready’ routine. I couldn’t quite settle. I needed some kind of ritual, some separation to tell me that this was now work time. That little trip to the shop did that for me. I guess you could say I’d redesigned my own settling in process for working at home.

I’ve come to see it now not as wasting time, but using it wisely, to get me ready to work and focus. I wonder what rituals others have to get ready for work time. Early morning exercise? A particular breakfast you need to eat?

However you spend your working time, don’t underestimate the value of the bit before. You need to be set up for your day in the best way possible. So, if that is the daily trip to the supermarket, don’t feel it is time wasted. All time has its purpose.

elephant with words featured - honest, thoughtful, wise, honest, fair

Thinking About Honesty

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Honesty, Virtual Assistant, Work Home Blend

I am a member of a number of online forums for Virtual Assistants.  They are part of my online network and the discussions I get to take part in are always valuable and encourage me to think in different ways.   With the last week being the half-term holiday for many schools, one of the forums asked its members how those who have children manage childcare alongside their work.  The answers varied, with those who have school-age children generally having less of a conundrum than those with smaller children.   I contributed my own experiences to this discussion but also observed the answers of others.  What struck me was that there seemed to be two messages coming out; two schools of thought.  One was that clients did not need to be told the ‘why’ details when Virtual Assistants are less available at times like these, and the other was that it was no problem for them to know that childcare was the reason.  Those who felt strongly about the first opinion generally believed that it was better to tell clients that they are not available without saying it is due to childcare commitments.  I understand this.  After all, freelancers are responsible for managing their own time and their projects within that time.  However, it did make me think a lot about how I probably, hand-on-heart, am more affiliated with the second school of thought.  The completely honest approach, because it is the way I work myself.  Indeed, I received a new client enquiry just before the half-term holiday began and I was open with them that I very much welcomed the opportunity to bid for the work and would be able to do so after the week had ended, as I was committed to caring for my children whilst they were at home and I would have limited time.  The potential client was happy with this and I felt no regret in being honest.

I haven’t always been comfortable being so candid.  When I was in my mid-late teens, I began my first weekend job selling clothes  in an old mill shop.  It was a brilliant experience for me because it helped me to come out of my shell and develop confidence interacting with people and of course having my first experience of earning a wage.  During the initial weeks there, I met the owner of the shop.  She was very pleasant and put me at ease, telling me about her plans for the business.  One thing she said struck a chord with me though and I never forgot it.  In outlining her expectations of me, she told me that work was for work, home was for home, and she had no interest in me bringing anything to do with my personal life into work.  Family problems? Keep them at home.  Boyfriend trouble? Keep it away.  I got the message.  And for a long time in my earlier roles, I headed this advice and kept my private life private, to the point where I probably came across as very aloof to my colleagues.   The message I took from her warning was that we should become separate people when we are at work, almost as if we do not have personal lives at all that may impact on our day jobs.  But then I was fortunate to begin to work for managers and with colleagues who did not share that philosophy and who understood that work and home often collide, even blend into one sometimes, and you cannot simply take off your ‘home’ coat because you are working.  Those managers taught me that they valued me not just as a worker but as a worker with a home life that would sometimes encroach on my work life, even if I didn’t want it to. They recognised that this did not make me less good at what I did and their approach was instrumental in helping us all to have the balance between work and home.   

It is this that encouraged me over time to have the confidence to adopt my own approach of real openness with my employers and subsequently my clients.  It taught me not to fear the consequence of honesty.    I carry this philosophy with me throughout my life, even when those around me might occasionally caution me not to.  But I see no reason to hide things just because they do not fit with a corporate image or ideal.   I am open with my clients, that I am a working mother with young children.  Being freelance means I can work more flexibly but this doesn’t mean the quality of my work is affected. 

Whatever your philosophy, it is important to recognise that we are living in a working age where it is no longer all about the ‘9-5’ and separating our private lives.    We should not be afraid to be honest about our private lives in our working lives.  We should not be worried that our clients will think less of us, simply because we shine a light on the fact that we are people first and business people second. 

Graffiti image saying Together we create

The Art of Blogging

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Blogging, Virtual Assistant

In my other life, I spend some of my free time blogging.  It is something I began after having my second child and I blog mainly as a way of emptying my head, exploring my thoughts, sometimes with a message I want to convey, other times seeking out messages or reassurance from others who may feel the same.  It is cathartic, therapeutic, and natural for me to write my thoughts down.   Blogging for me is a way to get my writing fix as I’ve enjoyed writing since I was a child.     I imagine there are many other bloggers like me – hobby bloggers, but I’m aware that blogging is a form of writing that serves many uses and purposes, not least for communicating messages about businesses and the services that they offer, or engaging people to support a cause, or communicate a powerful message.

In the blogging world, we refer to what we do simply as blogging or writing.  In the commercial world, it is referred to more often as producing content.  However you define it, the thought of doing it can either fill you with excitement at being able to make your words mean something, or with dread, if you are not a natural wordsmith.

I’ve been asked in the past for my advice to aspiring blog-writers on how to start a blog, how to think of ideas, and how to write posts.  My advice has always centred around writing as a hobby, but I consider it to be relevant to blogging for commercial content too.  After all, the aim from your audience is the same.  You want them to read your words, to keep reading, to understand your message, and to remember even for a little while what you were trying to convey.

The biggest piece of advice I could ever give somebody who is contemplating writing their first blog post or establishing a blog of their own is this – be honest and write from your heart.  Readers can see straight through you if you write words that you do not mean.   Your ideas may not come thick and fast, there may be gaps between posts; that’s okay.  What is important is believing in the ideas when they come.    I realise this is easier for a personal blog or a guest blog post on another site than it is for your company website or company social media profile.  People often have deadlines to meet in the commercial world to produce that content and to get it out there.  But it is possible to meet those without stifling your ideas.

If you are creating content and you are not fully confident or familiar with how to structure it, I cannot stress enough the importance of reading and consuming other articles and posts.  Look how they are structured, see how the writer brings you in when you read them, bookmark the ones that really stand out.  My own writing process tends to begin with a ‘mind dump’ followed by me making sense of my words, re-ordering them and proofreading.   I know of others who begin posts with a clearly written plan and structure, including pre-writing research, and take it from there.  The best process is the one that works for you.

I would also advise not to be afraid to ask for help, if not with the words themselves then by asking a friend or colleague to critically read your article.  In the early days of my blog writing, I was fortunate to be accepted to write for an online blogzine, Selfish MotherI joined them at a time when they were in the early phase of growing their writer base significantly and I was very lucky to have my first posts submitted to and edited by the Founder, Molly Gunn, who offered me really constructive, useful and insightful feedback that I have taken with me for future posts.  Having somebody else, even if it is not somebody with writing experience themselves, to look at what you’ve written is invaluable.

My final piece of advice for any would-be content writer is to be yourself and enjoy what you’re writing.  Words are wonderful and the opportunity to make them convey your message is a gift.

picture saying laugh out loud, speak kindly, trust, be thankful, practice patience, apologize

Highlighting the Softer Skills

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Soft Skills, Virtual Assistant

It is not uncommon for me to tell people what I do and for their faces to display a very puzzled look.  Perhaps they are thinking I am something to do with virtual reality, or that maybe I am the voice of an app on a phone helping people find their way to the nearest supermarket.  So, I often find myself explaining my work, what I do and how it works.  I don’t mind this.  It usually doesn’t take long to clear up any initial puzzlement and then everything starts to make sense.

But when I think about how I present myself to the world, I have to confess that I focus on the core of what I do in terms of actual work and skills.  And while they are real and very valuable skills, I tend not to focus on one element of them that is really important but which I do not give enough air time. Known by some as ‘soft’ skills, they are the skills that enable me to communicate, empathise, understand, sympathise and support my clients in a way that they might not have if they are small businesses or sole traders without an administrative infrastructure around them.  To be the ‘ear’ that will listen to them if they need a sounding board and to offer advice in a confidential and respectful way.

I have always regarded administrative roles as crucial to businesses – whether they are employee roles or freelancers providing virtual support.  We enable things to run behind the scenes, in order that everything should play out as planned on the stage.   We are, if you like, the backstage crew.     And whilst we may have the skills to carry out our work successfully, our softer skills cannot be underestimated.   I spent many years in roles in businesses where I provided direct administration support to senior managers, including a long time working as an Executive Assistant working very closely with a CEO.   Whilst my work skills, knowledge and experience were incredibly important, I brought something else to my roles that was not requested in a job spec or advertisement.  I brought me.  My soft skills are around my ability to empathise with people, to feel real compassion, to act in my life in a kind way, and to enable people to feel calm.  One might feel these skills are better utilised in an employee role in a business, but they have a crucial place in a client/virtual assistant relationship.  

I don’t feel this is something that can be taught.  You do not necessarily develop these skills to become a better communicator, you become a better communicator because you have these skills.  But I do feel these are attributes of many people that are often not encouraged in workplaces.  Kind business is not something we hear a lot about but it should be highly regarded and perhaps we should think of a new name for ‘soft’ skills to give them more prominence.   In a new world of working where we are embracing fluid, flexible, virtual work, and valuing work that has a balance with home lives, now is a good time to recognise this. 

desk lamp laptop vase books home office

Working 2017 Style

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As we come into the summer, and for some the natural break in their working year, it seems a good time to take stock and plan for the Autumn.    For me, taking stock is also about reflecting on a new way of working – digital and virtual.

So, I have been thinking  a lot about the way in which our working lives are changing all around us, constantly.  A favourite film of mine as a child of the Eighties was Working Girl.  Another favourite was Baby Boom and yet another, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead.  On the face of it, one might interpret this as my affection for strong female lead characters.  Not wrong, but my passion for these films stemmed from their depictions of offices in America in the age of power-dressing, capitalism, and ‘success’.   They became almost a blueprint, amongst other depictions of offices, for the type of working environment I saw myself in when I grew up, albeit I also saw myself living in New York and writing for The New York Times.

Fast forward lots of years and we of course find ourselves in a very different age.  Those movies now confined to the shelf marked ‘nostalgia’ and operating as a parody of how offices were in our recent past.

Working environments now are so vastly different, and so varied, it is hard to identify a stereotype of one office, one workplace, or one environment.   The ‘9-5’ is slowly disappearing.  Flexible working is the popular kid on the block.  Workplaces and employers recognise that their employees have lives away from work that do not stop at the work door.   Varied working hours are commonplace, work-life balances are becoming more blended, and there is an increasing number of people who become workers with remote offices.  Known by some as ‘Digital Nomads’, and by others as Freelancers, Virtual Assistants, and similar.

It feels odd to refer to myself as a Digital Nomad – even I have attached a stereotype to that definition, which is of somebody sitting on a beach with their laptop.  But I am certainly a remote worker.  Apart from the service I offer in clients’ offices – taking minutes – the remainder of my work is digital and online.   So I guess I reflect a new demographic of worker.  Digital, remote but available, not fixed to any one location, and working in a way that allows my life to continue outside of work.   I look forward to continuing to observe the shifts and changes in working culture and I look forward to what the Autumn will bring.