Switching Off - Freeing Your Mind From Work

Last week we turned off all the plugs in the house, made sure we’d locked the door properly, and headed off for a short break.

It was the first time that we’d been away ovenight with Jacob, so we knew it was going to be a learning curve. It wasn’t going to be sitting by the pool, sipping a beer as the sun warms us. Then again, after parenthood, is it ever that again? Maybe in a (good) few years time.

After an overnight stay with his grandparents, where he adapted to sleeping in his new surroundings without any issue at all, we headed south to St Annes, and a hotel that I used to go to as a kid with my family. It holds fond memories, and having gone back with his family my brother reported that it was just as good and family orientated as it was back then. A last minute booking and we were off!

The weather was fantastic, the people welcoming, and Jacob took to it all so well we ended up staying another night to extend our holiday a little. A very welcome break.

Escaping It All

But you don’t ever really switch off when you are self-employed. I guess it’s the same as being a parent - you’re the one on watch, even when you aren’t officially on duty. It’s not really possible to push it all to one side. And it doesn’t feel right to either.

Returning from a holiday is always challenging because other than during the Festive period, your inbox keeps getting attacked, work continues elsewhere, and the world keeps on turning, just waiting for your return. Which leaves you having to get back up to speed as quickly as you can on those first few days back. The holiday you’ve just had becomes a distant memory.

With self-employment I find the challenge is less about that first day back and catching up, and more about how you make your thoughts, plans, concerns and questions meld away when you are actually on holiday. How you properly relax your mind, so your body will follow suit.

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Mindful To Be Mindful

I feel like I’m at a bit of a crossroads where I am workwise at the moment, so doing that for me this time was easy at times, and not so much at others. The freedom of being away from a computer allowed my thoughts to wander elsewhere, prompting new analysis and fresh ideas, along with the usual nagging doubts and imposter syndrome.

I’m not sure I’ve quite perfected the ‘walking away’ aspect of having your own business. I’m definitely better than I was, but given a free moment, my mind does tend to wander there. Which is annoying when it is 4am and you find your son has gone to sleep after his feed but you are wide awake. I wonder if that will change a little once I get set up for work somewhere outside the flat?

But even with the occasional work distraction dancing through my head like a Morris dancer who’s had too much Irn Bru, one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is to make sure you get a break at all. I was guilty of not doing so for a long time, going five years between summer holidays towards the end of my Young Scot days. Now I truly appreciate the value of getting away somewhere different and getting a fresh perspective to recharge the batteries. It’s crucial to your physical, emotional and mental health.

So if you’re holiday allowance is sitting unused, or if you’re a freelancer trying to decide if you can afford to go away, don’t think about it. Take a break (Kit Kat optional).

Getting The Bookbug

I find we live in a world where it is all too easy to criticise.

Negativity shines through significantly more than its shinier opposite. Particularly on social media, but it’s gone way beyond even those borders now.

For my sins, I’m an optimist. And so I come to praise today.

Our son turned four months old this week. When he hit the three month mark, he was given a Bookbug pack by our Health Visitor.

For those who aren’t aware of Bookbug, it’s a Scottish Book Trust initiative designed to introduce children to the fun of stories, rhymes and song. By providing every child with the Bookbug bag, and through their free Bookbug sessions at libraries, children of all ages and backgrounds can take advantage of the benefits of the written, read and sung word.

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I’m a big advocate of that message. I grew up surrounded by books, a trend that continues to this day. I was one of those kids who used to get told off for reading at the table (no phones to play with then!), even if it was just reading the back of the cereal packet. As long as I was reading something, I was happy.

Which is why I’m so impressed with Bookbug. I’d heard of it, and knew what it was about. But seeing Zoe and Jacob reading the supplied books together, and singing along to the CD of rhymes provided, has been nothing short of magical.

They’ve only been along to a couple of Bookbug sessions so far at Fountainbridge Library, and in both cases, it’s been mobbed. Lines of prams near the library reception desk, all vying for a parking space so they can settle down and enjoy a sing-along.

It gives Zoe something new to go to as she explores what her new routine might be. Meanwhile Jacob meets other children and adults in a different environment, building his social awareness.

Sure he’s too young to be able to sing along. But it’s already clear that he loves music, based on that first sessions and his reaction when we have it on in the flat. He even puts up with my singing.

It’s a hugely valuable part of his development, and I have no doubts whatsover that he will benefit from it in the long run.

Programmes like the Scottish Government’s Baby Box initiative have met with criticism from some. In this era it’s hard not to think that it’s more politically motivated, than because they really have an issue with what the programme is trying to do. I have no idea whether Bookbug has met the same kind of criticism (although being from the Scottish Book Trust rather than being a Scottish Govt announced scheme, I’m presuming not), but I think praise and encouragement is required in both cases.

Each gives babies and young children access to the basic resources everyone should have at that age, no matter who they are or where they come from. It promotes a level of equality in an age where the gaps in society seem to be getting larger, not smaller. And that should not only be applauded loudly, but replicated wherever possible.

So I say all praise the Bookbug, and everything it sets out to do. I’m delighted you are in my son’s life, and the lives of children across Scotland, and hope you continue to go from strength to strength.

If you’d like to find out more about Bookbug, please visit http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/bookbug

Happy reading/singing everyone!

The Rise of the YouTuber (almost certainly pt 1 of many)

One of the main themes in my world over the last week has been YouTube, and the fairly new concept of YouTube Celebrities.

On Saturday various friends, each with kids themselves, came to meet Jacob. And in each case we ended up talking about the role of the media behemoth.

We chatted about which ones were favourites, why the kids liked them, what kind of content they put out, and a whole lot more. And by the end I was no further forward in deciding how I felt about it all.

What Do You Want To Be When You’re Older?

Make no mistake, YouTubers aren’t just mucking around. Well, in some cases they are, but they are getting paid handsomely for it.

Ask many a young person these days what they would like to do as a career, and many of them will tell you they want to be YouTubers. I’ve heard it from my niece, from her friends, from my mate’s friends - there is a desire to appear on the small screen like never before.

People aren’t just making careers out of sharing what they are up to. They are becoming millionaires. Not everyone obviously, but those who are succeeding are positively raking it in. In a lot of cases despite them being the focus of controversial news stories.

Logan Paul started 2018 by getting thrown off YouTube’s Google Preferred Programme after he filmed a suicide in Japan and made light of it. His advertising partners took umbrage and a number pulled their financial support. Yet thanks to partly to merchandising, Paul still went on to earn a reported $14.5 million last year, making him the tenth top earning YouTuber last year.

Coming in at number nine on those charts is PewDiePie, the most followed YouTuber. He’s hit the headlines a number of times in recent years, largely due to anti-semitic comments within his videos. Again the advertisers fell away. Again he rallied. And ended up earning around $15.5 million in 2018.

Unboxing Success

At the weekend the YouTuber that we discussed the most wasn’t Logan Paul, nor was it PewDiePie. It wasn’t Paul’s brother Jake, who was second on the top ten earnings list.

It was a seven year old boy.

Ryan Kaji’s YouTube channel has over 19 million subscribers. It was Ryan who took the top slot in the league table for the most earnings from YouTube in 2018, with he and his family earning a reported $22 million.

His content couldn’t be simpler. He unboxes toys.

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Unboxing is not new to YouTube. Viewers love to see new products, from phones to fashion accessories, opened for the first time before their very eyes. It’s a process that not only can they connect to, but which makes them feel as if they are part of an exclusive club. To them, it means they are one of the first to get their hands on the product, even though their hands are nowhere near it, and they are in an audience of thousands, if not millions.

And if it works with devices and shoes, why wouldn’t it work with toys?

Not only did it work, but it was popular to a whole new audience. Which instantly made him a marketers dream.

Kids as young as four or five see him as a celebrity. His videos are what keeps them captivated. And I’m sure the toy companies are delighted to send him their new releases to maintain his popularity.

It Could Be You. Or Could It?

There’s a line I often use in my training, which discusses the democratisation of content. The idea that we no longer need expensive equipment, software or indeed high level expertise to put something online.

Social media and phones have put paid to that, making us all content creators every time we post, snap or stream.

And these days you can make a website within a few minutes, fully mobile and ready to share with the world.

Then there’s the likes of Twitch and Mixer, where gamers, musicians, creatives and more can share what they are up to live with us, wherever we are.

YouTube was at the forefront of the push to make content easy, becoming one of the big boys in a very short time. Videos didn’t need to be highly produced to be a success. In fact, the more real they were, the more connection they made with their audience. It was like ‘You’ve Been Framed’ gone global. And in most cases, better.

While others are at play here, YouTube was the birthplace of a lot of these new celebrities. And it feels like it’s only just beginning.

Hit The Like Button?

But is it a good thing? I’m still as yet undecided.

The promotion of the somewhat idealist concept that we can all be creators is a good one. I do believe there is creativity in all of us, and it’s a case of finding it and tapping in to it.

The flip side though is that the deluge of content quickly became a full-on tsunami, with little or no quality control. The chance for everyone to share actually makes it a lot harder to get eyes on what you’ve created, because standing out becomes nigh on impossible unless you get that little break of luck.

Personally I don’t think it’s done the music business any good for example. Sure, vinyl has made a semblance of a comeback, but we still live in a world where new acts find it harder and harder to break through. And those who do aren’t being compensated for their efforts or talent. As someone who has had a love of music for as long as I remember, I think the model of business that exists currently isn’t anywhere near to what it used to be, with no real value placed on what we consume. Those who get to the top get paid handsomely, but what about everything underneath. What about the artists that don’t have the big guys behind them to spend millions on promotion?

Media is continually changing, these days arguably quicker and in more revolutionary ways than it has ever done. And the rise of the YouTuber is just the start.

Self-employment and Fatherhood - the perfect combination or oil and water?

A few days after my last blog, life changed.

On the 19th February, five minutes before the clock changed the date, our son Jacob decided to join us 12 days early. Many had told us that he would likely be on time or a bit late being a first baby. Jacob clearly had other plans.

So first off, I have a good excuse for not putting any new content out recently. My note from the teacher comes in the form of a small person who needs me way more than anyone ever has done.

But the main reason for writing this is to share my short experience of the continuous juggling of being a parent and being self-employed. I’ve written before about the benefits and challenges of working at home. The last nine weeks have shown that I knew nothing yet…

Making It Work

There are plenty of pros and cons to being self-employed and having a young baby. On the plus side, you’re home a lot more. You can manage more of your time to make sure you are there to change nappies, do feeds at all hours, and allow your other half the chance to do the basics like having a shower without it becoming a logistical pain in the ass.

You can work into the evening to give you time to be with your child and partner during the day. The later efforts are fuelled by more regular visits to coffee shops (always a good thing in my book!), sometimes to get your fix, others to get you all out for some fresh air. You can nip out to the shops to pick up things you suddenly realise that you need. Or don’t need but are willing to try just to see if it stops the crying. And you can truly be part of the whole process by being available for the important appointments with the likes of the doctor or the health visitor.

A regular working view for me these days. As one sleeps, another types…

A regular working view for me these days. As one sleeps, another types…

I’ve also discovered the value in doing things in the early hours, before the world has risen and the sky has any light in it. I’ve caught up on podcasts, articles I’ve been meaning to read, and cleared a fair bit of my Netflix queue as my son uses me as a human pillow in the dark. I’ve even come up and started developing some new work ideas in the wee hours.

Most important of all, you don’t feel like you are missing the golden moments of your child growing up. And there’s no price that can be put on that.

The New Pressures

But then there’s the flipside. For a start, you don’t get any paternity. The longer you are off, the less money you are earning to support your family. I had to cancel meetings and training sessions with Jacob arriving early, and thankfully we managed to get them rearranged. But if that hadn’t been possible, it was going to hit my wallet pretty hard for my monthly earnings. Being your own boss already comes with insecurities and imposter syndrome. Yet becoming a parents steps that up a gear. There’s a new reliance on my success.

And yes, being at home means we can spend quality time together. But it also means I have to step up the discipline to make sure I’m not going through to hang out with Jacob all the time. Which is far from easy, I can assure you.

Lastly there’s creativity. It doesn’t always flow when you’ve had an hour and a half worth of sleep. You need to force yourself to focus, and at times just getting the basics done feels like an achievement. The first four weeks were really tough on that front. I’m not sure if I’m now more hardy to the lack of recharging, or if I’m just getting better at resting at other points throughout the day, but things are definitely on the up there.

As I sit here, having just finished my third coffee of the day, it hits me how hard it’s been to reintroduce myself back into the working world since Jacob joined us. Making time to bond with my son, support my wife, keep my business going, get things done around the flat, plus everything else that needs done, has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve had. And likely will continue to have.

I wouldn’t change for the world.

It’s Only Natural - Making Time For Creativity

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Neil and Liam Finn play at the Queens Hall here in Edinburgh.

The former is one of my all time favourite songwriters. Crowded House at the Edinburgh Playhouse was the first gig that I ever went to, and I’ve followed his career ever since, both in terms of new releases and retrospectively dipping back into the Split Enz back catalogue.

He always puts on a great live show, but this one felt slightly different. Sure, there were four Finns on stage making up the band (wife Sharon and younger son Elroy joining in the fun), but that wasn’t particularly new to me.

Embracing Creativity

In the last few years Neil Finn has cast off the shackles of having to answer to record companies, and has started to do his own thing. He’s experimented with his music and who he has played with. He has gone where he wants to go, and not where people expect him to.

The results have seen him record an album with Sharon to shake off the blues of their kids leaving home, take to the internet for four live sessions to record a solo album with an array of contributors, tour where and when he wants to, and even join the behemoth that is Fleetwood Mac.

It feels like Neil Finn is doing what Neil Finn wants to do at the moment. He’s submitted himself to wherever creativity takes him.

Neil Finn - Queens Hall, Edinburgh

Neil Finn - Queens Hall, Edinburgh

And you can see it in his live performances. I’ve yet to come away from any concert involving Neil where I haven’t felt that he’s given 100%, but the other week he was as relaxed and as ready to play as i’ve ever seen him. The set list mixed up Split Enz, Crowded House, Pajama Club (the aforementioned collaboration with Sharon), some of Liam’s songs, Neil’s solo stuff and of course, the recent album they produced together. The theramin was brought out for some overly dramatic playing. Hell, all four members of the band were all sporting their own black and white chequed suits.

The Personal Goal

I can’t help but envy. For a lot of reasons, both mentally and demands-wise, I struggle at the moment to be able to follow that fully creative path. To explore ideas as they come up, and see where they go without the pressure of there being an end or an outcome.

It’s something I’m working on, but too often the paid jobs take prominence. Which they should of course, but part of the appeal of being self-employed was the freedom to do more of my own creative projects.

It’s all about value. If that is only imposed on the work that pays the bills, there is a danger that it has an impact on the creativity you do for that work, as well as what you do for yourself.

It requires a different discipline. To have faith in taking that leap. Not holding your breath as you go. In wearing a black suit with thing white cheques across it and starting up Better Be Home Soon because someone in the crowd shouts for it.

It’s a goal for 2019. It feels like the key to moving forward.

And no, I’m not going to finish on a Neil Finn pun. Because that would be predictable, and fly against what I’ve just said.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

… dammit.

A Goal To Change

Last weekend I wrapped myself in layers of clothing to avoid the Forthbank chill, and headed to my old stomping ground to watch Stirling Albion take on Annan Athletic.

Any of you who have met me for more than five minutes will know that when it comes to football, my team is Hearts, a family affliction passed down for decades. Cut me and I will bleed maroon etc etc.

But coming from Stirling originally, my ‘other’ team is Stirling Albion. I’m a member of the Supporters Trust, and when not at Tynecastle, enjoy a wee jaunt to Forthbank to watch the Binos. I appreciate the chance to support what was my local team, and to be honest, it’s also nice to escape the SPL and the same old players every week.

In my last blog I talked about the idea of a blank slate, and the recharge that I get from it. Equally as important is a change of scene. It can be moving from your home office to a table in the living room. Or out to a coffee shop. Or even taking a desk in an office somewhere.

This year I’m almost certain to be taking the latter option. With a baby on the way in six weeks, the mancave I work from will become part office, part nursery shortly, before making the full time switch in the not too distant future.

It took me a while to get my office set up due to other circumstances in my first three years of business. But since then I’ve grown to love this little space. It’s somewhere I know I can shut myself away to do work, complete with vinyl, radio and other home comforts.

I’m going to miss having the short walk across the flat to an area that is my own. It’s going to be a tough transition. But equally an exciting one. It feels like (alongside my other work plans for 2019) things are changing up. That the adjustment will be good for me, bringing about the recharge that I talked about previously. New ways of working, new people to work with. I’m not looking forward to having to take my office apart. But I am looking forward to what comes after it.

Forthbank 12th January - Stirling Albion v Annan Athletic

In what became a bad-tempered game, Stirling defied the odds of going a man down to beat Annan 2-1. Having scored first, they gifted Annan an equaliser, then sat back too deep, inviting their opponents to attack them and put them under pressure for long spells.

A sending off three quarters of the way through a game would have seen most managers set up to continue to defend and play for the draw. But new Binos manager Kevin Rutkiewicz chose a different approach, keeping two up front, and putting on a sub midfielder and striker to freshen things up.

The result was sub striker Dylan Mackin heading to the back post, where Peter MacDonald scored his second of the game, and what was to prove to be the winner. The cheer when the ball hit the net, and the celebrations at the final whistle, were the best I’ve seen at Forthbank for a while, the positive approach to the game warmly welcomed by the Albion fans after a few years of drudgery.

Making a change isn’t always easy, but it can be amazing what it can bring.

The Pressure of Tabula Rasa

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A very Happy New Year to you all!

Hope you had a lovely time over the Festive period. It all seemed to pass in a blur this year for me, between a visit to the Registrar Office, touring to see family, and trying to find bargains in the sales for baby arriving.

And now it’s 2019. I’ve always had a thing for fresh starts. I’m not entirely sure why, but whether it is the start of a new notebook, the initial stages of a new project, or the beginning of a new 12 months, it tends to energise me.

I’m not one for making new year’s resolutions any more though. Nine times out of ten you begin with gusto, then as the start of the year slips away, so does the compulsion to stick to them.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use a fresh calendar year to make changes. I frame it more as where I would like to be by December, to make it about the whole year. It switches the focus from succeeding straight away, to working out how you are going to achieve it over what is a much more manageable period. And means that you are more likely to think about what you really want to do, rather than what the pressure of January tends to bring.

What are mine? Well, 2019 is already looking to be an eventful one with the arrival of a baby in March, but so far my plans include a new approach to my training, working on adopting some new skills to aid me in business (and appease my inner geek), exploring new volunteering opportunities (more on this shortly), and keeping this blog up-to-date regularly! More will come out of the woodwork I’m sure over the next few weeks, but that’s a good start.

Hope January is kind to you all!

It's the most wonderful time of the year

The jingly tunes are playing. The shoppers have a slightly panicked look ast they scurry. And the complaints of overpricing and overcrowding at the Edinburgh Christmas market get louder.

Yep, Christmas is here.

It’s an interesting time for a freelancer. For a start, you are faced with the “No Christmas party for you though, eh?” jokes. My attempts to explain that I do celebrate the holidays with other freelancers (and more often than not have more fun) are largely ignored. I’m merely spoiling a punchline it seems.

There’s the bonus of being able to do your Christmas shopping at the slightly quieter times too. No more trudging up town for late night shopping or on a Saturday. Blank out a morning early in December, and you’re done.

Work continues in December, but at times barely. As 1st December approaches, you can feel the batteries of work being to run low in everyone, and the excitement rise for parties, well-earned time off, and having an excuse to enjoy that extra beer or too and eat too much chocolate.

Christmas Decoration on tree

Christmas Decoration on tree

Social media never sleeps of course, so December doesn’t mean putting my feet up entirely. But new projects are pitched before November ends. Miss that deadline and you are into the middle of January before you can realistically go again.

What that allows you though, is the chance to catch up on all the things that you can’t get done the rest of the time. From paperwork to tax returns, office tidying to email inbox cleaning, December is a month to give your admin a Christmas clean, ready for a new year.

It’s a heartening time too, particularly when monitoring social media. Don’t get me started on the need for foodbanks in the UK in 2018, but the way people rally around to provide support and help to those who are hungry, homeless, in need of additional help or even just some company, is frankly, wonderful. Social media has the habit of making you question people at times, but at this time of year it can also be a great mobiliser, and celebrate humanity and good will.

Whatever your plans, have a great time over the Festive period, and look forward to speaking to you in 2019!

Merry Christmas!

Green for go

Alongside a couple of personal days, I’ve been busy on my travels since my last blog.

What at one point looked to be a manic week (including jury duty) thankfully calmed itself down to training sessions in Renfrewshire and Dumfries & Galloway. And jolly fun they were too, exploring social media and its role within consultation, and having some really interesting conversations with the very welcoming staff from both local authorities.

As I sat at yet another temporary traffic light en route, it got me thinking about where training is going. What doe the future hold for our learning? We now have a range of online tools that allow us to share video, resources and get involved in real time discussions. And most of them are free, meaning access isn’t a massive issue, although connectivity may remain a barrier for some.

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I fully agree that having a trainer in front of you is something that can’t be replaced - I think for most it helps us to learn easier, and to get real answers to our follow up questions where appropriate. But it’s often a big time/money commitment to learn within a physical training environment. For some, there just isn’t the training budget to commit to a ‘real’ course. And that’s presuming there is a local course that fits your requirements (an issue for me recently).

I’ve tried some online courses, and they work well. But not well enough for me. The opportunity to learn at my own pace is great, and in a lot of cases (like Futurelearn) the cost is low or non-existent. But they haven’t clicked for me as yet. There’s an element missing.

Is there a happy medium where the real and digital world meet to offer the perfect training environment? One that is flexible to the demands of the modern world, without sacrificing quality? Or is it a case of horses for courses, where we all choose the one that is best for us based on our learning needs, and accept that there may be something missing?

It’s an area I want to explore. I’m beginning to think that there is potential in seeing if something new can be developed and tested. And not just as a trainer, but as someone who enjoys learning myself.

Temporary traffic lights have a lot to answer for…

The Benefits and Challenges of Working At Home

One of the things that I want to explore in this blog is what it means to be a freelancer these days. It’s something that I find fascinating, exciting and challenging, and it is different for everyone. Which is why it is so fun to explore.

This last week has been the perfect example. Last Monday saw the start of a new kitchen getting installed in our flat. The one we’ve had was here when I moved in 12 years ago, was looking tired, and with a baby on the way, we wanted to make sure it worked well for us, and was as safe as it could be.

It threw up a few logistics. Apart from the lack of somewhere to cook, we also had to make sure that the kitchen fitters were going to have access to the flat. With me working from home, no problem, right? We’ll give one set of keys to the kitchen fitters, and I’ll be around as a back up.

And I have to say, for the most part it worked. But it definitely had an impact on my work.

At times they needed to ask questions, interrupting what I was doing. Sometimes the electricity needed to be switched off, meaning I had to turn my computer off, work offline on my laptop, or use my phone as a hotspot.

Then there was the time I took to make sure they were topped up with cups of caffeine, so they were spurred on to finish it all!

And lastly there was just the general noise. Drilling. Hammering. The music on their radio as they worked in the kitchen. None of it was particularly loud or out of order. But even with my headphones on, it distracted me from what I was trying to do.

I often escape to coffee shops to work, and while I tried that this time, I still often found it hard to get back into a working rhythm after all the stop start.

As I look at our new kitchen, it’s been completely worth it. But I do feel my work has suffered.

Working from home can make life a lot easier. But with it comes a set of new challenges. Even after five years, I’m still learning to navigate them.

Time to get back on track this week. First step, stick the kettle on.