Impostor syndrome, women in tech, freelancing

When I was seventeen or so you would find me staring at lines of code, resolutely programming a custom CMS in PHP or designing yet another layout for my blog. I was that kid, the one terrified of speaking to people. Who had a bizarre fear of the telephone. Whose social circle was limited to playing D&D and who truanted from just one class – Physical Education.

By all rights I should have ended up a developer. Maybe a designer. The place I actually ended up was… communications and marketing.

It seems bizarre now, looking back on it. The kid who once let a store short change them rather than risk making a scene ended up managing relationships with people for a living.

The reason I didn’t study computers or programming at University is probably down to a combination of things. Neither of my parents went to Uni, I had a vague idea I wanted to create comic books for a living, my career advisor was crap. I ended up doing English & Creative Writing. It was a good degree. It even had a web design module, which taught us how to use Dreamweaver. (I sidestepped it and just wrote my code directly.)

My first ‘proper’ job after University — after a six month stint in a call-centre — was working for a Video Game start-up. I was super-excited! They hired me because I said I wanted to work in something that would use both my writing and my tech skills.

I used my writing skills. My tech skills were limited to copy&paste. Somehow I got pushed more and more into the marketing and PR side of things. I organised LAN sessions — but I didn’t play in them. I wrote peppy news-posts and managed the forum.

At some point, I got the chance to write a fiction blog detailing the lives of two ‘background characters’ caught up in the video game’s universe. I developed a character: an older woman, struggling with arthritis, a missionary in a strange land. The artist did a fantastic job drawing her.

Then our lead designer came back: “What is this shit? She looks sick! We need her to be SEXY.”

I quit not long after. For lots of reasons. I wasn’t getting paid even minimum wage, I was expected to be on call at 7am and 11pm. And I had realised I would never be much more than the peppy female face of the company, not someone who had any real input into the games.

All the designers, developers, programmers were male. The PR staff were mainly female.

After that I ended up in a part-time admin job, and decided to set up a freelance web-design business on the side. I worked pretty hard, coding up around twenty websites over the first year or so. I even built another custom CMS, this being before WordPress and its like had really taken off. I developed e-commerce sites. I learned Magneto’s templating system.

Then my part-time admin role went full-time. I couldn’t really afford to say no. I kept the freelancing up but on a very ad-hoc basis.

After three years or so doing the admin job, I eventually landed a new job. Digital Communications Offer for an environmental charity. Some of the essential skills included HTML, CSS, experience with Drupal, even Flash. There was to be a core coding component to the role.

But it was still a marketing role, not a tech role. It was the most ‘tech orientated’ of any of the jobs I have had. I built internal sites, including custom php scripts to manage an internal bulletin system. I built a localhost site for a touchscreen. I managed a linux server. But day-to-day? Producing fun graphics and running social media. Writing newsletters. Managing bloggers.

Don’t get me wrong. I have come to enjoy that side of my job — and I’m good at it. I tripled web traffic and increased conversion rates. I launched our social media strategy. I gave presentations to rooms full of people. But the days I really enjoyed my job were the days I spent picking apart php code.

I struggle with impostor syndrome — the feeling that I’m never good enough, that I’m out of place. When I meet ‘real’ developers I stay silent, unable to contribute.

Whilst working for this charity I liaised with a web development agency that managed our main website – one of the top London agencies, charging £750 a day — and discovered that many of their coders were no better than me. I frequently suggested solutions to the bugs I found. We had many problems that I ended up working around with code over-writes (a terrible solution, by the way).

I left that job, to try and move to the USA, and in the last couple of weeks I’ve launched myself as a full-time web developer.

I do know my stuff. I’ve been reading tech blogs for fun my whole life. I love learning about UX principles. I can solve css issues. I’m not up to speed on things like Ruby on Rails, but I can build a damn website.

But the voice that says I’m not good enough doesn’t go away.

Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I’d ever managed to get one of those developer jobs at an agency that I applied for. I applied to so many of them! Was it my skills that weren’t up to par? And yet my social skills, my marketing skills, they really were not ‘up to par’ when I started my career, and that’s where I ended up.

I guess I will never know.





Designing Pipettes in the Dark: thoughts on responsive design

I recently developed a custom ‘responsive design’ wordpress theme for new science blog Pipettes in the Dark. (I freelance in web design & development – you can see my portfolio over here at Monochrome Rainbow).

You should definitely go read the first post — about Lego and WOMEN IN SCIENCE.

It’s been a little while since I’ve developed an entire theme from scratch. One of the big challenges in web-design is crafting layouts that work on a range of screen sizes. We use a range of devices these days, from smartphones right up to smart TVs.

Don’t think a bigger screen-size is such a challenge? Well, you’re wrong. Text is easiest to read in columns of about 50-75 characters. This is why newspapers and magazines print in columns.

You have three choices on a big screen:

  1. Fix the max-width of your text areas so that they don’t grow (can often end up with ‘tiny website lost in acres of white-space’ syndrome).
  2. Make the font-size increase proportionally to the column width (actually not a bad idea, especially if you assume people are sitting further away from bigger screens).
  3. Or, final choice, you can ‘flow’ text into multiple columns using responsive design and media queries.

Native apps versus responsive design

There are two approaches to ‘solving’ the multiple screen-size problem. The first is by producing native apps for mobile, tablet etc. These usually work better, and can take advantage of mobile technology like GPS, notifications, etc. However they can be pretty expensive and hard to keep up-to-date.

The other approach, which works better for individuals and small businesses, is to use a responsive design. That way you can have one website that is fluid across different screens. You lose some functionality, but if you’re basically just delivering content then that’s no big loss.

Responsive design is mainly coded via media queries.

Media queries are awesome. Deliver different stylesheets based on screensize, and you have one website that works on multiple devices.

Media queries are used for responsive design
Media queries used for three breakpoints to create a responsive design

Pipettes in the Dark is a fairly standard blog, with no sales pitch or calls to action. I was able to stick to a tried and tested basic layout that everyone will be familiar with. The closer you stick to ‘standard’ layouts, the more familiar people will be with navigating and using them. Originality can be over-rated! Just remember the last overly-complicated flash website you tried to use. Frustrating, right?

So I went with the two-column site with a header and footer. I then adjusted the width of the columns once you hit the tablet size, enabling the sidebar to stay readable.

Finally, for mobiles, I got rid of the sidebar altogether. Sometimes, hiding non-essential information is the best way to go when you have limited space.

Designing for SCIENCE

The design elements have an interesting backstory. The header text or logo is meant to look like text spelled out with ‘PCR Bands’. Nope, I don’t know what PCR Bands indicate either, but I googled some images and was able to approximate the general look and feel in Photoshop.

The background texture is channeling the idea of pipettes in a box.

The colour scheme is grayscale, accented with hot pink. Keeping a limited colour-scheme can be challenging, but we kept enough contrast in each section to retain legibility. Hot pink is vivid and exciting, plus it is associated strongly with women. The blog itself will tackle some of the gender expectations/challenges within the generally male dominated field of science, and the colour scheme reflects that.

Pipettes in the Dark is also the first of one hundred websites I designed and deployed as part of my Forty Before Forty! I’m expecting almost all of the other ones to also use responsive design… unless there is a really good reason not to.

Want me to help you with your website? Get in touch with me

That email from Amazon about the Amazon-Hachette Dispute

So I got THAT email this morning. The one that compares the contract dispute between Amazon and Hachette to WW2 and Orwell and I don’t even know what?

Here are my thoughts:

Dear KDP Author, Could you not have used my name? Seriously? I’m in your KDP program!

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year. Hurrah for paperbacks. Didn’t stop hardbacks from being sold though, did it?

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion. CITE YOUR SOURCES. This seems like a really bug-eyed view of this period of literary history, and also I quite respect George Orwell as an author so, you know, I’d think he probably had some rationality behind his reasoning. 

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The first part of your email is irrelevant. Great.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive. I generally agree with this BUT. I buy ebooks for a wide range of prices. The value is dictated not by the format, but by how much I love the author. I’ll buy Robin Hobbs books at any price. Pretty sure this is true of most readers. JK Rowling can charge more than me: that’s kind of how a creative industry works. 

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers. 

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books. Already happened, frankly. If you want low-priced ebooks, you’ll find them on amazon, by KDP authors. And lots of people are buying them. For once, the marketplace is working. We’ve got erotica for all tastes, genre fiction by the bucketload, and we’ve got a platform for many of the voices that traditional publishing has often been adverse to broadcasting (e.g. minorities, LGBT, etc.) Ebooks are an important and disruptive force — but Hachette aren’t trying to stop ebooks. They just want to set the price for their own ebooks that they are publishing. 

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive. This bugs me. The video game market supports 99c iPhone games right up to $60 AAA games. Both models are viable. TV is supported by adverts, and Netflix is supported by subscriptions. News sites are in a bit of flux at the moment, but you have ad supported, subscription supported and paywall supported all co-existing somewhat peacefully. The point is, different audiences want different things.

Some people want cheap ebooks and are prepared to wade through the self-pubbed stuff that isn’t professionally edited etc. Some people want to buy paperbacks. Some people want to buy ebooks from a traditional publisher… and are happy to pay a bit more, knowing the quality control was there. Some people like to try new authors and some people only read Stephen King/Jodi Picoult and will pay whatever to get that latest novel by that specific author. 

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger. Give us the source data. There’s nothing more annoying than cherry-picking a few facts and figures to make an argument. As the saying goes ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’. 

In fact, give KDP Authors more data generally. We’re using your system and we don’t even know what our conversion rates are! The day I get A/B testing is the day I’ll be able to make marketing decisions based on real data. 

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that. Ebooks have already disrupted the market. You are emailing the millions of people who took the self-publishing route. We’ve ALREADY enacted the change. 

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading. It’s almost like people are diverse and have different wants and needs. And it’s almost like businesses can target different niches and support those differing wants and needs!

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle. Basically Amazon made a number of PR moves that would have meant Hachette would not have been able to pay their editors, cover-designers, proof-readers and everyone else involved in bringing a traditional-published ebook to market. But let’s get this straight, this is a contract negotiation. Nobody ‘has’ to give in. Both companies can choose to walk away and deal with consequences to their business. Both parties can choose to accept and deny terms. 

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us. Wait, wait, are you asking me to troll a work-email? 

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch:

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.comApparently you are. Great job. A multibillion dollar, international corporation has just taken the disruption tactics of people who genuinely don’t have voices, and used them against another corporation.

You know when it’s valid to call for mass emails? When you’re emailing a political party claiming to represent your interests or when it’s consumers speaking against damaging corporate behaviour. NOT when it’s one corporation negotiating with another corporation. 

Please consider including these points:

– We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive. 
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue. You just asked your authors to ask Hachette to stop using their authors as leverage? Ummmm. Pot, kettle? 

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team Did you just make up a ‘Books Team’? 

P.S. You can also find this letter at

So there it is. A complete clusterfuck of an email, that has completely undermined any respect I once had for Amazon.

Power and fear

Last week, journalist David Miranda was detained for nine hours under the Terrorism Act. In addition, some hard-drives were (pointlessly!) destroyed at The Guardian’s London offices. Both of these actions were spurred by the fact The Guardian and David Miranda were actively working to investigate and reveal the length to which the USA and UK governments are monitoring… everyone they can get data on.

All of this prompted my friend to ask on Twitter:

To which I responded:

Specifically I was referring to the Tor Project, but there are also other solutions. The article How to keep the NSA out of your computer discusses ‘mesh networks’, essentially an alternative to the internet. One of the most prominent of these is Hyperboria. Use Bitcoin for any financial transactions that you want to keep secret. You can use bitcoins for pretty much anything, including food in some cities.

Unfortunately, there is a ‘tech savvy users only’ gateway to this stuff – because the surveillance techniques are so heavily technical, the solutions are as well. The ‘easy’ internet, comprised of Amazon, Google, ISP’s… this stuff can be used by anyone, but is also monitored.

Josh responded to me:

Now this is a subject close to my heart, because someone I greatly love has been on the wrong side of an airport detention policy. Like many (completely harmless) people, this person was treated outrageously; lied to, kept in miserable conditions, denied food, denied telephone contact with the people worrying about them. They were detained for over 24 hours, and then denied entrance to the country and sent back on the next flight.

I, who had gone to the airport to meet and greet them, was also repeatedly lied to.

It was my first real experience with the power of the state government: and it made me realise that we enjoy our ‘human rights’ only with their permission. You can do everything right, fill out all the paperwork, break no rules, never claim welfare, pay taxes, vote for central parties, be white, middle class and not subscribe to ‘other’ religions – and still get fucked over. Should you do anything ‘wrong’, whether on purpose or by accident, I can only imagine how much worse it is.

And here we see despair and hopelessness. The apparatus of Government is insanely powerful. It manipulates the media, it controls the military, it works in partnership with the corporations that own so much of our lives. Meanwhile, ‘everyone else’ – without full access to the facts, and with many diverse lies that appeal to their emotional needs, and who also need to get on with the hard work of living a normal human life – is pretty much hopelessly unequipped to deal with the Government.

It is a David and Goliath set-up, except that David doesn’t even know what’s he’s fighting or why.

We are not powerless

This is a false set up. It is a popular one, and a beguiling one, but it is not true. The ‘Government’ may have power and wealth and military might, but it is also made up of people. Incompetent people! Read the stories of detainees and you swiftly realise that the airport security personnel are people, way out of their depth, dealing with situations in idiotic ways. Read the stories of big business owners and you quickly realise they are sociopathic, and just as likely to turn one each other. The Government loses briefcases full of important info, gets their secrets leaked by The Guardian, and destroys hard-drives – apparently unaware that data is rarely confined to a single, physical location. They are not some robot brain, committed to a single purpose.

We do make a difference

We may only have human rights with their permission, but they exist only with our collective permission. We do make a difference:

  • Slavery is now illegal in all nations (the last place, Mauritania, made it illegal in 2007)
  • There are now only two countries where women cannot vote: Vatican City and Saudia Arabia. Saudia Arabia plans to change this in 2015.
  • Global poverty is declining – and dire poverty could be eliminated in 20 years
  • Public health measures have brought global life expectancy up to about 67. This is of course unequal, but the level of inequality is dropping around the world. Medical advancements are making access to life saving devices cheap enough for all.
  • We have almost hit ‘peak population’ – since the beginning of time we have been shouting about the dangers of human overpopulation. Now it looks like in 2050 we will peak at around 10 billion, and then population will drop/hold steady. Providing secondary education to girls is the single most effective intervention to reduce population growth; and access to education is improving.
  • ‘Serious’ crime rates have been decreasing.

There are three serious problems that face us:

  1. Climate shift/environmental issues. Basically, we have fucked the planet. Any solutions will come from the the tech & science sector. As an issue, it will probably impact on everything from food prices to environmental refugees to large numbers of people killed in extreme weather incidents. There will be consequences (and already have been) – we’ve gone too far to prevent them – but we can mitigate the severity of those consequences and do our best to adapt and protect.
  2. Inequality. Whilst dire poverty is set to be eliminated, overall inequality is growing. The very rich are, well, getting richer. Oxfam are calling for a new goal;  end extreme wealth. An equal society is a happier, more productive, better educated, and more stable society.
  3. The repercussions of moving into a digital & global age. Every time in human history that there is a major upheaval the ramifications were massive and far-ranging. The fallout from the shift into a digital age is difficult to predict, but will definitely include issues about data protection, the right to privacy, and the difficulty of working, trading and governing in a global economy. Who pays tax and where? Which laws and cultural assumptions come out on top? Is access to internet a human right in the way that access to education is? Who stores the data? Who monitors the internet? What about hacking? What is money, once it’s been reduced to numbers in a computer program? How do we cope with possible pandemics which could easily spread globally in a few hours?

Here’s the thing: none of these problems are insurmountable. We’ve been saying it’s the end of the world almost since we had the capacity to project the future. But despair is not helpful. It is entirely possible that the rich could escape the ravages of climate shift, spying on us at will, whilst the poorer citizens of the world live and die horribly. But it is equally possible that rationality and compassion could win out, that we find a way to use our considerable ingenuity and problem solving skills to adapt to a changing climate whilst still equalising our lifestyles. That we can find a way to celebrate diversity and live together instead of clashing over political and ideological differences.

And if we don’t? Well, at least if we hope and work towards the best outcome we’ll be happier than if we just give up now.

 Make a difference

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

The only thing that we can do is make a difference on the micro level. We all have the ability to make a difference on a tiny scale, but those differences all add up to a whopping big change on a global scale. There are lots of ways you can help, and the best thing to do is pick the cause(s) you are most passionate about and do something relating to them.

  • Support a charity that does something you agree with. Run a fundraiser, donate, volunteer some time.
  • Look after your friends and loved ones.
  • Support local, environmentally sustainable farming methods.
  • Stop buying stuff you don’t need.
  • Pass on your skills (blog, teach, make a youtube video, share with your friends).
  • Do the research on internet memes. Don’t just share a picture because you agree with it, check the facts before you hit ‘share’. You are responsible for the spread of misinformation.
  • Go on protest marches.
  • Keep a (wild) garden. Grow veg. Give the veg to your local food bank.
  • Do your research on corporations. Whilst it is probably impossible to avoid buying from companies that have some unethical practices (particularly where IT, clothing, and food are concerned) you can kick up a stink about the worst excesses. Boycotts can work.
  • Dispose of your waste properly. Recycle or reuse it.
  • Stay informed. Use your vote.
  • Fight against welfare cuts; these are people who deserve to live, deserve to relax, deserve to have fun. Compassion is a wonderful thing.
  • Support a living wage.
  • Speak up against discrimination. Accept that you will discriminate. If someone tells you that you are discriminating, apologise and figure out why.
  • Keep an eye out for children. They need the support of everyone in a society, not just parents and teachers.
  • Do the right thing wherever possible.

Smokey Days: The Rising Wind – Sales (one year)

I try to avoid talking about the business and craft of writing on this blog. My goal is not to reach out to other authors (though I do like other authors), but to reach out to the kind of people that like to read books like the ones I write. Besides, as my sales figures will shortly demonstrate, I have no claim to be an expert in making a living from writing.

However, before dipping into the murky world of self-published ebooks, I found myself fascinated by people that detailed their sales. It’s my hope that these figures will provide some guidance to people considering self-publishing. Remember: your mileage will vary.

A bit of context:

I have one novella out, with a home-made cover. I work full-time. I carried out some marketing, but nowhere near the level that I would have done had I had more time.

The theory goes that the more books you have published, the more you sell. Obviously, I have yet to test this.

My only hope from publishing Smokey Days: The Rising Wind was that somebody would buy it and like it.

One year of sales


So: the overall trend is down – not surprising.

The amount of free books given away had literally zero impact on sales (or reviews). I suspect people download free books and never read them. As a result, I pulled out of the KDP program. At some point I’ll add the book to smashwords, nook and so on, as well as to my website directly.

People who think that self-publishing is a road to becoming a millionaire will no doubt be depressed at these numbers (especially considering I paid $312 for editing!). Personally, I’m pretty impressed. Given the few million ebooks published daily, the lack of prior following, the lack of marketing, the fact I sold any books at all is quite amazing. (Side note: my friends bought a few copies – but not all 28)

So there we go. Not exactly ‘quit the day job’ money, but still more than I was getting as a fanfiction author! And as I will write anyway, always, regardless of what happens, any money made is really just gravy.

Want to buy the book and see for yourself?

P is for… productivity (and also puking)

The letter PThis post is part of the A-Z Blog Challenge.

So here’s the thing, this post was going to be about productivity. I was going to talk about how I plan my day, revisit my inbox zero strategy, and throw a shout-out to my favourite to-do list, astrid. Sadly, yesterday I got hit by some kind of stomach bug, started puking like crazy and ended up spending the rest of the day alternating between lying in bed sipping water and hanging over the toilet seat retching like I’d been on a ten-day bender.


This post will therefore be short and sweet, before I get back to the business of getting better.

1. Know what you are doing

So the biggest single boost to your productivity (and sanity) is keeping a master to-do list. I have one for work, and one for home. I use Astrid, because I can forward emails with attachments to it, and therefore keeping my inbox clean is much easier. My ‘home’ one is actually more for my two businesses (writing & webdesign) but I also use it for reminding when to do various tasks. Even a pen and paper list is fine, as long as it travels with you and you keep it up to date.

2. Plan out when you are doing what

My Google Calendar includes marked out hours for work, both my day-job (easy since they are fixed) and my businesses. Here’s a screenshot for next week. When there’s a repeating event, but I can’t make one of them, I mark it in red instead of deleting it.
One week

I’ve been doing this for a long time, but it doesn’t always work. There are a couple of things I’ve learned over time:

  1. Always leave a lot of wriggle room – you’ll notice that there’s a lot of empty space in my calendar. When you start, it can be tempting to fill every hour of every day… programming in meal times, bed time, shower time. This just means that the second you hit something unexpected it throws you off. It’s practically impossible to stick to an hour-by-hour schedule on an ongoing basis. (though let me know if you’ve managed it!)
  2. Don’t get too detailed. My ‘writing’ blocks, for example, can be for blog posts, flash-fiction, my novel or any other writing I feel like doing. My web-design blocks can be for actual web-work for a client, or can mean invoicing, marketing or training. By keeping it loose, you can respond to the most urgent things on your to-do list.
  3. Don’t worry if you miss something. Nobody is perfect! This a framework to help you achieve, not a stick to beat yourself with. Another good reason for keeping things flexible and with plenty of ‘white space’ is that you can move things around. If I’m late starting writing, I’ll power through for another hour. Equally, if I’m having a good day of writing and don’t want to stop, I can keep going… even if my calendar reckons I’ve done my time.

3. Track your time

I use something called the Pomodoro technique, and also use Astrid to time myself on various tasks. This helps me know if I’ve scheduled enough time for something. We often overestimate what we can achieve in an hour or so, and over time I get a better picture of how long it actually takes me to write the average blog post, or how long it takes me to complete 2000 words on my novel.

Again, the key is averages and flexibility. Don’t bother timing yourself to the minute. Twenty minute chunks are fine. This isn’t about forcing yourself to work faster, harder or become a machine… it’s about getting the best use out of the time your have available.

4. Leave some unscheduled time (especially on weekends and holidays)

Spontaneous fun is often the best kind of fun, like waking up on a Saturday morning and deciding to go on an impromptu road trip, or suddenly getting an urge to go for a day-long hike in the woods… or possibly getting the urge for a marathon RPG session. Give yourself a weekend off from any constraints every now and then, and pay attention to your moods. If you feel stressed and demotivated, chances are you need a day off.

5. Get rid of stuff

What you’ll find, if you do all of the above steps, is there are various tasks on your to-do list that basically never get scheduled in because you never have enough time. This is where having some BIG GOALS or principles can help. Health (exercise/food), writing and financial freedom are my three biggies, so they get scheduled in. Other stuff happens if and when it happens, and if it goes a month or so without getting completed? I knock it off, because it obvious wasn’t essential.

Got some productivity tips? Let me know in the comments!

The low-sugar challenge

My tally for yesterday was fairly dismal. I ate nothing except two slices of bread which I promptly threw up. I did manage to drink a glass of ginger beer, which was full of sugar, but also much required (and the only thing I could keep down, other than water.) The best laid plans… however, today I am back on track. Full report tomorrow, when I return with the letter Q!

K is for… Kickstarter

The letter KThis post is part of the A-Z Blog Challenge

Kickstarter is a fascinating service. By allowing fans to directly support the creation of new projects, it creates huge opportunities for creatives (and inventors) to fund new work and ideas. I’ve not used kickstarter (I don’t have the proven experience in place to make it work) but I’ve been watching developments closely.

Here are some interesting posts about kickstarter:

And so that you can evaluate your chances for success:

E is for… Emails

The letter EWhen I planned out this post, I had decided to talk about the fabled Inbox Zero. I even had a screenshot, a beautiful one, of my empty inbox. I had maintained an empty inbox for almost a month. Clearly I had cracked the secret, and could share it with the world.

Today, sadly, when I actually have to write my post, I have 25 emails in my inbox which – whilst not the worst it has been by any means – is still much worse than it was.

The reason, of course, is lack of time. But that’s the point, of course. Maintaining Inbox Zero when you have no time.

The secret to getting to Inbox Zero is actually pretty mundane. Basically, you stop using your email as a to-do list. The second you open an email you do one of these three things:

  • Delete it
  • Reply to it (then delete/archive it)
  • Add it as a task to your actual to-do list (then delete/archive it)

And, to make you realise how difficult that actually is, here are some of the barriers I’ve hit:

  • Opening emails on my phone, and not being able to add it easily to my task list (I really like astrid for my to do list, as it lets me forward emails. But so far I’ve not made it a habit to do this on my phone yet).
  • Clear your inbox every day – book yourself ten-twenty minutes and just work systematically through every email. (I haven’t been doing this because I’ve been busy-busy-busy… hence why I check emails on my phone)
  • Thinking that ten second tasks are too short to bother putting on your task list… and then leaving them for ‘later’. (Definitely guilty of this, I got pinged through some blog comment emails — thank you, by the way! — and instead of going and replying, or scheduling myself time to reply, I just left the emails in my inbox as a reminder to myself. Not good!)

Whilst writing this post, I have managed to get myself back down to Inbox Zero. It only took fifteen minutes to respond to those blog comments, follow some people on Twitter and add the rest of the tasks to my to-do list. Score!

Now I just need to remember to keep it that way…

How do you keep your inbox under control?

B is for… business

The Letter BI’ve been a freelancer for over ten years, starting my career with a gig colouring comic books. Currently I’m focused on two areas, webdesign and writing. (I also currently work full-time, but in the past I’ve been completely self-employed).

During that time I’ve written articles and blog posts for money, taken commissions for artwork, and even experimented with things like Mechanical Turk. I’ve made some money – and also made lots and lots of mistakes. Here are some of the lessons I learned:

1. Always charge more than you think you should

There are an awful lot of desperate people out there. Students who build websites for free. Fans that colour comics just to get their name on the cover. People that fill out surveys for a few cents. Working for free is okay – sometimes – if it’s on your terms. I’ve done work for charities and the like, which has helped build my portfolio. But if you want to make a living, you have to charge. You have to charge enough to cover lean times, to save, to cover taxes. You have to charge enough to make it worth your while, so you don’t burn out out on a hundred tiny projects (trust me – I’ve been there).

I’m not going to tell you how much to charge, but I will give you some tips:

  1. The living wage in the UK for 2012 was worked out as £8.80 per hour. (The actual recommended wage was lowered, to make it easier for living wage employers to meet). Don’t forget to add National Insurance and Tax on top of that. I usually allow about 50% extra for all the additional taxes, pension, costs of running a business (e.g. software purchases) and unpaid time doing things like filling out your self-assessment form. 
  2. Whatever you charge, get it paid into a business account and then ‘pay yourself’ a salary out of that. Leave all the money ear-marked for other purposes alone.
  3. Figure out your desired annual salary, and divide it by the number of working hours in a year. (Don’t forget to exclude vacation time)
  4. Look at the industry averages.

If you sell a product, I’ve got less advice, but don’t ever underestimate the power of premium pricing.

2. Every project will take longer than you think

I have a little dream, where I can crank out websites and books at top-speed. After all, the work itself doesn’t take that long. I can type something like 50-100 words a minute. I’ve coded so many websites I can get a framework up in about an hour. Except… except…

Work doesn’t work like that. There’s those rabbit-paths, where you have what you think is a brilliant idea (I’ll make this website mint green! It will look so fresh!) and then it turns out to be a terrible idea and you spend hours and get nowhere. Writing is particularly prone to these. In my current WIP, for example, I randomly decided to have this strange romance-sex-scene with robots. I blame nanowrimo. Either way, it’s about 2000 words of complete rubbish. Then there’s that time when you have no ideas. The only solution is a long walk, a noodling session, or cleaning the house from top to bottom.

So I figure a book will take me six months, actually it will take a year. I figure a website will take 30 hours, actually it will take 60. Your mileage might vary, but when quoting for work it’s better to lean toward the far end of the scale.

 3. Choose your clients/customers

You know that advice about interviews, where it’s as much for the interviewee to check out the business and the job as it is for the employer to check out their potential new-hire? Yeah, it’s a bit bullshit when you are first starting out and are desperate to get a job (any job! I’ll lick shoes! Dance the cancan! Be on call for 29 hours a day!) but gradually it makes more sense. You start to have an actual career, and you want something more than just money from your job. Running a business works the same way. To start with you’ll take any old client that offers to pay you in shoe-laces, but you quickly realise this is a bad way to do business.

There are some terrible clients out there. Clients that won’t pay. Clients that have no idea what they want, and make you produce thirty thousand revisions before deciding to abandon the project altogether. Clients that will be rude, aggressive and over demanding. Clients that think they can do your job better than you.

Once you have a steady stream of business, focus on the good clients. The ones that pay on time, respect your opinion, and keep coming back. Those clients will be worth so much more than the nightmare client who might cough up £100 once in a blue moon. Remember, your skills are in demand. A good freelancer is much more than a dancing monkey.

4. Structure your day

So I work from home one day a week, and I don’t get dressed. It’s like, my dream, to work all day in my pyjamas  I love pyjamas  and would totally wear them all the time forever if it was acceptable. What I don’t do, however, is futz around. I have a set timetable to my day: I start at 8am. I take a break at 10am and then a lunch at 1pm. I finish at 6pm. It’s difficult, but there are things you can do. I use the pomodoro technique to keep myself focused for a solid chunk of time. I make sure I email my manager at least twice during the day with an update on what I’ve achieved.

If you’re running a business, you can do the same thing. Set yourself a chunk of time that you are going to work for. If it’s a writing business you’re doing in your own time that might be 4 hours on a Saturday, or a half hour every evening. Decide what you are going to achieve in that time, and then … do it.

Yeah, a lot of advice comes down to ‘just do it’.

5. Take regular breaks

The other thing I like about the pomodoro technique is that it forces you to stop for breaks. I spend those breaks making tea, stretching (try doing a search for five minute yoga on youtube), or stepping outside for some fresh air. The important thing is to step away from the computer and take five minutes to just recharge your energy. Let any frustrations and anger go, take a couple of deep breaths and then go back to the work feeling refreshed.

So those are my tips… but I bet you have a few tips of your own. Share them in the comments below (or write your own blog post and let me know about it) or let me know about them on twitter.