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I Don’t Live the Life I Want (yet)

I wonder if there is an English word that describes a state of being where you want so much for your life to change but you take nothing that you have for granted. It sounds like something that might be easily summed up in a single Kanji character, simple and elegant telling the story of a man caught in limbo. I’m so grateful for what I have, personally and professionally, but I know there a better way to create, build, help, service, and communicate that I’m missing out on.

I should mention up-front that this is neither specifically web-related nor some subtle hint to people. This is about me getting better at managing what I do.

What I’m experiencing these days is a constant feeling of being behind, always at the edge of letting people down. This is a heavy burden for me to bear because I have an acute sense of accountability combined with a portfolio of clients that I’m committed to and enjoy helping. I find myself rushing through things instead of taking my time and enjoying the process, falling back on what I know I can do instead of taking the time to learn an advanced technique, putting off “extemporaneous” things like family, friends, and time off in an effort to catch up with something that’s running 10% faster than I am.

I’m tempted to point the finger directly at email, with a sideways glance at Skype. The Terrible Twosome of communication, these two have a way of wreaking havoc on a potentially productive period of time. But you can’t place blame on something you’ve allowed to misbehave so poorly; you can’t blame a 3-year-old for burning down a fifth house if they were never disciplined properly after the first.

No, I think the communication channels (which number about 12 at this point – 5 emails, 1 Skype, 2 Twitter, 2 Facebook, and 2 phone numbers), when taken together, just make a handy scapegoat. I’ve always been told that you can’t pin the blame for how you feel on other people, regardless of what they’re doing to you. So, in that vein, I’m going to absolve the distractions of their responsibility for my poor work habits and start working a little smarter.

How do you work smarter when you already know how

I already know how to work better, in fact I know exactly how because I do it every now and then. I turn off communication distractions for most of the day, I prioritize what needs to be completed, I eat good food at regular intervals, I get some kind of exercise at some point during the day, and I stop before my eyes have trouble focusing. If I could manage do this every weekday, I could actually take weekends off, or at least be able to dedicate them to chipping away at the new programming languages, techniques, and ideas I have floating around me in swarms.

But I don’t do this most days. In fact, I’m lucky if I get one day a week that’s well-regimented, productive for 8 hours, and doesn’t leave me feeling like I need a tall drink and complete mental disconnection at the end of the day. Most days are spent checking my email every 15 minutes, skipping between projects, tinkering with things mindlessly, and leaving me with just barely enough billable hours to cover my expenses.

So why the hell am I in front of a computer for 9 – 12 hours a day?

The “Problem”

I keep coming back to email and communication in general but there are a few “problems” occurring all at once, some of which are not problems at all but things I’m doing to create income in a very different way:

  • Some of it is keeping up-to-date on current technology. This excuse only goes so far because I could do this all day every day and still not be completely up to date. Clearly, the issue is prioritizing, which I actually do fairly well here.
  • Some of it is working on projects that will serve me in the long term. These are, again, projects I could put long hours in on every day and be happy as a clam but, at the moment, they aren’t generating the income needed to support us.
  • Some of it is keeping the pipeline full, current clients happy, and WP-Drudge users question and bug-free. Sales is fun for me because I believe in the product (sites that I create, rebuild, or improve) and I like talking to people I know I can help. Client support is great too for the same reason as sales. The WP-Drudge project was my second foray into making something that would generate income based on previous work and the users have been a lot of fun to get to know. Put these all together, though, and that’s an immense amount of time on the phone and over email and something that would be tough to farm out.
  • Some of it is boring, annoying, but satisfying and critical admin work: taxes, bills, scheduling, banking, etc.
  • Some of it, of course, is good old-fashioned online goofing off. I check popurls.com at least twice a day (mostly just the Reddit headlines) and can easy follow a path out from that site to many, many others. I get sidetracked with useless organization projects on my computer (sometimes these pay off, sometimes they are a complete waste) and do silly things like take breaks (I know, what the hell?). Some days are worse than others but I’m grateful that I can’t spend half of a day screwing around on the internet like I used to.

It sounds like a pretty full day of activity and there aren’t a lot of places that could be really tightened up. But there’s a problem… I don’t finish the day with enough complete to make it worth my while to spend this much of my life in front of a screen. I’m not:

  • Pushing these very important projects forward fast enough
  • Writing enough, for business or pleasure
  • Taking enough time off (this last Friday and Saturday were the first two complete days off I’ve spent since November and I only did that because my hard drive failed)
  • Exercising enough
  • Doing things that sound like fun at the time
  • Reading enough
  • Painting (graffiti [legal])

These are all things I really enjoy doing and things that are good for me in multiple ways but they’re being pushed aside. It would be one thing if I was grinding out 10 billable hours a day (still something that would still need to change but a better trade-off) but I’m not. My time is being siphoned off in multiple directions and I don’t have much to show for it besides bags under my eyes.

Something’s Got To Give

It’s clear that my work life needs to change fairly dramatically. I still very much love what I do and feel more confident in my output than I ever have in the past. But how I’m managing things (or not) is creating a situation where I feel like a burnout is right around the corner. Little distractions, admin tasks spread out over multiple sessions, communication channels being open all day, and a host of other things are slowly pestering me to death and I’m letting them do it.

I keep thinking some app or blog or book will come swinging to my rescue out of the trees like Tarzan but it’s just not that simple. I have quite a few systems in place and I use them pretty well. I also know when to stop using something that I I started using, ostensibly, to get everything back in track. I’m not losing track of things, I’m just not getting tangible things done often enough and I’m not taking enough time for myself. I’m fanatically dedicated to keeping my clients doing their best online and I know I can keep doing that, I just need to figure out a different way to structure things.

The Time is now

I wrote this mostly to get it out of my system. Putting things into words on a page is very satisfying for me and it helps me frame things in a productive way. It also gets my mind working on the problem with the hope that a solution will drop out of all this navel-gazing.

In this case, I don’t need a solution, I just need to remember, everyday, that I know how it’s done. It’s laying out what needs to be done for the day, assigning a priority, and turning off everything that can sidetrack my progress. It’s remembering how good a long walk feels in the middle of the day and how much more energy I have when I put the right things in my body. It’s keeping the commitment I have to my colleagues, project-buddies, clients, family, and myself by staying alert, paying attention to the little things, and creating the best that I can.

I took the first steps towards keeping this commitment yesterday and I saw where I failed and why. Today, I’ll use this to iterate again, watching for the time sinks and energy saps. Tomorrow, and each day forward will be better. As always, please let me know how I can help you better and I’ll gladly work that in as well!

Replies

Total: 4

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  1. Beth Z

    June 23, 2011 at 10:35 am  •  Reply

    Beth Z says:

    Wow, I want to call you and say, “Ain’t it the truth, buddy? How is this the case?” When I think about what I charge an hour, it seems to me that it would be very simple for me to make sure I bill X number of hours a day to make a darn good living. And anyone can work X number of hours a day, can’t she?

    Well, it doesn’t work like that for us freelancers. Blame it on technology or lack of a boss (even though clients are bosses) or whatever, X hours a day has been completely elusive to me since I opened my doors in 2007.

    So it makes me frustrated. And it makes me feel like a failure. And it makes me feel like I’m missing something. So I go back into each day saying, “Ok, TODAY I will bill at least X hours!” And then it doesn’t happen.

    I recently decided enough is enough, and I’m shutting down the freelance copywriting part of my life. I took a part-time, temporary job (yes, a JOB)at a nonprofit to help me truthfully say, “Sorry, clients, I just don’t have the time to do that anymore.” It’s really hard to come to the conclusion that I don’t want to be a freelancer anymore, but it’s the truth.

    The main reason for the change was to truly launch into the speaker/author part of my life. Now instead of freelancing, I need to spend my time in the home office trying to book speaking gigs and working on book promotion. It’s fun and interesting right now, but I wonder if I’ll come to another plateau and need another change.

    I’m with you, buddy.

    B.

    • Josh

      June 23, 2011 at 11:04 am  •  Reply

      Josh says:

      Nice to hear from you!

      Wow, Avenue Z is shutting down! Well, I’m glad to hear that you made the decision to move on instead of being forced to for one reason or another. I can only imagine how hard freelance copywriting is, switching between clients, “buying in” to each new thing. I find some of the same issues with web design: you have a style and you hope your style attracts the right folks because you don’t want to try and make the square peg fit a round hole.

      The minimum billable hours thing for me is critical because it gives me a goal to hit and it’s usually not so much that I can’t finish it. I haven’t had too much of a problem making that work, though on the days it doesn’t work, I have to wonder, what happened??? It’s so true, it should be so easy, I’ve worked enough full-time and full-time+ jobs in my life that it shouldn’t be a problem and, yet, oftentimes it is.

      I wish you luck with your speaking and writing and don’t doubt you’ll find success there. You have a great way of communicating in person and on “paper” and I think that’s going to be a big help :)

      Thanks Beth!


  2. Ivan

    June 23, 2011 at 8:23 am  •  Reply

    Ivan says:

    Hi Josh,
    i can’t believe your words are damn true. And i couldn’t agree more with you.
    It’s been 1 year and half now since i decided to resign from my last permanent job and become a freelance web developer and work from home.
    I’m enjoying from home but it also mean a lot of distractions.
    And for programmer, distraction is the worst enemy.
    I couldn’t believe that sometimes i spent 1 day (10 hours of working) doing nothing. I keep checking email, Facebook and twitter every 10 or 15 minutes. I know what i have to do, but i didn’t do it.
    Your words in this post is inspired me to do things better and better.
    Thanks Josh for this great article, i think i need to learn a lot from you.

    Cheers
    Ivan

    • Josh

      June 23, 2011 at 8:56 am  •  Reply

      Josh says:

      Ivan, thanks for the great comment! It is truly amazing how one day can just fly by. I’ll look at my timer and think “how did I only work 4 hours?” Being in a chair in front of a computer screen is such an unhealthy activity, it’s a good idea to cut that time out where you can.

      Hopefully I can keep inspiring you! I guess that only works if I figure this out :)

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