Thursday, 28 June 2012

Not working, not at home

Sometimes working at home is about not working, and not being at home either.

Today was sports day at the boy's school.  Sports day takes precedence over deadlines, enormous workload and - oops - a miscalculation about how many working days there happen to be in this week.  (Same as other weeks.  You'd think I'd know by now...)

So it was an afternoon of not working and standing on a hot and sunny field watching organised chaos unfold as 120 children milled about, shouted, occasionally ran a race, and waited for the ice pops that were their reward at the end of it all.  It was an afternoon of ignoring all the things I should have been working on.  But it was also an afternoon of choosing to be there for the boy, cheer him on and enjoy the sunshine.  Despite the sunburn (mine, not his - another oops) I feel very lucky to have the choice.

I'm reminded of a quote I came across recently, attributed to Patricia Clafford:

The work will wait while you show the child the rainbow, but the rainbow won't wait while you do the work.

Sports day may not have the beauty of a rainbow, but being there for the boy was priceless.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

It all adds up

I posted a while ago about how using the tiny pockets of time that otherwise fall through the cracks of life can help us get things done, but today I've realised how much those tiny pockets can add up.
When some of the weeds growing on my allotment were nearly as tall as me (no exaggeration - I didn't know grass could grow seed heads four feet tall) I decided to go down there as many mornings as possible on the way back from dropping the boy at school.

Now, I can't spend all day there unfortunately - I have a business to run and a household to manage - but when I looked up after my stolen ten minutes today I realised I was winning!  All of the remaining weeds (and yes, there are plenty) are small and should be easy enough to keep on top of IF I keep taking those few minutes each day to keep them under control.

Now, I'm off to apply the same strategy to a very big piece of work which is nearly as daunting as the enormous weeds.  One step at a time...

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Just do it

I really wish a certain well-known company hadn't appropriated that phrase; it's a good one to live by.

"It's a lovely day.  I could go for a bike ride at lunchtime."  Just do it.  "But I don't have time/What if I get a puncture/I should do x instead/what should I wear..."

Just do it.

I did, just now.  Did I go far? No, but far enough.  Would I have won a race?  Definitely not.  How about an award for technique? Nope.  But do I feel better for it?  Oh, yes.  And virtuous too!

Trying to decide where to start on the mountain of work today? Just do it.  (Just one thing.  Write one sentence, open one document. The rest will follow.)

"I want to write."  So write - just do it.

I am - on this blog.  I jumped in, just did it, and, like a duck paddling, am keeping afloat.

"I want to start a business."  Just do it.  OK, this one takes a bit more thought and preparation!  But even with as big a step as this one there is always one thing, one small step, that we can "just do."  And just doing that one thing makes it easier to keep on going, and eventually taking the plunge to "just do" the really big thing, after doing the lots of little things first, often isn't so much of a huge jump after all.

If we let the un-named company keep their slogan, there are other ways to say this: stop prevaricating; stop procrastinating; stop second-guessing everything.  Or, in the immortal words of my family, "Stop poncing about and get on with it!"

Monday, 25 June 2012

How it all started

Well, as promised, here are the highlights (and some lowlights) of my journey towards living and working from home as a charity fundraising consultant...

I worked for five or  six years for a charity close to my heart, and learnt my fundraising skills there, working my way up the ranks and trying my hand at most areas of fundraising.  I think one of the most important things about that job was that from the beginning I worked part time.  In fact I haven't had a full time job as such since March 2000.  This was invaluable later on for two reasons: I had time to dabble in self-employment without risk, and I was not locked into the 8-hours-a-day-five-days-a-week mentality.

When the boy was born, I took a year's maternity leave with the intention of going back part time, but in the meantime found a similar job much closer to home.  It was full time but I negotiated it down to part time.  (Well, as all part time workers know, most of us do a full time job in part time hours anyway!)  It was hard and the boy was not happy at nursery.  After a year, I broke down in tears on the husband one lunchtime, and he said the immortal words, "go back in, and quit."  He wasn't giving me permission or an order - it was up to me, after all - but his words allowed me to give myself permission to leave, with no job to go to.

I didn't quit that afternoon - it seemed too over-emotional - but I did do it the next day.  And I did what in retrospect was a very clever thing.  You see, in the course of that monumental conversation, the husband had also asked me what I would like to do in an ideal world.  My reply: "One day a week working on [a particular area of fundraising] from home."  So when I handed in my notice, I offered to continue in that particular area for a day a week.  My boss, of course was politely non-committal - but when my successor announced that she only wanted to work 4 days a week, he picked up the phone to me."

In the meantime I'd been speaking to former colleagues at my original charity, asking if there were any part time or short term opportunities.  No word of a lie, the week after I handed in my notice, two of those former colleagues rang me independently, offering me part time, short term contracts.

Within a very short space of time, all due to telling others that I was available, I had a client base.  Small, admittedly, but a start.  I continued working for one charity for a year, and another for most of three years.  Slowly, over those three years, I branched out to new charities and now, after about 5 years, I feel I've found my niche, all thanks to good relationships with former colleagues and (accidentally) articulating to myself what work I wanted to be doing.  And jumping in with both feet.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Step back and wait

Breakfast by the open back door as the sun streams in.  The boy is drawn outside and begins to collect rose petals to make perfume for Mum.  Later, I watch as he stands close to the young apple tree for minutes at a time, watching the ants as they make their busy way up and down the trunk.  He finds where the aphids are hiding and inspects them too.  I stand back and watch the magic unfold.

I've tried to create the opportunities for outdoor play and learning, on so many days and in so many days.  Sometimes the lure of indoor toys and screens is too strong, but sometimes a small thing means that outdoors is fascinating again.  This time, it was my remark that I'd chosen a particular rose bush because it smells the same as the one in my childhood garden, whose petals I used to make 'perfume'.  He dashed outside to do the same, and I stood out of the way.

So many times, at home and work, all we need to do is create the right environment, then step back and wait.  Mix the ingredients, heat the oven, and the cake will bake itself.  You can't make the carrots grow, but you can sow the seeds, water them, weed, and wait.  Make the calls, and eventually someone will hire you.  Do great work, and the recommendations will follow.  Believe in yourself, and someone else will too.

PS. I was delighted to be asked by Judy Heminsley to be interviewed on her blog, Work from home wisdom.  The first part of the interview is up today so please do go over and take a look.  As I said to Judy, her book was my emotional crutch and practical support when I finally took the plunge and went 'properly' out on my own, having played at it for a few years.  I'll tell that story in my next post.

If you're visiting from Judy's blog, welcome, and do stop and say hello!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Being a good boss

It was only a headache.  Tiredness and a headache sound like they should rank alongside 'the dog ate my homework' in the definitive list of poor excuses.  But it was a clanging, excruciating headache and eventually I gave in and went to bed.

I used to have a manager who made a point of asking (and actually caring - or at least appearing to) how we all were.  If we were obviously ill, or had a family emergency, he'd send us home with instructions not to come back until we were better.  He did this with a lovely mix of care for our wellbeing and more mercenary explanations along the lines of 'if you stay here you'll infect everyone else' and 'I want you fit and well so your work doesn't suffer'. 

I always tried to follow his lead with my own team, but what happens when your team becomes one person - you - and your office is in your home?  There's a real temptation to turn into the boss from hell and stand over yourself cracking a metaphorical whip, when all you want to do (and all your body needs to do) is crawl into bed and recover.

Fourteen hours of sleep later, the mental fog is receding.  If I'd tried to work through yesterday I doubt I would have achieved anything more useful that I did by sleeping, however much the boss threatened me, and today would probably have been a washout too.

Being a good boss sometimes means being kind to yourself.

Sometimes - like today - it means making sure that you don't get too used to the kindness and return to productivity!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

On finishing

Some time ago I almost left self-employment and home working and returned to being employed outside the home.  As soon as I'd agreed to do it I knew I'd made a mistake.  That's a story for another post, but today's post is about finishing things.

One of the many reasons I realised that employment away from home was not for me at that time was that the position concerned was a management one and involved very little opportunity for finishing things.  I would have spent most of my days in meetings, staff supervision and budget reviews, and very little time on writing, research and practical work.

It matters to me, at the end of a day, a week or a month, to be able to stop, reflect and say, "I did this."  I wrote this, I baked this, I made this.  For me (though probably not for everyone), being able to say, "I talked about this" does not bring with it the same sense of achievement.

Today, I finished a piece of work which has occupied my time, on and off, for a couple of months.  It may not be perfect - nobody's perfect - but it's finished.  I planned it, thought long and hard about it, and wrote it in the very best way I could.  What a sense of achievement.

Running my own business means everything falls to me - but it gives an awful lot of opportunities to say, "I finished!  I created this."

Saturday, 16 June 2012

In praise of the Post-it

I have tried, believe me I've tried.  Electronic diaries/calendars; notes on my Iphone; 'proper' To Do lists with timings and all that. I even have, as I referred to recently, a shelf full of half-filled notebooks, most of which contain some form of to do list.

But every time I try to introduce a new, improved system of notes and organisation, I invariably default to the one thing which always, always works for me: post-it notes.  At present the collection of green stickies on my desk includes the following cryptic reminders:

  • Cross-reference both plans
  • Order wetsuit
  • Too ambitious for one person?
  • Eulogy to the post-it
  • Definition of eulogy [guess who wasn't sure she was using the right word? Turns out a eulogy is usually for a dead person, and my post-its definitely have a life of their own, so that title for this post was abandoned]
  • G. Off. in later stages?
  • Validation
  • Book Mad Science

Some of these are work-related and some not. (I'll leave you to guess why I might need a wetsuit for my job as charity consultant!)  Several are already completed and about to be binned; some will make it into the electronic reminder system and others will float about on the desk until they irritate me so much I either do them or bin them anyway.  But the system works!

It works because:
  • I'm not surgically attached from my phone and don't look at it for days on end, so it's not a useful tool to me.  Plus it takes too long to make a note with just a thumb.
  • Much of my life takes place away from the computer.  (This is the same reason I still have a paper diary, although I am under strict orders to use my online calendar too so as to preserve marital communication and harmony.)
  • I'm never far from a post-it (yes, I have a pad of them in the bedroom).
  • I also have an army of pens occupying my house, handbag and car.
  • They are just the right size for random jottings which may or may not make sense in a week's time.
  • I can stick them into the relevant notebook when I need to.
  • I just like paper and pen better!
Post-its?  Love them, can't live without them.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Lavender's blue...

Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, lavender's green,
When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen.

Did you know that the English name for the herb dill comes from the Anglo-Saxon verb dillen, meaning 'to lull'?  I learnt that this morning from Jenny Uglow's book, A Little History of British Gardening.    And because the mind is a wonderful thing, mine immediately leaped to the rhyme above, and I realised for the first time every that "dilly dilly" wasn't just put in there as a nonsense filler, but because the song is a lullaby.

This little fact pleased me enormously, because I love words.  I also love the way that all facets of home life are woven together through time, and particularly way back in time.  How to explain what I mean?

Without words we couldn't communicate with our families.  A simple Anglo-Saxon word brings together a lullaby for babies, a herb with soothing qualities, the garden in which that herb grows and the baby plays, and the book which I read for relaxation in that same garden.  Not to mention the whole history of the cultivation of that herb and all its uses.  Threads running through the home also spread out into the surrounding world - home is the foundation of that world.

Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so?
'Twas mine own heart, dilly dilly, that told me so.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Tiny pockets

Tiny pockets of time.  How often do we waste them?  So many people have written about how you only need five minutes to (fill in the blank: meditate; exercise; declutter; tidy up; knit a row on a sock; change the world...)

I'm not good at sitting still - just ask my family - and so whenever I get five 'spare' minutes I usually manage to fill them.  Sometimes it's in a useful way, and sometimes not.  But I'm trying to make good use of them now and actually think about what those tiny pockets can help me achieve.  I find it difficult to do 'real' work - writing, in-depth thinking and planning - in a very short space of time, but I can jot down an idea for a blog post, empty the dishwasher, phone the garage or tidy out one clothes drawer.  (All of these are things I've done this morning in what would otherwise have been empty time - for example the five unexpected minutes I had because we were actually ready for school early for once.)

It's a way to silence the voice in my head that lists, over and over, all of the things I haven't done yet:  "Finish this, clean that, write this, do that, make this decision..."  That voice isn't helpful at all but taking a moment to actively decide what to do with this tiny pocket of time - that's useful and it gets things done, even if the thing that gets done is a conscious few minutes of nothing!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Half-filled notebooks

Does anyone else have a shelf/drawer/cupboard full of half-filled notebooks?

I have a selection of notebooks in all shapes, sizes, colours and bindings.  Some I've had for years; one I bought last week. (It has drawings of vegetables on the cover.  I like growing vegetables and it makes me smile.  But I didn't need it.)  Some are works of art - their contents are not - and some are just school-style exercise books.  I've been doing a book-binding class so some are handmade by me while others are mass-produced and spiral-bound. 

I can never resist adding to the collection.  This may be why, with a few exceptions, not one of these books is actually full.  I use them to write lists, diaries and random thoughts, but my thoughts would probably be a lot more coherent (and it would be easier to go back and find particular notes) if I managed to keep them all in one book at any one time.  But sometimes a notebook is too big to fit in my bag so I need to use a smaller one.  Sometimes I don't feel like writing on lined paper.  Sometimes a spiral binding annoys me.  Sometimes I fancy a big page so my ideas don't get squashed.  Sometimes I just want to use a pretty book - or want to use a plain one so I don't get intimidated by the blank pages.

Is it just me?  Do you have a collection of half-filled notebooks too?

PS.  Come to think of it, I have a lot of pens too.  Pens are important.  They must write smoothly and easily and make a nice fine - but not too fine - line.  There must be a selection of colours even though nine times out of ten I will choose the black one.  Maybe that's a post for another day!

Friday, 8 June 2012

Could home be somewhere else?

Sitting in a tiny continental airport with a view of the sunny mountains I was about to leave, I wondered - as everyone has at least once - whether I could live there.  But it wasn't the living part (the markets, the food, the wine, where would I buy my clothes?) that I was thinking about; it was the working.  I tried to imagine myself doing the work I do now in that beautiful part of the world.

The only tools I need are a computer with internet access, a phone and, occasionally, a printer.  I'm sure all those could be had, although I'm not sure how reliable the broadband connection would be.  I don't live near most of my clients now, so probably wouldn't have to travel any more often than I already do - although the journeys to Hampshire or Wales or elsewhere in Britain would be rather longer and more expensive.  The view and the climate would be very much improved in comparison with today's rooftops in the rain.  And of course I'd drag the family along so that side of life would carry on as normal.

But there would be very little local demand for my services, I imagine.  (If there are more than a handful of charities in the local area I'd be surprised.)  And of course I'm missing a lot of local knowledge about grants availability, charitable giving habits, and how to use the language to do more than order a coffee.  But those things could be learnt.  It's more than that; it's a feeling of belonging.  (However much I try to rationalise things, I find that more and more I rely on feelings and gut instinct to show me the way.)

No, I don't think my life would translate into an overseas one.  Even the rain is part of home.  Just as I know that working from home is for me at this point in my life, I know that home is here.