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After a gaffe, the decision to be more deliberate

Like every other freelancer I know, I get stuck in the not-so-mentally-healthy “feast or famine” mode way too often.

That means one or more of the following:

-I take on a little too much work, work I can do, and do well, but which makes me a little nutty and has me in front of the computer too much.
-I take on a job I don’t really want or that doesn’t pay as well as I’d like because I’m afraid that if I don’t take it I might regret my decision when a dry spell rolls around.
-I spend extended periods in triage mode, ordering and reordering my to-do list by deadline rather than other factors that should probably take more precedence.

This isn’t good, of course, but for a long, long time–far too much of my career–I’ve felt that it’s inevitable, just part and parcel of life as a freelancer.

I’ve made incremental improvements every year, saying no to projects with ridiculously low fees or turning down some projects that felt far too fluffy, but there’s always more progress to be made… as I was reminded yesterday after making a terrible online gaffe involving an overly candid email sent to recipients who shouldn’t have been cc’d on the message.

The email, sent late in the evening, long after people with 9-to-5 jobs stop working, was a symptom–and an embarrassing one–of a larger problem. Despite recent vigorous efforts to scale back–unsubscribing from mailing lists that clutter my inbox and waste my time and saying no to a couple projects that didn’t pay well and were puff writing I don’t want to be doing, for example–I realized that there was (is!) still a lot of work to be done. I need to be more deliberate in every area of my work, and the first order of business is developing a better system for dealing with email.

I don’t know about you, but pretty much every time I look at my inbox these days, I already feel exhausted, even before I make a keystroke. There’s so much junk mail masquerading as important messages demanding my attention. There’s the feeling that I have to have my inbox open from the moment I’m awake until the moment I go to bed, in case an editor or source sends a message requiring urgent attention. And on and on and on. But the reality is, the less time I’m looking at my inbox, the happier and more productive I am. The less urgent everything seems–and is. And, obviously, the less likely I am to feel so depleted that I hit “Send” when I really need to give a message a second look and make sure that it’s appropriate… and addressed to the intended recipients.

This isn’t about slowing down, necessarily, though I feel like lots of freelancers write posts about that, setting goals that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. The reality is, this is not a profession for folks operating at a slow pace. It is, however, about being more thoughtful about each action, about taking the time to make sure that every word counts (and those that don’t stay in my head or between myself and my most trusted confidante, my husband), and about devoting time and attention to communication that truly matters.

Have you or do you struggle with similar challenges as a freelancer? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.


The Myths of Opting In to (Nearly) Everything

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo

You may know that I was offline last week, not by choice, exactly, but by circumstance, as I was in Cuba. Land of slow, expensive, and typically inconvenient Internet, I decided I’d simply not make efforts to get online, check email, and keep up all the things we’re told we have to do to “maintain our brand.”

It was fantastic, really, until I logged into gmail and saw 363 messages in my inbox, 360 of which were totally unimportant. I felt both overwhelmed and saddened by this, and I vowed that when I returned home I was going to make some changes that would make my online life more manageable and sane.

I've been on an unsubscribe spree and let me tell you: It feels good.

I’ve been on an unsubscribe spree and let me tell you: It feels good.

When I got home, I made good on my promise. I started unsubscribing from mailing lists and digests that either provided little or no value or which I wasn’t sure how I got subscribed to in the first place. I started “unliking” businesses on Facebook that I actually didn’t really like or whose social media messaging I found terribly annoying (“‘Like’ this post if you want to be on the beach with this cocktail!'”).

I was just starting to feel good about getting back to the basics of email and social media–you know, connecting with people I know and like and value. And then, I got together with a colleague to discuss something else entirely and our conversation eventually came around to all of the organizations and groups and lists we opt into because we think we “have” to.

“So there’s this new blogging collective,” he said, “and I joined–did you?–even though I don’t really know what the value is.” I knew about the collective. I’d even read the website and its “sell” pretty thoroughly. I’d considered joining, too. Ultimately, though, I had a hard time justifying the $75 membership fee. $75 may not be a lot, but when you multiply that by the number of groups you think you should belong to, your expenses add up quickly (though you can, if you’re a US freelancer, deduct professional membership and conference fees on your taxes).

E. went on to talk about a number of other groups and services he’d heard about lately, and I started to feel like I’d felt when I opened my gmail after five days in Cuba: Was any of this actually important?

Somehow, many of us have bought the myth that we have to opt in to nearly everything: professional societies (even when they haven’t proven their worth, or, in some cases, even established what benefits they’re actually conferring upon members); social media platforms and “influence” ranking programs (“Maybe I should sign up for Klout, just in case it’s important!”); newsletters (“Maybe one press release out of the hundreds I receive a month will actually be useful.”); and events (“If I don’t go to TravelMassive/TBEX/TBU/fill-in-the-blank, no one will know who I am and I won’t be considered for opportunities.”). We end up spending massive amounts of time on the upkeep of these things (time we don’t even realize we’re losing until we go off-grid, like I did), and missing out on the other things in our lives that we really cherish (in my case: family, reading, other hobbies, and oh yeah, actually writing).

While I’m not arguing that these things are unimportant or that they’re not useful, I am questioning whether we’re doing/joining these things because we’re truly convinced they’ll be beneficial or because we think that we’ll somehow be left behind if we don’t opt in. I wonder if we think, before we opt in, about whether the “sell” of this “must-do” thing actually aligns with our personal and professional values and goals.

I’m also suggesting that many of these opt-in groups, activities, and lists may actually be distracting or, in some cases, a waste of precious time and resources. I value networking and connecting with other writers, but I’ve found that the most valuable, lasting, and mutually beneficial connections I’ve made have come out of one-on-one encounters where I’ve reached out to someone I respect or they’ve reached out to me, not at the events where sharing is occurring over well drinks or where bloggers are speed dating to get a tourism board’s attention.

I’d love to know how you handle the opt-in choices in your own life and career. Do you feel pressured to join groups or sign up for events or lists because you think it’s what you should do? How do you make your decisions about what to join? Do you feel overwhelmed by all the noise about what’s supposedly important? Share your experiences and advice in the comments.